Sunday, May 28, 2017

2017.05.28 Goodbye and Thank You Brian Doyle

Brian Doyle, a writer who made music with his words, just died yesterday.




I don’t write obituaries as news. I write today because I feel deep sorrow at the loss of a writer so supremely deft with words that I am left wonderstruck. (The formal obituary is below.) I did not know Brian Doyle personally. I grieve his writing, much of which I’ve read.

I would call Brian Doyle a Master of Words. He would, in his prose, pile words up—verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs—in heaps, and he never heeded the scorn of those who advise writers to use fewer adjectives and never an adverb. He wrote about everyday things and made them all shimmer with soul. He shunned no word that said what he meant and felt. Brian gave me courage to use as many words as I needed to match the energy of my emotional investment in whatever I was writing about. 

Here’s an example of my own attempt to describe the mysterious power of an experience which is not earthbound:  

There’s no telling exactly why such attractions take hold and cement themselves into the human mind and heart, yet most of us know the experience, and most of us admit it feels irresistible, indispensable, immeasurable, irreplicable, mysterious, and tidal, all at once. So we follow it.

If I hadn’t borrowed Doyle’s word-courage I would never have dared used so many adjectives, one not even a legitimate word. But I felt each one. To pay proper tribute to Doyle’s faith along with his skill with apt words, here is a poem he wrote called God. 
    
GOD


By purest chance I was out in our street when the kindergarten
Bus mumbled past going slow and I looked up just as all seven
Kids on my side of the bus looked at me and I grinned and they
Lit up and all this crap about God being dead and where is God
And who owns God and who hears God better than whom is the
Most egregiously stupid crap imaginable because if you want to
See God and have God see you and have this mutual perception
Be completely untrammeled by blather and greed and comment,
Go stand in the street as the kindergarten bus murmurs past. I’m
Not kidding and this is not a metaphor. I am completely serious.
Everyone babbles about God but I saw God this morning just as
The bus slowed down for the stop on Maple Street. God was six
Girls and one boy with a bright green and purple stegosaurus hat.
Of course God would wear a brilliantly colored tall dinosaur hat!
If you were the Imagination that dreamed up everything that ever
Was in this blistering perfect terrible world, wouldn’t you wear a
Hat celebrating some of the wildest most amazing developments?

                        by Brian Doyle

Doyle had a vibrant sense of humor and was obviously passionate about God, his Christian faith, Roman Catholic brand, and basketball—not necessarily in that order. He also adored little stories and noticed absolutely everything that crossed his path, things others would pass by without a shrug. Everything, everyone, and every story is sacred—maybe religious and always soul-shaking. To perceive in this way is a gift—let’s say it’s Holy. 

Here is a poem he wrote in A Shimmer of Something. Lean Stories Of Spiritual Substance about tiny unnoticeable events of eternal magnitude. Call these poems Incarnation, Resurrection, Creation—or just plain Life, true and on the bone. 

THE SPARROW

Or, hey, listen, here’s a story for you.
A friend of mine who is 96 years old
And blind but still living in her beach
Cabin hears her cat capture a sparrow
Which the cat then presents as a prize.
My friend cradles the bird in a sponge
And goes to the front door and throws
Out the sponge, and then goes to wash
The dishes, only to realize she’s using
The sparrow, who objects strenuously.
Now, this is terrific story from every
angle imaginable: deft murderous cat,
Sparrow who didn't die, lady giggling,
The grin that just opened on your face,
The child who will fall down laughing
Later when you say now here’s a story . . .

And a favorite of mine.

THE SQUIRREL

Here you go. Here’s a moment to ponder carefully.
We think that there are greater and lesser moments
But how immensely and ridiculously wrong this is.
For here is a boy riding along the street in summer.
He is perhaps six years old. His bike is wildly blue.
He sees a smear of squirrel in the street. He pauses,
Using the heels of his sneakers as brakes. He looks,
He dismounts, he sets his kickstand, he looks down.
He kneels and gathers up the shredded creature and
Walks to the shady ravine where we saw the coyote
That time and he gives the squirrel to the tiny creek.
He washes in a muddy puddle and then he rides off.
I am the man who saw and testifieth of these things,
And what I say is true. I saw a boy bow before holy
Things, for all things are holy, and he reminded me,
And so now I remind you. Go thou and do likewise.

            


Brian was born in New York, my own home city, in 1956. He has been the editor of  the University of Portland’s (that’s Oregon)  quarterly Portland magazine since 1991. Author Annie Dillard called this “the best spiritual magazine in the country.” Brian died on May 27th, 2017 at age 60 of complication related to a brain tumor. He leaves his wife and three children. Here's the obituary link.
https://www1.up.edu/news/2017/05/Brian-Doyle-passes-away.html






Sunday, May 21, 2017

2017.05.21 The Way It Is—Words of Wisdom



     Wisdom, to me, is the fruit of much well-digested life experience combined with intellectual knowledge, the kind that comes with “school”. 

    The dictionary defines wisdom as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment”. Pretty close, but I called the “good judgment” part, well-digested.

    A popular aphorism of Benjamin Franklin advises:"Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”  For some strange reason this advice wasn’t meant for women. :0)

    The Bible calls Wisdom divine and names her Sophia (in Greek), a feminine name because Wisdom is portrayed in biblical Wisdom literature as a woman, her shadowy counterpart named Folly.

    In the Book of Proverbs, it is written that Wisdom as a child was present with God from the beginning when God created the world. Then again in Proverbs (1ff), a much-neglected yet often taken literally and over-quoted, book, it is written (paraphrased):
    “Wisdom has build her house. She has set her table. . . .  She calls: ‘Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity. Live, and walk in the way of insight.’”  

A biblical scholar once proffered this as a good invitation to the table of Holy Communion. We took him up on the idea and used it in a former parish.

"Groves of redwoods . . .are often compared to the naves of great cathedrals: the silence; the green, filtered, numinous light. A single banyan, each with its multitude of trunks, is like a temple or mosque—a living colonnade. But the metaphor should be the other way around. The cathedrals and mosques emulate the trees. The trees are innately holy."  Colin Tudge, "The Secret of Trees"



Socrates, a wise thinker in ancient times, said. “Wisdom begins in wonder.” If I were delivering a  commencement I would use this wisdom, elaborate very little and dismiss the grads with this advice: Whatever you do, always remember to wonder—and too, allow yourself to be wonderstruck.


American Poet Laureate, William Stafford (1914-1993) offers a recipe for daily life wisdom.

There’s a straw you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the straw.


Personal wisdom: Whatever comes your way in life is an opportunity to enhance or impede the flow of divine Love. That's ministry. That’s my “straw.”

Madame Owl sits among trees, observes, and wonders.



Sunday, May 14, 2017

2017.05.14 Mother's Day Letter to My Children

To my dearly beloved children,
 
I am writing to let you know that what honors me most as your mother on Mother’s Day is your presence in my life, being able to see and hear how you manage to love life in spite of its many difficulties, your willingness to include me in the midst of your own busy lives, and your capacity to forgive me my clumsiness as I sorted out my own life messes. 

To say that I love you is a silly understatement. But it’s true, and the only word we have for deep affection coupled with admiration and gratitude. Because of you I don’t feel anonymous as I age out. Thank you. (BTW, I can hear you all laughing and saying: Oh, it’s a mom special.) True, I get more mushy with age.

Here’s a poem Rob wrote. I treasure it for its simplicity. It’s not dated but I’m guessing it’s 30 years old. I know it’s old because I tried to remove it from its frame to see if it was signed  and the backing began to crumble. It has hung on many walls over the years.

It was you, Mom,
  who brought me
From two to ten
Ten to two tens,
Crayons to pencils
pencils to pens.
       And
For that I love you
        Dearly


Each of you is a beautiful poem with your own unique personality, character, and special gifts. You are radically different and equally beloved.

It was you, Bev,                                                   
  who mothered me
when I couldn’t mother you
  and most needed the help.
     And
For that I love you
     Dearly



It was you, Jill,
  who  spoke a truth to me
when you called me a “wimp”
  and we laughed and cried together
     And
For that I love you
     Dearly



It was you, Rob
who wrote me poems and
dared to sob after a car accident:
“I nearly killed my brother.”
   And
For that I love you
   Dearly


It was you, John,
who, so ill in hospital, told me
“When I opened my eyes,
I saw you just sitting there, and it was enough.”
      And
For that I love you
     Dearly



“We have to work with what life presents to us, and we have to work as well as we can while we can.” (Martha Graham)

You all have done that and are doing that. Me too.


love,
Mom



Sunday, May 7, 2017

2017.05.07 Winged Words and Image

The Institute of Sacred Music at Yale Divinity School will host a conference, “Love Bade Me Welcome” on May 12-14, 2017.

It sounds by its title as if this conference is about social justice and supreme hospitality. So it is, of course, but its stated mission is to provide inspiration and practical guidance in the many uses of poetry for worship, liturgy, meditation, and education. “Our aim is to equip church leaders with the ‘winged words’ of poets as we seek to shape the minds and hearts of contemporary congregations.”

Here are the “winged words” of seventeenth century poet, George Herbert.

Love (III)

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.


The conference planners recognize that “poetic sensibilities are always present within the Christian faith. From the remarkable poetry of the Psalms, Prophets, and Wisdom literature, to the splendid verse of Dante, Herbert, Milton, Dickinson, Hopkins, Levertov, and many others up to our contemporaries, poetry has brought life and light to the Church through the ages.  How, afresh, can poetry revitalize our worshiping communities today.”

Herbert’s poem is religious, yet its “winged words” take it far beyond religion. It thrills me to see such an effort undertaken on the campus of the school where I spent four of the most formative years of my life.

To Herbert, “Love” is God, welcoming him and noticing, with a “quick-eyed Love,” how much the guest doth protest all his sins and unworthiness. Love invites, welcomes without condition, then feeds the guest actual food while also bathing him with the grace of healing his fascination with his shame—now toxic. Are you secretly preoccupied with your inadequacy?

Jesus the Christ lived and taught that Love absorbed all such feelings. He was crucified for his efforts. It’s ironic that humankind has little tolerance for Love, especially the kind that does not demand excessive displays of repentance, the kind that’s Eternal, the kind that just plain bypasses the sin we allow to cling to our souls—so tightly, so tight. 

Like the rejection of a heart transplant, humankind rejects Love. We are simply not comfortable unless we have a way to atone. Atoning sacrifices give us a way to feel powerful, a way to take control over our salvation. Oh, for God’s sake let God do it!

Love, writes this poet, bids us welcome without atonement. There is no such phenomenon as Eternal disdain. Love is winged—too big to demand repayment for the sake of being bade welcome.

The music of Herbert’s words brought to my mind the Greek muse Polyhymnia, muse of sacred song—a winged art form if there ever was one. Polyhymnia has no wings, she is simply winged.

Artist Susan Sohl created this image of Polyhymnia, copyright, 2017.  In giving me permission to share her image, Susan told me a bit of her own story.  She wrote: “I look forward to reading this blog and seeing my "muse". I did the entire series of 9, and none of the originals remain in my possession. They found a variety of homes, and now I am ready to start on other icons from the ancient world.

‘By the way, I am a survivor of lymphomic cancer, lupus (chemo forced it into remission), open-heart surgery, and two spinal surgeries. Painting and creating gave me the strength and will to never give up.  Now I teach and continue to paint, sharing my sense of color and love of movement with others. Thank you for wanting to offer one of my pieces to your readers, Susan.”

 Below is the artist with the winged soul.


Thank you Susan for your generosity. Obviously, Love bade you welcome and gave you strength to love back through your art and your spirit of persistence. Love inspires that kind of thing.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

2017.04.30 The Road To Emmaus—Every Day

Jack Kerouac with his “On the Road” rolling homily, had nothing on the Bible. The story in Luke 24 about two travelers going home after the crucifixion of their beloved friend and healer, Jesus, is a poignant story. The travelers, likely a couple, are full of sadness and also dashed hopes for the long-awaited Messiah who would redeem their Israel. They thought Jesus was the one and now he was executed.

On the road, a stranger came and joined the bereft travelers. He listened to them talk and asked why they were so sad. They were amazed that he didn’t know all that had happened in Jerusalem, and how scared they were of the powers of oppression. First, he listened well to their grief. Take note of that compassionate habit. How he must have wanted to interrupt them with his spiritual intuition about resurrection!  But he listened first. Only after listening did he break in with an extended, and obviously compelling, recitation of the biblical history of God’s promises, the prophets’ visions of a divinely-sponsored grand socioeconomic program of justice, and Jesus’s own vision of God as unconditional love—now and forever for all creation.

Oh, they were crushed as they talked about their sorrow. Oh, they felt heard and taken seriously. And oh, how their hearts burned within them—burned with hope and renewed passion—as this stranger reiterated everything they knew, and had forgotten.

The group of three walked toward Emmaus, a journey of seven miles, and as they went they talked and listened, and, in that process alone, their spirits were renewed, their hopes resurrected.

When I read this famous parabolic story, I think of this whole first part as The Word—the first part of every Christian Eucharist: biblical readings, collects and prayers, a sermon, hymns and chants—and community announcements and news. The Word takes up more than half of the entire length of the average Sunday Eucharist. Like the words of the stranger on the road to Emmaus, most of the mileage is taken up by listening to the travelers' concerns, and then teaching them once again to hope and trust God’s loving care. 

The Word is just as much of a sacrament, just as Holy, as the beloved Eucharist, the meal many of us think it the most important. Well, of course it is: we get fed at a table to which we ALL are welcome and ALL are beloved. The meal is a kind of tangible proof of all the proclamations and predictions and visions and stories that compose The Word.

Yet, the story tells us, only in the meal did the traveling Jesus-followers, aka Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas, FINALLY recognize that this stranger was in fact the one they lamented as dead. They intuited the wisdom of their Jesus in the words of the stranger. They recognized Jesus as the Christ for sure, and finally, as the bread was broken and shared over a meal. Writers about Jesus's habits often juxtapose miracle and meal, like resurrection and eucharist.

Still, why did it take so long and require so much wordiness and WORD?

Well, I suppose it is because it takes a while for the message to travel from the mind, fourteen inches down to the heart, and another ingestive period of time for the body, at last, to consume the whole truth: God loves all Creation without condition. ALL are beloved.

Emmaus is a metaphor that tells us, over and over, that this Love is true, that is available. We know it when we experience it in conversing and listening, giving and receiving. This is how we know the Risen Christ. 

So we can practice Emmaus: give the next ten beggars you see on the street $5. (If there are no beggars, do the same or more with the next 10 mailings you get from worthy organizations—even if they’re not your usuals.)

After you give the flesh and blood beggars money, then offer them a greeting, good luck, and a word of hope for healing, or a God bless you. (Notice: they almost always bless and thank you!)  Don’t preach. Don’t ask for anything. Don’t assume or condemn. You don’t know why they are there, but you know they are there for a reason. Just honor their presence as their word, and your money will be their bread—yes, even if it buys booze. Then be on your way with prayers and the “high spirits” of hope Emmaus conveys.

Emmaus IS the Christian journey, each Sunday, and every single day. We too walk the symbolic Emmaus road of WORD and MEAL. As John Dominic Crossan wrote in the “Overture” to his book The Historical Jesus:

“Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.”


Sunday, April 23, 2017

2017.04.23 Hoping Upon Stars

Stars light the way. I watch for them every night. Despite the glare of city lights, I can see a few stars. In the summer on Nantucket there is little ground light so my stars spread across the sky making a blanket of light. They are poetry.


“Poetry and other arts come from acceptance of little signals that immediate experience contributes to beings who are alive and fallible, and changing. Any conscience relevant to that kind of activity will tend to be un-national, not American or foreign, or North or South, or Black or White, or East—but alive and ready to confer.”  William Stafford, poet.

William Stafford (1914-1993) was poet laureate of both Oregon and the United States. He was a conscientious objector in WWII. He chose not to fight—for the sake of his country.  He also said that what our country is about is: “Creating emergencies that justify emergency actions.” Is this what we do? Really? By god, it sounds painfully like American politics right now. Ponder it anew.

This Stafford poem is from “Every War Has Two Losers.” Us AND them.

Home
by William Stafford

Our father owned a star,
and by its light
we lived in father’s house
and slept at night.
The tragedy of life,
like death and war,
were faces looking in
at our front door.
But finally all came in,
from near and far:
you can’t believe in locks
and own a star.

This poem gives me hope for a day when we do not have to lock doors or live in fear of our neighbors, near and far. A day perhaps when churches will not be afraid to remain unlocked, be open for prayer all the time—or at least during the day. How can anyone imagine that God desires to love them unconditionally when god-houses are shut up tight: no admittance?

Locked doors are easier to tolerate than locked hearts. As long as we lock our hearts there will be wars in which everyone loses. Easter is the time we are invited to open our hearts without reserve. Ponder the starry skies and pray.






Sunday, April 16, 2017

2017.04.16 Easter Morning: Choose Life!

Easter Morning
    by William Stafford.

Maybe someone comes to the door and says,
"Repent," and you say, "Come on in," and it's
Jesus. That's when all you ever did, or said,
or even thought, suddenly wakes up again and
sings out, "I'm still here," and you know it's true.
You just shiver alive and are left standing
there suddenly brought to account: saved.

Except, maybe that someone says, "I've got a deal
for you." And you listen because that's how
you're trained––they told you, "Always hear both sides."
So then the slick voice can sell you anything, even
Hell, which is what you're getting by listening.
Well, what should you do? I'd say always go to
the door; yes, but keep the screen locked. Then,
while you hold the Bible in one hand, lean forward
and say carefully, “Jesus?”


A friend of mine, some years ago, opened his door on a Sunday morning to face a young man standing there holding up a Bible and his pointer finger, saying: “Repent!” My friend was suffering the pain of a serious hangover and was horrified. He slammed the door in the man’s face, and then made jokes about it for a few years, most of them mocking this stupid Bible-thumper. In time, my friend did “repent” in the way he needed to. He stopped drinking and joined AA.

The poet who wrote about Easter morning is William Stafford (1914-1993). He was poet laureate of both Oregon and the United States. He wrote relentlessly honest notes, in part gleaned from his own experience as a conscientious objector in WWII. During that war, Stafford worked in Civilian Public Service camps in several states. He wrote and spoke quietly about the sanity of nonviolence and the madness of violence. He did not fight for the sake of his country, as everyone thought was the highest value. He chose not to fight—for the sake of his country.

Personally, I think the choice NOT to fight for the sake of his country was a courageous one. What could happen if everyone in the world chose likewise? Seems like kind of an Easter choice to me.

Who knows how and when, or exactly why, our choices are made? Yet make them we do. In the Book of Deuteronomy the voice of God speaks to the people of Israel, saying: “See, I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. . . ” (30:19)  I often remind myself: Choose life!

Every small choice, for better or worse, counts. Here’s one………

The Squirrel
    by Brian Doyle

Here you go. Here’s a moment to ponder carefully.
We think that there are greater and lesser moments
But how immensely and ridiculously wrong this is.
For here is a boy riding along the street in summer.
He is perhaps six years old. His bike is wildly blue.
He sees a smear of squirrel in the street. He pauses,
Using the heels of his sneakers as brakes. He looks,
He dismounts, he sets his kickstand, he looks down.
He kneels and gathers up the shredded creature and
Walks to the shady ravine where we saw the coyote
That time and he gives the squirrel to the tiny creek.
He washes in a muddy puddle and then he rides off.
I am the man who saw and testifieth of these things,
And what I say is true. I saw a boy bow before holy
Things, for all things are holy, and he reminded me,
And so now I remind you. Go thou and do likewise.