Adieu Iceland

This land is continually being born:
it ever brings forth new marvels, new
vistas, new possibilities. It sings of
change, and the power of play. I feel
this playful change seeping into me,
calling for

a molten mind,
a soul on fire, and
volcanic vision – even

while ice expands the fissures of my being open
and glaciers forge fjords of futures unbidden.

This land is etching itself onto
the geography of my body:
my skin now taut with
wonder, my lips now
quivering in hope,
and my heart
erupting now as
deep calls to depth,
and I feel myself shifting
while taking leave of this
tectonically trembling Ísland.

These Arms

My arms grow longer the
older I get. My
hands droop closer to
the dirt that will
one day vest
me.

So, too, these longing
arms reach higher
to the sky,
grasping
after the sun:
the heart at the hearth
of humanity.

When these arms are long enough
they will wrap me round thrice:
for the self I was

now coming to be

and then at rest, disarmingly.

Glaciers of Joy

My body summons me,
serving notice of the
need to return to
ancient ways still at play
in little ones – before
we take them
out of themselves
and clothe them
in agendas. It is no
wonder that we ache for wonder,
that our calloused hands
reach for heavenly cheeks.
Our flesh seeks flesh
that still knows and so we
touch, yearning for Mother’s milk,
for water crisp off glaciers of joy.

Oslo Insights and Haitian Slights

I am just now back from a very quick trip to Oslo. I was there for a small writing workshop, mostly composed of members of the Faculty of Theology from the University of Oslo, as well as a couple of North Americans. This working group is preparing a volume on the theme of “Protestantization,”a word used to describe how certain tenets of Protestant thought (freedom of the conscience, the importance of non-clerical vocations, the separation without division of church and state, etc) have become a lens by which certain nations view themselves, for both good and ill. Protestantization speaks, for instance, to the manner in which a state allows for people to refuse religious life and so creates a condition for the possibility of a secular public square where no one religion holds pride of place. Of course, it is not always so very successful in this regard.

It was also noted that under this paradigm, religion is construed primarily as adherence to a confession of faith. This is not always helpful. And so, to give an example, there were a couple of papers on the topic of the public discussion concerning the regulation of circumcision in some nations in Europe. Some voices propose that circumcision could be allowed if families have faith in a belief system that demands it. These same voices would not consider as a valid religious reason one in which adherents point to their cultural identity with a religion despite lack of belief in the metaphysical tenants of a religion. So, to give an example, an agnostic or even atheistic Jewish family may well seek circumcision for their son despite personal beliefs, or disbelief. Their Jewish identity is not about what they believe, but about who they are and so they are accepted as Jews in the Jewish community despite their beliefs or lack thereof. I have had Jewish students who do not believe in God yet practice many of the rituals of Judaism without any sense of hypocrisy. Judaism, for these folks, is about their community not their individual convictions. The Nazis, as we know from history, did not distinguish between those Jews who believed and those who did not, and so we might begin to understand something of a Jewish solidarity that is more interested in communal identity than individual confession.

Of course, some papers addressed the positive contribution of Protestantism to political life, a point of no small significance in Norway, a nation that regularly rates high in terms of happiness, health-care, safety from gun incidences, etc.

Shortly after I returned from Norway, the President of the USA made a horrendous comment about America’s need for more immigrants from places like Norway than “shithole” nations like Haiti and countries in Africa and Latin America. The blatant racism of this comment is reprehensible. It stimulates hate crimes. It misrepresents immigrants and advances white supremacy. Moreover, it has no grasp of history. Many articles have since been published noting that the bulk of immigrants to North America a century or so ago were rather like immigrants from places like Haiti today: economically distraught, willing to do any work that would keep food on the table, and very glad to become contributing citizens in their adopted home. Norwegians, as one may well imagine, have not been pleased with the kind of comparison employed by the President, pitting Norway against Haiti, for instance. Protestanization, in varying degrees, has contributed to a history of Nordic countries welcoming the other.

My contribution to the volume is tentatively called “Embodying Protestantism.” In it I critique modern Protestantism’s too often animus against the body and frequent disinterest in the body politic. I look to Luther and the Danish theologian/philosopher Knut Løgstrup for resources to envision again the body and the body politic as gifts from God. As I work on this chapter for publication, I most certainly will ponder President’s racism and the need for people of all faiths, and none, to “protest” both this white supremacy and any religion that neglects social justice in its concern for the soul alone. People suffer and die because of the peculiarities of their body, and any Protestantism or Protestanization that will not call racism sin deserves disinterest and demise.

This is Gift

Robert Frost noted that a poem begins as a “lump in the throat” or a “homesickness” and never as a thought. Poetry is born in the body, and the accompanying sense of displacement that is a part of our experience from cradle to grave. We are ever trying to negotiate both where we are along the way along with the sense that “where we are” is a way station. And this awareness of our constant dislocation is born in our bodies. Each and every experience that we have is imprinted on our bodies. In this instance I sweat my panic and in that I smile my joy; here I shiver my pleasure and there loss wets my cheek. My jaw clenches this memory into place and my cheek flushes an intimacy revealed. My body inscribes that I live both in and beyond each experience. But for some reason, some of us are not content to leave it at that.

A poem may begin as a lump in the throat, but it seems that many of us want to memorialize our experience, or perhaps exorcise it, by putting it to print. I suspect that this need to memorialize is true, as well, for authors who are not poets. In the end, authors have their own reasons for putting pen to page, and as I think through my experience of writing, I realize that it is as varied as the genres I employ in my writing life. When I write a report I inform. When I write an essay I try out an idea. When I write a sermon I bear witness. But when I write a poem, I turn flesh to word. I see something; perhaps a person piquing my curiosity with theirs, or perhaps a sky that is so large as to fill my eye. But that experience of seeing is not yet enough; it demands an accounting, not in the sense that it needs to be fit into a budget of sensibilities, but in the sense that a convincing exploration of the experience is pleading for the light of day. The riches of the experience preclude a simplistic cause and effect narrative. Poetry redeems the day by pointing beyond the author and her words. Good poetry launches us and leaves us in a strange place where we see the world in a new way.

In a way, poetry takes us from body to word to body again. A poem is a boomerang. It takes leave from the flesh and straddles the heavens only to return again to the earth that we stride and the earth that we are. A poem is a storm, flashing across the orb of my eye; raining song on a scorched earth; winding questions into the cracks of armored certainties that shut people out and pain in. Poetry de-calcifies us. It doesn’t scratch an itch so much as it itches a numbed world. Poetry truly begins as a lump in the throat, but that lump is there because a wider world is in the wings and aching to be explored.

My path into poetry has been, in the end, the surreptitious path of poetry into me. Here an author unsettled a satisfied me; there a hymn not only named a yearning but birthed another. Over and over again I find myself indebted to that lump in my throat that announces that I am alive and this is gift.

More Squealing, Please

Yesterday, while walking to church, I passed some gentlemen from the local constabulary, who were on parade patrol.  They were dressed in the requisite neon yellow on black.  The sky was in a bit of a huff, blowing clouds to and fro, and so allowing slivers of sun to shine on my face.  My walk to church is north-westerly and, as you can imagine, more often into the wind than with it.  To this insult is added the injury of an uphill to church, with the result that the trip home is a bit ephemeral: being down hill with the wind to my back and the sun on my face.  All the same, I enjoy the walk to church as much as the walk home – but I digress.

 

Shortly after crossing the paths of Waterloo’s finest, I began to see the participants of the annual Downtown Mudpuppy Chase, with proceeds going to help out KidsAbility.  I had hardly crested the last hill before beginning the flat that precedes the slow climb to downtown proper when out of the corner of my ear I heard a familiar voice.  I glanced over and shouted, “Is that you, L?”  “Yes, I thought that looked like you,” said she, and so we walked together for a time.  The Chase began with a 3K walk for those who benefit from Kidsability’s important work with youth and their supporters.  I had opportunity to meet L’s son, M, who was in a chair and loving the walk.  Mom had a big smile on her face, as did M’s care worker who was out in support of the event.  L and I chatted as we walked, and at one point, M let out a big squeal.  “He loves the wind on his face,” said Mom.  I smiled, and we continued to visit in spite of the hard slug up the last bit of King before it meets Frederick, where I peeled off to the left to make my way to St. Matthews.

 

At church that morning, we were witnesses to the baptism of little H.  She was adorable – all squeaky clean in white and was so very good through all of the baptismal liturgy.  After the baptism proper H let out a squeal that brought forth both laughter, and to my mind, M’s bend into the wind.  I wondered, for a moment, if H was feeling a bit of that Holy Wind herself.  At any rate, these two not-wholly disparate events got me thinking.

 

Why don’t we squeal more?  Where is that primal voice at joy, or astonishment, or satisfaction?  Why is it so carefully filtered out?  Why do we worry so, about being proper when something that is life affirming and death defying catches us unaware?  Why can’t we just let it out?  At least a little?

 

I suppose, in a sense, this is a bit rich coming from me: who tends to conservatism in dress and aspires to propriety in demeanor.  But perhaps this last sentence begs the question: after all, what has dress got to do with it?  And why should we imagine that expressing joy isn’t proper? It seems, in some ways, that our burial of primal speech is an indication of our discomfort with our body.  We hide our skin, we hide our feelings, we hide our voices, our selves.

 

It seems to me that that that itinerant preacher who invited us to become like children if we want to enter the Reign of God was onto something.  Perhaps a little more squealing, and a little less squirming might go a long way to making the world a more hospitable place and so, much more real.