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Poetry

In early 2013, Dave Harrity came to Pittsburgh to lead a writing workshop at The Upper Room. I wrote after the workshop that those who attended “came expecting to write, but left seeing our whole neighborhood through a different lens.” Poetry can help us develop a vision for transfigured reality. Dave’s guidance that day did just that: by writing together we pulled back the veil and glimpsed in a new way what the Holy Spirit was doing among us.

00_CASCADE_TemplateNow Harrity has a new book of poetry out called These Intricacies.  In it, he gives us glimpses of latent glory in the hills of Kentucky, the mysteries and challenges of fatherhood, the passing of seasons, and the endeavors of prayer. Though he has playful moments, the collection is sobering. Harrity’s pictures of family relationships are mysterious and full of longing. Firearms appear dangerous and unpredictable. Prayer yields frustration and bewilderment.

Fitting of our present turn of seasons, Harrity returns often to the humbling effect of winter calling it “Proof positive / that all you make can’t be that important after all”. A spring snowstorm smothering newly blooming flowers is God’s “way to remind us / that death is just / another word for patience.” One hears in these words a reminder that “everything is vapor,” that we are quite small in comparison to the grandeur of creation and the mysteries of God’s schemes.

From this place of smallness, Harrity searches for signs or sounds of hope. Musing on the rock fences of Kentucky – first built by Irish immigrants and then by black slaves – “How does a wall get made into an altar?” Can something which seems to be a monument to violence or injustice be transfigured into something beautiful and holy? Like the imagined altar made of stones once handled by slaves, the glory here is potential, latent. Seeds of the new creation have been planted, but are not yet emerging, and hope still lies beneath the surface of ground. In theological terms, there’s no over-realized eschatology here.

By offering a sobering vision of reality, Harrity invites us to search for what is true, what endures, what truly matters. This is wisdom literature, an invitation to patience and slowness, an invitation to near-contentment. After many poems of prayerfully questioning God’s silence and seeming absence, Harrity offers an image of himself fishing with his father, “all right with saying nothing.” God’s silence may not yet have been broken, but a lakeside moment with a father reveals a relationship beyond words. This is wisdom: to search for communion in patient silence. The pieces collected in These Intricacies are poems to inspire that search.

Thank you to Cascade Books and Wipf and Stock Publishers for providing me with a review copy of These Intricacies so that I could write this review.

At The Upper Room, Mike and I have developed a tradition of writing poems as sermons for special holiday services. I composed this for last night’s Christmas Eve service of “Lessons, Symbols, and Carols” (a service based on the King’s College traditional Lessons and Carols service, with the addition of visual art for each lesson). I felt I needed to write in form in order to tie the themes of the various Scripture readings together, so the poem is a sestina.

Lord of Pursuing Zeal

We who walk in darkness now see dawn’s light
Accomplished through the Lord Almighty’s zeal
“How?” says the Lord of Hosts. Not by your might,
by my Spirit: No word from God will fail.
So angels place David’s crown on the head
of Jesus, born that we may never die!

Our parents knew who ate the fruit must die
Yet in their curse they glimpsed the hopeful light:
Eve’s offspring – He would crush the serpent’s head.
So Eve became a witness to God’s zeal
His burning love compels Him without fail:
He comes to break Satan’s delusive might!

Delusion it could seem, that the Lord might
call an only son, whom he loved, to die –
without The Lamb, all sacrifice does fail –
the burnt offering, whose fire was the light
of Abraham’s anguished obedient zeal.
But Isaac lives, heralding Christ his Head!

Christ comes in peace, anointing on His head,
to end the ravages of warring might,
Heralds of peace, shout loudly now with zeal:
“Nations, fear the Lord, born that war may die!”
All nations shall be blessed in peaceful light
and all bloodied weapons of war shall fail.

The angel said, “No word of God will fail!”
and in reverent joy crowned the Virgin’s head.
In her the Incarnate, Eternal Light
adorned a temple through submission’s might.
The Son is born, that we may never die.
Give thanks for Mary’s obedient zeal!

All praise now the Lord of pursuing zeal!
Eat the Bread Who causes hunger to fail,
And drink of the Vine’s fruit and never die.
With the saints sing praise to the Church’s Head
who peacefully rules in unconquered might.
Darkness shall never overcome the light!

Flame that will not die, He shines loving zeal
the pursuing Light Who will never fail,
Bright Church’s Head, Christ the Lord of Might!

Every time I return to Colorado, I find myself moving more slowly. I become content with a more gradual pace of life, sleeping more deeply at night and noticing more when awake. The wide sky and high mountains remind me how small I am, how fleeting any achievements really are in a world where all turns back to dust.  

I’m returning to Pittsburgh today from one such trip to Colorado, a Thanksgiving vacation to visit family. The time to rest from work, to be with loved ones, and to read some exquisite poetry has been both restorative and humbling.

I wrote this poem yesterday in an attempt to capture the contrast between the humbling grandeur of creation and the hectic and forgetful pace of life at which I usually live. We spent a lot of time on the road during this trip, and the imagery comes from the less pleasant hours on Interstate 25. The title comes from an essay by the recently deceased Colorado novelist Kent Haruf on how he was formed as a writer.

 

not to live too small

. . . I want to believe I have tried not to live too small, either. – Kent Haruf –

midday sunlight, golden fields, and halcyon blue sky
expand on all sides around us, reaching
eastward to the plains, westward to the foothills

a contrast to the crowded highway where we speed,
the distracted competition of jittery motorists
encased in bell and whistle contraptions.

a disconnect: we have been brought out into the broad place
but choose to stampede ourselves into the narrow
confines of frenzy, hurry, rush.

my great aunt died this morning at the age of one hundred and one,
“now the winner,” her daughter says, “of a long battle.”

at first the thought of such longevity tires me

a sign, perhaps, of living too small –
that decades longer on this expressway
would be the depth of dissipation,
spinning wheels in a race toward what is soon gone

while above geese migrate in formation,
the ordered yet unhurried rhythm of nature
majestic in simplicity, glacial in patience.

a height: narrow is way that leads to flight;
consider the birds of the air,
aloft and free in this shimmering expanse.

image

Today was our last day in Florida, where we’ve been for a few days for our denomination’s national new church development conference. This came right after nine days at the New Wilmington Mission Conference. Both conferences were inspiring, but not exactly restful. Until today. We stayed an extra day to enjoy the beach and, simply, to rest. And I’m grateful that today’s rest produced some unexpected fruit. As at the Festival of Faith & Writing this spring, the slower pace of our final day here gave birth to some creative writing. Here is a haiku based on a remarkable sight I saw while running on the beach this morning:

Pancake with a tail,
A blue heron’s breakfast: young
Sting ray, swallowed whole.

I’m on vacation right now. But for my spring vacation, I chose to attend the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College. Yes, it’s a conference, and perhaps not the first place others might choose to spend their vacation.  But it’s truly feeling like a vacation for me, not least because the theme of rest keeps coming up.

Yesterday, I attended a workshop by novelist Carey Wallace about the connection between rest and creativity. Then this morning, I went to hear Ann Voskamp, who spoke also about the importance of slowing down in order to be creative. Both Wallace and Voskamp identified fear as an obstacle to rest and to creativity. As I contemplated these things this afternoon, a poem emerged. It’s the first poem I’ve written in months, partially because I haven’t slowed down enough until now. Here it is:

Slow to See

For those who slow to see, all this globe is glass to God. – Ann Voskamp

we are slow to see,
slow to perceive, so
seeing we do not see
and hearing we do not hear.
slow.
and dumb.
muted by the speedy rush
hustle, chatter, and noise,
we are wordless
when called upon
to speak words or Word.
all too quick to look
to ten thousand distractions
and not to one truth
immediately present.

we must rest.
rest to hear the unforced thought
to receive grace which grasping cannot grab
we must slow to see
slow down, pause, linger.
fear not the quiet
fear not the stillness
fear not the Stranger
who approaches, who speaks, who shines
to those who slow to see.

At Upper Room, we’re developing a tradition of sharing God’s Word through poetry instead of sermons on special holidays. (For a recent example, see Mike’s poem from this year’s Christ the King Sunday.)  Since it’s my turn to preach for Christmas Eve tonight, I’m following suit and sharing a poem which I wrote this week based on the lectionary texts for tonight: Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, and Luke 2:1-20. The title and theme of the poem come from Titus 2:11, “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.” In order to preserve the formatting, I’m sharing the poem here in a PDF: “The Grace of God Appeared“.

Merry Christmas!

To celebrate Pentecost at Upper Room yesterday, we did not have a sermon.  Instead we had a time where people created and presented various forms of art and shared testimonies of God’s recent work in their lives.  I’m not a visual artist, but I do like to play with words, so I wrote this poem after meditating on the lectionary passages for Pentecost. 

Let Your Spirit Fall

Let Your Spirit fall

and thaw our numb-tongued gospel-mute mouths
inspire the elation of proclamation of grace
replace salt-water springs with what living water brings
and sing “Beloved of the Lord!” and “Abba, Father!”
within the depths of souls made whole by your healing touch
speak the unconceivable gospel until we believe enough to
proclaim the news entrusted to us. sustain our submission
to Your mission and give visions of
Your Kingdom coming in suffering glory

Let Your Spirit pour

and cause our eyes to cry streams of baptismal tears
sins and fears washed away in the torrents of Your loving flood
inspire holiness more than this complacence
holiness overflowing this space and holiness
showing this world our hearts melting in obedience to You

Let Your Spirit flame

melt our hearts like wax to be sealed with the sign of the cross
let us not fear loss but be saved through fire when You look
upon this trembling smoking earth. Burn our worship like incense
before heaven’s throne, pleasing to the One alone
who is worthy to be called a consuming fire
and who can set us all aflame

Let Your Spirit breathe

life into these mortal bodies, these cracked clay jars
burnt ashes and scars. Renew the face of the ground,
this dust You found lifeless, restore to life this body
of death. Let Your wind rush into our temples
to turn over our tables with the hurricane force
of Your might, groan Your unutterable prayers
in our deepest layers with sighs too deep for words
and intercede for Your mercy to fall upon us.
with each breath, each heartbeat crying to Jesus
have mercy on us. have mercy on us. have mercy on us.

Let Your Spirit shine

and open our eyes to gleams of the unseen, visions and dreams
from the Spirit of the King whose reign is above all things
inspire sons and daughters to prophesy of all of thy
mighty deeds, all thy healing brings, all the light of the King

Let Your Spirit consecrate

create Church in this space, Your people here in this place have come to see the face of the Father. Show us the Father! Show us the Son! Spirit, show us the Father, the Son, and You O Three in One! Show us the cross where the victory was won! Show us the body and blood of the Son! Show us conversion and new life begun! Show us the grave empty and the light of the sun
                rising on a new day, the true and living way where everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved.