POEM: Overgrow

Thistles swarm the unused garden beds

Pigs get fat on fading greens

A month overdue for the butcher

The toolshed waits for walls and roof

Cucumbers grow yellow in the pantry

Augered holes lie open and unfilled

Waiting for a new foundation

__________

But the vision must go on

Yes the vision must go on

Hands till the soil with love

Urging the far-off dream ever closer

Some days coaxing, nudging, wooing it

Other times heaving it up hills

And pulling it out of ditches

Where the road turned too sharply

__________

Hands come here mid-journey

Sinking fingers in black soil

Hoping to fashion — to salvage —

The fragments of a lost goodness

Into something verdant and new

A place of still pastures and quiet streams

Where life is renewed

Shooting up from the ground

Enough to put food on the table,

Sustain a roof overhead,

And keep a few beds warm

__________

Maybe a little extra, too

To give — to bless

Like the neighbors’ gifts

Of raw honey, fresh milk,

An apple press for an afternoon

__________

The odds may look long

Some have said as much, and departed

Siding stacked near unfinished walls

Scattered feathers of a dead chicken

Rusted wood and metal strewn about

Waiting for months or years

Still waiting to play its part

__________

Ah, but the vision must go on

The dream inches closer

Pressing in to the only wealth a man needs:

A homestead and a fruitful harvest

A field to stand in and watch the moon rise

A porch for sipping coffee in the morning mist,

And a table for feasting —

Spring to fall and back again —

Enjoying the fruits of our labor

Of Thistles, Potatoes, and Parables

Cursed is the ground because of you;

in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;

thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;

and you shall eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your face

you shall eat bread,

till you return to the ground,

for out of it you were taken;

for you are dust,

and to dust you shall return.

These words from God’s curse on Adam in the opening pages of Genesis play through my mind on repeat as I dig up potatoes at Overgrow Farm, a small organic homestead near the central Oregon coast. It is October, but the sun is clear and bright overhead and the region is having a late summer. Even with my shirt off and a bottle of water close at hand, I feel beads of sweat forming on my brow and dripping down my temples and shoulders. 

For every potato I dig up with my hefty, four-pronged steel fork, there is a thistle plant growing in the garden bed that must be uprooted and thrown aside. My cheap plastic and fabric gloves are no good for this. The thistles still prick my fingers. I leave them to a friend working behind me with thick leather gloves. She will pull them out of the soil and feed them to the pigs. 

This is my first time doing serious garden work since I was a child. As I feel callouses building on my hands and squat down to avoid straining my back, I understand in my body—not just my mind—why the ancient Genesis narrative has been such a foundational text in shaping the worldviews of people for millennia. For those in an agrarian society (read: the vast majority of recorded human history) it must have seemed like the most obvious thing in the world. Of course work is cursed! It’s painful. It’s hard. It’s full of opposition and risk at every turn. The damn thistles just keep coming back! But it’s the price one must pay to eat and survive.

The curse, however, is not the whole story of my experience here in the field. Despite the sharp pricks of the thistles and the ache in my muscles, I find a distinct and remarkable joy in turning up potatoes. It’s like finding a buried treasure, plunging those prongs into the ground and turning up a handful of yukon golds. Sometimes it seems as if they are just waiting to be found, longing for that disturbance in the soil ushering them up into the light. “I’m here!” I feel them exclaiming as they burst up out of the dirt. I want to whoop and shout—eureka

In these happier moments my mind wanders further along in the biblical text to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I marvel at how many of his parables are set in the context of agriculture. They’re full of things like vines being pruned and bearing fruit, day laborers working in the fields, harvests of wheat and tares, good soil and rocky soil, seeds falling and dying before coming to life. 

This connection is profound and obvious at the same time. Of course they are! It’s an agrarian society! This is the language of the people in Jesus’ day, the language of farmers and laborers and craftsmen. This is their lived experience of a world that is both predictable and full of divine surprises.

The bodily and spiritual implications of this, I am beginning to see, are potentially huge. Here in the dirt, pulling weeds, turning over soil, and harvesting vegetables, I begin to suspect that I am as close to the living core of divine wisdom as I have ever been. I have only to open my eyes in the sunlight, listen to the birds singing around me, breathe deeply of the forest air, and feel the dirt beneath my feet. I’ve heard it said that the thrust of Jesus’ teachings through his stories and metaphors isn’t so much to usher his hearers into a higher, hyperspiritualized reality as it is to open their eyes to the incarnational presence of God that is already active and accessible all around them. If God would dare to become a man and show up in their midst as the son of a carpenter from a podunk town in a backwater province of the Roman Empire, perhaps he was already there and had been there from the very beginning, speaking to them in the growth of the tiny mustard seed and the wine fermenting in new wineskins. 

It makes me wonder if the spiritual ignorance, apathy, and shallowness that is so widespread in the American church (and lamented by many Christian leaders, especially in the Reformed circles I come from) isn’t due to a lack of theological teaching and catechism so much as a physical disconnection from the earth. Sure, I’ve taken science and biblical studies classes and understand conceptually a fair bit of how seeds grow and how farming in the ancient near-eastern world worked. But after just a few days on a small organic farm, I suspect that hearing Jesus describe the Kingdom of God in agrarian terms doesn’t feel as real to me as it would if the deepest rhythms and well-being of my life revolved around achieving a sustainable, fruitful harvest.

Indeed, it seems this one significant way in which modernism and consumerism has atrophied the spiritual vitality of our souls. I’m tempted to go so far as to say that any regimen of discipleship or spirituality that purports to follow the way of Jesus will fall woefully and palpably short of our Spirit-empowered potential if divorced from the embodied agrarian context in which Jesus lived and ministered. Want your faith to become more substantive and alive? Maybe consider going outside and planting a garden.

Is it any coincidence that faith and spirituality didn’t begin falling out of fashion on a broad scale until the world became industrialized and urbanized? Even today, regardless of whether they happen to claim the name of Jesus specifically, farmers tend to be quite spiritual people. They’re surrounded by the miraculous, life-sustaining wonder of the created world every day. They understand how unpredictable life is and that their fate is subject both to their own diligent labor and to forces utterly beyond their control. This is one of those paradoxical intersections of true spiritual wisdom, more valuable, as the Hebrew psalmist sings, than much fine gold. 

I see little of this earthy connectedness in the practices of modern American evanglicalism other than the occasional summer camp or weekend retreat to a rural or alpine setting (which, don’t mistake me, are good and wonderful things). There’s a lot of talk about biblical instruction and righteous living, but not as much said about embracing the dirty, messy process of growth and the cycle of death into life that characterizes the entire created order. Healthy crops, after all, usually begin their life beneath a layer of excrement and rotting plants.

In contrast, the monastic traditions of the ancient church traditions seem to have a stronger grasp of this. Adherents to these traditions are steeped in tactile, physically grounded practices like cultivating gardens, keeping bees, crafting soaps and candles, and tending to the poor and infirm. They may not be “in the world” or on the front lines of popular culture, but I suspect these more earthy rituals actually open their hearts and bodies—rather than just their minds—to a deeper and richer understanding of the way of Jesus than any seminary training could ever achieve. 

I once heard a wise and thoughtful man say, “Prayer is the work.” As I dig up potatoes and weed out thistles, I begin to understand this in a more mystical way. This whole business of farming and cultivating does feel awfully cursed most days, full of pain and opposition and harmful turns of fate. But at the same time I find God is with me and speaking to me in all of it. He is there in the ache of my back and the cooling drops of sweat on my skin, in the swing of the hoe and the feeling of dirt beneath my fingernails, in the harsh cawing of the crows flying overhead and the squealing of the pigs at the arrival of another bucket of greens. And—perhaps most beautifully—God is there in the face of my neighbor laboring beside me, with whom I will feast tonight on the satisfying fruits of our labor.

POEM: Fever and ash

It is one thing to lose

A thousand points of contact

Every day

The goodwill smile

Of a stranger in a coffee shop

The quiet whispers

In between library shelves

The sweaty, frantic shoulders

At next Friday’s rock concert

It is one thing — and a thousand things

A six-foot gap

That pricks my soul

Each moment I am willing to suffer

And refuse the flat catharsis

Of glowing pixels and dry beer cans

_______________

But it is another thing —

Another thing entirely —

To lose the world itself

Great groves of fir trees

Beaches at low tide

Mossy stones and mountain springs

The inheritance of the innocent

And the last hope for the dying

The only place each one of us

You and I both, as equals

Can breathe free

_______________

Alas! There is no free breath here

Nowhere to fill your lungs and be whole

Not when the sun itself dampens

Into a charred orange orb

(If it is there at all)

Alas! We are domestic aliens

Bunkered in our homeland

Beneath a colorless sky

Some of us pray for rain

All of us wait for it

Wait with shallow, bated breath

_______________

Where do these dead days come from?

Are we reaping what we have sown?

A world of ash and displaced tenants

Muffled sunrises and cries of fake news

Whole towns left to burn

Fever that travels by stealth

With light touch and vice grip

Is this the beginning of the end of days?

Of a used-up land

Gasping gray Septembers

Groaning until the grid gives way?

_______________

Or — is it

But another of the new birth pains

Heralding a miracle?

Is it the ground being tilled

Charcoal churned and made ready

To receive a kernel of wheat

As it falls and dies?

Wouldn’t that be something?

________________

We may yet see a new goodness

In the land of the living

We may yet.

But here, in the realm of masks

And now, in the days of shallow breaths

I will keep waiting

Like my life depends on it

(because it does)

And pray for rain

POEM: Liminal Space

I lost more than a year and a half

When my wife dropped me off on the curb

In front of the neighborhood bar

With nothing but a carry-on-sized suitcase

And a fleeting hope that she didn’t mean the words

“You just lost your marriage.”

_______

I lost more than a year on the banks of the Chesapeake

When I drove downtown to the King County courthouse

And delivered a petition for divorce

That felt like death to sign

A fall into an abyss deeper than I could see

_______

The fall — not the impact — cracked me open

Blood flowed at last from festering wounds

That I had bandaged again and again

In tumbleweed towns and the land of cookie cutter privilege

In Bible-thumping bubbles and ivory halls of suit-and-ties

Here the brick towers of the Baptist church crumbled

Under the weight of concrete and cedar born amid loss

The welcoming abode on Margalo Avenue

Where the walkway bears my handprint

And my high school diploma sits in a filing cabinet

Has evaporated like the river in the summer heat

The heaven-like facade has burned down

Into purgatorial ashes

I enter the ashes and weep

I ride the metro into Capitol Hill

And emerge in a world turned gray and cold

My heart recoils as I look back at the open gorge

Listening to the echo of the collapsing bridge

That held a score and six years of my life

_______

I say to my soul:

Breathe; feel your feet

Retire to your bed — and fear no darkness!

Take your lunch on cinder blocks

And let your stomach be full for an afternoon

How else will you be able to stand up

With such a heavy heart?

_______

Alas! My kingdom has fallen

With its garden of delights —

Flowers in the full bloom of youth

The fellowship to defy death has failed

And the ruins lie about everywhere

To my right and to my left

Haunted by the ghost

Of a woman who is not dead

I touch her only in dreams and in memory

As I wander emerald hills

Limping from dagger wounds

Pricked by the sight of every silver SUV

_______

The road ahead appears — I have only to desire

To desire — but not the one whom my heart still desires

Where then shall I go, O soul?

Where then shall I go!

_______

I cannot make out the contours of home

Among so many modern lines

And my old inner voices crying “danger!”

To choose before I’ve chosen is bad faith

To not choose is violence at best, they say

Or damnation at worst, say the others

There is no balance, no compromise

Only tension

Magnets suspend me in the in-between

There is only the weary journey

Of walking in one man’s shoes

And then another’s — over and over again

Until my teary eyes are spent

And I fall back on those wooden beams

Singing the lament of the lyre and harp: How long?

How long, O lord?

_______

Sing to me of flames ravaging the forest

Of salt spray in the barrel of a wave

Of desert saints tending a parched and holy land

I will wander in search of my inheritance

A kingdom that was, and is, and will be

_______

I say to my body:

Sharpen your sword and feel your wounds

Sink your hands in the earth

Trace the wisdom of the trees in the grains of spruce and fir

Lace up your boots and stand in the rain

Hold your brothers close while you can

Feel their hearts beat, their lungs heave

Set your eyes on what you love

Let your gaze be strong and steady as folded steel

And your heart be soft and tender like a child’s

_______

I will seek first the kingdom, and trust uncharted paths

Through barren deserts and mossy groves

Rocky coasts and fields of quiet streams

I will welcome the warmth of a companion around the fire

Or the solitude of a cold night beneath the stars

When my heart stalls

And the way feels shut and dead

Still I will lift up my song and cry —

From the depth of my being, or with no depth at all

How long, O Lord, how long?

How long?

POEM: My Dim Contours of Repentance

I’m sorry it had to come to this

That it took George Floyd suffocating beneath a knee

And a legion of protests

Long reams of raw, angry, repentant Facebook posts

For me to start paying attention

I’m sorry it took so long for me to listen

To name that all lives can’t matter until black lives matter

I’m sorry I let politics and religion

Those evil, constructed lines of left and right

Blur the face of your pain and trauma

Blur the sight of your dignity shoved into the pavement

Cut off from air — pinned like an animal

While I went on my way and said nothing

Did nothing

I’m sorry I was content with the neutrality of empty negatives

Content to comfortably try to not be bad

To not be racist

While your bodies were ravaged

Just around the corner, where I was afraid to look

I’m sorry.

_

It never should have had to come to this

The hard birth of healing held up, stuck in the throat

For decades — centuries for Christ’s sake

Your wounds, your fears, your cry left to fester

Beneath my pride and fragility

It should not have come to this.

_

I will lean in and keep my ears open

If I speak, it is for mourning — for lament

If my heart whispers, it is to give a greater thanks than I can know

Thanks to Malcolm X for writing his autobiography

Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coats for singing his sad, ferocious song

Thanks to my black American history teacher at Bakersfield College who showed us Amistad

Who told us about men who, when they couldn’t keep it in their pants

Went out to the slave quarters

To the makers of 12 Years a Slave and Selma

To brave saint Isaac for sitting in front of my church

Then in front of my microphone

To say what it felt like when Trayvon Martin was killed

Thanks to the black brother whose name I can no longer recall

Who told a majority white room full of Baptists

That racism was still real

To vulnerable and strong David who said on Facebook

That he would rise in violence if not for Jesus

Such courage, my God, such courage

Courage you never should have had to muster

Burdens you never should have had to bear.

_

Where was I when your ancestors landed on these shores in shackles?

Where was I when that God damn fraction, three-fifths, was written down

Where was I when white hoods lynched your great-grandfather

When a deptuy marshal shot Clyde Perkins in an alley

And walked away without a charge

When the bank loan was declined over and over again

And the white man’s laws held your father on the other side of the tracks

When blue lights flashed in your mirror and your heart leaped in terror

When the tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets started flying

When Eric Garner gasped “I can’t breathe”?

Where was I?

_

So far away.

I am still so far away.

So I lay my hand on my mouth

I have spoken once, I will proceed no further

Except to utter this one impossible — but yet possible? — blessing:

May you breathe in

Deeper than you ever could

Before

Every Lament Is a Love Song

I’ll be honest, I woke up today hoping to write about joy. Or rather I was hoping to edit a children’s short story I wrote last year that’s chock full of whimsy and magical realism, and in which the protagonist is a young girl named Joy. 

But then I thought about the rising sense of panic and paralysis I felt last Sunday at the off-chance I could run into my ex-wife at a socially-distanced goodbye party in a park. I thought about her chipper text informing me she wouldn’t be there, and how I wondered where she was and felt sad because that’s not for me to know anymore. I felt sad, because with how things ended between us I can see no way for us to ever be friends again—it would be too painful for me. 

Over breakfast I read several chapters of Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” the part where he recalls the death of his sister in a trailer fire, and how at the wake everyone in his extended family got drunk in an ugly way. He ran into the forest only to find his best friend weeping—and subsequently blaming him for his sister’s death because if he hadn’t left the rez to go to a better school then she probably wouldn’t have eloped with a man in Montana either. I thought about the long shadow of loss that Native Americans have suffered, and how the grief turns so many to alcohol. Who can blame them?

I thought about the murders of Ahmaud Arbury and George Floyd and the countless killings that preceded them and felt sad, powerless, angry, and guilty. I prayed for justice and wept as I cried out “How long Lord?” But I worried that even my tearful prayer was little more than a copout for my white fragility.

Then I stepped outside to go for a walk and I thought about COVID-19. I looked at how the handful of people in my neighborhood spaced themselves out in a wordless contract of disconnection and distance. I felt the cautious, worried gaze of the old woman walking down her driveway toward the same point on the sidewalk that I was walking toward. I felt my gaze turn away and my steps shift to cross the street so she could walk outside her home in peace.

I thought about my mom, whom I had wept with on the phone several weeks earlier right before her mother—my grandmother—passed away. Walking out of my grandmother’s room for the last time, knowing she would never see her again in this life, was the hardest thing she had ever done, my mom said.

I thought about one of my best friends who just had his heart broken via text message—a goddamn text message—by a girl he’s been in love with the past two years. Even after he put his heart on the line a second time she didn’t even offer him the dignity of one last phone call. 

I thought about my friend who recently lost her older sister to cancer. I remembered how when I saw her two weeks ago and we stood on the dock at Green Lake and began to cry together I felt conflicted about hugging, because social distancing, and how I hated that ambiguity. I hated how the cause of public health could somehow come in between two friends grieving together and kill my embodied impulse to move toward empathy. 

I still hope to get around to editing the story about Joy, but today the movement, the deeper flow of life, if you will, is ushering me back into grief and loss. After more than a year of the greatest sorrow I have ever known—divorce and then a global pandemic—I am beginning to understand why grief hurts, but in a hurts-so-good sort of way. I am beginning to understand why, when I really start to open my heart to the world and the streams of life flowing all around me, I inevitably feel drawn back into grief. It’s because every lament is a love song.

Every lament is a love song. I stole this line from the bridge of a song that I’ve known since high school, but only in the past several years have begun to understand—like truly understand in the deep recesses of my body. 

Take a moment to sink down into this reality with me. We lament because we love. We grieve because we care, because we give a damn.

“I don’t see a way to live other than in a state of mourning, lament, and grief—at least to some degree—for as long as this pandemic lasts,” I told a friend last week. As of this week more than 100,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. More than 40 million of them have filed for unemployment. I’ve been letting this reality settle over me, like a heavy blanket that I can barely breathe through. I’m going to feel sad. A lot of time. Probably for at least another year or two.

For those of you who are also grieving, who find yourself feeling sad, exhausted, frustrated, angry, and even unmotivated, I think this is actually a sign of health—if we are able to hold it and acknowledge it as such. It means that we loved something about the life we are no longer able to live. So let us grieve the suspension of these good things. Let us name them, one by one, and mourn them. 

For me this goes something like this: It sucked to not be able to fly down to California to celebrate Lyle’s wedding. I’m sad that I won’t be able to sing my heart out to Colony House’s song Why Even Try at a concert this summer. I miss hearing the roar of the crowd at T-Mobile Park when a Mariner hits a home run at a baseball game. I wish I could have hugged my friend Max as he successfully defended his doctoral dissertation. I miss playing pickup ultimate Frisbee on Sunday mornings and needling Chris in response to his sarcastic banter. I miss hearing the words “body of Christ broken for you” as a smiling priest puts a wafer in my hand. I long to share a meal with a group of friends instead of eating alone every single day. My heart hurts when I wake up in the morning and no longer see her familiar, tattooed shoulder lying peacefully next to me.

That’s a lot of loss—and that’s just the beginning of it. I refuse to diminish it by comparing it to someone else’s.

A few days ago I got out my guitar and sang a worship song called “Not in a Hurry” by United Pursuit. The song patiently longs for communion with God. It waits to know his presence, to heart his voice, to feel the Spirit moving. The second chorus sings out one of the boldest prayers I’ve ever heard:

Lord I want to love like you. I want to feel what you feel. I want to see what you see.

I stopped when I came to that line. I stopped to feel the gravity of what I was singing. I had to. I had to stop and search my heart to know if I that’s what I really wanted, because I know that the heart of God endures so. much. pain

I know this because one day last fall while I was at working at the lumber yard I heard a man walk by on the street. He stumbled around on the curb, cursing the betrayal of his friends and damning the abandonment of his family. I was alone in the south yard, just off a main thoroughfare where it is not uncommon to see prostitutes and addicts on the streets. The man continued cursing, boldly and obnoxiously and beautifully lifting up his complaint. I paused to listen and to feel his hurt. I did not know his story, but even in his substance-altered state I could sense that he had been wounded. 

Deeply wounded. 

There, on a cloudy afternoon between racks of pressure treated wood, I looked into the sky and sensed God’s heart for this man. I saw God seeing him, grieving with him and mourning the harm that had befallen him. I began to weep myself, because suddenly I saw that this is the heart of God for all people, constantly, at every moment and in every place. I saw God’s compassion spread out over the world in a great, endless tapestry of tears, the outpouring of a vast, aching heart forever weeping with those who weep. 

And here I was praying that I would see what God sees and feel what he feels. Did I really have any idea what I was asking for? Do I really want to move through life with that kind of heart? With that kind of heartache?

One of the most profound and mysterious moments in the Old Testament occurs in the book of Exodus, when Moses seeks the Lord in the tent of meeting and asks, “Please show me your glory.”

What a ballsy request. Here’s how God responds:

I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live… Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.

Growing up I understood this passage to be demonstrative of God’s great holiness and purity, in the light of which our sinfulness and mortal unworthiness is so great that we would be utterly incinerated by his presence. But now I wonder if there’s more to it. Could it be that God refused to show Moses his face because of the great weight of his mercy? The text actually suggests that. God declares his goodness, graciousness, and mercy before refusing to show Moses the full view of his glory. 

I have to imagine that God’s heart for the world, which he loves so much, is so heavy with grief and longing and passion for those made in his image that the weight of it, if truly beheld and felt, would have literally broken Moses’ heart. I have to imagine that Moses would have been so overwhelmed by God’s compassion and grace that he would have physically died of sorrow and love and longing and joy all at the same time.

I have decided to follow through with the United Pursuit song and sing to God: “I want to love like you. I want to feel what you feel. I want to see what you see.” But I do so knowing that entering into God’s heart for the world will usher me into a world of heartache. I do so knowing that it means aching with hurt to the point of shedding tears nearly every single day.

But I also do so with the growing knowledge that if every lament is a love song, then it must be closer to joy and gratitude than I ever thought possible. They must be within a razor’s edge of each other because both flow out of love.

Indeed, within the lingering agony of divorce, the stifling unwellness of the coronavirus pandemic, and the losses of my friends and family members, I somehow still find myself finding joy and wonder at hand. They show up at the most expected and unexpected of times, flickering through like an old porch light in the middle of the night. 

These feelings can turn on a dime, so quickly that when I first started noticing them last year I described it as a sort of spiritual bipolarity. I could be screaming at God one moment, asking what the hell is going on, and fifteen minutes later suddenly feel like I could sing of his love forever. 

I don’t think of this as a disorder, though. I just think it means I’m moving through life a little bit more like Jesus did.

I look for poetry to capture the experience, this sense of what it’s like to linger in suffering, then suddenly feel love surge up around me like a warm, joyfully fomenting sea, and I find Psalm 126. It’s a psalm of ascents that recklessly puts forward weeping and dancing together like two sides of the same coin. I think the psalmist knows something of this flickering, this propensity of agonizing loss to come blazing to life before it’s all said and done:

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,

like streams in the Negeb!

Those who sow in tears

shall reap with shouts of joy!

He who goes out weeping,

bearing the seed for sowing, 

shall come home with shouts of joy,

bringing his sheaves with him.

Wait Without Hope: Finding a Way Through Unwellness

As news reports about COVID-19 continue coming at the same torrential pace and shelter-in-place orders become something of a new normal, I’ve found myself returning often to a passage from East Coker, one of T.S. Eliot’s four quartets:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting

I don’t know how to put what Eliot is saying into plain speech, but something about those words rings profoundly true to me right now even though I can’t quite articulate why. I suppose that’s the beauty of poetry. Something here defies our formations of logic, it resists fitting into our clean categories of thought. 

All I know is that I feel these words as a prophetic call, a timely word in a moment of distress not unlike the global moment in 1940 when Eliot originally wrote this poem. The words stop me in my tracks. Everything superfluous falls out of focus. Wait without hope. Wait without love. Something in me wants to scream. What the hell man? How can you say that? How dare you say that? We’re hanging on by a thread here. 

The words settle, however, like a bar of gold dropped into a running stream, and I discern that not all hope is created equal. In the Apostle John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, there’s a fascinating exchange between Jesus and Martha as soon as Jesus arrives on the scene. 

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

Look at Martha’s response to Jesus’ claim that her brother would rise again. She holds a form of hope, that Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. But something about it feels distant and abstract, much like the way Christians today talk about the heavenly hope they have. It’s a way of disconnecting from the present suffering, pain, and loss in this world in the here and now, perhaps even a way of hiding our own lack of faith. It can become an escape from one’s present reality, a way of dismissing the agony of death or loss of any kind. 

Not so with Jesus, who for his part clearly has something more present, immediate, and concrete in mind: the literal, embodied resurrection of Martha’s brother…today. 

I wonder if this dismissive, sentimental hope is what Eliot is telling his soul to cast aside. It’s an abandoning of hope to surrender to the true unknown of the situation, to the fact that people will suffer and die before this is over, to the knowledge that we have no knowledge about how, exactly, this will be brought to an end. It’s about looking to the horizon and seeing only war—or disease—in sight. 

Eliot continues:

Wait without thought, for you are not yet ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning

The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,

The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy

Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony

Of death and birth.

Echoes of life and liveliness linger in the dark recesses of our hearts, no more than a whisper. Our memories have not lost the garden, the ecstatic changing of the seasons, Eliot says, but there is an agony that must be undergone, a death to die in the darkness, a place of stillness from which the dance begins.

This is the place of loss, before we see what comes with a new beginning. “In my beginning is my end,” says the first line of the poem. It concludes with an inversion of its opening: “In my end is my beginning.”

When I read East Coker I mumble these lines under my breath like a chant, turning them back and forth on my tongue until some sort of clarity begins to emerge. “In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.” What does it mean? 

What does it mean? It means what my pastor told his daughter after the 9/11 attacks when she asked the same question: The world as you know it is gone. Let’s start there. And for now let’s end there, because right now there is nothing else to say. There is no concrete hope to offer. Scientists are working on a vaccine, yes. Some states are reopening their economies. The rate of new cases is on the decline in many areas. But we do not know if another wave of infection is ahead. We don’t know how long it will take to develop a vaccine. We don’t know why so many people who carry the disease are asymptomatic. We’re living the dark. 

What is the way forward? Again, the poetry says it best:

In order to arrive there,

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not

You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.

In order to arrive at what you do not know.

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance

In order to possess what you do not possess

You must go by the way dispossession.

In order to arrive at what you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not.

And what you do not know is the only thing you know

And what you own is what you do not own

And where you are is where you are not.

“It’s a hard thing to ask of someone, to wait without hope,” I told my therapist through tears last week. “It’s so much to ask.” But as this story continues, and as our weirdly passive and active battle against COVID-19 drags on with no end in sight, I find myself returning to this heavy feeling. We must find a way to wait without hope, to go by a way of unknowing, a way of lack, a dead way of no ecstasy.

It won’t do to give people false hope. Rumors and anecdotal reports of effective treatments that are not actually effective (such as the ones alluded to by our president) only make matters worse and threaten to cast us into depths of anger and despair that are even harder, nigh impossible, to recover from. 

There is a way, Eliot reminds us, that death leads to birth rather than nothingness and despair. But we must be willing to let the world turn upside down, where darkness can become light, and stillness become the dancing. In voicing my sorrow over the difficulty of waiting without hope, I found that what I need right now isn’t happiness or relief so much as a friend to listen to me share my unwellness, to be willing to not look on the bright side for a moment and simply attend to my loss (and trust me enough to do the same for him in his pain).

Curt Thompson, a psychiatrist who knows a thing or two about these feelings, explains how this process works on a relational level:

(W)e must be willing to name our sadnesses, both great and small. And we must name them to another who is able to validate our emotion. It is in this action that our minds realize they are not alone, and our grief is shared. In sensing that someone else also shares the load of our grief, we no longer have to burn the energy we have been consuming in our attempt to contain it. And with the lightening of our load, we are freed that much more to care for others, receiving their grief, and to begin the process of creating goodness and beauty around us.

This journey to redemption takes time. It is exhausting. But it is no less than the way of the Christ. Before Jesus raises Lazarus from the grave, he sees Mary weeping, he goes to the grave and weeps. He knew he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, but first he mourned because he loved Lazarus and those who mourned over him. He felt their sadness with them. 

Near the end of his life Jesus would weep again in Gethsemane, begging the Father for some way—any way—other than the god-awful road of bearing our griefs, carrying our sorrows, and suffering the crushing blow of our iniquities. But through this road of death, the darkness in the tomb became light, the stillness turned to dancing, and the faint, ecstatic echoes of how life was meant to be found their full voice in humanity once again. 

There was—and is—no other way, “just death into life, over and over until all things are right.”

In Praise of Holy Imagination

Like many children, I grew up with a robust imagination. Our quarter-acre backyard, quite large by suburban standards, offered ample room for my imaginary commando missions and adventures with my Lego sets. Indoors I spent many an afternoon draped over the recliner in the living room, book in hand, losing myself within the walls of Redwall Abbey or escaping to another era through the Magic Treehouse. It was wonderful.

As I grew up in church and began to take my faith seriously, however, this imagination began to choke up as my interest in theology grew. I was presented with a stark picture: the Bible was the inspired Word of God, infallible in all it affirmed, and the only source of ultimate truth in the world. Everything and everyone else was suspect, including my own heart. I was told that my impulses and even most of my longings were expressons of fleshly desires that needed to be tamed and brought into alignment with God’s commands.

There was little room for imagination in this framework that felt like it prized theological correctness above everything. And good theology, by these standards, was strictly within the bounds of Scripture. Anything that deviated from that, that struck even a different tone than the particular biblical narrative I was taught, was—again—suspect. For several years I became an ardent critic of much purportedly “Christian” rehtoric, whether it be a lyric from a CCM song or an offhand comment from a friend, that ran counter to or fell outside the bounds of what I understood the Bible to teach.

It was not until an undergrad postmodernism class that my beliefs began to significantly evolve. I was still attending an institution that held and encouraged a more dogmatic reading of Scripture, but this particular professor had a reputation as a bit of a maverick. He argued that the Bible only offers us a narrative, not a metanarrative. It does not and is not intended to provide a comprehensive, systematic theology or a complete worldview, per se, he said. Instead God’s revelation comes to us through specific, particular stories—genres like historical records, poetry, personal letters, and accounts of visions. 

This seemed obvious enough to me, and over time I began to read Scripture more as a narrative than a textbook. This was both frightening and freeing. The Bible’s teachings, to the extent that it had them, did not seem nearly as clear to me as they once did. At times I felt adrift in a sea of doubt and uncertainty. I was afraid that God might judge me or cut me off if I strayed from the supposedly “clear” teachings of Scripture. 

But I also found my imagination begin to revive. I found profound truths in stories told through literature and music and film—even the ones told by so-called “secular” folks. I began encountering the firsthand, lived experience of myself and others and started genuinely grappling with how to reconcil their feelings and lives with my own theological assumptions. I began to open myself to insights and wisdom from other denominations and wisdom traditions. 

Several years ago I found a view that resonated with me in a paper by N.T. Wright exploring the question of how the Bible can be authoritative. He encourages the church to read the Bible more as a play in which we are given the first four acts and a glimpse of the ending of the story, and now face the joyful, creative task of working out the fifth act for ourselves. This is not a matter of simply contorting ourselves back into the shape of a 2,000-year-old text so as to be “biblically faithful.” It’s more about finding ourselves in its story and creatively living out the next act in relationship with a personal, dynamic God. Granted, this God never changes, but the Triune Godhead is nonetheless always in motion, always at work in some way creatively working out redemption in the world and wooing our hearts.

This involves a both/and posture. We look to the traditions and wisdom of the past to know where we came from, who we are, and where we are going. Yet at the same time we also need pastors, prophets, and artists who are capable of holy imagination—who can bear witness to the presence of a God who is real and alive and active right now, all around us, not just in the pages of Scripture. As T.S. Eliot said, every generation needs its own poets. I’ve come to see that we need our own contemporaries in the church to sing their songs in their own way, to reimagine the story of our faith afresh and attune to the ever-new mercies and whispers of the Spirit. 

To that end, here are three examples of holy imagination in music that have profoundly enriched my worship and devotional life over the past year:

Deliverer – Audrey Assad

In the ruins of my heart you preach to the poor

Turning over stones to show me there is more 

More than all I ask more than I’m looking for 

In the ruins of my heart

I don’t know the story behind this song or how Assad went about writing it, but I am convinced that when she composed the bridge she was directly tapped into the Spirit of the living God. In these anthemic lines my heart is imagined as a ruined wasteland in which God has come to speak to all the broken, downcast parts of me and dig through the rubble, unearthing the seeds of redemption and new life. In my mind’s eye I can see Jesus, much like he wandered through all the cities and villages of Galilee, “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.” I see him turning over stones and calling me to come and see that there’s more to the parts of my story that I’ve given up on—that where I see wreckage and despair he sees buried treasure.

There’s also a distinct echo of the Psalms here, of a God who offers refuge in the shadow of his wings and lifts up the broken hearts of the widow and the fatherless. If the Psalms were written today, I bet they would sound a lot like this.

Holy Ghost – Jessie Early

You hover over waters of my heart 

Skipping stones on the bank where the tides rises and depart 

You know I’ve got, I’ve got your sun reflecting off my skin 

I feel you hushing every storm again

The first line here is a reference to the opening of Genesis, which speaks of the Spirit of God hovering over the formless and void waters of the earth. But there’s something “extra-biblical” here in the lyric too: this picture of the Spirit at play, in a state of leisure and familiarity, skipping stones on the shores of our heart like a friend utterly comfortable in our presence. It feels like what I imagine it would be like to be with God, at peace and at home. It catches the divine vibe. It’s the kind of thing I’d expect from someone who has a track record of playing in the mud to heal a blind man or making breakfest for his friends after they were out fishing all night. 

I also love how this image of leisure and friendliness goes hand in hand with an experience of divine glory and power. The holiness of God lights up the singer, like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, and the power of God hushes the storm, like Jesus at sea with his disciples. But these magnificent displays of glory and power come to us with a felt sense of life and peace, like a ray of sunshine on warm spring day, or a friend skipping stones on the banks of our most tender, vulnerable selves. 

Wood and Nails – The Porter’s Gate

The dead will rise and give you praise

Wood and nails will not hold them down

These wooden tombs, we’ll break them soon

And fashion them into flower beds

You won’t find this specific imagery in the accounts of the Hebrew prophets, but it rings profoundly true all the same because it poetically captures the heart of redemption itself. The very tombs that imprison us, the instruments and markers of death, will become the materials for our new homes and vocations in the kingdom. It’s the hope of swords being fashioned into plowshares contextualized for the present day: tombs to flower boxes. Either way the beating heart of redemption is the same: it is the concrete, tacticle things of everyday life in today’s broken world that will hold the beauty of new life in the coming kingdom.

I imagine (I use the term here intentionally) that if Isaiah were prophesying today, he just might receive a vision like this one. This is poetry for today’s generation, nothing less than a prophetic vision of a flourishing kingdom. This is language that moves a Seattle-dwelling millennial to tears. I long for home, to walk through uncursed gardens in a body that’s has become even more substantive and sensual than I already am.

POEM: Resurrection Sunday

The house is still and quiet

No bells or flowers adorn the doors

No voice takes up the cry, “He is risen”

Granola patters in a plastic bowl

Hot water trickles through coffee grounds

Cracked fingertips turn wispy pages

Foggy eyes make out the words:

“But in fact Christ has been raised”

A sleepy mind ponders the great question:

“O death, where is your sting?”

 

The stinger is still lodged inside

Piercing every untracked hour and day

Toxins flow through the veins

Of a civilization in cardiac arrest

A swell of hearts gasping for air

Behind barred bedroom walls

Aimless fingers tapping in place

Behind masks that leave faces bruised

Obscuring all but the weary tears

Tears that know death’s sting

 

But there is yet breath, a beating pulse

A song that refuses to die

Outside the air smells like a flower in bloom

Birdsong skips above the quiet interstate

Cherry blossoms burst forth

In constellations on gnarled, mossy limbs

The tulips bear witness

Crying with shouts of red! yellow! magenta!

 

Frost recedes across the hoods

Of unmoving cars lined along still streets

It cannot hold out under the rising sun

It cannot hold out under the clear spring sky

It cannot hold out

Early reflections on life under COVID-19

With everyone retreating and self-quarantining to stem the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus, it seems the time has come for me to live more like a writer again. Here are some of my early reflections on life under COVID-19:

 

—Over the past several weeks I’ve seen well-meaing Christians post things like “God’s plan is going exactly according to plan.” 

To that I say, with all due respect, shut up. I do believe that providence is at work in the world is some mysterious, awful (in the traditional sense of the word—awe-filled) way. But people are hurting right now. They’re suffering. They’re afraid. And for good reason. People are going to die, perhaps on the scale of wartime numbers (God-forbid!). We don’t have to keep a stiff upper lip and project nice, theologically-correct statements. On the contrary, my prayers at their most desperate and sincere these days sound more like: God, where the hell are you right now? Why must we endure this?

Right now, I think that’s okay. And I’m going to keep shouting that lament for as long as I feel that way. God can take it. He won’t cast me away for it.

As I’ve sat in my room and sought the presence and voice of God over the past week, I’ve found myself returning to a great vision of the Lord holding our suffering. When my heart broke and my world fell apart last year, I learned firsthand, at an emotional, heart level, that God tends to show up in the most powerful and intimate ways amid two kinds of experiences: those of great love and of great suffering. Today the world is entering into a collective, once-in-a-generation suffering. So many things are upended. The elderly and immuno-compromised are at great risk. Graduations thrown into flux. Weddings celebrations canceled or delayed. Career changes and advancements halted in their tracks. Travel plans derailed. I do not fear for my own well-being, but I am afraid for the elderly in my local church. I’m afraid for my friend with asthma. I’m afraid for my friend’s sister battling cancer. I’m afraid for the child stuck in a broken home who no longer has access to the structure of a school day and lunch in the cafeteria. 

This is suffering. I do not know why the novel Coronavirus is happening. I’m not comfortable saying God has a plan for this or meant for this to happen because in so many ways I don’t see the goodness of this present moment. To do so would dishonor and be dishonest about the experiences of those who are currently suffering.

That said, I do believe God is real and actually gives a damn about us. In my heart I see the Spirit of God hovering over the world right now just as they hovered over the waters during creation. I imagine Jesus in my bedroom, sitting in the chair across from me, and find that he is not just a savior who will deliver us from this body of death but, more importantly in times like this, he is a wounded savior. He is a man who even now carries scars on his hands and feet and side because in some mysterious, profoundly human way he subjected himself to the violence, injustice, brokenness, and disease of this world and therefore has the embodied capacity to feel it with us. I believe that right now God is actively hurting with each and every one of us and longing to draw near to us, and that if we go to him we will find a friend. I believe we’ll find a friend ready to be with us wherever we’re at: to hold us when we’re shaking uncontrollably with fear and anxiety, to weep with us when a loved one is hospitalized or when our dreams have been shattered, to laugh with us in the funny and absurd moments of being quaratined, to rejoice with us in the beauty of music or the savory goodness of a home-cooked meal, to long for connection and reunifcation with the lover, parent, child, friend, or sibling from which we are now separated. 

 

—If I may venture to suggest one theory about what providence is up to, however, I do suspect that it is no coincidence the pandemic has swept across the world during the season of Lent, which is inaugurated with this exhortation: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We’re much more in touch with that reality now. We can feel it in our bones, our heartbeat, our breath.

 

—I’m excited about the great output of human creativity that will result from this. Already the world has seen a staggeringly vast and beautiful release of creative energy. Musicians are livestreaming concerts and writing songs. People are painting and writing poetry. They’re creating mini-golf courses in their homes and making epic Lego creations. Teachers are finding new ways to impart knowledge amid upended norms. Parents are finding ways to engage and educate their children. Neighbors are finding new ways to meet each other’s needs.

Spring is here, but we are only now just entering a strange, ill-timed social winter. I’m reminded of Annie Dillard’s reflections about winter in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”: 

It is winter proper; the cold weather, such as it is, has come to stay. I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting.

As is so often the case in life, we are in a paradoxical space of both/and. This is a time to sow, to rest, to prepare for life on the other side of this pandemic. But it is also a time to reap the harvest of our creative passions, ingenuity, and inventiveness that we have otherwise neglected.

I recently got the lyrics “live it like a song” tattooed on my arm. If we think of life as a song, then certainly the melody right now has taken a sudden and unexpected modulation into a minor key. But that doesn’t mean it still can’t have the aching, awful beauty that is relentless creativity in the face of pain and tragedy. 

 

—It’s time to appreciate the essential workers in our neighborhoods and in the world at large who keep us alive and safe every day. Truckers and delivery drivers are the new calvary in our war against the virus, transporting all manner of life-sustaining goods ranging from hospital supplies to fresh produce to toilet paper. Mail carriers, powerplant workers, garbage collectors, farmers, all of these oft-neglected individuals are soldiering on to preserve life and keep the world from descending into anarchy. Let’s bless these workers. Let’s honor them. Let’s love them (from afar). My heart aches with joy and love to see that for once we are not only declaring that everyone matters, but knowing it and feeling it deep in our hearts. The elderly and immunocompromised matter. Children in school matter. Therapists matter. Priests and artists, computer programmers and medical researchers, politicians and janitors—they all matter so much right now! This reality, I am increasingly convinced, pulses at the very heartbeat of God, and it is echoing loudly throughout the world because we all bear the imago dei. 

 

—I’m hopeful that we’ll come out of this with a healthier relationship to technology. I do not like that my average time spent on Facebook and on my smartphone has spiked dramatically in recent weeks. I loathe it, in fact, all this screen time. But right now I’m thankful that these technologies exist. I’m thankful for the communication and connection to other human beings that they provide at a time like this. I’m glad that I can still hear the voices and see images of my friends and family at a moment’s notice. At the end of this, however, I hope we see that these mediated methods of communicating and connecting with each other are no substitute for embodied face-to-face encounters. I hope we realize that we cannot live in a cocoon of tech-mediated reality and expect to flourish as humans. I think we will feel a gap, a longing for embodied connection that social media or Zoom cannot fill. Already, at this early stage in the quarantine, I long for the day when I can hug someone—anyone. How sweet, how real, how precious will that moment be, the simple act of hugging someone? And how much more will we appreciate how essential touch is to life itself?

 

—If I could offer one exhortation amid the digital noise of the pandemic, I’d encourage everyone to take some time to practice silence and solitude. Consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s warning in “Life Together”:

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.

I’m an introvert, yet I am struggling to live well and make good life choices in conditions where I can’t meet friends for coffee, play pickup ultimate Frisbee, go to the gym, attend a concert, or go out on a date. It may come more easily to some of us than to others, but I propose that the time to get alone with ourselves is now.

Several years ago, over a nine-month span, I had the privilege of experiencing six separate days of silence and solitude. They were the best days of my year. They ushered me into new depths of being. They freed me to find the glory of an entire world in a single flower. They helped me start to taste and see the joy in literally, physically walking with God. They gave my mind space to wander, to compose poetry, to rest and process my life. 

At a time when videoconferencing, phone calls, and social media are the only ways to safely connect with most people, I suspect that the practice of silence and solitude will be the key to avoid being flooded by digital noise. I’m not sure if there’s any other way, in fact, to walk through this into a healthy emotional state on the other side. 

It doesn’t have to be for a full day. Block out a chunk of time from nine to five. Or just a morning. An hour even. Close the laptop. Put away your phone. Turn off Alexa. Go into a still, quiet place, and see what the silence has to say. Brew a cup of coffee and savor its flavor. Light a candle and breathe in its aroma. Tend to a houseplant. Feel the sun shine on your skin. Write a letter, in longhand, to a friend. See what voices begin to speak, where your mind wanders, what feelings rise up. Write about it. Talk to God about it.

We have so much to teach ourselves, if only we will take the time to notice.