Voracious Deafness

At some point I stopped listening.
I fill my head with news and commentary
To grasp what is happening and why.

Mining more information to know more,
To have more well-rounded opinions that can withstand more argument.
So I read more essays, hear more radio and podcasts, watch more videos.

But it is not listening.
I do not pay attention to the voice,
Only the information.
Only to gain.

To listen is to receive freely whatever is given.
Attending even if nothing ends up said.
Waiting for a word that can only come from silence.
Not biding time until my turn to talk.

That my son or daughters might have something to offer
About trains or school or what the cow says.
That my wife reveals a frivolous beauty.
That creation shares a secret of its ancient wisdom.
That the Voice in the sheer silence may speak.

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But Life

Autumn began dumbfounded in the wake of
Five deaths—three untimely, including a suicide—
And two revelations of probable lurking cancers.
I am short-tempered, yelling too easily at my children,
Angry at long lines and red lights.
I blame the upcoming presidential election.
But death’s mycelium spreading underneath, pushing through with grotesque reminders,
Is the true culprit.

I see my wife and children and dread the day this will all end.
That Springsteen guarantees my baby daughters’ dancing elates me.
I turn on the song and the bouncing commences.
My wife and I clap and laugh.
My son runs in and tells me to twirl with him.
Who am I to deny such an invitation?
As he and I spin like novice dervishes, my wife dances with one daughter who smiles with nine teeth, and the other stretches her tiny long fingers to plink the piano keys.
The Paraclete blows through our living room in the form of rock and roll.
An impromptu dance party.
So much grief and the future and the past forgotten.
Only backbeat. Only guitars. Only movement.
But life. But life.
When the singer asks, “Is there anyone alive out there?”
The five of us answer in the affirmative with our dance.

But Death

I did not anticipate having a child
Would make me think so much
About death.
Sure, I ask the responsible queries concerning
What would happen to my son were I to die.
Thus wills have been written, living trusts created.
But my death thoughts mostly do not concern duty.
Rather something more
Foundational, basic, earthy.

They say we feel settled when three generations exist.
When my father’s heart stopped I was childless,
Standing alone with no generation before or following me.
Only death approached.
I thought, expected, hoped
Having a child would assuage the looming fear.
Not so.
My son does open my eyes to life
With his constant firsts
He is Neil Armstrong and Leif Erikson every day.
I want him to make me forget mortality.
But death. But death.

My son reminds me I have a father and he died.
Each day my son grows I am a day closer.
His gracious and wonderful and very existence
Signifies I am next in line.
He will, God willing, bury me and mourn me.
I do not wish that pain on him,
It merely is the best order this side of the Resurrection.
Gratefully he grounds me.

For November 9, 2016, January 20, 2017, and Beyond

Be shocked, but not naive.
Surprised to the point of action, not stupefied.
Never take this as normal.
No accommodation.
Foster astonishment at evil and good.
Be maladjusted.

Be angry, but do not sin.

Be angry and stand
Be angry and walk
Be angry and listen
Be angry and talk
Be angry and work
Be angry and rest
Be angry and boycott
Be angry and invest
Be angry and laugh
Be angry and weep
Be angry and share
Be angry and keep
Be angry and write
Be angry and read
Be angry and follow
Be angry and lead
Be angry and whisper
Be angry and shout
Be angry and believe
Be angry and doubt
Be angry and sit
Be angry and dance
Be angry and hold
Be angry and advance
Be angry and sing
Be angry and pray
Be angry and move
Be angry and pray
Be angry and love
Be angry and pray
Be angry and hope
Be angry and pray.

Do not grow weary of doing right.

(With thanks to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Apostle Paul.)

The Necessity of Metaphor for God-Talk: Reflecting on Bono & Eugene Peterson on the Psalms

Yesterday Fuller Studio released its first film: a conversation between Bono and Eugene Peterson on the Psalms. Bono is the lead singer of U2. Eugene Peterson is a Christian pastor and author, most notably of The Message a translation of the Bible in modern idiomatic English.

In the video it is clear both men give great attention to the importance of language, particularly our speech to God. In a critique of contemporary Church music they lament the lack of honesty and realism before God. Bono compliments the beauty of the music found in churches, but finds the lyrics too safe and sanitized. Contrast that to the Psalms, which are prayer-poems of honest rawness.

Beyond the need to recapture the honesty of the psalmists, these men talk about the importance of metaphor. Bono says in the film, “The only way we can approach God is if we’re honest through metaphor, through symbol.” This statement woke me up. I love the arts and have even argued for their necessity in the life of the Church. I’ve written devotionals on the Psalms and spend a good amount of time in them trying to help readers enter the worlds evoked in their language. Bono’s statement revealed to me just how reflexively drawn I am to analytical language. Somewhere deep within me I think concrete analytical language is more valuable than mysterious symbolic speech.

There is room for measured, careful analysis, but a thesis followed by three supporting paragraphs and a clear conclusion can’t capture the truth of desperation found in Psalm 22.1-2:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. (NRSV)

We need symbolic language to express the reality of our wonder before the grandeur of God as the writer of Psalm 18 does:

The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (NRSV)

By writing this way the psalmist evokes a greater response than if he simply wrote, “God offers safety and deliverance.” But this symbolic language does more than express a truth artfully. The metaphor, the symbol, is the truth itself. If the psalmist wants to be analytical, he would write an essay. He chooses to express himself in a poem. Metaphors and similes are not window dressing, they are the message itself. We inhabit a world we cannot fully understand. We encounter a God who will always remain a mystery to us, whose reality will always push the boundaries of our speech. Symbolic language is a step in the right direction at expressing our wonder before the mystery.

I want to dive into symbolic language. Metaphors invite and even demand readers to get dirty. We cannot stay objective or removed. The question for readers of the Psalms is not, what is the concept behind this metaphor? For once we find said concept, we often discard the metaphor. God then becomes merely an abstract source of safety and is no longer a fortress. We lose the powerful image. The real questions might be, how does this metaphor open me to truth? How do these symbols welcome me into the mystery?

I greatly appreciate the work of both Petereson and Bono. Peterson’s books on pastoring greatly shaped my understanding of the vocation while I served churches. His work reminded me of why I was there and what was truly important in the midst of myriad tasks — things like praying, reading Scripture, spiritual direction. U2 has been one of my favorite bands for years and I recently wrote about how I find much beauty in the earthy transcendence of Bono’s lyrics.