Saturday, February 24, 2007

A Neo-Haiku Poem for Lent

"Pain isn't the worst thing. Being hated isn't the worst thing. Being separated from the one you love isn't the worst thing. Death isn't the worst thing. The worst thing is failing to deal with reality and becoming disconnected from what is actual. The worst thing is trivializing the honorable, desecrating the sacred. What I do with my grief affects the way you handle your grief; together we form a community that deals with death and other loss in the context of God's sovereignty, which is expressed finally in resurrection." ~ Eugene Peterson, Leap Over A Wall

I gave the meditation for our Ash Wednesday service this past week. In it I spoke of our need for a more intentional practice of lament, a practice we could undertake during this season of Lent. As an example of our culture's inability to lament properly, I referred to the recent grubby, carnivalesque obsession with Anna Nicole Smith's death. It's truly been one of the weirder events of my life. It's my generation's Marilyn Monroe happening. More tawdry? I don't know. That may be relative. But Stanley Kubrik would be hardpressed to top its surreality.
Whether in death or in life the woman would not rest peacefully. There was no lament for her passing. There was only de-personalized, web-mediated, self-indulgent fascination with the little girl from Texas who became a big Playboy girl. And that's what she still is: a play thing.
Hopefully somebody out there, away from the gaze of a camera, unnoticed and unpublished to anyone is sobbing for her.

Why then lament? When we lament well, for ourselves or for another, we experience a purifying of our soul. We get cleaned out. We get rinsed through and through with the living waters. It may take time, it may take great effort and perhaps a good deal of discipline and dogged perseverance, especially when you’re tempted to look away when it becomes too hard.
But grieving well is a way to place rightly all our brokenness, all our humanity: under the gaze of the Father's love. Grieving well allows all the muck and clogged angry emotions to be named. Grieving well allows all our distorted thought patterns and embedded, often subconscious and irrational fears to be placed under the light of Christ. Grieving well allows the pains and losses of our life to be lifted up to the Shepherd of our Souls. In his hands we are free. By his wounds we are redeemed. In his death we die so that in his resurrection we can be risen to new life.

As Christians we don’t obsess. We don’t self-indulge. We don’t ignore the pain. We don’t brush it aside as if it didn’t matter, because it does. We don’t drown it in busyness or entertainment. We don’t stuff it down. We don’t buck up. We don't give up. We don't put on a happy face. We invite Jesus to enter into our brokenness. We invite him to weep with us, to be near us, to care for us, to walk with us, to bring us into fellowship with the broken in the body of Christ, our brothers and sisters whom God has given each of us to experience the relentless, indefatigable love of God.
That is why we lament. It is a blessed thing to lament (Matt. 5:4).
After the service our resident amateur philologist Tim Stewart came up to me. With a slightly irreverent smile on his face he handed me a piece of paper. I looked down at it and saw that it was the torn-off front page of our order of service. On the purple page was written the following neo-haiku poem, which is neither neo nor haiku but still very memorable:

If I

(Photo: The other side of Anna Nicole Smith's death: waiting for an announcement.)

Monday, February 19, 2007

A Thought about Cultures, Bananas, & Electrical Engineering

Ok. This note began as a response to Tim Stewart in the comments section of "On Beauty" but turned into a ridiculously long comment. So I've bumped it up to surface. The thoughts here are commentary in nature, not Zen meditated. Lame caveat but that's what I get for writing during my siesta time.
And so I began:
Tim, let me jump in here briefly. I recognize that I'm not a very good comment-maker-keeper (too little time, I'm afraid; and yes, I'm not a very good blogger in that regard), but I do want to offer two thoughts.
All About Culture
One, and Kelly this is in indirect relation to your thoughts, our discussion about art and beauty and the universe has everything to do with culture. Culture is everything. Whether we're talking about biological culture (tropical) or a theological culture (Arminian, high Reformed Calvinist, liberationist Catholic) or an intellectual culture (Marxist) or of social and traditional cultures (Hip-Hop and African Methodist Episcopal), it is culture that explains and provides the parameters for natural and human activity, not in any hermetically sealed way but in a manner that provides particularity to the different ways of being created nature.
Specific stuff grows from a specific culture--banana trees, tundra grass, orchids. You can create artificial cultures within natural cultures and we call that a greenhouse, a controlled environment. That's essentially what Hope Chapel has become, a kind of greenhouse within Evangelical Protestantism. We're not unique. There are a bunch of us out there, spontaneously generated biospheres, perfectly and self-satisfiedly protestant.
But what we're doing with the arts is not yet "native" to Evangelical Protestant culture, philosophically or practically.
For example, music is native to our charismatic evangelical culture at Hope. We don't have to think about singing, we just sing, it's what we do. We sing with drums and lap steel guitars and an occasional upright base or harp and we think nothing of it, unlike the elderly Lutheran and Cumberland Presbyterian congregations two blocks away. Bananas trees don't have to TRY to grow in Guatemala, they just do, it's what they do. Trust me. They grew in my back yard. (Mmm, organic bananas fresh off the stem. And limes and pomegranates and nectarines and oranges--I had a great back yard. Thanks, dad!)
I'm not saying that visual art couldn't become native to EP culture, it just may take a while to re-ionize, re-soil, fertilize, import good stuff and expunge bad to generate the kind of ground and atmosphere that is conducive to the production of mature artists making mature art--at least one 40-year generation, I figure, and only God knows at that.
The Medium is the Message
Two, about the biblical basis for the arts, let me say this. The Bible is not interested in saying anything about aesthetics as a theoretical discipline. Nope. So sad for Plato and Hegel and all those angry artists who hate the Bible anyway.
Nor is it interested for that matter in statistical analysis methodologies. Or electrical engineering. Or neurology. Or how to open a successful coffeeshop business. Or for all us fanatics, the Bible couldn't care a lick whether you send your kids to public, private or home school. It's just not as obsessed as we are about these things. It's not.
It's a book interested in one thing: telling salvation history.
We may discover things about engineering or coffee or art tangentially--along the way, if you will--but we need to let the Bible be what it is and not demand that it satisfy all our human curiosities. That's why we have the Holy Spirit and common grace and a creation mandate to "till the garden." Once we accept this, both as a fact and as a theological modus operandi that we all practice consciously or unconsciously, we can relax and enjoy our stressed-out lives a lot more.
Is the Bible silent about the arts? No. It has plenty to say, or rather show. For example we have the first two chapters of Genesis, the temple motif that runs through Exodus, Kings, Ezekiel, and Revelation, the entire Psalter, Colossians 1:15-20 where Jesus is called the Ikon tou Theo (the image of God)--and so he's not just the Logos, not just the Divine Reason, not just the Word which spoke creation into existence, he is the psychosomatic image of the Father who chose deliberately to image himself to us and then rise from the dead in bodily form to confirm once and for all that the original creation was good in the first place and shall be good in the last (Ps. 78, 105; Isa. 65:17; 66:22; Rev. 21:5).
There's Jesus the story-teller, there's Jesus the poet, metaphor-user, and he does it so comprehensively, so insistently that we dismiss it as a first century condescension only out of modern, myopic stubbornness. There is the apocalypse of St. John in which he reminds us that some of God's juiciest messages come packaged in poetic sing-a-longs. There is the fact that 40% of the Old Testament is narrative.
There is all this and more. But that's for another day. I'm off to take my sabbath nap.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

On Beauty: Axioms #8, #9, #10

(This is another little portion of the talk I gave last month.)

10 AXIOMS (here numbers 8-10)
#8 Because America’s philosophical landscape is marked dominantly by pragmatism, beauty flourishes with difficulty on our soil.

Let’s face it: there’s a lot of ugliness out there. We have ugly strip-centers with their monochromatic, eye-numbing facades. We have ugly office cubicles with their window-less, soul-deadening sameness. We have ugly day-time talk shows with their bilious, intoxicating chatter.
A lot of the houses in my neighborhood are pretty ugly. They’re squatty, drab, crudely designed. There’s a reason for that. Most of them were built just after WWII when there wasn’t much discretionary income, so people made do. There’s grace of course.

But just because you don’t have lots of money doesn’t mean you have to settle for ugly stuff—quick and cheap, unimaginative, functionalist designs, bland color palette.

Yet we can cut ourselves just a wee bit of slack. Ahh.
It’s not really our fault.

We were born into a pragmatic culture. Heck, it’s the one philosophical system Americans practically invented! Our culture does not teach us how to want beauty. In truth, our minds are so fogged over by the involuntary need to sell and consume—lest we miss out on a better deal—that we don’t know any better than to buy lots and lots of relatively cheap clothes that we know we’ll throw away within a handful of years. My European friends have a few expensive articles of clothing, beautifully designed, made with durable material, and they keep it for twenty years.

We have outlet malls.

My point is simply this: we’re not behind the eight-ball when it comes to figuring this beauty thing out, we’re not even on the pool table. We’re outside the pool hall. Our God-given aesthetic sense has been dulled by the American spirit of practical, practical, practical, and it needs to be re-awakened so we can be re-attuned to God’s love for beauty.

Perhaps if we keep exposing ourselves to beautiful things, our beauty muscles will grow stronger.

#9. You are what you behold, so don’t be nonchalant about what hangs on your walls.

Oh be careful little eyes what you see.

Oh be careful little eyes what you see.

For the Father up above is looking down with love.

Oh be careful little eyes what you see.

I’ll be brief. You become that which you gaze upon the longest. Your eyes are good your body is good. So be carefully little eyes what you see. If you don’t want to turn into an ugly chunk of cheese, don’t put cheese on your walls.

I will also say that whatever you put on the walls of your church will reinforce your theology and your experience of God, so ask yourself, What do you want your sanctuary to remind people about God.

#10. Beauty is the object of love and all that is beautiful ought, ultimately, lead us to greater love.

On this point I will simply say that all our work as artists should arise from love and result in love, should be commenced in a reception of God’s love and should be made for the sake of loving our neighbor more deeply, whoever the recipient of our work may be.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

On Nightly Repose: 3 Poems

The doctor told me I don't have enough poetry in my system.

My mind is weak, he said. I don't think carefully enough about words, which just fumble around in my head in a really embarrassing way, clogged in my memory, rushing by in flotsam of noise. Words and names and titles to movies escape me and I feel like a dumb old man reaching his hands into a jar of alzheimers when it's not yet his turn.

So I've added a new component to my bed-time routine. As a way to supplement my diet and to reinforce my natural energies, I have decided to take poetry before I go to bed. I need only a little bit of poetry, certainly not a whole dose of four quartets, just one or two in order to slow me down. I need it to teach me again how a bon mot can mean more than I could savor in one sitting.

I need poetry, to be perfectly honest, to save me. I need saving from the benevolent dictatorship of the internet to whom I have given my fealty morning, noon and night, a willing fealty, not forced, for the sake of finding what exactly, I'm never quite sure. The world wide web keeps me clung to my monitor screen so that I can rummange around for things that I don't think I need when I should be under my covers, mouth shut, prayed up.

To my own ruin I love all the internet treats of news and sports and the latest break-ups in Hollywood and the religious views of presidential candidates and the stock prices of my current investments and that story about the astronaut driving across country with a diaper on so she can make like gangbusters to take down a romantic rival, and of course Daniel Radcliffe's naked turn in the play EQUUS.

I've added a pile of poetry pills to my bedside table. Here are three that have followed me around long after I put them down and turned off my light, hoping to think of nothing, hoping that all the racing words in my head would get lost in the dark and give up finally and lie themselves to sleep under the covers of my cerebrum.

The three poems are by Billy Collins (poet laureate, 2001-03), William Cowper (1731-1800, English poet and hymnodist), and Wendell Berry (the Kentucky poet, essayist, and agrarian story-teller).

Billy Collins, "Questions About Angels"

Of all the questions you might want to ask
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.

No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time
besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin
or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth
or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.

Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?

What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes,
their diet of unfiltered divine light?
What goes on inside their luminous heads? Is there a wall
these tall presences can look over and see hell?

If an angel fell off a cloud, would he leave a hole
in a river and would the hole float along endlessly
filled with the silent letters of every angelic word?

If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive
in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume
the appearance of the regular mailman and
whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?

No, the medieval theologians control the court.
The only question you ever hear is about
the little dance floor on the head of a pin
where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.

It is designed to make us think in millions,
billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse
into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one:
one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,
a small jazz combo working in the background.

She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful
eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over
to glance at his watch because she has been dancing
forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.

William Cowper, "The Contrite Heart"

The Lord will happiness divine
On contrite hearts bestow:
Then tell me, gracious God, is mine
A contrite heart, or no?

I hear, but seem to hear in vain,
Insensible as steel;
If ought is felt, 'tis only pain,
To find I cannot feel.

I sometimes think myself inclined
To love thee, if I could;
But often feel another mind,
Averse to all that's good.

My best desires are faint and few,
I fain would strive for more;
But when I cry, My strength renew,
Seem weaker than before.

Thy saints are comforted I know,
And love thy house of prayer;
I therefore go where others go,
But find no comfort there.

O make this heart rejoice, or ache;
Decide this doubt for me;
And if it be not broken, break,
And heal it, if it be.

Wendell Berry, "The Want of Peace"

All goes back to the earth,
and so I do not desire
pride of excess or power,
but the contentments made
by men who have had little:
the fisherman’s silence
receiving the river’s grace,
the gardener’s musing on rows.

I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.