Monday, October 29, 2012

Eye of the Camel

Is there a slow renunciation,
drop by drop a long oblation,
without a hope of consecration--
without the treasures of the poor?

Can there be a long slow threading,
full with waiting, long with dreading,
camel's eye each tear-drop shedding--
without the treasures of the poor?

The choosing must be swift, complete,
though stiff and slow may be the feet
which we compel to seek the sweet
rich treasures of the poor.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A meditation on Mark 10

Good master, grant us what we ask, though blind,
and grant us not to see until you heal
and open up our eyes that we may find
the space to enter--only if we kneel--
into the sharply pointed binding truth;
but hear us now, poor camels, blind, uncouth.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


After the echoes
of the sleek white floors
the disinfected smells
and the semi-rhythmic beeps
have melted in a blur of sliding glass
and you are standing on the sidewalk
blinking at the snap-dragons
and decorative grasses
around a round-a-bout
where a car is waiting
for you
although (like grief)
spring comes and goes
too soon
you cannot help
but start to feel
that you
might after all
be something that's alive.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Robert Frost: The Tuft of Flowers

Yesterday I poked around Bible Gateway a bit, trying to trace the history of that unexpectedly delightful word choice in the CEB.  As far as I can tell, the only other major translation to use the word "passion" in this context is the NLT.  (Interestingly, this word choice did not originate in Kenneth Taylor's original Living Bible, which uses the milder word "concern.")

I'm pretty sure that the word "passion" isn't going to connect the dots for anyone who isn't already thinking about the crucifixion, and for anyone who is... well... "zeal" works just fine, as does "fervor."  This bit of poetic loveliness serves no practical purpose; it's not going to change anyone's understanding of the text.  It is simply and solely a wordsmith's quiet act of worship, and coming along behind, it's a privilege to enter into that joy.

All this reminded me of Frost's poem about the unseen mower...

The Tuft of Flowers

by Robert Frost

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the leveled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’

But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a ’wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Hidden treasure in the Common English Bible

It absolutely made my day to read John 2 in the CEB.  "Passion for your house consumes me."

Passion.  It's a good word.  A nice, strong, ordinary word that means roughly the same thing as the archaic anglicized Greek word  "zeal."  As such, it's a solid translation choice.

But it's more than that.  In a subtle, quiet, inconspicuous way, it's also brilliant.

I don't know about you, but when I think of "the zeal of Christ," I think about the cleansing of the temple.  When I think of "the passion of Christ," though, something else comes to mind. The same thing, in fact, that came to the disciples' minds.

The Psalm John quotes isn't just about a passion that consumes him internally, but rather about a passion that consumes him externally--a passion that attracts persecution. The psalmist's enemies sought to destroy him precisely because of his fervor for God's house, and the same was true for Jesus.

John's account of the temple cleansing is a puzzle for harmonizers of the gospels.  In the synoptics, the temple cleansing comes at the end--the last straw that finally gets him crucified.  John tells this story near the beginning of Jesus' ministry, right after the wedding at Cana. 

Here's the strange thing, though:  in John's gospel--the one gospel that doesn't chronologically link this event with the crucifixion--the whole point is that this action got him crucified.  The synoptics draw out the reasons why Jesus was angry, the cheating and the disruption.  John leaves all that tacit, though, and simply talks about Christ's death and resurrection.  "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again."

I suppose that it's logically possible that Jesus cleansed the temple twice--but given the unique focus of John's account, I read the temple cleansing as a careful and intentional flash-forward.  I suspect that John assumes that his readers are already familiar with the chronological placement of this event, and he wants them to understand the wedding at Cana (" hour has not yet come...") in light of that context. Even the heavily time-laden transition between between the two scenes is richest when read as a reference to the brevity of Jesus' entire earthly ministry.  Jesus stayed present in Capernaum with his mothers and brothers and disciples, but not for many days, because the passover of the Jews--the Passover of the Jews--was near at hand.

Be all that as it may, it's clear that one way or another, when John talks about Jesus' passion in 2:17, he also wants us to be thinking about His Passion.  It delights me that there would be a single English word that could simultaneously refer to the one concept, and hauntingly suggest the other.  I'm not sure which delights me more--the lovely serendipity of language, or the sense of kinship with the modernday disciple-wordsmith who recognized "passion" as exactly the right word for that spot.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


Like so many grains of sand
the little lights to mark the times
have slipped through the glass one by one.

Tonight I will number the stars,
divide them among my children,
and look back on ages spent.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Christina Rossetti and the humor of tragedy

I've been mulling over the serious power of humor lately, ever since hearing Tig Notaro's amazing comedy set on This American Life.  Just to warn you, the other segments of the show aren't necessarily for the faint of heart, but the Tig Notaro part comes first, and it is precisely for the faint of heart.  It's for those of us who need a little bit of encouragement and help in order to look pain square in the face, and live well anyway.

Somehow I always thought that humor was for "cheering up" and for distraction.  It certainly can be, and that's fine, but it's not the highest or most important use of humor. The best humor, as it turns out, is all about courage and truth.

And now for a sobering little funny from Christina Rossetti:

A handy mole who plied no shovel
To excavate his vaulted hovel,
While hard at work met in mid-furrow
An Earthworm boring out his burrow.
Our mole had dined, and must grow thinner
Before he gulped a second dinner,
And on no other terms cared he
To meet a worm of low degree.
 The worm turned on his blindest eye
Passing the base mechanic by;
The Worm entrenched in actual blindness
Ignored or kindness or unkindness;
Each wrought his own exclusive tunnel
To reach his own exclusive funnel.

A plough its flawless track pursuing
Involved them in one common ruin.
Where now the mine and countermine,
The dined on and the one to dine?
The impartial ploughshare of extinction
Anulled them all without distinction.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


Wait, when you wish with the tigers so wet
to swim with the sure sweet strokes of the sun
that streak down soft as a song when they set;
with the sleek stripes of fire in the sky you will run,
you will run, but not yet, oh my pet, you must wait.

Wait, while the snow melts like stars streaking down,
silently now in the light-drenched rain;
plant yourself deep in the velvety brown
decaying of leaves 'til the pure and the plain
light of truth will sprout green, inexplicable, sure--
until then, oh my child, you must wait.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Emily Dickinson: LXIII

I love the way Dickinson's rich and elusive sound-play drives me to experience this poem in the same way as she experiences the nature imagery. Her rhyme scheme is simultaneously so intense and so free, I can't help but pause to reflect on those phrases that came before which might (or might not) have rhymed.

The exquisite fusion of form and content makes this poem yet one more of those joys beyond hope.


by Emily Dickinson

A something in a summer's day,
As slow her flambeaux burn away,
Which solemnizes me.

A something in a summer's noon,--
An azure depth, a wordless tune,
Transcending ecstasy.

And still within a summer's night
A something so transporting bright,
I clap my hands to see;

Then veil my too inspecting face,
Lest such a subtle, shimmering grace
Flutter too far for me.

The wizard-fingers never rest,
The purple brook within the breast
Still chafes its narrow bed;

Still rears the East her amber flag,
Guides stil the sun along the crag
His caravan of red,

Like flowers that heard the tale of dews,
But never deemed the dripping prize
Awaited their low brows;

Or bees, that thought the summer's name
Some rumor of delirium
No summer could for them;

Or Arctic creature, dimly stirred
By tropic hint,--some traveled bird
Imported to the wood;

Or wind's bright signal to the ear,
Making that homely and severe,
Contented, known, before

The heaven unexpected came,
To lives that thought their worshipping
A too presumptuous psalm.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

2 Cor. 11

Not of soaring visions, but the boards,
splintered and broken from the ruined ship
to which you clung--boast; and of the cords
that bound and lashed, the crowning thorns that rip
your flesh, the sword that wounds your side;
boast but in grace, and in that grace abide.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Longfellow: The Rainy Day

This was the poem that first taught me that poetry could matter.  I'd admired and enjoyed poetry before, and had used poetry to express my feelings, but when I stumbled upon The Rainy Day in my seventh grade literature textbook, I discovered something entirely different.

Longfellow understood exactly how I felt, and he said it better than I could have--but he wasn't me.  He was somebody else entirely.  As it turns out, teenage angst and middle-aged angst aren't so different after all.  The main difference is just that middle-agers tend to have a better idea of what to do with their angst.  As a teenager, I profoundly needed middle-aged poetry.

Longfellow took his/my feelings seriously... but not too seriously.  Much less seriously than I was inclined to take them.  He earned the right to tell me to snap out of it, and then he did so.  And then I could.  It's (almost) as simple as that.

These days, there are many poems that I admire and enjoy more, but this one holds a special place in my heart, as the poem that taught me what poems are for.  Poetry is that space where reason and emotion--and for that matter, teenaged girls and wise souls from other centuries--can sit down together and really understand one another.

And that's something that matters.

The Rainy Day

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

a new creation

a time for darkness, and a time for light;
into this work you poured your works,
dividing heaven's waters from the sea,
gathering the seas to bring forth land.

you sang time's spheres, then the doves of the air
the fish of the sea and the serpents of the deep,
then all the things that move upon the land,
and we your creatures, void without your light.

three days you made the heavens and the earth
in three days more you filled them to the brim.

fanged cherub hissed triumphant from the tree;
but in three days you built it all again.

there was evening and there was morning,
bright bless'd third day that also was the first.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


In the space between the heart and the brain
between the sinuous flesh of the brain and the rocky skull
and between all this and the mind
where the yielding and curvacious waves
break and are broken
break and are broken
she must break and be broken

From the beginning it was not so.

Still, my soul, between the heart and the mind
must silently wait beneath the wind,
pulsing with the beat of the dove's winged breath
that breaks and is broken
breaks and is broken
I must break and be broken
to live.