God, Thou Art Love (Robert Browning)

God thou art love

God Thou Art Love

If I forget,
Yet God remembers! If these hands of mine
Cease from their clinging, yet the hands divine
Hold me so firmly that I cannot fall;
And if sometimes I am too tired to call
For Him to help me, then He reads the prayer
Unspoken in my heart, and lifts my care.

I dare not fear, since certainly I know
That I am in God’s keeping, shielded so
From all that else would harm, and in the hour
Of stern temptation strengthened by His power;
I tread no path in life to Him unknown;
I lift no burden, bear no pain, alone:
My soul a calm, sure hiding-place has found:
The everlasting arms my life surround.

God, Thou art love! I build my faith on that.
I know Thee who has kept my path, and made
Light for me in the darkness, tempering sorrow
So that it reached me like a solemn joy;
It were too strange that I should doubt Thy love.

by Robert Browning
illustrated by Corrie Haffly

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It’s Thanksgiving in the USA today: my favorite of the American holidays. Today, as on thanksgivings past, this day is attended by worries, but in the midst of it: we breathe our thanks.

Above all, I am thankful to be held in the hands of a good and faithful God. I don’t know how I would cope with the fear, injustice, uncertainty and evil in the world. To know that “I tread no path in life to Him unknown” makes all the difference.

I am more thankful for God sending Jesus than anything else this Thanksgiving, and every other day, too. He makes all the difference: I have known his light to “find me in the darkness, tempering sorrow so that it reached me like a solemn joy”. I hope you have, too.

 

This Is Just To Say (William Carlos Williams)

plums

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold
by William Carlos Williams,”This Is Just to Say” from The Collected Poems: Volume I, 1909-1939
illustrated by Corrie Haffly

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This poem is in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, the hefty tome I bought for my first year English class at university, and which still sits on my shelf. I remember first reading this poem at school, and wondering “how is this a poem? If you just wrote it in a sentence—without the short lines and stanza breaks—it would be a run-of-the-mill post-it note.”

And yet, twenty years later, I still remembered this poem (although strangely, I remembered it being about peaches, not plums), and I still think of it from time to time if I grab the last piece of fruit from the bowl and wonder if someone else had their eye on it.

But it does raise the question: what makes poetry poetry?

Idiot Psalms (Scott Cairns)

Idiot Psalms

Idiot Psalms

1   
       A psalm of Isaak, accompanied by Jew’s harp.
O God Belovéd if obliquely so, 
                     dimly apprehended in the midst 
                     of this, the fraught obscuring fog   
                     of my insufficiently capacious ken,   
                     Ostensible Lover of our kind—while 
                     apparently aloof—allow 
                     that I might glimpse once more 
                     Your shadow in the land, avail 
                     for me, a second time, the sense 
                     of dire Presence in the pulsing 
                     hollow near the heart.   
Once more, O Lord, from Your enormity incline 
                     your Face to shine upon Your servant, shy 
                     of immolation, if You will. 
                                     2   
       A psalm of Isaak, accompanied by baying hounds.
O Shaper of varicolored clay and cellulose, O Keeper 
                     of same, O Subtle Tweaker, Agent 
                     of energies both appalling and unobserved,   
                     do not allow Your servant’s limbs to stiffen 
                     or to ossify unduly, do not compel Your servant   
                     to go brittle, neither cramping at the heart,   
                     nor narrowing his affective sympathies 
                     neither of the flesh nor of the alleged soul. 
Keep me sufficiently limber that I might continue 
                     to enjoy my morning run among the lilies   
                     and the rowdy waterfowl, that I might 
                     delight in this and every evening’s intercourse   
                     with the woman you have set beside me. 
Make me to awaken daily with a willingness 
                     to roll out readily, accompanied 
                     by grateful smirk, a giddy joy,   
                     the idiot’s undying expectation,   
                     despite the evidence. 
                                     3 
       A psalm of Isaak, whispered mid the Philistines, beneath the breath.
Master both invisible and notoriously   
                     slow to act, should You incline to fix   
                     Your generous attentions for the moment 
                     to the narrow scene of this our appointed 
                     tedium, should You—once our kindly 
                     secretary has duly noted which of us 
                     is feigning presence, and which excused, which unexcused, 
                     You may be entertained to hear how much we find to say 
                     about so little. Among these other mediocrities, 
                     Your mediocre servant gets a glimpse of how 
                     his slow and meager worship might appear 
                     from where You endlessly attend our dreariness. 
Holy One, forgive, forgo and, if You will, fend off   
                     from this my heart the sense that I am drowning here   
                     amid the motions, the discussions, the several 
                     questions endlessly recast, our paper ballots. 
                                     4   
       Isaak’s penitential psalm, unaccompanied.
Again, and yes again, O Ceaseless Tolerator 
                     of our bleaking recurrences, O Forever Forgoing   
                     Foregone (sans conclusion), O Inexhaustible, 
                     I find my face against the floor, and yet again 
                     my plea escapes from unclean lips, and from a heart 
                     caked in and constricted by its own soiled residue. 
You are forever, and forever blessed, and I aspire 
                     one day to slip my knot and change things up, 
                     to manage at least one late season sinlessly, 
                     to bow before you yet one time without chagrin.
by Scott Cairns: Poetry (January 2009).
illustrated by Corrie Haffly

***********

I first heard this poem spoken by Cairns himself at the Festival of Faith and Writing last year. I had never heard of Cairns, or the Idiot Psalms, and didn’t know what to expect. At first: it seemed snarky and pretentious, but then it began to hit uncomfortably close to home,

…. and I think: yes, this is no doubt how I sometimes pray, too. I start off self-important, asking for placations and blessings and if God would please just keep me comfortable. But, if I stay there long enough, at some point I become more aware of Him, aware that I’m rambling and asking for the wrong things, and in the wrong way. These lines stuck out to me in particular:

You may be entertained to hear how much we find to say 
                     about so little. Among these other mediocrities, 
                     Your mediocre servant gets a glimpse of how 
                     his slow and meager worship might appear 
                     from where You endlessly attend our dreariness. 
Holy One, forgive, forgo and, if You will, fend off   
                     from this my heart the sense that I am drowning here   
                     amid the motions.
I pray my own idiot psalms too, sometimes. And I am grateful that the Holy One who “endlessly attends our dreariness” is patient, loving, and knows we are little and young and self-absorbed, and yet he loves us still.

 

As The Ruin Falls (CS Lewis)

as the ruin falls

As The Ruin Falls

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love –a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek–
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains. 

by CS Lewis
illustration by Corrie Haffly

***************

I don’t feel competent or qualified to comment on most any of the poems I’ve shared this month, least of all one by CS Lewis.

But, these two thoughts come to mind:

  1. Like CS Lewis, God worked through the Anglican liturgy profoundly to shape my faith, and there is something for me in about starting worship in confession which focuses my attention on the magnitude of God’s grace. That Lewis starts with a recognition and confession of his own self-centeredness (and imprisonment in it) resonates deeply with me.
  2. “the pains you give me are more precious than all other gains”…. I see this poem as Lewis’ Philippians 3 proclamation: “I consider everything rubbish (crap!) compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus.” For once we start to appreciate what it means to know Him, only then can we bless him as the ruins fall.

Kaleidoscope (Helen Wieger)

kaleideoscope

Kaleidoscope

There is this beautiful deep down
         that is real
            whole
            beautiful
    like the kaleidoscope

you have broken parts
          raw edges
          needs
            of stays,
            stability

Quaking, shifting, shaking
    deep down
      who are you
      this shape emerging
      new
    yet always there

by Helen Wieger

Illustration by Corrie Haffly

******

Two years ago was my 20th high school reunion: an unexpected opportunity to revisit my teen-self and also reconnect with some girls I had known then. It is a rare thing to get a time-lapse glimpse of yourself and others; to note the continuity and discontinuity in us all. For of course, we are the same people we always were—I am recognizably the 16-year old Bronwyn they knew—and yet we have all changed so much.

Helen’s kaleidoscope poem captured something of this mystery for me.

 

 

If (Rudyard Kipling)

If

 

If

If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, 
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, 
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, 
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, 
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise: 
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster 
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken 
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, 
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, 
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools: 
If you can make one heap of all your winnings 
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, 
And lose, and start again at your beginnings 
    And never breathe a word about your loss; 
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew 
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you 
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’ 
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, 
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, 
    If all men count with you, but none too much; 
If you can fill the unforgiving minute 
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
by Rudyard Kipling,  A Choice of Kipling’s Verse (1943)
illustration by Corrie Haffly

******************

Confession: I had never read this poem before this week. (Did I mention I was scared of poetry and, unless it was in my English curriculum in High School or shared with me by a poetry loving friend, I have not read it?)

But in a way I’m glad: because this poem means so much to me now and I think I would have thought it trite as a teenager. But now, in the stark daylight of adulthood when we have felt the temptation to be mastered by our dreams, where we’ve faced some triumph and disaster and seen how it shines light on our souls, where we have had our words twisted (or twisted those of others), where we have rued the waste of that unforgiving minute more times than we can remember, where we have seen those around us lose their head in times of stress…

          …. now I see. And I so want this maturity–this Christlikeness—both for me and my children.

Staying Power (Jeanne Murray Walker)

phone

Staying Power

In appreciation of Maxim Gorky at the International Convention of Atheists, 1929

Like Gorky, I sometimes follow my doubts   
outside to the yard and question the sky,   
longing to have the fight settled, thinking   
I can’t go on like this, and finally I say   
all right, it is improbable, all right, there   
is no God. And then as if I’m focusing   
a magnifying glass on dry leaves, God blazes up.   
It’s the attention, maybe, to what isn’t there   
that makes the emptiness flare like a forest fire   
until I have to spend the afternoon dragging   
the hose to put the smoldering thing out.   
Even on an ordinary day when a friend calls,   
tells me they’ve found melanoma,   
complains that the hospital is cold, I say God.   
God, I say as my heart turns inside out.   
Pick up any language by the scruff of its neck,   
wipe its face, set it down on the lawn,   
and I bet it will toddle right into the godfire   
again, which—though they say it doesn’t   
exist—can send you straight to the burn unit.   
Oh, we have only so many words to think with.   
Say God’s not fire, say anything, say God’s   
a phone, maybe. You know you didn’t order a phone,   
but there it is. It rings. You don’t know who it could be.   
You don’t want to talk, so you pull out   
the plug. It rings. You smash it with a hammer   
till it bleeds springs and coils and clobbery   
metal bits. It rings again. You pick it up   
and a voice you love whispers hello.
by Jeanne Murray Walker, Source: Poetry (May 2004)
illustration by Corrie Haffly

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My friend Aleah sent me this poem. It took her breath away when she first heard it, and it it did mine when I read it.