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.

 

My Love-Hate Relationship with the Word of God

Lesa Engelthaler is a fellow member of the Redbud Writers Guild, and her warmth and wisdom were apparent from the very first time we interacted on Facebook. When I got to meet her and her wonderful sister Beth in person earlier this year, I realized afresh – it really is possible to get a true impression of people online sometimes – for her warmth and wisdom overwhelmed me once again. I’m thrilled she’s sharing this today. Thanks, Lesa. And enjoy, friends!

birds-on-wire-1113tm-pic-1017

In junior high school I learned how to have a “quiet time” with God. I brought pen and paper with me to meet with Him. An English geek, in high school I diagramed the bible in my quiet time. I’d copy down a word I found intriguing then madly draw lines to other beautiful words discovered. I felt a kinship with the author of Psalm 119 who declared his love for the word of God, over and over again.

 “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”

“I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil.”

“My tongue will sing of your word, for all your commandments are right.”

Into adulthood, my relationship with God continued through the written word. His words recorded in the Bible – it seemed just for me. Stories of misfits and screw-ups gave me hope. God’s sarcastic wit cracked me up. His blunt questions stripped my soul naked. A lovely turn of phrase or line of poetry took my breath away. In response, I wrote words, a lot of them, to God.

For years, my grown-up version of a quiet time was to plop down in the old chair in front of the window that looks out on to our backyard. After a few sips of coffee I’d open the bible and drink in its words of life to me.

Things Changed

“’Is not my word like fire,’ declares the Lord, ‘and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?’” – the Prophet Jeremiah

Not too long ago, things changed. I could hardly read the bible much less enjoy it. No words circled, mostly sighing.

For three years I went through an experience some describe as a “Dark Night of the Soul.” For me it meant that God said no to most of my requests and then went silent (not the quiet time one hopes for from the Almighty). During that horrific time I became uncomfortable reading God’s words.

At the beginning I continued to read the Bible. It was as much a part of my morning routine as looking at my face in the mirror. Unfortunately, rather than being life giving, the words were deadly. It added new meaning to the bible’s own description of itself, “the word of God is…sharper that any two-edged sword.” It pierced my already wounded soul. The New Testament’s Apostle Paul felt unbearably accusing and I could not stomach God’s harshness in the Old Testament. Eventually I read it less. I remember wondering if I would be okay with never reading it again. I knew people who were.

Things Got Better

 After a few years of darkness, my relationship with God got better. And yet, one of the side effects was a lingering fear of the Bible. My friend Sharon gave me the little book, Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. I started there. It seemed safer to read God, filtered.

No bright lights, and yet with time instead of avoiding it I noticed that I was restless when I stayed away from the Bible. For me, that was a miracle.

This summer, I started reading the book of Acts. Around the third morning I looked down at my scribbled word “chosen” then at the many lines drawn to words like “gift” and “restore.” It was as if I had never before seen such gorgeous words. And I began to cry.

Smack dab in the middle of Acts the desire to want to read the Bible, even more so, to delight in it’s words, was a grace. I told my sister Beth about the experience and she said, “Do you remember that old hymn Wonderful Words of Life?” I said I did.

PS

If you are in a dark place spiritually right now I am so sorry. You are not alone. I wrote about my experience for Leadership Journal, “Growing in the Dark.” I hope it helps.

 I’ve been asked if there were any Scriptures that comforted in the Dark Night. Here are two:

1.) King David’s psalms were safe. One whole summer I camped out in the Psalms of Ascent with the companionship of Eugene Peterson and his grace-filled classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

2.) I stayed awhile when I discovered expressions of honest disappointment with God. I found a home in Lamentations: “You have made me to walk in darkness. Even when I call out for help, he shuts out my prayers. You have covered yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can get through” (Lam. 3:8)

 

Lesa Engelthaler is a Senior Associate for Victory Search Group, assisting nonprofits to recruit executive leaders. Lesa is also a writer for such publications as The Dallas Morning News, Christianity Today, Gifted for Leadership, Relevant, Today’s Christian Woman and Prism. Recently, Lesa started blogging at Faith Village.  Her friends would say that Lesa is passionate about empowering women. For the past several years, she has lead a trip to partner with the House of Hope a nonprofit in Nicaragua helping women escape prostitution. Today, Lesa finds herself completely taken by one small girl — her first grandchild Lucy. You can connect with Lesa (and I heartily recommend that you do!) on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@lesaengelthaler).

If you’re needy and you know it, clap your hands

Perhaps it’s just the mini-van-driving and wheels-of-the-bus-singing stage of life I’m in, but when I read the opening words of Psalm 86: “Hear me, LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy” – the first thing that came to my mind was this:

If you’re needy and you know it, clap your hands.

Friends, I clapped. I have been reading through Caryn Rivedeneira’s lovely little book for weary moms:  Known and Loved: 52 Devotionals from the Psalms, and I settled into the pages one morning and thought about this neediness that I feel almost constantly as a mom. And I’m wondering: maybe one of the hidden blessings of motherhood is becoming aware of this neediness, and learning how to ask for help.

We come into this world utterly dependent on others. Babies rely on their parents for everything. Childhood is the long process of slowly learning independence: beginning with the toddler’s first insistence “me do it!”

Little Mr Independent doesn't want anyone to hold his hands while we walk.

Little Mr Independent doesn’t want anyone to hold his hands while we walk.

Later, they learn to dress themselves, feed themselves, wipe their own butts (oh thank you God!), read to themselves, bathe themselves… and later yet, transport themselves, organize themselves, and to decide for themselves. Our goal as parents is to transition them from dependence to healthy independence. This is maturity.

But maybe there is a second ‘turning’ which marks a new phase of maturity: the transition from independence to learning healthy interdependence. Motherhood, more than anything else, has taught me that. Before I had kids, I felt competent at what I did. I didn’t know everything, but I knew enough to do my job. I had particular skills suited to my particular vocation, and it felt good to be a person skilled enough an independent enough to be the one offering help where help was needed.

But then came a bundle of crying baby: and I couldn’t get her to sleep or to stop crying. I couldn’t make enough milk to feed her, and didn’t even know enough to discern that that was the problem. Taking care of her was my full-time job, and it was a job I felt utterly incompetent to do. I had gone from feeling useful to feeling completely useless, and through sobs confessed to my husband one night, “All I’m supposed to do is the very basics: feed her and get her to sleep… and I can’t even do that!”

It was there, in my sobbing heap of uselessness, that I got a fresh glimpse of God’s grace: his tender love for me even when I had nothing to offer. The neediness of motherhood pulled a new prayer out of me: “Help! I’m drowning!” I learned the old hymn’s words afresh: “nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”

I was needy, and I knew it.

God brought me comfort in the way that 2 Corinthians 1 promised he would: directly with his presence, and indirectly with his love and comfort expressed through others. Having kids taught me that grace didn’t just mean being someone able to offer help, it meant being someone able to ask for, and receive help.

Yes, please hold my baby?

Yes, please would you bring us a meal?

Yes, would you substitute this class for me?

Yes, I’d love it if you could watch them for an hour so I can take a shower.

From dependence to independence. From independence to interdependence. This is maturity.

Yesterday I took my overtired, hangry kids to the grocery store, since we had an Old Mother Hubbard situation in our kitchen. It was a disaster. In the hour it took to locate the contents of a skeleton grocery list, my middle kid needed to use the potty twice and the youngest had a Vesuvian diaper explosion. I wrangled my kids through the store and arrived rather breathlessly at the check-out counter. I paid for our goods and, in the customary way of store clerks, our checker asked politely, “and would you like any help out today?”

I didn’t even hesitate. “Yes, I would. Please. Thank you. Yes, I would.”

All together now: If you’re needy and you know it, clap your hands.

(Clap, Clap)

 

 

 

Big, Brave, Badass Prayers

Please forgive my rude title.  Desperate people need desperate words, and my dictionary says “badass” means 1) tough or aggressive, or 2) formidable, excellent.

I mean it in the first sense, with all the brokenness and bewilderment that I can summon alongside it.

Because this prayer thing? I’m lost.  I’m bewildered and broken, and I’m finding that sometimes that calls for big, brave prayers. Badass prayers, even. Prayers that Psalmists prayed: laments, petitions, cries for deliverance.

It is one thing to pray for pain and brokenness when I am alone. And it is another thing to pray for pain and brokenness when I am in the company of other believers: I have learned the Christian etiquette of praying “thy will be done”. We cover all our bases: praying that things will get better, but then adding “but if they don’t, then please comfort us in our disappointment”.

However, it is another thing altogether to have found myself praying for pain and brokenness this past week in the company of beloved ones who don’t call themselves Christians and who don’t know the “cover all your bases” (by which we mean, cover all God’s bases for Him) type of prayers. To pray about situations with God-sized problems and which need God-sized answers in the hearing of someone who is not sure if God is even listening calls for a kind of faith muscle I’m not accustomed to flexing.  As Rachel Marie Stone insightfully pointed out, maybe it calls for the prayers of the Psalms and other Biblical figures, rather than the prayers of our protestant practice.

Something deep shifted in me, and I found myself praying big, brave prayers for specific relief in specific ways. I asked for huge relief, without adding the fineprint of  “but if you don’t do it…” clauses. And as my words came out loud, these words were whispered in my soul:

woman-praying-silhoutteOh God – SHOW UP here! DO SOMETHING!
Your name and reputation depends on it!
Please, show up, and show you are real and you care.
Stoke my faith, and light theirs into being.
Please, O Lord, Show Up!

I am simultaneously terrified and emboldened. I feel a little of the Psalmists’ pulse: a cry for deliverance, a cry for vindication, an appeal to God’s honor. I’m still praying make it count .  And I’m clinging to Jesus for an Amen.

While you were sleeping

I love to watch my children sleep.

20130821-000640.jpg
After the battles of the will, the chaos of creativity, the pushing and pulling and learning and laughing, the discipline and the nurture, the tantrums and the tears; I love to watch them crumpled in sleepy surrender. Chaos at rest. Tantrums forgotten.

In those stolen moments, with the crack of light from the hallway spilling into the darkened room, I marvel at them. My heart squeezes with protective longing. I feel the fullness of tender care, the delight in their little bodies. I see limbs splayed and fingers uncurled. The feisty fury of the day gives way to frailty and sweetness.

They have no idea how much we love them, and even less idea how much that love allows us to weather their defiance and dependence. They still live in a world where they think cupboards magically restock themselves and laundry fairies find their missing socks.

When they are awake, we are all energy and independence – five people doing the dance of life around each other, giving and taking and talking and being. But when they sleep, the true nature of things is revealed: children being raised, nurtured, protected, sheltered by us. Dependent on us, though they are only dimly aware of it. Adored by us, though they have no idea how much.

Sometimes, as I lie on my pillow about to yield to sleep myself, I imagine God watching me sleep. I imagine him looking on me after a day filled with my pushing and pulling and learning and laughing, after my own tantrums and tears, now crumpled in sleepy surrender.

I imagine his heart filled with tenderness, seeing my true frailty after my feisty fury is spent. He sees my defiance. He knows my dependence. He knows I live in a world where I am only vaguely aware of all He does to sustain and provide.

During the day, I imagine it’s all me, all the time. But at night, I am a sleeping child; His child being raised, nurtured, protected, sheltered by Him.

Dependent on him, though I am only dimly aware of it. Adored by him, though I have no idea how much.

And so, in the half light of my room, just before my eyes finally close, I smile up to my Daddy. He watches while I am sleeping.

Indeed, he who watches over Israel never slumbers or sleeps. (Psalm 121:4)

Father-like He tends and spares us, well our feeble frame he knows (From the Hymn “Praise my Soul, the King of Heaven”, based on Psalm 103)

This post first appeared on 8/19/2013 on the Mothers Council mommy blog.