Friday, August 4, 2017


Writers more profound and talented than I have experienced the mystery of the muse; the feeling one has—when reading over a song or poem or story—of pondering, “Now, where did that come from…” The germ of an idea, the flash of a thought—these may be no mystery, but the spirit that inhabits what began as a skeleton of words: Where did that come from? I believe in the concept of the muse—even if it’s just the hidden firing of brain synapses. But might it be more ephemeral than that? These bits of verse, below (with the exception of the last, which was penned on Sam’s first day), were written before Sam and Violet were born. Yet they serve as a kind of narration for their lives with us today! I like to think that they were my (prophetic? proleptic?) poetic muses! (Along with Anna’s violin!)

1) A few weeks ago, as we were preparing to leave the family cabin and head for home, six-year-old Violet said, “I’m going to go down and say good-by to the creek.”  Her sweet-but-determined resolve to linger a bit took me back a few years, to the time when Violet’s Auntie Anna—then about thirteen—and I had spent a week at the cabin—just the two of us and our dog, Sunny—and were packing the car for our departure. I later reflected on the wistfulness that is always part
of leaving:

Remove all trash and recyclables from under sink.
Make sure all windows are closed and locked.
Check that fireplace is cold to the touch and swept bare.
Rinse out thermos, but first
take a last cup of coffee and
walk down to the creek where it all began,
where it all begins each time: the valley and the day,
to that flat rock where Tom used to like to hold forth
with a glass of wine.
Go back to the porch, to the piles of suitcases and guitars,
laundry and tattered books—
the open tailgate waiting at the bottom of the stairs.
Visualize the cargo space: a place for everything,
though everything will end up out of place when the dogs
scramble inside in terror of being left behind in paradise.
Before packing it away, ask Anna to take out her violin:
"Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" sounding up the valley
one more time.
Lock gate securely behind you.

2) On a recent eighty-nine degree day, nine-and-a-half-year-old Sam expressed that age-old epiphany: “Hey! When it’s cold, we want it to be hot, and when it’s hot, we want it to be cold!” Here’s how I wrote it for my third-graders, in my teaching days. (Yes, I was once a teacher!)

It’s three below January,
I’m wrapped to my eyes
in cotton and goose-down and wool.
I look like a beach ball
about twice my size,
or a pillow that’s stuffed much too full.

And speaking of beach balls –
It seems I recall
a season of summer and fun,
when the ice comes in root beer
in glasses this tall!
And the sand is as warm as the sun.

July in the nineties!
I’m hot as a spark
of the charcoal that glows in the grill.
I hope it gets cooler
tonight when it’s dark,
but I really don’t think that it will.

And speaking of darkness –
It would be so nice
to wake up to winter and snow,
and run in the whiteness
and slide on the ice,
and tell the old wind it can blow!

3) When Sam was one day old, I was already looking forward to the day we would read The Lord of the Rings together. Which we just did!

It was this boy that I prayed for and the Lord has granted what I asked.
Now I make him over to the Lord….  ~1 Samuel 1:27-28

Samuel, I dedicate you to the Lord.
Your kooky little cap even looks like
one a prophet (or a wizard) would wear.
Though the biblical Sam wasn’t so much
a prophet as he was a wild west sheriff
trying to keep the peace between the mob
and a God who could blow at any minute.
So God made Samuel a maker of kings.
(Like Gandalf lifting up Aragorn’s crown:
Another Holy Book waiting for us!)
Lawmen and wizards and cowboys and kings:
Someday you’ll play all these wonderful things.
     But now, little prophet, your visions must keep
     as mommy and daddy rock Sammy to sleep.


Sam today. Maybe my next poem will be
inspired by crayfish!

Violet and Daddy. Down by the creek.

Saturday, May 13, 2017


Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God… (1 John 4:7)

I like to remember, this time of year, that Mother's Day is not simply one of those “Hallmark holidays,” an occasion manufactured for the selling of cards. Mother's Day has an honorable history of development from a proclamation of Julia Ward Howe in 1870 in which she calls upon mothers to help deliver their sons and husbands from the ravages of war and for all mothers to dedicate themselves to finding non-violent means for nations to settle their conflicts. So much for Apple Pie…

This tradition is important and instructive for us, because it lifts up the life-giving and life-saving role of mothers in the life of the world.  In fact, it occurs to me that if Mother's Day were on the liturgical calendar of the Church (which it is not), its Old Testament reading could be Isaiah 66:13, where God says, “As one is comforted by a mother, so I will comfort you.” In what we Christians call “the scriptures,” the truth of God’s saving relationship with us is most often delivered as metaphor, and here in Isaiah the metaphor of a mother’s love is invoked to describe nothing less than the love of God.

The description of a loving father, a loving mother, a loving parent is one of the most frequently used pictures in the Bible.  Jesus describes himself as a mother hen, and he tells the story of a father—waiting longingly for a rebellious son’s homecoming—to teach us what God is like. Jesus calls God abba, which is not just “father,” but “daddy.” And Isaiah speaks of God as our loving, comforting mother.

If we put these pictures and metaphors together, I believe we can transpose the message of John’s first letter—cited above—to read, “Love is from Mom.” Since what John actually writes is, “Love is from God,” that might sound a little flippant, or a little cute, but it reminds us that we have a God whose love for us is not just that of a father, but of Daddy; not just a mother, but “Mom.”

This side of heaven, where we look at ultimate things through what St. Paul calls a “clouded window,” we have no more complete illustration of the graciousness of God’s unconditional love for us than that of a parent for a child. And, okay, on Mother’s Day, let’s say a mother for a child.

When a mother first holds her newborn or newly adopted baby in her arms, she does not say, “As soon as you grow up and become the person I want you to be, then I will love you.” She does not say, “In those times when you are good, then I will love you.” We know what she says: “I love you – just the way you are – just because you’re my child!”

I believe this is the image that is intended in the Bible’s use of father and mother for God. Not the stern taskmaster, but a parent of unconditional love whose life is devoted to the child.

Certainly whenever we use this picture – this metaphor – of God as a loving mother, we need to acknowledge that for some the picture doesn’t seem to register--those for whom a Mother’s Day is a day of loss or painful remembrance. I have not been in that place; but whatever our own personal experience may be, let us know that the reason the Bible uses the picture in the first place is that God is love, and Love is from God. And God loves all children in a way that serves as a model for all mothers and fathers.

Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe a Mom’s love serves as a model for God! If Mom is chatting on the sidewalk with a friend, and her two-year-old wanders into the street, and Mom sees a car bearing down on him, Mom doesn’t step back and say, “Well, he’s been pretty naughty lately….” We know what Mom does: Without a second’s hesitation she hurls herself into the street and throws her child to safety. Even if… ….   What’s more, she’d do the same thing for her mouthy fourteen-year-old who isn’t as cute anymore!

Jesus assures us that God does, indeed love us just as we are, and the way God saves his – her – beloved children from sin and death is by standing between them and that deathly power (in the event the Church calls “the cross”), just as any parent would throw herself into the path of that car to save her child. A love that is unconditional and doesn’t stop to calculate whether the child “deserves” to be saved or not. Love is from Mom.


Caryl's mother, Olive, and my mother, Vi. A couple of fiercely loving Moms!
(I see a dazed look in the eyes of these two good men--our Dads.)

~ ~ ~

The other day I
…found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
A word that sent me into a past
where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that's what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I , in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

                                                                                 ~Billy Collins, “The Lanyard”

~ ~ ~

To My Mother

I was your rebellious son,
do you remember? Sometimes
I wonder if you do remember,
so complete has your forgiveness been.

So complete has your forgiveness been
I wonder sometimes if it did not
precede my wrong, and I erred,
safe found, within your love,

prepared ahead of me, the way home,
or my bed at night, so that almost
I should forgive you, who perhaps
foresaw the worst that I might do,

and forgave before I could act,
causing me to smile now, looking back,
to see how paltry was my worst,
compared to your forgiveness of it

already given. And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed. 

                                   ~Wendell Berry

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

TO BE KNOWN BY NAME... An Easter Meditation

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside the tomb... She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!”   ~from the Easter gospel of John 20:1-18

My favorite professor at the seminary – and the favorite of many – was Gerhard Frost, of blessed memory. He was a man of inner strength and outward gentleness. One day early in that school year we met each other out walking in the seminary neighborhood. I was one of dozens, if not hundreds, of new students he had that semester alone – not to mention all the semesters stretching back through the years – and we had not had much conversation beyond the teacher-student exchange in the classroom.

What I remember about that casual meeting on the sidewalk almost fifty years ago is how badly he wanted to call me by my name. I could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice, until, with a sort of defeated sigh, he apologized as he asked for my name. Later, we became neighbors, colleagues, and friends, and I am proud to say that, to his dying day, Gerhard knew my name!

It’s an odd recollection, I know, remembering--all these years later--how someone wanted to say my name. But Gerhard Frost knew that one of the most deeply meaningful gifts we can give one another is to be called by name. It is, in fact, a godly gift. “I have called you by name,” says God in Isaiah, “you are mine.”

Baptism is sometimes called Christening – “a naming.” In infant baptism, the parents give their child her god-name, and they say, “God has called you by name, you belong to God. We have called you by name, you are ours.” In the Bible, to name is to know deeply.  “I know my sheep, and my sheep know me,” says Jesus.

I sometimes tell my confirmation kids that one way to understand why we don’t want to “take God’s name in vain” is to reflect on how none of likes to have our own name made fun of, or used to hurt or ridicule. And that silly old line, “Your mama wears combat boots,” whatever it means, means very little about combat boots, but it’s my mother’s name you’re deriding! (There is nothing so common, that is at the same time so uniquely treasured, as the name “Mom.”)

When I was five years old, my dad was taken away by ambulance in the middle of the night, with what turned out to be a burst brain aneurism. I don’t know if the doctors there in the Huron, South Dakota hospital stemmed the flow, or if it ceased on its own, but he was stabilized in preparation to be taken to St. Mary's in Rochester. Just before that departure, the doctors told our mom that Barby and Betty and little Bobby and I could come in briefly and say hi to Dad. But Mom had to tell us what the doctors told her: “He may not know you.”  

Perhaps it’s my earliest memory—the door opens into the darkened room, my dad, his head swathed in bandages, opens his eyes and says, “Hi, Dicky.”

I wonder if to be known is what it means to be fully alive. It is certainly at the heart of what it means to be loved.

Has a name ever been said with more gentle preciousness than there in the tomb garden? Mary is beside herself with grief and loss. Blinded by her sorrow at the unspeakable events she has witnessed, she doesn’t know Jesus. But he knows her. And he calls her by name. “Mary.”

We may not know, but God knows. And God knows us. This deep knowing allows us to be fully who we are. Like the toddler who—becoming himself—says, “I do it… I do it.” And of course he must do it – with Mommy and Daddy standing by. The ones who named him. Who will let him wander but never let him go. “I have called you by name, you are mine.”
A servant-girl, seeing Peter in the firelight, stared at him and said,
“This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I
do not know the man!"  ~Luke 22
The most profound thing about the story of Peter’s sad denial of his friend Jesus is not the part where Jesus tells Peter, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times,” or even Peter’s bitter tears when he hears that cock-crow in the lonesome distance. It is what Jesus said to Peter in the same breath with which he had predicted his denial: “...But, Peter, when you have come to yourself, you must turn and strengthen the others.” And he did! And he did. Jesus knew who Peter was. He knew him. Did this knowing help to make Peter who he was?

The tragic undercutting of the Gospel’s message—from the very beginning—has been the small-minded pronouncement that the Christian life is a matter of fearfully keeping a set of rules—even commandments—rather than what it is: A declaration of identity; belonging. The great guide for living will never be rules. (How good would we have to be?....) Or what is sometimes called “religion.” Or fear. (“Do not be afraid” is one of the most frequent assurances given to us in the scriptures.) It is identity: “Remember who you are.” “I know my sheep, and my sheep know me.” “I have called you by name, you are mine.” “Mary.” “Dicky.”

And if we turn our eyes to the cosmos—if we feel, in the words of the song, that “we’re lost out here in the stars”—our faith is in a God who is big enough—and small enough – to know us each by name.

Terry Waite was held hostage in Lebanon for nearly five years—one of the longest of that 1980s hostage crisis period. He was in solitary confinement for the whole five years, blindfolded, and alone. After he was released, he said, “For most of that time I didn’t even know where I was, but I knew that God knew where I was, and that was enough.”

The empty tomb of Easter means nothing without the cross. The cross means that God knows – God knows – your loss, your tears, your highest hopes, your deepest fears. And who you are.



Thanks to son-in-law Joel for telling me about the marvelous painting, "The Denial of Peter" (above), c. 1623, by Gerrit van Honthorst, which is in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

I tried to find an equally compelling painting of Mary and Jesus in the tomb garden. This anonymous early twentieth century illustration (top) doesn't quite do it. Mary Magdalene, although something of a woman of mystery, is very much her own person in the gospels. In John's account, just before Jesus says her name, she has given him a piece of her mind when she thinks he's "the gardener" who has taken Jesus' body away! You can get a sense of this by reading the whole account in John 20:1-18.

My dad was in St. Mary's (Mayo) for nine weeks. After the doctors had suggested to my uncle that he should prepare my mom for the end of Dad's life--they saved him! They gave us forty more years of Dad! I breathe a prayer of thanks for this every time I climb the stairs at St. Mary's entrance to make a pastoral visit.