Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A MERRY COWBOY CHRISTMAS

For the last few years -- off and on -- my friend Warren and I have collaborated in a Christmas carol project. I write the lyrics and he writes the music. We've produced six or eight of them, and it's a lot of fun. (You can order a CD of these and other original carols from Warren's web site, here.)


Here's one I started a few years ago, but I haven't submitted it to War because I don't think it's really a carol. (I'm not sure what it is.) For now, as here in the midwest we await a great blizzard, it's my blog Christmas card and a prayer that all travelers make it safely home:


It had been the wrong time to be heading for town,
with the wind coming up and the snow coming down;
but, then, it was Christmas, it’d been a lean year –
and he wouldn’t let weather or a few wind-whipped tears
keep him from playing the Santa Claus fool….
Now he’s tryin’ to beat winter back home.

The drift was too high for the old pick-up truck,
so he’d saddled up Star and whistled for luck,
whistled “God Rest Ye” right into the gale,
but the only sound heard on the wind’s lonesome wail
was one little bell he had tied to the mane
of the pony before leaving home.

That dress in the window – he’d been just in time.
The toy at the dime store – he’d waited in line.
Everything closing – the roads piling deep,
still twenty miles – he hopes they’re asleep.
(Though he wished he had told her he was out here alone –
that he’s trying to make it back home).

Gifts of the magi in two saddle bags –
but this wise man’s just lost his way.
The sound of a little bell over the wind.
Will this cowboy be home Christmas Day?

Now the pony’s ahead and he’s fallen behind;
he stumbles in snowdrifts and prays for the sign
of those first Christmas cowboys who, lost in the night,
followed a star to the birth of the light.
As he falls, there’s a bell, and the warmth of the breath
of a pony to lead him back home.

And all he remembers, on each Christmas Eve,
is the feel of his cold fingers making a weave
in the pony’s warm mane – he was too weak to ride
but hung on for dear life at that dear pony’s side –
Then: a light in the window, the cry of a child,
the arms of a woman, and home.

Gifts of the magi in two saddle bags.
A wise man who can’t find his way.
The sound of a little bell over the wind,
and daddy is home Christmas Day.

And a pony named Star led the way.


© 2009, Richard L. Jorgensen


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

CARGOES OF DIAMONDS, EMERALDS, AND... SNIPPING SNOPPERS?

In Thich Nhat Hanh's "The Miracle of Mindfulness," the author suggests a simple exercise: Each morning upon rising, sit comfortably at the edge of your bed, close your eyes, inhale deeply and exhale, and then slowly form a half-smile. (You can do this now, sitting on your chair.) It has been my experience that, not only is it nearly impossible to stop at a half-smile, during the process (as the smile triggers muscles in the whole face) the brain becomes infused with the feeling of well-being associated with a smile. The mind follows the physical leading of the body.

I experience a similar mind-body connection when I read John Masefield's "Cargoes." Usually when reading a poem out loud one tries to avoid the sing-song rhythm and artificial line endings in order to read it "for meaning." With this poem, however, the rhythm cries out for emphasis, and carries the reader along. It's as though a deeper meaning of this poem is in the rhythm itself. It's fun to read, and it has an effect something like that hard-to-control half-smile.

   Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
   Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
   With a cargo of ivory,
   And apes and peacocks,
   Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

   Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
   Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
   With a cargo of diamonds,
   Emeralds, amethysts,
   Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

   Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke-stack,
   Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
   With a cargo of Tyne coal,
   Road-rails, pig-lead,
   Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

The drum-beat of the poem builds from the mysteriously dignified and majestic "quinquereme" with its ivory and peacocks, slows slightly to examine a proud galleon full of diamonds and emeralds and accelerates near the end with a "dirty British coaster" that sounds like a cousin of Little Toot. By the time you get to the last line you're marching knees-up as though in a child's parade, and you want to clap those "cheap tin trays" together like cymbals!

There's a very interesting English-professor discussion of the meaning of this poem here, but, come on, meaning-schmeaning. This is word-play! I'd love to have a brightly illustrated version of this poem to read with my grandson. It would be as much fun as Dr. Seuss, who pulls not just a smile but a full laugh out of me every time I read

   ...snip with snippers! Nip with nippers!
   Clip and clop with clapping clippers.
   Nip and snip with clipping cloppers!
   Snip and snop with snipping snoppers!

Now, can I really go from Masefield to Seuss to Wordsworth? Yes, I can. One of the most beautiful stanzas in the language (it's in Wordsworth's ode to "Lucy") is moving not just because it's beautiful -- but because it, well, moves in us.

   The stars of midnight shall be dear
   To her; and she shall lean her ear
   In many a secret place
   Where rivulets dance their wayward round,
   And beauty born of murmuring sound
   Shall pass into her face.

The genius of Wordsworth's combination of rhyme, meter, alliteration, and spot-on word choice produces a sound just like water tumbling softly over rocks, and causes the rivulets that dance around Lucy's lovely face to dance in and among the cells of our bodies and the synapses of our minds. (In terms of brain development, this is almost literally true, and it is why reading poetry to children is so important.)

If poetry, as Donald Hall has written, is the highest use of our language, it is because it does something to us -- whether with the obvious rhythms and rhymes of "Cargoes" or Dr. Seuss, or, deeper, with the inexhaustible iambic pentameter of "Paradise Lost" or the silent undercurrents of free verse -- it does something. You're reading a dignified English poet and before you know it you're clapping tin trays together and shouting hooray!
_____________________________________________________________
"Cargoes" (1917), by John Masefield (1878-1967)
"Happy Birthday To You," (1959), by Dr. Seuss, (1904-1991)
"Three Years She Grew" (1800), by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)


Masefield
Wordsworth
Seuss











Sunday, December 13, 2009

TO BIG JOHN, ON OUR BIRTHDAY

I'm pleased to share a one-day-apart birthday with my son-in-law (December 14/15). It reminds me that throughout my childhood I shared a birthday with my dad's best friend, John. Oh, I always got my own kid party, too, but I recall that, especially in some of those younger years, I really thought that it was fun, and very special, to sit at a table with Mom and Dad and John and Thordis and have birthday cake with my big friend, John.

As I grew, I not only got to know John as a sort of uncle, but, now that I look back on it, John and Dad modeled a lasting, solid friendship that I am now blessed to experience with my own friends.


In my pastoral meetings with parents to prepare for the baptism of a child, I like to tell the dads about my dad and John and the other men sitting around the church dining table, drinking coffee; and that those were the same men who were with their kids upstairs, in church, and they were the same guys that my dad and I went hunting with. This was not a culture of "going to church with mom and going hunting with dad."


So here's to John, In Memoriam. (The repeated phrase in the poem--a verbal "tic" of John's--is not an exaggeration.)
"I remember the time your dad and I over there..."
Over there across the room?
Over there east of the Missouri?
Over there on some remembered gravel backroad?
Over there.
Big John used the phrase as punctuation --
direction -- as the comma to his sentences,
his wonderful stories
of pheasant hunting and fishing over there...
"When you were just a kid and your dad and I
took you along to Lake Byron over there
and you got that fish on your line over there
and you looked at your dad over there
and didn't know what to do!"

The older he got, the deeper growled the voice,
the brightness of the eyes not diminished.
And, the less he was able to go anywhere,
the more "over there" became everywhere--
and anything;
the memories of all the times over there that
your dad and I over there....

Until at last, that day in the nursing home,
I sat across from him with the offered communion,
sharing with him the sacrament of the calling
I had entered as much because
he was at all those church basement suppers
drinking coffee with my dad --
as much because he and the other men were there
as because Dad was --

The eyes were duller now. He wasn't speaking;
he wouldn't know me, they said.
But after bread and wine
he provided the whispered post-communion blessing:
I miss your dad so much.
Over there.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

WHAT TO SAY, WHAT TO SAY...

ON DITHERING: TWO REFLECTIONS

I. Umm, God, ummm, I umm, was, like, wondering...

If you move in certain circles, you've heard the "just" prayer: "Lord, we just want to thank you and we just praise your name and we just know that you are with us, and we just come to you praying for you to just be with us, and...."

This form of prayer is (almost literally) mindless: The "just" is simply a placeholder when someone doesn't know what to say.

My analysis of this form of utterance is not original with me, and it's not rocket science, but I think the origin of the "just" prayer has three strands: 1) Some proto-pray-er used the word as an expression of pious earnestness, meaning, "simply," or "all we ask is...." This was picked up by others in the prayer circle and 2) it eventually came to be identified in the prayer lexicon as expressive of truly heartfelt communication with God, but finally, 3) it has become a mere place holder. It is a spiritual form of "umm..., errr...." It is dithering prayer.

I believe the antidote to a plethora of justs is the same technique my high school speech teacher taught us as a way to overcome stammering in a public address: Instead of "umm," just pause. A micro-pause. It works. It's a form of silence, which the Apostle Paul advises as a very basic and extremely intimate approach to prayer:

...We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. ~ Romans 8:26

I'm not necessarily suggesting that when one is subjected to a "just" prayer that one should say, "Be quiet!" But that, too, is an invitation to prayer.


II. How About an "A" For Effort?

It was the end-of-term exam: an essay test in English Literature. My friend, Jim, as usual, had read none of the assignments. (He did read the Classics Comic Book version of "The Forsyte Saga.") He sat in the exam room for an impressively long time, writing page after page until the Blue Book was completely filled. A few days later we entered the classroom apprehensively -- the test results were to be returned. Jim opened his essay book to the front page. There, at the top, the professor had written, "Jim, you write very well. F."

Friday, December 4, 2009

I AM THE DECIDER. OH, YOU TOO?

Like many Christian denominations, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to which I belong is undergoing its share of turmoil over the decision to allow the ordination of homosexuals who are in a life-long committed relationship. I support this policy, and continue to be somewhat simple-mindedly flummoxed by all the fuss. That is to say, I realize that this is at heart an issue of biblical interpretation; and that is my simple-minded point: We interpret away so many other biblical issues (many of them with far more biblical references than the seven passages that relate to homosexuality), why remain fixated on this one? If I’m going to split my church or deny ordination to someone, why not target those failings that have heavy biblical underpinnings: Divorce, greed, failure to work for justice, failure to give sacrificially to the poor, participating in a church pension plan that makes money from investments in which the poor are charged interest? (I should be defrocked for most of these things.) My theory: Because it has to do with other peoples’ sex lives, and we are as morbidly fascinated by this in our church communities as we are watching Tiger Woods’ affair unfold on CNN.

I am not being disingenuous when I say that I really don’t get it. There are no consistent biblical literalists. None. We are all pick-and-choose biblical literalists. If we find a literal passage that we choose not to apply to ourselves, we interpret it away. What's more, I will decide what applies to me and, apparently, I will also decide what applies to you!

What does it mean to apply the following passages literally?

Matthew 18:8-9 Jesus said: If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Where are all the one-eyed people?)

Luke 18:21-25 The rich young ruler replied, ‘I have kept all the commandments since my youth.’ When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. (I have not sold all I own to give to the poor. What’s more, I continue to not sell all I own. I am persisting in sin.)

Acts 4:32-35 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Communism? Socialism? I once heard someone say of this passage, “Oh, that was intended for the early Christians. It doesn’t apply to us.” He interpreted it away.)

Leviticus 20:13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. (Well?)

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. (I’m glad I made it through adolescence!)

Luke 18:9-14 Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ (According to Jesus, justification has nothing to do with believing in Jesus.)

1 Corinthians 15:20-22 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. (All.)

Luke 6:42 …How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye. (And when, exactly, have I successfully removed the log from my eye so I can have at that speck in yours?)

Every one of these passages holds profound truths, but the next time you hear someone say, “I believe the Bible is 100% literally true,” I suggest you respond, gently, “No, you don’t.”