Advent: First Sunday

This Advent season, I am hoping to write a series of sonnets, about the dual longing for Christ’s birth and for the birth of my own son, who is due to be born somewhere around January 2. I hope you enjoy them as a way of reflection upon this season of longing, anticipation, and expectation of how new life is breaking into this world.

 

Advent: First Sunday

My wife lays next to me; she breathes and rolls
from side to side. The pains of child-growing
and its joys—tossing her in wonder and in awe—
the thunder and the beauty of the night—
we’re both awake and dreaming of the dark,
the luminous shadow: our son, unborn, his face.
The light of morning—sooner than we think.
Yet darkness stays. We stay. We wait.
She rises now to read and sleep alone,
contorting on the couch to find some peace.
I fade away, in fitful anxious sleep,
the kind that never ends. Until it does.
O Mary, what comes after restless nights?
What joy and loss, what cross, what life?

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Newtown, A Lament. 12/14/12

I wrote this poem about five years ago, after the Sandy Hook shooting. It’s difficult to process these horrific massacres from a distance, when you see it on a screen or when you read about them on your phone. I am sad because I feel like these past five years have made me numb to the horror of these shootings–they have become normalized, they have become integrated into the fabric of our culture. When a mass shooting happens now, we all know what to do, what sides to take, what to tweet, if or if not to pray, who is right, who has the answers, who can fix things. And I count myself in this, too. I have taken no meaningful action to prevent such horrific acts, and this apathy renders my heart a stone. I hope to discern the violence in my own heart today, as I grieve for what is lost, as I discern how I should act to work toward a more peaceable kingdom on this earth.

As a pastor, I cannot imagine what it is like to have your entire congregation gunned down–people you loved, people that annoyed you, people that changed you, people that made you a better Christian, people you prayed with when their loved ones died, people who poured out their lives to you. All gone in a few minutes, snatched from you by a demon, killed by a terrorist, slaughtered without pity. There is nothing to say about such a thing as that. Texas, we love you, we weep with you, and God forgive us as a people if we continue to do nothing.

 

Newtown, A Lament. 12/14/12

hold tongues                   it’s a tragedy
balloons bursting yellow                  tape cotton candy
glass melted, the metal burning                  hot

kids fly off                                  into outer space
bullets land on them, chanting
lullabies            rhymes              folk songs
clapping hands            cold fists
blood hands of four score                seven years
pulls them down                 to earth

lord
we are ugly
forgive us for
Hiroshima                          morality

concrete shards ascend                    into the clouds
burning victims dragged down                   into ideologies

o God where are we what                  have we done?

we all are
talking saying mouthing pointing blaming noising chanting singing stomping             shouting                     crushing                     yelling!

turn off the computer,                      turn off my computer!

silence is me inside the school.
stillness is my finger                         on the trigger.
I caused this              my sins
children die because I am a sinner
did      I      cause     this      tragedy      too?
my tears won’t come                                    they won’t save me
lord why can’t I cry over this?

I eat                I am               I see
nothing           nothing
there is             nothing
does life continue
will tomorrow still                 after such madness will there
be any sense of         will we                        move on tomorrow or the
next or will it be                    the next day

                                Eli Eli
                               maranatha*

 

 

 

*Come, O Lord

Notes for my Unborn Son

My wife and I are due to have a baby boy in January. I don’t know how one prepares for a first child, but as someone who writes poetry, that is how I am doing it (as well as, of course, buying lots of things for his nursery and all). Anyhow, these are just little notes I I’ve been imagining saying to my son: as I’ve seen him coming more alive; as I’ve seen my wife go through this amazing process; as I’ve thought about his life to come and the conversations we will have as he grows and explores this God-given world.

 

Notes for my Unborn Son

 

I.

 

where to begin?
with a handful of dust
and a prayer

I know less than I did
when I started this poem
I have become less
and wild John was right

I must

 

II.

 

last week I had a group of college students
staying at our house
their eyes wonder-wide
hungry for the wisdom we call advice
and I gave it
like a fool

but son
we never get there
we never feel sure
we merely cup our frail hands
before the pouring fountain
and pray to our Father:

more, more, more

 

III.

 

life is inexpressibly
beautiful

your mother walks by me
humming to herself in reverie
and again she is an angel, a quiet mystery
floating past in her silken robe—
what words, what feeble cages
could contain even her shadow?

 

IV.

 

I once saw a young man
pluck a tulip from a bed
but for me and God
and the watchful dead
deep in the soil:
he was alone

he walked twenty yards
and tossed it in the trash

I also held hands
with an old woman
dying at the hospital
all of her family
prayed and sang
like cherubs before dark

her fearless eyes glowed
when we saw her glimpse
our veiled future

at times this all may seem
terrible, aimless, futile

but trust me that pain
ends, suffering
transfigures, death
at the close
meets her reflection

and shudders

 

V.

 

I am sorry God called me
to this pilgrim
cross-haunted life
I am sorry the world
is the world
I am sorry that I
am not Jesus
I am sorry to drown you
in his waters
to join you
to his sufferings

his costly, narrowing life

I pray I only bury you once

but child
I know of no
other road
that finds
Love

 

VI.

 

forgive me
for wanting to save
you already

give me time
to trust you to God

a few moments
where your fragility
does not frighten me
but emboldens me
to become strong

I know that someday
I will let you save me—
feed me          nurture me

I will let you sell my home
make all the decisions
even cry like I taught you

more than I ever could

but long before my stone is overgrown
I will lose you to the happiness
of sense and life—I will long
to lose you

I will beg you
to wash me
into the realm of dreams

but for a moment
till that moment
cry and cry away this night

The New River

I wrote this pantoum about and for my father a few years ago, based on a picture I had from a white water rafting trip we took when I was in Scouts, taken right before I got flung into the rapids (I looked terrified). I hope you enjoy it on this Father’s Day. Sorry I couldn’t find the picture it’s based on!

 

The New River

You will soon ride under the river alone.

The photo was taken offshore, by a professional

waiting to capture my fear before I faced what they call the Hole,

a Class-5 Monster, the Big Dip of the New River.

 

The photo was taken offshore by a professional.

He caught that stupid yellow duckey, my front tilting up

over the Class-5 Monster, the Big Dip of the New River.

My eyes are wildfire. Father’s stay steady and blue.

 

The stupid yellow duckey is lopsided,

father anchors into the water, pushes me up.

My eyes are wildfire. His remain steady as blue

waves overwhelm us with the river-white foam.

 

Father weighs down in the water, but the river will push me out.

The picture shows my oar, halfway out my hands,

waving, overwhelmed by the river-white foam.

I wish I could tell my 8-year-old self: don’t worry

 

the oar is halfway out my hands,

but father’s will not be moved.

I tell myself even now: do not worry,

my father’s hands are sure. He will not leave me.

 

My father will not be moved.

He already can see the end of the rapids,

and his hands are sure; he will not leave me.

He will never be ashamed of my fears.

 

He can already see the end of the rapids,

the rapids that teach me to fear death,

but he will never be ashamed of my fears:

he shares them with me. By his outstretched hand

 

my father will teach me to fear death, but also

to keep my young eyes still, my new arms strong.

He shares his with me by an outstretched hand.

He looks ahead for me and tells me what is coming:

 

Keep your eyes open. Your arms strong.

Release your fear as you face what they call the Hole.

I will not always see ahead of you, or know what is coming.

You will soon ride under the river, alone.

Semis

 

They have always been like giants to me

eager to squash and munch and bellow

 

but as I hush the voices of NPR

and my eyes scan the hills and knobs

of this great winding mess called I-65

 

as I duck and dodge these monsters

I am struck with wonder:

What’s in all those semis?

 

I mean, where are they going?

Where is it all coming from?

 

Tearing through their metal sides

I see their wonderful secrets

 

one semi is full of piñatas

the shape of crosses

stuffed with expired Easter candy

 

the other has live monkeys

no cages and no rules

 

one contains a discothèque

pulsing with the sweat of teenagers

who fall as one at every pothole

 

another has piles of wax statues

crude, colorful imitations of the Greek masters

all falling short of their god’s glory

 

one hosts twenty-six princesses, all sitting in front of mirrors

putting on lipstick and wiping it off again

unable to screw their face just right

 

the other has a single pea under a pillow

blissful and still as he could be

 

there we all were

rushing off

going somewhere

showing something

hiding most of it

 

after all that dreaming

I felt so transparent and boring

with my non-tented windows

and my silver 2006 Corolla

 

I wondered what hidden things

these semis might find in me?

What dreams has the dreamer

failed to see? What dances

under my hood?

What lies asleep in my trunk

coughing and crying

hoping and waiting

even by these monsters

to be seen?

Sabbath

I’ve sat around all day, really.
I read a theological magazine.
I watched a kung-fu television show
all the way to its campy finale.
I took a walk with my dog.
And I even wrote a poem about God.
But it’s today that’s vexing me.
Did I do enough?
I’m sure I didn’t love anyone,
or even talk to anyone face to face
(except for my neighbor John
and he barely got a hello).
But I enjoyed the pink blooms
on a nearby cherry tree
and I also made and devoured a delicious turkey sandwich.
I even toasted the bread.

But the most important work I did today
was on my walk
when I stopped to enjoy the rare sunshine
cutting through the grey Spring clouds.

I heard God say to me
Isn’t this enough?
Is my earth not enough?
Am I not enough?

And I wonder now
as I sit in watch for the dark to come
if my lazy, wasted, fruitless day
can count as one long
heaving sigh of

Yes
Yes
Yes

Polynices: I. Icarus

 

This is the first part of a four part poem entitled “Polynices,” named after the brother of Antigone. It’s about an experience I had as an on-call chaplain, in my attempt as a young white man to minister to an African-American family whose 22 year old had been shot and killed.

I. Icarus

Last night
I dreamed about you again
kneeling outside the ER
squawking, flailing, moaning

your old mothers perch beside you
cooing and humming
their clay faces
lined with the contours of grief
hardened by years of this—
this terrible familiarity
with shotguns
and the cracked shells
they leave behind

the grandmothers in their wisdom
nest a home for your cries
beside you on the sidewalk
folding you in close
with sighs of oh child
and the deep, winged memory
of men and their guns

your aunts and sisters swoop in behind
to preen your moans, searching for answers
hatched in the silence that death brings

your lament breaks the starless night
with rushing, un-prescribed pain
your pain is an eagle of the river
bald and black and wild

escaping the cages
forged by the hospital and its managers of risk

was he your brother? your cousin?
your lover?

(I mean the dead black body
the police are keeping as evidence

or as Christ put it
where the vultures gather)

I don’t remember now
who he was to you

I just remember flying
away from you
up through the door
past the guard
and the nurses
to catch my breath
and stretch my tightened chest

and I’m still flying
up and up
away from you

because a man like me
too close to a pain like you

who knows
my wings might finally melt

A Question

This is one of many poems I wrote during my experience as a chaplain’s intern at Duke Hospital. I haven’t really known what to do with them–they just contain these little snapshots of the hopelessness, but also the grace, that is found in trying to minister to the sick and the dying.

the patient was eighty-nine years old
I bet on Sunday he is an usher in a big old church
with a grey suit and pocket square
but not tonight
tonight he was groaning, blind
ready to meet Jesus
a dying Ray Charles who’d lost his voice
and sunglasses

they phoned the chaplain
because the man might “hurt himself”

I could see why
his wrinkles tremored with the knowledge of pain
stretched across his crisscrossed
black skin, weathered by decades of memory
hardened by the near-misses and nearness of death

I sat and held his trembling hand
as he moaned like sandpaper:

I can’t keep on like this
I don’t want to keep on like this
I just I don’t I can’t      anymore
Prea—cher?                 he sang in a deep baritone
Prea—cher?                 What do I do?

my infant tongue flew up and stuck
to the roof of my mouth
the question shot within me
and bounded like an old-fashioned bullet
the kind that doesn’t go straight through

even as I write this now, the shrapnel
of his words cut and bounce under my thick skin
with a strange, piercing echo:

Prea—cher?                Prea—cher?
What       do     I       do?

 

 

 

Haiku: Mass

Cold rain, the blue noise

beats upon us weary men;

Father, Kyrie.

 

Green corn, opening,

your life breath moving, cooling;

the Spirit reigns, flies.

 

In dark terror, I

cling to firm cliffs, solid land,

your words affirming.

 

Holy holy Lord,

the forests sway, erupt, shout

this Sanctus solstice.

 

My great Messiah

soars through rushing waters, that

ferocious current.

 

The fallen oak stands

up: life gushes from God’s Lamb

a green, breathing world!