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  • Prufrock
    January 28, 2014

    Andrew Shepherd has been one of my dearest and best friends for a long time. He even named my car. Today, living in Brooklyn, he posted a video to go along with a song that we wrote together 9 years ago in Arkansas and in Dallas, and I think the video is beautiful. This recording of the song, I made in my apartment in the suburbs of Chicago a couple of weeks ago. Have a look:


    Look for me another day. I feel that I could change.
    July 25, 2013

    From September 2010

    What I do these days, supposedly, is study ancient texts. Not many of them. Just the tiniest handful, written mostly by some hill people about three thousand years ago. And part of what I study is the history of interpretation of these texts. We watch the sacred text as it perseveres, steady and reliable, held aloft by human hands above a crowd rushing beneath it, the hands changing so quickly as generation passes it to generation that any single pair is little more than a flicker in the time-lapse film of the life of the world. (For some reason I imagine this crowd of humanity at a train station in the 1940s on brown film, moving on and off the platforms in long overcoats, and all the women are wearing hats.) What for the songwriter is a hymn about a king’s victorious plundering of his enemies becomes for a later audience a hymn about an ancestral prophet  and for an even later audience, a hymn for the recently appeared Messiah. The words, held aloft by their black ink from the blank page’s limitless potential for alteration, remain constant, while meaning rushes and swirls beneath it all in time, it seems.

    The parallels with so much else in life need hardly be stated. (And yet what are these internet tablets for, if not the inscription of things which need hardly be stated?) Memory is a strong parallel. I visit the memories of powerful moments in my life to find that the memory remains the same, but the meaning at this point in the narrative is different. I re-visit memories to which I have often returned only to find that the meaning of my own remembering is different from the previous remembering, which itself was an act of meaning that differed from the original. So many aspects of life offer similar parallels: the meals I eat, the conversations have, the people I am bound to, the letters I write, the prayers I pray. All of them so remarkably constant as if sacred and preserved by some unchanging nature, it seems, while beneath them, meaning tumbles and rushes without pause, and I am scrambling to catch my train.

    There Is No Grace There
    November 16, 2012

    The following is a note that I wrote on Facebook on December 30, 2008, from Sudan during the week of an Israeli offensive against Gaza. Four years later, as a similar scene unfolds, I find these thoughts from back then to be just as fitting as they were before.

    There Is No Grace There

    It’s the fourth straight day of Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Living among Arabs for the past 20 months has made Israel/Palestine’s terrible struggle for power and survival a much more detailed, colorful, and tragic reality than it was for me before. I reflected a bit yesterday on the similarities between the present situation and the one of Jesus’s time, and afterwards it seemed a comparison worth sharing.

    Jesus was born into a world that had not seen true peace in hundreds of years. Depending on who you might have asked, it had been longer – a time remembered only in the Psalms. Maccabean rule had long ago crumbled. The homeland of native Palestinians (which in that time was the Jews) had been overrun by a massive, well-organized, well-funded, better-educated, technologically advanced military force called Rome. These invaders had a different culture, a whole pantheon of gods, and they made the natives live as if they were foreigners in their own homeland by denying them citizenship.

    The Jews responded in a frighteningly familiar way. Their young men, feeling disenfranchised and certain that God was on their side began forming rebel groups which carried out desperate attempts to thwart the power of the occupying force. Groups like the Zealots were known for carrying out killings of their enemies – Romans or Jewish “political traitors” (usually people like scribes and Sadducees) – in public places like the market. Many other groups fought Rome by a type of banditry – living in the wilderness and attacking rich caravans traveling between cities – military and civilian. All of these groups received some level of sanction by certain Jewish religious leaders, among which were some of the Pharisees. The religious connection was often so strong that the young men felt they were fighting a holy war, and they would rally behind charismatic figures claiming to be the Chosen One (Messiah) of God who would defeat the pagan forces and establish God’s Kingdom in Palestine. There’s even a mention of an Egyptian Jew who organized 4,000 men to fight Rome. But against the Roman army, the attempt was as pathetic and foolish as teenagers hurling stones at an armored tank.

    Then Jesus came, and by all earthly wisdom, he missed a huge opportunity for change, talked a lot of nonsense, and eventually got himself killed. He started out good. Like all the other “messiahs,” he told everyone that he was going to bring the Kingdom of God – the standard battle cry of the time. He even gathered huge troops on the outskirts of towns – 4,000 in one place, 5,000 in another – capable of conquering all of Galilee, possibly, amassing and then moving on Jerusalem. He demonstrated the ability to feed his troops with very little rationing (5 loaves, 2 fishes), he was renowned as a healer, so casualties would be low, and he even seemed to be able to control the weather to his favor. It seemed clear to all his followers that he was the Messiah who could bring the Kingdom. (It is arguable that this is the way that many first century people would have interpreted these actions which we read about in the gospels.)

    But instead of using all these advantages to wage a war, he told strange stories about the Kingdom of God being hidden, about the mandate of God being taken away from both the rebels and the politicians and given to someone else, and that the victors of this struggle would be the meek and the peacemakers. He said “follow me” if you want to see the Kingdom, and then told his followers do everything except establish a Kingdom, it seemed.

    One of the greatest lessons we can learn from Jesus is that God is gracious. The very gift of his Son is evidence enough of that, but Jesus made it even more clear in his teaching. He taught that we are to be gracious, and that in the Kingdom of God it is graciousness and not might which will rule. And, he gave us the means by which to be gracious when he poured out grace upon us.

    In first century Palestine, there was no grace. Certainly not from the hand of the powerful Roman army, and never from the hand of the rebels who continued to call down destruction upon themselves by their violent outbreaks. If you find yourself wondering where to stand in this modern conflict, I feel that the context of the gospel has given us the perfect example in this picture of scattered handfuls of religious fanatics fighting an established military power. Jesus’s message and ministry may have been to the weaker side, but his message to them was so prophetic and unwelcome that he was killed. In his story, the mighty nation is not right, nor are the rebels, and neither are the politicians who would contract peace between the two as a matter of wealth and power. To be on the side of right was not to choose a national or ethnic entity and support them in the war. It was to listen, with ears to hear, to the parable-teller from Galilee and follow him, living as if the Kingdom he described – one where the King was a servant – was real.

    Believing that the Jewish people are still God’s chosen people, and many Evangelical believers today do, does not change the essence of the Messiah’s message – how could it? He is still calling to a remnant of them, and it is the same call that he made so long ago in Palestine – one which shows that the true message of the prophets did not center around a war of national entitlement or anything else other than a Person who has shown us Grace and who calls us to be like him in that same aspect. When, someday, he looks at the world’s systems and calls “come out from her!” will you be among those who have listened to his call? Or will you have misunderstood the prophets, also?

    A Poem from Wisconsin in February
    August 30, 2012
    Wautoma, Wisconsin
    After Dylan Thomas and in reply
    Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
              Time held me green and dying
         Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
                             – Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill”
    Now as I was grown still and silent under the pine boughs
    All scattered round the whitened lake froze solid,
         The morning cracking open in sheets,
              Time knew our contract
         And would not shrink or swell,
    And I was long humbled among the curb and pavement crowds
    And a servant of the curves and turns which rapid
              Hide the purpose of the streets
         Behind the woody columns of the dell,

    And as I was minister of pine straw and gold
    In the cabin-wood and mute as the earth was firm
         In the sun that lights the ice,
              Time kept the dying beat
         With mighty hand to the drum,
    And I was sexton of dust and leaf and fragment;
    Lullaby and eulogy brought down the birds of God
              To hear the sabbath turning
         In its sleep within my lungs.

    All the ocean-night had the ancient hosts
    Of spheres enwrapped a wandering world, and wet
         And sailing in severe curves
              I had raced maps
         To lie to all things.
    Long as sun-sky and soon as shorelines,
    Swept, those spirits, the ground beneath my knees
         And stilled the earth
              In a coda of wings.

    Then to awake and know the morning, pledged and kept
    And far like an unfamiliar inheritance. I was Adam
         And, charged to give truth
              To each creature,
         Would name all names
    And ask forgiveness of every thing that lifts its gift
    Before it in procession, stepping silent in white robes
         To the even pulse
              That pulls each one the same.

    And standing priest before the sylvan congregation
    I chanted the rite that guides this dying march,
         With Time, who marks the steps
              Until his cadence ends
         And he counts no more.
    And nothing do I not mourn of nights that I had fled
    The rigid rhythms of Time by running to his tempo,
         Impuissant to make an escape,
              When by fear he was my lord.

    Nothing do I not mourn of when I did not heed his beat
    Those days I thought he was my master, Time
         Who cannot bind me to what I embrace
              Who cannot master any
         Whom he does not bind.
    Yes, perhaps now I sing in my chains like the sea,
    But they will burst asunder in the morning chorus,
              And then I will sing
         Like the very earth itself.

    August 23, 2012

    A spiritual father took me out to tea recently. “Let me tell you something that you need to know in ministry,” he said. “Everything is for a season. People will come to you with these huge problems, and you can listen and be there to remind them that this is a season. It won’t last forever. God puts things into our lives for a season, and that will give them the strength to keep going toward the end of the season because hope is the most amazing thing.” He told me, too, about how sometimes seasons can last for many many years, and how knowing that it is still just a season allows us to focus on the task at hand until we are through the season, even when it lasts longer than we ever expected. Everything is but for a season.

    I once left my family and most of my friends and moved a third of the way around the world to live in a strange country with strange food because I believed God had called me to do that. We had a saying there among my little company of brothers: “You can do anything for two years.” That turned out to be true for us in that circumstance, but the exact time frame doesn’t matter – it varies person to person, season to season. You can do anything for a season.

    The temperature dropped here a few nights ago, but it is late August and seems likely to rebound. Summer’s staff has been broken. What do we name this season? We name it Uncertainty, and we say that it is but for a season. I long for the golden canopy of autumn. For the honeylocust feathers that flicker and spin in the breeze. For the crimson sentinels lining the streets near the college. But that is not our season yet. The present season we call Uncertainty. Hope. Longing. Contentment. Mourning. Joy. Waiting. Running. And it is but for a season. My spiritual father told me something else about ministry. He said that the best words you will ever learn in ministry are, “God, I’ve got nothing. You’re on.”

    God, I’ve got nothing. You’re on.