monday muddlings: fire in the lungs

It’s another fiction Monday, focusing on poetry. I have been invited to present poetry at the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor’s Writer’s Festival in February, based on a few snippets of work I have completed in the past, so I’m now taking some time to draft a few new pieces to accompany my presentation. Here is another poem in progress, a new one this turn. Fire in the Lungs

I breathed the heat of my soul into the cold of the Earth and watched it fall as snow and ash, a kind of atonement for the dancing and the drinks, the lies that were whispered and the swan song melodies, the scrawled prose and metered memories fading like candles on the altar we built to Vesta in our far off corner at the end of the world.

I hewn a ship for us from fallen pines that littered paths less taken and obscure, travelled forth but never back, shadowy places and listless dreams, promises and folklore, a ferry to take us to the summer country and the land of the dawn, where the days enfold one upon the other and time is a muse like the other sisters and dances without stop and needs no pause or rest.

I took the pen and set about the story upon the elder pages and fashioned there a kind of fiction, the reasoned words of ethical discourse in their luscious sum, claims of proof and integrity and their full-formed honesty, the end of all things summarized in the most tenderly formed pronouncement with delicate certainty, conviction, and endurance.

Death was beautiful, if brief.

the second formica friday

I don't have much for you today. I didn't post yesterday, though I wanted too. There is much going on: much wonder and beauty going on. It's like I have awaken to a reality that does not need expression but simply being. I need to be quiet right now, but will return next week for sure. The weekend shall be a good time to catch up on all the academic things, but will also give plenty of time to leave Sunday as a true day of rest and the other days as some times to get ahead of my blogs. For now, for this Friday, I am leaving you with this singular tidbit, for it has been enough for me. In fact, today it nearly knocked me off my feet.

When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not worry about how or what you are to speak in your defense, or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say. (Luke 12:11-12 NASB)

running to stand still, part one

I had reached a point of complete emptiness and sense of abandonment. I didn't doubt God, but I completely doubted my ability to hear Him. It was a cloudy Sunday morning in October 2009. I had gotten in my car around seven and had been driving around Waco for the past forty minutes praying, through a mixture of angry words spilled aloud and tears, asking God too many questions to even try and piece together in hindsight. I wanted so many answers but didn't think I was even able to hear His reply if He was giving me any.

At 7:45, I found myself in the parking lot of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, sitting my car in the midst of the greatest crisis of Faith I have perhaps ever had in my life: was everything I had been doing completely wrong, had I followed my own voice and just told myself that it had been His?A little over a year earlier, in September of 2008, I was sitting in the lobby of my residence hall at Baylor talking to my closest friend since going to to college. It was late, quite late, and he and I were the only ones up after all our other friends had headed off to bed. He and I had bonded quickly over mutual appreciations for the changing and shifting nature of the church. Nothing so much as you would call emergent, but rather an appreciation for those who needed to have church in a coffee shop or how missional living was realized through relationships. For the sake of this blog and what came about in the aftermath, I shall dub this friend C for convenience.

C and I were talking about nothing of much consequence, then we drifted into silence. After a few minutes, he asked, "Preston, have you ever thought about starting a church?"

The question completely caught me off guard. The answer was burned into my brain. For the past week I had noted that thought swimming around the background of my mind, seeping into the cracks of my thoughts, and twisting up inside my heart. I immediately told him no, but I knew the answer was yes.

I could spend a lot of time here going through all the many, many different ways that God affirmed the process along the way. There were too many signs to ignore. There were too many obvious markers and open doors. God was moving in that direction. Not to start our own church, we discerned that quickly, but we were supposed to partner with a local church that was struggling, small, and did not have its own college ministry. That's where we found ourselves, the following January, and that seemed to be exactly what God wanted us to do: Saturday night services where I would preach, C would lead music. It was a hit. So many people became a part of it; so many people thought it was God's plan. People came to help renovate the church we were in. The congregation seemed alive and hopeful of what God was doing with these kids He had brought into their midst. The possibilities seemed without end and our energy was abundant. But we relied so much on our energy and not much on Him and He became less and less of the focus.

It started out incredibly well; six months later it was dead.

A year later, I was scraping the bottom of my heart trying to find any last bit to offer back to God as some form of substance. I was completely void of the certainty I had cleaved to the months before, thinking of His direction and plan. I had been so sure that we were supposed to work with that church; I had been so sure that we were supposed to start that ministry. Then through the choices of C to depart from the ministry and I fractured, fumbling walk with the Lord, it had all collapsed.

C and I disolved our friendship, our group of faithful had departed for other churches, and the whole of what was supposed to be God's ordained purpose was dissolving before my eyes. How was I to explain this to all the people who I had professed God's divine plan in this endeavor to? How was I supposed to make sense of these things? Could I trust myself enough to know my own voice over His?

I used to pride myself on that ability. I used to be so sure of my discernment. Suddenly it was pulled from me. Who I was, what I was capable of doing, was all adrift in an endless possibility of it just being my crazy idea that I forced to manifest in signs and wonders to reinforce it.

And, honestly, I didn't really need to know why. I wanted to know why I had been led to walk that road in the first place, if it had been His will.

It all seemed to have slipped away so fast. How was I even to be sure I was in God's will anymore. What exactly was "God's will" and what did that even mean when said out loud? I pounded my fists against my steering wheel, trying to make sense of shards of a dream that was being forgotten too quickly.

There was no energy left in me. I was running on empty and I was in desperate need of Him to fill me before I could even think of being useful.

I was in the parking lot of St. Paul's. I had just finished reading Surprised by Hope by NT Wright and was incredibly moved by it. I had no idea how I had ended up there, other than a passing thought of Wright's Anglicanism and happening to be driving by the church. I realized that they had an 8 o'clock service and it was 7:50 am. So I went inside.

It was the feast of St. Francis.

***

Look for Part II next Wednesday, in which I talk about how going to St. Paul's and the months following reshaped my understanding of God's will and how it helped me see His will in the events I had walked through.

remedial praying

"Dear God, thank You for this food, and this day, and all that you made. Amen." When I was younger, that prayer was my golden standard for dinner table spirituality. When either of my parents suggested that I bless the food, it was the first to be loaded in my arsenal, ready to go. Evening prayer featured a similar, without a reference to food, replication. Sometimes I forgot that it was evening prayer and ended up praying for food anyway. My parents were usually kind enough not to point that out.

The fundamentals of theology seemed there: recognizing God as being, in fact, God; I offered Him gratitude for all that He has done; I specified what exactly He had done, in my mind, as of late: provided food, continued the Earth's rotation and motion about the Sun, and for the entirety of the cosmos and its overflow. Pretty good theology for an eight year old, but still.

As I grew up, I dabbled in longer, cathartic prayers of deep magnitude and much adulation. Prayer requests for a lost puppy named Fefe brought up in a youth group Bible study were met with elaborate pronouncements of hope for the small pup's well being, the enabling of the GPS function of the Holy Spirit to find him quickly, and other phrases that usually began with, "Father we know," and "if You just would."

When I began to be drawn to the liturgy, part of what was so motivating for me was the beauty and response I had developed to reading the prayers of the saints, in particular the prayers of St. Francis and St. Clare, whom I will normally refer to affectionally as Lady Clare. I was overcome by the simpleness of what they prayed, as well as the compact beauty that was a part of it. I began to seriously and sternly consider my own prayers and exactly what I was doing when I either closed my eyes in reverence or was walking quietly in the cool of the day.

I have come to a place where I am trying to live in the space that overlaps two passages of Scripture, both found in St. Matthew's Gospel.

1. I am a child

In Matthew 18, the disciples come to Jesus to inquire about their rank in the kingdom of God. It's veiled in a general statement, but the implication is clear: they want to know who among themselves is closest to godliness. The response Jesus gives has been the subject of much thought over the years:

And He called a child to Himself and set him before them and said, "Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like a children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." (v. 2-3)

The word converted is a startling one. It's been a long time, if ever, that I have imagined conversion as being into something that was a child. I saw the value in childlike faith, even the beauty, but thinking on and ruminating in the idea of being a child and what that truly means is sometimes far from me. The prayer of my childhood, I have come to realize, may indeed be a better prayer for me to pray. It's simple; it's honest; but between God and I it is quite sufficient. It's the barebones, true foundation of Faith: that He is, that He has done, that He shall do. So I pray.

2. "walk slowly, bow often"

Mary Oliver once wrote a beautiful poem in which she says that one of the things she has learned in this life is to "walk slowly, bow often." Once more in the Gospel of Matthew, there is a curious comment that Jesus makes when the disciples return to Him having been unable to cast out a demon. They ask why they could not have command over it as they had in the past and Jesus laments their lack of faith. What He closes with is jarring, however, a response that seems abruptly commanding:

"But [this demon] does not go out except by prayer and fasting." (17:21)

The emphasis on prayer here, in a context that seems to indicate that more of it was needed, is something weighing on my heart quite a lot right now. I think on other passages from other Gospels, such as in St. Luke, where Christ emphases the need for persistence in prayer, instead of mere firings-off unto Him as if we were shooting a starter's pistol announcing that He's allowed to start working. The task, the redemption, the thing prayed for seems to involve a cooperative effort on our part to pray often. To, as Mary Oliver suggests, walk through this world slowly and with much prayer. This seems beyond the conviction of the Scripture to pray without ceasing, it speaks to the need to pray for specific things repeatedly until the will of God for that thing is realized.

I am currently undergoing what I call remedial praying. I open every prayer in my soul or in the quiet of just He and I with my lips moving with, "Teach me first to pray," before I begin my many times too short and vapid, oftentimes too long and insipid, rambling, ranting, grumbling, utterings before the Lord.

It's like Hooked-On-Phonics for spirituality on most days, but it's a beautiful journey to be on. The greatest comfort is that I know how much He listens to all my many ways of rambling, finds the true, the good, and the beautiful in it, and counts it to me as a kind of righteousness.

So goes the beauty of the days.

monday muddlings: crossing against the light

It's another fiction Monday, focusing on poetry. I have been invited to present poetry at the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor’s Writer’s Festival in February, based on a few snippets of work I have completed in the past, so I’m now taking some time to draft a few new pieces to accompany my presentation. Here is another poem in progress, like last week, an oldie but a goodie. Crossing Against the Light

I wanted to make something beautiful, so that I could then destroy it. I wanted it to be my hands, not yours, that deconstructed this thing --this thing that was meant to last-- and it be my eyes that watched as you stomached the beautiful cruelty in the way that the tower fell so quickly and yet so softly, as if the dream was more real than the substance and the everything but falling ash. It was to be retribution, to repay wickedness in kind. But there was not within me that darkness you were so keen on possessing. My hand bid not move. There was no warning in your departure, there was no sign that we were living out some poorly crafted lie that neither of us understood and yet both of us were responsible for. We were but players in a game that was constructed for the sake of dark and desolate amusement. And now I find myself fingering the pages of journal entries and clicking through photos where false friends gave false smiles and false laughter masked true despair. And I still have no answer. Not that there was ever a question, for questions would have been luxury. There was the cold stare, the cold glance, the cold sighs. There was the presumption that I would play along, there was the expectation that I would simply agree. Agree with a darkness to entrapping to stomach. It was the end, it had been for awhile, and we both knew it. Midway upon the journey of our lives, we found ourselves in different places. You in a dark wood and I somewhere in the mists beyond. We were not kindred, we were not brothers, we were strangers living in the disjointed silence of a world that was too small for either of us and tried to compensate for our enormity that it attempted to swallow us whole. There was a time, so long ago, when the sun was for the two of us. I have left you now in the fields grown dark, to pursue the endless sun. I turn back every now and then, to look upon that field and watch happy ghosts act out long forgotten memories of goodness and joy, and I turn my head away to look before me, to that place beyond that is not a castle made of ash, that is not a life built on shifting sand, but a place that is a cloister, a grove in a sacred field, where a Lady waits unveiled and a table is rounded by knights. An Abbess administers the Eucharist and the whole is surrounded by trees. It is there I turn my gaze and find, at last, an enduring dream of peace.