Category Archives: Poetry
Someone asked me for this short paragraph from my sermon yesterday. I thought I might as well share it with you all, for what it’s worth. I was focused on the 23rd chapter of Jeremiah, which speaks of the challenges of leadership and the power of the Living God to help us. I said, toward the end, these words:
“There is always hope, but it never comes without cost or pain or struggle. There is always a future, but never at the expense of our past. There is always Presence, but it is not always comforting and pleasant. There is always a way forward but it is never found by evasion or running away from the hard places.”
They are my words, not a quote. They come from my experience of life, both the good and the disappointing parts of myself I’ve known. I hope they help you. Two other great quotes I used:
I heard an ad executive on Ted Talks say this: “Poetry makes new things familiar and familiar things new.”
And this one from G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” Don’t worry so much when things get torn up.
Or, as Leonard Cohen said in his wonderful lyric, “Anthem,”
Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
In December, Mossy Creek Press released my new book, Poems, Prayers and Unfinished Promises. I have been so gratified by the readers’ enthusiastic responses. From time to time, I want to share a few excerpts with readers. Since we are in the Lenten Season, I share this prayer, found on page 48:
A Prayer for the Beginning of Lent
As a Baptist kid in the South, I had never heard of Lent, but I understood “call and response” instinctively. Someone sings and you sing back to them. In southern gospel, it was often something the basses and altos did, little descants under the melody, like a man and woman when they really speak and hear each other’s hearts. That’s the Lenten journey to me—get quiet, listen and when you finally pick up the song, sing back. You really have to train your ear to hear it.
“By day the LORD commands his steadfast love and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?” As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?” Why are you cast down, O my soul and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” Psalm 42:8-11 NRSV
I am and always have loved the process of how books, music, ideas and people find me. Life, for the most part, is an odd assortment of intentional seeking and being found. Some people major on the former, others on the latter. Freedom and providence is what we call it in theology. Too much of either leads to bad theology and a distortion of reality. This is about “how the Milk Carton Kids Found Me.” I love music. Two of my parishioners, Kenny and Katherine Worley, love the Milk Carton Kids. I love Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. They figured, “he might like the MCK (Milk Carton Kids from now on!). So they had an extra ticket and invited me to Workplay, a great venue in Birmingham. I listened to them on YouTube, of course, but I was distracted by the handkerchief Pattengale tied to his Martin 000-15 and waved in a circular motion that reminds me of David Rawlings so much. I came ready to dismiss them as wannabes, to tell you the truth. I was so wrong. Wikipedia’s article about them describes them as:
…an indie folk duo from Eagle Rock, California, consisting of singers and guitarists Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, who formed the group in early 2011. NPR has described their approach to music as “gorgeous contemporary folk”and “Gillian Welch & David Rawlings-meets-Simon & Garfunkel with a splash of The Everly Brothers“, which fairly represents the band’s music while also appealing to the intended audience[i] Read the rest of this entry
In 2001 I was invited to speak at my college, which fulfilled a dream from my college days. It was, in fact, a “two-fer,” since I was a co-presenter with Dr. Milburn Price for the Ball Institute AND spoke in the chapel. When I was a student, I
heard speakers who impressed me mighty well—Dr. Frederick Sampson, a magnificent preacher who held us spellbound for 65 minutes one day, the great Grady Nutt, and others. I imagined that I might someday, after graduate work, be important enough to come back and be one of those speakers. Now it was at hand.
I sent biographical info about me ahead of time. The conference was great, the college incredibly gracious and welcoming, and the terrain churned up wistful memories and nostalgic longing for a good and simple time in our lives. Here is what I wrote:
As a matter of information, Vickie and I met and married while at Carson-Newman. We lived in the little house behind the infirmary. Our neighbor and dear friend during those lean and happy years was Mrs. Henrietta Jenkins. You may also be interested to know that in my senior annual, while in a flippant mood, I listed my extra-curricular activities as President of Omega Omega Omega (non-existent) and captain of the Curling Team. Another bit of CN irony is that I am now pastor to Dr. John Fincher, retired President of CN, and his dear wife Ruby. The last time I saw Dr. Fincher before they visited our church was on the graduation stage in 1976!
My professors at Carson-Newman, especially Ray Koonce, Walter Shurden, Bill Blevins, L. Dan Taylor, J. Drury Pattison, Don Olive, and Ben Philbeck, had a happy and permanent effect on my life and thinking. I will always be indebted to them and to Cn for shaping our lives forever. We remember very happy days together at Carson-Newman.
Miss Jenkins, in fact, was most special to us. We took her classes while there, including Shakespeare, Milton and probably something else. Shakespeare was 8 a.m., and Henrietta had this lilting, mellifluous voice, really quite beautiful. It was always a little on the edge of singing it, although not like a hefty operatic diva. More like your grandmother singing to you while you were going to sleep, which we sometimes were at 8 am. I was married at 20, had a new baby 14 months after marriage, and working 3 jobs and going to school trying to get educated enough to come back and speak in chapel for the spellbound students.
My teachers changed my life. Years later, even though my head nodded in “Shakespeare for Dummies,” which it should have been called, given her audience. She would have been proud to see us in London years later laughing our heads off at the Royal Shakespeare company as they gave us “Twelfth Night” through their acting gifts, or when we visited Stratford upon Avon.
Henrietta loved her subject. She would stop and recite poetry in the middle of a lecture from memory, long and gorgeous passages. “By heart” was an apt discussion. When she wandered over into the bawdier passages, she would be matter-of-fact, but would get that twinkle in her eye and blush at the same time, letting us in on something terribly funny but not for polite company.
But she was more. Henrietta was our neighbor. We lived in the little house behind the infirmary, which rented for less than $100 a month. A few doors down lived “Miss Jenkins” as we always called her. She would bring us things, sometimes, and we would go “hang out” with her. She loved our new baby (who turned out to be an outstanding English major, reader and writer). And we would talk to her poodle, Porky.
Porky was a miniature French poodle, one of the most high-strung and opinionated variety. He was an ultra-soprano yipper whose barks were, Miss Jenkins swore, decipherable and intelligible. Porky could let her know what he wanted and she got it. She told us stories about how he knew things when she was talking and would start barking to render an opinion. Certain subjects stirred him into a frenzy, so she took to spelling in front of him and us to avoid the reaction, especially saying she was going to L-E-A-V-E to go to class. “I tell you,” she solemnly said a hundred times in our presence, “He is as sharp…as…a TACK!” Every day they happily walked down the street together.
We saw one another nearly every day for 2 ½ years. She was our teacher, our friend, our neighbor. Our first real neighbor as a couple. The best. And when we went back for that speaking engagement, we went to see her. Porky had passed on by then, and she was devastated by the loss. He was buried in the backyard of her home, a different house from the one we knew. We visited the gravesite and swapped stories and remembered that, yes, he was as sharp as a tack. No doubt.
Since I am record as believing in the potential resurrection of the animal kingdom, too, I am hopeful that Porky and Miss Jenkins will be reunited, walk the streets of gold (hopefully without the inconvenience of the more unpleasant responsibilities of curbing the dog, for the former things are no more. I can’t imagine heaven being heaven without Porky for her.
But then, I can’t imagine heaven being heaven without Henrietta Jenkins, either. Kindness her way, keenness and wit her manner, love of words her craft, and a never-ending love of life and desire to learn her companions. She was a deacon in later years, active in church, a traveler and continued to know what it means to “have a life.” She was our teacher, our first neighbor, our friend.
So when we went back on the college’s dime, we had a grand time. We revisited our special spot out at the lake where we would watch the “submarine races” until the security guard shined his police light into the car through the foggy windows and send us home for the night. We sat in the parlor where we courted. And we went to see our friend, who all those years later, looked the same as we remembered—same mind, voice, twinkly smile, and gentle intensity.
* * * * * * * * *
My chapel fantasy? It was quite a letdown—like preaching and college lecturing turned out to be, too, by the way. Some students were keenly listening, some in and out, heads down, some mouths open, some secretly cramming for the quiz next period they did not prepare for, and one or two reading the paper. It dawned on me that except for Dr. Sampson and Grady Nutt, this was the fate of most chapel speakers.
Many of my teachers are physically gone—moved on in their careers to other schools, retired, or in heaven. My religion prof, Ben Philbeck died young from a brain tumor, although he came back in a dream and blessed me late one night after I co-edited my first book. Miss Mack, dictator of the cafeteria and force of nature, to whom so many owed so much, including us, was long gone. I did Dr. Fincher’s funeral as his pastor, as well as his dear wife Ruby. Life doesn’t stop. Neither does death.
People who love you even leave eventually. There is this mystery, though, about memory—Augustine mused over it considerably. It seems untouched, not altered by time. A face, a soul, a teacher and a neighbor, unchanged in us though no longer with us. How quickly these years pass and how long they stretch out sometimes. But, as Miss Jenkins’ longtime friend Shakespeare said,
‘Tis in my memory lock’d,
And you yourself shall keep the key of it.
Say hello to Porky for me, Miss Jenkins. Thank you for the keys.
Video still suspended on the internet, weathermen almost screaming fear and warning,
Maps lit up with horrible storms, bright, rotating monsters
And the skycams filming it
Dark rumbling cone of cloud, wider and firmer, roaring down,
Swallowing places we all recognized, this street corner, that road, this hospital and the University itself
Gobbled into darkness
We sat watching helplessly in what passes for our safe place
Terrified for people we know and can’t call or get to
Just sat there, watching, listening, praying in a basement or a closet
Now it lives on YouTube and in children’s nightmares
Fear comes out of nowhere, rumbling into a sunny place and wipes it out
We still remember . How can you forget 63 tornadoes,
Taking down a state a town at a time? Houses blown apart, unglued matchsticks
Flying everywhere. That was the picture everyone shared
But it’s the million snapshots, most of them not taken
Sagging shoulders of an old man and his wife looking at the wreckage of sixty years
A family crying over photographs and precious pets and dead neighbors
Burying the body of a son or a mother or a friend
Who committed no crime against nature that took their life.
The foolish weakness of our lives pitted against something so vast that we shrank away
Our hearts melted, our schedules crashed, our computers went dead with no grid to hook to
Agendas changed, all the foolishness swept away into immediate priority
Only holding the people we love, finding the body of a lost daughter
Feeding a neighbor who was hungry and broke
Losing a job that blew away in a second. Going to church when it mattered
Listening for God when God seemed gone
Oh, we remember a million snapshots, of a child calling, “I’m okay,” of a house that used to be
Where a neighbor and his wife died, their bodies snapped like twigs and tossed into an undignified heap
Diapers and receipts and toys and furniture, curtains and unrecognizable slivers, trashbags and deck chairs
Wood and metal and rope and canvas, slung in no pattern, no priority and with no respect for their value
Gone, gone, gone, a house, a town, a store where we shopped, a friend we knew,
A way of life we lived, a sense of safety with which we deluded ourselves
But some things still didn’t blow away—faith and hope and love survived
Love for strangers fired up strong and woke us up to one another.
But we stood for a moment, blown away like the pieces of our lives and our world
Dazed, disbelief, daunted, discouraged, disheartened, darkened in soul
For just a moment, to take it in. We will never forget if we rebuild it all again
What happened that April day, when Alabama almost died.