Thursday, April 26, 2018

We Are Visited

I’m visited this morning by Rufus M. Jones through his little book, New Eyes for Invisibles.  I notice that the flyleaf is stamped “discarded” by the  public library where my mother-in-law once worked.  Aware of my interest in Rufus Jones she didn’t throw the book away.  She passed it on to me.   The book was written in 1943, the year I was born.

Rufus Jones, one of the most influential Quakers of the 20th century,  was born in 1863 and died in 1948.  He was a Quaker historian, theologian, philosopher, and a professor at Haverford College.  I never met Rufus in person (I was only 5 years old when he died) but I feel like I know him because of the many visits we have enjoyed together through his books.  I’ve read Vining’s biography of Rufus and I’ve read his three-volume autobiography.  I have read most of his published works.  I feel I know him very well.  We are good friends and our visits together are always memorable. I’m glad my mother-in-law did not discard his little book through which Rufus has come to chat with me this morning.

Rufus assures me that God “knows what is in the dark” (Daniel 2:22).  He reminds me that this moment in time is not the first time that a disturbing darkness has swept over the human spirit and the American Dream. He tells me of other periods of darkness.  He bids me see from the perspective of history, and to be aware of this fact, “these dark epochs have, strangely enough, almost invariably been birth epochs for a new day.”  It is not ease and security which produce Light in the Darkness.  The human spirit comes to fulfillment out of travail and agony and it will do so again and again.  Rufus urges me to see “the treasures of darkness,” and to accept the biblical word (even if I can’t understand it at the moment) that the darkness and the light are both alike to the “Pilot of the ship.”

He tells me the real battle, now as always, is in the soul.  What is happening to human minds right now is more important than the issues of immigration, school shootings,  prolonged wars, and the building of walls (all kinds of walls) to keep people out.  He assures me “as has happened since creation’s primal day, the darkness will be followed by the light—and even now God knows what is in the dark.”  

“O, Rufus, I’m so glad your little book was not discarded, and I’m grateful for your visit with me this morning.  Please come more often and  give me new eyes for invisibles."

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

That Poem Is My Poem

When we read another’s words or look at another’s creative work we bring all our own feelings, thoughts and experiences into what we read or see.  This phenomena no doubt created the humorous quip:  “I know you think that you understand what you thought I said, but I am not all that sure that you understand that I seldom say what I think and even less often do I mean what I say.”  

G. K. Chesterton in his biography of Robert Browning tells of an admirer asking Browning for the meaning of one of his darker poems and receiving this reply, “When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant—God and Robert Browning.  And now God only knows what it means.”

Does writing, poetry, and other art forms communicate the “thought” of the writer, poet or artist?  When you read my written words do you really understand what I am trying to say or do you read into it what you think I am trying to say? Nowhere is this more evident than when someone tries to interpret poetry.  I just read Robert Frost’s poem, “Acquainted With the Night.” Did I understand what Frost was trying to say through it?  I doubt it.  It instead became not Frost’s poem but mine—it spoke to what I am feeling, thinking and experiencing today. If I should read the poem tomorrow it may not speak to me at all.  If it does speak, the message may be totally different from the one of today.

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain - and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye; 
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

A critic, reading this same poem wrote the following:  “The night is death.  Frost embraces death, coping with the truth of his mortality, instead of those in the city who rebel against night’s darkness by replicating the day with artificial city lights.  The luminary clock is the universe that enacts the progression of time and the changes it induces.  The watchman is the spirit watching over Frost’s soul as it passes down the saddest city lane.”  Wow! I wonder if we read the same poem. I’m sure Frost (wherever he may be) is wondering, too.  I don’t know about God.

Does the peony speak?  When we read it petals, can
we know its thoughts?  No, the peony becomes our
peony--our feelings, thoughts and experiences.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Give Whatever Ails You—Words

O, how lustily we sang together.  We were young airmen far from home.   We were immature, but we were expected to be mature.  We were supposed to be “macho” but we were anything but macho—we were really just little boys.  We were lonely, but we were not supposed to let it show. That’s why some thirty of us gathered in the Chapel once a week (as the Airmen’s Fellowship) to encourage and strengthen one another, to find purpose and meaning for what was happening to us and in us, and to sing songs of faith to bolster our spirits.  Our theme song was “It Is Well with My Soul.”  We sang it with gusto. We sang it with faith.  We sang it with conviction. We sang it with hope. We sang it as if all were really well with our souls—even though aware that things were not so well with our souls. We knew it, but we sang the song anyway.  “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.”

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; 
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.”  

Looking back now, I think perhaps we were doing ourselves a favor.  Our being together once a week and singing that song was a form of therapy.  We were following Shakespeare’s admonition in Macbeth:  “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”  We gave our loneliness, our sadness, our frustrations, our inability to change things, WORDS!  Those words probably saved us from many a heart break.  We gave all that messy, confusing, bewildering  stuff that goes on inside young men—WORDS

Do yourself a favor, give words to express what goes on within you, give words to your confusion, grief, hurt, bewilderment—give words for what goes on with you and in you!  It is a form of therapy.  Feelings, thoughts, hurts, and trials, the “grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.

“And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll; 
the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, even so, it is well with my soul.”

One view from the deck.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Song and Dance of Spring

Spring is singing and dancing in my back yard.  The buds are green on the trees and the azalea bush, the iris is shooting up along with the peonies and all the daffodils are in full bloom.  The hosta grows bigger and greener with each passing day. Now, if only the weather would join the song and dance of spring and give us a warm day.  Then I could sit on the deck (my favorite place this time of year) and enjoy the song and dance, and perhaps even participate in the frolic around me with a tune of my own or some fancy footwork.

Kazantzakis wrote that youth “turns on the faucet, permitting time to drain away uselessly and be lost, as though time were water.”  We do that as we grow older, too, doing precisely what William Penn warned us about: “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”  The faucet of time is turned on, running its course, and we must use what time gives.  We cannot turn it off now.  We have never been able to turn it off.  We can only use it and live it to the fullest.  We do that by being alive to all the life that is in us, experiencing each moment as a sacred moment, each thought as meaningful, each song our own, every dance our dance.  

What do I mean?  Must I explain?  I think you already know.  Sitting on the deck may be a much better use of time than pulling the weeds that also grow along with and among the iris, peonies, hosta and the daffodils.  (Even if you pull the weeds, they’ll come back again).  Sitting on the deck may produce something more productive than accomplishing some chore that calls out to be done.  (All chores usually have to be repeated and most can wait until tomorrow). Sitting on the deck and singing the song and dancing the dance of spring may be more significant than cleaning the house or washing the car. (Both will need cleaning again).  But that moment on the deck, that moment in time, that moment of thought or without thought, may make you more alive to the life that is in you now than all those other things combined.   This is not an excuse for being either old or lazy, it is a  plain and simple truth that has taken me nearly all my 75 years to discover and experience.  

The bride speaks to her beloved, “For now the winter is past, the rains are over and gone; the flowers appear in the countryside; the time is coming when the birds will sing, and the turtle-dove’s cooing will be heard in our land; when the green figs will ripen on the fig-trees and the vines give forth their fragrance.”  I hear the bride speak to me:  “Rise up, come away to the deck with me” (Song of Songs 2:11-13).

Rain is needed, but still the peony grows.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Unknown Paths

Someone once wrote that if you want to annoy a poet, start by attempting to explain his poetry.  I suppose the same is true of any form of art or creative endeavor. Poetry is a personal expression. “Poetry is,” as Robert Penn Warren wrote, “a haphazard attempt at self-understanding: it is the deepest part of autobiography.”  

Some years ago I came across the poem/hymn, “He Leads Us On” by Hiram Ozias Wiley (1831-1873).  The words spoke to me and seemed to describe my own spiritual experience and faith journey through the years.  You see, I’ve felt more led by God than I have felt protected, sheltered or saved by God.  I’ve experienced more fainting, faltering, doubt, fear, storm, darkness, losses, sorrows and “o’er-clouded days” than I have any kind of heavenly bliss along the way—and every path on which I’ve walked has been one I did not know beforehand—“And still he leads on” even though we “are wounded by truth.”

He leads us on by paths we did not know.  
Upward He leads us, tho’ our steps be slow;
Tho’ oft we faint and falter on the way,
Tho’ storms and darkness oft obscure the day,
Yet, when the clouds are gone,
We know He leads us on.

He leads us on thro’ all the’ un-quiet years;
Past all our dream-land hopes, and doubts and fears
He guides our steps; thro’ all the tangled maze
Of losses, sorrow, and o’er-clouded days
We know His will is done,
And still He leads us on.

This morning I read the poem again and again found it an expression of my journey.  What of the author, what of Hiram Ozias Wiley?  Sidney Perley said of him in The Poets of Essex County, Massachusetts: Hiram Ozias Wiley “sought to drown his sorrows and cares in the exhilarating cup, and became a wreck in his prime. In very destitute circumstances, he died of the small pox, in Peabody, January 28, 1873, at the age of forty-one." Faith is not a kind of “Armor All” protectant.  Yet “still,” I believe with Hiram, “He leads us on!”

“I will lead blind men on their way and guide them by paths they do not know; 
I will turn darkness into light before them and straighten their twisting roads.
  All this I will do and leave nothing undone”  (Isaiah 42:16).

Saturday, April 21, 2018

What Is or What Ought to Be?

Do we know what is right and what is wrong? Can something be “right” in my eyes and “wrong” in yours? Is right and wrong always “black and white?” Do we know what is good and what is evil?  Are we always right?  Do we always do the good?  Of course not.  We all fall short of perfection (is there a “perfect”?).  We are not always as kind as we ought to be, which means we have some idea of what kindness ought to be.   We are not always as loving as we ought to be, which means we have some idea of what loving ought to be.  We do not demonstrate the life we know we ought to demonstrate, which means we have some idea of what life is meant to be. Our frailty in terms of living up to the “standards” (what ought to be) make it extremely hazardous for us who live in glass houses to throw stones.  “You, sir, why do you pass judgment on your brother?  And you, sir, why do you hold your brother in contempt?….Let us therefore cease judging one another, but rather make this simple judgment:  that no obstacle or stumbling-block be placed in a brother’s way” (Romans 14:10ff).

Does Paul mean that we should forget about right and wrong? Does he imply that we should not hold our brother or sister to account? Does Paul mean to suggest that we ignore the standards (what ought to be) of decency,  courage, and caring and never say a word in judgment or in protest?  Of course not. We know that both we and our brothers and sisters do not demonstrate the life we know we ought to demonstrate.  But we must never lose sight of the standard (what life ought to be).  We must never cease to raise that standard up, and ever seek to live it out ourselves and encourage others to do the same.  Similarly, the American Dream is not something we have demonstrated as a nation throughout our history, but it is the standard (what ought to be) by which we seek to live and if we lose the standard, we lose everything.

Do we hold different “standards” (you can use “values” if that suits you better) of what is right and what is wrong?  Is that our present dilemma?  Or have we lost the standards (values) that once seemed to bind us together as a society?  Does “kindness” mean something different for you than it does for me?  Does “loving” have a different meaning for you than it does for me?  Have we lost the “what ought to be” and settled for whatever is at the moment?

Is there a Lighthouse to rescue us from the restless
waves?  Is there a "Standard"--a "What Ought to Be" or
is it simply my way or your way?

Friday, April 20, 2018

Fratricide Will Do Us In

We know from the pyramids of Egypt, the ruins of the Palace of Knossos in Crete, the ancient Parthenon of Athens, and the tumbling Colosseum of Rome that great and wondrous human societies have arisen and flourished for a season and then have disappeared.  Abraham Lincoln wondered,  as many others have and still do,  if the American experiment, the American Dream,  would eventually go the way of the Egyptian, Minoan, Athenian and Roman civilizations.  Would these United States succumb to the same outcomes and if so, how would it happen?  Lincoln decided that the fall of America, if it were to come, would not come by military aggression from the outside, but from inner decay.  “At what point then,” he wrote, “is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, ‘If it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us.  It cannot come from abroad.  If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.’”

The Civil War was one such suicidal attempt.  It was fratricide.  And that fratricide continued after the war in many and varied forms in the treatment of people of color, women, children, immigrants, etc.  The threat to the United States did not come from without (and it still does not come from without).  It “springs up amongst us.”  We are “its author and finisher.”  

Suicide is the act of taking one’s own life.  Fratricide is the act of taking the life of one’s brother or sister (or a fellow countryman).  We do ourselves in and commit a kind of suicide when we ignore the Dream.  We make ourselves small when we are meant to be great. We do our brothers and sisters an injustice and commit a form of fratricide when we bully, threaten, label, and put the other down.  It is this  basic lack of “morality” that will bring about our decline as human beings and as a human society called America. 

The American Dream will fade and no doubt die if we abandon the moral responsibility to be our brother and sister’s keeper and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We can destroy ourselves (suicide) by our mean-spirited behavior toward our brothers and sisters (fratricide).