Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Pilate

Sometime last week or the week before I was talking to a group of young people about the teleological argument – you know, the way you do. It’s the one about design, how an explosion, like the Big Bang, should create chaos rather than order - evidence for God, perhaps. Maybe there are chaotic parts of the universe, but Earth-wise we are precisely tuned for life.

The question that started it all began with “If you were God what parts of the universe would you keep/get rid of/like/not like. I mentioned wasps as my candidates for getting rid of.  They talked about religion.  It was days after Belgium.  Islamic State at their suicide bombing worst. It seemed easier to get rid of all religion rather than hold on to specific good bits.  I tried to bring Mother Teresa into the conversation and Gandhi and said that without their tireless work, we would be in a worse state. I also pointed out that non-religious people did as much bad as their religious counterparts. There was almost the gentle pat on the head and a concession for me personally because I was religious and perhaps a part of the good bits – but some kind of acknowledgement that  I wasn’t living in the real world.

Sometime during the last couple of weeks I have been confronted with Pontius Pilate. As was my usual habit before writing a poem, I read a few articles. He wasn’t the neutral man that people say he is, nor was he manipulated or afraid of Ciaphas and the religious leaders. Pilate wasn’t a governor struggling to keep control of a volatile country. He was a part of the elite of the Roman Empire, a part of Caesar’s extended family.  His aim was to protect the status of the elite – for that alone he would never have fitted in to the kingdom Jesus came to bring.

Pilate was responsible for the death of Jesus – because it suited his purpose.  In the process he had won a declaration from the religious leaders that Caesar was their only king. I felt Samuel turn in his tomb at this point – all his prophecies about Israel asking for a king way, way back coming to fruition.

I know that Jesus never said to Pilate, “Follow me.” In every encounter Jesus had there was an unasked invitation, perhaps. I imagined Pilate refusing the offer, explaining how there were aspects of the Kingdom that he found impossible to comply with. The elite, like Pilate, were unlikely to be the ones who will turn the other cheek.  In truth, the more I thought about it, the more Pilate seemed to take on a George Osbourne/David Cameron face – and elite maintaining the elite at the cost of despising the ones not elite.

The second stanza crawled out from beneath the woodwork and wrote itself into the poem. Men like Pilate, the men of power and cruelty, have found their way in to the hierarchy. They are not there to serve the community of faith but to be served. There is too much history of the abuse of the authority of the church, an elite maintaining an elite, to be able to say that we are always part of the good bit.

Men Like Me

there is no room in
Your kingdom for
men like me -
the ones who cannot see
their poverty of spirit and
refuse to shed tears
who wage war on meekness and
never really bend the knee
all other allegiances not unmade -
men of power and cruelty

yet they still find a way in and
make a place for themselves
hooking up, tapping in, syphoning off and
never for God’s sake

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Scars on My Heart

My ears ache
Dreading to hear the words
You will not say

My will demands
Your silence
And yet pain consumes all will

Just say the words
“Father, save Me..”
And I will rush to Your side

I will rip the nails
Dragging them bloodstained
From Your palms

Gently will I ease away
The twisted thorny crown
From Your brow

I will rock You in my arms
Bestow a tender kiss
And breathe new life into You

Just say the words
“Father, save me..”
And I will

But in saving You
I will condemn to death
A hundred generations of new sons

And so I turn away
And hear You cry
“Why have You forsaken me”

My heart breaks
Because I mustn’t answer
And then it is finished

The scars on Your palms
Are there for all to see
But no one sees the scars on My heart

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Billy Graham and me

Last night, I intended to catch up with my Lent devotionals.  Just a couple of days behind, I thought I would blitz it, a biblical binge if you like.

The focus was on the cross – the actual process of crucifixion. Earlier in the week I had read a web page of fifty five facts about the death of Jesus.  For someone with an active imagination the words on screen transformed into a set of violent pictures in my head – things like the dislocation of shoulders, elbows and wrists, the difficulty in breathing, the build-up of fluid in the lungs. When you have watched the TV series “Jesus of Nazareth” with Robert Powell’s blue eyes and absolute serenity, it’s hard to think in terms of pain and distress.

I don’t know what string of thought led me to thinking about the Stations of the Cross, but I goggled it to find images.  Someone’s pinterest board had all I needed to know.  Some of the images were very peaceful and serene – Jesus looked like he was just strolling along the Via Delarosa. Other images, those painted by Peter Howson, a Scottish painter, were gruesome.  Every muscle was stretched and sweating.  Jesus’ eyes were full of pain.

It wasn’t long before tears were streaming from my eyes. Inside somewhere a voice saying, “No more! No more!” but I kept looking. That one human being, or a group of them, could do that to another human being is beyond belief.  It happened then and it happens now.

I sat stunned for a while. My world is not a violent one – not my small circle of experience. I haven’t been hit by anyone, unless you count a small street brawl when I was a child and Philip Hopper broke my front tooth. I suppose that the violence I endure tends to be verbal rather than physical and I know plenty of vocabulary and can modulate the tone of my voice to give as good as I  get – yes, I know there’s the whole turn the other cheek stuff that I struggle with.

“Was I worth it?” I asked to no one in particular. “Ah well, Jesus, at least you got Billy Graham.” He, Billy, has brought his millions to Jesus and I’m not sure I can credit just the one saved soul. Between the two of us, taking an average of souls saved, we’ve done fine.

“Billy Graham?” said God, “For all his millions of souls he didn’t walk Ian down to the Co-op to buy him two bags of groceries to make sure he had food in his house on Friday night.”

“Imagine if you will, Mel,” God continued, “Billy Graham leafing through a hundred images of the Stations of the Cross (a very Catholic thing that he might not have done, incidentally) and afterwards, stunned, asking that same question – “Was I worth it?”.  Imagine his next comment being “Ah well, Jesus, you got Mel”. Billy didn’t take Ian to the Co-op to get the two bags of shopping.  But what else didn’t he do? He didn’t sit with him over cups of coffee listening to Ian’s struggles. Had he known about Ian’s debt he might have paid it for him.  And he would never have had the conversation about the 500 hats on Ian’s wall at home, some of which could have been sold to pay his debts.  He wouldn’t have known about the Indian wigwam still in its box or the Elvis Presley signed record covers.  He wouldn’t have known about Ian’s encounter with someone that invaded his personal space and spewed the gospel at him.  He wouldn’t have encouraged Ian to stick with the church and not push his friends and supporters away.

“It’s not that Billy wouldn’t have done it if he could, but there would be cameras soaking up the moments, perhaps, following Billy around, famous as he is.  Every line of conversation would be noted down, typed out, printed off and splayed over a newspaper, perhaps.  Ian wouldn’t have said anything anyway, because he doesn’t know Billy like he knows you.

“Billy does best what Billy does best – he doesn’t do Mel.  You do Mel.”

“The answer to your question – were you worth it? Hand on beating heart? Yes – always, yes.”

Monday, March 14, 2016

Poetry Writing at Moniack Mhor

It had been a while since I last drove out to the writing centre at Moniack Mhor.  The last time, it had been a cold day.  Ice on a single track road, with twists and turns, and always the possibility of something coming in the opposite direction had not put me in the right frame of mind for writing anything – a will perhaps to cover the worst scenario on the way back.  Yesterday was a warm day, no ice and I was earlier than I needed to be.

The fourteen who signed up plus the tutor introduced themselves.  I am always suspicious then someone says they have never written poems before.  They always go on to write something well-crafted and inspiring.

Task 1 - to put pen to paper, to just make a mark, our first task involved choosing two words – an animal/insect and a favourite word and creating a three line poem using them both.  Something bad had to happen.

caterpillar munches leaves on a shuggley branch
blackbird eats caterpillar
life and death, two seconds apart

Not a great start to the day, but no one expected Shakespeare.  We talked about haikus - 5 syllable, 7 syllable – 5 syllable offerings of something a Buddhist would be proud to live by.  Our offerings if they hit the criteria were christened “bastard haikus”. 

Task 2 – the inspiration for this one was a Norman MacCaig poem “Notations of Ten Summer MInuites”.  We had more than ten minutes to come up with our own observations of the scenery inside or out.  I wrote notes, bent the rules, veered off topic somewhat and wrote something that contrasted the peace of Moniack with my normal classroom environment.  Some strong images were applauded. My opening and closing stanza were dismissed as having too much tell and not enough show.

Task 3 – I came into my own on this one.  A list poem is all about lists.  I do lists – the to-do kind which doesn’t always get done. “Questions I wanted to ask you in the swimming pool” by Emily Berry was the prompt.  She is a modern poet who has chosen not to post this poem anywhere on the internet – so no link. Her poem features a list of questions. This is where prose and poetry seem to nudge each other.  It looks like prose, reads like prose but it’s a poem.  Maybe it is the poet that decides it’s a poem and not the reader. We didn’t really sort that one out.

Cake

why must you place yourself in my line of vision, warm soft
brown with an illicit smear of icing? Why must your smell be
intoxicating, making me giddy with your spices? Why must you
corner me, call me, coax me into consummation as you stir my taste buds?
why must you hoard together a thousand calories or more and laugh at
my bathrooms scales? Why must you exploit my weakness? Why
must you be someone else’s forgotten slice- not mine? Don’t you know
I would never discard you?

Task 4 was optional, another list poem prompted by “Props” by Emily Berry.  The story is told through a list of props someone might compile as if they were planning a play.  In the case of “Props” it is a jaunt through the Bible story and God’s plan of salvation. 

Lunch was announced and I admit to abandoning my work easily to head to the kitchen.  Chicken soup was on offer and stuff to make sandwiches. Gluten free options were also covered. 

I didn’t need an hour.  It’s not as if I could pop into town and do some shopping. A turn about the various buildings didn’t take that long. I took a few photos with my phone but they weren’t up to much.  It was cold and breezy outside.  I coveted their clothes line and thought about washing that was stagnating in the machine at home.

Task 5 began with a look at the language we use.  Specialised vocabulary can be great for poets – apparently.  We were called to come up with a list of words - 3 scientific/medical words, 3 religious words, 3 words from the world of finance, 3 slang or street words, and 3 words from any other interest.

He shifts his atoms to meditate beneath a tree
And sows the seeds of his inner debt recovery
“Dude” he thinks, “Let’s baptise the bank balance
And resurrect the lymphatic system

Mitosis demands he doesn’t dis the baseline
Of his economic slump
Everything is level at deuce
It turns out he’s not the EMO he thought he was

Task 6 – yes, she was throwing everything at us in the hope that something would stick. The poem “The Race” by Sharon Olds was interesting in that the way the lines were structured with unnatural line breaks created speed.  It fitted the story of rushing to catch a plane.  Joe tells a story that because I was too busy nosing around the duty free store we almost missed a flight from Dublin.  I don’t remember it that way at all.

This was one poem too far. We were supposed to compose a journey poem, the journey being for an urgent purpose.  I took a slow walk to the toilet and a slow walk back – timewasting. I wrote and abandoned one thing to begin and abandon another.  I was poetried out.

We shared the different poems we had written and, I was right, these people who claimed not to have written poems before – I declared them to have stretched the truth a little.

We talked about free poems and structure.  There don’t appear to be any rules about line endings.  There is a song, or music, that is heard when a poem is read – a poet knows whether the music is good or not.  Someone suggested that as long as you could justify your line breaks they should stand – if you couldn’t then you must rethink.

We discussed the use of capital letters at the start of lines. The letter is perhaps too big and commands too much attention compared to the message of the poem.

We talked about reading and experiencing life and making that the basis of our intuition that something works or not.  You write what you write from what you read and experience.

The final piece of advice was to keep a messy notebook!

She issued two homework tasks without any obligation to do them and post the results on to her.  The second task which appeals was based on “My Mother’s Lips” by C K Williams.  He makes use of extremely long lines with multiple clauses – for what reason I have no idea.  It is the kind of poem I would never read to the end.  I might have a go at the homework though – my own ten lines of poetry made up of one sentence only.  Lots of clauses and commas are permitted. 
 
I left for home, the twisting single track downwards, armed with new ideas to try. The world, it seemed was watching either a rugby game on one channel or a football match on the other.  I was abandoning my usual rhyming couplets to write lists in my head instead.


Monday, March 07, 2016

Virgil to my Dante

I continue to read through Malcolm Guite’s book of Lent Poetry “The Word in the Wilderness”. Wednesday we were coming to the end of Dante’s “Inferno”.

Then, at a place in the shadow with the dew...
my master placed the palms of both his hands,
spread wide, likely and gently on the tender grass.
And I aware of what his purpose was,
offered my tear-stained cheeks to meet his touch.
At which, he made once more entirely clean
the colour that the dark of hell had hidden.

As Malcolm writes in his commentary, it is a very touching scene. Dante emerges into the sunlight with a face smeared with the grime of hell and stained with tears. Virgil, his companion on the journey, gathers up the morning dew in his palms, stoops down and washes Dante’s face.

I was reading it at lunchtime, over my cheese and piccalilli sandwich. I thought of the “morning dew” of all the truth I glean in my quiet times.  What did I do with it? Did I wash anyone’s tear-stained face? Did I wipe away the grime of hell? Did I refresh anyone with my words? I have to own up – no.  Quite the contrary, I think.

I’d been thinking earlier on in the week when, in an earlier part of the poem, Dante and Virgil began their journey together, that I don’t share my journey often enough. I am rather too self-sufficient.  I wondered if I knew anyone well enough for them to see my grime of hell and my tear-stained face to know that I was need of a palm of morning dew to wipe it clean.  Yes, Jesus stoops down to wash my face – but what about people? 

Then Sunday happened.

I don’t do Mothers’ Day well. It is a celebration of all that I am not. I know there are plenty of messages out there that tell everyone to remember the women without children.  We all mother someone, blood related or not.  For the most part I get through the day.

Yesterday was not a day I got through. It has been a while since I have done Mothers’ Day so badly. I did it badly yesterday. The rewind button on the memory was stuck on failed fertility treatments and miscarriages and the misery that was then. I felt distinctly “less than”. I normally head myself off at the pass long before I reach the cliff edge – but yesterday I sailed over it. Partly it was mothers being rewarded with little chocolate hearts. Partly is was people offering sympathy – giving me the excuse to bawl my eyes out.

But then the Vergil/Dante/palm of morning dew moment happened.

I seriously wanted to lock myself in the ladies room.  On my own I planned to pull myself together and plant a brave smile on my face.  Two friends followed me and wrapped themselves around me long before I made it to the ladies. I wasn’t permitted to pull myself together, but to fall apart secure in the knowledge that they held me and supported me. They prayed. They shared their own stories of sad losses.  I would never have known that they really did know how I felt because they had been there.  They talked of their lost children waiting in heaven.

It was as if they were Virgil to my Dante – hands full of morning dew, my face offered to meet their touch and being made entirely clean.

It seemed important to not be so swift afterwards to hide. I wasn’t OK and I said I wasn’t OK and I let people hug me – which is not really like me at all, mostly. If I want people to journey with me I need to let them see that the journey is worthwhile, that they can add to my life, that I haven’t got it all sorted, that I am still in that process of becoming – and that happened yesterday.

Demonstrating brokenness and vulnerability is never easy, but allowing people to hold you and to offer them the chance to share their own stories is a precious thing.

This is church.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

A Poetry Callenge

The book is “Ordinary Genius: A Guide of the Poet Within” by Kim Addonizio.

The page number is page 45.

The exercise is as follows:-

·         Choose a contemporary poem, or two, that you really like.

·         Make a list of all the nouns in the poem(s).

·         Make a list of all the verbs.

·         Make a list of all the adjectives.

·         Choose six nouns, five verbs and three adjectives.

·         Use five of the nouns, all five verbs and the three adjectives to create a poem of your own adding your own words as necessary.

·         The sixth noun is the title of your poem.

·         Try to copy the rhythm of one of the poems you used.

The poem I chose was “How I talk to God” by Kelly Belmonte.

The poem I created – I won’t bother listing the nouns, verbs and adjectives I selected.  See if you can spot them!  My heading isn’t one of the nouns and I didn’t stick to her rhythm either, but I like the end result.

Calvary

Always I was free
To step away from the cross
I could have listened
To the chatter of the world
Left Calvary alone
Listed all the reasons why
You were hard to love
But I saw your open wound
Heard your cry for peace
Touched the brokenness and knew
Your ache to connect
I walked on a troubled sea
To rescue you once
Another storm draws near but
I will keep you safe
I give you My word