“Stream of Thought” and Other Poems by “Conway”

“Conway”, a prisoner at a supermax facility in central California who’s serving 25-to-life under the state’s three-strikes law for receiving stolen goods, has sent me some new poems that I share below. Writing materials are often scarce for him, so he composed these on the back of an official memo listing the rules for the Administrative Segregation unit (as I understand it, a variety of solitary confinement). Excerpts from that document are in italics below.

Stream of Thought

Take a step back, through the open door
Slide a pace forward on this polished floor
analyze the truth, judgments always do
ineffectually, mendaciously for me and you.

Which shadow that falls, which court has set aside
Censured from my youth, where folly used to ride
springing out of the deepest roots revealed
brought forth by the lies that truth concealed.

Is it candles on an altar, or sacrificial bread
or some speculated monologue of what was said
would thee that I banished a tenacious thought
stagnating in the streams of screams they wrought…


1. Anytime you exit the cell you will be handcuffed and will exit backwards.
2. There are no warning shots.
3. You will assume the prone position when ordered by staff.
4. Showers are conducted on 3/w and are 5 minutes. You are allowed 1 pair boxer shorts, 1-towel, shower shoes and soap/shampoo. No shirt or socks.
5. Supplies are issued on 3/w every Friday.
6. Visiting is on Saturday and Sunday 1 hour behind glass. 1300-1400 hours. You must be in compliance with departmental grooming standards or the visit may be cancelled.


The Same Thing 

These cracked stacked cages of ruin
   marching along in line, locked up keeping time
this heart of stone I found was drowned
   begrudging every last sound…
Still we fight this rock all night
   tossin-n-turnin like pages black & white
I spied outside my window to be
   that window looked in on me;
I asked the reflection “what do you see?”
   it did not answer me (how could it?)
   Those sands of time withstood it
but an echo said the same thing, took away the sting…


12. No magazine, newspaper clipping are to be placed on any cell wall. You are allowed to place 2 pictures on the wall above the head area of your bunk.
13. No covering of the cell lights or door window.
14. Mail issue and pickup will be conducted on 3/w.
15. No cadence will be allowed when on the exercise yard.


Flies buzz around this room forever out of luck
bouncing off the pane of glass not knowing they’re stuck
burn themselves out and expire on this windowsill
I’d like to think I’ll get out, but I know I never will

I’m lower than an insect, bouncing off the melted sand
can see what I want but can’t hold it in my hand
I swear I almost see, the transparent wind blowing
as time slides by, these midnight candles glowing

Check on my reflection something wise to recognize
all I seem to realize I’m like those buzzing flies
wings humming prolonging an avoidable fate
I’d love to let-em out, but, I sweep-em up on a later date…

John Stackhouse on Rethinking Christian Missions

In the latest issue of Books & Culture, theology professor John Stackhouse, Jr. (Regent College, Vancouver) lays out a more inclusive vision of Christian missionary work: one that respects the spiritual riches as well as the limitations of all religious traditions (including our own), and that saves not only individual souls but their bodies, their communities and their environment. It was hard to choose excerpts from this essay because every paragraph seemed essential and worth quoting. Here are some highlights, but go read the whole thing while access is still free:

Christians typically have believed that those who have not heard the name of Jesus are simply lost and destined for hell. Much of the energy of the great 19th-century missionary movement among Westerners, and much of the impetus of missions work around the world to this day, has come from the horror of a Niagara of souls pouring into a lost eternity for want of an evangelist.

We also need to acknowledge, however, a corresponding horror in the hearts of many—including many missions-minded Christians—about a God who allows whole nations and generations to plunge into a lost eternity simply because no one happened to reach them with the gospel. Does faithfulness to the Bible mean we must retain this picture?

I don’t think so. What we must retain is the Christian conviction that everyone needs salvation and that salvation comes only through the work of Jesus Christ. How the blessings of that work are applied by God to each person, however, is an issue on which Christians disagree. I would like to commend what is sometimes called an “inclusivist” position.

This position affirms that “without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6, NRSV). This assertion comes in the great chapter listing examples of faith from the whole sweep of the Bible. Thus it includes lots of people who apparently had never heard of Jesus Christ, but had encountered the true God, believing that he did exist and that he is trustworthy, that “he rewards those who seek him” with what they cannot do for themselves. This is the fundamental posture of faith, and from this passage, as from many others in the Bible, it is obvious that one does not have to know about Jesus to adopt this posture that results in salvation.

Does this mean that other religions are salvific? Certainly not. No religion is salvific: not Hinduism or Shinto or Islam, but also not Christianity. God is salvific. Practicing religion, however correct it is and however correctly one practices it, will not save you. That is basic Christian conviction. It is trusting God that will save you—that also is basic Christian conviction.

I am a professional theologian, so of course I think theology matters. Theology can help us live better or worse, depending on its quality. But theological accuracy is not the heart of the gospel. Encountering God’s Spirit and responding in faith to him in that encounter is what finally matters. And how God meets people, through whatever theology they might have, in whatever circumstances, is ultimately not visible to us….

Furthermore, we must beware of a second problem that lies nearby. And that is the idea that missions is all about getting people saved, and particularly about rescuing their souls from hell so that they can go to heaven. Multiple theological errors, in fact, attend this view of salvation.

God is not interested in saving merely human souls. He wants human beings, body and soul. Furthermore, he does not settle for saving human beings, but the whole earth. He made it in the first place, pronounced it “very good,” and he wants it all back. So he is saving us, the lords he put over creation, as part of his global agenda to rescue, indeed, the globe….

We are living demonstrations of our message, and much more attractive and effective ones than if we are only constant talkers, interfering with God’s original and abiding command to make shalom by trying to shove Jesus into every conversation at work or at home as if mission simply equals verbal evangelism.

Medicine, therefore, is part of God’s mission, whether any patient or co-worker comes to faith or not. So is education and environmentalism, and cooking and cleaning, and farming and family life. God cares not only about eternity but about the welfare of his creation now. And he calls us to participate with him in that care as generic human beings, stewards of that creation, even as he calls Christian people also to our special work of witnessing to, exemplifying, and spreading his gospel light….

Christian missions typically have felt obliged to show the deficiencies of other religious options and the superiority of Christianity.

In the case in which there was a simple binary opposition—the extant tribal culture versus the gospel—this could sometimes plausibly be done: Christianity can explain the world better, Christianity can assuage guilt better, and so on. In mission to globalizing urban populations, however, there is no way the missionary can plausibly claim that her religion is better than everyone else’s, and for several reasons.

First, no one can complete the study necessary to claim expertise on each of the other options available. Second, it is psychologically impossible to experience each of those options from the inside, as a believer, to complement the “external” knowledge of the scholarly expert. And third, there is no obvious and universally-acknowledged standard by which one could stand above all religious options and evaluate their relative worth.

Since we cannot demonstrate that Christianity is better than all the other options, however, the happy conclusion is that we are not obliged to do so. Instead, we should follow the apostolic pattern. Do we really think that Jesus’ early band undertook a comprehensive study of all of the religions available in the Roman world in the first century and then concluded that Christianity was the best option? No. “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (I John 1:1).

Jesus called us to be his witnesses, not his experts in comparative religion. We cannot prove that Jesus is the world’s one Savior and Lord, or that the Bible is alone the Word of God written. Only the Holy Spirit of God can do that. What we can and must do is what Christians can uniquely do: Testify to our experience and conviction that Jesus is indeed Savior and Lord and that the Bible is the Word of God written, and invite men and women to consider those startling propositions for themselves on the way to encountering Jesus himself. No other religion in the world places Jesus Christ where he belongs: in the center. That is our uniqueness, by the grace of God, and therefore our responsibility, by the command of God. That is all we must do—and we must do it….

God has not confined his goodness to Christian cultures. He has sent not only his rain on the just and the unjust, but his law, a sense of himself, and the institutions of human civilization to all peoples, however much those gifts have been repressed, confused, adulterated, or corrupted (Rom. 1). There is beauty, goodness, and truth almost everyplace we look in other religions and civilizations, however much we must also question or even condemn therein.

As Solzhenitsyn reminds us, furthermore, the dividing line between good and evil runs right through our own Christian hearts. And as recent events remind us (as recent events always do), we are individually simul justus et peccator (simultaneously justified and yet sinners) and our own churches and cultures have plenty of lostness, darkness, and paganism in evidence.

We need to appreciate, therefore, that not everything about their culture is bad and not everything we would erect in its place would be good. And the “them” implied here are not only those who live far away, but our neighbors, too, not to mention our own teenagers with their apparently inscrutable folkways and tastes! What, then, can we learn from them? What should they retain from the light God has already shed on them that can be taken up into the fulfillment that is Christ? What must they modify or discard in the light of the gospel? How can we foster a truly indigenized Christianity that will bring distinctive fruit from this culture, as Christianity has previously blossomed in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Eu
rope, and the New World? And what does this encounter tell us that we ourselves must modify or discard in the light of the gospel? These are the humble questions we must ask in authentic mission, as the apostles themselves did.

Read the whole essay here.

Self-Esteem the Christian Way

Martin Luther once observed that when your ego trip has crashed and burned, and your pride is no longer keeping you from God, the devil tries to use your shame to keep you estranged. It is so important to remember we are not God, and not anywhere near as holy and righteous as He is. It is equally important not to dwell morbidly on this fact, such that we don’t dare to feel loved by God.

The fact is, the righteousness gap between us and God is qualitatively greater than the differences between any of us. The person who is over-scrupulous and timid about not leaning on God’s love does not gain any significant moral advantage over the person who boldly throws his flawed self at Jesus’ feet.

Personally, I’ve found that I have a harder time accepting God’s grace for myself than for other people. I have this deep-rooted semiconscious conviction that He doesn’t like me. I can imagine Him feeling affection for the characters in my novel, even though they’re unbelievers who have a lot of sex in bathrooms. But for me, because I call myself a Christian and sometimes claim to have insights that may help the people I care about, I feel there is no margin of error. It is hard to believe I have permission to take care of my own spiritual growth, when that means withdrawing from service to others until I can recharge my sense of God’s love.

This meditation from the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus (courtesy of Mark Galli’s blog) expresses the beautiful paradox of loving ourselves because Christ first loved us:

Yesterday I was crucified with Christ; today I am glorified with Him. Yesterday I died with Him; today I am quickened with Him. Yesterday I was buried with Him; today I rise with Him. Today let us offer to Him Who has suffered and Who has risen for us–you think perhaps I was about to say, gold, or silver, or precious things, or shining stones of rare price, the frail material of this earth, which will remain here, and of which the wicked and those who are slaves of earthly things and of the prince of this world possess the greatest part–rather, let us offer Him ourselves, which to God is the most precious and becoming of gifts. Let us offer to His image what is made in the image and likeness of this image. And let us make recognition of our own dignity. Let us give honour to Him in Whose likeness we were made. Let us dwell upon the wonder of this mystery, that we may understand for what Christ has died.

Book Notes: The Fall of Interpretation

The thesis of Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic is simple and revolutionary: The necessity of interpretation — the impossibility of unmediated, perspective-free experience of a text or an event — is not a tragedy nor a barrier to truth, but an acceptable aspect of being a finite creature. Complete interpretive agreement, which history shows us is impossible, is not the only way to maintain the authority of a text such as the Bible or the Constitution. Smith argues that giving up the ideal of total, self-evident consensus will not lead to chaos because tradition and real-world experience constrain the number of interpretations we will actually find useful.

Hermeneutics is the branch of philosophy dealing with theories of interpretation. From Plato to today’s evangelical scholars and deconstructionist philosophers, there’s a common assumption that the necessity of interpretation is a fall from grace. In a perfect world, the theory goes, everyone would clearly perceive reality in exactly the same way. There wouldn’t be this diversity, uncertainty and incompleteness of interpretations.

Postmodernism contributes the insight that there is no pure encounter with the text, no alternative to our responsibility to choose among a plurality (though not, as Smith argues, an infinity) of plausible interpretive filters. So are our only choices a naive inerrancy or a despairing relativism? Not unless we are comparing our actual hermeneutic situation to a false ideal of perception unbounded by time, space, or the gap between self and object — in other words, measuring our perspectival knowledge against the direct knowledge available to an omniscient, omnipresent God.

Interpretation exists because we are finite creatures who cannot get completely beyond the space-time position where we find ourselves. Finitude creates a gap between two communicating individuals, and between myself and the object I communicate about. This gap produces the risk of mis-communication, and ensures that the sign can never capture the entirety of the signified.

Smith argues that the link between interpretation and fallenness contradicts the Christian belief that creation was originally and essentially good. To blame humans for not having a God’s-eye perspective is to say that finitude itself is fallen. In other words, we’re saying God made a mistake by creating individual humans with a diversity of cultures and experiences, instead of one undifferentiated God-being. This is unbiblical and, since it doesn’t fit reality, unhelpful. It produces hermeneutics that avoid self-awareness about their own limitations.

But wait, doesn’t the Tower of Babel story imply that linguistic diversity is a punishment for human pride? Smith daringly contends that God was restoring His intended diversity and squelching early humans’ totalitarian impulse to impose a monoculture. It makes a peculiar sort of sense: what would ever motivate God to make it harder for us to know Him? The fact that He brought pluribus out of unum suggests Smith is right that Christians should celebrate the polyphonic quality of human discourse.

Smith notes that “to say that everything is interpretation is not to say that all is arbitrary.” (p.163) The hermeneutics of the culture wars present us with a false choice between a single reading (of the Bible or the world) and an infinity of equally valid readings. Neither is actually an option for us. Interpretation isn’t infinite because reality pushes back. Our common experience in a shared world sets interpretive norms that “resist capricious construal.” (p.174) In other words, you can’t interpret your fist through a brick wall. Or, to use an example from Wallace Stevens, there may be 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, but there is also a real blackbird for comparison. “The blackbird is involved in what I know.”

Most of Smith’s book is taken up with tracking the false ideal of un-interpreted text through the writings of Augustine, Gadamer, Pannenberg, Heidegger, Derrida, and sundry other philosophers and theologians. If this is too “inside baseball” for you, I recommend Smith’s shorter and more readable Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?

Like many books that debunk a widespread belief, this one could have used less de-construction and more re-construction. The final section describing Smith’s alternative “creational hermeneutic” is tantalizing but too brief. The book would have vaulted from good to great if it had analyzed controversial Bible passages to show how his method can help the church live with diversity of opinion. The Anglican Communion needs you, Jim! Call your office!

Humility in a Mass Culture

On the Chabad.org website, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Great Britain, shares his thoughts about the “lost virtue” of humility in a mass culture where our fears of anonymity and loneliness drive us to frantic self-display:

Humility is the orphaned virtue of our age. Charles Dickens dealt it a mortal blow in his portrayal of the unctuous Uriah Heep, the man who kept saying, “I am the ‘umblest person going.” Its demise, though, came a century later with the threatening anonymity of mass culture alongside the loss of neighbourhoods and congregations. A community is a place of friends. Urban society is a landscape of strangers. Yet there is an irrepressible human urge for recognition. So a culture emerged out of the various ways of “making a statement” to people we do not know, but who, we hope, will somehow notice. Beliefs ceased to be things confessed in prayer and became slogans emblazoned on t-shirts. A comprehensive repertoire developed of signalling individuality, from personalized number-plates, to in-your-face dressing, to designer labels worn on the outside, not within. You can trace an entire cultural transformation in the shift from renown to fame to celebrity to being famous for being famous. The creed of our age is, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.” Humility, being humble, did not stand a chance.

This is a shame. Humility — true humility — is one of the most expansive and life-enhancing of all virtues. It does not mean undervaluing yourself. It means valuing other people. It signals a certain openness to life’s grandeur and the willingness to be surprised, uplifted, by goodness wherever one finds it. I learned the meaning of humility from my late father. He had come over to this country at the age of five, fleeing persecution in Poland. His family was poor and he had to leave school at the age of fourteen to support them. What education he had was largely self-taught. Yet he loved excellence, in whatever field or form it came. He had a passion for classical music and painting, and his taste in literature was impeccable, far better than mine. He was an enthusiast. He had — and this was what I so cherished in him — the capacity to admire. That, I think, is what the greater part of humility is, the capacity to be open to something greater than oneself. False humility is the pretence that one is small. True humility is the consciousness of standing in the presence of greatness, which is why it is the virtue of prophets, those who feel most vividly the nearness of G-d.

As a young man, full of questions about faith, I travelled to the United States where, I had heard, there were outstanding rabbis. I met many, but I also had the privilege of meeting the greatest Jewish leader of my generation, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Heir to the dynastic leadership of a relatively small group of Jewish mystics, he had escaped from Europe to New York during the Second World War and had turned the tattered remnants of his flock into a worldwide movement. Wherever I travelled, I heard tales of his extraordinary leadership, many verging on the miraculous. He was, I was told, one of the outstanding charismatic leaders of our time. I resolved to meet him if I could.

I did, and was utterly surprised. He was certainly not charismatic in any conventional sense. Quiet, self-effacing, understated, one might hardly have noticed him had it not been for the reverence in which he was held by his disciples. That meeting, though, changed my life. He was a world-famous figure. I was an anonymous student from three thousand miles away. Yet in his presence I seemed to be the most important person in the world. He asked me about myself; he listened carefully; he challenged me to become a leader, something I had never contemplated before. Quickly it became clear to me that he believed in me more than I believed in myself. As I left the room, it occurred to me that it had been full of my presence and his absence. Perhaps that is what listening is, considered as a religious act. I then knew that greatness is measured by what we efface ourselves towards.
Read the whole essay here.

Marilynne Robinson on Poetry and Religion

Novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson (The Death of Adam) reviews Harold Bloom’s new anthology American Religious Poems in the May 2007 issue of Poetry magazine. The book itself is merely the jumping-off point for an eloquent, original essay on how poetry and religion both need and exceed the boundaries of rational analysis. Some highlights:

Any reader of Ecclesiastes or the Book of Job is aware that the canon of scripture has room for thought that can disrupt conventional assumptions about the nature of belief, whether these assumptions are held by the religious or by their critics. Indeed, religion is by nature restless with itself, impatient within the constraints of its own expression….Any writer who has wearied of words knows the feeling of being limited by the very things that enable. To associate religion with unwavering faith in any creed or practice does no justice at all to its complexity as lived experience. Creeds themselves exist to stabilize the intense speculations that religion, which is always about the ultimate nature of things, will inspire….

There is every reason to turn to poetry in order to acquire a sense of the nature of religion. The two seem always to have been intimately linked. This deep and ancient affinity cannot be accidental. One does not “understand” what Aeschylus or Isaiah wrote, because poetry is not, in the ordinary sense, “understood.” If it is great, it is lived with over time by individuals and civilizations, interpreted again and again in its impact on language and thought and the arts, and on all those souls who are sensitive to its pleasures and sufficiencies. In just the same way, religion is not to be “understood.”

Again, poetry is best interpreted by poetry. William Carlos Williams tells us vastly more about Walt Whitman than the whole tribe of his critics and biographers can hope to tell us. Whitman made Emerson far greater than Emerson was on his own. Perhaps Sophocles did as much for Homer. Likewise, to the exasperation of those rationalists who wish they would just say what they mean, religions interpret themselves in religious terms. If the Gospel of Luke doesn’t make sense to you, Augustine and Luther won’t either. Those who look into this anthology are likelier than others to have some experience of poetry and to recognize the inadequacies of interpretation and paraphrase. But religion, not only in America, has been seriously distracted by the supposed need to translate itself into terms a rationalist would find meaningful. So liberals have set out upon a long, earnest project more or less equivalent to rewriting Shakespeare into words of one syllable—if such a thing can be imagined as an effort fired by moral passion and carried out by people who would themselves confess to a deep affection for Shakespeare. Fundamentalists have responded with a furious rejection of the very thought that the Bible might operate at the level of poetry, which amounts to a literalist insistence that the text is already available to understanding in the rationalists’ own terms and which yields endless futile controversy, notably about creation. This collaboration of supposed antagonists, liberals, and fundamentalists has meant that, for the moment, religion and poetry seem alien to one another as, historically, they have never been.

But the problem of paraphrase is deeper yet. Anyone, asked to give an account of her or his deepest beliefs, will experience embarrassment and difficulty. This is true because of the way belief lives in experience. By analogy, it is impossible to know how many nuances and associations a given word has until they are discovered in the use of the word, or in the recognition of a novel inflection given the word by another speaker. Even the most familiar words exist in us in a field of potentiality to which paraphrase can never be adequate. What but poetry could arrive at Wallace Stevens’s phrase, “the the”? On the same grounds, the expectation that a straightforward account can be made of any system of belief is naive, and attempts to accommodate the expectation are also naive. This is not to say that religion is closed against the inquirer. No more is poetry. However, like mathematics and music, they must be approached in terms that are appropriate to them. If the individualism and pluralism of American culture have indeed been especially friendly to the flourishing of religion, perhaps this is true because they discourage blanket statements about religious belief, which are always inadequate and disheartening.

Read the whole essay here.

Hail Thee, Festival Day

Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, on which we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. The story is told in Acts 2:1-21. In the Episcopal service I attended today, this passage was read alongside the story of Babel in Genesis. At the beginning of the Bible’s history of the human race, God created language barriers in order to thwart our plans to build a tower that would reach to heaven. At Pentecost, by contrast, the Holy Spirit made it possible for Jews from many nations, who were in the synagogue for the harvest festival of Shavuos, to understand the apostles’ preaching as if it were in their own language.

So does God want diversity or uniformity? To me, the juxtaposition of these stories suggests that God wants us united only under His banner. We couldn’t be trusted at Babel to use our communicative powers for good. Perhaps he allowed us to experience linguistic boundaries in order to teach us that we are creatures with a limited perspective, not a God’s-eye view. However, there are also truths that He wants us all to know. Our identity as God’s children transcends specific worldly identity markers. It’s interesting that the Jews at Pentecost heard the apostles’ words in their own languages, rather than having the Jews all suddenly understand the language the apostles were speaking. This might mean that the church should not pretend to stand above culture, but instead should embrace a variety of approaches to sharing the gospel in different cultures.

Readers of this blog know that I’m between churches at the moment. The parish I attended today has a wonderful charismatic minister (in both the theological and colloquial senses of the word) but is too far away for regular attendance. I had somewhat reconciled myself to praying at home with the online hymnal. When the minister today encouraged us to invite the whirlwind power of the Holy Spirit into our lives, I realized one reason why we need collective worship. The Holy Spirit is too intense to handle on one’s own. I’ve been doing some very deep soul-searching this spring, and I feel like a ping-pong ball that’s just going “whap-whap-whap” between God and Satan. Euphoria! Depression! Writer’s block! Preach the gospel! Annoy people! HELP!

So…thank you to the Church of the Ascension (NYC) where I was baptized six Pentecosts ago, and all the other churches and prayer groups that have helped me forge ahead on this amazing journey.

Said Sayrafiezadeh: “Forbidden Fruit”

In this excerpt from his forthcoming memoir about growing up Communist in America, Iranian-American essayist Said Sayrafiezadeh turns a childhood memory of his mother’s grape boycott into a darkly comic, profound meditation on how desire is whetted by prohibition:

In 1973, when I was four years old, César Chávez, president and co-founder of the United Farm Workers, called for a national boycott of iceberg lettuce and table grapes. The Socialist Workers Party, which my mother was a member of, honored the boycott immediately. Under no circumstances, my mother informed me, were iceberg lettuce and grapes permitted in our household any longer….

Even though my mother never once relinquished and allowed grapes to cross the threshold of our apartment, they became a constant, unyielding presence in my life, following me like a shadow. There were political posters about not eating grapes, fliers about not eating grapes, T-shirts about not eating grapes, conversations about not eating grapes. There is a very real possibility that I did not even know what the fruit was until the very moment that it became unavailable to me. I existed in a state of infinite longing that intertwined so tightly with my desire that it was impossible to distinguish one feeling from the other and which set a terrible precedent for me. I was acutely aware that there was something out there in the world that still existed—that was still being enjoyed by other people, even—and that had once belonged to me, but was now forever out of my reach. Desire = longing. All of this culminated in the horrific button my mother made me pin to my jacket, which featured the logo of the United Farm Workers—a stark black eagle with wings spread wide against a blood red background—along with the unequivocal imperative, “Don’t Eat Grapes.” It was not a declaration to the outside world, but a scarlet letter that constantly reminded me of my own sinful desires, which, if I ever managed to quench, would be quenched only through the immiseration of others….

I had become the fox in Aesop’s fable who jumps again and again without success at the dangling bunch of grapes hanging on the branch above him. The rationalization that the fox eventually concocts in order to soothe himself and allay his disappointment is that the grapes themselves are most likely sour and not, in the end, worth his trouble. The conclusion I drew, however, was of a different nature. As the boycott progressed, I began to see what my mother saw: the flaw existed within me. Desire under capitalism—all desire—was a shameful, unwanted condition, and one should never attempt to satisfy their desire, but instead, through heightened consciousness of the world, transcend it, and by so doing rid themselves of it forever.

Read the whole essay on the New York Foundation for the Arts website.

Visit Mr. Sayrafiezadeh’s website here.

Christine Potter: “The Sorrow of Early Spring”

Noon finds each dry leaf piled
under each empty tree. No wind.
Light carries sudden heat—the scent

of sugar or blossom—but nothing
is up except onion grass.
The bleached, papery skull

of a snake casts its thumb-sized
shadow. That sad thing, that sad thing
has returned. It closes your throat

to the words which might
give it ease. You can’t yet count
your losses, or say which buds

won’t open their small wings;
the earth’s too tender for walking.
But the usual fever has gilded
the willows. The gas-blue sky stings.

      reprinted by permission of The Pedestal Magazine

Read more fine writing in the latest Pedestal issue. I especially enjoyed the poems by Dana Sonnenschein and John Hazard.

Common Ground for a Schismatic Church

Episcopal preacher Sarah Dylan Breuer, who blogs over at Sarah Laughed, has suggested this list of core beliefs to remind both factions of our divided communion that our similarities in essential matters may outweigh our differences. The comments below her post offer worthwhile additions, mainly emphasizing human sin and the necessity for grace. Other commenters note with dismay that some liberal churches within ECUSA now reject the very idea of collective agreement on doctrine. Sarah’s list:

Jesus is Lord. Jesus and the God who created the universe are one.
The Old and New Testaments were inspired by God, and are useful for teaching and Christian formation (a la 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Jesus of Nazareth was an actual historical person who was born of Mary, gathered disciples and taught, healed, and confronted evil powers in ministry the first-century Roman province of Palestine, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate’s authority.
Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Christ of God.
The God of Israel raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. I know some Christians struggle with this, but I believe this was a bodily resurrection, and the tomb was empty (and John Dominic Crossan never persuaded me that there was no tomb).
Jesus’ disciples met the risen Jesus — some had visions, some corporeal encounters (though Jesus’ body was different in some ways — e.g., he didn’t seem to need doors to be opened or unlocked to get into a room), but in all cases reported in the New Testament it was Jesus they met.
I think the list of canonical books in the New Testament is a good one. There is no non-canonical gospel that I would have liked to see in the canon, and no book currently in the canon that I’d exclude if I could.
I believe that the kingdom of God was inaugurated in Jesus’ ministry, and that Jesus will come again to realize fully his work among us.
I believe that the God of Israel has chosen Jesus, the Christ, as judge of the nations.
I believe that Jesus is really present in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
I believe that Jesus is really present wherever people gather in his name.
For what it’s worth, I hang my hat on the Nicene Creed and Romans chapters 6-8.

Whatever our list of essentials, we have to decide when it is worth splitting the church over differences in interpretation. Are we all worshipping and loving the same Lord as revealed in Jesus? Then maybe this marriage can be saved. But if some of us define Jesus as “God incarnate who died for our sins” and others define him as “a good role model in a world where we must save ourselves through good works,” then the whole project may become too incoherent for us to pursue it under the same roof. The gay/straight division has become a proxy for so many deeper theological divisions that it does not correlate with at all — perhaps because fallen human beings would rather fight about morality than come together in our need for grace.