Gjertrud Schnackenberg: “Supernatural Love”

A good Christian poem and a good formal poem: rare accomplishments that the wonderfully named Gjertrud Schnackenberg combines in this piece, reprinted by permission from the blog of The Best American Poetry anthology series edited by David Lehman.

Supernatural Love

My father at the dictionary stand
Touches the page to fully understand
The lamplit answer, tilting in his hand

His slowly scanning magnifying lens,
A blurry, glistening circle he suspends
Above the word ‘Carnation’. Then he bends

So near his eyes are magnified and blurred,
One finger on the miniature word,
As if he touched a single key and heard

A distant, plucked, infinitesimal string,
“The obligation due to every thing
That’ s smaller than the universe.” I bring

My sewing needle close enough that I
Can watch my father through the needle’s eye,
As through a lens ground for a butterfly

Who peers down flower-hallways toward a room
Shadowed and fathomed as this study’s gloom
Where, as a scholar bends above a tomb

To read what’s buried there, he bends to pore
Over the Latin blossom. I am four,
I spill my pins and needles on the floor

Trying to stitch “Beloved” X by X.
My dangerous, bright needle’s point connects
Myself illiterate to this perfect text

I cannot read. My father puzzles why
It is my habit to identify
Carnations as “Christ’s flowers,” knowing I

Can give no explanation but “Because.”
Word-roots blossom in speechless messages
The way the thread behind my sampler does

Where following each X, I awkward move
My needle through the word whose root is love.
He reads, “A pink variety of Clove,

Carnatio, the Latin, meaning flesh.”
As if the bud’s essential oils brush
Christ’s fragrance through the room, the iron-fresh

Odor carnations have floats up to me,
A drifted, secret, bitter ecstasy,
The stems squeak in my scissors, Child, it’s me,

He turns the page to “Clove” and reads aloud:
“The clove, a spice, dried from a flower-bud.”
Then twice, as if he hasn’t understood,

He reads, “From French, for clou, meaning a nail.”
He gazes, motionless,”Meaning a nail.”
The incarnation blossoms, flesh and nail,

I twist my threads like stems into a knot
And smooth “Beloved”, but my needle caught
Within the threads, Thy blood so dearly bought,

The needle strikes my finger to the bone.
I lift my hand, it is myself I’ve sewn,
The flesh laid bare, the threads of blood my own,

I lift my hand in startled agony
And call upon his name, “Daddy Daddy” –
My father’s hand touches the injury

As lightly as he touched the page before,
Where incarnation bloomed from roots that bore
The flowers I called Christ’s when I was four.

Marriage Equality Debate Videos at “One Iowa”

One Iowa, the state’s largest GLBT advocacy organization, is dedicated to supporting full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Iowans through grassroots education and advocacy. The group is currently working
with legislators and community leaders to ensure that this year’s Iowa Supreme Court victory for marriage equality is not overturned through a constitutional amendment. Emboldened by the passage of California’s Proposition 8 in 2008, anti-gay activist groups are targeting other states where same-sex marriage was recently approved; a ballot measure to repeal marriage equality is also pending in Maine.

On their website, One Iowa has posted video highlights from a September 16, 2009 debate at Simpson College between Brad Clark, One Iowa’s Campaign Director, and John Stewart, a conservative Christian attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund.

I don’t know if these debates change anyone’s mind, but they do give anti-gay speakers a great opportunity to contract foot-in-mouth disease. “There’s something about the biological parents raising a child that places it in the optimum environment.” Thanks for disrespecting all the loving couples, many of them gay and lesbian, who rescue neglected children from the foster care system. Stewart claims the evidence is just not in yet concerning children raised by same-sex couples. Hey John, I’ve been living the evidence for 37 years; give me a call.

It makes me mad when conservatives fall back on this desperate “insufficient evidence” claim, since the homophobia they’ve perpetuated is a big reason why same-sex couples and their children might be afraid to self-identify in sociological surveys. Because of DOMA, the federal government forces gay couples who are legally married in states like Iowa and Massachusetts to lie on their federal tax forms; if they check the “married” box instead of “single”, they can be penalized. (Info courtesy of this thread on Join the Impact; corroborating info here.) So there’s another reason why stable GLBT families may be under-counted and misrepresented in official data.

Later, in response to an audience question about whether sexual orientation is a choice, Stewart makes the highly debatable claim that social science shows that gay-to-straight conversion is possible (“some people can change…some people do change”). Somewhat flippantly, he mentions Hollywood stars like Anne Heche who have had both male and female partners, to support his argument that homosexuality is not an immutable characteristic and therefore gays should not be a protected class.

There’s actually a valid point buried in here, but the answer is not to deny GLBT equality, but rather to rethink the rationales for our civil rights protections. As the other Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show, once said, a person’s religious affiliation can be changed far more easily than his or her sexual orientation, yet we rightly apply the strictest scrutiny to any classification that seems to discriminate on the basis of religion. This is because we recognize that some activities are so fundamental to a person’s heart and soul that the state wants to protect them from coercive interference.

Making “immutability” the linchpin of the debate wrongly pits the B and T in the queer acronym against the G and L. Bisexuals like Anne Heche deserve as much liberty as Brad Clark, who confidently responded to the same audience question, “I’m not just gay some of the time, I’m gay all day long.” Trans-people can change their gender (sort of); does that mean that gender, too, will cease to be a suspect classification? “We’d be happy to hire you, Ms. Reiter, if you’d just grow a pair.”

Watch the videos and contribute to One Iowa here.

Sunday Non-Random Song: Grits, “Supreme Being”

Christian rap? Why not?

Hip-hop, like commercial media generally, has become so dominated by bullets and booty that we might forget the sublime potential of spoken-word poetry. The strong beats and melodic hooks of hip-hop are well-suited to convey extremes of struggle and ecstasy that get bleached out of Christian soft rock.

I haven’t found an artist who does this better than Grits. This track, “Supreme Being”, is my favorite from their 1999 album Grammatical Revolution, a vibrant, many-faceted collection that also includes pounding spiritual-warfare anthems like “Man’s Soul” and “Return of the Antagonist” and the poignant, gospel-inflected “It Takes Love”.

I haven’t been able to find lyrics online; buy the album and enjoy the liner notes for yourself!

Christian Books Roundup: “The Nonviolent Atonement” and Others

It’s a bit early for a best-of-the-year roundup, but nearly getting beaned by a falling tree last week has convinced me that there’s no time like the present. So enjoy these capsule summaries of the best Christian nonfiction I’ve read this year, and be sure to prune your pear trees before they get top-heavy. (Although some would argue that God was angry at my perennials bed for supporting gay marriage.)


J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001) argues, to my mind persuasively, that traditional “satisfaction” theories of atonement are inconsistent with the nonviolent character of Jesus, and have also done harm by permitting Christians to romanticize abuse and oppression. The satisfaction model portrays Christ’s death as the saving act that was required to reconcile God and humanity. Weaver, coming from the Anabaptist “peace church” tradition, prefers a model he calls “narrative Christus Victor”, in which Christ’s death is a by-product of the collision between good and evil. The salvific event is Christ’s resurrection, which has both objective and subjective effects: on the cosmic level, it assures the eventual defeat of the powers of evil, and on the human level, it invites us to begin creating an alternative power structure that will be fully realized only at the eschaton–one in which self-giving love triumphs over domination. This is not something we must do to earn salvation; it is salvation itself, defined as participation in the reign of God and restoration of God’s image in us.

Theologians throughout the ages have come up with different metaphors for how the satisfaction-atonement worked, each (as Weaver observes) reflecting their own contingent cultural viewpoint. The 11th-century scholar Anselm conceived of God as a feudal lord whose honor required blood repayment, while the Puritans employed the language of their harsh penal system. Contort the metaphors as they will, Weaver argues, all of these narratives ultimately make God the author of Jesus’ death. Narrative Christus Victor actually puts the blame where it belongs–on us!–and defuses charges of “divine child abuse”.

Weaver frequently accuses the mainstream atonement tradition of severing the links between ethics and Christology, or ethics and salvation. The actual values that Jesus embodied in his earthly ministry become irrelevant, or even contradictory, when we picture God as restoring cosmic order through vengeance. Protestants have become so skittish about works-righteousness that we’ve reduced salvation to a transaction that occurs in some apolitical, supernatural realm–which conveniently allows us to dodge self-scrutiny about the church’s collusion with oppressive social structures. I do feel that Weaver is too quick to dismiss the Nicene-Chalcedonian creedal formulas as examples of this post-Constantinian turn toward empty philosophizing, but to be fair, the progressive political implications of the Trinity don’t get nearly as much press as they deserve.

In the second half of the book, Weaver surveys developments in black, feminist, and womanist Christian theology, offering a respectful summary and critique of several authors who have argued that satisfaction atonement reinforces abusive power dynamics by mischaracterizing the giving and receiving of punishment as expressions of love. I appreciate Weaver’s willingness to buck the anti-supernatural trend among liberal Christians by insisting that Jesus as moral example is important but insufficient; we also need the cosmic dimension of Christ’s victory over sin, effectuated by the resurrection.

Readers interested in exploring the Christus Victor motif may enjoy the writings of N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop credited (or blamed) for this so-called “new perspective on Paul”. Wright is the featured speaker at the April 2010 Wheaton theology conference, where fans and foes of his writings on justification will be duking it out. I’m hanging up my traveling shoes for awhile, so please send me your impressions of the conference for possible publication in this space.


British novelist Sara Maitland’s A Big Enough God: A Feminist’s Search for a Joyful Theology (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995) is an amateur theology book in the best sense of the word. In the same spirit as Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Maitland loves God’s creations and loves using her literary gifts to share her vision of a God who is wonderfully complex, dynamic, mysterious and risk-taking. (Amazon.com informs me that there’s a sequel from 2002.) Maitland reads a much better story from the book of nature than the rule-bound, abstracted and boxed-in God that religious people want to defend against the perceived onslaught of Galileo, Darwin, and Freud. Her theology is specifically feminist in that it celebrates particularity, difference, and embodiment as evidence of God’s boundless creativity, rather than a threat to the (unattainable) universality of some theological system.

But this is not a fuzzy-minded, sentimental book about Dear Mother Earth. Both the human and non-human elements of creation are marred by violence and decay. Revelation is necessary because nature is not sufficient as a guide to ethics. Maitland firmly believes in the gospel story, which she views as no more or less improbable than the life cycle of the woodlouse. Read her book and you might agree.

Maitland’s solution to the inclusive-language dilemma is a creative one. She warns feminists against setting up a new kind of gender essentialism which merely strokes our egos and denies the dark side of the maternal. Purging liturgical texts of all gendered metaphors won’t do either, because in our incarnational faith, God is known through the particulars. For herself, Maitland concretizes the “both/and nature” of God by calling God “Father” but with female pronouns: “she is Father”. She suggests that men would benefit from using the reverse formula, “he is Mother”, because in both cases, imagining God as the opposite sex acknowledges “that God is ultimately Other, the beloved Other; the transcendent, the enormous, the infinite; everything that I’m not, won’t be come and can’t experience, understand or claim to own.” (p.21)

I’d love to see more exploration of transgenderism as a theological metaphor. Transpersons’ experiences might help us fully celebrate the masculine and feminine energies within God, so that our theological language can avoid both watered-down androgyny and the privileging of one gender over another. (Ex-ex-gay activist Peterson Toscano is doing interesting work in this area.) As Maitland writes:

There seems in all of us to be an enormous resistance to the idea that a thing can simply be different from another thing (usually with myself as the normative thing and divergence from that as abnormal) without becoming better or worse. Yet the scandal of particularity, the fact of the Incarnation, holds up difference, specificity, as desirable. Moreover if difference and diversity are not good in themselves then it is a little difficult to see how this can possibly be the best of all possible worlds–this cosmos in which difference proliferates and the number of insect species is uncounta
ble. The theology I am looking for must affirm the reality of difference; call attention to it; honour and proclaim it as part of the glory. For unless difference is proclaimed the possibility of communicating in love with each other, let alone with God who is manifestly and necessarily different from us, is patently impossible. (pp.8-9)


While we’re on the topic of harmony within diversity, Thomas Breidenthal’s Sacred Unions: A New Guide to Lifelong Commitment (Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 2006) develops an inspiring and inclusive vision of marriage as a Christian vocation. A Christian marriage points beyond itself to service to God and community. It gives us the most intensive schooling in how to love another person as one’s self, with complete commitment of body and soul. Learning how to honor and cherish the spouse’s otherness also teaches us about intimacy with God, who is the ultimate Other. Meanwhile, the particularity of marriage, our love for a specific and irreplaceable person, reminds us that neighbor-love must be equally reverent toward the dignity of each individual we encounter; it is not merely directed at humanity en masse.

Perhaps I’ve been spending too much time in the gay male alternate universe, but I wished Breidenthal would have spent more time explaining why sexual exclusivity is the only possible definition of sexual fidelity. Certainly it’s always felt that way in my marriage. On the other hand, I know at least one gay male couple who consider themselves married and use their marriage as a home base for the type of ministry and activism that Breidenthal envisions, yet have a wide-open relationship.

If there is still a reason why one-night stands are incompatible with a Christian way of relating to others, maybe it’s the “Ensign Expendable” problem. Each of us naturally thinks of our life as a drama with ourselves as the main character. A few others, such as our primary sexual partner, are also characters who are acknowledged to have feelings and worth. The rest of the people we encounter are props, extras, existing only to advance our storyline. On “Queer as Folk“, the audience isn’t supposed to feel anything for the random hunky guys that Brian is banging each time Justin walks in and wants to talk about their relationship. Their anonymity is part of the sight gag. But from God’s standpoint, Mr. Right Now is just as important as Brian.

My guess is that it’s hard for gay Christians to discuss these issues openly because they’re still fighting for basic recognition in the churches, which requires assimilation to the heterosexual ideal. Given that many straight Christian couples also break their vows of fidelity, I look forward to the day when we can pool our knowledge about the best ways to achieve a stable, honest and healthy marriage.


Homophobia Creates Public Health Crisis in Jamaica

This stark report from the September issue of The Atlantic describes how rampant homophobia in Jamaica forces the gay community underground, inhibiting efforts at AIDS education and treatment. One has to wonder whether similar factors are contributing to the epidemic in some African countries, where anyone suspected of being gay runs the risk of criminal punishment and mob violence. Then, to top it off, anti-gay pundits feed these statistics back to impressionable young men who are struggling with their sexual orientation, warning them that “the lifestyle” inevitably leads to misery, disease and early death.

From The Atlantic article by Micah Fink:

We may be accustomed to thinking of AIDS as most rampant in distant parts of the world like Africa, India, and South Asia. But these days the epidemic is flaring up a bit closer to home, in the Caribbean. Indeed, AIDS is now the leading cause of death among adults there, and the Caribbean’s rate of new infections is the second highest in the world, following just behind Sub-Saharan Africa.

A major factor in the region’s susceptibility to the epidemic is its pervasive atmosphere of homophobia, which makes education and outreach efforts nearly impossible. Jamaica, which lies near the middle of the Caribbean and, as of last year, was found to have an astounding 32 percent HIV infection rate among gay men, offers a case study in how anti-gay attitudes have helped spread and intensify the epidemic’s impact.

In Jamaica, homophobic attitudes are reflected in everything from laws that criminalize anal sex, to the lyrics of popular dancehall music that celebrates the murder of gay men, to widespread acts of anti-gay violence, and a gay culture of sexual secrecy and high-risk behavior. Each of these factors is intensified by a religious context that defines homosexuality as a mortal sin and points to the Bible for moral justification in violently rejecting the concerns of the gay community.

According to Dr. Robert Carr, widely recognized as one of the world’s leading researchers on cultural forces and the unfolding of the AIDS pandemic, local awareness of the disease was initially shaped by the international media: “AIDS was seen as a disease of gay, White, North American men. And people were really afraid of it.”

“There were no treatments available in the Caribbean at the time,” he says, “so AIDS really was a death sentence. You had people with Kaposi’s sarcoma, people with violent diarrhea, who were just wasting away and then dying in really horrible and traumatic ways.” The terror induced by these deaths, combined with an already intense local culture of homophobia to produce a violent backlash. “To call what was going on here ‘stigma and discrimination’ was really an understatement,” he says. “In the ghettos they were putting tires around people who had AIDS and lighting the tires on fire. They were killing gay people because they thought AIDS was contagious. It was a very extreme environment, and really horrible things were happening.”…

Experts are increasingly convinced that getting AIDS under control here will require putting out not just general public health messages to the whole population, but targeted ones, directed at those most at risk. “A good starting point,” Maluwa suggests, “would be to openly design programs [for the gay population], just like we have programs to address the general population, to address children.” And these programs, she contends, should come complete with “adequate commodities, such as lubricants and condoms.”

But the social and political environment makes such targeted public health assistance nearly impossible—in part because the gay community is afraid to come forward to receive it, and in part because the (frequently violent) intolerance gays face makes AIDS a relatively less pressing concern….

Read the whole story here.

New Poems by Conway: “Leap Frog” and “Proof of Perfection”

My prison pen pal “Conway” has been experimenting with the prose-poem format while continuing to develop his gift for lyric poetry. I’ve been writing to him about my struggles with religious concepts of sacrifice and submission as I see them being misused in the church. I see those discussions reflected in his latest offerings, below.

Leap Frog

Imagine, what His hand and throat began
through all of the silences we chopped out
in front of our father’s shining eyes.

I’ve no need to sing it anymore
or finish the melted words melody.
We can all see & smell around the burning nights nettle,

as fluttering moths fill this scene’s backdoor screens
tendering an irresistible invitation to attack
in search of a crack in the curtains’ narrow track.

While chance packs another perishable skull
tight enough to subsist, in the spiritual
shimmering lushness, of dawn’s faithful light.
The tears diminish in the theft of a wilting heart
bent willows seeking flesh, have wrought
every salt-sprinkled drop on our pillows;

To slit the silent throat of sacrifice,
tossed the herded cross, lost in prayers petition.
But it was broken breath,

following the trail to the bitter end
of this deep ravine, winding its way
south of Heaven…


Proof of Perfection

Do you ever stare at your finger
if it could pull the trigger
or write the warrant
for the Judge’s execution

when a melting word
had burnished the herded cross

His head, was wrapped in nettle
from ear to ear
who really smeared the bloody spear
all over the doormat of our existence?

whispered questions
what is this shimmering silence,
this twisted blow, we’ll never know

the pagan eclipse, locked us all
out of an over-exercised church door
falling through the floor
unsure of our homeland,
of a hollow reed
still singing a satisfactory song

long after its death
dancing among the barbed smiles
that stole our breath…

I’m in an Open Relationship with Jesus

Someone close to me was telling me this morning about her struggle to accept her rabbi’s teaching that she should love God more than anything or anyone. “I can’t help it,” she said, “I love my daughter more!”

In the past I might have given a neat response, paraphrasing Tim Keller, to the effect that idolizing any created thing puts unbearable pressure on yourself (because you can lose it through failure or mischance) and on the one idolized (who feels compelled to be impossibly perfect). C.S. Lewis illustrates this distortion in The Great Divorce, his fantasy of damned souls on a field trip to heaven, through the character of an old woman who mourned her dead son so obsessively that she neglected the surviving members of her family. Lewis suggests that over time, the object of her passion became her own identity as a mourner, rather than the real person she had lost.

To love someone properly, on the other hand, is to recognize that you are not the author of the universe, which sooner or later means that you must surrender to God’s will for the other person. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me; and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me” (Matt 10:37)?

And yet, my past year of queer activism makes me think that something is indeed amiss with the rabbi’s formulation of the question about how love of God relates to love of neighbor. This opposition between them is a common one in Christian apologetics, as the examples above show.

How many times have gay people been told that their loving partnerships are a form of idolatry, a choice to value their own desires more than God? Conservative Christian friends have warned me that I was imperfectly surrendered to God because I refused to leave my GLBT brothers and sisters outside the fellowship of believers. My friends hardened their hearts toward these people and called it “putting God first”. In a book I recently read about the ex-gay movement, the gay men in the “reparative therapy” program were encouraged to project all their longing for intimate companionship onto Jesus, the one relationship that would never let them down. I believe in Jesus, but this still sounds to me like a dangerous retreat into fantasy.

The mistake behind the question “Do you love God more than your husband, wife, child…?” is that it prescribes the via negativa as the norm when it’s probably not the healthiest spiritual path for most people. Some do find God through the path of asceticism, quieting down all human distractions in order to rest in the stillness of the Wholly Other, the “deep and dazzling darkness” of Henry Vaughan’s wonderful poem “The Night“.

But for most of us who don’t live in monasteries, God is mainly known through our interactions with His creatures. “For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20) The formulation that puts God in competition with our human beloveds subtly encourages us to hold back a portion of our heart from them, to dampen down our feelings for them, in the name of religion. This is a “jealous God” in the crudest sense, a God whose evil eye we attract if we praise our child too much. To prefer this God is really to prefer ourselves, because we are putting a mental construct ahead of a living person who can challenge our preconceptions and agendas.

I would contend that the problem with idolatrous love, such as the old woman’s feelings about her dead son in The Great Divorce, is not too much love but too little. It does not see the other person for who he really is, and therefore cannot seek the highest good for him. It turns the lover away from caring for others, rather than producing an overflow of creative energy that seeks new outlets for service. (For a beautiful discussion of how marriage can generate neighbor-love, I recommend Sacred Unions by Thomas Breidenthal.)

To love anyone rightly–that is, skillfully, compassionately and unselfishly–is to love God. If you want to show that you love me, Jesus says to Peter, you will “feed my sheep” (John 21:17). Conversely, if our love for God isn’t increasing our love for other people, then it probably isn’t the real God that we’re worshipping.

So what was Jesus saying, in Matthew 10, if he wasn’t telling us to worry about loving our family and friends too deeply?

I don’t think he was prompting us to seek out conflict between our loyalty to God and our loyalty to our loved ones. Rather, he was warning us to make the right choice in the conflicts that would inevitably come as a by-product of kingdom living. Quoting the prophet Micah, Jesus says, “For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.'” (Matt 10:35-36)

Sometimes our loved ones don’t understand the way we feel called to serve God. A career military man may feel rejected and dumbfounded when his son reads the Gospels and decides to be a pacifist. An evangelical mother may feel afraid when her daughter studies Buddhist meditation as a way to enrich her prayer life. A feminist mother might be angry that her daughter votes pro-life for religious reasons.

In such cases, to put God first means letting the other person work out his or her own salvation. When we can’t come to agreement on what the Bible says, we have to trust that somehow it’s God’s will that each of us sees the world from a particular angle. We’re part of a larger pattern where these differences will ultimately be transcended or reconciled without shame to those on the “wrong” side.

Every morning, in our separate homes, my conservative Christian friend and I pray the Daily Office. We read the same psalms and speak the same prayers. I am praying that she and others like her will open their hearts to the full equality of gay people and the salvation of non-Christians, and she is probably praying that I will return to an orthodoxy that anathematizes these views. This scares me, sometimes so much that I become angry and frightened by Christian talk in general. The word of God is indeed a double-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). But if I’m so afraid to live without that friendship that I can’t follow my own sense of God’s will for me, then I am not obeying the command of Matthew 10.

Friday Random Song: Jason Bravo, “You Raise Me Up”

Buffalo, NY-based singer/songwriter Jason Bravo’s performances of original pop songs and classic covers can be enjoyed on his YouTube channel, BraveHealerMusic. His debut album “Between Head and Heart” is available from CDBaby.

In this concert clip from summer 2009, he’s performing Josh Groban’s hit song “You Raise Me Up”, with my best buddy Greg Bravo on the awesome guitar solos.

When I am down, and oh my soul, so weary.
When troubles come, and my heart burdened be.
Then I am still and wait here in the silence.
Until You come and sit awhile with me.

You raise me up so I can stand on mountains.
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas.
I am strong when I am on your shoulders.
You raise me up to more than I can be.

You raise me up so I can stand on mountains.
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas.
I am strong when I am on your shoulders.
You raise me up to more than I can be.

There is no life — no life without its hunger.
Each restless heart beats so imperfectly.
But when you come and I am filled with wonder.
Sometimes I think I glimpse eternity.

You raise me up so I can stand on mountains.
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas.
I am strong when I am on your shoulders.
You raise me up to more than I can be.

You raise me up so I can stand on mountains.
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas.
I am strong when I am on your shoulders.
You raise me up — to more than I can be.

Lyrics courtesy of AnyChristianLyrics.com

Wednesday Random Song: “Brighten the Corner Where You Are”

Ina Duley Ogdon was a Midwestern wife and mother and Sunday School teacher during the early 20th century.
Ogdon had ambitions of becoming a preacher but family responsibilities intervened. Her poem “Brighten the Corner Where You Are” was written in 1912 while she was caring for her sick father. Set to music by Charles H. Gabriel, the tune became a nationwide hit after evangelist Billy Sunday made it a staple of his revival meetings.

I first heard it this week on Enlighten 34, the Southern gospel station on XM Radio, in a lively rendition by The Statesmen which I wasn’t able to find on YouTube. (It’s featured on this album.) Instead, enjoy this old-school version by the Criterion Quartet:

This interesting 10-minute video tells the story of Ina’s life and the inspiration for the song, as well as its subsequent cultural reception.

1. Do not wait until some deed of greatness you may do,
Do not wait to shed your light afar;
To the many duties ever near you now be true,
Brighten the corner where you are.

* Refrain:
Brighten the corner where you are!
Brighten the corner where you are!
Someone far from harbor you may guide across the bar;
Brighten the corner where you are!

2. Just above are clouded skies that you may help to clear,
Let not narrow self your way debar;
Though into one heart alone may fall your song of cheer,
Brighten the corner where you are.

3. Here for all your talent you may surely find a need,
Here reflect the bright and Morning Star;
Even from your humble hand the Bread of Life may feed,
Brighten the corner where you are.

Lyrics courtesy of the Timeless Truths free online library. (Click the “midi” music note icon on their website to hear the tune.)

Mary Ruefle: “A Minor Personal Matter”

Halfway between prose-poems and essays, the offbeat musings in Mary Ruefle’s The Most of It (Wave Books, 2008) take some mundane incident–picking out a garden bench, for instance, or drinking a glass of water–as the starting point for an increasingly strange chain of associations. The original question becomes lost in the narrator’s argument with herself about action versus inaction. As in a Platonic dialogue, the only enlightenment we take away is an awareness of how muddled our concepts are. Or, to use a more modern example, Ruefle is like the toddler in the “Buttons and Mindy” cartoons who perpetually reduces adults to sputtering frustration by responding “Why?” to everything they say. Just when this aimless demolition seems to have gone on too long, Ruefle ends the book with the astonishing piece “A Half-Sketched Head”, in which we see that the preceding diversions served the same purpose as Zen koans, to humble the chattering mind and make room for spiritual clarity.

Rather than spoil the journey by giving away the ending, I’ve chosen to reprint a different selection from The Most of It. (Thanks to Wave Books for permission to quote this here.) Last year I was going through a serious “Why write?” crisis when I happened to read Ruefle’s book. “A Minor Personal Matter” oddly comforted me like nothing else. Perhaps there is no good reason to write, i.e. to exist: okay then, how do you face that and keep going?

A Minor Personal Matter

For a long time I was a poet. That is, I used to be a poet, for quite a long time in fact, and made my life making poems and teaching persons younger than myself just what this entailed, although I myself had no idea what it entailed, beyond a certain amount of courage and a certain amount of fear, but these amounts were variable and it was not always possible to say in which order they appeared and at any rate it was hard to convey. It was harder and harder to convey, but conveying it became easier and easier and that, too, lent an air of confusion to my days. For instance, many days I did not care about saying any of this, I only cared to say certain things that might cause someone to like me, but of course I never said that. I said only that I cared to say certain things that might cause someone to like the language. This seemed foolish because whether or not someone liked the language they had no choice but to use it. Whether or not the language was beautiful or gruff or strange they had no choice but to use it. So I said I only cared to say certain things that might cause someone to like the world, and being alive in it. Whether the world was beautiful or gruff or strange they had no choice but to live. Yes, I said, you may kill yourself, but that would not be living, you would not be living then. A great many poets killed themselves. This was a problem too insurmountable to even understand, although at times I felt I understood it very closely and this also was part of the problem. The only thing that seemed certain to me was that people who had no choice but to use the language while they were alive had a choice in whether or not they liked me. This was a real choice, one I might be able to persuade them in. And so it seemed to me this reason, the one which sounded most foolish of all (and therefore I never spoke it) was actually the most reasonable of all. Still, occasionally I met people who did not seem to like me no matter what I said or did. And it was not easy to turn away from them because they were the challenge. They were the challenge because they challenged me to like myself even if they did not. That was the challenge–to like myself in spite of all that happened or did not happen to me. It was to face this challenge that I ceased to write poems. Could I like myself if I no longer engaged in an activity I openly declared was the reason I was put on the planet in the first place? Would I find another reason to be on the planet, or could I remain on the planet, with nothing to do and no one to like me, liking myself? I decided to try. I was on the planet with nothing to do and no one to like me. And as soon as I found myself there, I realized I had created the circumstances in which I had begun to write poems in the first place, to the extent I now wander the earth, a ghost, with no intent to write, but carrying a spark in my fingertips, which keeps me in a state of constant fibrillation, a will-o’-the-wisp of stress, art, and the hours.