Halloween Poetry: Marsha Truman Cooper’s “A Disregarded Pumpkin”

This seasonal poem is reprinted by permission from Marsha Truman Cooper’s new chapbook, A Knot of Worms, released this year by Finishing Line Press. This collection gives voices to our non-human neighbors on earth, reminding us of our interconnectedness and our obligations to one another. As you can see from the poem below, Cooper skillfully uses humor and fantasy to recall us to empathy.

A Disregarded Pumpkin

I’ve lived in this field too long.
Nobody has chosen me to be carved
or turned into pie. My face,
never a marketable commodity,
has begun to separate from its old
expression. Even children
trudge along the rows and leave
my odd skull behind to go soft.
Look. My seeds go crazy, twisting
in their oval sleep. I see the future—
a fade of reddish yellow, my regular
features lost to rot. I wonder
if the jack-o’-lanterns are enjoying
their candles, if spices make
my fellow vegetables feel sexy
while they bake. Alone here
on the night’s cold ground, I can
suddenly sense my good luck.
I predict that the farmer
will wake before dawn to plow
everything under, open my bright
head and, whether he likes it or not,
plant another season of my dreams.

Chopping Down the Giving Tree: Boundaries and the Social Gospel

There are two kinds of parents in this world: those who think Shel Silverstein’s classic picture book The Giving Tree is a heartwarming fable about unselfish mother-love, and those who think it’s a horrible sentimentalization of codependence and narcissism. Regular readers of this blog should be able to guess which camp I fit in.

The Giving Tree is an apple tree, described with female pronouns, who loves a little boy. As he grows to young adulthood through old age, the boy-man asks more and more from the tree, taking her leaves and apples to sell, her branches for a house, her trunk for a boat, till finally she is only a stump that he sits on when he is a tired old man. The tree gives all these things because it makes him keep coming back, and when he comes back, she is happy. Meanwhile, the boy never says a word of thanks, nor does he seem satisfied with the gifts for very long.

Christians who like this book have argued that it’s an allegory of God’s boundless love, which continues to be poured out on us despite our emotional fickleness and ignorance. I don’t buy that. If the Giving Tree is Christ, she’s Christ without the Resurrection. This tree, like my “one wild and precious life“, is a nonrenewable resource. When she’s chopped down, she doesn’t grow back. As far as we know, the boy doesn’t even plant her apple seeds to grow new trees.

This is a perilous model for Christian discipleship because it burdens a finite human being with satisfying infinite demands. The danger of a codependent Messiah complex is particularly acute in liberal churches where God’s direct, supernatural intervention is downplayed or doubted outright.

In church, we hear about stewardship of our material blessings and our fragile ecosystem, but are not sufficiently encouraged to be good stewards of the one resource on which all others depend: ourselves. Our time, energy, emotional health, material possessions, and solitude. Yes, solitude is a resource. That’s why Jesus didn’t heal broken legs and hand out fish sandwiches 24 hours a day; he had to withdraw into the wilderness to recharge his connection to God. By contrast, the Giving Tree is unable to endure her solitude. Are we also compulsive givers because we need the warm feelings of charity to plug the God-shaped hole in our heart? Afraid that God isn’t really there for us, we’ll do whatever it takes to bind another person to ourselves.

The recipient’s angle on the relationship is also problematic. The sentimental ideal of unquestioning generosity forestalls investigation into whether we’re actually helping. The Giving Tree’s boy does not seem to grow in happiness, empathy, or maturity as a result of her gifts. Let’s just say, I pity his wife.

Christians can fall prey to oversimplified ideas about duty and sacrificial love. This comes up in our domestic lives, and also in our efforts to follow Jesus’s mandate to help the poor. It saddens us to pass by the man lying on the pavement, someone who already seems cut off from society, and have nothing more personal to offer him than cold cash. However, a relationship based on the high-sounding principle “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” can turn sour because both ability and need are elastic. In my family of origin, it soon became clear that the path to dominance was to inflate your needs and let your abilities atrophy. The Giving Tree’s boy is never challenged regarding the importance and consequences of his demands, so he never learns to live within his means.

Before commissioning us to involve ourselves in the lives of traumatized strangers, churches must do more to educate Christians about the user-enabler dynamic and give us spiritual permission to set safe boundaries. Remember, Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, not instead of.

Generosity without accountability breeds an attitude of entitlement to the lives and bodies of others. This attitude underlies patriarchy, child abuse, and domestic violence — pervasive social evils that are a prime contributing cause of the addictions, mental illnesses, poverty and homelessness that Christian charity targets. Social work has a place among the church’s programs, but our unique leverage point is practical theology: proclaiming a genuinely loving alternative to the relational patterns that keep the cycle of exploitation going.

Poetry by Lawrence Kessenich: “Meditating with a Dog Named Vasana”

Earlier this month we held a ceremony at our house to welcome our 18-month-old, Shane, into my husband’s Buddhist meditation community. We shared some spiritual readings and poetry that celebrated young children’s ability to abide in the present moment, without pretensions or superimposed storylines.

I was reminded of this when I read Lawrence Kessenich’s poem below, which won the 2012 Spirit First Meditation Poetry Contest. Sponsored by a meditation center in Washington, DC, this free contest awards prizes up to $175 for poems on the theme of meditation, mindfulness, stillness, or silence. The current contest is open through January 31.

Like the dog in the poem, the Young Master is very fond of his stuffed squirrel, but he is especially delighted with the singing bowl we bought him for the ceremony. Each morning he reaches for it with a smile, and we have a mindfulness moment as we listen to the ringing echoes fade away. And then he bangs on it and chews on the stick!

Meditating with a Dog Named Vasana*
by Lawrence Kessenich

The mind is not easily ignored.
Told to sit in the corner like
a good little dog, he disobeys
bringing thoughts like toys:
a green rubber block, a stuffed squirrel,
an old, slimy, gnawed-over bone.

Take this simple mantra, I tell him,
and play with that. But he wants to do more.
He barks, licks my face, sniffs my crotch,
drops a brightly colored ball at my feet.
Vasana! I say sharply.
But to no avail. He is my dog
and requires my attention.

I toss his ball across the room
again and again and again.
He brings it back to me
again and again and again.
Until, finally, he drops it,
lays down in his corner, and falls asleep,
dreaming of sticks thrown into rivers.
Good dog, Vasana. Good dog.

*Sanskrit word for concept “monkey mind”

Lawrence Kessenich is an accomplished poet living in Massachusetts—he won the 2010 Strokestown International Poetry Prize, and his poetry has been published in Atlanta Review, Poetry Ireland Review, Cream City Review, Ibbetson Street, and many other magazines. His chapbook Strange News was published by Pudding House Publications in 2008. Another chapbook was a semi-finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award and finalist for the Spire Press Chapbook Contest. His current collection, Before Whose Glory, was a semi-finalist for the Off the Grid contest. His poem “Underground Jesus” was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Kessenich has also published essays, one of which was featured on NPR’s This I Believe in 2010 and appears in the anthology This I Believe: On Love. His play Ronnie’s Charger was produced in Colorado in 2011.

Belonging, Believing: A Tension at the Heart of Church

There is a paradox buried in the idea of religious community, an imperfect compromise that sooner or later all churchgoers must make, but that we don’t like to acknowledge openly. This is because a church has two purposes, the social and the devotional. We prefer to pretend that these two goals never pull us in incompatible directions, or that the tension can easily be resolved by abandoning one of them with no damage to the church’s mission.

In ordinary circumstances, we adjust our expectations all the time, in order to maintain equilibrium in our relationship to our faith community. We learn to get along with fellow members who make us uncomfortable, because the church is guiding us to serve God together. Or we tolerate preaching and programs that we don’t fully agree with, because we’ve formed strong bonds with our parish family. As in a marriage or a workplace team, a certain level of compromise is healthy. C.S. Lewis discouraged “church shopping” because he believed that members’ acceptance of one another’s imperfections produced spiritual maturity.

But there is an ever-present risk that the tension between our social and spiritual needs will become too great.

A church with robust faith in the Incarnate God and substantial programs for spiritual formation may turn out to be a church that is not safe for authentic personal relationships — for example, because of homophobia, sexism, or a general culture of disregarding boundaries in order to “save souls” (see Dianna Anderson’s incisive post about false intimacy in evangelical small groups).

On the other hand, a church that respects its members’ privacy and diversity may be refusing to provide any leadership about what it means to live a Christian life. Because of a liberal overreaction against fundamentalism, such a church may be a safe social club but no more than that. Our interpersonal roots may be spreading while the plant of our faith withers away for lack of nourishment.

The work of Christian scholar Diana Butler Bass is popular nowadays in discussions about reinventing the liberal church. Though I haven’t yet read her book Christianity After Religion, from which this framework is taken, I’ve heard talk about her formula of “belonging, behaving, believing”, which represents the current (in my view, unsatisfying) attempt to resolve the tension. Mark Krause of Nebraska Christian College summarizes it well on his blog:

Bass uses the paradigm of Believing, Behaving, Belonging to flesh out her argument. This is the order her analysis of 20th century American Christianity has produced. First, we believe a set of doctrines put forth by a particular church or denomination. Second, we change our lives to conform to these doctrines in the area of personal behavior. Third, we are accepted as part of the community. Bass sees the new spirituality-based Christianity of the 21st century as reversing this paradigm. We begin by belonging, identifying with a faith community based on personal relationships. Second, we behave, although Bass’s understanding of this is far removed from the earlier understanding. She means that we begin to fit in with this community in our lifestyle. However, in the new paradigm, this may be because we have found a faith community that matches our current lifestyle rather than any sense of transformation. Third, we believe; we incorporate the general beliefs of our identified faith community into our lives, largely on a experiential and activist basis.

As I see it, Bass’s formula sets up churchgoers for a crisis of conscience or personal heartbreak down the road. What happens when we have developed close personal ties to a community, but discover that we can’t accept what they believe? The peer pressure to maintain those ties can distort or suppress our search to know God’s will for ourselves.

This is the subterranean flaw in what conservative Christians call “friendship evangelism”, i.e. nurturing a relationship of trust with another person in order to create an opening to convert her. The “trust” and “friendship” turn out to be one-sided because the would-be evangelist is not open to having his own beliefs altered by the encounter with the other. He expects her to prioritize “belonging” while he will always put “believing” first.

To avoid this pitfall, the liberal church often de-emphasizes the “believing” piece. But I’ve noticed that this creates its own kind of cognitive dissonance, in me at least. The church’s retention of authoritarian privileges sits uneasily with its primary branding as a voluntary social club. For instance, we receive strong messaging that we should be attending church. Once we’re there, we’re expected to sit quietly while the person in the pulpit tells us what our shortcomings are, and what good works God commands us to do. We generally hear a lot more about what is needed from us (tithing, volunteerism, charitable giving) than invitations to share our own needs.

If the church is going to foreground “relationship”, it had better make sure that its model of relationship is mutual, consensual, and not guilt-based. That’s not currently happening.

Moreover, relationship is an empty word unless we have a basis for our affinity. To cite C.S. Lewis again, in The Four Loves he offers a memorable image of friendship (philia) as two people standing shoulder to shoulder, together looking at something they both love. For the friendship network that is the church, shouldn’t that “something” be Jesus? But now we’re back to “believing”.

The real B-word that will determine the church’s viability in the 21st century is boundaries. Stay tuned for future posts.