Sunday, October 31, 2010

on e e cummings and the simplicity of the gospel

For years I seldom read poetry unless it was required it of me. But e. e. cummings was different. I was introduced to one of his poems in high school and raced home to devour the rest of the collection. I no longer have the book and had all but forgotten it until recently, when a friend posted a reading of this poem - the very one that got me to buy the first book of poetry I ever owned:
i carry your heart with me

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
i fear
no fate (for you are my fate,my sweet) i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)
edward estlin cummings
It made me smile to hear it again, and to hear it read more beautifully than it ever sounded in the voice in my own head. It delighted middle-aged me at least as much as it did teen-me. I glanced at the commentary provided by the man who had read it with such deep feeling. As it turned out, the man hates this poem and promised to extend little more than civility to anyone he meets who likes it. He offered this disparagement:
"To me, this is a poem for people who in general do not like poetry."

Though I knew I was being insulted, I could not argue with his statement. It's true. I "in general do not like poetry". And yet here was a poem, and I had liked it, and had proceeded to consume a whole book of Cummings' poetry, which I also loved, much of which the critic did approve of.

And, so, my question is: what is wrong with writing a poem so winsome that even a dolt like me can be delighted? Is it possible that the very fact that it could crack a heart as hard as mine speaks to its strength, not its weakness? What is the point of poetry anyway? Exclusivity? Is the mark of a good poem that it appeals only to an elite few? Does the poet really not care that others are touched by it? I find that difficult to believe. What voice cries into a wilderness longing not to be heard?

Yet I've seen this exclusive mindset all over the artistic world - artists pouring out their hearts, dreaming of making a mark, and patrons trying to hoard them to themselves. I've seen it in churches too, people taking hold of the message and soon, as though unable to tolerate its simplicity, burying it under regulations and nomenclature then sitting smugly atop the mound, smirking at those who "just don't get it".

How quickly we forget the simple beauty of first love. How easily bored we become with even the greatest splendor. We aren't content to have enjoyed it, but must own it. So much of what we think of as love of beauty or love of God is really love of self. It's about feeling elite, elevated, in the know, superior, powerful. Appreciating this poem or that teaching, makes me feel smart, set apart from the masses. Yes, Me. I've done it. I've cheapened many wonderful things by using them to class myself up. I've done it with literature. I've done it with music. I've even done it with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
"Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord." 1 Cor 1: 26-31 (emphasis mine).
Now that I know Christ as the one in whom " all things hold together" and who has given me a new heart, this simple poem reads more like a prayer.

You can listen to the man who hates the poem read it beautifully here.  Ironically, and sadly, I could find no better reading of it than his.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bullied to death

Bullying is as old as humanity, or nearly so. That ancient book of Genesis tells us the first recorded human ever born bullied and murdered the second recorded human ever born.

I came along many millenia later and was bullied for much of my childhood and teen years, and for a very brief time (my mind travels back to eighth grade,when I had my one shot at popularity and became a monster) I played the bully myself. Back then adults, like Charlie Brown's teachers, were muffled voices, and, outside of the classroom, wholly uninvolved in the politics of the playground. We kids were on our own - at least that was my experience. I never told a soul or complained to anyone. There was a code, only spoken when broken. I don't know who invented it, or in what century, but to tattle was a worse crime than bullying itself, removing whatever respect might have remained. I challenged a girl to a fight once. It was to take place after school. I'd been picked on one too many times. But, before the next recess I was called to the teacher's desk and given a goldenrod slip of paper. I'd been ratted out. I felt a strange mix of contempt and relief. In spite of her size (in my childhood, everyone was bigger than me), she was afraid of me. I'd won the fight without anyone getting hurt. Scrawny, homely me had the power. That bit of satisfaction was worth facing my mother with goldenrod note in hand.

But bullying, along with all the other secret sins we children suffered silently back in "the good-old days" are being exposed. People are being encouraged to take a stand, to tell somebody, to get help. I hear the little girl in me cry out, "Don't tell! They'll hate you more! Don't give them the satisfaction of knowing they've hurt you. Don't let anyone know how weak you really are!" But that little girl was just a little girl, inexperienced, gullible.

Odd to think how my Christian school childhood served a better illustration of Darwinian "survival of the fittest" than any teaching of Christ. What I was taught in the classroom was untaught every time I exited its door.

But I've meandered off. Let me come to my point. What's puzzling me these days is not so much the fact of bullying, which has ever been with us, as the fact of the suicides it is leading to. I don't recall ever in my entire youth hearing of a suicide, let alone one by another youngster. High school was like a living hell for me. (Perhaps, if I'd known at the time that life could get even worse, I might have considered it....) But, as bad as things were then, I never seriously contemplated suicide. It would be another couple of decades before that degree of hopelessness could set in. In my teens I still had options, time, and that ability of the young to paint dreams with color, magic, and hope. So I managed my pain in other ways. I lived in a very big city. There were always options. I changed friends, changed schools, changed drugs, changed boys. I also journaled, though we didn't call it that then. And, sometimes, I prayed. These little steps, desperate and misguided as they clearly were from the vantage of my middle age, distracted me from suicide.

I knew other kids, back in those days when stigmas still had some real punch, who really messed up. What I mean is, they got caught messing up. I knew girls who got pregnant before high school was through, one while still in junior high. These girls had their babies and finished school. They didn't abort their babies or their lives. There were other kids who, like me, were hated and made the grist of the rumor mill. Often we outcasts hid together, comforted by a shared hatred of our abusers.

So what's changed? (If it really has. I don't want to rule out entirely the real possibility that these suicides have always been going on but nobody talked about it. Goodness knows we were a secretive bunch before Oprah came along.) Assuming this phenomenon really is new or suddenly and exponentially growing, I've come to think that the difference might not be so much in the bully, or the bullied, but in a new kind of ubiquity.

Through the omnipresent internet, playground politics and the snide cruelties of high school now follow us into our homes, right into our living rooms and bedrooms. We can run, but without unplugging entirely from our culture and it's tools, we can't hide. And even if we were to unplug, we would still know that nobody else has. Whatever our fear, whatever our shame, whatever our weakness, once it is exposed is exposed forever. There is no turning back. There is no forgetting. It is available to any heart, wicked or kind, any set of eyes with a search engine, and it can never be reliably erased. No matter where we run, we know any face we meet may have already gazed upon our shame, reveling, mocking, puffing up with pride at the expense of our souls.

We know it will always be out there, lurking, that callous and unforgiving swarm consciousness, hungering after it's next meal, sniffing for the blood of the weak and wounded. An injured one has few options: hope against hope to be overlooked, tiny, in the vast sea of wounded; wait to be scented out and tortured to shreds by a thousand little bites; or if the swarm becomes visible on the horizon, take matters in hand. Better to end it on one's own terms. Get it over quickly and comparatively painlessly.

Of course not all the bullied commit suicide. For any number of reasons, some are more vulnerable than others, but I am convinced that we are all in some way or another impacted. To quote a verse from the Bible, "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." None of us are perfect. Every one of us has done something, said something, that could condemn us in the eyes of the world. Every one of us is living in a world looking for someone else to take the blame. Even those of us who are active members of the swarm, looking to bite and devour, have somewhere in our hearts the buried knowledge that we are only one or two missteps away from becoming prey. This is the darkness of our world. It can be terrifying. I know.

There is no way out of the darkness but to break the power of shame. I have tried everything imaginable to do it: changing the rules, denying my deeds are truly shameful, justifying my behavior, blaming others, renaming my sins as illnesses or disorders, sometimes even by re-labeling them as virtues and priding myself in them. The best I've ever achieved by my efforts has been to drive the shame underground and in the process committed more deeds to be ashamed of.

I have found that there is only one thing that can break through the darkness of shame and that is the hope of real forgiveness. Real shame for real wrongs needs a forgiveness that doesn't try to sweep the seriousness of my sins under a rug, saying it wasn't really so bad, or making excuses for it. Real forgiveness tells the truth. It looks right at my sin, sees it for the ugly thing that it really is, and then forgives it anyway. I've wandered and stumbled far and wide in the darkness of my own guilt, hoping that somewhere there might be hope for me, and after more than forty years the light of hope has finally broken through. God has taken pity on me, and all of us. He knows full well the dark filthy place this world has become and into that darkness He has sent a great light - His own Son to bring us the hope of true forgiveness. Jesus Christ took the guilt of sin upon Himself, dying a shameful death on behalf of any who will look to Him in hope.
"And you, who were dead in your trespasses...God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him." Col. 2:13-15
The record of our sins has been canceled. Everything that stood against us has been nailed to the cross. It is no longer we who bear shame, but the forces in this world who have sought to destroy us. Look to Jesus for forgiveness and be free once and for all time from shame. In His light we can stand before God free from guilt. In His light we have peace with God and the hope that comes from knowing that if God is for us, no one can stand against us.
"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." Romans 8:1
Christ disarms the bully by taking away his power to shame. May the light of Christ free you today, from the power of sin, the power of shame, and the power of the fear of men.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


One heart yearns, tired
tentatively stepping
building, growing,
keening, wailing
grieving, hoping again to love.

It rises up, old
brokenhearted to dance
circling, soaring
aching, climbing,
mounting stairs, again, to heaven.