A More Spacious Vision

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I think I have always been fascinated by imagination. When I was a teenager, it seemed to be the element that separated the true artists, musicians, poets, and writers from the rest of us. It was a quality that transcended mere talent and hard work. It was mysterious.

When I listened to the singer/songwriters of my time, like James Taylor, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell, they all seemed to have imagination in abundance. So did the Beatles, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Bruce Springsteen. All of them produced music and lyrics that looked afresh at the universals of love, loss, tragedy, beauty, and the spirit.

I studied them, pulled apart their lyrics and musical structure, looking for keys to their brilliance. What they did seemed effortless, an economy of words and composition that didn’t waste a note or a syllable.

I noticed the same in some of my favorite writers, beginning with Hemingway, a master at creating a scene with as few words as possible. In different ways than Hemingway, but no less imaginative, were Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, John Gardner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joan Didion, and James Lee Burke.

All of them, writers and musicians, drew on an inner power that expressed a more spacious vision than I found within myself. I wondered if you had to have lived a respectable number of years to write in that way. But many of these icons were doing some of their best work in their twenties and thirties. Maybe you had to travel the world on a merchant freighter, be a short-order cook, do time in a county jail, start a business and fail at it, get married and divorced, or give up a law practice to write full time. Well, no, not really. All of that might give you experience to draw from, but it wasn’t necessary. There was something else.

Anne and Barry Ulanov’s book, The Healing Imagination, emphasizes imagination as the creative activity of the psyche and the soul. We work with the images that appear to us, often unbidden. “They just happen,” they write, “They arrive in consciousness from the unconscious, like a wisp of spirit. . . they speak of another life running in us like an underground river-current.”

I’ve come to believe that this creative impulse in all of us originates with the Holy Spirit, even if we don’t recognize it as such. No matter how it plays out and through whom it appears, imagination is critical to our humanity and to our spiritual growth.

The development of imagination, for example, in the act of creative writing, whether it be fiction, essays, drama, sermons, songs, or poetry, is an exercise in dropping the barriers to one’s inner life. “Art’s desire,” comments Jane Hirshfield, in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, “is not to convey the already established but to transform the life that takes place within its presence.” The presence of an unexpected newness.

We see this newness in the parables and sayings of Jesus. They are a wellspring of wisdom, never depleted on multiple readings. I believe Jesus discovered how to listen to his unconscious, that depth which is in all of us, and how to open his mind and spirit completely to God. What he offered the disciples was a glimpse of that imaginative power.

Our reflex is to reject these images. The new breaks in upon us often without form, almost unrecognizable at times. Hirshfield comments in Ten Windows that it’s a question of how much of the random, chaotic, and the mysterious we are willing to admit into our lives, assuming we have a choice.

We can also draw a distinction between hope and imagination. We can think of hope as an extension of present reality, but with the possibility of God breaking in to make something new. Then imagination is the seed from which hope grows. Our difficulty is in perceiving and believing that God can bring a new creation from the chaos of our situation.

Cease to dwell on days gone by

and to brood over past history.

Here and now I will do a new thing;

this moment it will break from the bud.

Can you not perceive it (Isa. 43:18,19)?”

The Ulanov’s note that our play as children in imaginatively creating personalities for our stuffed animals and toys, sustains our capacity as adults to enjoy and create images of God from tradition, Scripture, and experience. “Imagination digs the soil,” they write, “and brings the water so that what comes to us grows . . . In this space between our single unconscious life and our shared conscious life with others, imagination plays and heals.”

For poets, artists, and the rest of us, what really matters in life begins with questions: Who are we now? What shall we be? Where will we find healing for our souls? How can we respond to hatred and indifference with love, justice, and mercy?

Since the first thing to go in a crisis is imagination, our subversion of the status quo is plain: we must begin to imagine together the newness of what our worship, our service to our communities, and our spiritual arts could look like in the face of such global shifts as climate change, the displacement of millions, and the presence of COVID in our midst.

Potential

The preacher enters the pulpit.
The waiting watchful befriend her like a cloak.
In the round silence of those before her
she breathes — in, out, in.

But this moment!
Perfect communion lies within her,
just as the infinite bowl of the sky and
the sea — arms open — enjoy their widest horizon.

A poet lays down a line, scrubs it out,
tugs a thread of memory up to the light,
tests its tensile strength, rappelling down
the sheer face of terror — almost delight.

On the sea cliff a diver waits, counting the waves,
marking his breaths, holding this moment —
all heart and bones — as near to
prayer as the cry of a newborn.

Each one
enters Creation
innocent of the abyss,
the leap itself containing all.

Counting Miracles

Let us be true, truly be,
let us be. That was the refrain
I sang under the moon I lost
some months ago.

There it was at last, low above
the trees, the trees black and still,
the birds silent, only a car passing
on the road behind me, not staying.

I know this moment contains worlds,
universes even, possibilities unheard of.
This moment, then the next, and the one
after that; I will count them out carefully.

Thoreau says, "All change is a miracle
to contemplate, a miracle happening
every moment."

The asters I planted on faith in April
have bloomed so bluely, so proudly,
so briefly. They are sighing now as
they lie down in this October morning.

I am counting now — No! I have
ceased counting — to take this moment
as itself complete, so full as the moon,
which I had lost, now waning behind me.

The News

I am reading poetry these days
more than I read the news.
I gather armfuls of poetry: Whitman,
Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats,
Yeats — Whitman again.

I scoop up handfuls of Glück and
Rilke; they must be pored over,
examined in the hand, turned over
like seeds and nuts in the palm, rationed
carefully.

I take a pinch of Emily: a little bit seasons
the stew. She is the salt that brings
up the flavor of these potato days and
the sigh of attention to the diamond ground
upon which
I walk.

There is Milosz and Szymborska and
Herbert — both Zbigniew and George —
Heaney, Hill, and Kavanaugh, Neruda,
Bishop, Olds, Harjo, and Frost. Always
Frost, even in summer.

Collins, Stafford, Kooser, Hirshfield,
Basho, Beowulf, Sidney, and Howe.
Shakespeare then and again and now;
Larkin, Levertov, Wiman, and Brooks.

Am I Donne (not yet) or Job or the Psalmist?
St. Paul on a good day, St. John's Chapter One,
Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Solomon's Song? Or
Morrison, Clifton, Hayden or Hughes?

I am reading poetry more than the news,
for the news does not change; it's not new.
But the poetry I read can be read more than once,
gathered in armfuls, held in the hand,
salted and savored and sung on demand,
and carried like water in these desert lands.

Blind Test

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Mark 8:22-26
"What do you see?" he asked me.
It was a simple question:
describe what is before you,
give it a name. Do you remember?
No? Well, do the best you can.
All this was in my head then,
but I froze, all categories lost,
edges blurred into backgrounds,
names of things locked in a child's room.
"I see men," I cried, "They look like trees."
Would uncarved hope make it true enough,
this true answer, short of the mark?
"How about now?" he said, and touched
my eyes again, thumbs across my eyelids.
We were tested, both of us, and passed.

Wait Here

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God waits

for some sign of human feeling.

Nothing’s here but gelled indifference,

cooling to the touch.





God thunders in the

mountain pass. A juniper

throws arms against the line of squalls.

Granite teeth are bared.





Something waits

beyond the blackened timber.





Here it is, the tool

to strip the flesh from one’s own breast,

expose one’s heart toward the sky

beneath the stars in four directions.





Spirit, take this heart of stone, this

lichened stone and break it slow.

I hold it to the sky of rain

if you will green its life again.





Do you hold your breath, far God,

delighting in your showering grace,

though most will only see it

as a warp within the slant of light?

Family Business

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”Your father and I have been very worried . . .” (Luke 2:48)

They were a young couple,

past the glow of first birth,

not yet grown into the knowledge

that children become themselves.

They could not imagine

returning to a home

with no first stumbling steps

from the kitchen to the stairs,

where no dancing footfalls

could be heard, where even

the sullen silence from a child

could fill the room.

So, when they could not find him

in their group they turned back,

three days searching,

sick with fear, silent with each other.

He was there in the temple,

quizzing the elders with his questions,

having already left home in his own way,

surprised they could not see this was his work.

Mind the Gap

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In the London Underground there are signs cautioning us to “mind the gap,” calling us to attention when getting on and off the Tube. It’s a sign that should be posted in a lot of other places in our lives.

There is the gap between our public aspirations to equality and the stark realities of systemic racism, the deconstruction of voting access for millions of people, and the constant inequity between the top one percent in this country and almost everyone else.

There’s the gap between what corporations claim are their highest values of equality, service, and diversity, and the reality of discrimination, indifferent service, and a whiter shade of pale in corporate boardrooms.

There’s the gap between our personal best intentions and what we actually display to the world. And there’s the gap between what we the church claim as the kingdom and what we substitute in its place.

Show us the Father, the disciples challenged Jesus. And he replied, If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. The disciples, like us, saw only that which fit the scope of their vision. The Father was too sovereign, too remote, too terrifying to be anything less than thunder in the mountains or a mighty wind rolling back the waves of the Red Sea.

Jesus brought the Father across that gap between the human and divine, slipping the invisible footprints of the eternal God into his own along the roads of Galilee. He called his Father by an endearing name. But old habits are hard to break: we can be sure not many prayed to God as ‘Abba,’ or ‘Daddy.’ There was an unbridgeable gap there, fixed and immovable in their eyes—and ours.

How often do we think of Jesus as divine? Most of the time. How often do we see him as fully human? Far less. There is a gap. Yet, as human, he suffered all the temptations we do and more. To whom much is given, much is required.

If we really saw Jesus as human, we would not be surprised when his anger flares up, when he weeps over Jerusalem or when he pounces on the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. These are not weaknesses; they are evidence of an impassioned soul completely immersed in this world, yet constantly breathing the air of transcendence.

Within the spectrum of the visible, Jesus’ divinity ripples, fades, reappears and vanishes. I and the Father are one, Jesus claimed, infuriating the keepers of the sanctuary and bewildering the disciples. “Divinity flashed through humanity,” said Ellen White, in a metaphor as visceral as it is inadequate.

We keep trying to summarize Jesus in a thirty-second elevator pitch. It can’t be done. We want something we can carry with us, an amulet for the fingers when we are tempted or grieving. We have the images we’ve gathered from the Gospels: Jesus making his way across the waves to the terrified disciples, rubbing his thumbs across a blind man’s eyes, and enveloped in a brilliant cloud as the voice of God reverberates across the dry hills. These are part of our inner art galleries, companions to the work of artists who have stretched his likeness across their canvasses.

The senses need touch, though. Body yearns for body. We would take the Emmaus road in the late afternoon, our hearts broken, if we thought there was the slightest chance we could relive that moment with the mysterious stranger who innocently asked what happened in Jerusalem that weekend.

We are not within the same chronological trajectory as Jesus. There is a gap. He burns across the skies at light speed. When we read his story in the Gospel of Mark, the prose itself is breathless. The narrative runs to keep up with him. He emerges from the wilderness, the habitation of demons, and immediately turns his hometown synagogue upside down. Full of the Spirit, he announces the breaking in of the kingdom. “The time is ripe,” he says, “and God’s kingdom has come close. Change your purpose and trust in the good news.”1

A man tortured by possession is in the synagogue screaming in pain. Jesus reaches deep and drags the demon out, leaving the man shaken but grateful, the onlookers stunned by the authority of Jesus’ word. Across the gap between the stiff sanctity of the sacred service and the raw clawing out of the demon from its midst, the word of Jesus sizzles through the air: “Put on a muzzle and come out of him!”2

We come up against a mystery: Jesus and his mission are one and the same. To have some inkling of Jesus as a living, breathing person is to take tentative steps across the gap between this world and the kingdom. He shows us the way to God, not through a formula for successful salvation, but by being the person in whom God was most fully seen. At the risk of cliché, the way God acts in the world is through Jesus as the Way.

We get this not through a painstakingly logical progression of thought, but by a leap of trust across the gap. In Jesus we see God as God wants to be seen and known.

Even so, there is still a gap between Jesus and ourselves — a gap that cradles history and human nature. Over the course of a lifetime we are drawn to Jesus in a multitude of ways. We may see him in art, sense him in music and poetry, revel in the Gospel stories, interpret his words for our situation.

There is always the situation and the story. A gap stretches between the two.

The situation is this moment in history, the events and structures we find ourselves within. Language, myth, and symbol are how our story creates us in this situation. Our situation and Jesus’ situation differ, not in nature but in degree.

The whole of human life consumed and transformed him in ways that we will likely not experience this side of death. We get glimpses of it, we hear the music occasionally, but the heavens will not part for us as they did for him. The gap remains. Therein lies our glory and our salvation. He has done what we cannot do that we might live through his life.

There will be a time beyond time when we shall be with him. The final gap — Death — shall be no more. We shall know as we are known. No more need to mind the gap.

  1. Mark 1:15, The Gospels. Translated by Sarah Ruden. New York: Modern Library, 2021.
  2. Mark 1:25, The Gospels. Translated by Sarah Ruden. New York: Modern Library, 2021.

On Losing Your Life

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Whoever looks to secure his life for himself will lose it, but whoever loses it will bring it to life.” (Luke 17:33)

Jesus’ words to his students are puzzling. The broader context of these verses is about disaster so sudden and devastating that people working in their fields must not return to their homes. Today, it would be drone strikes and rockets launched into valleys from the high places.

These events won’t be discernible beforehand. You won’t know when this will happen. When the Son of Man comes, there won’t be any confusion. He won’t be “here” or “there.” He’ll be everywhere at once.

Just before the text quoted above, Jesus says, almost as an afterthought, “Remember Lot’s wife!” He doesn’t have to explain; everyone listening knows the story.

Lot’s wife is running with her family out of Sodom, as the sky rains sulphur and brimstone. It’s nature’s equivalent of a rocket attack. Don’t look back, says God. Get out and get away. But she falters, slows, and stops. She turns. She can’t help herself. Everything she’s known and loved is blowing up. Rocks the size of houses are slamming into the city. The canals are boiling and the gardens are burning. Somewhere down there her neighbors are cowering under the relentless carpet bombing of the city. They will all die and she knows it.

So she looks back, partly in anger, partly in compassion, partly through a head-swiveling curiosity. And as the story goes, she turns to a pillar of salt. Whether this is literal or not doesn’t matter. What Jesus asserts with this story is about trust as a way of life.

It’s a radically existential message. It echoes and reinforces his “Take no thought for tomorrow,” and “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into God’s kingdom.” This is hyperbole jacked up to make a point—without trust we’ll always be looking back, frozen in place.

It’s not easy trusting forward when the world is exploding behind us. We want to know what is gaining on us, even if it means losing a step or two. Something about hearing footsteps or growls or the thunderous explosions behind us makes us crazy. We have to look or our eyeballs will swivel around without us.

I used to run on a treadmill at my local gym. I wondered how long I could run without glancing to see when my three-minute sprint was up. The most I could manage was one minute and that took all my willpower. It seems so much longer when you’re running, especially when everything in your head is screaming at you to look.

I kept at it though. I thought it was good discipline. I thought if I could ignore the impulse to bail out and look it might improve other parts of my life. Maybe I could really listen to another person instead of rehearsing my response as they spoke. Maybe I could stifle an impulse buy before I bought something I didn’t need and would regret later. Maybe I wouldn’t obsess over things that had little chance of tripping me up.

Yet I kept thinking about those people who blew past all the signs, thinking they could figure out how to land as they were falling. I kept thinking of stories that show up as a Netflix series about people who ignored the narrow way, the one thing that might have saved them and their civilization. It could have gone another way, but nooo—Jack, here, blithely spurned wise counsel and now we’re all eating turnips and living in caves.

There’s a more ambivalent view of history, one that appeals to people who take an expansive approach to life. This one travels the broad highway rather than the narrow path. All roads, it says, lead to Rome; all paths meet at the top of the mountain. There is room for all in the Kingdom; the only ones who won’t be there are the ones who choose against it. No one decision in life determines your future. Everything we do can be salvaged in some way. There is always, always redemption.

Unfortunately, I can see both directions at once: up the narrow ridge that features cataclysms to the left and the right and down in the valley where the living is easy and everyone is welcome. The graduation speaker for my high school class summed up both these views in one sentence: Be conservative with yourself and liberal toward all others. He wasn’t speaking politically, but socially and spiritually. He spoke from experience, for he was one of two faculty of color at the college my prep school was affiliated with. His sons were the only Asian kids in the high school. He knew firsthand about the narrow way. He had learned to forgive the goodhearted but irrepressibly ignorant people around him.

There’s more than one way to lose your life. The way I’m most familiar with is treading the narrow path and expecting everyone else to do the same. I’ve gone through phases in my spiritual life. As a teenaged convert, my first phase was to rejoice in my salvation and annoy the hell out of my undecided friends. I felt free to impose my faith on them. The second phase immersed me in world faiths and a broader view of God in the world. I’m in the third phase now. I believe God is working with me, as God does with everyone. When I respond in trust, God is able to show me my true self. This is a constant process of dying and rising. I weary myself sometimes. But God is infinitely patient, infinitely hopeful of my prospects. And I can live with that.

My Father’s Eyes

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My son emerges into the world gray and slick. I know he is dead. I have dreaded this day because I do not know if I can love a child. Not in the way he or she deserves.

My mother leaves when I am nine months old. My father is desperate. He cannot raise me by himself. I live with different friends. First in Canada, then with other friends in North Carolina. I am with them for several months. I am led into a darkened bedroom. Afternoon light is coming in through shutters. The mother is dying of cancer and I am to say goodbye. I think this is my first memory.

Back to Canada and my father’s parents. They are in their sixties, but they take me in with glad hearts. I am three years old. I am with them until I graduate from college. I have friends—an extended family of friends. The absence of my father leaves me with an inner coldness that I fear. I read a lot when I am alone.

I have one photo of my mother. She is smiling, blond hair falling to her shoulders, her skirt flaring around her. In the background is a house with a porch. I may have been there. I can’t be sure. There was a porch and a house and an old man and woman speaking kindly to me in French. So . . . her parents then. So she was French Canadian.

I am with my wife as she gives birth. My son is gray. I am sure he is dead. But then in seconds—hours, it seems—his robust cry transfixes me. He blossoms pink, then red. Then Love crashes in, a tsunami of feeling that narrows my vision to a single point. Reason, control, diffidence — all is dwarfed by this mighty rock of love, solid and sudden, in my soul’s desert.

Years later, my father has died three thousand miles away. My sister calls me. It was a brain tumor. I put the phone down and turn away. I have no tears.

Months later, maybe a year, I am riding at night with my love. She is driving. I slip a CD into the player and I hear Eric Clapton.

“Bit by bit, I’ve realized

That’s when I need them

That’s when I need my father’s eyes.”

And, with relief, I weep.