Sarah of dVerse asks us to choose a poem we’ve read over the last year and write a response to it in conversation, as it were, with its preoccupations. I’ve chosen John Updike’s “Fine Point,” written just weeks before his death in January 2009. His consciousness of our tainted public and personal history, and faith’s endurance as he alludes to Psalm 23, is what engages me most. And so my response, “En Pointe.”
What divinity is this that tempers our clay
with hammers of wrath expended on temple,
church, in our uneasy play with pagan tunes
of lust? Even as we covet our neighbor’s lamb
we would sing tuneful papyrus songs in our Babylon
with lyres hung under willows, calling out as children
“Abba, Father,” knowing we are heard by the Name
of One who bore the curse of our sinful rebellions.
O Son of David, thou whose lips have tendered infinity –
“It is finished” — mercy and justice united — blood
spilled and body spent on the cross so that Surely—
yes, “surely”— and all the days of my life wilt thou
pursue — not merely “follow”— poor substitute
for the ancient tongue which reaches out in mercy
as unbounded as a lover’s song of songs to me
now to dwell in the house of the Lord, forever. Selah.
Once, a child alone when October came I hear his footsteps just in the next room and when I rush to see him there he wasn’t there. He was everywhere.
Much later I cross a river, climb the embankment of trees, upwards to the plains, dry and dusty their breath, until I choke, my breath raw diseased, my bones on fire, the pain rasping pits of agony, feet twisted into unnatural screws. He stands clothed like a burning bush in wilderness autumn’s cloak across the mountaintop a fire unnatural, burning yet not burning for blind eyes to see, deaf ears to hear, “I AM.”
Now as another October comes I feel him near, the warmth of his presence a river running through the weatherized windows and doors, invisibly clear.
I know this darkness before light I know this voice before sound I know this death in life where bush burns but is not consumed.
Father of the trumpeting air and the setting sun the purple skies and rainbow grasses flapping ears and ardent eyes grasshoppers dancing with the breezes thunder of my feet singing of the stars beating of my heart, I thank You whose hands have made whose breath gives life to me.
God of the aurora glorious invisible Light of lights towering, blazing across glacial mountains and hearts over blue ice, silver melts, resounding majesty of fiery life bursting, joyous song of sky and sea in solitary havens of the northern vasts, I thank You whose hands have made whose breath gives life to me.
Ah, God of the waters, You who laughs into the inky darkness of the sea across floors of the cavernous deep to arms that embrace liquid melodies as anemones sway and the fishes race currents that play as tentacles trace buried landscapes, coral castles rising to unbroken nights where moonlight shimmers across my eyes, I thank You whose hands have made whose breath gives life to me.
Master of the universal grains of sand, where wrinkled feet that plod in burning heat find cactus bread and succulent juice treasures raining immeasurable mottled lee of rock and flowers that fade then rise like fallen sun and distant moon reappearing wondrous from spacious shell, I thank You whose hands have made whose breath gives life to me.
Great Lord and King, hidden Wanderer painting forests of pale brook-riven beech shades that ripple in gray-patched play on bark and grass, lantern-lit, daylight falling through canopied sky of quick-silver leaves whisper, break and bend the golden light to clothe supple burnt-orange strides of an elemental frame, I thank You whose hands have made whose breath gives life to me.
Psalm 98: 4-6Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises! Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody! With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD!
Genesis 2: 4-7 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens. When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up–for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground– then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.
There are so many cliches about love, the word, perhaps, has lost its power, but not the notion, not the need, not the knowledge that love’s very presence makes life worth living. In one of his most famous poems (“In My Craft or Sullen Art”), Welsh poet Dylan Thomas speaks of lovers with “their arms round the griefs of the ages” which is curious, as if in embracing one another, they embrace grief, and not just each other’s but those universal.
Ack! What kind of love is this? you might ask.
Anyone who’s been married longer than a decade (or three, in my case) knows that this expresses the height of love. The willingness to bear another’s griefs rather than turn and walk away is love’s absolute zenith, its most precious characteristic. You don’t run away from the pain of those you truly love. Instead, you embrace it with them, faithfully, day after day after day.
And because no one’s life is without its griefs, we often say that we shouldn’t judge a person until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Sorrow and pain are universals. Beyond any happiness, we can readily sympathize with suffering. Each of us carries our pain within us. There are voiceless cries and unshed tears behind every smile we see. And apprehending the universality of our hidden hurts binds us more completely to one another than anything that divides us.
Emily Dickinson realizes this in her poem “I measure every Grief I meet” and while reading it, it struck me that our Lord Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves begins with this understanding, to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).”May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other,” St. Paul prays in 1 Thessalonians.
Christ Himself, of course, set the example. He was, as the prophet Isaiah described him, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53: 3, 4). “Blessed be the Lord,” the psalmist writes, “who daily bears our burden, the God who is our salvation” (Ps. 68:19, NASB). Because he does, He is where our hearts find their rest.
It’s not easy to help shoulder someone’s grief, not simply in the context of marriage and family, but also those of our friends and neighbors, even our enemies. Yet God commands us to love (Matt. 5:44), even as He loves us, and the way is the way of the Cross, our own and each other’s.
Emily Dickinson, “I measure every Grief I meet” (1830-1886)
I measure every Grief I meet With narrow, probing, Eyes — I wonder if It weighs like Mine — Or has an Easier size.
I wonder if They bore it long — Or did it just begin — I could not tell the Date of Mine — It feels so old a pain —
I wonder if it hurts to live — And if They have to try — And whether — could They choose between — It would not be — to die —
I note that Some — gone patient long — At length, renew their smile — An imitation of a Light That has so little Oil —
I wonder if when Years have piled — Some Thousands — on the Harm — That hurt them early — such a lapse Could give them any Balm —
Or would they go on aching still Through Centuries of Nerve — Enlightened to a larger Pain – In Contrast with the Love —
The Grieved — are many — I am told — There is the various Cause — Death — is but one — and comes but once — And only nails the eyes —
There’s Grief of Want — and Grief of Cold — A sort they call “Despair” — There’s Banishment from native Eyes — In sight of Native Air —
And though I may not guess the kind — Correctly — yet to me A piercing Comfort it affords In passing Calvary —
To note the fashions — of the Cross — And how they’re mostly worn — Still fascinated to presume That Some — are like My Own —
Isaiah 53: 2-5
For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
1 Thessalonians 3:12-13 (NIV)
May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.
Everyone knows that both Dante and Petrarch were haunted by their visions of ideal love, Dante had his Beatrice, and Petrarch his Laura. And as political exiles, each poet knew the terror of death. Writing was a way of easing the pain of both.
But did you know that these two titans of the Renaissance might have met in a quirk of circumstance?
Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.
I had the unexpected experience of receiving two sermons this past Lord’s Day, one at my home church and one in another. From the pulpit of my home church, the sermon on Psalm 145 was deeply rooted in the gospel, biblically & doctrinally sound, encouraging believers to persevere in faith secure in the love of God, looking always to “Christ Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.”
At the second church, the real sermon was not from the pulpit. Somehow, the reading from Jeremiah had managed to become a springboard for a political screed. Then maudlin lyrics in support of the political issue were sung to the tune of “Amazing Grace”!
A feast of rest, a feast of praise
Fills my heart, my mouth, my days;
A Sabbath feast of prayer and love
A shout of “Hallelujah!” to God above.
O let me never from this feast descend
But ever by Your Spirit ascend;
Hold me, Father, with Your right hand
As by faith on holy ground I stand.
Ushered in by Your Son’s call
To the festal celebration hall
Joy abundant and peace unfettered
From Your table I am fed.
Should I stray from Your dear presence
Let me quickly feel Your absence
And in Your grace, rejoicing always,
Before Your table find my place.
Hebrews 12: 22-24 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
“I never had a mother,” Emily Dickinson wrote. “I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled.” But where mothers fail, God never fails. His is a mother’s touch that is always ready to receive, ready to lift and comfort, ready to provide what is needed. “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Is. 49:15).