Poetry and Public Prayer

We Americans are once again in a full-throated struggle over the viability of our republican institutions of constitutional government. The would-be despot our founders feared has indeed seized administrative control of our national government while the party he commandeered knuckles under and his political opponents suffer in retreat. In the midst of this, I am thinking about poetry and public prayer. I invite you to reflect with me as I struggle with this matter.

The first hurdle is to stake out an understanding of this often murky and sentimentalized human activity. I understand prayer as the attempt to affirm the dialogical character of the universe in the face of its seemingly mute determinism or caprice. Prayer is speaking to an Other where there seems to be no other. In that sense it creates the beginning of a drama in the midst of mindless necessity or mute incoherence. As an entry into a dialogue, it trusts that the core of reality is not only dialogical but in my theological perspective is the relationship we call love. Prayer, then, is the act of entrusting ourselves into the underlying powers of love constituting the universe. It is an attunement to the underlying dialogue of creation. As an overture to relationship it is an affirmation of the underlying covenantal character of creation. The web of trust, promise, and reconciliation that is known in covenant-making is the expression of the unyielding fidelity of love known in prayer.

Praying is an action in words, even in our thoughts. Sometimes it escapes into sound, whether of one person alone or in a small group. When it emerges as an act of a whole group we call it public prayer. There it arises in the bond between an enduring group and what I would call its leading partner in time. This kind of prayer is not the colloquial speech of an individual to a friend, but words and phrases burnished with memory and common use across generations. As with the mihrab in a mosque, it is a door into the way ahead that bridges our origins with a possible future.

This form of prayer undergirds the language of an enduring public. Indeed, it constitutes the core of a public’s life. The peculiar public we call the church, the ecclesia, lifts this dynamic up in an obvious way. But the work of prayer in its many obvious and derivative forms binds any vital public into a history of promises, gratitude, brokenness, healing, and hope. It makes of this particular people a “person” in a cosmic drama. When such a public loses this possibility of dialogue with the transcendent power beneath its life, it begins to dissipate into the aimless wandering and warfare of individuals without a past or future. Because prayer affirms the underlying dialogical character of reality, it can form us into the citizens who engage in the public work of dialogue that seeks to nurture the common world entrusted to us by the Creator. That’s why I’m thinking about it today.

But then we come to the challenges. At the same time we have to recognize the terrible distortions that can arise from this peculiar power of public prayer. The powerful in any society can seek to use it not to open a pubic up to a transcendent dialogue but to mask their own venality, greed, or inhumanity. In a frantic search to reclaim the promise of public prayer, some of us Americans want to impose old Christian forms upon the conversation of the wider republic. Others cling to the quasi-religious shards of national anthems and pledges of allegiance redolent of slavery, jingoism, and self-delusion. This tendency to corruption is why genuinely public-forming prayer must be kept separate from the grasp of governments and those who would lead them.

What we should be struggling for apart from the power politics of the moment is deep publics of prayer within our religious and cultural traditions that offer language, poetry, song, and aspiration to feed the poetry and prayer of the wider public. We need to re-mine what Robert Bellah and others have called our civil religion to recover the way toward a care for the land, for the stranger, and for each other, weak and strong, old and young. In that prayer we affirm that we are part of a larger drama framed in a transcendence that inspires, judges and humbles us.

The second challenge we face is in our image of the One with whom we are in prayer. While prayer is the nuclear power within a public assembly, not all prayer fits the building of a true republic built upon the conversation of a people. Much of our inherited prayer was formed around relationships between a despot and his (almost always “his”) subjects. It was not the dialogue of citizens, but the petition of a vassal to a lord. (Our very word “prayer” comes from the Latin word for entreaty or petition.) This is the kind of prayer that has returned to haunt this republic now in the grip of a despotic personality who cannot engage a conversation, much less a negotiation, among equals.

But the alternative to this entreaty of vassalage is not the folksy familiarity of much of popular Christianity. Chatting with Jesus in the garden does not contest the truncated despotism of traditional prayer, it only hides from it. To constitute a genuine public rooted in circles of conversation, debate, negotiation, and agreement, we need genuine public prayer committed to a republic that honors the dignity of each participant. To do that, we need to feed once again on the poetry and song that lifts us into the dialogue constituting all creation—the power and fidelity of love.

In this pursuit truly public prayer has a loftiness in which the words lift off the page of personal idiosyncracy and familiarity. It has a cadence that enlists the beating of the heart, a flow that calls the legs to dance, a visionary image that lets the eye behold a larger world. This is the bond between a truly public prayer and poetry. In poetry the words soar beyond a simple utility to seek a wider realm beyond the everyday of neat connections lodged within our grasp. This is why good poetry is prayer and public prayer most properly is poetry.

Poetic public prayer may be a truly subversive act in the face of the bullying torrent of crudities that assails our republic from the despot who now seeks to tyrannize over it. In the beauty of truly public prayer we can enter into the public whose president is God and whose constitution is God’s covenant of love with all creation. It is a prayer no government can or should control but in the end a true republic needs the graceful frame of this transcendent dialogue.

As always, your own reflections would be most appreciated.

[The long silence since my last post was due to the hacking of my subscriber list and program. I hope the repairs and introduction of a new subscriber program will prevent future problems. Thanks for your patience!]

Posted in On Writing, Poetry and Songs, Public Life, Worship and Spirituality | 3 Comments

Conversation

[To My Readers: My posting has been delayed while a tech crew repairs my hacked subscriber list. I hope to be up and running by June 26. Stay tuned!]

It’s hard to get through the news these days without hearing a call for “conversation” about a pressing public issue. It is a word constantly on our lips. The question I have been trying to address for the past twenty years is whether it is a practice embedded in the habits of our souls. This work of forming our deepest being in the art of conversation occurs in the Roundtable Worship that I have been involved with for many years.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “conversation” meant “general deportment or behavior.” By extension it meant the deep intimacy of sexual intercourse as well as the public life of social interaction. Only gradually did it come to mean the verbal interaction at the heart of both intimacy and publicity. The breadth and depth of its historic meanings point to a profound reality constituting our humanity. We are lives in relationship, relationships knit together by language and consummated in love. This is the divine reality of human life.

The Roundtable Worship in my own church community has been engaged in this work of forming our souls to conversation for over 15 years. Out of this intense circle of conversation have come public conversations about immigration, sexuality, and, most recently, gun violence. In these more public circles of conversation we seek to draw people into common work to claim a greater peace, justice, and well-being for our world.

The circle of conversation, we believe, is at the heart of a great work of reconciliation that flows from the spirit undergirding creation itself. In this circle each person claims an equality of presence, both in speaking and listening. As a symbol of this relationship of speaking from the heart and listening with all the senses we use a talking piece. It gives authority to people who might otherwise remain silent. It instructs the voluble to listen with respect and learn about the other. Such a talking piece was used recently by members of the US Senate to create a conversation that helped unravel an impasse in that legislature. I am always amazed at the power it brings to our gatherings.

This power of the circle conversation occurs in a sacred setting in which we create a world apart from the jangle of media and the anxieties of everyday obligations. Perhaps you could measure the welfare of a society by the degree it enables people to experience this sacred circle of conversation. What supports for body, mind, and assembly are necessary for this event? Maybe this would replace the measurements of GDP and stock market indicators. Think about it.

This conversation cannot exist simply as a power of the participants. It depends on our trusting that there is a Spirit of reconciliation at work in this process. It is the manifestation of a faith in how reality is structured and guided toward its ultimate realization. The conversation is always about more than our souls. It is about the world’s struggle toward its proper flourishing. It is about our roles in the greater drama of God’s work of reconciliation.

This is what Conversation means to us as a form of behavior, disposition, intimacy, public expression, and spirituality. As you hear the word around you, I hope you will find ways to lead yourself and your fellow citizens to the deeper levels of its meaning. Of course, if you want to reflect more on this, you can read the Introduction to Roundtable Worship that we wrote a few years back.

I share with you our most recently liturgy from our own Roundtable and invite you to use it any way you wish. Let me know what happens!

Roundtable Gathering

May 20, 2018

Welcome

Call to the Table                                             (adapt. from Praying with the Earth)*

Clear our heart, O God,

that we may see you.

Clear our heart, O God,

that we may truly see ourselves.

Clear our heart, O God,

that we may know the sacredness of this moment. 

In every moment may we see you, serve you,

see you as the Living Presence underlying every presence.

Clear our heart, O God,

that we may see.

ALL: Amen. Amin. Ameyn.

Song of Gathering:

“Walls Mark Our Bound’ries”            Ruth Duck and Jim Strathdee

Remembrance (Unison)

               As your breath formed order out of the chaos of the waters,

So the dry bones of a people stirred to life in the desert of despair.

As the breath of Jesus’s lips brought life to dying children,

So the giving up of his breath filled the world with his life.

As the breath of God brought new life to the lovers of the crucified,

So their breath has brought us to their circle of your reconciling peace.

Thanksgiving (Unison)

O God, the Breath of Life throughout Creation,

In your breath we have each minute of our life. In the bounty of your earth we find the energy to walk your land. In each listening ear we find your own, in each word of thanks and praise we find the hope that leads us on. For this table and this company, we give you hearty thanks and sing our gratitude:

We give our thanks to you (4x).

We give our hearts to you (3x), because you first loved us.

Sharing at Table

            “Bread for our Bodies”                        ”Drink for our Spirits”

A Reading:

John 20:19-23

“The Power of the Circle,” by Black Elk

The Conversation:             “Life in the Circle of Reconciliation”

Gathered Prayers

The Hope Prayer

O Source of Life, You alone are holy.

Come, govern us in perfect peace.

Give us today the food that we need.

Release us from our sin as we release our enemies.

Sustain us in our times of trial.

Liberate us all from evil powers.

Guide us in your justice, wisdom, and peace. Amen, Amin, Ameyn

Reflective Moment

Words of Commitment

In God’s love, we will seek the path of reconciliation.

In God’s power, we will walk the ways of peace.

In God’s wisdom, we will struggle for God’s justice in this world.

In God’s mercy, we will seek to care for Earth, our home.

Prayer for Peace:                                                (adapt. from Praying with the Earth)*

O Breath of God, we pray for:

Peace where there is war, healing where there is hurt,

Memory where we have forgotten the other,

Vision where there is violence, light where there is madness,

Sight where we have blinded each other,

Comfort where there is sorrow, tears where there is hardness,

Laughter where we have missed life’s joy, and

Laughter when we remember the joy.

Amen, Ameyn, Amin.

Blessing Song:

Go now in peace, blessing and blessed,

Grounded in God, healing and whole.

Go now in peace, blessing and blessed,

Grounded in God, filled with God’s love.

 

*(Prayers adapted from John Philip Newell, Praying with the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace [Eerdmans, 2011].)

 

Posted in Public Life, Roundtable Ministries Project | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Arts of Peace: Some Working Thoughts

My wife Sylvia and I are co-chairing the tenth, indeed capstone, Lake Junaluska Interfaith Peace Conference, which will be held on November 21-24, 2019. The Conference will lift up and reflect on the role of the arts in peacemaking that is vitally engaged with the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. Whatever happens at the Conference sits on this three-legged stool of art, peacemaking and religious faith. It must have a religious significance rooted in the Abrahamic traditions, though not confined to them. It must contribute significantly to peacemaking. It must be truly artistic. I want to think out loud with you about what this means and ask for your thoughts about it.

Rooted in Religious Traditions

First, being rooted in the religious traditions does not mean confinement to aspects of those traditions that have often fostered violence, division, and warfare. Each tradition also bears within it vibrant visions of peace, practices of reconciliation, non-violence, forgiveness, and ethical values of inclusiveness and responsibility toward the creation. Each religious tradition exhibits rituals, beliefs, music and chant, artistic cultures, literature, poetry, and architecture that can be understood as promoting peace. Indeed, the very process of gaining a deeper appreciation of the artistic heritages in other religious traditions can be an act of peacemaking that bridges the ignorance, fear, and hostility that has often characterized inter-religious relationships. Whatever we do needs to draw on and reflect these heritages.

Building Peace

Second, we need to remember that peacemaking is not simply the ending of hostilities that can arise from military or violent action. Peacemaking means creating relationships among peoples, nations, groups, and individuals in which conflicts can be resolved without resort to violence or gross coercion. It involves healing the traumatic memory of past violence. It includes reparation and restoration of what has been injured or destroyed. It embraces the work of forgiveness and the resolution of anger over past wrongs. Peacemaking is the whole constellation of practices that enable people to move from a state of violence and fear to one of non-violent resolution of conflicts and the reconciliation of those who have been estranged. It is not only the creation of treaties and covenants to end war (the “pact” contained in the Latin pax), but the nurturing of Shalom/Salaam that is rooted in the Bible and Qu’ran.

Artistic Creation

Thirdly, we need to clarify what kinds of artistic objects, actions, and performances might be relevant to this work of peacemaking from a religious standpoint. This is a special challenge in this conference. While we might say that we seek out works of “high quality,” this does not necessarily mean that it fits the criteria of “high art” or of refined tastes of one or another artistic academy. Rather, quality is determined by the capacity of the work to elicit some sense of values that transcend the ordinary utilities of the day. While the concept may be highly contested, it is “beautiful” in a way that human beings have come to appreciate over the centuries. It is “religious” in the sense that it offers some kind of doorway into enduring transcendent realities, values, and, indeed, divine presence that can lead us into a more just and beautiful life. This kind of art can be produced by ordinary folks as well as highly trained artists, so we need to embrace both the creations of folk art and craft, outsider art, and self-taught artists as well as the work of the famous and well-compensated.

Moreover, we are not simply lifting up the art that is used to propagandize the interests of a particular group, nation, or religion. Here, the line between propaganda and “art” is often blurry, indeed. We might say that we are not lifting up art that creates oppositions but art that bridges divisions. We are interested in art that brings together those who are estranged, who have harmed one another, or who are divided by ancient rivalries and warfare. In short, we are looking for art that establishes a common ground rather than a chasm, art that heals rather than aggravates our angers, and art that introduces us to transcendence. The art of peacemaking expands our imagination of both the ways to peace and the understanding of peace itself.

We also need to respect the way an artistic work might challenge our religious or ethical preconceptions, leading us more deeply into the reality of peace. It does not immediately serve our preconceptions of “the things that make for peace,” but could help us reconstruct our very understanding of this vision and the practices it requires. A genuine work of art is not simply an instrument of our religious ideals, but helps us to grapple more deeply with them, leading us to recast or even transform them.

Some art does anger us, but in a way that might lead us to question and overcome our previous ways for the sake of a greater peace. It opens up wounds in order to heal them. It provokes and challenges us, often in uncomfortable ways. In this sense, such art needs to be included in the arts of peace. Similarly, memorials, whether sculptural, architectural, visual, or aural, can mire us in the past, evoking revenge, anger, and pain. But other memorials open us up to the healing work of knitting new covenants, new relationships, and new behaviors that open the way to healing and deeper peace.

Of course, any gripping artwork, whether it is a drama, a concert, or exhibition, might serve peacemaking simply by bringing people together who might not otherwise meet. This itself may help bridge chasms of fear, suspicion, resentment and anger. Laudable as this effect may be, it probably does not suffice to include it in our Conference. The work itself needs to directly address the intersection of religious vision and peacemaking. At the same time, we need to realize that part of what makes a work an “art of peace” is the conversation and debate that it may arouse. Its capacity to draw people into reflection, criticism, and conversation is part of its peacemaking power.

This is a beginning toward a common understanding of what we intend by creating a conference on “The Arts of Peace.” As we bring together works of art, whether objects, performances, or environments, we need to identify their religious import, particularly within the Abrahamic traditions, as well as their capacity to engage us in the work of building peace. It is a purpose that excites as well as challenges, inspires even as it awes us with its expanse.

We hope that people will leave this Conference not only with a new sense of what constitutes the arts of peace, but also with some ideas of how they might create arts of peace in their own communities. Your thoughts about this, either in the Comments below or through the Contact Me form in the header, would be most appreciated.

 

 

Posted in Arts, Public Life, Restorative Justice | Tagged | 1 Comment

Charlie and Harold

A few weeks ago I took part once again in the Poet’s Gathering in Winston-Salem North Carolina, sponsored by Press 53. In one of our workshops Adrian Rice, a poet from Ireland who teaches at Appalachian State University, asked us to recall significant moments or images from our past. Like a string in saline water, they can create a crystalline nub for poems that have emotional intensity. So I began to fish around for such moments and emerged with two that have remained from my summers on my family’s dairy farm in northern Virginia, where now the farms are gone and trophy homes crawl over land where cows and hay wagons once held sway.

The first recalls a childhood friend on the farm, whose tender life still sparks a kind of elegy. The second is a tiny snapshot of how I learned to shock wheat, which, I think I need to explain, means propping up sheaves of grain together so they can stay dry until they are taken to the threshing machine. Since the advent of the combine and industrialized agriculture, people don’t do this any more. The snapshot, as you will see, was actually part of a larger picture which I only understood later in my slow maturation.

Fishing with Charlie

Charlie Fewell was my fishing buddy on the farm.

Mostly we used worms

            we dug up in the ooze

            outside the milking barn

            beside the spring.

We would amble over to the pond

            and cast our lines for sunfish, perch,

            and sometimes even bass.

I knew that Charlie wasn’t playing with a full deck,

            his parents somewhere else

            and Charlie living on the farm with his gramma and his uncle Earl,

            but he was cheerful company.

He loved to fish and so did I.

On his tackle box he had scratched the letter E.

I asked him once about the E.

“Oh,” he said, a smile lighting up his face,

            “that’s E for Fewell.”

And then we fished some more.

One day a passing car snuffed out his life

            while he was riding down the highway on his bike.

The preacher said that no one knows what purposes our lives are serving

            in a world of fish and boys and ignorance of who we are.

But we are each a child of God.

That’s what Charlie helped me understand.

*

Shocking the Wheat

We were shocking wheat that hot, hot day

            in the field beside the old Ketoctin Church,

            its newer headstones in a row beside the fence

            shimmering in the heat.

“Take three or five on end,

            then spread a sheaf to cap them

            so they shed the rain.”

More words than I had ever heard from Harold Fairfax,

    so strong that he could lift two milk cans at a time

    and hoist them on the truck.

The sweat poured down my tender face

            so white

            beside his face

            so blackened with a brilliance

            by the ancient sun of Africa.

We paused and drank

            the cold sweet water

            from that metal can—

            our hidden secret

            in that open field.

And then we turned

            and shocked the wheat some more,

            a silent host of witnesses

            shadowing the land.

 

Posted in On Writing, Personal Events, Poetry and Songs | Tagged , , | 2 Comments