Looking for Muhammad

My writing has been completely taken up with completion of my woodworking and spirituality book project with my friend John de Gruchy, who lives near Cape Town. You’re going to hear more about that book in due course. Entitled Sawdust and Soul,” it’s a lively, we hope, invitation to reflection on craft and spirit. Stay tuned.

But in the meantime the rest of the world moves on. We recently watched the three-part series “The Life of Muhammad,” on PBS, a documentary produced by Crescent Films in the UK. Narrated by Rageh Omaar, a Somali-born British journalist, it took us on a pilgrimage through the tumultuous life of Muhammad from his birth in Mecca to his death in Medina. Brilliant scenes from those cities were threaded together with commentary from Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars, some very familiar, like Karen Armstrong, others unknown to us but equally insightful.

Omaar himself was on a quest to uncover the figure at the source of a worldwide movement that has both inspired and terrified people for centuries. Who was this unlettered recipient of the powerful poetic messages from the Core of all Being, Allah? Muhhamad’s burning desire to bring about a just peace among the warring, polytheistic tribes of his day gains bright relief against the contemporary backdrop of conflict, jihad (misused), and transformation in today’s Middle East. Muslims of today, though all proclaiming this One God, face the same problems he confronted almost 1400 years ago. As Sunni turns against Shia and both against Sufi, we all are caught up in the search for peace in the midst of seemingly absolute claims of tribe, nation, and religion.

While Muhammad resorted to military force to defend himself against attacks from his opponents in Mecca, even to the excess of slaughtering Jewish defectors from his cause in Medina, his ultimate victory was through a persistent non-violent campaign that finally brought Mecca to acceptance of a common peace within the common tent of Islam. To get the details and nuances, you need to see the series (www.pbs.org/lifeofmuhammad) and read some books like Armstrong’s own Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet.

How is it then that a man and a book of poetic insight and devotion could evoke both a way of peace and a way of war and violence? Has it not been the same with Jesus of Nazareth? Only a moment’s reflection recalls Christianity’s Crusades, pogroms against the Jews, bitter wars between Protestants and Catholics, genocidal extermination of the native peoples of the Americas, alongside St. Francis, Mother Theresa, and Christian abolitionists, prison reformers, and the like. Is the message meaningless? Are the heroic sacrifices of these religious founders for naught?

Max Weber, the German sociologist of religion, pointed out a century ago that every religious message, to have a historical impact, must have a social “bearer” of its vision. As St. Paul said of the Christian Gospel, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” But we don’t get to drink the wine and have its effect apart from its bearer – that’s the limit of the image. It is more like a noble family name that exists in this world only in the feeble, flawed relatives we actually live with.

And still the light flickers and does not go out. We never get its perfect illumination, whether in the divine Law (Shariah) tasted by Muhammad, the Way known to Jesus, or the Torah of Judaism. There is a way, a path, of peace, but we live most of our lives in the ditch, walking alongside it, often stuck in its mud, but knowing we are near the road, maybe even nearing a destination for which we and our tangled band of murderous loves have a promissory note. Muhammad is one of those who left a trail of notes behind, hoping we might experience what he had known in frightening and tantalizing moments in that cave high above Mecca’s violent streets.

It’s Ramadan, let us pull back a little from our fearful greed and let the Abundanct One fill our hearts.



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From Magma to Table

This past Saturday I gathered with other poets and poetry lovers at Carl Sandburg’s old farm, Connemara, in Flat Rock, NC, to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Jayne Ferrer’s website, “Your Daily Poem.” Connemara is now run by the National Park Service, preserving not only Sandburg’s working home (just as he left it!), but also the goat farm that was the work of his wife Lilian. Jayne’s website now has over 3000 subscribers, who receive a poem every day with biography of the author and Jayne’s commentary. She invited me and Sara Loudin Thomas, a writer in Asheville, to lead the group in reflecting on our writing.

This gave me the opportunity to bring to greater consciousness the process of my writing. I entitled my presentation “From Magma to Table.” The magma metaphor has been for some time my image of the unstructured but powerful awareness that fuels our basic creativity. It erupts at certain times in our lives when the mantle of our fragile existence is torn apart by powerful loves, fears, violence, or even emptiness. Using some pictures from Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano as well as one of my tables, I walked us through the phases of molten intensity, the burning of old structures of thought and expression, and then the crystallization of new 01 Magmic Eruptionawareness, to the more peaceful cone left after years of output. For the crystallization of this intense experience into images and stories, I drew on the creation of silky gossamers of glass created by the volcano. The Hawaiians call it “Pele’s Hair,” Pele being the goddess of the volcano. Around these images and core stories a poet builds a more substantial table of words for the listener where this experience can become a shared reality. Like the Hawaiian Islands, our poems are little islands of testimony to the creative work that builds our common world.

The task of the poet or any creative artist is to stay close to this molten core, but also to engage in the work of the craftsman. Too close to the magma and everything dissolves into chaos. But too close to the refined work of the craftsman, and everything becomes rigid, cold, and uninviting. The proper work of the poet is to build a table of words that can bring people together for nurture and conversation. As some of you may remember from my work on round tables, this is the whole principle behind the reconciling work of Roundtable Worship. But here I applied it to the work of the poet.

To build this poetic “table” we probably can’t walk on the old pathways fully. Like the roads around Kilauea, they have probably been covered with lava anyway! But there are elements that might build a pathway from molten intensity to a gathering table. Elements like alliteration, cadence, rhyme, repetition of words or phrases, or voice can connect the listener to the heat of the poet’s inspiration as well as to sounds that communicate and draw people into conversation with the author and each other.

Now, to some extent, “you had to be there” in our discussion, sharing, laughter, and discovery, but I hope this gives you the gist of what I was trying to say about the process of writing. Now, when I am presenting my work and someone asks “How do you write this stuff?” I have a whole talk to give!

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Mothers Day Reverberations

Mother’s Day didn’t arise as a Hallmark card sentiment but has an earlier expression in an impassioned plea from Julia Ward Howe to unite women around the world in the struggle for peace. Having inspired the brutal and bloody war to free the United States from slavery, she turned to bind up the wounds of this tragic and inevitable conflict and build foundations of international peace to prevent future wars.

Here’s the Proclamation she issued in 1870:

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly: We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence vindicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of council.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, man as the brother of man, each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women, without limit of nationality, may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient, and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

–Julia Ward Howe

Unitarian Universalists have put this Proclamation in their hymnal, Singing the Great Tradition (No. 573), but it does not seem to have penetrated into wider discourse. Let’s try to remember it for next year!

While we say we don’t need a day to remember and honor our own mothers and mother figures, it does give us at least time to pause and extend our minds to wider reaches of the mothering vocation. And that’s what it’s done for me this year. Mother poems often show up in my writings, so I share two of them from the past year that are very different — one close to many of us, one quite distant, even strange.

The first is about the mystery and profound calling of adoption:

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Not the seed come down

nor the semen find its way

but a desert in the womb

laid open

now receives a gift.

Newborn strangers

enter mysteries yet to be revealed

feast on nurture, guidance, love,

a grace that blossoms

in the rain

of broken heart

frustrate will

and fervent hope.

God’s way

so darkly known,

so  unexpected walked.

The second is about a very different, perhaps unimaginable form of redemption, that I’ve entitled Saving Baby:

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            a baby

            swaddled in his anger

            countenance red-livid

            suffering birth

            his fall

            into our self-esteem

            our pride

            the stucco of our righteousness

his mother

            picks him simply up

            caresses stubbly hair

            enfolds his grasping fingers

            in her hand

            sings a hushing song

lulls him

            into sleep

            and dreams

            with us

until she comes to Paradise


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Ruminations of a Seasoned Life

As Spring creeps northward, coaxing up the daffodils, forsythia, and redbud, I am back into routines after times of travel and our work at the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference, which just completed its annual meeting. The turkeys have shown up outside our house, performing their obscene and acrobatic rituals of mating. The Jays are back, the Cardinals sizing up our windows for their mock combat with the rivals they contain. The Bluebirds have come and gone in fewer numbers than before, their absence a terrible sign of what we have done to their homes, their bodies, and their flyways. Yet the leaves return, the onions lead the grass to lushness, branch lettuce pokes its first hands up through the humus at the waterfall.

I am working on some poems coaxed out of yet another annual event, the Press53 Gathering of Poets in Winston-Salem. Some 53 of us get together for a day of workshops, conversation, and performance to celebrate the craft we share. The sponsors, Press53 and Jacar Press, show us what they’re publishing and promoting to keep this alchemy of words alive in North Carolina. The workshops usually evoke some poems, some of which will pop up here when they have fermented a little more.

While I am there, I usually take a walk through the old Moravian Cemetery nearby, with its row upon row of simple stones laid flat on the ground. Each person is buried in the order in which they died, erasing all distinctions of this life, awaiting the joyful Resurrection of the Dead they celebrate each Easter with trumpets and song.

Our Peace Conference was devoted to the theme of Faith, Health, and Peace, with informative presentations on some of the success stories in fighting disease, but also on how the health of communities, the health of our bodies, and the health of this world are all interconnected in a web of life. The question is: How do we nourish life in its manifold dimensions? Such an effort puts us in line with the Source of Life, while our warfare against death, which characterizes so much medicine and its costliness, can never be “won,” for it is part of life. The words Shalom, Salaam, “wholth” and their kin can lead us into a different perspective, and that’s what we were struggling for.

While we are emerging into Spring, my co-author John DeGruchy, in South Africa, is settling into Fall. We are pulling together the text for our little book on woodworking and spirituality, entitled Sawdust and Soul. With reflections on our years in woodworking, on the relationships with parents, children, family, friends, and mentors, we hope to stimulate conversation about the impact of this work with natural materials on our lives and spirits. You’ll hear more about it later!

Those are my ruminations of the season. I close with just a little poetic that emerged a short while ago as I was struck by the seasonality of our life.

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How would I know myself

without the seasons?

How would the earth embrace me

in its dance around the sun?

How would I chop my life in little chunks

to feed my fire?

Would I drown in time’s ocean,

never seeing shore?

Could I pace myself,

control my impatience,

shake off the dread of change?

How would I act

without the simple drama of the year?

Find my way in a familiar play

with just the right suspense,

the satisfaction of completion?

To have a fill of night,

a satiation of the day,

A sleep that touches death,

a waking to eternal life?


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