Saturday, August 31, 2013

Seamus Heaney

I credit poetry… both for being itself and for being a help.
Seamus Heaney, Nobel Lecture, “Crediting Poetry”

Seamus Heaney died yesterday. I think it was sometime in 1996 when I first “met” him. I was driving along Minnesota 169, either between meetings or perhaps going to the hospital to visit a parishioner. Minnesota Public Radio was broadcasting the Guthrie Global Voices lecture from that year (1996) – and it was then I heard that magnificent voice. Heaney, who had been awarded the Noble Prize for Literature the previous year, used the Guthrie Lecture to read some of his poems and offer a few comments in between. To my delight the program was also being broadcast later that evening, 9 p.m., and I recorded as much of it as I could get on one-side of a ninety-minute cassette tape. He has been a companion in the car through the years, and one regret I have about newer vehicles is that they no longer have tape players. I can no longer listen to Heaney’s rich Irish voice coming from the tape player in the car.
That reading led me to Heaney’s books. Many of the poems he read at the Guthrie were being published that same year in his book The Spirit Level, and it remains one of my favorites. There one finds the poem dedicated to his brother and in praise of the virtue of “keeping going.” It is an underappreciated virtue in the complexity of our modern world. The book also has Heaney resurrecting the myth of the Irish saint, Kevin, who, while praying with his arm extended out the window of his small monastic cell, has a blackbird come and make a nest and lay eggs. The image of nurturing life feeds my pastoral imagination.
The Spirit Level contains poems with memorable lines:

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open (“Postscript”)

So walk on air against your better judgement (“The Gravel Walks”)

For Heaney, poetry can make an order as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being as the ripples that rippled in and rippled out across the water in that scullery bucket fifty years ago. An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew. An order which satisfies all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. (Crediting Poetry, 10)

One poem that particularly grabbed hold of me in the Guthrie reading was a chorus that Heaney had added to a Sophocles’ play he had translated. I could not find it in print at the time, so I transcribed it from his reading. While I have since found it in print, his reading of it that day was slightly different, for in the reading he repeated the chorus’ most famous line twice:

That justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

So Heaney’s voice has now gone silent, but not in my heart. In his poetry and voice, one believes that hope and history can rhyme (something I understand to be the work of God’s people in the world – working with the Spirit to help hope and history rhyme).
Thank you Mr. Heaney. Your poetry is a help, a help in keeping going, a help in moving me to walk on air against my better judgement. Perhaps if we all did that just a little more, hope and history could rhyme just a little more.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Christian Communities

On Sunday July 21 I experienced three gatherings of Christian community. I preached and led worship at the church where I am the appointed pastor – First United Methodist Church. The sermon for the morning was in response to a question about myth and truth in the Bible. The sermon was entitled “Mything the Point” (click here). I am now in my ninth year as pastor here and have found this a wonderful Christian community. I appreciate being a part of the adventure of the journey of faith with this group of people. My experiences the rest of the day helped me reflect on some of the journey that has brought me to this place and this place in my life.
In the early afternoon Julie and I attended the funeral for Steve O’Neil, a St. Louis County Commissioner, who was also a person of deep Christian faith. I ran into Steve quite a bit over the years, though we were not close personal friends. His work for the hungry, the poor, the downtrodden, the homeless in our community, often working with communities of faith, made him a very special person. His service was a wonderful celebration of his life, and you could not leave the service without knowing that Steve’s concern for those on the margins of society was rooted in his Christian faith. For Steve, following Jesus had everything to do with caring for the poor, with compassion, with kindness, with reconciliation. There was a sense in which his service was an expression of that ecumenical Christian community that connects following Jesus with working for justice and peace in the world.
Following that service, Julie and I went to a reunion of a group called the Christian Fellowship Workers – often just known as the CFWs. The Christian Fellowship Workers was a Christian community that emerged out of the Jesus People movement here in Duluth. When I was 14, I found Jesus or Jesus found me in a profound way. I was part of a United Methodist Church, but in trying to figure out what it might mean to be a passionate follower of Jesus, I found myself as part of the Christian Fellowship Workers. I was part of this group from age 14 to age 17. While at the reunion, I saw a picture I had not seen in years, a group picture at the farm owned by the CFWs. I am in the middle of the picture. This Christian community was passionate about Jesus and the focus of the passion was having people come into a person relationship with Jesus. It was about salvation understood primarily in terms of one’s existential condition and one’s status in the afterlife. I don’t remember a lot of connection between being a follower of Jesus and caring for the poor and hungry, though there were folks on the margins who were part of this community.

Being at Steve O’Neil’s funeral and experiencing that Christian community, and then being at the CFW reunion and remembering that Christian community I thought about the variety of Christian community that has been a part of my journey of faith and that has helped make me the disciple of Jesus I am. I still believe in the importance of a relationship with Jesus, or with God through Jesus, that decisively shapes one’s existential self-understanding in such a way that one is “saved.” I also believe that this Jesus in whom we are saved moves us to care for the world, to work for justice and peace. This more comprehensive understanding of salvation is well-articulated by one of my theological teachers and mentors, Schubert Ogden: By “salvation” is properly meant, first of all and fundamentally, the redemptive activity of God whereby the whole of humankind, and thus each and every human being, notwithstanding the universal fact of sin, is accepted into God’s own everlasting life – the theological term for this divine activity being “grace.” And then, secondly, and in absolute dependence on God’s grace, salvation is the activity of a woman or man through which she or he accepts God’s acceptance – the theological term for this human activity being “faith” and, more exactly, “faith working through love,” a love that, as I like to say, incarnates itself as justice. (The Understanding of Christian Faith, 123).
And that makes me think about yet another Christian community that has had an impact on my journey of faith, the Christian community I experienced in seminary. There I discovered that a passionate Christian faith could also be a thoughtful Christian faith, one that deeply engaged the intellect. My first year in seminary, I tried growing a beard. I hope my intellectual development outpaced the growth of my facial hair.

A passionate, compassionate and thoughtful Christian faith – that is what I seek to grow and nurture in my life. That’s what I hope to help others develop and nurture as a pastor. I am grateful for the Christian communities that have been and continue to be part of this adventure.

With Faith and With Feathers,