Advent Week Three: O Tannenbaum

This is definitely one of those songs I don’t think about much at Christmas because I hated singing it when I was growing up.  But it popped up in a service at church recently with decidedly Christian lyrics.  Usually it’s a song about the lovely evergreen that teaches us to keep going, life is ever-renewing, that sort of thing, but this new spin talked about the evergreen as God’s creation and celebrated “how richly God has decked thee.”  The tree, because it’s always around, served as witness to Jesus’ birth and reminds us of the miracle of that renewal as well as showing us how to stand fast in our trust of what God can do.  Okay, I can work with that.

snowy pine trees 1This is originally a German tune from the 16th century—at least, the music is.  The lyrics seem to be as scattered as the needles of such a tree at the end of the Christmas season (don’t tell me you haven’t found them hiding behind the living room hutch in March).  But they all agree on this being a loving serenade of the Christmas tree, the tannenbaum (which is German for “fir tree,” a name we retain even though most modern Christmas trees are spruce).  The concept of the tree as we know it has been around for a while but was cemented into the celebration of the holiday in 19th century England, mostly by the atmosphere that birthed and then celebrated Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  Fortunately we no longer put live candles on the tree as the lighting instruments—lot of fires in flammable houses from that practice.

(It’s a little weird to have a song that celebrates the power of living via a tree that we cut down [kill] in order to put in our houses, but no one asked me.)

While I do still dislike the song itself, I really like this new concept of its call to faithfulness for us.  The last stanza (in some versions) has the couplet “Thou bidst us true and faithful be / And trust in God unchangingly.”  Kind of a lot to put on a poor tree, but then the Old English poets wrote a whole thing about the tree that got made into a cross and its thoughts on the matter, so I guess just acting as example is fine.  (It’s called The Dream of the Rood, by the way, and is one of my favorite OE poems.)

Christmas, in the Christian faith, is so much about what God is doing—that’s part of why I like Advent because it’s about what we are doing.  We are waiting, preparing, hoping and dreaming and sighing and living into this ever-renewing promise of life and life abundantly.  Since I’m a person who puts her tree up as soon as possible (but not until after Thanksgiving, of course; mixing the holidays is a cardinal sin), I can definitely count this as an Advent piece.  Like the tree that stays patiently green while the snow and the rain rest on its needles, I wait as my living self in this Advent space for the Christ to be born—although I’m usually a lot less patient than the tree.  After all, I don’t live nearly as long.  (Just so you know, Reader, I’m sparing you from the tangent on Ents that’s going on in my head right now, so be glad of that.)  But I, too, am called to be “true and faithful” as well as green—vibrant, engaged, alive—in the winter.  (That’s a little easier for me than some considering winter is my favorite season, but I think we can both make the metaphorical leap to the wintry times when it’s a little harder to be green.)  I make zero promises as to the trusting “unchangingly” bit, but to return to the God Who has also decked me out pretty richly with the faith that this birth changes everything may be something I can do.

Especially when sitting in the lovely glow of lights on the Christmas tree.

 

Therefore, let’s draw near with a genuine heart with the certainty that our faith gives us, since our hearts are sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies are washed with pure water.  Let’s hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, because the one who made the promises is reliable.  (Hebrews 10:22-23, CEB)

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People of the Books: Parson Place by Joan Walters Mathison

md986014574I think an associate pastor gave this to me when I was in sixth grade or something like that because he knew I wrote poetry:  it’s a collection of poems by a Methodist pastor’s wife published in 1980 with some pencil illustrations by John Crawford (whoever he is).  It got enough press that there’s a one-page forward by UMC Bishop Carl Sanders in the front (yet it doesn’t seem to have an ISBN—fail, Pioneer Press).  And it is cute in a folksy, homesy sort of way; very much about day-to-day life raising a family and keeping house and being a pastor’s wife.

But DAMN is it painful to a 21st century feminist.  Nearly every poem is about the ways Mathison curtails herself to the raising of a family and the caretaking of her husband the absent-minded pastor son of eight billion generations of pastors.  This…this is kind of what’s wrong with the Church,  which I know is super harsh, but man.  There’s a poem called “Somebody’s Knocking” about a late-night call that wakes her and her husband when a woman calls him to a domestic violence dispute:

“She begged my husband to come and help–
(Neighbor’s [sic] think a preacher makes a grand referee!).”

So the wife waits up in worry for her husband, but then MAKES A JOKE ABOUT IT when he asks why she’s still up:

“I said, ‘Just waiting–
I THOUGHT you’d bring me a souvenir!'”

No.  Domestic violence isn’t funny, and it isn’t cute, and I don’t really care what fluffy note she was trying to hit with that or how common it was when that was written; it falls flat.

I do appreciate her understanding of her role:

“Being a preacher’s wife isn’t something you are born as, it’s what you become when you marry that neat guy in a volkswagen [sic] who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.  You are like everybody else until you say ‘yes’ at the alter [sic], and then people start looking at you like you’re something different.  You take on a new image, and if you don’t watch out, you just might start thinking that you’re different too.  When you go to a shower with your old running buddies you catch them introducing you as a preacher’s wife.  People immediately think that they had better watch what they say around you, and the next thing you know you’re feeling different.  The way to lick that feeling is to be yourself and let them know that you’re still a fun person despite your label.  To do so, you may catch yourself talking a lot which is really okay, but talking about something you’re not suppose [sic] to talk about is something else.”

That kid-glove treatment of pastors and their spouses is most definitely still a thing and I’m glad to see her taking apart the effect it has on her.  But then she goes off the rails:

“It usually takes the preacher to get his wife’s mouth under control.  If he doesn’t do it in those early years there’s trouble ahead.  He surely doesn’t want his image changed.”  (31)

ARG.

All poems are ABAB CDCD etc stanzas, but the rhythm is all over the place.  Sometimes there are four feet, sometimes six, sometimes it shifts within a single stanza—while I appreciate her ability to find that many rhymes, her poetry is sloppy in scansion.  And, as you can see, the editing is…subpar.

As someone who has literally never wanted to be a housewife, I can see that perhaps I’m not the best one to give a compassionate reading to this.  And as someone a few decades removed from this, I can see that we’re going to differ.  But just everything about this makes me sad for the generations of women we’ve told had to be shadows of their husbands in the Church and how we’re still doing that in so many ways, even within the denominations that speak of full involvement of women.  And the ways that the husband is expected to be so many things here, both super pious and always a leader and definitely connected to God—yeesh, no wonder the guy was absent-minded.  May my eventual spouse never expect such constant strength and direction from me; I’m human as all get-out.

And the fact that a pastor felt like he needed to give this to me as an elementary-schooler as an example of how Christian women write poetry

One and a half stars.  Good for her to write and publish a thing, but ugh.  My United Methodist self, my feminist self, my English major self, and my poet self are all quite sad we carried this around for so long.

 

 

1-5-stars

 

People of the Books: The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

I truly did not mean to stay away for a month, my apologies.  Every time I think I have a handle on this semester, something else comes along—however, now that we’re in midterms (can you believe it?) I think I might be finding a rhythm.  This is a semester where I spent A LOT of time actually in class, which is unusual for graduate school.  I’m hoping this is not the case next semester; be patient with me, Reader, and stick around.

I have a great many books that have been piling up and it’s been some time since I did a review, so I present The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley.  I don’t remember where or when I got this, but I do remember picking it up solely because Huxley (of Brave New World fame) wrote it and I was fascinated to see what he’d do with devils.

It is, I discovered, a historical overview of a spate of supposed possessions in a convent in Loudun, France, in the 17th century.  Or it’s an indictment of 17th century Church corruption.  Or it’s a showcase of what happens when you tell people sexuality is bad but then make it enticing.  Or it’s religious theory.  Or it’s psychology.  Or it’s poetry.  Or it’s comparative religion, drawing on Taoism and Buddhism as well as Christianity and Judaism.

Or it’s all of that.  Huxley isn’t writing a novel (which is what I originally thought this was, especially having read The Devils by John Whiting, which is a play based on these same possessions.)  It reminded me a lot of The Cheese and the Worms in terms of taking a historical event/text and extrapolating with stories and theories about the personalities and relationships involved.  And Huxley has a lot to work with:  as I mentioned, it’s about possessions at a convent in France.  A priest named Urbain Grandier was accused of bringing a whole slew of devils to torment (mostly via impure thoughts and some flopping about and such) a nunnery; he was eventually convicted and burned to death as a sorcerer.  Along the way, though, Huxley goes through how the politics of religious France allowed this, what relationships Grandier was having that would have set him up for such a claim, what the abbess of the nunnery was doing in claiming such possession, and whether or not the entire affair had any grounding.

Huxley comes down hard on the side of this whole thing being a frame-up because the nuns were sexually frustrated and Grandier slept with all the wrong gals, but fortunately he doesn’t dismiss the reality of the situation for the people involved.  He’s pretty good about not judging the actors through 20th century eyes, which not every historian can pull off.

Be warned:  there are a lot of times when Huxley will quote from some document or other in French or Latin and just move on without translating.  That can be frustrating if you don’t quite know what’s being said, but fortunately it’s never anything on which the argument turns.  And there are sparse citations in this book; there are a few footnotes, but they’re as random as the choices to translate.

Huxley goes through so many tunnels to get at his objective of totally dismantling this entire mess and tearing apart the politics of the Church and the fear of evil, especially as it manifests in sexuality.  I found myself feeling awful for pretty much all of the characters because they got caught in this machine they’d foolishly started and then couldn’t stop, ground in its gears without mercy or tempered judgment.

Let me share some quotes with you that I found particularly of note:

“A Church divided by intestine hatreds cannot systematically practise love and cannot, without manifest hypocrisy, preach it.”  (27; oh modern Church, do you hear?)

“Christ delights in the lilies precisely because they are not prudent, because they neither toil nor spin and yet are incomparably lovelier than the most gorgeous of Hebrew kings…[they] enjoy a glory which has this in common with the Order of the Garter—that ‘there’s no damned merit about it.’  That, precisely, is their point; that is why, for us human beings, they are so refreshing and, on a level much deeper than that of morality, so profoundly instructive.”  (85-86)

“Such was the atmosphere in a convent of demoniac nuns, and such the persons with whom, in an intimacy that was a compound of the intimacies existing between gynaecologist and patient, trainer and animal, adored psychiatrist and loquacious neurotic, the officiating priest passed many hours of every day and night…The long-drawn debauch took place in the imagination and was never physical.”  (121, on the weird sexual tension between the possessed nuns and the exorcists brought in to cure them)

“[A]ll the evils of religion can flourish without any belief in the supernatural…Few people now believe in the devil; but very many enjoy behaving as their ancestors behaved when the Fiend was a reality as unquestionable as his Opposite Number.  In order to justify their behaviour, they turn their theories into dogmas, their by-laws into First Principles, their political bosses into Gods and all those who disagree with them into incarnate devils.”  (125; oh, that doesn’t sound familiar at all here in 2016…)

“And Montaigne concludes with one of those golden sentences which deserve to be inscribed over the altar of every church, above the bench of every magistrate, on the walls of every lecture hall, every senate and parliament, every government office and council chamber…’After all, it is rating one’s conjectures at a very high price to roast a man alive on the strength of them.'”  (133)

“For the first time in his life he knew the meaning of contrition—not doctrinally, not by scholastic definition, but from within, as an anguish of regret and self-condemnation…Father Ambrose pronounced the formula of absolution…and spoke a little about the will of God.  Nothing was to be asked for, he said, and nothing refused.  Except for sin, all that might happen to one was not merely to be accepted with resignation; it was to be willed, moment by moment, as God’s will for that particular moment.  Suffering was to be willed, affliction was to be willed…And in the act of being willed they would be understood.  And in the act of being understood they would be transfigured, would be seen, not with the eyes of the natural man, but as God saw them.”  (203)

“At Saintes, for the first time in ten years, Surin found himself treated with sympathy and consideration—as a sick man undergoing a spiritual ordeal, not as a kind of criminal undergoing punishment at the hands of God and therefore deserving of yet more punishment at the hands of men.  It was still all but impossible for him to leave his prison and communicate with the world; but now the world was moving in and trying to communicate with him.”  (297)

 

Rating:  3.5/5 stars  3-5-stars

Crazy Little Thing Called Church

Sorry this is rather late today, Reader; I’m in the middle of Annual Conference, which is kind of the United Methodist equivalent of a state senate session.  Delegates from all over my state gather together for a handful of days to worship together, to work through legislation together (we are a human organization, after all; it might be nice to say we should just live in harmony, but those of us who have read Lord of the Flies know that doesn’t quite work out on its own), and to be the Church together—in all the ups and downs that entails.

And it has its ups and downs.  There are many ups.  We had fabulous worship this morning, complete with some slam poetry psalms that made me ache to write such power myself and an address by the bishop that ended in her singing my dead grandfather’s favorite hymn—double trouble, in terms of emotional connection.  We were challenged (wonderfully!) to step outside of our worship comfort zones, to truly be present in praise, and it fed my soul when I didn’t even realize how hungry I was.  In the afternoon, we had fabulous worship of a totally different kind, working into my denomination’s recent commitment to repentance and reconciliation in regards to indigenous peoples and the part the Church has played in their genocide.  Powerful stories were told, the stories that only get sideline paragraphs in U.S. history books because we as the “greatest nation on earth” don’t want to see the ways that we lied and stole and broke ourselves and others in climbing to the top; we don’t want to acknowledge that we cannot be perfect, that we are not nothing if we are not first, best, spotless.  We as a conference committed ourselves to going back for that one sheep, that one tribe, that one person we have left out on the margins because we cannot do anything else if we are truly claiming Christ’s example.

And there have been downs:  the anger and tension over the General Conference (global, every-four-years gathering; kind of a UN summit meeting for the United Methodist Church, in a way) decisions and lack of decisions simmer under everything.  There are some pastors and laity—“right” and “left” in terms of polity—who continue to push rhetoric and motions that needlessly jab at those who do not agree, who continue to demand words that wound in the name of clarity and accountability.  Truly, Reader, these piss me off.  I don’t care whether you’re left, right, or center; I don’t care how angry you are about whether the Church is or is not doing what you are so sure is right.  To shove people’s faces and spirits in language and rules which don’t bring demonstrable change but do highlight how right and godly you are and how wrong and prejudiced “they” are is just selfish.  We skitter, in some ways, on the edge of schism—not because the vast majority of the UMC wants to split but because those at the extreme ends keep pushing their opponents’ buttons like four-year-old children cruelly searching for the breaking point.

Capture

Conference is exhausting; perhaps it is more so this year, coming off of being in a wedding last weekend and having another wedding in the middle of things this weekend and dealing with work and transition in and through.  Conference is exhausting because it’s one long networking session:  this, barring serious changes, will be the conference to which I return after I finish seminary, so these are my future colleagues and bosses and employees and congregation members.  These are the people with whom I will serve on committees, to whom I will turn when I need a hand in my church.  Conference is exhausting because I wear uneasily the mantle of my future career even while I am at present a lay representative.  Conference is exhausting because it’s non-stop, and my introvert self needs a day off.

Yet, crazily, I do not regret taking time off of my paying job to do this work.  I believe from the bottoms of my feet that it matters, even on the days when I sit in a meeting listening to people question whether or not parliamentary rules allow someone to make that kind of motion now or if it has to be introduced by a separate action.  I don’t know why Crazy Little Thing popped into my head earlier today, but I’m running with it.  No, I don’t advocate attempting to be in a romantic relationship with the Church (for one thing, Valentine’s Day is going to be disappointing every year), but that sense of not really understanding but going for it anyway is totally applicable.  Conference—Church administration in general—is weird and inexplicable and tiring and yet something that (for some) is also energizing and fascinating.

And is sometimes something you need to leave for a while, get on your motorbike and get away from until you’re ready.  I’m glad of having another wedding this weekend to break up Conference for me because I, too, am not totally in love with what the Church is doing to itself at the moment.  I am frustrated with what we’re not saying, with the assumptions we’re making, with the petty skirmishes of power and elevation that distract us from our purpose as God’s people to be light to the world.  Yet after the ride, after shaking off the frustration in the humid summer night air, I still pray that all of us can return to our seats the next day willing to look at what we do and see it to the glory of God.

And may we be brave enough to call ourselves out if it is not.  What a crazy thought.

 

 

Some people came down from Judea teaching the family of believers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom we’ve received from Moses, you can’t be saved.”  Paul and Barnabas took sides against these Judeans and argued strongly against their position.  The church at Antioch appointed Paul, Barnabas, and several others from Antioch to go up to Jerusalem to set this question before the apostles and the elders.  The church sent this delegation on their way.  (Acts 15:1-4a, CEB)

People of the Books: Tale of the Heike trans. by Helen Craig McCullough

This doesn’t so much count as a religious book, but then it does, but then it doesn’t, but then it does…

Here’s the thing—The Tale of the Heike (or Heike monogatari) is a history.  Specifically, it’s the epic of the downfall of the Taira clan in medieval Japan, mostly because of the arrogance (in the West it would likely be hubris) of the clan leader, Taira no Kiyomori.  Kiyomori is a fool who challenges the universe to defy his awesomeness.

Spoiler alert:  it does.

The religious aspect of it is so part and parcel that the epic won’t stand without it.  Medieval Japan was Buddhist (in case you didn’t know), and this whole poem (it is a poem, although this particular translation is in prose, which is kind of great because I heart poetry but not for 430 pages) hinges on the Buddhist theme of impermanence.  In fact, the opening lines about impermanence are super famous:

The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline.  The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.  (23)

There’s a pretty solid overview of the poem here, if you’re interested.  It is pretty neat to see how medieval Japanese civil wars have made their way into poetry, but then, I’m a medievalist.  Warning:  The Tale of the Heike is really long.  It just is.  It covers nearly one hundred years of happenings as the Taira and Minamoto clans battle for supremacy in the Japanese government, and there are SO MANY moments of dramatic irony that it hurts.  Lots of yelling at the TV screen, if there were a TV, not to walk down that hallway.  And Westerners will have a rough time of it because there are a ton of name changes and little side stories that don’t connect to an overarching narrative (in any direct way, at least), but the annotations and footnotes of this edition are actually really helpful. Also, I found it make my life easier to have a post-it note for each book with a one-sentence summary of each section; that way, when someone would pop up after having been absent for 56 pages, I could go back and remind myself why that guy was important.

Along the way, there are great stories of love, horror, battle, song, beauty, an awful lot of people taking up the religious life, and poems galore. I appreciate that McCullough kept the Japanese with the poems, even though I don’t understand a lick of Japanese, because so much of the importance of poetry here is borrowing and punning and sound pattern, which gets lost in translation.  All in all, this is a solid translation of this, and I do recommend it.

The way it qualifies as a religious book (beyond that freaking everyone becomes a monk at some point, I feel) is the underlying theme of pushing against that arrogance/hubris.  The gods are the gods and we are most decidedly not, and it’s Kiyomori’s decision that he can play on their scale that crashes the whole dynasty.

This is a tale of the effects of karma.  Karma, or (業)Gō, is where past deeds affect current ones; it relies on the idea that death happens, but it’s a temporary thing.  So Taira no Kiyomori, who becomes a tyrant under the illustrious desire for power, started as a Buddhist teacher uncomprehending of the nature of evil.  He figured it out, and it devours him as his actions for himself overwhelm his actions for others and the gods.

As everywhere, religion is not detached from ordinary lives and political struggles. Warrior monks are wily players in this ongoing struggle, often competing in very earthly struggles for allegiance and manipulating events by using their monk statuses.  So this is also a tale about how religion can be a tool like everything else and that following faith doesn’t necessarily make you untouchably pious.

This book is a huge deal in Japanese culture; parts of it have been adapted to Noh plays and various performances.  It’s kind of the Japanese Iliad in its applicability and staying power.  It has some beautiful little stories within the larger narrative.  For certain, this is tragedy and wonder and poetry and nature appreciation and totally worth the read.  It’s sort of like Ecclesiastes; depressing as all get out, but beautiful in its own sad and inevitable way.

 

Rating:  5ac3e-1056599-golden-four-star-rating-border-poster-art-print  4/5 stars

The Least of These

I had a dream last night about the Syrian refugees.

I was at my undergrad college; I think I was employed there in some capacity.  The College had partnered with some nearby resettlement agency and was taking in refugees, but nobody had managed to get a number of how many people were coming.  Somehow it became my job and I went to what is in real life a rec center but was in the dream a newly renovated dorm to meet the agency representative to clarify.  As I got there, a big yellow school bus full of people drove up and these refugees came streaming out to this dorm.  The bus driver was the agency rep, I guess; he looked a lot like Carl the janitor from The Breakfast Club.  I followed him around as he was directing these people into the dorm around the students already there, asking how many, how many.  We need to be able to plan, I said; this is a small school, it was never designed to hold a lot of people; we have to be able to keep them safe and if we exceed capacity we won’t be able to do that, we’ll have to herd them all into a gym to sleep en masse, just tell me how many, how many.

He looked at me and just said, “More.”

Then I moved on to another dream and kept going in my snug little bed as the wind howled and the rain blew here in the Land of Pilgrims.  But I remembered this when I woke up this morning, remembered the panic I felt in the dream that we had no room, that we would not be able to provide for these people, that we were drowning together, these refugees and my college.

It gets more and more interesting to me as I get older that, in America at least, we have Thanksgiving and Christmas a month apart.  They are two sides of a coin, these holidays; the one is the celebration of peoples being present for each other and having plenty, a holiday of hope and excess blurred around the historical edges by tryptophan and the Macy’s parade.  The other is perseverance through not having enough—enough room, enough money, enough love, enough acceptance.  It is the light that shines in the darkness, the birth that impossibly happened when everyone was worried about something else.  It is hope, too, of the already-not-yet variety rather than the fulfilled one.

Yet both are squarely centered on reaching out to the stranger; both hold the lessons of making room in our hearts and lives because Jesus told us to, because our souls tell us to, because whatever tells us to recognize that that human who needs even the smallest part of what we have is a human, is us, is worth this.  We end our calendar year by, theoretically at least, opening wide our understanding of who we are in relation to each other.

This is my 200th post, Reader.  That number astounds me, surprises me, invites me to think about what I’m doing with this blog as the spiritual implications become less subtle in my personal and professional lives.  But I will not use this to preach at you.  This blog was started to help me track the untrackable God Who was utterly changing my life; it was meant as an invitation for you to come with me, to support me or correct me, to share the ways God was changing your life—or the ways you didn’t feel God, if there even was one, was paying attention to your life at all.  It was never meant to be a cyberspace platform for me to tell you what to believe.

So in this refugee crisis, I have seen so many memes and comments and videos flashing across social media of “keep them out” and “how heartless are you”.  Fear warps our recognition of our fellow humans, the reality of how dangerous the world is consuming us utterly.  Self-righteousness warps our recognition of our fellow humans, our passion to save one group turning us against another with accusations of stupidity, of coldness, of being the Innkeeper.  In the dream I had last night, I didn’t plan to make a subconscious political statement to myself.  Yet I understood the Innkeeper’s bond to the people he already housed; I understood the Native Americans’ worry of accepting these new foreigners who may be dangerous.

Do I think we should open ourselves to accepting Syrian refugees?  Yes.  I think we cannot be a country who speaks of accepting the wretched refuse without actually doing so; I think we cannot pretend to be a superpower or world leader if our front door says we shine a “world-wide welcome” but our fearful hearts shutter the light.  But do I think that we should shame the people who see the violence in far-off countries and shake at the thought of that happening here?  No.  We do ourselves no service to pretend to take the historical high road and hide behind ready-made Instagram insults about the “wrong side of history.”  I am a historian; the only “wrong side” history has is that of the losers, because the winners write the history books.  It has nothing to do with morality or justice, not really, and I say that as a Christian who believes God is actively involved in human affairs.

We sit now, Reader, in the pocket between the two holidays.  Some of us sit pleasantly stuffed, celebrating another day off of work, school, obligation.  Some of us will be putting up our trees today, looking ahead to the Bing Crosby songs and the snowflakes surely coming.  But each of us will be thinking of someone, connecting in however slight a way to another.  Each of us will love today.  May we be open to the ways that love can be unbounded, unexpected, and truly unconditional.

 

“And the King will answer them, ‘I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.'”  (Matthew 25:31-46, HCSB)

People of the Books: Psalms Redux by Carla A. Grosch-Miller

I got this book in the store of Iona Abbey in Scotland last year, so it was interesting in reading it to continually be tied by memory to the experience I had there and my opinions of that landscape.

This book was written as a go-around for people seeking access to the psalms.  Although it’s called the prayerbook and the songbook of the Bible, Psalms is a collection of verse written (mostly) by a Jewish shepherd in the 11th century B.C. in Hebrew.  Yes, poetry is timeless, but there are a lot of references and structures that simply don’t have the punch for 21st century English-speaking non-shepherds that they would have had for their original audience.  I love the Psalms, but there are some times when I just have no connection to them.  This book, then, was a great find.

Grosch-Miller took the psalms themselves and sort of re-wrote them; the best way to explain how is to show you an example, since it’s not like she scrapped them all and started over.  I’ll go with Psalm 23 since it’s a really well-known one:

This I know;
My life is in Your hands.
I have nothing to fear.

I stop,
breathe,
listen.

Beneath the whirl of what is
is a deep down quiet place.
You beckon me to tarry there.

This is the place
where unnamed hungers
are fed, the place
of clear water,
refreshment.

My senses stilled,
I drink deeply,
at home
in timeless territory.

In peril, I remember:
Death’s dark vale holds no menace.
I lean into You;
Your eternal presence comforts me.
I am held tenderly.

In the midst of all that troubles,
that threatens and diminishes,
You set abundance before me.
You lift my head; my vision clears.
The blessing cup overflows.

This I know:
You are my home and my hope,
my strength and my solace,
and so shall You ever be.  (13-14)

So it’s nothing earth-shattering, but they make a great devotional tool.  And I discovered by about the third psalm (she doesn’t do all 150, by the by, which is kind of a shame but a choice I understand; this was a devotion for her, too) that you shouldn’t read these and the actual psalms side-by-side.  These are meant to be reimagings of the originals, true, but they’re not translations or anything of that sort.  They’re poetry in their own right, and at least for the first reading need to be able to be met on their own terms.

This also has, after the selected “reduxed” psalms, a collection of original poetry from Grosch-Miller, including a “Psalm for the Oversubscribed” and “A January Prayer” and “Waiting for Resurrection (for survivors of domestic and church violence),” among others.  I liked some and wasn’t wild about others, which is kind of how I felt about this whole book, but I do think that some will be great to work into liturgy some day.

I like that this introduces this idea to me of relating to and working with the psalms as a writer and on a writer’s level, which hadn’t really occurred to me before.  While it’s true that the Scriptural canon is closed, it is still a living Word that asks for interaction and wrestling; Grosch-Miller has opened a new way for me to consider doing that and has offered her own first steps for me to follow.  The poems themselves may be hit-and-miss, but the concept is worth keeping the book around for further reference.  And, to its credit, when the poems are really good, they’re really good, both by themselves and in the sense that they send me scurrying back to the original psalms, which is really the best thing a book like this could do.

 

Rating:  4/5 stars  5ac3e-1056599-golden-four-star-rating-border-poster-art-print