Friday, April 27, 2007

Protestant Poetry

I grew up in a traditional church, and that meant I learned a lot of poetry. Maybe not great poetry, but decent poetry. Some doggerel, of course, some mere rhyme, but in spite of that, lots of decent serviceable poetry.

I don't mean the Psalms. Those too, and of course they are poetry, and greatly so.

But what I mean here is the hymns. All the lyrics of the hymns, especially Luther and Watts and Wesley and Doddridge and Cowper and Winkworth. Such great amounts of poetry we regularly repeated growing up, in the form and dress of the hymns we sang.

Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail.

In deep unfathomable mines
of never failing skill
He conjures up his bright designs
and works his sovereign will.

Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, how long,
and soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.

The earth with its store
of treasures untold,
Almighty, thy power
hath founded of old.
Hath stablished it fast
by a changeless decree,
and round it hath cast,
like a mantle, the sea.

I could go on. And on and on. My head is full of lines like these. I don't have to look them up, I just know them, and there are lots more I could write from memory. I memorized these on Sunday mornings, quite unintentionally, by simply showing up in church.

No, it's not T S Eliot or Chaucer or Spenser. But it is decent poetry that serves a people. It is memorable, it honors its words and makes its images, it expands the mind and delights the ear, and it has grammatical integrity and discipline.

But this body of poetry seems to be invisible to the academic study of literature. Yes, our greatest poetry is admired and given much prestige, but the decent and serviceable poetry that nourished ordinary people is neglected and dismissed. I can't imagine a graduate student at a university being encouraged to study the common hymns as poetry.

But even in terms of cultural anthropology, isn't it obvous that something like "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" is as significant as any other poem in the English language?

Sadly, our Protestant poetry is being lost to us. Poetry in general is not a value of our culture. And poetry is not a value of our church leadership. Certainly not in my denomination. When our denominational leaders gather us together, all they want to talk about is statistics and organizations and management techniques. They don't want to talk about:

The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I'll never, no never desert to his foes.
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I'll never, no never, no never forsake.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


Julia Durgee goes to Old First, and she's an artist, an illustrator, and a cartoonist.

Julia has a wonderful style and vision and look of her own. I love it. I haven't seen any cartoons that are like hers.

Julia agreed to make some cartoons for our Seventh Avenue bulletin board. She puts a new one up every few weeks. I encouraged her to build them around a continuing character. So they're about Julia, of course.

And they can be open. They can explore. They can comment. They can simply express and rejoice. They don't have to make a sermon. All they have to do is help us love the world.

Now we get to have them posted here as well. Jessica Stockton knows how to do it (I don't.) You can look forward to new ones showing up here.

I am so happy that Old First is a congregation in which people can use their gifts.

Julia Durgee Comic #4: Heart

Copyright © 2007 by Julia Durgee, all rights reserved.

Julia Durgee Comic #3: Elevator

Copyright © 2007 by Julia Durgee, all rights reserved.

Julia Durgee Comic #2: Hope

Copyright © 2007 by Julia Durgee, all rights reserved.

Julia Durgee Comic #1: Bigger

(Click on the comic strip to view at a larger size.)
Copyright © 2007 by Julia Durgee, all rights reserved.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Roller Shoes

I was walking in Astoria this morning, in the bright sunlight, on my way to a church meeting. Something happened that gave me great joy.

A boy and a girl were walking in front of me. He looked maybe ten, she looked twelve. They were both wearing backpacks, like for school. He was dressed "western," but she was in a long dress, and wearing a hijab, the Arabic headscarf.

All of a sudden she pushed one foot forward and started rolling. She had on roller-shoes. She went step - roll - step - roll. Right up to the doorway of the Astoria Islamic Center. And quick and smooth they opened the door and in they went.

I praise you O God for these children, and for that Muslim girl and her roller-shoes.

(And for Jose Reyes who just beat out a bunt to second base!)

Friday, April 20, 2007

Long Distance Grieving

I was on the subway yesterday, reading about each victim of the massacre, and I was sobbing in my seat. I'm glad the car was almost empty. I kept my newspaper up for privacy.

This morning I got an email from our Old First family that moved to Blacksburg two years ago. The mother brought me up to date on the kids, all four of them. And I started to grieve for them too. Quietly crying while at my laptop.

They're safe, they're fine, but I realized how much I missed them. I used to teach them in Sunday School, I used to pray with them and talk to them about God, and I loved to hear what they had to say, not just about God, but about their lives. And then they moved away.

Then when another family announced in November that they were moving to Michigan, with their two little kids, my wife said, "Damn, now we'll never see those kids grow up."

The turnover in our membership is hard to take. You build relationships with people, and then they move away, and all you can do is grieve. You can't hang on to them, they have to join some new congregation where they have gone to live, but you feel it when they're gone. It's a problem in Brooklyn. The turnover, the moving in and out.

And to compound the issue, pastors tend to move around. We leave relationships behind. Our former parishioners have to connect with our successors. I'm in my fifth congregation. I just can't afford to keep connected to the people in my former congregations.

In January a couple from my second congregation had a terrible car accident. He was badly injured, she was killed. I had counseled and married them, they had been our friends. But, not atypically, we hadn't had contact for some years. They have had two pastors since we left. I felt so disconnected. What could I do but grieve at a distance.

It's one of the reasons why so many pastors keep the walls up, why they hold back from opening themelves to their congregations. The emotional outlay is just too great.

Somebody said to me on Sunday that the reason he attends Old First, even though he's Catholic, is that we are "open" with our emotions, we are candid and vulnerable and real. I was grateful that he said that. But I know why many pastors aren't that way---the grief.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

God Bless You, Mr Vonnegut

Thank you for giving so much to me in my life, especially joy.

Thank you for The Sirens of Titan. As decent an explanation of world history as any, that the Trafalmadorians were using us to display messages to a stranded traveler. That the "telos" of human achievement was a can opener, as important as the Great Wall of China.

Thank you for Cats Cradle. Your sympathy to religious discipleship was as kindly as your disparagement of it was accurate.

Thank you for Slaughterhouse Five. How it taught us to feel about war. The craziness of it. And our looseness in time and space.

Thank you for Welcome to the Monkey House. You must have known about my people. That the control of population growth should be accomplished by local anesthesia of the body below the waste, and that this should have been invented by a Grand Rapids druggist, with the origianl purpose of giving it to monkeys to keep them from copulating on Sundays when he walked home from church through the zoo. Especially on Easter.

When you lived in Schenectady, did you step into the Dutch Reformed Church there, and meet the pastor, who grew up in Grand Rapids, and whose father was my own predecessor?

Your death is of the sort you might have chosen for one of your characters.

I hope that you're having fun on some planet somewhere with Montana Wildhack.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

White Pines

I walk from my apartment to the church through Prospect Park. Occasionally, if I have enough time, I cross over Lookout Hill, and especially if it's a windy day. There are white pines up there, and the sound of the wind through white pines is just about my favorite sound in all of God's creation. It always lifts my spirit, but it also stirs my sehnsucht, my longing.

Bruce Caton, in his marvelous and beautifully written history of Michigan, reports that there used to be magnificent stands of white pines all through the Lower Peninsula. These were lumbered early on. He reports that the early lumbermen could find the largest ones simply by listening for their distinctive sound.

I was unaware of white pines till I lived a while in Michigan, and it was there I came to love them. Sixteen years ago I planted one in Hoboken, and it is doing very well. (You can see it on Google Earth, in the backyard of 606 Garden Street, just to the left of the magnolia.)

Now I look for them in Brooklyn. You can see some from the D train, off New Utrecht Avenue.

What gave me special joy last week was to see a young one, a volunteer sapling, growing on Lookout Hill. I praise God for such things.