Thursday, March 30, 2023

March Goes Out with a Poetry Reading

Last night, I went to a poetry reading.  On its face, that's not too strange.  In fact, I had seen/heard one of the poets, Carolyn Forche, several times before.  But what made last night unique is how I came to be there.  

Last week, one of my classmates reached out to me to see if I was going and to suggest that if I was, we go together.  She also needed a ride, since she doesn't drive at night, so if I lived near her, could I drive and she'd pay for gas and parking?  

Although I live half an hour away, I offered to drive to her, pick her up, and we'd go together.  I was less worried about driving at night than I was about arriving at a crowded venue with nowhere to sit and no one I know.  I proposed that we go at a ridiculously early hour so that we left ourselves time for traffic.  I expected to get to Busboys and Poetes, the venue, at 5:30 for a 7:00 start time, but in the end, we did need the extra time--lots and lots of traffic.  We had good conversation in the car along the way.  

The poetry reading had a different format--it was a liturgically inflected reading.  That's fancy talk for the fact that it had some liturgical elements that you would usually find in a worship service.  The host and curator, Travis Helms, is a poet and an Episcopal priest, and when he was in Austin, he was trying to create something that felt less transactional when it came to poetry readings, something more participatory, a gathering that had something to offer to people yearning for something to connect them to the Divine but without having to go to a church building.

How that looked last night:  after a singing bowl centering, we opened and closed with poems read in a responsive format.  It could have been even more like worship; Helms has described gatherings with something that sounded like the Eucharist, although he never disclosed whether or not he saw the meal sharing as sacrament or whether he blessed the elements--the kind of details that fascinate a theology nerd like me.

Last night was more like a traditional poetry reading, but that was fine with me.  Carolyn Forche read poems that were new to me, poems about lighthouses and refugees and wreckage.  Richard Reeves was completely new to me, and I loved the talk between the poems, talk that illuminated his writing process.  I hope that some of that type of information and illumination is captured in his book of essays that's coming out in August.

At the end of the reading, we didn't linger.  We got a bit lost, but those who wander with smart phones are never really lost.  We drove around the downtown DC majesty, marble buildings and monuments, and made our way back towards Virginia with much less traffic than we had faced on our way to the reading.

I am so glad my classmate reached out to me.  I am so glad I said yes.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Preaching a Sermon in the Seminary Chapel

I have come to the week in seminary work that I knew would come--a variety of papers and projects due this week, a crunch time, but not impossible.  Last night I preached my sermon for Women and the Preaching Life class.  You might say, "Big deal.  Aren't you going to do this once a week in your new career?"  But it's the project that gives me the most relief when it's done.

Perhaps.  And yes, when giving a sermon once a week, I might not be as relieved to be done with it.  But it would be different on a Sunday morning than it was last night.

For this class, we have an exegesis that we have to do in advance:  we take a deep dive into the text, and we look at concordances and translations and what words mean in other languages.  We consult at least 3 commentaries.  We look at various angles from which we might consider the text:  social justice, literary elements, where the text is situated in the Bible and throughout history.  My exegesis project was 16 pages long.

We also have to turn in a written version of our sermon.  That wasn't an onerous burden, since I preach from a manuscript when a grade is on the line.  Does it say something about me that I preach from the written out sermon when it's for a grade, but I'm not as committed to that approach when I preach for a congregation?  You decide.

To tell the truth, I had been moving in this direction.  I had been preaching from an outline before we moved.  I preached from a manuscript in last semester's Foundations of Preaching class, and I was surprised by how much easier it was.  I may be preaching from a manuscript from now on, or at least a more complete outline.

Last night, we preached in the chapel, and it was a beautiful experience, even though it was just our class.  We gathered just before the class started at 6:30, and we noticed deer grazing on the hill outside the big windows.  The fading light was beautiful.  I told my classmates about seeing the deer this morning across the street on the American U soccer field.

And then we settled into our sermon giving rhythm.  I got to go first.  Unlike last semester's class, we each got to choose our own passage.  I decided to go with a selection from the Revised Common Lectionary that comes this summer, the second Sunday after Pentecost:  Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26.  I was pleased with what I wrote, and it was well received.

I got to go first, which made me happy.  And then I relaxed into the knowledge that I had preached, and it went well.  After class, I turned in my exegesis and my manuscript and tucked myself into bed.

Today I'll write and write and write some more, and then I'll drive to Vienna to pick up a classmate who doesn't drive at night.  We're going to a free poetry reading:   Carolyn Forché and Roger Reeves at Busboys and Poets in Northeast DC’s Brookland neighborhood on Wednesday, March 29, from 7–8:30 p.m.  It's free, so if you're in the DC area, come on over and join us!

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Deer at Sunrise

This morning I headed out early for my walk, not early in terms of my summer schedule, but early for these colder months.  The sky had started to turn interesting shades of pink and lavender, and I wanted to see the sunrise without a window between us.

I thought the sunrise would provide the morning enchantment, but instead, it was 3 young deer frolicking on the American University soccer field.  They had longer tails than I'm used to seeing, white, bushy tails.  They seemed young because of lack of antlers, which might mean they were female.  But they also weren't as big as some deer I've seen.

They stood at the fence, looking at the street just beyond the chain link fence with the soccer field behind them.  As I approached on the other side of the street, they looked at me, and if I was an anthropomorphizing type of person, I'd say they were happy to see me.  I walked toward them, hoping they'd run away from the fence, away from the road that was quickly filling with traffic.

They did run away, but with every car that drove by, they turned.  I whistled to them and said, "Turn away from the traffic.  It's a good life skill for you to have."  And then I laughed at myself, talking to deer as if they could hear me.

I didn't hear any collision noises as I walked away, so I'm assuming they went back into the vacant, overgrown field nearby.  And I walked off, into the spring morning, cherry trees blooming profusely, the yards full of spring flowers.

Do I have any pictures?  No, I've stopped carrying my phone with me.  It's big and heavy and it's rare these days that I wish I could take a photo.

There are many aspects of these neighborhood walks that I will miss when I move; it's astonishing to me that we have so many huge swaths of undeveloped land, land that is often protected, here in a densely populated city.  It's amazing to take a morning walk and see deer, knowing that just a few miles away, the leader of the U.S. sleeps in the White House.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Dem Bones and Sunday Percussion

On Friday night at the Women's Retreat at St. Stephens Lutheran Church in Williamsburg, we worked on the offertory anthem for Sunday morning.  The Old Testament reading was from Ezekias--time to get out the songs about bones!  We did not do "Dem Bones Gonna Rise Again"; we did "Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones."  It had opportunities for 3 percussion instruments:  the guiro, the sticks, and a shaker.  

The people playing the instruments on Friday night weren't going to be at the 8:30 service.  I thought my mom planned to go, so I volunteered to play the instruments.  Even though it made for a long Sunday morning, I was glad I did.

When we did the quick rehearsal Sunday morning before the 8:30 service, I learned I had mixed up the instruments, but I regrouped.  I spent much of church looking at the music and visualizing myself doing it correctly.  And I did!

Someone commented afterward that I looked like I was concentrating on getting those instruments right.  Indeed I was.  I was playing with 2 of the best musicians I know, my mom and Karen Ives, and I didn't want to let them down, even though it's a volunteer choir.

The song has been in my head for days now, and if you'd like it to be in yours, the early service was recorded.  You can see me playing to the far right of the screen.  My mom stands beside me, and Karen is at the piano.  Go here and go to minute 53.40.

Or watch the whole service--it's worth your time.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

The Women's Retreat: an Overview

At some point, I'll write a post with photos from the women's retreat at St. Stephens Lutheran Church in Williamsburg.  This morning, time is short--I need to get ready for church, both early and late service today.  Let me write a quick blog post to serve as an overview and a wrap up.

We started on Friday.  We had pizza and wine (or non-alcoholic drinks).  We did some singing together, a good range of hymns across the century and only the first verse.  We did a getting to know you game, a card with squares that had items like:  I own more than 5 cookbooks, I've got towels that only guests use.  My mom was in charge of the retreat, and she asked me for ideas, so I sent her this photo from an earlier Create in Me retreat.  Happily, it didn't need much tweaking.

On Saturday, we got an early start.  People could arrive by 8:30 for some breakfast, and Bible Study started at 9.  Our Bible study was one verse, the one about putting new wine in old wineskins, and we used it as a jumping off point to talk about this moment in history as a hinge moment for the church.  We need to be doing something new, but what do we do if we don't know what to do?

I had lots of thoughts, but I tried to be quiet.  We talked a lot about technology, but is that really a new wineskin?  If we're streaming the worship service that we've always had, are we sending out our old wine with a new delivery system?  I mentioned that once, and let it go.  But it's a thought I'll be coming back to.  

We had this discussion in the morning, and for afternoon Bible study, we ended with brainstorming about what we might try to accomplish in our church.  We had tried to divide ourselves into groups that would have people who have a mix of ways of responding to change.

There were workshops throughout the day:  prayer beads, labyrinths, and the Enneagram, plus a Q and A with our Bible leader.  Publix did a great job with the box lunch; in fact, it was one of the best veggie sandwiches I've ever had from a box lunch.  Usually the veggie option can be rather thin and pitiful.

We finished around 4 and went home, a tired but satisfied group of women.  Our Bible study leader is leading worship this morning, and we're singing in the choir--the retreat spirit continues!

Saturday, March 25, 2023

A Poem for the Feast Day of the Annunciation

 It is the Feast Day of the Annunciation, the day when we celebrate the arrival of the angel Gabriel to Mary.  He greets her and tells her that God has need of her.  She says yes to God's surprising ideas.

Anyone who reads my work or listens to my sermons knows that I don't think this is the only time that God has appeared with an interesting proposal to an individual human.  I believe that God does this all the time, and that all too often, we're too busy or distracted or depressed or done in by grief to even notice that God is there saying, "Hail, oh blessed one.  The Lord is with you."

Years ago I thought about the angel Gabriel and how the mission would change in our current day.  And then I wrote this poem (for more process notes, see this blog post), which was included in the book Annunciation (if you'd like a signed copy of the book, let me know, and we can negotiate a price):

A Girl More Worthy

The angel Gabriel rolls his eyes
at his latest assignment:
a virgin in Miami?
Can such a creature exist?

He goes to the beaches, the design
districts, the glittering buildings
at every boundary.
Just to cover all bases, he checks
the churches but finds no
vessels for the holy inside.

He thinks he’s found her in the developer’s
office, when she offers him coffee, a kind
smile, and a square of cake. But then she instructs
him in how to trick the regulatory
authorities, how to make his income and assets
seem bigger so that he can qualify
for a huge mortgage that he can never repay.

On his way out of town, he thinks he spies
John the Baptist under the Interstate
flyway that takes tourists
to the shore. But so many mutter
about broods of vipers and lost
generations that it’s hard to tell
the prophet from the grump,
the lunatic from the T.V. commentator.

Finally, at the commuter college,
that cradle of the community,
he finds her. He no longer hails
moderns with the standard angel
greetings. Unlike the ancients,
they are not afraid, or perhaps, their fears
are just so different now.

The angel Gabriel says a silent benediction
and then outlines God’s plan.
Mary wonders why Gabriel didn’t go
to Harvard where he might find
a girl more worthy. What has she done
to find God’s favor?

She has submitted
to many a will greater than her own.
Despite a lifetime’s experience
of closed doors and the word no,
she says yes.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Beginning My Day with Poetry

Wednesday I started my day with poetry.  I wish I could say that I do this every day, but sadly, I do not.  I try hard to be intentional on at least 3 days a week, so that I'm not starting my day with scrolling through Twitter or Facebook.  

One way I have done this in the past has been to stay away from the computer.  But that's not what I did on Wednesday.  I decided to try to write a rough draft on the computer, which isn't usual for me.  Lately, though, when I'm feeling like a dried out husk with no poetry ideas, I open my Word doc of evocative lines, choose one or two, and see what comes up.  It's amazingly effective.

I wrote a few lines, then turned back to Facebook, where Dave Bonta had posted photos from his daily hike, along with a poem.  I was taken by these lines:  "i go off looking for / my lost winter glove."  I decided to open another Word document to see where that line took me.

Those evocative lines led to a poem of my own.  Once this process wouldn't have been unusual enough to take note of, but these days, it feels more rare that I write a poem that eventually ends up finished.  I sent it to Dave, who posted it on his Via Negativa site.  You can read it here.

I wandered over to Facebook, where I saw a post by Daisy Fried, who introduced her students to Robert Hayden's "Middle Passage."  Along with reading the poem, they listened to this podcast that contains a discussion of the poem--great stuff!  After the podcast, I read this article that talks about the history of how this poem has been received by larger communities (the poetry community, the black community, new generations of activists).

Eventually, I shifted to seminary writing.  I like to think that my seminary writing was deeper and richer because I began my morning with poetry.  I know that my life is richer each day when I begin my day with poetry.