Feb. 20 — To Hear a Poem a Second Time

Psalm 23

Excerpt from Grace and Personality by John Oman

God does not conduct His rivers, like arrows, to the sea. The ruler and compass are only for finite mortals who labour, by taking thought, to overcome their limitations, and are not for the Infinite mind. The expedition demanded by man’s small power and short day produces the canal, but nature, with a beneficent and picturesque circumambulancy, the work of a more spacious and less precipitate mind, produces the river. Why should we assume that, in all the rest of His ways, He rejoices in the river, but, in religion, can use no adequate method save the canal?

When we gather for worship here in the chapel — the smaller, cozier space lends itself to closer attention to what we do when we gather together.  It lends itself to closer consideration of what we expect from one another, what you expect from me and from Mary Jane and Erik.  It’s not that we are under a microscope of critical attention in this smaller space, but something different does seem to happen.  I find that interesting.

I’m not entirely sure what this is or why it happens.  Doing things differently always heightens our awareness of our surroundings, including, the surrounding with which we most surely have to deal, namely, God.  In worship of any kind, we are to relax and become freshly aware of the presence of God, to discover in sanctuary from our daily lives, something of ineradicable confidence of the final worth of our life. While this sounds like an easy thing to do, I think it is also easy to “get used” to a space and style of worship and forget to explore what this means, God as the ineradicable confidence of the worth of our existence.  We settle into a familiar, if somewhat uncomfortable pew.  We say hello to the person or people sitting in front of us or behind us.  But not really. We still have those walls up that keep us from being a part of the flow of beauty that worship tries to name as God, into which worship wants to get us to dip our toes, if not our whole selves.

Wouldn’t it be good if we could, as our gathering prayer put it, palpably sense the beauty before, the beauty under, the beauty around?  As I was fussing with the new format for today’s bulletin, trying to find a font that worked for the vision I had in my head, I had highlighted, the words, “I walk with beauty,” and used them to try out different fonts, which meant that I read those words over and over and over again.  I suddenly realized I was doing, in my mind at least, since I was the only one here, what the words suggested.  I had the sense that I was not alone.  That the air I breathed was not just the stuff of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide that it surely us, but that it was a part of God.  And that no thing was not apart from this cosmic web of connection that makes you my brother and you my sister and gives my actions and all of our actions urgency and importance.

Part of the task whenever and wherever we gather to worship is to bring ourselves into this space.  Because I did not say that that was only my task, or the task of Erik or Mary Jane, but our collective task, that feels a bit different when we sit close and tight to one another, when the sounds of our voices can be heard as the human voice with all of its tensions and releases that make it individual to you.  It is all too easy, especially in the sanctuary to hide our voices because “I can’t sing.”  But when we bring ourselves into this space were we cannot hide, we discover that we become, no matter what we think our foibles to be, no matter what we perceive our own shortcomings to consist of, like a child again — free to seek in one another the kind of cooperation and mutual understanding that we treasure as the possibility for grace and unimaginable good.

This is a beauty.  It is like standing in front of a Rembrandt for a long time.  Or like listening to a poem for the second time. We see things not of our own constellations.

Here’s called Piano, by DH Lawrence.


Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

I read this poem when I was in college.  But I didn’t remember it until I heard Garrison Keillor read it on Wednesday morning, September 12, 2001.

Mary Jane to read “Piano” again.

September 11 was not a beautiful day in the annuals of history.  But it was a stunningly gorgeous day by any other measure.  The beauty with which we have to do in worship does not necessarily wrench tears from us, and it may reach divine heights– but it cannot forget that we humans live passioned lives, that our music soars and booms and even tinkles and tingles.  To hear a poem the second time is to see the ordinary with beauty, before and under and around. It changes the way we face our mortality. To hear a poem a second time is to see differently, to see that that the ruler and compass which which we tend to circumscribe our lives and even our worship, are only for finite mortals who labour to overcome their limitations; to hear a poem a second time is to let the circumambulancy of grace lead where it will and find there home.

I want to conclude by reading one more poem. This one by the famous poet of the working land, Wendell Berry. It’s called a Timbered Choir.

A Timbered Choir

Raking hay on a rough slope,
when I was about sixteen,
I drove to the ridgetop and saw
in a neighbor’s field on the other side
a pond in a swale, and around it
the whole field filled
with chicory in bloom, blue
as the sky reflected in the pond—
bluer even, and somehow lighter;
though they belonged to gravity.
They were the morning’s
blossoms and would not last.
But I go back now in my mind
to when I drew the long windrow
to the top of the rise, and I see
the blue-flowered field, holding
in its center the sky-reflecting pond.
It seems, as then, another world
in this world, such as a pilgrim
might travel days and years
to find, and find at last
on the morning of his return
by his mere being at home
awake—a moment seen, forever known.

When we gather for worship, we gather to be lead to see; to see another world in this world. Not two worlds — one world different because we see it as God’s. Because for all the disappointments and failures we know in it, the pilgrim possibility is always open for us.

So we gather for worship as fellow pilgrims on the quest for beauty, to encourage each other in the one goal before us, will you let go of the ruler and compass and be here for the moment — seen and forever known? This is the call of God today.

Erik to read “The Timbered Choir” again.


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