4As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
I am pleased and honored to be among you here, on All Saints’ Day, among a people who sometimes call ourselves the priesthood of all believers. Might we then celebrate the saint in us all, the spark of the divine, the kingdom of heaven that Jesus said is within us, that mystics have over and over again insisted dwells in everyone?
The simple answer I want to offer to my own question is yes. All right, yes, we’re all sinners as well. We’ve heard that once or twice. Often we hear it from those who say, or at least imply, that they somehow are purer and better than the rest of us, or the Muslims, or the gays, or whoever it is we’re setting outside the fold this week. Often of course those folk eventually reveal their own feet of clay, and then the rest of us feel a little satisfied, but not so much, because someone else quickly rises up to remind us who to exclude, who to condemn, who to deplore.
But I am also here as a poet, and so I will claim a different sort of role, a certain freedom and a different sort of authority. The poet’s authority comes not from “goodness” but from connection, or so Walt Whitman claimed, and his spiritual great-granddaughter Mary Oliver says something similar, in a poem some of you may know, “Wild Geese.” “You do not have to be good,” this poem begins, or walk through the desert on your knees for miles. It is enough to let our bodies love what they love, and to live openly, even with our despair and loneliness. Still, she claims, the world “calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – /over and over announcing your place in the family of things” (14).
Like Oliver, I want to stand up here for love and connection, and against the common but bizarre notion that somehow we as human beings are separate from nature, separate from each other, separate from God, simply because we have awareness of ourselves as individual beings. A lot of terrible things have followed from this notion. If others are “other,” we can treat them as objects, we can dismiss their suffering as unfortunate but necessary, we can kill them in the name of whatever cause we fashion, for any need we can justify to ourselves. This idea has been the cause of great loneliness and pain for individuals as well, for if we learn all our lives that we are alone, how can we not be lonely?
Toward the end of the 19th century, when the Amish Mennonites in Illinois were growing, expanding and building churches, a schoolteacher and self-taught scholar named Joseph Joder caused quite a stir when he started advocating for universal salvation, citing Luke 3:6, “And all people will see God’s salvation,” among other passages. His poem “Die Frohe Botschaft,” or “Glad Tidings,” convinced many of the ministers that he needed to be expelled from membership. But his minister, Joseph Stuckey, refused, though he had no truck with such radical ideas himself. Twenty years ago, I wrote a somewhat fictionalized version of a conversation between these two Josephs. Father Stuckey’s image of the torn-off branch is in the historical record, though I may have embellished it a little. Here, in my translation, is the last stanza of Joder’s poem:
Love flows out from God
and floods the whole of creation,
making everything into its likeness,
until the whole earth
shall become one paradise,
a heavenly kingdom of peace. (Community of Memory 53)
Leave it to a poet to come up with such a vision, lovely and scandalous at the same time, right?
And here’s what I had Father Stuckey say to Joder:
“Ach, I have seen too often, Joseph, that the one cast off becomes like a branch that was cut off, that withered and was lost, gone from the fellowship for good. Too many have gone bitter and faithless and not repented but become more stubborn and stuck in their ways. And also . . . dear Joseph, if I cast you out for the heretic that you are, who will there be to argue with me so long and close?” (55)
As some of you may know, this poem and the crisis that followed when Stuckey refused to excommunicate Joder helped to trigger the split between the “Stuckey Amish” of Illinois, who eventually ended up in the General Conference (including my father’s family), and the more conservative Illinois churches who mainly joined what we used to call the Old Mennonites (including my mother’s).
These good souls were divided on other issues, as well. The critical ones, as I recall, included the parting of men’s hair and the wearing of rings, including modest wedding bands like mine. Folklore has it that after the division, members of the newly separated groups would sometimes meet on the gravel roads on Sunday mornings, on the way to their respective churches. “We have the true religion!” someone in the buggy headed north would shout, and the patriarch (one presumes) in the buggy headed south would answer, “No, we have the true religion!”
Now at this distance – just a century and a half, a few spins around the sun – the division surely seems less than essential, although the shouting may sound all too familiar. In fact, the descendants of all those churches now part their hair and wear rings; two of the churches joined back together a decade or so ago, after too many of the farm kids went off to college and didn’t come back . . .; and I just went to my niece’s wedding at another one of those churches, not her own, which she chose because it has a convenient middle aisle for brides to walk down.
Despite all our claims about the true religion, I suppose we can agree the actual direct information we have from God is fairly scant, and testimony about it is plentiful but not exactly unanimous. Theologian John Caputo wrote a whole book on this subject, The Weakness of God. I can’t begin to trace his full argument here, but this poem has a few of his lines, and some of my own fumbling fascination with his thoughts:
Meditation with Wallet, Eyeglasses, and Little Riley Creek
“The weak force of God settles down below in the hidden interstices of being, insinuated into the obscure crevices . . . “
-John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God
Which card is it that will open the steel door?
I know that one card will take me anywhere, or almost, and another will tell the authorities they should let me on the plane.
The kingdom of God, says Caputo, is like a beautiful old poem whose author is completely unknown.
My glasses have tiny rainbow sparkles on each lens, spreading as I scrape at them. [[The anti-scratch coating is separating, the office worker says sweetly, sometimes that happens, sorry they are not under warranty, well it’s been two years and I will have to ask the doctor, what if something has changed?]]
The idea of one true religion, Caputo says, makes no more sense than the idea of one true poem.
For the fourth day in a row the brown roar of the creek bears tons of topsoil and effluvia toward the ocean.
Is there one true creek?
God is a weak force, says Caputo, a call, an event, a voice. All the rest is rouged and painted theology, the invention of men wishing to be strong.
If I scrape the anti-scratch coating entirely away, will I see something new?
If God is great but not strong . . . I take a deep breath, let it out.
A wren in the pine tree, pecking at the new cones, visible only when it moves.
It leaves a branch quaking as it disappears. (Somewhere 6)
I must make a confession here: as you can maybe tell from this poem, I’ve always been one of those obstinate, annoying people who can’t keep from finding awkward, inappropriate questions in my head. I’ve been stubborn, resisted, rebelled; it’s astonishing to me that I haven’t been thrown out of more places than I have.
I still remember a long-ago sermon in the Waldo Mennonite Church on the subject of the unforgivable sin. I found the concept dazzling and (strangely) nearly irresistible, especially in the context of what I had been hearing, which was that my soul was at risk of eternal damnation and needed to be saved, through some kind of intense emotional experience of Jesus entering my heart and freeing me from sin, doubt, confusion and all the other mixed-up stuff that was circulating through my teenaged, hormonal body.
I wrote a poem about this state of turmoil quite a while ago, when I’d begun to realize that the traumas and complications of my childhood had been accompanied by a good deal of sweet human connection as well, and that if I knew anything about God, much of that knowledge had come to me outside of church. This is called “Knowing the Father.”
It’s a good day for sweat to find and coat
my glasses in big smeary salty drops that
I puzzle how to remove without leaving a film
sticky and implacable as the religion
of my childhood, the prayers that demanded
a surrender so ultimate that even as I tried
I could never quite grasp it as possible,
or connect to the way the eggs still had
to be gathered the next day, the yellow
plastic-coated wire basket to be filled
gingerly as I went from coop to coop, shooing
the stupid hens aside, batting at the ones
who’d peck if you didn’t slap them away.
I thought I should feel different, the day after,
but if I did it was only in my testing
how it felt, my puzzling: Is this right?
Am I saved? What is it shuffling in
the cobs with me, breathing chicken dirt?
I already knew, somehow: I wanted
a dark, bold sign. I didn’t deserve it.
I would have to keep looking.
When the eggs were in the cooler
and supper done I could sometimes
wheedle my father into playing catch.
His glove was dark and old, his fingers
thick from the fields. He threw hard
and left handed. People in town
still talked about how good he’d been,
how he started as a freshman.
Now he was thirty, and that was over.
The ball went back and forth until
we lost it in the dusk, and then
he gathered me under his hard left arm,
and we found the door together. (Flatlands9)
Whatever you might say about this poem, surely, it dwells in a different space than your average sermon. It has more to do with particular events and feelings than with doctrines and texts, and it’s full of doubts and confusion; even the affirmation at the end is partial and tentative. And that’s what’s drawn me to poetry and literature, even the wild and experimental kinds: I love the sort of language that searches for beauty and the truths of lived experience, no matter what, reckless and heedless of precedent and propriety.
Here’s another poem, a quite different one, with two main starting points. I had heard a little story about a man coming into a party with a plate of cookies and saying, “Here are my sad cookies.” Then I went off to a conference at one of our sister colleges on “the family,” one that left me even more convinced, somehow, that there are many ways for us to search for God, and for God to find us.
The Cookie Poem
“Here are my sad cookies.”
The sad cookies. The once and future cookies.
The broken sweet cookies. The cookies
of heartbreaking beauty. The stony cookies
of Palestine. The gummy and delicious
olive and honey cookie. The pasty
damp cookie trapped in the child’s hand.
Sad cookies, weird cookies, slippery
and dangerous cookies. Brilliant helpless
soiled and torn cookies, feverish and sweaty
cookies. Sullen cookies, sassy cookies,
the cookies of tantrum and the cookie of joy
and the sweet dark cookie of peace.
The faithful cookie of Rotterdam. The wild-eyed
cookie of Münster. The salty Atlantic cookie.
Cookies in black coats, in coveralls,
in business suits, cookies in bonnets
and coverings and heels, cookies scratching
their heads and their bellies, cookies utterly
and shamelessly naked before the beloved.
Cookies of the Amish division, cookies
of the Wahlerhof, cookies of Zurich and
Strassburg and Volhynia and Chortitza,
Nairobi Djakarta Winnipeg Goshen.
Cookies who hand their children off
to strangers, who admonish their sons
to remember the Lord’s Prayer, cookies
who say all right, baptize my children
and then sneak back to the hidden church anyway.
Cookies who cave in utterly. Cookies
who die with their boots on. Cookies
with fists, and with contusions.
The black hearted cookie. The cookie with issues.
Hard cookies, hot cookies, compassionate
conservative cookies, cookies we loathe
and love, cookies lost, fallen, stolen,
crushed, abandoned, shunned. Weary
and heroic cookies, scathingly noted cookies,
flawed cookies who did their best.
Single cookies, queer cookies, cookies of color,
homeless cookie families sleeping in the car,
obsolete cookies broken down on the information
highway. Sad cookies, silent cookies,
loud cookies, loved cookies, your cookies
my cookies our cookies, all cookies
God’s cookies, strange sweet hapless cookies
marked each one by the Imago Dei,
oh the Father the Son the Mother the Daughter
and the Holy Ghost all love cookies,
love all cookies, God’s mouth is full
of cookies, God chews and swallows and flings
hands wide in joy, the crumbs fly
everywhere, oh God loves us all. (Rhapsody 53-4)
Yes, it’s God in the form of Cookie Monster who appears so joyfully at the end of this poem, an image that I hope will not disturb the Great One too much. But let me hurry on just in case, and end with a less boisterous poem, one I wrote on the shore of a lake whose name I don’t remember, somewhere in the midst of the Boundary Waters, where it seemed indeed that the borders were thinner than usual, and it might be more possible to launch some sort of feeler out from this world into what comes next.
Contemplation on Rain and Religion
“I’ve decided that I’m religious but not spiritual.”
I always feel more religious in the sunshine,
especially if it’s not hot and the place is pretty
and most people can’t afford to get there or just
don’t bother. Morning has broken and all that.
And so the rattle of rain on the tarp doesn’t really
make me count my blessings, the stray drops
beading my borrowed rain pants don’t bring
me bliss, the fact of fewer mosquitoes
than yesterday does not make my heart leap up.
But I know that one day I must learn
to give up for good on getting dry,
to love the hiss of water meeting water,
the gray lake accepting the gray rain,
so little between them, our slender place
between the great sky and the stones.
Hold tight, I tell my heart, here we go. (Somewhere 54)
It’s All Saints’ Day, my friends, and though we Mennonites have not been much on saints, let us cherish today the great and the good among us, the grain of the sacred that dwells within us, within all creatures great and small, in this holy, troubled, blessed, fallen, lovely world that through some miracle we inhabit. Amen.