Big Small Things, Like Voting

Ballot

It’s mid-term election season.  Also known as do-not-answer-your-phone season.  Or my-yard-signs-cancel-your-yard-signs season.

This year promises to be another ‘voting against’ year, like the 2016 presidential election, when everyone I know was voting against a candidate and not for someone they really respected.   At this point I know a lot of people, maybe including me–not sure yet–who are voting with the hope of creating a critical mass in state or national legislatures, enough to move things along in another direction, or to maintain the current policies.

Even if your “side” won both contests, you know the danger of bringing up politics at Thanksgiving dinner this year.  The gridlock in Washington right now has everyone distressed.  We used to think that if we can just get more of our side elected, sanity might return to our system.  But it hasn’t proven true, not at all.

It’s enough to make you throw up your hands in despair.

Don’t.

Your vote might not count that much in most elections, but voting accomplishes more than selecting leaders for public office.  We have stop thinking that unless we can do something substantial or measurable, we might as well do nothing.

What does that felt-tip pen in your hand at the voting booth accomplish besides filling in little ovals that seem to disappear into a giant hopper of abstraction?

I could remind you that it is an action worth dying for, as in our military fighting for freedoms such as this.  I could wax eloquent about the democratic form of government.

This time I want you to think of what it does for you.

Voting makes a statement that you not only exist as a name on a voter registration list.  You inhabit a body that needs care, whether the way you are treated comes through Affordable Care or is maddeningly controlled by third party payers (insurance companies).

You have opinions about the candidates because you grew up in a particular place and time, in your family, in your circumstances.  You read and pay attention. You have experience that affects the way you perceive people.  You know what kind of people you trust as leaders.  Voting is a statement that you matter.  Sometimes you have to do things to remind yourself that you care.

Deep down, you know that small things—like your single vote—matter.  You know how to hunt because your dad got up early on fall mornings and not only took you along, he asked you what kind of sandwich you wanted him to pack.  You love to read because Mom read to you , at least when she wasn’t too exhausted from work.  You hunt mushrooms every year because a friend asked you to try one just once.  You have brown eyes because of a tiny gene contained in an embryo that grew into the person reading this.

Link and Wyatt Raking

Do you want your vote to matter more?  Back it up with more votes you get to make every day.  Smile at the young person who puts the groceries in your trunk.  Write a check to support your church.  Pick up your neighbor’s branches when you’re in the yard working anyway.  Make the choice for restraint instead of reacting once or twice today.  Listen to your cantankerous uncle—be curious—instead of arguing, just this once.

The little ovals we fill in on the ballot (the format where I live) are as small as seeds.  But seeds grow into life-giving plants that actually bear fruit.  It is remarkable what comes from such a small thing.

 

 

The Existence of Other Things

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Art by Candice Hartsough McDonald. Used by permission.

I am Deborah.

Named after a woman who lived

thousands of years ago.

Sage, prophet, tribal mother.

Her tale anomalous,

her voice a string Yahweh strummed

undeniably in desperate times.

The impending story unfurled before her

as familiar as the line on her palm,

insistent as the blood of afterbirth.

She was not your typical judge.

 

Deborah means “little bee”

and “seeking one.”

Some bees are social,

form hives, assign tasks,

share the burden of re-creating the world,

flower by flower,

tree by tree,

driven by hidden forces

to seek the sweetness of many kinds and

participating in the alchemy

of a deeper, richer sweetness

that blesses the world.

 

The bees I was not taught to admire

or even honor

are solitary,

burrowing deep for dwelling,

free of the hive,

bound to the quest,

independent in the

interdependence that

sustains everything.

 

There are many kinds of transformation.

 

I used to settle for nectar

from the closest blooms.

It was sweet enough,

and everyone was happy with

the abundance I labored to offer.

But as I made my flighty patrol

I often caught sight of

flashes of color beyond.

I could feel the low hum

of kindred seekers

and I wondered at the

wideness of the fields

the profile of the horizon

the existence of other things.

 

One day the wind caught me unawares

and I was buffeted

not unwillingly

to another meadow where

there were new colors

and the old ones too

and although I have a bee’s sensible

sense of direction

I lost the way back anyway.

 

This nectar, this sweetness has an edge

that cuts through the newfound wonder

to something more earthy and elemental.

I find myself manufacturing less while harvesting

more, at least for now,

noticing what is underneath and unblooming

and reliable, what has died to give new life,

what has been killed and is only loss.

 

My other namesake is calling me with

her sage fierceness, her stage whisper,

her tragic warrior spirit.

She has turned my gaze to others

living parallel questions,

producing a collective, insistent hum.

They are not hive bees either.

The Time It Takes

The longer I watch him

Clarissa cross
Painting by Clarissa

the more I wonder

whether the Cross of Jesus

was not the only moment

our saving happened,

as if such cruelty could solve

an inevitable, deadly equation.

Perhaps it was only the

penultimate moment

to resurrection’s triumph—

though unheralded,

un-choired—

the sealing of

love’s new first word.

 

But even then it

would be hollow

without all those

other interruptions:

the divine impulse

making food blossom

in their hands

on a hillside,

a girl’s lifeless eyes

fluttering open,

Lazarus leaning into

the muffled announcement

that even time must step aside

for love’s insistent force.

 

The shape of all the saving—

all the loving—

required the alignment

of his arms.

 

He extended them

in one terrible

timeless moment

into which he gathered

all the other moments

and offers all of it

time after time

resisting confinement,

elusive as spirit,

expectant.

Constant.

 

Be still and see

there he goes again.

 

 

 

 

I Wish You This

“Family reunion.”  Most people have a reaction to the phrase, good or bad.  For us, it is very good.  Every other year my five siblings and I—the Janssen clan—gather from the East coast and the Midwest for several days of catching up and simply enjoying each other’s company.  We make connections from time to time in between, but this is our traditional touch point, highly anticipated and treated as sacred.

This year we met in Hendersonville, North Carolina, where we enjoyed southern food, the farmer’s market, hiking, and of course Biltmore.  It was our biggest shindig yet, with 28 present at one point, three generations playing games, swapping stories, laughing and crying, and comparing symptoms of growing older.  It was glorious.  Two poems came from it, the first about the resident dog, and the second upon reflection a few weeks later.  I hope you enjoy them, and even more, I wish you the kind of love we share—have shared—through thick and thin, all these years.

Reunion 2018Chester

Chester was skittish at first.

All these strangers,

too many smells

invading the comfort

of the home he has come to know

as safe, with human caretakers

letting love do its slow work.

 

He feels himself returning

to his earnest self

curious, tentative master

of his doable domain

couch, floor, grass,

ground-level patrol

providing a purpose.

 

He resigned himself to

the presence of these strangers

while the mothers reassured,

holding his questions safe,

their hands lowering the same dish,

saying his name again like

the comforting refrain

he learned that first day.

 

These strangers

seem to hold one another

in the same way,

allowing each other

enough space to be

their true selves,

reassuring one another

with the same mellow refrain

as always.

Their laughter is life.

Their tears caress and heal.

 

Chester knows:

these humans are safe.

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The Why

 At the turn of the year—

every even-numbered one—

we begin to feel the pull

of the family reunion.

 

The hows and whens and wheres

are passed back and forth

weighed, tested, settled.

 

The why is left unsaid,

unquestioned, assumed

bearing its own shape and heft

exerting its gravitational force

stronger, steadier

as the biennial circuit turns,

and the dream promises

to materialize

again.

 

It draws us

on our pilgrimages

to the convergence,

the day when

two and

one and

four and another

appear,

happily helpless against

the fierce

soft attraction,

careless in the wild explosion of

recognition

re-union

re-vival.

 

It settles and breathes

holds

listens

calls the dance of

memory and mourning and

bears witness to what

it keeps creating.

 

Into each ear it whispers

of wonder and resilience,

of time’s sweet endowments

and healing

as it reclines underneath the stories,

the shared history remembered six ways,

lazily tracing lines

of inevitable, invisible connection

on our skin.

 

And then

it offers its benediction as

it colors each embrace

for vivid remembrance,

claims its authority

in each gaze.

Lingers in the air,

in the blood as

each one turns away

released into its larger

orbit, until

next time.

 

Gettysburg

In July my husband and I took a side trip to Philadelphia and Gettysburg before meeting my family in North Carolina for our biennial reunion.  He has enjoyed reading about the Civil War, so we were excited to have the chance to stay in Gettysburg itself (right next to the house where Abraham Lincoln polished his famous address!).  We hired a personal guide who took us chronologically through the fields and ridges of those three fateful days.

It was sobering, of course.  The next morning I penned a couple of poems about my thoughts.

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Gettysburg I

On a tour of the battlefield

the chess moves of Meade and Lee

were described, the relentless

volley of bullets and mortar

faintly sounding, letting up

in periods of advance and retreat.

 

The thud of our sons’ shattered bodies

meeting the soil of planted acres

assaults any noble thought of

war’s elusive aspirations.

 

The ends cannot justify any means.

They are one and the same.

Ends of lives and hope,

meanness exposed

after the smoke clears.

It is hard to justify what is no longer there.

Little Round Top
Little Round Top

Gettysburg II

There is endless analysis

of the strategies and circumstances

of a battle waged on ordinary hills.

 

What I will remember is

our guide explaining such simple factors

with enormous consequences:

the assumption that guns were loaded

when they weren’t, the lighting of

cannon fuses that were defective,

the failure to send a message.

Mostly the refusal of a handful of leaders to quit.

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Thank You, Simon Cowell

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This article first appeared in the Spencer Daily Reporter, July 20, 2018.  

A popular TV show in the wasteland of summer options is America’s Got Talent, a.k.a. “AGT.”  Last week the Angel City Chorale appeared on the show.  160 members strong, the choir is led by Sue Fink.  When Simon Cowell asked her what the choir is about, she replied, “I want to bring together people of diverse backgrounds and build community when we make something beautiful together.  That’s the goal, and it’s working.”

The audience was captivated by the performance, which began with finger snapping, thigh slapping, and jumping to simulate a rain storm.  The choir launched into a joyful rendition of Toto’s “Africa.”  The camera zeroed in on individual men and women, their faces shining and bodies swaying as they sang.

Of course the camera also caught the reactions of audience members as they smiled with delight and stood to applaud.  Simon Cowell, the resident grump (actually a seasoned talent scout) on the judge’s panel, reacted with surprise and smiles, leading the judges in their standing ovation.

YouTube recordings predictably appeared on social media the following day, with reactions like “I want to be in a choir like that!” and “We need more of this!”  It reminded me of typical responses to flash mobs, where “Hallelujah” by Handel is staged surreptitiously in a shopping mall, or instrumentalists slowly gather in a public square to perform Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.”  My favorite flash mobs are playfully staged by a group called Improv Everywhere.  (Check it out!)

Spectators typically react to flash mobs with the same surprise and delight elicited on AGT.  They stop to listen, laugh, and applaud.  Afterward everyone seems more relaxed and happy.  The shared, unexpected experience creates a momentary sense of community.

As a pastor I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the church.  It seems to me that the Angel City Chorale manifests what we as God’s people are called to do: welcome people from all walks of life to join in a joyful enterprise.  You can bet the choir members have bonded through shared stories of both pain and joy, just as the church tries to do.  Both choir and church find themselves working, laughing, and crying together in regular gatherings.  Offering our corporate efforts to the world, spreading the joy.

I wonder if that is the impression people have of their local churches.  In our best moments we do these things.  Yet throngs of people of all ages are rejecting the church’s invitation.  Might this have something to do with our battles over doctrine, ethics, and politics?  The answer is complex, but these ugly, public debates can’t help.  Add to that personal stories of exclusion from local churches, and just plain mediocrity and apathy.  Even people who have never gone to church know that this is not what the church is supposed to look like.

How far have we strayed from the generous welcome Jesus embodied and taught?  How sad that we have let ideological arguments distract us from following him.  Or worse, apathy.

The Bible we claim to revere does not ask us to defend it or create doctrinal litmus tests from its pages.  It simply provides us with stories of struggle and heartache, deliverance and victory, brokenness and redemption, death and resurrection.  It does not provide us with a list of cut and dried answers, much as we might want them.  And it certainly doesn’t leave us yawning.  Instead, it invites us to wrestle with reality in the safety of God’s loving gaze.  Jesus asks us to follow him in a way of life among the beloved community, for whom compassion and hospitality, forgiveness and love are the hallmarks.

When we let go of our rigid requirements and simply follow Jesus’ way of love and freedom, the church creates beautiful, joyful music that captivates the world around us.  Whether we’re in the choir or in the audience, we experience the greatest artistry God has created for our pleasure and healing.  What a gift!

Now, here’s the bottom line for you, reader.  If you belong to a church and this critique hits home, you can sigh and say, “Well, we try,” and move on.  Nothing changes.  If you don’t go to church, you can nod your head and say, “See, that’s why I have better things to do!”  Nothing changes.

Or both of you could take your longing for beloved community seriously and demand better of us in the church.  You can ask questions, and raise the expectations for hospitality, and find ways to make that beautiful music of worship and works of compassion with other people in your local church.  You need this, and our country, our world needs this.  Disillusionment and fatalism don’t have to overwhelm us.  Mediocrity should not dull our spirits.  We are called to participate in God’s love, in millions of ways.  We should not be surprised that it takes some effort…like choir practice!

Thank you, Sue Fink—and Simon Cowell—for reminding us what we were made for.

 

 

July Morning

Summer morning

I look out at the non-air-conditioned

unvacuumed, untidied backyard

and see life teeming

every leaf unfurled from a bud two months ago

goldfinches hatched from eggs.

 

My cat sleeps on his tail-cushion.

He was a kitten once

and I was an embryo before that.

The rug under my feet came from seeds

fibers woven by some hands

that once rested on mothers’ breasts

 

Native life

and processed life

but all life

silently pulsing with

the casual wisdom of having been created

being here

now

for this.