Categories
poetry

The Nativity

This is the final poem in a series for Grace Kernersville’s Jesse Tree project. The poems in the series are attempts at ekphrasis. A gifted artist in the congregation in which I pastor have provided abstract paintings from which the poems have derived their inspiration. This painting is entitled, The Nativity.  Have a look at the painting, How do you read it?The Nativity Here’s my reading of the painting in poetic form.

Gathered ‘round the manger, the shepherds there
Had each struggled through their own unbelief—
Groping through this world’s dank and dingy air,
Jaded by dejection, wearied by grief,

But now they are bathed in color and light
Where, with this mother, they behold, ponder
The tidings foretold by angels that night.
Un-wintered by joy and warmed with wonder:

What Grace gathers us to this treasured place?
Is salvation created, swaddled here?
Are we beholding the look of Love’s face?
Is desire answered in the cry we hear?

Behold Emmanuel, David’s Lord and Key;
New life is come from the stump of Jesse’s tree!

© Randall Edwards 2019.
This poem is for Christ’s church. If it is helpful, please feel free to copy or reprint in church bulletins, read aloud, or repost. I only ask that an attribution be cited to myself (Randall Edwards) and this blog (backwardmutters.com). Thank you.
artwork: © Adah Freeman 2019, “The Gentle Shepherd” acrylic on canvas. All Rights Reserved.

Categories
poetry

Light of the World

This is the fourth in a series of ekphrastic poems based upon an Advent art project which Grace Presbyterian is doing to mark the Sundays to Christmas. The project is entitled The Jesse Tree, and you may read more on the Grace Presbyterian website HERE. A talented artist in the congregation has made use of abstraction to interpret each of the Jesse Tree themes which so far have focused on: King David, the Promised Land, the Suffering Servant, and now Light of the World.

Here’s her artwork as it hangs, and the poem it inspires, follows. What do you see?
Light of the World

In darkness we walked, hiding, alone—
Running away but afraid of too:
Being found out, seeing, being known.

And longing colors us in the blue
Of sadness, grief, for the waiting of
The morning when the old is made new.

A promise of joy sings from above
Fills hearts with wonder, faces flushed pink
Our Desire has come to us in love.

Standing on our toes right at the brink,
A door breaks open to the harassed
Who at last, welcomed, may feed and drink.

And Dayspring pours forth into night at last—
The Sunrise visits us from on high
Whom darkness crosses but cannot grasp.

© Randall Edwards 2019.
This poem is for Christ’s church. If it is helpful, please feel free to copy or reprint in church bulletins, read aloud, or repost. I only ask that an attribution be cited to myself (Randall Edwards) and this blog (backwardmutters.com). Thank you.
Artwork: © Adah Freeman 2019, “Light of the World” acrylic on canvas. All Rights Reserved.

Categories
Sermons Story

Christmas Counting

This is a long post, but it recalls a long day which has lasted ten years so far.

This weekend marks the tenth anniversary of my youngest daughter’s T1D diagnosis (aka “diaversary”). Ten years ago, progress to a cure seemed so close that we were told that a cure was within ten years. Many advances and technologies have continued to be developed and released to the public. JDRF continues to be a source of encouragement and inspiration. We certainly would not have weathered the transition from diagnosis to treatment without the very kind support and encouragement of the T1D community. It was and is still overwhelming. My youngest has endured much, and she inspires me.

The accompanying picture is one of my youngest’s stuffed toys which she slept with for many years. You can see how she, as a child, processed and coped with life with T1D as she added an insulin pump inset to the belly of the toy which mirrored the inset which she wears and changes every three days.

Below is the message I delivered the three weeks after her diagnosis at the Christmas Eve service where I minister. You may find it in my collection of Christmas stories entitled, The Night is O’er.

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:3-11

I oftentimes fall into the pattern of reducing my life to counting integers–the equally subdivided ticks on a line which quantify the things which I believe important. All this data, this numbering, is meant somehow to bring a predictability and control to my life. I count sermons, days, dollars, compliments, mistakes, peaceful minutes, and miles. On December 5, 2009, I started counting a new line.

It took three days for what I believed to be true to be confirmed. It was forty-five minutes from when my wife picked up our daughter from school until she called from the doctor’s office with the results of two tests which confirmed the diagnosis that our youngest, one of three lovely children, had what 39 other children in the U.S. would be diagnosed with on that very day: Juvenile Diabetes (T1D).

It is eleven miles or twenty minutes from our house to the Wake Forest Baptist Hospital’s Emergency Room, and it is nine floors up Ardmore Tower to room 810 at Brenner Children’s Hospital where we would stay for the next three days. On the evening of the second day, I am nervous, as I prepare to administer my daughter’s fourth injection — her first full day of injections for the rest of her days, and she is nervous. She is nervous because in her mind it counts as a shot. I am nervous because I count it the same, and this is my first time giving one. Her blood glucose is down to 211 from the 305 it was at dinner. I inject her with an insulin called Lantus (one of two types she receives) with one of the new pen-type syringes, one of three ways to administer insulin.

My daughter’s life and her parent’s lives are now divided into threes and subsets of threes. Three meals a day before which she receives a dose of insulin based on her blood sugar level. Three meals a day with one snack in between. We count 180 grams of carbohydrates per day, forty-five grams per meal, fifteen grams per snack. We keep meticulous records of her blood sugar and the times it is taken. This vigilance gives power to the illusion that the accurate and diligent collection of data provides control. Control means safety, and safety means that when I wake up at 2:37 in the morning and am unable to resist going into my daughter’s room to check on her, probably for the second time that night, I will find her okay, and that she will remain okay until I wake her, before the eighth hour to measure her blood sugar and to give her first shot.

Growing up, I had imagined that my membership among the number of humanity would mean that I would one day, count. I had hoped that this addition would add up to success, achievement, and a decent though not ostentatious life — one that would be both moderately enviable and worth emulating.

Over the course of my life, my counting has taken different forms. As a child, I counted presents at Christmas time and meatballs in my Spaghetti-O’s at dinner time. As a teenager, I counted the “hutts” as center for the high school football team before I passed the ball through my legs to the hands of a team mate whom I should’ve counted a much closer friend for the intimacy we shared five days a week for four months each fall. As a college student, I counted years, semesters and class hours till graduation. After graduation, I counted the dollars for an engagement ring which I would give to one whom I counted above all the rest and whom I was counting on saying “yes”. In my first real job as a teacher, I counted down the classes to the end of the day, the days of the week to Friday, and the hours of the weekend till Monday. As a seminary student I was one of a graduating class of ninety or so, who were counting on positions in a church in which they would go to make a difference and whose lives would “count for Christ”. While working in the second of three churches, I would learn to number mortgage payments, diapers, bottles of formula, and doses of Tylenol. I had always hoped that I would count, but I never imagined those things which I would end up counting. And now, I count blood sugar and doses of insulin.

In our house this December we’ve been counting the days until Christmas. It all changed on the fifth of those days. Since then, I’ve been thinking of how that first Christmas was replete with counting. When Gabriel first appeared to Mary to tell her that she was chosen to bear and raise the King, of whom the number of the days of his reign would have no end, she neither balked at her own unworthiness nor chaffed at the inconvenience. In humility she both rejoiced and received what was put upon her. You recall that when Mary became pregnant she was only betrothed to Joseph. And when Joseph discovered she was pregnant, he intended to divorce her privately because he was a kind man. Nevertheless, he could after all count, and a pregnant fiancé did not add up. But even while he was still counting what he should do, the Angel of the Lord appeared to him to assure him: Mary was carrying the one who would deliver his people from their sins. Joseph obeyed the command of God to marry a woman bearing a child not his own. The irregularity was plain for all to see. No doubt it was probably assumed that this couple, for whom some may have had high hopes, was not only un-special but also of no account.

It came about in the long line of human events, that Caesar Augustus wanted to count the world so that he might have more money to count. Because Joseph was numbered among the descendants of King David, Joseph and his new wife walked the eighty miles from Nazareth to the ancestral home of David’s descendants, Bethlehem. If you were to return to your home town, you would likely count on some help and a place to stay, but Mary and Joseph were relegated to the inn. Upon finding that all the inn’s rooms were counted full, the innkeeper offered the stable. In this stable, after her numbered days were completed, Mary delivered Jesus, the Son of David, the Son of Man, the Son of God… that he might deliver us.

Now in the fields beyond the region of Bethlehem, there were shepherds. Being good shepherds, they counted their sheep. They were not counting on the Angel of the Lord appearing among them glowing with light so heavy that it almost crushed them. The angel’s first words were, “Don’t be afraid.” He told them of the birth of Christ the Lord, and that they should go to see him. As a sign that this was both special and true, the Angel told them that they would find this king in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. At that moment, countless angels appeared in the dark sky, lit by numberless lights, and sang. They sang of wonder, of triumph, of the turning of the tide, of the good news that the interminable slide into the same ol’ same ol’, the relentless skid further into the ways things shouldn’t be, had been arrested by the stark cry of a newborn in the City of David. These shepherds (those whom the world did not count) marveled that they should be the first to hear this glorious news. They traveled to Bethlehem and saw it just as they were told, they shared with Mary and Joseph all that they had seen and heard, and they went away rejoicing and praising God.

About the same time in another land, wise men called magi, were counting stars in the sky and they counted a new star — a star which foretold the coming of the King of the Jews. These men also, came to see the new born king. Bearing gifts to honor the king, they rejoiced at being among the first number to visit and honor him. St. Luke tells us that Mary counted all these things as a dear treasure and pondered them in her heart even as she treasured the child in her arms.

As I take into account this Christmas (my forty-fourth) the numbered events of Jesus’ birth and the numbered circumstances which I and my family are walking through, I am strengthened by the good news that there was One who did not count.

Jesus himself counted. When he entered the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry, he counted both the cost  and the days of his temptation. As a good shepherd, Jesus counted and still counts the sheep. I’m sure he counted the days he had left with his disciples even as he counted down the Passovers. After being handed over by the religious elite to the efficient and heartless imperial justice, I do not doubt that he lost count of the lashes, the insults, and the blows. How could he have counted the weight of such a payment for such a debt and born the judgment of his Heavenly Father — one whom he never counted as an enemy?

Yet, St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians tells us that Jesus did not count one thing: “equality with God as something to be grasped”. The honor and glory rightly his was not one to be taken, demanded, or expected. Rather, it was to be received and conferred but only after his being born – born to serve and to suffer. In this act of love and obedience we see that Jesus did not count himself above the rest, but he numbered himself among the least: a homeless family with tainted reputation, wandering to the ancestral home of a dried up royal dynasty.

St. Paul tells us, that Christ “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men”. This means so much more to me this Christmas. I now realize that God in Christ subjected himself to the same body which has a pancreas and the same endocrinology which requires the pancreas to produce insulin so that cells can use glucose. By simply being born that first Christmas, the King of Glory bore the first of many ignominious sufferings. And though his coming to earth may mean many things, it does mean at least this: that he played by his own rules. Though he was greater, he did not count himself above the rest. He did not count himself above me or you or my Maddie. He counted the cost of the humiliation and the suffering and the waiting well worth the price because of the joy set before him.

St. Paul tells us that those for whom such a great accounting has been made, for those who treasure these things in their heart, they will be set free from counting. They are now set free from counting offenses born, rights owed, wrongs endured, successes achieved, victories won and failures lost. Rather, having been counted by the one who did not count, they will be set free from counting themselves so that they might count on Him and count others more important.

I will go home tonight and count. You too, will likely count hours till bedtime or hours till morning. If we are to keep Christmas, this Christmas, and if we are to keep from falling into the mire and false security of those things which you and I like to count on, we must treasure the one who “did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, and being born.”

Categories
poetry

A Voice Loudly Cries

This sonnet is based on Matthew 2:16-18 which recounts Herod’s murder of the young male children in the region of Bethlehem after he realized he had been outsmarted by the wisemen who had come to pay homage to the King of the Jews. This event is called the Slaughter of the Innocents. From time before remembering, it has been children who have born the cost of society’s sins.

Matthew 2 reads,

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
18    “A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

You may listen to me read the sonnet via the player below.

This is the world where every king chances
To control and do what they can to win,
Where choice vindicates all circumstances,
Where the cost of that choice pays with children.

Oppressors force marriage to dominate,
Defile with sex, make the victim a villain,
Use rape to terrorize, humiliate,
And the price that is paid? Paid by children.

A voice heard in Ramah, she loudly cries:
Rachel lamenting for her lost children
As a king’s arm kills till ev’ry child dies,
Ev’ry parent’s arm emptied, ev’ry grave filled in.

Rachel, unconsoled shall weep for her lost
Until they return, and the king’s arms crossed.

© Randall Edwards 2018
This poem is for Christ’s church. If it is helpful, please feel free to copy or reprint in church bulletins, read aloud, or repost. I only ask that an attribution be cited to myself (Randall Edwards) and this blog (backwardmutters.com). Thanks.

artwork: Pieter Brueghel the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Categories
Christmas Letters Story

A Christmas Letter

Here’s a Christmas letter from a friend. Merry Christmas!

Dear Randy,

I hope this letter finds you doing well. Anna sends here greetings, as do Amy, Angie, and Amanda to your children.

Lately, I have found myself in the malaise of the holiday season. I began with such high expectations, but I’ve followed by too little time to make good on the plans, and so I’m caught in the trap of resenting having so little but expecting so much – again. It’s the same trap every year.

As I sit down to write you, Friend, a line from the carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which I heard on the radio earlier this evening while running errands has lodged itself in my head. You know the line: “…the hopes and fears of all the years….” I think I begin each new holiday season with hope, but rarely apprehend the fears. By the time I apprehend the fears, the dread of impending disappointment drives me deeper into the sadness of yet more missed opportunities.

“Hopes and fears,” when I was kid, captured Christmas. I was hopeful and fearful – at the same time, though I thought what the carol was referring to was Christmas presents. “Would my parents get it right?” I always tried to be clear and specific. One Christmas I hoped for a laced, leather, Wilson JV5 football — the one with the half striped ends? I feared getting the “pleather” knock-off. A football was a football wasn’t it? Not in this case. I didn’t care about budgets, availability, globalization or the commercialization of Christmas. I hoped that I would get that football, and I feared that I wouldn’t.

“Hopes and fears” seem so different now. I look at Amy, my eldest, and I am full of hope and fear. How can I tell her that the place which she somehow imagines that I am – probably some variant of ‘arrived’ is a place for which I am still looking. I look at my teenager, and I know what she doesn’t yet. That she’ll always be Amy. That her hopes and fears – though they may grow and be refined, will always be her hopes and fears — that her goal to ‘become’ what she thinks is ‘adult’ is merely ‘aged adolescence.’ She thinks I’m arrived, but I’m just an old teenager. How do you look your eldest in the eye who is so full of hope for what her life will hold for her by means of satisfaction? How do you encourage her optimism and pursuit of happiness and all the while you know that there are things of which someone should be very afraid. It may be the frailty of life or it may be something insignificant. I’m sure that whatever causes her to seek counseling, will in some way be connected to my hopes and fears. Hoped choked out by industrialism in the workplace or the comodification of product or the commercialization of society – whatever it is, my hope for my daughter is subsumed by my fear of disappointing and disappointment, and so, I give the wrong football, the wrong stereo, the wrong clothes. Because I can’t hear through my hopes and fears, I miss the hope and fear in my daughter’s voice. That’s the way it happens. Gradually, I move towards the t.v. or the computer or work or the yard or the bills. Gradually, she moves towards her room, towards the phone, towards the computer. Contact comes only when we pass one another on our ways to those things which we do to keep the hope alive and fear at bay.

“Hopes and fears” captures what I thought it would be to be married. Christ’s first advent meant presents, but Christ’s second advent meant the end. The thought of Jesus coming on the clouds, though something which we as college Christians were to look forward, left us with a certain air of ambivalence. In particular, what if Jesus comes before I’m married. Hope and fear for me as a college student could be summed in one way: a guilt free sex. Not merely was it guilt free, but it I just new it would somehow be wholesome and unbridled. Little did I realize that ‘hope and fear’ would almost characterize every interaction of our marriage. Anna’s hopes and fears and my hopes and fears seem to collide weekly: I’m not around enough; she’s too tired; I’m drained by work; she’s drained by child rearing. I hope that we fear less these days, but maybe we’re just too tired to be afraid. And our hopes? We’ll I’d to settle for absence of daily disappointment.

Hear I am, mid-life, climbing the career ladder which I’ve dutifully climbed. I got the MBA, I put in the extra hours, I relocated my family for the promotion, and have I arrived? All I can think sometimes, is “Is this it?” Have I peaked?” I love what I do, yet I can’t help but think that anyone could do it. “Hope and fear.” I had hope of making a difference of leaving my mark, but I’m afraid that I, myself, have become a commodity – just one product out of many products. I have hope of creating a work environment that is safe and wholesome for those work for me, and yet I’m afraid that my leadership failings leave me vulnerable to those who would climb over me for my position or are more likely just biding their time to make the jump to something bigger and better. I hope to be good at work, but I’m afraid that I’m merely being put up with – sort of a relational welfare recipient. I imagine my superiors saying, “He’s not our first choice, but what else is he going to do?” I want to be so good at it that if feels like it will kill me to fail. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to work somewhere else doing something I didn’t care so much about.

We’re headed out of town to my parent’s for Christmas. Before we get out of town, it seems like I’ve got a dozen or so things to do. My life seems to be consumed with a dozen or so things to do. Mandy, our youngest, broke the kitchen faucet this afternoon. How does a three year old break a kitchen faucet?

I’ve no real problem with plastic, but these faucet cartridges? It goes against reason. Turning a valve off – i.e. a faucet in a sink — is about tightening. Tightening is about torque. Torque is about pounds of pressure. These new kitchen faucets don’t use valves, they use switches. No torque is needed; you just turn it off. Nevertheless, my kids push and twist the faucet valve (which is really a switch) and break the cartridge. And so with water running in the kitchen sink, I’m out on Hanes Mall Blvd in Christmas traffic trying to find the replacement cartridge while my wife and daughters are at home decorating the Christmas tree so we can have a tree before we go out of town, come back exhausted, and pack it all away. Is this the Christmas we had hoped for? Me, coming home hopeful of finding peace but falling into chaos, flying off the handle at Mandy. Anna, sensing an onslaught of a tempered rage rant attempts to mediate the awful chasm between brute beast and offspring. This was not the Norman Rockwell Christmas picture: Defiantly protective wife, fearful children scattering for cover in other rooms and the Daddy: a compilation of Ebenezer Scrooge, the Grinch, Darth Vader, and Sauron. Getting out of town will be nice. I hope we can survive it.

I think of that Christmas years ago, and I wonder if getting out of town was the same for Joseph and Mary. Newlyweds, taxes, oppressive government, family business, sketchy pregnancy, out of town trips – did they have any hopes and fears? Anna and I’ll load up our van for our seventy-five mile trip to our in-laws, they most likely walked that distance. In order to encourage my wife’s labor she had to walk a hospital’s corridors. What do you think walking 75 miles would’ve done? Mary on a donkey? That’s Sunday School and picture books, the Bible doesn’t say anything about riding. Mary walked to Bethlehem. She walked uphill. But even if they had a donkey, you know how it always is. The man at the stable looks the donkey over and says, “She’s got a lot of miles on her; I don’t know if she’ll make it.”

Did you ever notice that they went to Joseph’s hometown, and he had to stay at an inn? I wonder what that was all about? Maybe it was just a little too scandalous having that Galilean cousin who got married “quickly and quietly” with his new pregnant wife at the house. You know, the neighbors will talk. Maybe it was just a little too stressful to stay with the family. Regardless, there was no room in the inn, and they ended up staying in the garage with the transportation and food – transportation and food that, well, you know, pooped. Hopes and fears? I bet that was some honeymoon — some peaceful, family vacation. I’m having a meltdown because of a stupid faucet, and the pressure of living up to some serene suburban Thomas Kincade Christmas painting where I’ve spent too much money — again, tried to do too much Christmasing — again, got too caught up in the production – again, and forgotten Christmas.

While out this evening, I was listening to the radio. ‘SJS was playing Bing Crosby’s version of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The serenity and peace of a “deep and dreamless sleep” is something I’d love to have. Was it really that serene in that stable on that night? Our little town is anything but. We’re not a peaceful little town whose tranquility is answered with the advent of the Prince of Peace. Rather, our little town is the picture of “tooth and claw.” I’m driving down the busiest street in Winston trying not to be killed by the hopeful yet fearfully panicked parents and friends trying to find just the right thing or at least something with which to settle. And all their “hopes and fears” are being frustrated by an angry Dad whose advent seeks a plastic cartridge to repair a stupid faucet whose engineering testifies to the mystifying wisdom of a design and marketing committee. I’m not a Prince of Peace; I’m a Prince of Pieces and that’s what I’m going to.

The “hopes and fears of all the years” – the words stick in my head. While running errands this evening, I wondered about “hopes and fears.” Joseph and Mary’s “hopes and fears” as they journeyed to their hometown only to be turned out to the stable. No, celebratory birth with family present, offering help, waiting expectantly for news. Instead, an exhausted, transient, young, hopeful yet fearful couple – one displaced couple out of hundreds probably – and one mother having her baby in a stable because there was no where else to go.

Driving back home as “the silent stars go by,” I thought of my wife and daughters. I look up at those stars, and I think about our “hopes and fears.” Our hope that the deepest longings of our hearts tells us that there is something for which we have been created that we have not yet experienced and the fear that I may never experience it are answered in the birth of this little baby born in a stable.

“Yet, in thy dark streets shinneth, the Everlasting Light…”

Sitting in my car, in my driveway, I was bathed in light. I realized that I actually want that for which I have been (and always am) so afraid: to be real. To just be Gary. I want to own my brokenness, my desperation, my anger, my fear, my drivenness, and my hope. What’s so bizare is that I can be most of these all at the same time. I don’t want hiding in the shadows of dark streets. I want shining. I want Everlasting Light. Talk about hope and fear. There’s something about seeing that takes courage. I hope I can take it. I have help though, because at Christmas, we have God’s answer to our hopes and fears. On that night 2000 years ago, God didn’t come to His ungrateful, chaotic family as angry Parent, but as a baby. By coming to us as a baby, I think, God is saying, “Come to me with your hope, but don’t be afraid.” I wonder if I can live that out with my family, my employees, and my friends? Will I live believing that in Jesus my hopes and fears are answered, secured, and waiting? Will I be so patient, that my wife and daughters can come to me – unafraid with their hopes and fears? I hope. I hope.

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The Everlasting Light:
The hopes and fears of all the years:
Are met in thee tonight.

I am afraid this letter has gone on too long, but I hope that you too experience that Everlasting Light this Christmas. And so, a Merry Christmas to you, and the family.

Your Friend,
Gary


This piece owns a debt to Garrison Keillor who first drew my attention to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

All content copyright, unless noted otherwise, Randy Edwards, 2001-2006. All rights reserved.