June 24, 2018
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
I’m going to take the theme of “Telling the Story” and relate it to some of my journey as a Christian and a writer. I hope that you’ll be able to relate it to your own story-telling too, because I’ve never met a person who wasn’t, at heart, a story-teller. That seems to be how human beings are made. Certainly our Gospel reading this morning is a great story, and you can just imagine with what zeal and amazement the disciples must have told it to Jesus’ followers. “Even the wind and waves obey him!” And like so many good stories, this one points to something beyond the particulars of what happened. It means something, and is worth pondering and reconsidering.
Most of you know that I write fiction and poetry, and here I am, a grateful member of Seekers Church – yet I would be guarded, even reluctant, in describing my work as “Christian fiction” or “Christian poetry.” Do you want to read some really bad poetry? Google “Christian Poetry.” There is something about an earnest desire to evangelize that appears to frazzle every bit of artistry and even good taste that a writer possesses. I have tried hard not to be that kind of writer, and that kind of evangelist. Still, though . . . I think an alert reader would be able to look at my stuff and have a pretty good guess that the writer must be a Christian of a certain type.
Graham Greene, who was well aware of the pitfalls of “Christian writing,” said, “I am not a Catholic novelist. I am a novelist who happens to be Catholic. The theme of human beings being lonely without God is a legitimate subject. To want to deal with that doesn’t make me a theologian.” In a rather similar vein, the American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, when asked why her stories dealt with religion through grotesque characters and situations, replied, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
My own way of putting it is this: Our Gospel is, literally, good news. To want to proclaim the good news is natural and even, in some circumstances, necessary. But to whom is the good news good? If you are more or less content with your outlook on life, more or less satisfied with the society around you, more or less accepting of the values you have been shown by family and country . . . why would good news be of any interest to you? You already have the good news: a comfortable life. Your boat is not in danger of capsizing in a wild storm. So, to be blunt, sometimes a Christian needs to first convince his listener of the bad news. We comfort the afflicted, yes, but as it has been said, we also afflict the comfortable. We need to break open hearts to the tragedies that surround us, and unchain the longings inside us. We need to strip away every rule, pretense, protection, and intellectual certitude with which we delude ourselves – leaving only the cry for . . . something . . . some eternal thing, grace, the knowledge that we are pilgrims, strangers in a strange land, liable at any moment to be roared at by God’s majestic lion – and perhaps devoured. You know what? There really is a powerful storm raging out there, and haven’t we just sprung a leak, or two, or three? . . .
Well, if any of this is right, then art has an obvious role. It’s very hard to tell someone that things are much worse than they believed; showing this, with truth and fidelity, can be the task of Christian fiction and poetry. You show what’s wrong, create a hunger for what’s right . . . and perhaps move on. Not every Christian work of art has to present the good news. Sometimes it’s enough to show how one Christian sees the immanent world.
Here is poem I wrote, called “Indoor Cats”:
Like indoor cats we’re curious and scared
to get on the wrong side
of the front door. We stare out the window
and don’t know the names. We remember
those times we were transported
into that bright windy world:
doors slammed, motors gunned,
and at journey’s end
someone hurt us for our own good
as we hissed and writhed.
Now and then the door swings open.
We know we could squeeze through.
We give the porch a bitter glance,
then make a fuss, asking for kibble and
I hate to dissect my own poetry, but let me say this much: the poem doesn’t appear to offer a lot of good news. It asks the reader to identify with a frightened, coddled housecat. It suggests that there is an “outdoors,” a “bright windy world,” but compares a journey into that world with a painful trip to the hospital. And yet . . . I call this a Christian poem – or at any rate a poem written by a Christian – because it takes the cat’s condition seriously. There really is a choice; the door does swing open. And there is more than one way to be “hurt for our own good.” God has been known to do this too, not just doctors. I hope my reader is left pondering her own choices, and wondering just how comfortable the lap will prove to be.
One of my favorite works of contemporary fiction is the story collection, “Jesus’ Son,” by the late Denis Johnson. Johnson became a Christian of a rather odd, nondenominational sort (kind of like us here at Seekers) after a horrifying life on the streets as a heroin addict. The title of his book, “Jesus’ Son,” could hardly be clearer about the specific Christian slant of the stories – yet until the very last story, there is no direct reference to God or Jesus or salvation, only some of the most vivid, beautiful writing you’ll ever read about “human beings who are lonely without God,” as Graham Greene put it. The final story finds the protagonist a few months clean and sober, working as an aide in a home for the aged and demented. The last lines of the story, and the collection, are: “All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.” A place for people like us . . . This is the Christian promise of love and forgiveness and community, which would be useless if simply declared or, worse, argued for. But Johnson has earned the right to name it because every sentence of his book prior to these final ones has shown us the loneliness of life without God, and why his narrator, and all of us, so desperately need that place.
By the way, not all good Christian writers do this. There’s plenty of wonderful poetry that celebrates creation, praises goodness and mercy, and generally makes the reader feel happy about being alive – which is not the same thing as feeling comfortable or satisfied. I’m singling out a particular way of telling the Christian story because, simply, it’s my way, it’s the way I know.
I don’t know why God called me to this vocation, though I believe God did. I started writing poetry all at once, as a man in my thirties, because I was keeping a journal about my involvement in the last months of a friend dying from AIDS. Each morning the fresh anguish turned my prose into something else, and poems began to leap out. They all had two subjects: the brutality and poignancy of death at a young age, and the beauty of the human circle that formed itself around Mark as his friends became the family he needed. Death and love . . . I suppose a poet has enough there to work with forever, but Mark and I were both Christians, he since birth, I quite recently, and so this eruption of poetry was for me intertwined with trying to make Christian sense out of my experience. I don’t think I succeeded.
I find myself thinking back on those first attempts to tell a Christian story in poetry because I have just had a full-length collection of poems published by Dos Madres Press. I had to select the best of my work over a couple of decades, and I discovered that, if I picked the ones I honestly, deep-down thought were the strongest, the book would be so relentlessly harsh that no one would want to read it. So I made myself put together a more balanced view, drawing on other modes of telling the story besides, well, death and love. (That said, the collection still is not exactly beach reading . . .) There’s one long poem called “Parables” that’s meant to evoke the style of Jesus, in a good-humored way. My hope in writing it was to remind and entice readers into the truth of parable, as a mode of indirect teaching, especially the way Jesus used it. It’s that same idea of bypassing direct evangelism, and instead using a description of our world here and now to point listeners beyond it. Jesus was a master at that, and – I can’t help it – I also find it hard to keep a straight face when confronted by a parable. So, in that spirit, here’s one of my eleven mini-parables:
Seven travelers encountered
a terrorist who had fallen ill
by the side of the highway.
This man had spent the night in filth,
and was now unclean.
Six of the travelers scorned him,
heaped abuse upon him, and said,
“Let’s drive back to where we saw
the ‘Report Suspicious Activity’ sign
and dial the 800 number.”
But the seventh traveler was himself
an illegal alien, and could not afford
an encounter with the authorities,
who would cast him into prison and then
deport him to his suffering homeland.
The terrorist in his illness wept
and begged the travelers, “Forgive me,
show me mercy! I renounce
my evil ways.” The traveler of doubtful status
urged his companions to pass on, saying,
“Hasn’t our heavenly parent told us to forgive
not once, not seven times, but seventy times seven?”
His six fellow travelers nodded,
and brought out counting devices,
employing them skilfully, and then announced,
“It is as we thought. We have forgiven
four hundred and ninety evildoers, which is
the product of seventy times seven. This man
is the four hundred and ninety-first.”
So the authorities were summoned, and
the unclean terrorist was thrown into prison, and
the illegal traveler was deported.
You see, then, that both good and evil
flow from the same calculations,
and two travelers may conclude their journeys
at destinations they did not intend,
respectively. If you can hear this, that’s great!
Again, I won’t try to tell you what the poem ought to mean, only that my intention was to be both serious and not. The sententious conclusion is both absurd and true – or so I hope, just like most of our attempts to say in words what God wants from us. And I always wanted to come up with a vernacular translation of “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.”
Having this collection come out is gratifying, of course – the idea that total strangers like my work enough to want to publish a whole book of it – but also it makes me feel vulnerable. You can’t really hide behind poetry. If a poem is not about lived experience in some deep and truthful way, then it’s probably not much good. And being deep and truthful, as I understand it, means implicating myself in a lot of situations and feelings I’d just as soon keep hidden on a day-to-day basis. Again, it’s the bad news that must be honestly told, if there’s to be any room for good news. So, anyone reading my collection would likely conclude that the poet is a man who is troubled in intimate relations, is often dejected and angry and arrogant, too rational for his own good, and has almost no idea of how to wipe away his own tears, much less the tears of the world. This is accurate, I would say. All I know is, I have gotten a great deal from reading similarly messed-up poets, so I hope my own stuff may mean something to someone.
FROM ST. COLETTA’S
From St. Coletta’s came all the special ones,
Halloween guests at our nonprofit office.
Escorted by the school staff, masked or daubed
in clown paint, they whooped and stumbled, and those who could
demanded Trick or treat! and those who could
held out their bags. I gave them treats
because, for ten minutes, they were there,
not because I feared a retaliatory trick.
They were in no shape to egg my car
or burn a bag of shit on my doorstep.
Stunned Raggedy Ann in your red wig and wheelchair,
here is a Milky Way. Silent grinning Zorro, here is
a Snickers, just for you. Happy
Halloween, it’s my treat, my pleasure, it’s
the least I can do. It’s the most I can do.
Not everyone is called to walk beside you
and curl your fingers round the sweets,
not everyone, but a few:
the teachers of St. Coletta’s.
I told them Thanks for coming and Good
to meet you, wincing in the glare of their love.
I said Goodbye. I went back
to my cubicle, limping, blinking,
back to work, plucking at the painful taut
elastic band around my head, and
I am not special at all, am I?
Finally, to end this sermon, let me tell you about how another story ends. This one is a novel called “Lancelot,” by Walker Percy, who was an American Southern Catholic writer – or, as I’m sure he would insist, a writer who happened to be a Southerner and a Catholic. “Lancelot” is told by the eponymous narrator, a Louisianan named Lancelot Lamar, as a monologue to a visitor to his jail cell, where he’s about to be executed for a gruesome murder. We know nothing about the man he’s talking to, except that he seems to be an old childhood friend who’s now a priest. This visitor never says a word, though Lancelot, who is unrepentant, periodically tries to get him to comment on the story of love, grief, and violence that he’s telling him. On the last page, finally, Lancelot insists to his visitor, “You know something you think I don’t know, and you want to tell me but you hesitate.” Yes, says the visitor, his first word. “You speak! Loud and clear! And looking straight at me!” Lancelot cries, a bit sarcastically. He puts a few more questions to the visitor, which are answered only Yes or No, and then, in the novel’s final lines, Lancelot says, “Very well. I’ve finished. Is there anything you wish to tell me before I leave?” “Yes.”
That’s the end. The entire book has been constructed to lead Lancelot, and us, to that final Yes. There is much, much more that the priest/visitor wishes to tell Lancelot, but he has had to remain silent until Lancelot could tell his own story, could truly encounter the tragedy of his own sinfulness in the fallen world. Then, and only then, can the Christian speak the good news and have it be heard. Jesus can indeed quell the storm and keep our tiny boats afloat, but I think we first have to give up our illusions that the sea is calm and all is well.