Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Parking-lot Poet

Part of my daily prayer at the beginning of each day is a simple one. I ask God, "Let me have eyes to see and ears to hear others. To be present to them. To see You in them." What I love about this prayer is how God chooses to answer it. After making a call on one of my local big box stores, I was headed out to my car when a an African-American man approached me with, "Excuse me, sir. Can I please have a moment of your time?" In the past, this question translates into, "Can I ask you for some cash?" Christ tells us, "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." This is not an easy verse to dismiss or to say, "Well, Jesus didn't mean that literally." Still, whenever a stranger asks me for money, I always ask them what they want it for. If they tell me they are hungry, I will take them to get something to eat. If they say it's for gas, I offer to go with them to a nearby gas station.

So when this young man asked me for a moment, I stopped and said, "Sure. What is it?" He introduced himself and I shook his hand. "I've been writing poems since I was thirteen," he informed me, "I'm thirty-six now." He held a binder in his hand and what appeared to be photocopied papers. "If you don't mind," he began, "I'd like to read you one of my poems and if it blesses you, you can respond as God leads you." I knew this was a ploy, but I admired the fact that, unlike every other stranger who's come up and asked me for money, he had at least written a poem first.

"Okay," I replied, "I'm always open to hearing poetry."

This young man, in an army-green jacket, nodded before he began to read me a poem as we stood there in front of my car, I watched as he read the words he'd written. He never looked up at me but kept his own eyes on the printed page. While it wasn't a very good poem, the line, "Don't get caught up in the cares of this world" jumped out at me because, prior to this encounter, I had been very much caught up in the cares of this world.

After the young man had finished, he looked up, unsure of what to expect. I can only imagine the reactions he gets, if any, from those who even stopped for a second. I would guess that very few actually listen to anything he has to say, poem or not.

"Thank you," I told him and we began to have a short conversation about poetry, writing and faith. He said his favorite poet was Langston Hughes and I surprised him by quoting:

Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird,
That cannot fly.

Back when I was in middle school, I had a teacher who, if you got in trouble in her class, would punish you by making you memorize a poem and then recite it in front of the class. I learned many a poem that year, including all of Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha (On the shores of Gitche Gumee, Of the shining Big-Sea-Water . . .) "God always uses the poets and the prophets," I told him and I pulled out my wallet to give him the last few dollars I had in it.

He thanked me, handed me the poem after autographing it, shook my hand again before moving on to a woman who was about to load groceries into her minivan.

I don't know much about the story of this parking-lot poet. Is he homeless? I don't know what he would do with the money I gave him, but I didn't need to ask. I admired him for writing and sharing his poems. If I hadn't have needed to move on to my next store, I would have offered to buy him lunch so we could talk some more. I admire people who create. 

Poetry is a condensing of moments into sparse language and imagery. Poetry is the pulse and surge of life. Poetry draws us in and makes us bring something of ourselves to them words. "The burden of the poet," Walter Brueggemann writes, "is not explanation, because explanations never satisfy or convince. Rather the burden of the poet is to disclose, to reveal, to show what has not been seen or said until that instant."

So often it's the poets who grasp what theologians cannot. That's why the Psalmists and prophets use imagery and metaphor to represent God and the kingdom. And my own spiritual life has been greatly influenced by poets like Rumi, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Rainer Maria Rilke, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Denise Levertov, Anne Sexton, Mary Oliver, and Wendell Berry. Poets make me pay attention to the world and either to see it anew or just to see it. As Robert Frost asked, "How many things have to happen to you before something occurs to you?" 

Poets have helped shaped my faith and even sustained it when I didn't feel I had any faith left.

"I'm not very good at praying," Denise Levertov wrote, "but what I experience when I'm writing is close to prayer." There are times when reading hers or others poems have been the only prayers that came from my lips. 

When the confessional poet Anne Sexton was in a mental hospital after another suicide attempt, a priest came to visit her. As soon as he came in the room, she blurted out, "Look, I'm not sure I believe in God . . ."

"Your typewriter is your altar," he replied.

She was taken aback by his response, but said, "I can't go to church. I can't pray."

"Your poems are your prayers," he told her. It was after this conversation that she wrote her collection entitled The Awful Rowing Toward God.

And they were. Poems as prayers. Prayers for the broken, the hurting, the depressed, and the lonely who have found as much comfort in them as many do the Twenty-third Psalm.  Sexton began writing her poems after a nervous breakdown and the encouragement of her doctor, who told her, "Your poems might mean something to someone else someday." That gave her a feeling of purpose, a little cause, something to do with her life. Her poems are full of biblical imagery and she returns again and again to the "ragged Christ" to whom she felt "close." 

"When I was Christ," she would say, "I felt like Christ. My arms hurt, I desperately wanted to pull them off the cross. When I was taken off the cross and buried, I sought solutions; I hoped they were Christian solutions. I think I had a kind of feeling Christ was speaking to me and telling me to write that story. I thought to myself, this would be the most awful death. The cross, the crucifixion, which I deeply believe in . . . his death that he had to seek for love's sake, because his love was the greatest thing about him."

Poets do that for us: take us deeper into the light and darkness, to see the beauty and the brokenness. They reveal the truth in a way that no other writing can. Poetry causes me to wrestle with reality as well as being a healing balm just like Wendell Berry's "The Peace of Wild Things" with its final line of: For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Poets help me to see, as Gerard Manly Hopkins wrote, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God." I read that and I look about me to notice that grandeur-charged world that I had mistaken for mundane. Poets make me open my eyes and see that all the world's a miracle that I mistake for ordinary. Only by being present and being aware can I, like William Blake, see trees filled with angels or, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning did, that "every common bush afire with God." That is why the world so desperately needs them. We need to stop and see because too often we go about this extraordinary world with eyes that do not see, hears that do not hear, and hearts that do not beat with wonder and awe.

When I could not go to the sacred, it changed shape and came to me in the form of poems. When I could not pray, I could read the words of poets and find room for the unimaginable. Like Anne Sexton, I often struggle with a God who can seem close at moments and yet farther away at others, as if hiding from me. It's a doubt-riddled faith but faith none-the-less.

So I stood there, holding my autographed poem and thanked God that, today, He chose to speak to me through this parking-lot poet not to be caught up in the cares of this world. There, in that brief moment, there was a connection and conversation between two strangers. I knew I would keep his poem in my Bible as a reminder of this moment and to pray for him. Knowing his name and a little piece of his story means that he is not invisible, If I see him again, I can address him by his name and, I hope, learn more of his story and see if we will be a part of each other's. Who knows what God has in store? If it was only for this one brief moment, I am grateful.

As I got in my car, I thought of the poem "Gathering in Light" by Denise Levertov:

An awe so quiet I don't know when it began.
A gratitude had begun to sing in me.
Was there some moment dividing song from no song?
When does dewfall begin?
When does night fold its arm over our hearts to cherish them?
When is daybreak?

In that moment, I felt awe. I felt gratitude. I felt the love of a God who created all things through words, a poet-God, a lover of language in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart no less. 

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