Poets’ Corner: The Right Book at the Right Time

Philip:

Here’s the first post from a regular column I’ll be writing for Eerdmans. If there’s one regret I have about high school, it’s that I didn’t skip class more often.

Originally posted on EerdWord:

Philip Zoutendam Philip Zoutendam

About Poets’ Corner, a new column from Philip Zoutendam.

The South Transept at Westminster Abbey is called “Poets’ Corner.” It’s a place where the luminaries of British literature, beginning with Chaucer and extending through Dryden and Dickens to Eliot and Auden, are buried and memorialized. For those who, like me, can’t quite remember their art history lessons, the transept is the shorter arm of a cruciform church. Thus the placement of Poets’ Corner becomes a symbol, a simple and beautiful reminder of the place that poetry has in faith. Not all our belief is theology, or perhaps more precisely, not all our theology is syllogism and argument. Some of it is wonder. Some of it is beauty.

I myself am no poet, and this column will not be my corner. It will be a place to celebrate the poetic within Eerdmans books, a place to remember…

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Seeing Words Anew // A Review of Sacred Pause: A Creative Retreat for Word-weary Christians

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Around our house, Paraclete Press is known as a publisher of pretty books. Paraclete is responsible for the lovely Advent and Lent devotionals that I use, books with thick pages, ribbon bookmarks, and full-color representations of sacred art. Paraclete takes the physicality of books seriously.

And so it is with Sacred Pause: A Creative Retreat for Word-weary Christians. The book has a beautiful, airy feel to it, with wide margins and color on every page. And indeed the book has to be beautiful if it is to live up to its promise—after all, it is a collection of words promising to help us recover from other words.

In order to rouse the word-weary, Rachel Hackenberg (a minister in the United Church of Christ and author of Writing to God) sets out not to remove us from words but to help us consider them anew. She writes, “Sacred Pause is your invitation to approach the words of faith with curiosity, to seek out fuller understandings of our religious vocabulary, to adopt childlike wonder for the sights and sounds and even colors of words, to marvel at the breadth of meaning that words convey, and to make use of words for spiritual renewal and growth.”

In each of the twelve chapters (which constitute twelve individual “retreats”) there are guided exercises, such as using mandalas to explore word associations, illustrating the individual sounds words make, and creating “MadLib” psalms (less cheesy and more beautiful than it sounds!). Visual, creative types will no doubt find the connections that Hackenberg makes vivifying, and they will feel at home in the careful design of each page.

As someone who is neither visual nor creative, what I appreciated most about the book was Hackenberg’s understanding of the religious language that we use to talk about God; she sees it as essential but ultimately only an imperfect attempt to describe a God beyond our comprehension. Without any hint of jadedness or disillusionment, Hackenberg warns against the idolatry of words, against the false belief that we can completely and certainly contain God within doctrine, liturgy, and religious vocabulary. She writes, “If anything remains with you from your retreat with this book . . . I hope it’s the understanding that religious language is always and only an attempt to translate a Word that is beyond complete translation.”

I tend to seek my word-therapy in poetry, so I don’t know how often I will return to this book. That being said, I thought of several friends for whom this book would be the perfect resource, friends who are more creative than I am and who long for the open-ended exercises that Hackenberg has provided.

Full disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of Sacred Pause from Paraclete Press in exchange for an honest review.

How Long, O Lord?

Advent has eluded me this year. I forgot to pick up my favorite Advent book from on hold at the library, and they’ve probably sent it back by now. I didn’t buy new Advent candles, since we’re on one income now, and that means that two of my purple candles are pitifully nubby. I have prayed the collects about once each, and we sang a verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in class each day, but the key was a bit more ambitious than I am, so I ended up just mouthing most of the words.

Advent has often eluded me in the past as well, although not in so obvious a way. Advent, the season of longing, has been for me more a season of celebrating while paying lip service to longing. I am not well suited to Advent; I love December, and the first snow makes me feel giddy, and I never really want to fast or wait or long. That’s what Lent is for, and I do so love Lent, so somber and ascetic and long. Besides, I’m always a little baffled about how to observe Advent in American culture; it’s reminds me England before they settled on one date for Easter: feasting and fasting in the same household.

Still, in recent years I have dutifully prayed the collects, tried to save Christmas hymns for Christmas, read Advent devotionals, attended Advent small groups, and all the rest. Sometimes there are breakthroughs. In a small group in Phoenix, Philip and I were paired with mostly senior citizens who talked about hope and how they were looking forward to death and to heaven, because they were wearying of this life. I had no earthly idea what that was like, being 24 and hale and hearty. I wisely kept my mouth shut and listened, understanding that these people understood something—a big thing—that I didn’t. They could hold the deep sadness and the deep joy together in one moment. They had the cosmic vision that collapses time; they felt the “not yet” already.

***

imageIt’s been a difficult Advent in other ways at well.  I went to a prayer service for the Peshawar school attack at the seminary, and I started crying the moment I walked in the door. My more stoic Dutch classmates have better self-control than I do, so my genuine grief was marred by my own ugly self-consciousness. I hate thinking about myself at a time like that. So I felt guilty in addition to sad.

And the racial unrest in the United States has hovered over my days. There have been many tears, because I hate, hate, hate the thought that we have brothers and sisters who feel like second-class citizens. I cried before even leaving the house one morning. I almost didn’t write that, because it is embarrassing (I cry easily and a lot), but then again, it simply is not; what’s embarrassing is crying because I can’t have as many clothes as I want or because I’m not as successful as my friends or because we have enough money but not a lot of extra money.

Anyway, I’ve been following everything and reading everything, which then seemed to me to be decidedly not enough. I kept having this fear that I would be ninety years old and regret that I only had strongly held opinions and nothing more. I found on Facebook a small vigil at the Rosa Parks statue in downtown Grand Rapids, and so I made Philip take me to buy candles and then drive me there. I tend to back out of unknown or unpredictable events, and so I needed someone steadfast, someone who wouldn’t turn the car around.

I was crying too soon again, before we even got there, and I told Philip he was going to have to take our candles while I waited in the car, because sometimes I cry so much in situations like these that people think there’s something actually wrong with me. Philip agreed, because he is a saint, and because he knew that this was something I needed to do, or do vicariously. But somehow I pulled it together, and we agreed that I could walk with him to the vigil as far as I could make it, and somehow I made it all the way there.

We didn’t stay very long, but we went. And I did cry some, and I was embarrassed and self-conscious again, but at least we went. Philip lit a different kind of candle, not a nubby purple candle, but tall white candles in jars. But the question was the same as it ever is in Advent: How long, O Lord?

What My Single Friends Taught Me About Love

This article was originally published in the Calvin Theological Seminary Kerux.

There are a lot of really bad reasons to get married, and the internet seems bent on propagating them. I have been told variously that marriage is good for me financially and morally, that it’s good for society, that it will make me healthier, more attractive, and happier. While some of these things may be true, I don’t know anyone who entered into marriage after doing a careful cost-benefit analysis. Everyone I know got married for the same reason that I did: we loved another human being and we believed that marriage was the right way to honor that.

Since getting married, I’ve not encountered a great deal more wisdom. I stopped reading marriage books after I threw one across the room in frustration. The author’s basic premise was that all of the suffering he was experiencing in marriage was sanctifying him. Which is really great, because that’s what I had hoped for in marriage—that I could be the cause of great suffering in another human being. Then the author began praising his car for being much clearer about its needs than his wife was. “Why don’t you marry your freaking car!?” I yelled. Only I did not say freaking.

Now, instead of reading books that tell me what I “as a woman” need and want, and what my husband “as a man” needs and wants, I just try to apply my general principles of being a good human being. Don’t say mean things to or about the other person. Listen. Care deeply. Give.  I learned these from the Bible, from literature, from my parents.

And we have had an almost incomprehensibly good and peaceful four years. I know it may not always be so. I know that every moment of happiness in marriage is a blessing, a gift of grace, and not of my own doing. And I believe firmly in seasons, in the very real likelihood that someday we may not be so happy, and that that will not mean we are bad people. After all, in the grand scheme of things, we are still newlyweds.

These four years have taught me something about marriage, and while it is certainly not a reason to get married, it is a blessing of marrying well. The thing that I “get” out of marriage is not financial solvency or a hale and hearty complexion, but another human being who knows me better than anyone else and who still believes in me more than I believe in myself. I invariably assume that I will fail—at everything; my husband, on the other hand, urges me, even bribes me, to take risks and face challenges. He sets deadlines for me, he dials the phone and holds it next to my face so that I have to talk, he even drafts emails for me that I would never dare to write myself. My husband fundamentally believes that I am strong, smart, and capable, and that the world needs me.

And, perhaps most important of all, he names my strengths. How rare it is that another human being looks you in the eye and tells you that you are good at something. And it is rarer yet that someone knows you well enough to venture beyond smart, funny, or nice. I do my best to return this great gift and to help my husband see himself the way I see him.

Apparently, if you are a little dense, as I am, it takes four years of marriage to learn this deeply empowering act. If you are not dense but are rather deeply insightful and compassionate, you can learn this without marriage. I know this because the people in my life, other than my husband, who are quickest to name my strengths are all single. My sister, a coworker, a classmate. They too have this gift of looking you in the eye and saying, “You are good.” My coworker (and dear friend) recently gave me a postcard on the back of which she had written the kindest thing anyone has ever said to me: “If you saw yourself the way I see you, you would never have a dark day again.” The deep, deep power of those words and her utter lack of self-consciousness in writing them is a stronger gift by far than any that I exercise.

It only occurred to me recently how much I have grown because of my single friends who turn their love and compassion outward instead of focusing it intensely on one other human being, as I and my husband instinctively do for each other. If it were just my husband and I, we would go on loving each other as spouses for forever, but it would be like two mirrors facing each other, an endless regression of reflections. This is a good thing, but a limited thing.

But the beautiful thing about love is that we almost always reflexively return it, and so these three single women are teaching me how to show deeply affirming love to friends and even not-yet friends. It has yet to become second nature to me, as it is to them, and so I know I have much to learn. They do not say nice things they do not mean. They scour others for the deep good within. These women do not worry about coming on too strong. They simply see value in a human being and say so.

This, by the way, is also what God does.