New Year’s Eve at Hodges Chapel

This was my first poem, written on New Year’s Eve, 2005. In the early 1900’s my maternal grandmother, Ernestine Oaks was educated in music at Beeson College in Meridian, MS. She often spoke respectfully and warmly of John Wesley Beeson, who founded the college. His son, Ralph Waldo Beeson, endowed the Beeson Divinity School and the Andrew Gerow Hodges Chapel at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. This chapel has been the setting for two concerts for Southern Harmony, a quartet in which I sing with some friends. On a visit to the chapel after celebrating Mother’s birthday on New Year’s Eve, 2005, I listened thankfully as our daughters spontaneously sang “Silent Night” under the dome where frescoes of saints of the church had been painted. At that moment I had an incredible sense of God’s providence and faithfulness, and the same Spirit which had taught my grandmother her music at Beeson College was singing through the voices of her great-granddaughters at Beeson Divinity School that very evening. In gratitude for such glimpses of truth, I penned these words.

O radiant chapel that now stands
with cherry-carved and frescoed hands
in marbled glory, and demands
our fervent prayer ascend, thanks giving,
to me, your gift most intimate,
perhaps not as your builders meant
but fashioned by the One who knows
what gives my heart its inner glows
is music, sweet, which first was found
as friends made melody, and the sound,
enriched by your Divine embrace
still ministers with seeking Grace
to hearts, though full, with empty space.
In gratitude come I to you to worship,
for the Spirit through your founding benefactors
knew my Nana and so taught her to sing and play
and gave to me a song one day.
Full circle comes your Grace around
to touch my soul with fresher sound
of our dear children, while around
the circle of your saints sing “Silent Night”,
and to your frescoes paint my stroke of heart
this New Year’s Night.

Facing Reality

It seems to me that our society has an increasingly difficult time facing reality. That’s a very unhealthy situation, as I myself know from experience. Could it be that most of us can’t find the inner resources to deal with it? Isn’t it really about the loss of control, facing our own mortality in many disguises, not bearing the pain until it transforms us, and not trusting deeply enough that the Love of God is the greatest force in the universe? How wonderful would it be if we set about on a mission of inner enrichment of ourselves and others through connection, contemplation, creativity, compassion, spreading the faith, listening to the stories of those who have walked through hell and come out reborn on the other side, and sharing our own stories of struggle and triumph?

A Rhythm of Three

Some ways down a wooded hillside
steeply set above a shoal, quiet
and still on a sandstone cropping
near that grove of elder oaks I knew
like friends from a place
that will always define home,
I sat with people and work
and wounds and dreams and hope
ever forward in my mind, ever seeking
winds that start as currents on the moldy
leaf path rising like a native signal
to the high limbs where turkeys roost,
launching like birdshot over the river,
stirring the soul that sits like I am sitting
by a brook with pools in each cell center
where prayer makes the molecules
dance to a rhythm of three.

Bank the Embers

“All right. That brings us to a close, my dears.
Now you two sisters listen up. All ears!”
The old man closed the book, clearing his throat,
and pocketed his glasses in his coat.
“Before the last among us goes to bed
a most important task still lies ahead.
The warmth that wakes the morning will depend
on banking well the embers at day’s end.”
So, grasping hearthside tools his father made
he poked a bit, then shoved a sooty spade
beneath the ash dust in an oak log’s grave
its smoky ghost was powerless to save.
The fire popped and spit a final word
of some same truth an ancient hunter heard
before the slate shard cinders stirred a cloud
that settled on the embers like a shroud.
And after little girls had gone to bed
each dreamed within her hibernating head
of cozy coals with eyes too bright to sleep
up under ashen blankets buried deep.
Next morning, footpads arched above the chills
of hardwoods, cold as frosty windowsills,
ten toes times two tipped near the hearth to see
what gift the coals left fires yet-to-be.
The old man dusted off the clump with care
and sure enough, still glowing under there
were lumps of what the little girls supposed
they’d see if earth’s deep center were exposed.
Heart of pine across that ore he laid
that had been split in pieces by his blade
as sleeping yester – coals brought fire to the space
and flames between each oak log danced in place.
At such a sight, one grandchild chimed to sis,’
“When we grow old, let’s each remember this:
the dancing flames that leap to life from dust;
the fire – building hands that we can trust.”
There comes a day, as to each one there will
when heads are bowed, and every soul is still
in homage to a love that only grows
if banked beneath life’s mounting winter snows.
Then little eyes and little hearts will know
the light that warms the world with Heaven’s glow
lies buried like a treasure in the ground
‘til lifted by Love’s hand, and thus is found.

The Christmas Story

I want to hear the story again.

I want to hear it from the single mother working three jobs who sings her soul straight into the wide-open eyes of her infant.

I want to hear it from the business man who said “Enough,” and left the board room’s lies to discover the truth inside his own soul.

I want to hear it from the little girl who helps to feed and dress her little sister who has a disability.

I want to hear it from the hospice nurse who sits and sings beside a dying elder even though she knows the cancer inside her own body is ticking down her time.

I want to hear it from the man whose mind is slipping away to dementia, but who is letting his heart be liberated and shared with everyone around.

I want to hear it from the soldiers whose lives and loves flash straight in front of them on their way to pull a newly orphaned child from the rubble of one of our wars.

I want to hear it from the mother who has raised a hand to bless her child’s killer as her heart spills out on the floor.

I want to hear it from the addict who has just cursed God and everyone else yet yells the loudest at herself when the echo in the halfway house breaks the silence of her empty soul to make a space for the grace-filled gift.

I want to hear it from the stately Saint who spent a life of straight and narrow servanthood and remains faithful ‘til the final breath is drawn.

I want to hear it from the judgy church lady when the truth dawns that she’s sitting in a puddle of her own sin – soaked shame and everyone one else’s too.

I want to hear it from the self-conscious teenager who dares to face her fears and lead her peers in service and in prayer.

I want to hear it from the wife and mother who remains when all the world says “Go.”

I wanted hear it from the slave who sings more loudly and more richly than a bird born with freedom’s melody.

I want to hear it from the person of power that bends the knee in silent humble prayer.

I want to hear it from the one – armed trumpeter of peace in the war zone of their own destruction.

I want to hear it from the Jewish woman who sings to the Christian nursing home resident a song that moves the heart of the Hindu and the Muslim and the agnostic.

I want to hear it from the runner for the gold who stoops to lift a fallen competitor.

I want to hear it from the prophet on the edges who speaks a word of truth that no one wants to know.

I want to hear it from a black man who stretches out a hand to help a gay woman offer food to a white man who is having prayer with a yellow child and its red mother and a father who doesn’t have a label that he can read who comes from a family that can’t yet believe in the God who has always loved them.

I want to hear it from everyone who has found the empty place inside and knows that in the end it must be filled with the Love that only comes to the lowly, lame and lost.

I want to hear it from the dark and silent corners of my own soul.

I want to hear it from the ones who heard it from the ones who felt the straw and saw the star and knew the Mother’s love and heard the Baby cry on that very first Christmas of all.

(Watercolor art by Lester E. Potts, Jr., an artist with Alzheimer’s)

Topping the Tree

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season.”- Psalm 1:3

One of the highlights of my boyhood years was heading out to family land to find a Christmas tree.  There was a cedar grove down in the bottom land by Lindsay Branch, and this was always Dad’s destination.  We had to drive through a pasture and through several gaps to get to the grove.  Once we crossed the old crosstie bridge and passed through the muddy ruts around it, I knew we were almost there.

Early on, there were plenty of young cedars from which to choose.  But with passing years the grove thinned out, and we had to resort to “topping” the older trees.  For those that don’t know, “topping” refers to cutting and using the top out of a larger tree.

At first, I didn’t like this concept at all.  It seemed unnatural.  We were supposed to find the best young cedar in the woods, cut it at the base, load it in the truck, and trek out through the gaps and mud and crosstie bridge to home. The old trees were second choice trees for me.  But then I learned that some of the most beautiful Christmas trees we ever had were ones that had been topped.  And before long, I began to focus on the tree tops to find a suitable specimen for family Christmas gatherings.

When the Gift of gifts arrives, we are moved to share our best, to yield up our prime.  God desires our finest at any age. We will bear fruit in our season, according to God’s plan.  And we are never too old or frail to give our presents, and our presence, to the newborn King.

We all grow there, in the bottom lands: a stand of cedars near the creek bank, “planted by God to display His glory.” (Isaiah: 61).  Everlasting waters feed our roots, and the sap of life wells up inside and fills the air with incense.  The source of it all: water, sap, fine green tops, prickly perfume; the Logos, comes from Heaven through the muddy ruts for us.  He wants us all to fill the house with the spirit of Christmas.  He loves us, and wants our love, too. And He comes as an only Son to prove this Love, and to offer us eternal life beside the everlasting stream.

Young and old. Tops and all.

(Original watercolor by Lester E. Potts, Jr., an artist with Alzheimer’s)

What Will It Be?

We come with outstretched arms, open hands.

“Christmas gift!” we exclaim, eager to be the first to receive. Surely He knows what we want.

No one needs a present more than we do. After all, we have done without for so long in these troubled times. “Good people are hard to find” we said, and pulled the pay raise from our empty pockets. In lieu of raiding college money, we borrowed on collateral of faith. Funds flew with the winds, it seemed, as loved ones transitioned into long term care facilities. And championed causes languished for lack of donations.

Relationships suffered from taxing schedules, poor communication, harbored hurts. Loved ones’ lives, it seemed, were snatched from our clutching hands. Bad news came at the doctor’s office or hospital, and we didn’t have the strength to handle it. Betrayal bruised our egos, wounded our hearts. Clouding of minds made us wander, looking for home, for things familiar; for someone to care, for someone who remembered. Faith placed squarely in ideals, institutions, even trusted comrades fell to pieces, causing us to shrink backwards into our holes.

And in the dark place of our isolation, we couldn’t find God.

So now we come with outstretched arms, open hands, shouting “Christmas gift!” at first light. We come to Him, to his place, in our need. What will it be? Money? Restored relationships? A new job? Mental, physical, emotional healing? Guidance out of the dark? Restored self-confidence? A fresh infusion of faith?

And then we feel. We smell. We squint to see. We hear its cooing. It is a Babe.

Wonder and warmth awaken the heart of us. Linen cloth enwraps our wounds. A Star lights our center and shines all around. We know who we are, whose we are, and who stands near. And in the touching, time is stilled. Hope is stirred. Spirits sing with angels in the sky, and we dance with Papa, and Mama, and little baby. And the animals around us know it too….

We have been healed for Christmas.

Thanks be to God for the unspeakable gift.