National Poetry Month, James Weldon Johnson’s, The Creation (1927)

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I inherited my grandparent’s library. Many of the books have their signatures and a date and in a few volumes one has gifted it to the other with “Love, Eli” or “Love, Lorraine.” I cherish these.

Every once in a while when I am looking for something to read or rearranging shelves aIMG_5087 title strikes me that I missed or hadn’t felt a pull to in the past. As I looked for something to end National Poetry Month I found this book and a piece that made me pause. I read it all the way through and frankly was sobbing at the end.

In the Hebrew Bible, I love the first chapter of Genesis and the way God is described making the world. Johnson takes those first verses and amplifies the personification of God, of God’s love for his Creation and the care and consideration of what he made and how he exclaimed, “That’s good!”

Johnson’s words affect me specifically because I have always seen Nature as God Incarnate. And in modern America we are killing off Nature, God’s Creation,…well, that’s a post for another time…I am sure these feelings of mine contributed to my reaction.

When you find someone else’s words that speak so deeply and directly to you it is a joy. This is long. Skim if you want, but it’s worth reading all the way through.

 
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The Creation

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!

Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That’s good!

Then God himself stepped down—
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head,
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.

Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas—
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed—
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled—
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.

Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder.

Then God raised his arm and he waved his hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And he said: Bring forth! Bring forth!
And quicker than God could drop his hand,
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said: That’s good!

Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that he had made.
He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon,
And he looked at his little stars;
He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down—
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;

Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen.      Amen.

jwjohnson

To learn more about James Weldon Johnson, you can read his biography at the Poetry Foundation website.

 

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The Book of American Negro Poetry. Edited by James Weldon Johnson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922, 117.

#BloggingTheSpirit

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Connecting Post for #BloggingtheSpirit

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Hello! Welcome to Blogging the Spirit.

Here is the connecting post. You can use the comment section below to submit the url of your offering. And I encourage you to use the hashtag #BloggingTheSpirit on Twitter and Instagram so we can find you, too.

Thank you for participating!

~Laurie

Connecting Post for #BloggingtheSpirit

paradise

 

Hello! Welcome to Blogging the Spirit.

Here is the connecting post. You can use the comment section below to submit the url of your offering. And I encourage you to use the hashtag #BloggingTheSpirit on Twitter and Instagram so we can find you, too.

Thank you for participating!

~Laurie

Connecting Post for #BloggingTheSpirit

paradise

 

Hello! Welcome to Blogging the Spirit.

Here is the connecting post. You can use the comment section below to submit the url of your offering. And I encourage you to use the hashtag #BloggingTheSpirit on Twitter and Instagram so we can find you, too.

Thank you for participating!

~Laurie

The Last Sunday of the Month: Blogging the Spirit

Blogging the Spirit: Adventures in Spirituality on the Last Sunday of the Month

 

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How do you connect to God? Are there practices or pieces of art or music or liturgy that evoke this relationship?

Is there a book or poem that ‘gets you’ every time, or a writer who sparks you in those hard moments?

Do you find this connection through trees, the changing of seasons, the cycle of the moon?

 

In a previous post, I discussed the desire to expand my mostly classic literature blog to reflect the variety of books I read. A brief exchange in the comments regarding religion and spirituality has prompted me to create an informal monthly event shared across social media.


Books, Art, Photography, Music, Poetry, Liturgy, Creativity

Some suggestions: a book review, a personal post on a particular practice, share a photo or piece of art. Is there a word or phrase or passage from your liturgy or spiritual books that you find beautiful? Does a particular melody or a song connect you to God every time you hear it?

If you don’t believe in God or religion but you are inspired by life share, too.

Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, Pagans, Heathens, Druids, Wiccans, Tree-Huggers, Mother Nature Lovers, Those-Inspired-by-Life. Everyone is welcome!

The Mechanics

We can find each other with the hashtag #BloggingTheSpirit to use on Twitter and Instagram and other social media. I will also put up a connecting post on my blog at 12am (PDT) on the last Sunday of the month where you can use the comment section to share the url to your post.

Please share this post on your blog, Instagram, Twitter, wherever you have social media, if you or someone you know is interested.

On the last Sunday of the month:

~post to your blog or wherever you have social media and use the hashtag #BloggingTheSpirit on Twitter or Instagram
~come here for the ‘connecting post’ which will be my only post on that day and share the url to your offering in the comments
~click on various urls that interest you and make connections

See you on September 24th!
~Laurie

Questions: therelevantobscurity@gmail.com

Penguins and Golden Calves, Madeleine L’Engle (1996) #BloggingTheSpirit

An icon should give us glimpses of our God who is both immanent and transcendent, knowable and unknowable. If an icon becomes more important to us than what it reveals of God, then it becomes a golden calf….

 

pengguinsPenguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places describes L’Engle’s trip to Antarctica when she was 74 years old and the encounters she had with the small, crested Rock Hopper Penguins. She uses the image of the golden calf and her experience with the penguins to illustrate the difference between idols and icons. Like the Israelites, who turned the golden calf into idol worship instead of the worship of God, the penguins became to her an icon that opened her up to experience of God; an icon is the window to that connection.

Madeleine L’Engle, who died in 2007, was a well-known believer in Christ, who often ran afoul of ‘establishment’ Christianity by continuing to question and to seek that which made her uncomfortable in her faith. But her nonfiction has always struck a chord in me, as I am attracted to believers of all kinds who struggle to make sense of their tradition and especially, like L’Engle, see a bigger picture. Books like this mirror my own questions and struggles with spirituality, religion and belief.

It is not flippant for me to say that a penguin is an icon for me, because the penguin invited me to look through its odd little self and on to a God who demands of us that we be vulnerable…Whatever is an open door to God is, for me, an icon.

Because L’Engle uses penguins (penguins?!) as an icon to God, I was intrigued from the beginning and it articulated for me why I find it so easy to connect to God in nature and not in a building. I am never so connected to the experience, love and beauty of the Creator than when I am walking the bluffs overlooking the ocean, hiking the trails of the nearby mountains or when watching a lizard slither across a huge rock in the desert.

There are parts of liturgical services that in the words and rituals, I do see beauty and sincerity. I love getting caught up in words, in turns of phrase, of ideas written just so. And in a moment of public prayer or thanksgiving, I am often caught up in a sea of emotions. But once I leave the building, they are gone. And once I glimpse a hummingbird flitting over a flower or a flock of birds in v-formation it is only then that I can sincerely praise God.

I think we have totally complicated God and what it means to worship. The first thing God did, according to the Bible, was to create the world. Pagans stopped there, while the rest went on to create golden calves, complicated and alienating ways of worship, erecting walls of concrete to hold services, and sadly, making theologies with a total disregard for the Creator’s creation. How ironic!

So, even if we understand that praying through icons is not idolatry, why do we mortals need icons? Icons are not adequate, nor are sunset and moonrise and star-filled skies, though they are icons of God’s creation. Perhaps we need icons because of the very inadequacy of our ability to understand God….

______________________

My Edition
Title: Penguins and Golden Calves
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Publisher: WaterBrook Press
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2003
Pages: 271
Plot summary

#BloggingTheSpirit

The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare (1961)

My Edition:bronzebow
Title: The Bronze Bow
Author: Elizabeth George Speare
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1961
Pages: 254
Plot summary

 

“—He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.”

 

When I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond last year, Elizabeth George Speare drew me into 17th century colonial Connecticut by her attention to historical detail and engaging writing style. I would say Speare surpassed herself in The Bronze Bow set during the time of Jesus in 1st century Palestine. This is the story of tormented Daniel bar Jamin, a young renegade blacksmith whose hatred for the Roman occupation of his ancestral land fuels his every waking moment. Sold to an abusive blacksmith at age 13 when there wasn’t enough food for the family, he fled to the mountains above his town 5 years later and joined a group of like-minded warriors. He is now 18 and he and the other young men are restless to fight, but the leader of the group, Rosh, keeps putting them off sending them out only to raid the fields of their Jewish neighbors telling the young fighters they need to gather more men before they can take action against the Romans.

When word comes to Daniel that his grandmother is dying leaving his sister alone, he puts his warrior plans on hold and moves back into the city to take care of Leah. It has been five years since Daniel saw his sister and grandmother. When he knocks on the door Leah is cowering in a corner and he realizes at 15, she is still traumatized over the unbearable experience of watching their father die by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. Daniel’s mother stayed with him on the hill and later died of exposure. Five-year old Leah escaped from a neighbor’s house and was found at the crosses for an undetermined length of time. But it was long enough to give her nightmares and a fear of all people.

The town’s blacksmith Simon, called the Zealot, tells Daniel he wants to leave his business and follow a new preacher named Jesus. He is not sure how long he will be gone, but tells Daniel he can use his shop, the tools and materials as his own and move into the house connected to it. After much persuasion and the kindness of neighbors who build her a litter, Leah is carried like a queen to her new home. Daniel attracts a wide clientele with the skills he perfected on the mountain and is able to provide good food and clothing for Leah for the first time in her life. He also begins recruiting a band of youth who are itching to fight the Romans who he hopes will strengthen Rosh’s group.

Meanwhile, Daniel has renewed a friendship with a boy he knew from school. When Joel and his sister Malthace hear about the warrior group they, too, want to fight. Boy, girl it doesn’t matter, they all want the Romans out! However, their family is moving to Capernaum and Joel is supposed to go away for rabbinical studies.

It is against this backdrop of violence and hatred that Daniel first hears Jesus speak. He is confused when Jesus addresses the crowd and talks about building the Kingdom of God, which is what he wants, but Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t seem to come with a war, so how would it get built? And Joel is confused because Jesus says things that don’t sound like a rabbi, “He practically said it was alright to eat without washing our hands. Perhaps it’s dangerous to even listen to him. And yet—.”

And yet, against everything Daniel and Joel have lived for, the righteous actions against the oppressor and the righteousness of the Law, they are at once drawn then repelled over and over by what Jesus says. The first crack in Daniel’s emotional armor comes when his friend Simon the Zealot, the former fighter for Israel has decided to give up his shop and everything else about his past life and follow Jesus. He tries to explain to Daniel what has changed, but Daniel is incensed.

“Supposed they put chains on all of you and drag you off to prison.”

“He [Jesus] says that the only chains that matter are fear and hate, because they chain our souls. If we do not hate anyone and do not fear anyone, then we are free.”

In the end, Daniel’s hate could not be sustained…

This novel is so rich in the details of 1st century daily life and Jewish ritual during the time of the Temple. Food, clothing, commerce and the different ways in which people react to the Roman occupation make this novel very realistic. Speare treats the complexity of feelings that Jesus’ words bring to the various characters with depth and honesty as they struggle to make sense of their long-held beliefs.

Speare won the 1962 Newbery Medal for The Bronze Bow, a young adult novel suitable for adults 🙂

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Classic Club, Back to the Classics, Mount TBR

 

#TheLiteraryOthers: Uncovered (2015)

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This is my first post of possibly three for The Literary Others, a month-long reading event in support of LGBT History Month: October 1-31. Hosted by Roof Beam Reader,  you can find posts and reviews of books on Twitter-#theliteraryothers-and at the master list.

My Edition:uncovered
Title: Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home
Author: Leah Lax
Publisher: She Writes Press
Device: Trade Paper
Year: 2015
Pages: 349
For a plot summary

 

My thoughts:

When someone in the LGBT community is struggling with their faith tradition’s acceptance of them, it is easy to ask, “Why do you stay if they can’t accept you and if you can’t accept things the way they are?” The answer is complicated as Leah Lax shows in this spiritual memoir of her life as a Hasidic Jew struggling to do God’s will amidst the inner conflicts that plague her life in this strict Jewish sect.

Lax chose to enter Hasidic Judaism after graduating high school, where unquestioning allegiance to the Law gave no outlet for doubts. The rules governed the minutiae of everyday life, which made it a refuge against her chaotic and disordered childhood. There were no gray areas if uncertainties trickled into her mind. Group think and fear of gossip purged any thoughts of rebellion. When Lax married at 19 she hoped her home and religious convictions would mitigate the loneliness that troubled her since childhood.

She dutifully fulfills the command from her Rebbe to “build an everlasting edifice of a Jewish home and family,” and in a succession of years has 7 children. Her husband, unable to show her affection or take any interest in her, works long hours and then comes home to study his holy books.

Profoundly disappointed that marriage was not the healer she had hoped, she is awakened many nights by panic attacks unable to breathe. To add to the discomfort of these nightly assaults into her subconscious is the confusion that they portray her as a man. Though a gnawing sense that her decision to enter this marriage is fraying around the edges, she continues to stay and raise up her children as models of the tradition.

It is only after she hears of the suicide of a young yeshiva boy, who she believes jumped off the roof because he couldn’t live with the knowledge that he was gay, does Lax allow the questions about her own sexuality and doubts about her faith to rise up. Still, she “holds on for the kids” and it is several years before she can truly break free and live an open life.

It is easy to assume someone in the LGBT community should just leave a religion that doesn’t want them and can’t accept their sexual orientation. Yet, Lax shows us how seriously any deeply committed person of faith takes their religion. Because if you truly believe this faith tradition is God’s will for your life, you fight with everything inside you to stay, no matter the questions, the doubts, the personal toll. As long as you can find answers to your questions of confusion, discomfort and disappointment, you will sublimate or ignore even the most deep innate feelings you know about yourself. But once those answers are not good enough and stop making sense, the chinks become cracks, become wide open routes that show you the way out.

I found this book so compelling in its openness and honesty that I read it straight through. I appreciated Lax’s attention to the details of her inner and outer life that reflected her conflicts as a lesbian living as a married Hasidic Jew, how she tried to reconcile those very different things, how she tried so very hard to make it work and then ultimately why she couldn’t.

The book ends with a description of her successful life on the outside as a writer, dog lover and with the new home she has created with her partner. Her children have accepted her new life and she says they were not surprised when she came out to them.

And I was finally able to breathe!

 

Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by the Message, Susan Bailey (2016)

My Edition:lmaliiuminated
Title: Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by the Message
Author: Compiled and Introduced by Susan Bailey
Publisher: Acta Publications
Device: Paper book
Year: 2016
Pages: 121

“That’s the right spirit, my dear; a kiss for a blow is always best, though it’s not very easy to give it sometimes,” said her mother with the air one who had learned the difference between preaching and practicing.

Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere?

 

Literary Portals to Prayer is a series of books by Acta Publications that takes passages from the works of a classic author and pairs them with excerpts from the Message translation of the Bible.

Louisa May Alcott, Illuminated by the Message is one of the latest offerings. It is compiled by Susan Bailey, whose research on the Alcott family is well-known. The book is laid out with a selection from one of  Alcott’s works on the left side and a passage from the Message Bible on the right. Like a devotional or book of prayer, it can be used as a means for contemplation or meditation. The modern English translation of the Message is a perfect complement to Alcott’s down to earth writing style.

My particular spirituality is an eclectic mix and my heart is always open to sources that give me a glimpse of God. Many of the passages in this small, yet powerful book touched me. Of the many, I chose two:

CONCORD, Thursday,—I had an early run in the woods before the dew was off the grass. The moss was like velvet, and as I ran under the arches of yellow and red leaves I sang for joy, my heart was so bright and the world so beautiful. I stopped at the end of the walk and saw the sunshine out over the wide “Virginia meadows.”

It seemed like going through a dark life or grave into heaven beyond. A very strange and solemn feeling came over me as I stood there, with no sound but the rustle of of the pines, no one near me, and the sun so glorious, as for me alone. It seemed as if I felt God as I never did before, and I prayed in my heart that I might keep that happy sense of nearness all my life. Louisa May Alcott, chapter 3, Fruitlands

But even there, if you seek GOD, your God, you’ll be able to find him if you’re serious, looking for him with your whole heart and soul. When troubles come and all these awful things happen to you, in future days you will come back to GOD, your God, and listen obediently to what he says. GOD, your God, is above all a compassionate God. In the end he will not abandon you, he won’t bring you to ruin, he won’t forget the covenant with your ancestors which he swore to them. Deuteronomy 4:29-31

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It was well for all that this peaceful time was given them as preparation for the sad hours to come; for by-and-by, Beth said the needle was “so heavy,” and put it down forever; talking wearied her, faces troubled her, pain claimed her for its own, and her tranquil spirit was sorrowfully perturbed by the ills that vexed her feeble flesh….With the wreck of her frail body, Beth’s soul grew strong; and though she said little, those about her felt that she was ready, saw that the first pilgrim called was likewise the fittest, and waited with her on the shore, trying to see the Shining ones coming to receive her when she crossed the river. Little Women, chapter 40, The Valley of the Shadow

Bless our God, O peoples!
Give him a thunderous welcome!
Didn’t he set us on the road to life?
Didn’t he keep us out of the ditch?
He trained us first,
passed us like silver through refining fires,
Brought us into hardscabble country,
pushed us to our very limit,
Road-tested us inside and out,
took us to hell and back;
Finally he brought us
to this well-watered place.

Psalm 66:8-12

 

I was given this copy in exchange for an honest review.