January 27, 2019 Doug Norris
I found a little booklet. I have been sifting through my office, several decades of accumulation. Photos from youth group retreats when I was young and had the energy for that kind of thing. More hair, more teeth. The bobble-head Jesus Erik Mathiesen gave me when I started working here. (Very United Church – he just sort of nods, ‘maybe, maybe…’). My theology diploma, so brittle now it cracked in half. The universe is revoking my ordination….
And this little booklet. I remember buying it – I bought three copies in 1986, it’s called Strength For Today. Just a dozen or so pages, it fits in a pocket, a kind of ‘greatest hits’ of comforting biblical passages. Some Psalms, words of Jesus, some bits from Paul.
I was pretty sure that I would not always, or perhaps would rarely have words of my own to say in tragic or complicated situations, so I kept this on my desk and could quickly place it in my jacket pocket if I was on my way way somewhere. Psalm 139, words of dislocation : If I rise on the wings of the morning and settle on the farthest side of the sea, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand will hold me fast. Even there, even there. (Even here…) Psalm 46 ‘Though the earth shakes and the seas roar and foam, God is with us, therefore we will not be afraid…’
I lost it for a time, couldn’t find any of the copies. Turned out there was eventually a hole in the lining of my jacket where I tucked this booklet, and it had gone inside, slid down to the bottom hem of the jacket. I felt something odd in the jacket a long time later, went fishing in there, found the booklet. And a glove I’d been looking for, some old tissues… For all I know, Jimmy Hoffa and Elvis are still down there somewhere…
In a hospital one evening a lovely older lady asked me, would I please tell her the 23rd Psalm. And I felt a moment of panic because unlike most of the prior generations of clergy, I had never learned Psalm 23 by heart. It just wasn’t a thing we did. She clearly had, and was ready to recite it with me. Fortunately I had my little book with me, so I started in. ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall lack for nothing…’ A little furrow on her brow. I carried on, she was not pleased, turns out my little book is a more modern translation. She dismissed me somewhat curtly, hoping, perhaps, a more authentic clergy might come along another time.
In more recent years, in addition to these biblical passages, I’ve become a collector of little bits of poetry. I’m no scholar, I don’t memorize and recite these. More like a raccoon, finding a few shiny bits and bringing them back to the nest for later.
I just find a sentence here and a sentence there and I jot them in my journal, I can go back and find them when I need a good word, a hopeful word. These are the likes of Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab-Nye, Thomas Merton, Kahlil Gibran, Annie Dillard…
Here is a possibility. Part of this ‘following of Jesus’ business. That we become like a very small library. That we know some words that can hold ‘The Word’. Just enough of them to make our way. So when we are unsure, we reach not for guesses and inventions but for some wisdom, from a poet, a prophet, a guide. Light from the heart of the universe.
(Wendell Berry) “This shadowed passage between door and door is half-lit by old words we’ve heard or read…” I have developed only a few very simple rules for my collection.
If some words are going to have a place, they need to carry some authority. And this comes in one of two ways. Used to be the Bible was the sole and undisputed authority, and it was, and among some folks, still is, indisputable and not to be questioned, or added to. But I find other voices carry authority, for example when Nelson Mandela spoke, you paused to listen because the earned authority conferred by decades of suffering mean that something worth hearing is about to follow and you may find a word to hold to and to tuck away. “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
When Jean Vanier speaks he carries, before he even says a word, the authority earned in a lifetime of human service, you’re going to hear something full of life, you know this before you hear it. “My people are those who are written in my flesh…I cannot be a universal brother unless I first love my people…”
There is a second kind of authority, which comes not from the speaker but from the intrinsic character of the words themselves. Sometimes you hear a word and you know without question that this has arisen out of the great flowing wind and fire of life itself. Whoever said it, and they may be little known, has clearly touched the fire, the breath, the voltage that moves through everything and has uttered a part of it. ‘I see trouble, I see beauty, and that far, wandering star still calls us on…’ Carolyn McDade. “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.” (Naomi Shibab-Nye)
You will no doubt recognise this very classic gospel text, John chapter 1, written perhaps as much as a hundred years after Jesus lived, and the understanding of who he was had developed into deep philosophical paths : “In the beginning was The Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” In Greek – ‘Word’, Logos, was the force, the principle at the centre of everything. Jesus had grown to embody this. In him was fire, the breath, the voltage that moves through everything.
But before he was The Word, he was words, and he was a small library of things he knew. From the prophets who had gone before him. The Spirit of God is upon me! Has anointed me! To bring good news to the poor. To bind up the broken hearted. Sight for the blind. Today this begins among us…
Deep in our hearts there is a commion vision…