we teeter on the edges of dark
I returned to work from holidays today to find two artifacts in my church mailbox: pair of socks and a book. Church mailboxes can yield the strangest discoveries. I was perplexed by the socks (my kids probably left them somewhere?) and delighted by the book. It was a book of poetry and woodcut prints entitled “Prophet, Priest, and King” and collaboratively produced by Chris Stoffel Overvoorde, an American artist, and Martin Oordt, a poet who taught for years at our local university before passing away in 2011. The book is a series of visual and poetic explorations and snapshots of Old Testament characters who anticipated, imperfectly, haltingly, partially, the final prophet, priest and king, Jesus Christ.
As I was paging through this marvelous little book this morning, my thoughts drifted back and forth between the book itself and the news of the day. Like nearly everyone, I have found it difficult to avoid thinking about last week’s events in Charlottesville. More specifically, I have found it difficult to think and respond well to last week’s events in Charlottesville. How to make sense of the demonic evil of white supremacy? How to process the reappearance of appalling slogans and violent actions and dehumanizing attitudes that we naively thought were safely tucked away in history books? How to respond well in the maelstrom of online outrage that we seem to demand of one another, when we are all carefully policing our neighbour’s responses, whether our words and tweets and status updates name things accurately enough, whether they are delivered forcefully enough or quickly enough or angrily enough? How do we respond with wisdom and fidelity to Christ and his kingdom, to Jesus and his way, when our modes of discourse seem to squeeze everything through the narrow gate of doing our good deeds to be seen by others, when we always seem to be either trying to convince ourselves of our congratulate ourselves for our moral probity?
I was thinking on these things as I turned the page in my new book to the entry on King Solomon. The passage the image (above) and poem was based on was 1 Kings 3 where God visits the king in a dream. “What should I give you?” God asks. Solomon famously responds, “Give your servant an understanding mind, able to discern between good and evil.” A good response, that one. An understanding and discerning mind is a desperately necessary thing. Maybe the most necessary thing. The world was and is a messy and violent place. Human beings are conflicted and incorrigibly selfish creatures. Evil masquerades as good. Good ends resorts to evil means. The right responses lead to unanticipated outcomes. Silence isn’t always golden. Understanding and discerning are thorny tasks. It has ever been thus.
As I was pondering Charlottesville and Solomon’s dream and this screwed up world in which we’re trying to understand and make our way, I was struck by a stanza in Martin Oordt’s poem opposite the image of Solomon:
Balance walks in God’s natural house,
but we teeter on the edges of dark
afraid of tripping onto four legs
and need to call for help to rise.
It’s a risky thing for non-poets like me to attempt an interpretation of poetry. But Oordt’s words seemed to me to express deep and important truths. And they speak to the events that we have seen over the past week which are, of course, nothing more or less than an expression of the deep darkness that resides within the human heart (not just the hearts of our enemies). A few lines, then, that are guiding me as I reflect upon how to live, think, and speak well in these troubled times.
but we teeter on the edges of dark… We lust for power, we crave violence, we cling to privilege and seek always to extend it. We don’t learn from the past. We recycle the sins of history. We are afraid of what we can’t (or won’t) understand and we rage against what we perceive as a threat.
afraid of tripping onto four legs… We flatter ourselves to imagine that we are enlightened creatures of reason and compassion. We are instinctual, reactive animals. This is how we often behave, at any rate. We are always tripping onto our four legs.
and need to call for help to rise… We need God. We can’t do what needs doing on our own. We need to be called to higher and better and truer things. We are incapable of rising—truly rising, rather than just recycling hatred, ignorance, and vengeance and dressing it up as virtue—on our own. We need the Crucified One to judge and heal us, lead and deliver us, teach and forgive us. We need the Shepherd King to turn us from our madness and to save us.
Here is the full poem by Martin Oordt. It’s entitled “Solomon’s Search”:
All hours of sun are counted as light
in the turning of each flower;
the moon reflects its light in the dark
as slow motions of flowers seek rest.
Sea waves lift and slide
touch persuasion of moons;
planets move in silent tunes
as stars shine in full harmony.
Balance walks in God’s natural house,
but we teeter on the edges of dark
afraid of tripping onto four legs
and need to call for help to rise.
It takes pure white found in lilies
mixed with red of innocent children
shot through with green and gold
to learn how to stand in our night.
My gold chains cannot prevent lions
or our anger from splitting beams;
we must listen to songs heard only in dew
to break our chains one sun morning.
Hello, Pastor Dueck.
Thanks for the words about the poem –Solomon–by my late husband, Martin Oordt. That poem is one of my favourites and I agree that it speaks strongly to the horror of the events in Charlottesville this weekend. What a great reminder that 1Kings 3 reaches us directly today.
It’s so good to hear from you, Mary. Thank you for taking the time time to comment. I very much wish I would have had the chance to meet your late husband.
Thoughtful poem. Thank you for sharing it.
Now you’ve added another book to my “must-read” list. Thanks for something beautiful in the midst of so much ugliness.
Your post reminds me of a song by The Brilliance, “Will We Ever Rise”. I had to listen to it after reading your post.
You’re welcome to borrow it any time :). And thanks for the song recommendation.
Was never much for poetry but I do remember a young lady over 40 years ago….forgive me I have forgotten her name….once telling me that poetry was essential to her, a life force. I remember being skeptical and probably said something sarcastic that I thought was funny but that was surely unkind….. shoot, I can picture her in my mind as I write but I cannot remember her name…I do remember the gist of response though and it still sticks with me all these years later.
She told me that self expression was different for her then it was for me. I was extroverted and I spoke my mind freely without fear. Not so for her. She was timid and easily intimidated. A stern look from another person was enough to keep her quiet. Poetry was where she spoke freely, without fear. Poetry made sense to her and gave her a voice. Poetry was for people who understood how fragile they and the life around them was.
I’m still not much for poetry. The stuff is often to darn cryptic for me. But if the meek shall inherit the earth, then I suspect more than a few of them will be poets.
Love that last sentence 🙂 .
With regard to Charlottesville, I suspect we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. Violence begets violence and I don’t think I am mistaken to think that more will come. Of course white supremacy is ridiculous and wicked but it is hardly mainstream. It has all the social cache of being a deadbeat father or crack addict. To conflate Trump, the 40 million people who voted for him and the KKK, is absurd and just as hateful as anything David Duke and the like, might say.
Concentration of wealth and power within democracies( elitism) and identity politics of every persuasion are as big a part of the problem as any activity of white supremacist groups.
Tell millions of white americans who have seen real decline in living standards, wealth and opportunity for themselves and their children, that their white privilege is the underlying problem and you invite scorn. It is a contemptible and racist comment and will only move people who know this to be false based on their own experience, to anger.
Whatever the right responses are I remain convinced that Christian voices need to speak clearly about mercy and love for all. Not just one side or the other. If such a climate is not possible, then Christians should stay outside the fray.
Let the godless left battle the godless right.
I’m inclined to agree with parts of your analysis here. But only parts. I think there are certainly all kinds of factors that lead to the scenes we witnessed in Charlottesville last week, including those you cite in your third paragraph. Having said that, when you have people marching with Nazi symbols and chanting explicitly white supremacist slogans (see here, for some chilling evidence), it is more than a little alarming. It is evil, and no matter how much this or that group has been victimized by economic conditions or lack of opportunity or whatever else ought to blunt our willingness to say so.
Yes I agree with the last two sentences you write here wholeheartedly, Ryan.
I have seen what you offer me here and more, both here and now and through my understandings of the history of the civil rights movement but I stand thoroughly convicted that this form of evil is still fringe and it is in no way reflective of mainstream American values.
For those from the democratic left who wish as I would that this enemy be peacefully confronted and at least emasculated if not converted then they have to stop pouring gasoline on fire by conflating all support for Trump as racist, address the failures of the new economic order that has displaced millions from the economic security that their work once earned them and above all put to death the equally heinous practice of identity based, victim politics that has poisoned the well of collective consciousness and fraternity to such a degree that, if we don’t turn back from this false politic, will make us all mistrustful and potential enemies of one another.
To my mind more of a recipe for disaster, due to the pervasiveness of this politic then any, for now at least, fringe white supremacist movement could muster.
I agree, for the most part. The explicitly Nazi, KKK elements are fringe elements, similar to ISIS overseas. But fringe elements can do a lot of damage when the “mainstream” keeps telling itself, “oh, those are just fringe elements…”
Re: pouring gas on the fire. Yes, there is truth in what you say. It does very little good to label broad swaths of society as racist Nazis for casting a vote to Trump, and it unquestionably drives people even further apart, hardening defenses, drawing lines even more firmly, etc. We will, as you say, become even more mistrustful and potentially enemies of one another rather than anything resembling pursuers of a common good.
Nothing new under the sun and the same tired principals of power and greed still control us. As ancient and obtuse as ever, the few control and divide the many. Identity politics has to go. It is what keeps us fighting among ourselves rather then peacefully uniting us. If the many remain peaceful and united, only then will real change leading to better justice come.
We have to stop believing we are left, right, liberal, conservative, republican, democrat, black, white…and every other false identity we foist upon ourselves and others. All of them come from the same Spirit that fuels white supremacy.
He knew us before we were born, he consecrated us, he made us holy. We are loved and loving creations of a holy God. AND EVERY PERSON BORN IS SO ENDOWED.
We are ALL brothers and sisters. WE ALL BELONG TO CHRIST.
Until this understanding is the operating ethos behind our efforts, no grace will come. No blessing will come. No salvation AT ALL, for the many.
Again, your comments ring true on some levels. I share your suspicions re: the limits of identity politics. Screaming at one another for our rights as atomized segments of society hardly seems conducive to anything like the “beloved community” that MLK and others longed for.
Having said that, I’m not sure I would go as far as your last few prescriptive comments. Ideally, yes, we would all realize that we belong to Christ. I’m not convinced that at least some progress isn’t possible absent that recognition on a universal scale. There is common ground that can be shared across worldviews and religious convictions.
Yes, there is common ground and Christ is present in such a way that, If I understand parts of Matthew 25 correctly, His Spirit can be present through works of compassion and charity, even to those who don’t recognize His presence in them.
Of all the world religions that exist I think a true expression of this understanding is found in an honest expression of Bhuddism. The only other expression of a universal collective soul that transcends tribalism (The original identity politic). I think of the Bhudda as a prophet and as important as any in Scripture.
So thank you for the push back. That being said, I have absolutely no confidence whatsoever in the political institutions that make up modern day western civilization. They are the tools of the rich and powerful at the expense of the many. They purposefully pit us one against the other so as maintain their privilege less conspicuously.
Marx had it right about 150 years ago. It is class privilege that is pervasive. All societies, all colors of people throughout history have practiced it. Power and the wealth it affords is the devil that must be confronted, skin pigmentation is irrelevant.
Yes I agree wholeheartedly. It is all about the common good and the ways and means by which we get there. This is where Christians can have a decisive role to play. We can remind, re-offer, a Christian worldview where all are meant to be loved, all are meant to be brothers and sisters, all are meant to be equal. An identity tent big enough for everyone.
I remain convicted however that we must bring this message forward solely under a Christian banner, openly and unashamedly. Without any other affiliation, privilege of power or political position.
Martin Luther King was a saint in my lifetime, I do believe. His ministry the only effect response to the toxic American racial divide. His ministry made the difference. The accomplishments that he shepherded in have been slowly but persistently eroding since his time. The radical difference that his approach had, was based solely on the faith convictions he and those who collaborated and followed him, held.
His work and the work of like minded people is what blessing looks like. There has been nothing like his movement since. The occurrences of good works that periodically occur are solely based on the good intentions of those who undertake them and in a certain sense are to be applauded but they will not provide anything more then a temporary respite from the inevitable violence to come.
Yeah, I think MLK is endlessly quoted and meme-i-fied in these polarized days, but the extent to which his message and his method are inexplicable apart from his Christianity is often misunderstood and misrepresented (or simply ignored).
It occurs to me that if we are to be truly Christian people, in the public square, with any real hope of, “making disciples of all people”, we must confront the heinous prerogatives of an economic system that creates and worships individual wealth and power. We must offer and practice a different economic model based on a true interpretation of the Gospels.
Capitalism as it is presently operated is an affront to the Word of God, the person of God and the peoples of this earth. Even those who think they are profiting by it.
…”even to those who think they are profiting by it”…
For the record I am at a loss to see why there hasn’t been a bi-partisan effort in the US to outlaw hate groups given their threat to national security. Further, without rancor or inflamatory rhetoric that offends the many who voted for the Trump presidency, keep up the pressure, keep to the truth and in so doing force the resignation of the man. He is definitely on the ropes and will hopefully leave office soon.