Sitting Beneath the Michigan Tree: Back at the Festival of Faith & Writing

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Kwame Alexander opening the Festival of Faith & Writing

Kwame Alexander, Newberry Award-winning author of The Crossover, looked out across the sea of 2,000 introverts and defied every tenet of writerly reserve. “Say ‘yes,’” he said. Say ‘yes’ to the opportunity, the challenge, even to the indignities of selling your work. There is power in your words.

Kwame has a bus now with a living room and seven flat-screen TVs. His name is scrawled across the side. He got his break taking a hay bale and 100 copies of his book to a farmer’s market in Reston, Virginia. Now he’s traveling the country on a 30-day tour.

His confidence and energy was enough to make even the most reluctant writer stand up and cheer, which we did. Speaking as the opening keynote of the 2018 Festival of Faith and Writing, Alexander said, “I have faith in my writing.”

I needed that.

This is my sixth visit to the FFW. The biennial gathering of authors, publishers, readers, and others never fails to inspire. Even before Kwame took the stage at the Van Noord Arena at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was primed.

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 The Michigan Tree & Me

I was recalling the 2008 session when I first heard Mary Karr talk about the spiritual advisor who asked her, “What would you write if you weren’t afraid?” I walked out of the session, sat under a nearby tree, asked myself the same question, and God spoke. It was the Renaissance of my writing life.

I remembered Gene Luen Yang in 2010 who turned me on to graphic novels like his American Born Chinese, and briefly made me believe I could draw. The poets Mary Szybist and Kimberly Johnson whose shared session in 2014 made me a daily reader of poetry. Franz Wright, Marilynne Robinson, Scott Cairns, Krista Tippett—I met them all here.

So yesterday, I soaked in the vibe, ready to hear God again in these varied artists. I attended a session on editing and learned that the double space after periods is dead. I got to talk with The Atlantic’s Emma Green about reporting from the Holy Land. Jonathan Merritt taught me how to be a blogger, (reminding me of how much he influenced the form of Heartlands). And I cringed at the world of publicity that a panel of writers and publicists opened up.

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Downtown Grand Rapids

I also sat under the tree again—the Michigan Tree as I call it. A scrubby spruce in front of Calvin Seminary. I remembered what I had heard God say, so clearly, before—Be free, tell the truth, don’t do it alone, seek the peace of Szybist. And transgressing propriety, I asked for something more.

The tree is a reliable means of grace and did not disappoint yesterday either. “Travel light,” I heard. “Be less than you think you have to be,” I heard. “Embrace,” I heard.

There is power in words. And beauty. And life.

And God.

Squinting Through This Latent, Bleak Obscurity with Scott Cairns

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photo by Christopher Campbell via Unsplash

“Just now, we squint to see the Image through

this latent, bleak obscurity.  One day, we’ll see the Image—

as Himself—gleaming from each face.

Just now, I puzzle through a range

of incoherencies; but on that day,

the scattered fragments will cohere.”

If you don’t recognize 1 Corinthians 13 in this translation, perhaps that good.  Our hearing of that passage in the context of many a moony marriage ceremony has ruined our ears.  Eros has something to do with God, but Paul was after so much more.

51m8Rds-bhL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The poet Scott Cairns gets that.  He has spent a career exploring the mystical dimensions of love in its human and divine expressions, sometimes in the hideaway Orthodox monasteries that lure adventurous pilgrims and usually in the company of dusty Greek texts.  When he translates the ancients, as he does in the collection Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life[Paraclete Press, 2007], he is dipping his hand into a deep current of faith and prayer.  The result is verse, poetry at its best, that takes texts from Christian history that many consider impenetrable and renders them luminous.

Take this body- and life-affirming fragment from Irenaeus:

“The tender flesh itself

will be found one day

—quite surprisingly—

to be capable of receiving,

and yes, full

capable of embracing

the searing energies of God.

Go figure.  Fear not.” (5)

Or a meditation on ‘His Image Recovered’ by Athanasius:

“Here, belovéd numbskulls, is a little picture: You gather,

one presumes, what must be done when a portrait on a panel

becomes obscured—maybe even lost—to external stain.

The artist does not discard the panel, though the subject must return

to sit for it again, whereupon the likeness is etched once more upon

the same material.  As He tells us in the Gospel, I came

to seek and to save that which was lost—our faces, say.” (15)

But don’t expect all roads to lead to clarity or enlightenment.  Cairns invites us to pause with words as well.  One word he leaves untranslated when it arises—nous.  He explains in the introduction that “it is the center of the human person, where mind and matter meet most profoundly, and where the human person is mystically united to others and to God.” (xiii-xiv)

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Scott Cairns

The nous is the place from which Cairns has been seeking to live and he finds good companions in this volume.  You would expect the passionate, hot-blooded saints like Gregory of Nyssa, Catherine of Siena, Richard Rolle of Hampole, Julian of Norwich, and Thérèse of Lisieux.  But Cairns mines the works of the more cool-headed and detached as well — Basil the Great, Meister Eckhart, and Gertrude of Helfta.  Besides learning some great names, the reader is likely to be seduced into seeking out more from the wealth of Christian tradition.

Love’s Immensity has been sitting with my morning reading for a couple of years now.  I’m returning it to the shelf, but I expect it to be back.  Beauty never really fades from memory.  Nor does true love as Paul would have it:

“In all of this, both now and ever,

faith and hope and love abide, these

sacred three, but the greatest of these (you surely

must have guessed) is love.” (4)

Beloved Numbskulls – Athanasius on Saving Face

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Icon of the Flight into Egypt – via Wikimedia Commons

‘Here, belovéd numbskulls, is a little picture: You gather,

one presumes, what must be done when a portrait on a panel

becomes obscured—maybe even lost—to external stain.

The artist does not discard the panel, though the subject must return

to sit for it again, whereupon the likeness is etched once more upon

the same material.  As He tells us in the Gospel, I came

to seek and to save that which was lost—our faces, say.

St. Athanasius, ‘His Image Recovered,’ translated by Scott Cairns

Shhh!  Do You Taste This in Prayer?

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photo by Tessa Rampersand via Unsplash

I understand the desire to lift up our neighbors in their difficulties in prayer.  In fact, it’s what we’re told to do.  Paul tells the Philippian church to do just this at the close of his letter: ”Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (4:6)

Lately, though, I have come to feel that we do far too much talking in our prayers.  Our sharing of concerns in corporate worship sometimes feels like the old community news column in the paper where the comings and goings of neighbors were reported in great detail.  So much medical information is shared sometimes that the prayers of the people become one long HIPAA violation!  [The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which protects medical privacy, is very familiar to health care professionals.]

So much medical information is shared sometimes that the prayers of the people become one long HIPAA violation!

But it’s really not the content so much as the way we pray…the way I’ve prayed as a worship leader…that is getting my attention.

The 4th century desert mystic, Evagrios of Pontos, called prayer “the ongoing conversation of the human spirit with its God.”  No conversation worthy of its name contains so much one-sided talk as the kind of prayers we send up, both in public and private settings.  If we believe prayer is the kind of encounter that can change us, then there must be space for experiencing the silence that is God’s medium.

51m8Rds-bhL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_We’re uncomfortable with such disengagement.  How long do our silences last these days before we reach for our phones or some other form of distraction?  Evagrios, even out in the Palestinian desert, knew a similar struggle.  “The devils will surely suggest distracting matters, desiring that your mind will search them, and suspecting failure in prayer you will know chagrin, and lose confidence,” he said.

But silence is worth the risk.  Sure, I have run down my to-do list in the silence that was supposed to be prayer.  But God has also spoken powerfully through that silence.

“Practice genuine patience, and your prayer will always taste of joy,” Evagrios says (as translated by the great poet, Scott Cairns, in the book Love’s Immensity).  Unburden your busy mind to the God who listens…then…shhhh!  Can you taste it?