31 October 2015

The Wise and Foolish Virgins: Soon!

Matthew 25:1-13

Soon, soon!
The bridegroom comes soon!
Grab your lamps,
and leave the oil!
Late is the hour,
the night is short -
he will come any moment,

Small is your faith
for expecting delay;
a dim light beside
my passionate flame.
Why bring your oil
as though he were far away?
Why settle to wait
when he's at the door?

Soon, soon!
The bridegroom comes soon!
Grab your lamps
and bring your oil!
For who knows the hour?
The night is long.
He will come any moment,
be patient!

Great is your faith,
until faced with delay;
time may soon quench
your fast-burning flame,
while I glow slow and steady
all through the night,
and have my light ready
when he's at the door.

Soon, soon!
The bridegroom comes soon!
Any moment - now
or in a thousand years.
Are you prepared
to receive him this moment?
Are you prepared
for a long, weary wait?
Will your faith sustain you
even in the delay?
Are you ready this moment -
are you ready to wait?


[Summer 2015]

I understand the parable of the wise and foolish virgins to be about being prepared for the long haul. In the chapters about his return (Mt 24-25) Jesus emphasises that we have to be ready at all times because we do not know when exactly he will come. He may come any moment, and he wants to find us active, at work, prepared, doing what he commanded us to do (Mt 24:45-46).

Most early Christians firmly believed that Jesus would come again in their own generation - so much so that when Christians started dying before his second coming, Paul had to give some explanations (1 Thess 4:13-18). I believe it is completely correct for people to expect Jesus to come again in their lifetime, in every generation - because Jesus may come any moment! We should be prepared for him to come right now, this very minute. (Not in the sense of doomsday predictions though - Jesus coming is joy and renewal, not destruction and doom. It's a wedding feast we're talking about here, not some looming threat!)

And yet the danger with such thinking (which was also felt in the early church) is that we might lose hope and faith once we have to wait longer than we expected. The church has been waiting almost 2000 years for Jesus to return! Jesus spoke of his second coming as though it was right around the corner - and yet we have been waiting for quite a while! And maybe he'll come tomorrow, and maybe we'll have to wait quite a while longer!

So what I believe Jesus is saying in this parable is that we need to have the faith not just for the short term, but for the long haul - to not lose faith in his promises even if they are not fulfilled within the time we'd like them to or expect them to. We need the faith to endure the waiting time, however short or long it is, so that whether he comes right now or only in a long time, we'll be prepared - like the wise virgins who brought their oil.

Picture by William Blake

30 October 2015

Jehoshebah: Not My Fate

"...visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation." (Numbers 14:18)

2. Chronicles 22:10-12

Violence courses through my blood;
a curse runs in this family:
doomed we are to cruelty
    - can't help it.

a good man made a bad mistake,
and now we are cursed,
now David is fated
to spill David's blood,
and history repeats itself
over and over again
   - can't help it.

Generation to generation
the curse flows on;
violence courses through our blood,
drowning the promise,
strangling the blessing
that God said was ours.
A curse runs in this family
and can't be stopped
   - can't help it.

Or can we?

What if I rise and stem this flood?
What if I counter this violence with peace?
What if I refuse to be controlled by this curse?
What if I say this is not my fate?

There is no curse
except of our own making.
Nothing holds us back
from being free.
So I will rise and save a life;
I will rise, and bring violence to an end.
I will rise and break free from this curse
which was never imprisoning me.


[26. October 2015]

I'm currently working in a church with some "charismatic" tendencies - so the concept of "generational curse" has come up in a few conversations. I think the "generational curse" idea can be interpreted in a very problematic and unbiblical way (e.g. the idea bases mostly on a misinterpretation of Num 14:18 which I quoted at the start) - though I don't think it's an idea only charismatics have, nor is it completely totally "wrong" if looked at the right way.

The way I see it (and from what I have read in the Bible), the sins or mistakes of one generation can influence future generations: what we do and how we live influences how our children grow up, the example they learn from and copy, and the patterns which they take over. However, if we talk about it as a "curse", it can very quickly turn into "I can't help it; I'm trapped". And I don't believe that. We are not trapped in the bad habits and patterns we grew up in and grew into. We don't have to repeat history.

Jehoshebah was born into a very violent family. It all began with her grandfather Jehoshaphat's mistake. Jehoshaphat was a very good king who made important reforms in Judah and led people back to God by sending out teachers among them and even travelling the country to teach them himself. His mistake was connecting his family to the family of Ahab. He himself did not have to suffer many consequences for this - his family did. I do not see this as "God's punishment on future generations" - I see this as the natural consequences. Our actions affect others, they can affect generations after us. (E.g. the damage we do to the environment now will affect future generations.) God's punishment is in the sense that he allows this to happen. The trouble is that we "pass on" our sins; children learn from their parents and repeat things. This is not about "inheritance" as much as about learning and copying.

The consequences of Jehoshaphat's wrong choice played out in the second generation: his son Jehoram (Jehoshebah's father) killed all his brothers to ensure power for himself (that's why "David is fated / to spill David's blood"). His son Ahaziah was also not a good king. After Ahaziah's death, his mother Athaliah started killing all her grandchildren. Her grandchildren! I can't imagine how she could do that! So as you can see: a violent family, killing each other off for power.

I think saying something is a "curse" is a bad excuse. Of course our parents, our pasts, our experiences mark us and influence us and can to an extent also bind us powerfully to unhealthy patterns of thinking and living. But I don't believe we are "imprisoned" in a "can't help it" situation. The mistakes of the past don't have to be repeated. The curse can be broken when we realise it's not there. No one is "cursed" in the sense that they are "fated" to be some way. David's family had a promise and a blessing upon it - and through all the killing (over 3 generations, only 1 child per generation survived!) God always made sure that promise lived on: the promise of the Messiah from the family of David. But those involved seem to have seen the curse more than the blessing - and that made them stay stuck in the curse.

I believe we can be free, if only we realise we already are. No one forces us to repeat the mistakes of previous generations. Someone just has to break the pattern - and Jehoshebah did, by standing up and saving the life of her nephew, Joash, instead of letting Athaliah kill him with all his brothers. We are not "cursed" or "fated" to anything; it's our choices that matter, and we can always choose to break with the mistakes of the past and start something new.

14 October 2015

Christine Daaé: Open-Eyed

They say
that Beauty once redeemed the Beast,
that love can heal
what was marred by hate
- why me?

Am I the lamb of sacrifice,
to quell your anger
and save those I love,
to give myself
to save your soul?
Must I be damned
whatever I do?

I can only redeem you
by damning myself
forever to look
upon this monstrous face,
forever to belong
to what I cannot love,
in living hell.

And yet -
is this face
who you truly are,
or are you what you are
because of your face?
Are you a monster
or is the monster what they made
by their fear
and by their hate?

As I recoil,
repulsed by what I see,
as I turn away in horror,
and disgust tells me to flee -
am I not becoming
one of the many
who made a monster
out of a man?

Not my imprisonment
will set you free,
not a forced 'yes'
twisted from me -

Only love,
that looks upon the monster
but sees a man,
that looks upon evil
but sees good -
only love.


[January 2014]

Inspired by "The Phantom of the Opera". I recently watched the 1925 silent film version, and listened to the musical again, and that made me think.
If you don't know the story... whoops. (Because this is all spoilers.)

This poem is based in particular on the part where Erik, the phantom, places Christine before a choice: she can refuse Erik and Raoul, the man she loves, will die - or she can become Erik's wife and Raoul goes free. As Raoul says in the musical: "Either way you choose, he has to win."

I had to think of how "The Phantom of the Opera" is a kind of 'Beauty and the Beast' story - except when you think of Beauty and the Beast, the beast was someone turned into a monster so that his inner ugliness would be visible on the outside. Is it the same with Erik? Erik has been ostracised for most of his life because his face was so ugly even his mother wouldn't kiss it. His outer ugliness led to inner ugliness - he became a killer, but could it have all been different, if people had shown him love? I think this is a challenge for us: where do we treat people differently just because of how they look, where do we, by our actions and words, turn people into monsters?

I only thought of "open-eyed" when I got to the end. We often speak of love being "blind". But shouldn't true love be open-eyed? Isn't true love about seeing all the bad there is to a person, all the ugliness, not ignoring it, and loving that person all the same? Not meaning one excuses the evil that person has done - but loving him despite the evil, loving away the evil.

I feel that is the kind of love God has towards us - and so for me this is also a "spiritual" poem. Writing this I had to think of how God has loved us, selflessly, unconditionally and freely (He never had to), and despite all the evil and ugliness there is in us. It also made me think of the Christian responsibility to do to others as God has done to us - to love the unlovable, to kiss the Phantom.

Picture is from the 1925 silent film.

13 October 2015

David's Concubine: False Victory

2 Samuel 16:20-22

Ahithophel said to Absalom, "Go in to your father’s concubines, the ones he has left to look after the house; and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself odious to your father, and the hands of all who are with you will be strengthened." (2. Samuel 16:21)

You stand before me.
I know what you want.
I know what you will do to me.
Conquer me, and you conquer your father.
Take me, and you bring him shame.
Take me, and you prove your power,
seal your victory.

You stand before me.
I know what you want.
But pity fills me, not fear.
Can you overcome your father
by repeating his mistakes?
Do you think you'll avenge your sister
by inflicting on me her shame?
Will you truly reach your goals
or fall lower than before?

You stand before me.
You think this will make you a man.
You think this will make you a king.
You think this will prove
your power and authority.
You stand before me
but all I see
is a scarred little boy
afraid and insecure.

You stand before me.
I know what you will do to me.
You will shame me and hurt me
but greater will be
the harm and the shame
that you bring upon yourself.


[13. October 2015]

When Absalom came to power - managing to put his father David to flight and take over Jerusalem - one of the things he did was sleep with David's concubines. From a modern Western perspective that might seem odd behaviour - back then it was a demonstration of power. By stealing David's concubines, Absalom showed publicly that he was more powerful. Also, remember ancient Israel was a shame culture: what Absalom did put David quite deeply to shame. It was a quite personal attack.

When I think of this story, I always think of how God told David it would happen. It was all part of the consequences of David's fling with Bathsheba:
Thus says the LORD: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before you reyes, and give them to your neighbour, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun. (2 Samuel 12:11-12)
I don't view these things as "punishment" in the sense of some external thing that God causes; I see it more as consequences that flow from sinful actions. Often the way God punishes, I believe, is that He does not protect us from the consequences of our own actions. David took Bathsheba - after that, things started going crazy in his family with David's son Amnon raping his half-sister Thamar (2 Sam 13) and then Absalom's uprising (starting with his revenge against Amnon) .

David's family started falling apart as a consequence of what he did with Bathsheba (adultery and rape - no good example). All these happenings would have had effects on Absalom as he grew up. First the story with Bathsheba, then Absalom's sister being tricked and raped by her own half-brother, then David's failure to react properly to the situation.

But is what Absalom does really the solution? Isn't he just continuing the cycle? Sure, this was part of David's punishment from God (i.e. he deserved it), but what does this do for Absalom? Does such a display of power reallly give him what he needs, does it give him satisfaction? I imagine Absalom as being lost and disappointed after all the things that went wrong in David's family. But his disappointment won't be remedied by his continuing the cycle of sexual violence.

My colleagues must think I'm crazy... today I burst into the office for the second time during my holidays... all I needed was to quickly grab a pen because my head was so full of ideas for this poem and another one, and the office was the nearest place with a pen at that moment! Wrote most of this on the road... while walking...

Picture by Mario Borgoni

07 October 2015

Dinah: Daisy Petals

Genesis 34

you're fifteen
sitting by the roadside
plucking daisies
waiting for love to come along

& there he comes
a man
(the man of your dreams?)
& talks to you nice
than the brothers back home
he talks like you're a woman
not just the baby sister
he talks like you're worth something
not just there to be teased

can you blame me?

i went with him
i thought, why not?
he looked good enough
he seemed kind enough
i wanted to believe him
even when he hurt me
i wanted him to love me
i wanted to be loved

can you blame me?

my brothers didn't
they blamed him
i wish they'd blamed me
i wish they'd listened
to my story
but now
the daisies on the roadside are red
& all my dreams are dead

you're fifteen
sitting by a graveside
plucking daisies
knowing love won't come along
because you're
second-hand goods
because no one listened to you
though they said they were
"only protecting you"
because they killed the only one
who would still take you now


[May 2012]

I left out all capitals and most punctuation to make it really look like a teenager is speaking. I'm even considering removing all apostrophes but maybe that will make it look a bit too atrociously spelled.

Tried to put myself into Dinah's head. Teenage girls waiting for love and curious about it can easily fall into the wrong kind of romance.

Another Dinah poem: "Stop Me"

Picture by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

03 October 2015

Miriam: Let My Words Paint A Picture

Exodus 15:1-21

"Poetry seduces you and entices you into being a searcher for the Mystery yourself. It creates the heart leap, the gasp of breath, inspiring you to go further and deeper; you want to fill in the blanks for yourself." (Richard Rohr)

How can I speak, o Lord,
of the wonders You have done to me?
How can I describe
this feeling welling up in me?
How can I put into words
the depth of Your marvellous Mystery?
No words can contain

How can I define You,
the Undefinable?
How can I explain You,
the One who surpasses
all I can think or imagine?
No teaching can encompass You,
no doctrine enclose Your Fullness.
No words can contain

So I will reach for my timbrel,
I will sing, I will dance,
I will pour out my heart,
what I have seen
                                  looked at
what You have done in my life.
My little words will only
touch the hem of your mantle -
but that is enough.

Unbounded God,
let my little words,
my little song,
point the peoples beyond,
to hunger for you -
let them lift high the gates
and throw wide the doors,
welcoming You in.

You peoples,
ask me about my God,
and I will tell you a story
and I will sing you a song,
I will take my words
and paint you a picture,
drawing you in
to look more closely,
to seek and to find,
to ask and to knock
to taste and to see
the One Who Is.


[2.-3. October 2015]

Here's what I do when I should be preparing a sermon...

This meditation from Richard Rohr (about poetry and religion) pretty much stands in the background of this... (I highly recommend you read it!) I was reading the meditation and somehow had to think of Miriam, who proclaimed God's actions at the crossing of the Red Sea through song and poetry!

There's quite a bunch of references that slipped in while I wrote this one (there were more, but some slipped back out in later drafts):
  • Touching the hem of God's mantle - from the story of the woman with issue of blood who touched the hem of Jesus' mantle and was healed (Mk 5:25-34). That's why "it is enough" to just touch the hem with our words: even just knowing a little bit about God (which is all we know now! 1 Cor 13:12) is all right. We don't have to be able to explain God or fit Him into some rational system. We just have to believe.
  • "What I have seen / heard / looked at / touched" (1 John 1:1) - We pass on what we have ourselves experienced with Jesus. I believe the most effective way to tell people about God is not through rational debates or discussions or attempts to explain. Part of what makes God God is that He goes beyond what we can explain and imagine. We can't define God, but we can describe Him, which is why the Bible is full of imagery (God as Shepherd, God as Mother, God as Husband, God as Mother-Hen, God as Fortress...) which I think gives us a far clearer explanation than all our attempts at dogmatic formulations. Even all our dogmatic formulations in the end rely on imagery, poetry and metaphor (Jesus as the Word, God as the Father, ...). We can't make a scientific "rule" or "law" about God or about how salvation works. When we have experienced God, though, and experienced His salvation, we can describe it, and our experience can't be destroyed by any rational answer because no one can deny you your experience.
  • "Lift high the gates" - Psalm 24
  • "I will tell you a story / and I will sing you a song" - this was not really inspired by the Fanny Crosby hymn "Blessèd Assurance", but after I had written those lines I was reminded of it. ^^ I do believe that stories, poetry and art are a more powerful and effective way to bring truth across than rational/logical argumentation. God goes beyond the rational; we can't stick Him in a box! I agree with Richard Rohr (as quoted at the start of the poem) that story/art/poetry is stronger than discourses and treatises in that it points beyond. It does not claim or attempt to give the full answer.
    This other meditation by Fr. Rohr is really good too, about how "myth"/story shows us truth beyond just "facts". I believe nowadays we often wrongly equate "facts" with "truth". Facts are not always true, and truth does not always show itself in "facts" or in things that can be scientifically or rationally proven. Story however opens us up to deeper truths that can't be expressed in any rational system.
  • Ask / seek / knock from Mt 7:7
  • Taste and see (Ps 34:9) - I believe something precious in festivals like Passover or celebrating Communion is that we re-live and experience what God has done in previous generations. God lets Himself be tasted and experienced. I believe all the (rationalistic) debates about Communion and attempts to explain what happens in Communion have distracted from what it actually means and what it does to us. We don't have to explain it - any explanation will not do the moment justice. We need to experience it, because it's all about experience, about being able to taste God, feel God, actually even "chew" God (John 6:54)!
  • "The One Who Is" - Ex 3:14 "I am the I am"

Picture by Anselm Feuerbach

02 October 2015

Salome: Dear Head

Matthew 14:1-12

Other girls
would ask for clothes,
the latest fashion,
pretty little things.
I am not other girls.

Other girls
would ask for riches,
to spend their hearts out
and live comfortably.
I am not other girls.

Other girls
would ask for freedom
to choose the one they love,
a fine, handsome fellow.
I am not other girls.

I ask not for fashion
or glittery glamorous things.
I ask for a head on a plate.
I ask not for money
and limitless spending.
I ask for a head on a plate.
I ask not for love
and a fine, handsome fellow.
I ask for a head on a plate.

And now
as I look into your wide dead eyes
and your blood stains my fingers
and I hear your warning voice no more
I wonder:
was I not like other girls?


[2. June 2013]

This was a five-minute write... though the idea (with the "not other girls") was formed in my head before falling asleep at around 3 a.m. last night... (staying up late can be really inspiring. My parents won't believe me though haha)

Salome is the girl who asked for John the Baptist's head. There are all sorts of legends surrounding that (I heard of one where apparently she "liked" him but he didn't like her and her revenge was getting his head.. or something..) but what actually happened is that she followed her mother's orders and got the head for her mother. So it was actually her mother asking for revenge.

At first I was going for a sort of defiant "I am not like that, I'm better and less superficial" thing, but in the end twisted it around to her becoming more self-critical, thinking twice about her choices. Sometimes doing something that seems brave / unusual / "badass" doesn't really bring you anything. Salome could have asked for anything - but she asked for a head. What do you want to do with a head?? Not to mention it's sort of disgusting.
Right now I'm picturing her bringing said head into a nice pink frilly lacy princess room. Uargh what a contrast!

The "sister poem" to this one is Herodias.

Picture by Gustave Moreau

01 October 2015

Herodias: Who Are You?

Matthew 14:1-12

Who are you
to tell me what to do?
Who are you
to interfere?
Who are you
to think you know better,
to think you can save me,
to think I'd ever change my ways?

You say repent -
I won't.
You say God cares -
I don't.
You say it's a warning -
I'm warning you.
You have a big mouth -
I'll silence it.
See what your God does now.

Who are you
to think you can stop God
by silencing voices you do not like?
Who are you
to think you know better
than the One who made you
for better things than this?
Who are you
to think your choices right,
blind to the fact
that they're destroying you,
defacing what God meant you to be?
Who are you
to turn your back
and reject the One who loves you?

Don't you see
what you view as attack
is Love reaching out
and calling you back?


[2. June 2013]

Herodias was Herod's wife - actually his brother's. John the Baptist criticised that fact - and in revenge she asked (via her daughter Salome) to have him executed.

Another 5-min thing (yes I write my poems quick... if they suck, you know why now)
The thing with writing in one go is that I go through a thought-process while writing.

So, the thought-process went something like this:
  • I put myself into Herodias' head. What's her reaction to John's criticism? "Who do you think you are?!" So I wrote a little rant for her.
  • Then thought that is quite the type of rant many people might feel like making when someone criticises their lifestyle. And they'll probably think they are completely in the right for thinking that way.
  • I didn't want to leave the rant standing just like that, so I added a change of p.o.v. (sort of God's view), picking up the "Who are you" from the first part to sort of "mirror" it.
  • I was thinking too: doesn't it make sense to respond with anger and frustration if someone attacks your lifestyle? But then I realised: God knows better. Who are we to whine about what God says is right? He knows better. And since I have been reading a lot of stuff about Creation and God's purpose for man (being in God's image and all), and how that was ruined by the Fall, I put a bit of that in.
  • We might feel upset or attacked when someone criticises us. People easily get wounded about such things. And I think that's understandable. But we need to differenciate between attack and compassion. Some people really do simply attack and hurt for the sake of being nasty. But others genuinely want to help because they care for "your soul", as one can put it. God cares for us, all of us, that is what I know. So if there is something the Bible says we must change, then we shouldn't try to twist that away, or get frustrated against God or against Christians, but realise that God knows best what is good for us, and His will is love and not oppression.
See, I also learn while writing a poem. :-D

Picture by Mattia Preti.