For Heaven’s Sake

On Trinity Sunday, 2016, I attended a Church in Wales (Anglican) Communion service with my ninety year old father. There were seven in the congregation. The church sanctuary was somewhat unloved. We quite capably sang a few rousing, Victorian hymns without organ, choir or recorded accompaniment.

Before the communion, I had been asked to do the liturgical calendar reading, from Proverbs 8. For some reason, as I read the last few verses I nearly started crying…why would be hard to answer.

Was it the small elderly congregants dogged loyalty? The humble retired bishop leading the service? The presence of my elderly father (and walking stick)?  Or possibly the soul-engaging words of Proverbs 8….?

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St Brynach’s Church, Henry’s Moat, Dyfed, Wales

communion

Purple-robed priest blessed bread and wine:

last supper imitation, six people dined;

all kneeled at a shaky altar rail:

imitated saviour, once pinion nailed.

 

Hymns shakily sung with no organ or choir,

angels seemed absent, no tongues afire;

empty most pews, cobwebbed and dusty,

little heat lacquered the church air musty.

 

My father’s fingers followed the phrases,

his adventurous life has had many phases;

now needing help to stand for prayers,

God-numbered and grey, his significant hair.

 

“I was there when heavens set in place,

before moon was given a reflective face;

when sea was given beach boundary line,

God’s world delighted in made mankind…”

 

Liturgical books to entrance table returned,

snuffed candles, timeless truths relearned;

slowly we exited from typical church-scape:

thirty minutes set aside, for heaven’s sake.

 

Long grass tickle-fringed Victorian graves,

crooked slate stones, carved hopes brave;

hearts and minds blessed, God is still good:

birdsong greeted us, bees sucked blessed buds.

 

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Proverbs 8: 23 

“I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be…”

Goodbye, au revoir, slan

i guess the saddest thing any parent has to do is bury a baby. for me the second saddest thing was for the anticipating sibling to have to experience  grief a such an early age…that was incredibly painful.

i wrote an early version of this poem for the funeral of my daughter, Holly I.M. April 1st, 1994.

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  • Oh, Holly! how hard to cradle
    your dark-haired head,
    your limp-dead body,
    in my useless embrace.
    How could I make your anxious
    eyes respond with a baby smile?

    How could I? How could I?

    Your mouth shaped by mute cry.
    Was that athletic kicking a death wrestle?

    Was it? Was it?

    Empty hours passed,
    this coward’s
courage grew,
    I held your cold, light body.
    I stroked your petal-peeling skin.
    Heavy-hearted I kissed
    your crumpled, frowning forehead –

    once …. just once ….

    “Put these tears in Thy bottle.
Are they not in Thy book?”

    Goodbye, goodbye, au revoir, ‘slán’
    –
little daughter briefly met,
    little Lawrence kissed you
    through ballooned belly.
    O How he happily hugged you.

    Broken-hearted, drowning in grief,
    this our last lingering look 
at you,
    in your padded white ark,
    the lid clicks shut, locked tight.
    We hand-tighten stubborn screws
    we almost snap with grief’s strain.

    Little girl, little known except to God.
    How plain, how lonesome
    your small, white coffin looks,
    flowers forgotten,
    O painful pilgrimage;
    hopeful sojourners, we follow you.

    Oh, Holly – our lifetime compressed:
    death & birth in two traumatic weeks …
    we bury you under flowers
    under the Father’s sentinel gaze.

    I envy Jesus carring you now,
    a loved lamb on shepherd-shoulders.
    I want to hear your girlish giggle,
    I ache to see you daintily dance,
    I long to see you created anew.
    I yearn for resurrection.
    Cast open sorrow-graves:

    “When Jesus comes back,
    she’ll be alive.
    Isn’t that right, Daddy?
    Isn’t it….?
    When is Jesus coming back?
    Tomorrow….??”

    ___________________________________________________

    “He will wipe away all tears from their eyes and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor pain. All that has gone forever”.
    Rev: 21.4

    A video-short about Holly’s life, as seen by her siblings

Summer pastoral scene in rural Russia

To visit Russia was a long-delayed dream come true for me. I had wanted to visit since the mid 1970s. In 2008 I joined a working group, that was to convert an old shed into dormitories for a Christian retreat centre. One of my jobs was to creosote high walls on a rickety wooden ladder. Even though I do not relish heights, I did what I was asked to do. Besides, it gave me a panoramic view of the countryside.

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  • Hesitant, I ascend a home-made wooden ladder,
    creosote log gable ends, spy ship-wrecked shacks,
    marooned in overgrown, tidal grassy plots;
    behind imposing metal gates a hidden harvest:
    profuse produce, fruit & vegetables
    jostle sunflowers flowers for space,
    a passionate palette of cultivated colours.
    In a neighbouring garden, trees shade
    benches & tables, people exchange
    Slavic conversations & picnicked lunch.
    Occasional glances tossed in my direction

    Down car-free, rural Russian country lanes
    children safely cycle, racing each other,
    steering around large, rain-filled potholes.
    Will they later wander hungrily homeward,
    push open squeaky, wooden garden gates,
    welcomed by sour scented, freshly baked bread:
    it’s incense blessing the evening air.

    Beds embrace their sun-warmed, weary limbs,
    adventure-exhausted children slumber,
    observed by kindly Byzantine, iconic angels.
    Heavenly hosts ascend, descend lofty ladders,
    sloppily spilling hope from paint-cans,
    scattering hundredfold signs & wonders:
    gold stars blanket dark, yearning skies,
    drab rural poverty brightened, blessed;
    poignant Byzantine chant thunder-rumbles,
    minor-chord melodies scaffold wondrous words:
    “Behold! I am making all things new!”

    ____________________________________________

    Illustration: KatyaZhu.com

scenes from childhood

this poem attempts to capture an horrific drama in my father’s family, on April 6th 1942. it concerns a murder / suicide involving his ill brother and his distressed father.

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  • did you hold his life so lightly,
    him on whom you used to dote?
    you squeezed so terribly tightly
    on that sick child’s small throat.

    what thin thread finally snapped?
    what evil possessed your soul?
    what had your conscience trapped?
    what vortex filled that gaping hole?

    then you tied the slip-knot rope,
    then you hung the heavy anchor,
    now gone all your fragile hope –
    what caused such rancour?

    did you linger before you leapt?
    did any witness your bitter end?
    were any repentant tears wept?
    did you struggle, or calmly descend?

    my Derby pilgrimage a family first,
    shared, worn graver marker small,
    no longer circumstances cursed,
    no tears, no prayers uttered at all.

    a “missing” cousin found soon after,
    reunited, after sixty eight years:
    relief, followed by shared laughter;
    blessed – those inarticulate tears….

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    For sadness as intended by God produces a repentance that leads to salvation, leaving no regret, but worldly sadness brings about death.     2 Corinthians 7:10

    illustration: KatyaZhu.com

    Same poem in video short with multiple images by Katya Zhu and music by Adrian Snell

An Amateur Plays an Anglican Cathedral Organ

My boarding school music master, Eric de Courcy, had good reason to repeatedly put me in detention. What made that same man, principal organist, trust me me to play on some Saturday afternoons, in Waterford’s Church of Ireland cathedral?

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Stiff the lock, antique the over-sized key,

dwarfed by massive porticoed door;

carved cathedral tombs cooly welcomed me,

lone footsteps echoed on chequered floor.

 

Colourful stained glass saints stoically gazed,

I ascended spiral staircase to play piano tunes

on old pipe organ, ivory keys haltingly praised

an ‘unknown god’, isolated Saturday afternoons.

 

Ravenous teenage heart, refugee with no relief

  • but driven on by spirit of sonic swell,

seeking celestial certainty, Bach’s biblical belief

a shelter “where sheep may safely dwell”.

 

Time halted in that lofty leviathan space,

asthmatic bellows wheezed, symphonic boom

echoed back sloppy timing, adding farce, not grace;

that console kindled hope in God’s engine room.

i’m a pussy-footing Protestant

most Church of Ireland leaders pretty-consistently refuse to engage in contentious cultural issues. the lack of courage and leadership used to make me very frustrated. i wrote this poem when i once believed meaningful mission. although i still attend an Anglican church, i no longer give it any of my hopes, and little of my energy.

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    I’m a pussy-footing Protestant
    I went to Trinity, you know;
    my Bible is the Irish Times,
    I wait patiently for Godot.

    I’m a pussy-footing Protestant,
    my upper lip is stiff you know,
    onward uncertain soldiers,
    – up ascendancy tally ho!

    I’m a pussy-footing Protestant,
    here i sit i can do no other,
    I won’t quote chapter and verse,
    my beliefs firmly undercover.

    I’m a pussy-footing Protestant,
    swallowing camels, straining gnats
    – abortion of unwanted babies,
    won’t Catholics sort out that?

    I’m a pussy-footing Protestant
    and I do not ride a horse,
    my head’s below the parapet
    there’s so little that i endorse.

    I’m a pussy-footing Protestant,
    what do my bishops believe?
    I pray this crucial question –
    should I stay, or should I leave?

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    “here I sit, I can do no other” – a deliberate misquote of Luther’s strident saying: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

    The Dublin working class playwright Brendan Behan, a staunch Irish Republican, saw the Anglo-Irish as Ireland’s leisure class and famously defined an Anglo-Irishman as “a Protestant with a horse”.

I am your Impossible Friend

This poem is almost my life-theme, originally arising from my over-enthusiastic ideas, initially for Russian artist-friend, Katya Zhu. But others have been inflicted with a similar enthusiasm as well. My many (sometimes zany) ideas have got me into (and sometimes out of) tight corners…

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  • i am your impossible friend

    i send you endless ideas,
    many unasked for emails:
    i zealously promote you
    i will just not shut up about your gift
    ….but i will complicate your life no end

    i am your impossible friend

    i tread where angels fear to
    i jump into numerous cow pats –
    (aren’t my clay-feet so stylish?)
    i pray for your best & brightest future
    ….but i will bless your life no end

    i am your impossible friend

    i happily charge into windmills
    passionate pen, or laptop, to hand –
    (occasionally i am a bit sloppy!)
    my intentions not seeking attention

    but bridges might need to mending…

    i am your impossible friend

    how will you handle my intensity?
    are you dazed by my online onslaught?
    do you sometimes sigh with exhaustion?
    will you speak the truth in reply?
    ….scream or smile – just press send

    i am your impossible friend

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    with apologies to Cervantes – ‘Don Quixote’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miguel_de_Cervantes

    Illustration: Katyazhu.com

Valediction for a Valve Radio

  • After the piano, the valve radio was the second most-important audio icon in my childhood home. Though youngest of three boys, i was the first in my family to discover ‘Caroline’ pirate radio, in the mid 60’s.

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    The old radio knob grasped and turned right.
    Mysterious, that emerald lotus-like light
    slowly lit-up: a hum emerged, energy slowly
    unlocked – this audio moment holy:
    dial names held my devotion solely.
    On Tintawn carpet I kneeled in adoration,
    thrilled with discovery of each new station.
    A herringboned tattoo on short trousered knees
    ransomed by pop pirate and Motown melodies.

    Boyish buccaneer pressed ear
    against loudspeaker latticed fabric, not to hear
    plummy parental accents, safe and assured
    but chirpy pirate pop choices: moored
    ships tossed on high seas, lured
    audio-adventures for a wireless “pop picker”.
    Rear slats showed the fallible flicker
    and glow of glass valves, this boy blissed
    when tidal reception returned from maritime mist…

     

Loyalty misplaced

Ironically some Protestant people say they believe the bible’s message of forgiveness. Many of those “men of God” find it hard to live out God’s mercy message…

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Annual anarchy, typical Twelfth news,

very cracked-record, proud sectarian views,

shouting out at sinners, gospel-warped ire,

petrol-soaked pallet towers, Protestant pyres.

 

Why should Queen Elizabeth care

for loyalty misplaced in flags and fanfare?

Not grace-saving blood – just judgement thunder

of marching bands pulling province asunder.

 

O True Blue Unionists! All others are traitors

  • you show spite not spirit – who are the haters,

shouted red-faced spleen and bully-boy bluster?

Embattled and embittered, Calvinistic cluster.

 

Unbiblical, sinful – that sectarian sash,

pagan hatred spat, stoked petrol bombs smash:

murder and mayhem, only God can forgive,

His wheat and weeds wait for sickle and sieve.

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“Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” – 1 Peter 2:10

do not resuscitate

self-doubt is second nature to me, especially at the “midnight hour”. this poem looks at the failures of friendship, the pain of being misunderstood and the misplaced person who doesn’t experience full fellowship.

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  • how i wish i could harden my heart,
    drying tears that too easy to start:
    – i am a such slow learner:
    i am a disabled discerner.

    enthusiasm my middle name,
    it blurs my poor sense of aim.
    I quickly trip with clumsy clay feet
    don’t press pause – just click delete.

    what is my particular place and role?
    squeeze square pegs into round holes.
    why do i always get it so wrong?
    why do I so badly want to belong?

    what a curse this heart and brain,
    easy openness a locked chain.
    I tire of all failed first starts:
    don’t kickstart this hopeless heart.

    I turn off my intense ignition,
    never passed the first audition.
    why nurture friendship deep
    when rain robs and winds reap?

    Initial impulses rightly scorned,
    empathy would better stillborn,
    perhaps better never than late –
    do not, do not resuscitate….

    ___________________

    illustration: katyazhu.com