Poetry and Various Other Sundries

This weekend, I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, and I had the opportunity to share a few conversations with some of my favorite living poets. I shared breakfast with Scott Cairns (yes, I imposed) and met Jeanne Murray Walker at the airport. I also met a new friend, Phillip Mauer, whose poems you'll not find on the internet just yet. (One day, Phillip.) The conversations we shared were brief (too brief), but I walked away with the firm conviction that the world needs more poets who produce gentle, true poems. Search your heart. You know this is true, don't you?

Today, I'm sharing a poem I scratched out weeks ago for my Patreon community, the community that makes my writing (poetry, short fiction, various sundries) possible. I'm sharing because I generally believe in the power of poetry, and specifically believe in this poem. If you enjoy "The Pain of Waiting Is," consider joining my little Patreon community. I think you'll be glad you did.

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The Pain of Waiting Is

an empty yellow chair, a cup with no coffee, a blank piece of paper,

a simple prayer for company, comfort, a new Genesis. -this is what it means.

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Pray Yourself Sober

What is sobriety? Doesn't it mean more than keeping free of the bottle, the needle, the prescription pill, the credit card bill? This has been the drum I've banged for nearly three years, now. Sobriety, it seems to me, is that quality of connection that keeps us clear-headed. And in this modern world of noise, and news, and endless screaming over each other, don't we need that kind of connection more than ever? I've tried my best over the last few months to cultivate personal practices of sobriety, and in that, I've turned to the writings of George Buttrick, the twentieth-century Presbyterian pastor who wrote about prayer. Buttrick's practices and insights lead me to quieter places, places of thanksgiving, confession, and rest. I've enjoyed these practices, and I'm inviting you to join me in them.

[tweetherder]An invitation begs attendance. Doesn't it?[/tweetherder]

I've created two daily email plans based on Buttrick's work. The first, The Practice of Prayer: Thanksgivingis a five-day email plan stretching into the recognition of the good gifts of God in our everyday lives. The next, The Practice of Prayer: Confession, is a five-day email plan of examination and recognition. Confession--it's hard, maybe, but aren't most things worth doing?

If you sign up for the Thanksgiving plan, you'll receive the Confession plan immediately following the completion of your gratitude practice. And if you complete the Confession plan, you'll receive an email notification when new prayer plans are available (I'll release another one in the next month or two).

Would you consider signing up? And as you're working through the plans, feel free to invite a conversation partner or two (perhaps a small group) along. You can invite your friends to sign up by way of Twitter or  Facebook.

So, pull a group together, and let's go. I'll be working my way through these plans, too (you can't practice thanksgiving and confession too much). Let's cultivate practices of sobriety. Shall we?

 

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The Silence and the Loneliness

I've been writing about silence lately, first in this piece entitled "Silence," and then in my bi-monthly Tiny Letter.(Sign up here to read the Tiny Letter piece.) Today, I'm continuing the exploration here. Enjoy.

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We've beaten this assumption to death--the world is noisier today than it's ever been. You've heard the supporting arguments--we have the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the endless stream of opinions on social media, the streaming bits of naked data from naked people across this great wide world. News, opinions, distraction, advertisements, the porno-poison that dances, dances, dances--all of it crowds out the inner quiet. And you know this is true. Yes?

Here's the truth according to me: I don't suppose we're any noisier than any other generation. (Heresy of heresies!) I suppose the noise has always been noisier than it's ever been, at least according to the pundits of any given generation. And though I could support this statement with citation to writers from different generations, allow me to make more practical arguments. Consider the world before the telephone, then consider the mass production and proliferation of Alexander Graham Bell's grand achievement. Didn't the people feel more connected than ever before? In a historical turning point, didn't Maude from Portland, Maine feel more connected to Claude from Portland, Oregon? Couldn't the people fill their lives with communication, with endless distraction? Next, consider the days before the television, before Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings. Wasn't there less noise (actual, by-God noise) in the living room before the evening news invaded on a nightly basis?

The people--we're always inventing new noise-producing techniques. It's what we do.

This weekend I sat alone on the banks of a quiet pond. I watched leaves fall, saw them spin like mid-air waterwheels as they made their way to the surface of the water. Seed pods resembling something like the tufts of the pussy willow drifted on top of the pond, pushed by the invisible wind. A squirrel gathered nuts on the far side of the pond, stuffed his mouth till the winter stores threatened to push out his ears. A domestic duck pecked at my jeans--look at me; look at me; look at me.  It was a moment straight from Walden, or Tinker Creek, but in the silence of the moment, I felt very little peace, at least at first. Instead, a profound sense of loneliness settled over me. I felt as connected as the leaves, the seed pods, the nut stuffed in the squirrel's cheek. One day, I'm part of the earth's beauty, the next, I'd be gone.

It's the quiet that ushered in my profound sense of loneliness, the sense that I'm somehow unanchored in eternity. And though I know that's not true, though I know that this loneliness meets its Maker in prayer (the satiating Force), loneliness, loss, pain, doubt, all of these things are the first realities of true inner silence. At least, that's my experience, and it's a brutal experience. When we strip away the noise, what's left? For a minute--if only a skinny one--there is the echo of nothing but lack.

Uplifting, eh?

I watch the noise on the internet these days--endless opinion streams, birthday photos, marketing, marketing, marketing (there's always marketing)--and I wonder how very lonely so many of us are. Are we thrashing about hoping to avoid the sneaking sense of emptiness? Are we striving to win validation so that we feel less alone, so that we're assured that we're not alone?

Who knows? I'm not sure I do. But if the divine answer is hidden in the practice of silence and loneliness, I'm willing to explore it.

I'm stretching deeper into the practice of silence. I'm stretching first into the sense of loneliness, unashamed. I'll sit there as long as it takes to learn the lessons spun by all those Bible stories, church fathers, and modern closet mystics--the Spirit of God visits the lonely, if only the lonely will be still long enough to know it.

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5 Ways to Reach the Addict in Your Life

Over the last several months, whether by phone, email, or coffeeshop banter, I’ve fielded this question: [tweetherder text="How do you reach the addict in your life? Here are 5 simple steps."]how do I breakthrough to my addicted [husband, wife, daughter, cousin, fill-in-the-blank]?[/tweetherder] It's an honest, unnerving question. The truth is, I’ve no answer for ushering the divine providence of God into the life of an addict. I'm no guru. Yesterday I spoke with a friend who’s walking out his own path of recovery. He’s one of the rare wise ones, proof that sometimes sage souls really do walk the Ozark highlands. We sat across the table, and he told me he’d been sober for more than 90 days. (Opiates were his bag.) We discussed the tiny ways in which the providence of God intervened, the ways in which God brought the craggy bottom of life up to our falling.

We chatted for a bit, and I decided I’d throw him the knuckleball question.

“When folks ask you what they can say to their addict friend or family member, what do you tell them?”

He smiled, shook his head. “Tell them? It doesn’t work that way. You know that.”

I nodded, smiled. “Yeah. Too bad, isn't it?”

Call it addiction; call it dependency; call it a minor problem. Call it whatever you want, but [tweetherder]an addicted soul can’t change what an addicted soul doesn’t have the power to change.[/tweetherder] (Stop and reread that sentence?) More to the point, perhaps, a sober soul can’t change what a sober soul doesn't have the power to change.* You cannot browbeat an addict clean.

It can be a disheartening thought. After all, don’t we all want to see our people walk into freedom? I’ve been considering this what-can-we-do? question over the last few weeks, and I think I’ve formulated an initial five-step action plan of sorts. It won’t be easy. It will take commitment, dedication, and the practice of slow speech. But I think you’ll find it might just work.

The 5 Step Action Plan to Reach the Addict in Your Life

1. Pray

In the 1960s, French philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote extensively about the place of the Christian in the political arena. He reminded the French evangelicals of the day, that, the exclusive province of the Christian is prayer. Ellul’s thesis was simple: while the world thrashes about seeking political solutions, the faith-bearers are the only ones with the power to pray the great Kingdom Come into earth as it is in heaven.

Political commentary aside (the good Lord knows I’m not aiming to delve into politics on this blog), Ellul’s point is applicable in a great many spheres. We thrash, and we thrash, and we thrash about in hopes of changing our friends. We scheme and scheme, conjure ways to bring others to their quickening moment of sobriety. We plan interventions, ask our recovering friends to speak to our addict friends. And yet, how many of us pray—knees to the floor, face to the ground, hands on the carpet? How many of us retreat to our rooms, shut the door, and whisper secret, uncontrived, non-public prayers? (Matt. 6:6)

Are you ready for my confession? I pray far less often than I speak. Perhaps I have an addiction to pride, to thinking I can be the change someone else needs. Simply put? It doesn’t work that way.

2. Love

In an article entitled “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and it is Not What You Think” (that title could have used an editor’s touch, eh?), Johann Hari demystified the notion of addictive chemical hooks. Walking through the science of addiction—the more modern, quantifiable science—he writes, “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”

Hari’s point—and it’s experientially true—is this: a breakthrough to the heart of the addict is possible when you love unconditionally and incorporate him into your community. Hari’s assertion has basis in the biblical narrative, too. In Ephesians 5, Paul gives his antidote for the sins of isolation and addiction, encouraging the addict to be involved in a loving, encouraging community of faith. (Eph. 5:18-19)

3. Pray

Pray again? Don’t worry. It’s not what you think.

It’s an easy thing to do—spend all your prayers on the addictions of your friends without turning inward. Let’s try a different tact, though. Find some space; sit in the quiet. Ask God, “show me my addictions, even if they’re socially acceptable.” Make a list.

Shopping? Working? Eating? Exercising? Escaping into entertainment?

Ask why you’re engaging in your own obsessive, addictive behaviors. Confess them. Pray that through exposing your own addictions, God might give you empathy for your struggling friends and family members. After all, without empathy for our neighbors, is breakthrough possible?

We’re all drunk on something. What’s your bag?

4. Love

Love again? Yes. Always love.

If and when the addict comes clean, there is a great temptation—the temptation toward I-told-you-so. How does it work itself out in conversation?

I tried to warn you six months ago, but you just wouldn’t listen.

Didn’t I ask you whether you had a drinking problem? Why did you lie?

I knew you had a problem; how could you not see it?

My bible-study group has really been praying for you. We just knew you had a problem.

In the course of my life, I’ve found that when folks don’t know what to say, they often say the wrong thing. (I’m not immune to this syndrome. I'm the chief of blabbermouths.) So often, when a closeted addict comes out, friends and family members don’t know where to start. I’ll give you a hint--it all starts with a hug.

Don’t say anything, unless it’s “I’m sorry,” or “I love you.” Give a hug. Ask if they need anything. Then? Love, love, love, love.

Love is all you need.

5. Pray

When all else fails, pray, pray, pray. Pray without ceasing. The prayer of a righteous man accomplishes more than any intervention ever could.

A Final Word on Interventions and Tough Love

This isn’t to say there won’t be times when intervention is necessary, or when tough love is needed. There will be. But loving well and praying hard come first.

Pray, love, pray, love, pray. Repeat it as a mantra. Internalize it. Then? Go in peace to love and serve.

*Word of disclaimer: I’m no therapist or addiction counselor. I’m just a fella who’s walked the road of denial, which as they say, ain’t just a river in Egypt.

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What is Inner Sobriety?

It’s been nearly two years since I drank my last drink—September 21 to be exact—and this could be cause for celebration. If there’s one thing sobriety has taught me, though, it’s that pre-mature celebrations are precarious things. At this time last year, I was breaking my arm to pat myself on the back when the old dog of desire came nipping at my heels. I crossed the threshold of my one year anniversary, and on September 22, my thirst for a stiff drink sent me to shivering. I was with a good friend when the jonesings got pretty bad, and he verbally smacked me across the cheek, told me to snap out of it. His words were something to the effect of "stop living out of your identity of 'addict' and start living out of your identity as a beloved child of God." Sometimes a good verbal smack will set you aright. Spare the rod, spoil the addict, they say. Or at least, they should say.

Here I am. I’ve come limping around the bend on anniversary, and my sobriety—at least as it relates to alcohol—seems less fragile. But is sobriety all about abstaining from our personal addictions? Does quitting the sauce a sober person make?

The new house is remote, a good piece away from any highway or major thoroughfare. In the mornings, it’s dang-near silent, save for the crickets outside and the occasional refugee cricket hiding out somewhere in the living room. If the coffee pulls me out of bed, some mornings I sit with the crickets for morning prayers. "Dear God," I might pray and the cricket chatters in response.

With some frequency, I get no farther then the God part of Dear God before my thoughts chase a cottontail to my todo list, or a particular money problem (dang that old tax man), or to the sounds of the scraping and crunching of my dog's teeth against a ragged bone in the kitchen. The dog is ever and always finding a bone, or a scrap of a bone, or a soggy old rawhide, and she works it over with the fervor of any marrow addict. She's in a bad way and could use a canine twelve step program, I think.

As I was saying, I pray Dear God, and sometimes even make it to "thanks for today,” which reminds me of the day. There’s a fella I’m meeting for lunch, and and dang if I don't have to review his contract before we break bread. I consider whether I’ve emailed him, or whether he responded to my email. I consider taking a note of the thought so I don’t forget it, but I’m in the middle of prayer, and prayers should not be interrupted by people. It's only this: they frequently are.

I course correct, drag myself back to the prayer I was praying. I was praying, right? Maybe not. At which point I often shame myself for the inability to add up words of thanks, or praise, or confession, or any old thing. Shame, shame, shame. Shouldn’t I be better at this prayer stuff? I’ve only been practicing it since I was six. But prayer isn't an instant existential transcendental spiritual experience for me. Some days, prayer feels something akin to carrying water uphill while wearing ankle weights, and pushing a wheelbarrow full of rocks, and searching my memory for that lost line of E.E. Cummings’s poem, “Next to of Course God America."

This is the point (I think): so often, my ability to communicate with and in God is thrown askew by the silliest things. It’s all crickets, fantastical canine recovery programs, and to-do lists. There’s clutter in the noggin, and it gets in the way of cogent, prayerful thought. And what is sobriety if it’s not the ability to engage in unhindered communication with God, even the simplest of communications?

If I’m honest, and sometimes I try to be, I’d admit that it’s sometimes easier to white knuckle through alcohol cravings than it is to have the sobriety of spirit that creates an unhindered connection with God. Maybe you know this, too? Is it easier to cruise Amazon or the dancing naked pixels and one-click your way out of depression than it is to communicate simple prayers? Is it easy to white knuckle your way out of addiction than to pray, God help? I wonder whether these are the different sides of the same coin called un-sober. 

The way I see it, the ideal is a sobriety that feels less like white-knuckling and more like connection to the Higher Power (to borrow an AA phrasing). The ideal sobriety leads me deeper into authentic, connected, effectual, simple prayer. This is inner sobriety. And maybe this kind of sobriety isn’t all that complex. Maybe it’s not hard-efforted prayers in the wee morning hours. Maybe it looks more like a simple prayers on the hours, prayers like “thanks,” or “help (me, or him, or them),” or “gee, that was pretty cool.” Maybe it looks more like reading scripture like a kid, like a story that’s more ancient and bigger than us. Maybe it looks like recognizing God in the myriad of ways he shows up in the world outside my front door—where the crickets are; where the dog finds a spare deer femur; where the fella waits at the table for me, contracts to review.

Hey, God. It’s me Seth. Would you help me learn this kind of inner sobriety?

 

***TINY LETTER AND COMING CLEAN***

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