originally published on How to Talk Evangelical, the website of the fabulous Addie Zierman.
As the editor of Rock & Sling, a literary journal that publishes work that engages faith issues, the relationship between writing and God is often at the front of my thinking. I look for poems that seek not the easy platitudes of Proverbs or Psalms quoted out of context, not that which avoids the central conflicts of faith and doubt (not that the Psalms are easy, of course, but when you take one sentence and put it on a poster or say “God has a plan,” I tend to become uninterested in a hurry). I want to publish work that is taking faith issues on in beautiful and meaningful ways. Work that isn’t certain or doesn’t have all the answers.
But in my own writing, I rarely wrestle with these issues, explicitly at least. I wasn’t a Christian when I started writing, coming to faith only in the last few years. And while it was partially through poetry that I was able to access and understand the beauty of God’s creation, those issues still stayed out of my writing. I find as much spiritual guidance in the work of Wendell Berry, B.H. Fairchild, Marilynne Robinson, and John Hodgen as I do in the Gospels. But I can’t seem to do it myself.
It’s just too big. I still feel like an infant Christian. I didn’t grow up in a church, so I don’t have decades of King James rhythms, hymns or sermons bumping around in my memories. I am not fluent in the language (I came to Addie’s blog the first time legitimately looking for ways to talk evangelical), and I feel at times a bit like an imposter to Christendom (though I often still feel this way about my poetry, as well).
But a year or so ago, my church asked a few of us writers to compose a series of responses to Psalm 23. Even I knew which one that was. That’s got all the big language. Like, all of it. “The valley of the shadow of death…” That’s heady stuff, and I was already intimidated, so of course I said sure.
The assignment was essentially ekphrastic. My poem would be a response to the tone and feel the Psalm inspired in me. I could handle that. While I see many poems that respond directly to various Scriptural passages as Rock & Sling editor, I knew that I should avoid certain pitfalls. My first draft, of course, fell into all of those pits. Through a drawn out process of revision, I started to mold it into a shape I liked. Here is the result:
Shine, Imperishable City
When I close my eyes, I’ve seen
the shimmering city—light,
gold as the harvest,
heard the distant wash of music.
But the city was walled, black stone,
and I could not enter.
“The wall is you,” he said, “you
are the wall.” I knew that what was in the city
was not for me. I knew that inside,
my enemies ate at my table, knew
that there were no enemies, not even me.
It is no simple thing to enter the world.
First, we depart these angels
of our common love. We give up
the shadow of a thing for the thing,
the shining city, this meal and cup,
this terrible oil, anointing me beloved.
Surely, this is the kingdom.
Surely, I am black stone.
Surely, the city is for you, for me,
and the wall becomes glass
and the kingdom erupts, surely heaven
surely earth, angels and cup, world without end.
(published in InTouch magazine)
The poem draws in several elements that had been working in me. The first is the vision, a recurring dream I’ve had most of my life. A city I always understood as heaven, with yellow light and symphonic music emanating from inside, but the walls were too tall and thick and I could never find a way in. I’d told a friend that story one day, the day I became a believer, actually. And he said what he said. Sometimes the Spirit speaks poetry into your life, and you receive it. I’ve learned to feel blessed rather than lucky.
From there, I try to get close to some of the psalmic language, to ramp up the rhythm and build a crescendo, which includes the contrasting emotions I have about salvation. This is the “terrible oil” line. Salvation and grace are awesomely freeing but also terrifying. If you aren’t terrified by your salvation, I don’t understand you. The scope of it is beyond comprehension. ‘Humbling’ is too small a word. But it’s there, and we’re in it, and I wanted that heavenly city to erupt. That’s how I often feel about God, that He’s erupting into my world, both destructive and saving.
And while I am still looking for ways to engage my faith more explicitly through my poetry, I have faith that the Spirit will lead me there, in His time, when I’m ready. And I’ll take the fleeting glimpses in the meantime.