This semester I practice Sabbath on Thursday mornings. For a few hours I leave Indiana Wesleyan University’s campus to read and write poetry at a local coffee shop or walk and reflect at a local park. During these Sabbaths I sensitize myself to the realities of sin and re-creation by rejecting those terms as abstractions. This is not an easy task.
(We have a road here called the bypass; its title is appropriate—infinitely so—for its function. Lined with billboard color and stuffed with traffic noise, the bypass bypasses the paling homes of downtown Marion, Indiana, and drowns out the terrifying silence of post-industrial squalor. I avoid the bypass as often as possible.)
As one called to the poetic office of pastor, I have learned that my soul must become “a crucible in which sacred visions are ground together with the common and at times profane experiences of human life.”* On Sabbath I orient myself in the place, the story, and the need of Marion as a placed, storied, and redeemed child of God, through the words of poets and the immediacy of presence.
Mary Oliver is my favorite companion on these Sabbath days partly because she has helped me understand their function of orientation. One of my favorite poems is “Beyond the Snow Belt”:
Over the local stations, one by one,
Announcers list disasters like dark poems
That always happen in the skull of winter.
But once again the storm has passed us by:
Lovely and moderate, the snow lies down
While shouting children hurry back to play,
And scarved and smiling citizens once more
Sweep down their easy paths of pride and welcome.
And what else might we do? Let us be truthful.
Two counties north the storm has taken lives.
Two counties north, to us, is far away,—
A land of trees, a wing upon a map,
A wild place never visited, —so we
Forget with ease each far mortality.
Peacefully from our frozen yards we watch
Our children running on the mild white hills.
This is the landscape that we understand,—
And till the principle of things takes root,
How shall examples move us from our calm?
I do not say that is not a fault.
I only say, except as we have loved,
All news arrives as from a distant land.
Objectivity precludes pain, yes, but also the capacity to love. If I bypass the brokenness of Marion, I cannot be present to her; if I cannot be present to her, then I cannot see what God sees in her; and if I cannot see what God sees in her, then there is no vision of dry bones coming together to animate belief in her—there is no capacity to love.
I wonder if Christians often fail to see the hope in people or places and speak words of judgment and death because of our failure to empathize. Admittedly, we can be masters at objective opinions.
Yet Oliver’s beautiful observation should not surprise us. Our own God refused to let humanity with all its suffering, hoping, loving, and failing become an abstraction. We are rooted in his very life. None of our news touches His ears as from a distant land.
We must become apprentices of this master of nearness and empathy: God-with-us.
* M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 22.