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The Road Not Taken

As a result of an e-mail conversation about something on my blog, poet and preacher J. Barrie Shepherd sent me his delightful book, Whatever Happened to Delight? Preaching the Gospel in Poetry and Parables. It inspired me to reclaim excerpts from a reflection I wrote for a Christian poetry spiritual formation course, which here I blend with thoughts from Barrie’s book, properly credited in text.

The road not taken. The poet Robert Frost’s famous line has been used so often, many think of it as a cliché. But it yet carries poetic power, because many, if not most, if not all of us have roads not taken in our lives, roads whose destinations are hidden from us, just as the lion Aslan explains to the children in The Narnia Chronicles that we are not told what might have been.

In college I was a double major: English Literature and Religious Studies. I loved literature but I loved God more, and though literature might have been the safer path for someone who was gay, introverted, and a writer, the devotion, service, and activism of ministry was the higher calling and I went on to seminary and ministry.

Let us risk the wildest places,
Lest we go down in comfort, and despair.

Mary Oliver writes this about the explorer Magellan.

I confess literature and religion have never been that far apart for me, nor in reality. Both are at their best when they tell a story. Both are at their best when, even deconstructed or dymythologized, they reveal a better, deeper, and more meaningful story.

Analysis reveals the parts—the bones, the sinews, the surfaces—without breathing life into the whole, without giving it a heart that pumps life through the body, without creating soul. Just as a human skeleton hanging in a medical classroom is far from life as we know it, theology worked out on paper or chalkboard or worse, by church votes, loses its liveliness when it is far from the story, the myth, the Word made flesh.

“If God had wanted to appeal directly to our minds, Mary would have written a book instead of bearing a child,” Barrie quotes The Ironic Christian’s Companion by Patrick Henry.

My youthful poetry expressed my passionate, earnest self. My early prose wanted to tell a story—often my story, disguised. Novelist Saul Bellow has said that “Fiction is the higher autobiography.” The most puzzling comment I received from a reader of my first (unpublished) novel was, “What are you trying to say?” I wasn’t trying to “say” anything so much as tell a story.

Barrie mentions Ruben Alves’ observation “that the verbs ‘to explain’ or ‘to explicate’ come from Latin roots that mean to flatten, to spread out, to make level,” and then quotes Peter Gomes to the effect that at first, in preaching, he felt called to explain, and later to apologize, but only toward the end of his preaching career to celebrate “the holy mysteries of the faith.” Gomes concludes, “We are saved by our metaphors, not our metaphysics.”

My poetry became liturgies and my prose became sermons and subsequently, a dozen published non-fiction books focused on the biblical stories, stories of others, and my own stories. Along the way I’ve written four unpublished novels as well, the last of which is my life revisited, as if I had pursued “the road not taken,” resisting ministry and writing fiction.

Writing is my central spiritual discipline. Kathleen Norris considers writing her form of lectio divina. This is where and when and how I figure out the why and the who. Spiritual pilgrims once meandered here and there on their way to holy sites, and that’s what I do, in words, hoping that I might happen onto a sacred place or two in the process, perhaps encounter God, or the Word made flesh, or the Spirit’s pentecostal gift.

I do not outline beforehand, I do not “plan” the outcome, but “wait for the Lord” and the serendipitous gifts of water from rock, manna from sky, quails overhead, a still, small voice or “the sound of sheer silence,” the providential beauty of lilies, the thrill of promised land, the in-breaking commonwealth of God, the birthpangs of all creation. Like Emily Dickinson, I don’t need to go somewhere to witness these wonders—I experience them in my room, in my case, a tiny office off the garage with windows to see outside.

And, according to Barrie, “Emily Dickinson once wrote in a letter to a friend that ‘consider the lilies of the field’ was the one commandment she had never disobeyed.”

“We are put on earth a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love,” the mystical poet William Blake wrote. Oliver includes an homage to Blake in her poem The Swan, declaring,

The path to heaven
doesn’t lie down in flat miles.
It’s in the imagination
with which you perceive
this world,
and the gestures
with which you honor it.

Thank God for poets and visionaries, artists and children, cooks and gardeners, mystics and musicians, scientists and writers, professors and preachers, mentors and colleagues, contemplatives and activists, who have helped us, who have helped me, see the big picture, the grand scheme, the expanding universe, the enlarging heart—and where I belong.

Visit Chris Glaser’s Blog Here: Progressive Christian Reflections

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