The old, grey-haired preacher on a sabbath morning...

In early autumn, Di gave me a volume of poetry by Mark Halperin: Falling through the Music. One reviewer noted that "the mood of Halperin's new poems is autumnal and elegiac, yet the effect of his book is surprisingly bracing... (he is) a wryly unjudgmental observer of human folly." Another writer notes that this "is a book about high middle age when entropy, mortality and overall decline cease to be rumor and feel more or less like the beginning of something that, for all its fear and sadness, promised to be fundamentally interesting." In other words, this is a collection of poetry for... me!

When I was in seminary, my mentor used to jokingly refer to himself in

the third person saying, "Well, the old grey-haired preacher thinks that people will never really change... or the weary grey-haired preacher simply doesn't have any energy for that kind of bullshit any more." I used to wonder what it would feel like to look at yourself in the mirror and speak of yourself as "the old grey-haired preacher." And then one morning about three years ago, I woke up and I knew. It hit me again yesterday as I was trimming my beard and trying to make my new hair cut work without the necessary product. Somewhere along the way, I had become that old grey-haired preacher - and I rather like it.

Halperin puts it like this in a poem called "On Certainty."

Maybe certainty is growing old

all at once, finding you stand on ice
think enough to support you. The cold
cracks beneath, or maybe it's only lies.

Think of the sick man, the accident victim

at that moment when he knows
clearly there is no saving him -
his, the certainty you crave. Suppose,

unwittingly, we just go on mixing hope

with understanding, until the horizon
shrinks to a point, or a sing note
blots the rest out, and we've nothing to pick from.

Doesn't it fit the endings we intuit -

of innocence, of love - their calm
extent, the almost infinite
flatness they leave us going on and on?

Later today I will lead a young wedding party through a rehearsal in anticipation of tomorrow's ceremony. Both women are young, tender and so much in love. I have come to care for them both deeply as we've spent the better part of the last year in conversation and prayer. There is an energy in the best wedding rehearsal that is precious in the deepest understanding of the word: sacred and beyond price. And it does this old grey-haired preacher's soul good to spend time with young couples like this - not because I want to go backwards and pretend I am something I'm not - but rather because at this stage of the game I know we need one another. How did St. Paul put it: when I was a child I thought like a child, spoke like a child and acted like a child. But now I have put childish things away... for now we see as through a glass darkly?

When I was a young preacher I thought I knew how to reform the church. I thought I knew what was broken in society and could make a dent in suffering, too. At some point, however, I realized that I could barely change myself. So while I never quit engaging the principalities and powers that break and wound us all, my sense of what I might accomplish took on a more humble patina. Truth be told, I found that the self-deprecating perspective of the Bible's wisdom literature helped keep me engaged more than the latest liberal rant. Again the apostle Paul seemed as if he were reading my mail (and email!)

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

A few years ago, I purchased an anthology of the poems of Scott Cairns

called Compass of Affection: poems new and selected and found his earlier poetry more to my liking than his later works. They were witty, ironic and spoke of finding grace in the most ordinary and broken conditions. But as the years have ripened I have discovered a growing appreciation for his later works. And while they are clearly more overtly theological, they now seem to speak to my reality in ways I had never expected. Cairns' poem "In Reference to His Annunciation" cuts to the chase:

I am sorry for your ancient

     pain, and for your more
contemporary suffering
     which extends impossibly
beyond my knowing.
     I stand chagrined by the brittle
edge our common history
     has honed upon your vision,
and by the way this long
     and righteous rage has served to chill
certain human sympathies.
     Our wretched circumstance
has left you - not for nothing -
     with so little pleasure
in the pulse of those around you.
     And if these words
bear now a trace of censure,
     forgive me all the more.
I have no agency to apprehend
     the world's appearance
before your burning eyes.
     I am most sorry for the tin
taste of righteousness,
     self-assigned, which can taint
the purest waters, and
     - it would appear - nearly any cup.

There is so much pain - and so little we can do about it. And still when I woke up from my late afternoon nap yesterday (which I find more and more satisfying) my puppy was snuggled up against my arm fast asleep.  And in that moment, like the late Lou Reed before me, I thought, "Life is good... but not always fair."  Onward to the wedding rehearsal.


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