from Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips
SPELL AGAINST GODS
Let them be vain.
Let them be jealous.
Let them, on their own earth,
await their own heaven.
Let them know they will die.
And all those they love.
Let them, wherever
they are be alone.
And when they call out
in prayers, in the terrible dark,
let us be present, and watching,
and silent as stars.
The Gospel from Luke 13 for the second Sunday in Lent tells the story of the Pharisees warning Jesus away and safe from Herod. Jesus responds not with gratitude for the warning but with a scathing rant about all he is doing and how the prophets are ever treated — and oh, how Jesus longs “to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,” but, he complains, “you were not willing.” And so, “See, your house is left to you.”
From the perspective of the Gospel and the Church Jesus responds to the Pharisees as though they have rejected him and are falsely shooing him away, far, far away and irrelevant and gone. The people of Jerusalem, beloved as chicks, yet run away from the comfort of the warm brood wings of Jesus, the Son of God. And so Jesus wipes his hands of them all, and abandons them to a “holy” city and a “holy” temple as empty of God as a holy sepulchre, a strange foreshadowing of Easter. There are layers of irony, feeling and prophecy in this story.
What strikes me most is how Jesus responds to the rejection, if such it is, of the Pharisees with a defensive dejection. Jesus lashes out and leaves Zion, the house of God, to tumble into merely the temple abandoned by God to the Jews. Jesus faces rejection with blustering images of himself in the garb of the true prophet rejected. Jesus faces rejection by imagining himself as the God who soars the people of Israel like the wind beneath the eagle’s wings. But the best that Jesus can claim is the clucking and worrying hen — no soaring eagles. Still, that brings the Gospel in Luke home to Gainesville, the chicken capitol of the world, a clucking worrying Jerusalem of sorts.
This Lenten Gospel of rejection is also one of dejection, which is a mutual sort of rejection. The Pharisees reject Jesus, or so Jesus feels, and then Jesus deals with his dejection by rejecting the ones who reject him. And we’ve heard this voice from God before in complaining about the people of Israel. No one seems to appreciate the God of Israel, and he grumbles and pouts and threatens. How often God’s feelings are hurt, and the suffering is transferred to the people of Israel.
Jesus is truly his Father’s son.
But then we are all children of this same Father. And we are all rejected, and each dejected, and every one rejecting in anger and loneliness. We all have discovered such deep dismay that all we can say is how open our hearts and how wounded, like the sword through the heart of Mary that Simeon predicts for her when she brings the infant Jesus to the Temple. It’s not what Mary expected. We’re not what God expected. God’s not what we expected. Nothing is what we expected. It’s far far worse.
If God’s way of saying how all is worse than expected is the cross, how do we honestly say our dismay in the rejection of all our expectations through all the glooms of love? If God says dismay in the cross, then surely our saying can be in the image of God. We can be as ferocious and as silent as God’s fugue state staggering on broken wings in palsied hovering over Golgotha.
The Episcopal liturgies we learn and practice in our seasons of rejection and dejection may not fully incarnate God with us in our dismay. The rhythms of liturgy carry us on, carry us through, back into the Eucharistic exclamation — “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord!”, and off we go with “Thanks be to God.” And so we are encouraged to go skipping out so quickly from the glooms, the dead marshes, the temptations of the will-o-the-wisps of loves broken and cast away. Neither God nor Jesus go skipping on and away from rejections and dejection. In God’s image how can we learn to begin communion with one another in the depths of our rejections, our dejections, our angry dismays, our empty and lonely expects?
Patrick Phillips was a student of mine long ago, and his father spent a long time with me in patient and difficult counseling as I was going through a sorry divorce. I love Patrick for many reasons and moments, but perhaps best for a story he told me when driving me down to the Atlanta airport when I was off to see my darling wife Candy who was still caught in legal complications to leave Sarasota, Florida. Patrick told me about a conversation with a classmate, a rank Republican, a friend of Patrick’s, who was a vigorous and contented Democrat. As they talked about their different views of life, school, politics, and everything else Patrick challenged his friend, “You just think that because your parents think that!” Ah, the ultimate liberal “touche”. But Patrick’s satisfaction was short lived, for his friend asked, “And what do your parents think?” What makes Patrick a poet, in part, is that this exchange between friends resonated and ricocheted about in Patrick. Patrick’s telling the story to me has resonated in my own life and my conversations with others. This is the gift of poetry that Patrick was already embodying and creating, a space to wonder into a deeper communion, a fuller life with others and kinder. Elegy for a Broken Machine was one of the five finalists for this year’s National Book Award in Poetry. His earlier two collections of poems rooted in growing up in Georgia I highly recommend as well.
Elegy is an amazing collection of poems that Patrick offers that we might take part with him in the harrowing horror and dismay of being alive and in love with one another. The mechanisms of disease and suffering, death and dying, all these Lenten impositions of ashes deeper and darker into our eyes, our mouths, our hearts — the stagger of this beyond saying Patrick finds ways to say, at least in part.
Peter Rollins offered talks and stories this weekend to admit, confess, welcome and even relish the dismays of our lives, the sufferings of our lives, the naked horror and anger of our lives. Peter Rollins made clear that this is what the Gospel is about, if it is about anything.
A ticket for the three Peter Rollins’ talks this weekend cost $75.00. Patrick Phillips’ Elegy for a Broken Machine costs currently $19.88 on Amazon if you have Prime membership for shipping. What’s the cost of the Gospel these days?
Patrick through his entire collection of poems of the rivening of the body of his father, of himself and of his siblings, of his sons, rages apart then echoes, echoes, echoes into silence. And God says nothing, does nothing.
So what can we wish for God? Patrick gives us the words of a belief beyond disbelief in the gods or any God. As Church urges a God and Jesus of “presence”, and as Peter Rollins tells stories of the emptying of Heaven of God and gods out into the world, to be present with us in love, and as meditation and prayer distract into practices of “presence”, Patrick reels us in to the horror of it all, the empty ravaged carcass of Hemingway’s empty epic marlin of The Old Man and the Sea.
As we stumble through Lent, and shuffle through the ashes we fail to keep upon our brows, what think we of God so silent in all our loss? Patrick brings us deeper into our own terrible dark of absence. In the abandon of the Father in the slaughters of His worlds,
let us be present, and watching,
silent as stars.