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Long Beach, CA

Almost Prayer

The Philosopher’s Sermon

The most serious judgment of all, perhaps, is that we get exactly what we want 
If there is a God, He (I know God doesn’t have a gender, but just go with me) 
He, in love, gives everyone what they choose 
He cannot force any soul along a path  
He is limited by uncoercing nudges 
The wind, the light, a hand on the small of a back 

No one will be in heaven who does not want to be there 
No one in hell who isn’t satisfied, in some way,
And no one will be surprised, either 
It all just extends out, this life, like a ripple from the steps we now walk

If you walk up to someone in hell and say, “Are you happy?”  
“Yes, of course,” they’ll say 
And of course, he said, leaning over his lectern, 
Hell isn’t a place at all  
It’s a state 
A state, perhaps, that many of us have long embraced

Then he stood straight, gathered his papers, and looking up, paused and said, at last, 
“Dismissed, good day”  
His brow furrowed when he looked up, confused as to why we all sat there still, 
Waiting for the next page 

Sometimes Death is Necessary

The celebration feels like birds landing on my open hands
But always flying off
Like trimming a bonsai tree with shears just too small
It’s hard to get my heart around it all

Christmas comes blustery and red
With visions of sugarplums plump in our heads
But a day clothed in pastel?
And we are surrounded by so much spring
That the mystery is almost drowned out by our over-seeing and yet, our not believing that
The day that turns to night will turn to day again 

But then I remember that
We pruned our rose-bushes two months ago
And that became its own Easter
I thought we killed them, but
The holy hush—not three days mind, you—but six, seven weeks
Turned them all to burning bushes
And it was too much metaphor
Life, life on every side, orange and red and white
The resurrection and the life

We are destined to walk, if we will, as he once walked,
In the cool of a garden
Up a long, lonely trail
Into the perfect sacrifice of love which keeps whispering,
“Sometimes death is necessary,
Keep walking, still”

 

Opening Day

The new year as a new babe is a bit tired
But I do like the idea of an old man facing death well and death that goes up in confetti
So sure, let’s go with tried and true clichés; they’ve paid their dues:

In its young days, being raised right
The year smelled leather, began to shape the form of ball and, most important of all,
Formed the memory to mark its life, the association distilled to one smell—
Leather and cut grass

And if January first was the day of birth, last month the year became mature
Took the car out, got its heart broken underneath the football stands, 
Found itself at a bonfire, making eyes across the smoke,
Tried its first illicit act

The year left home, too, in its rusted car, full of stuff,
To become a scholar, to run the halls of wisdom
Before it runs the bases 

And now, thank God, having tasted heartache,
No heart can come broken to Opening Day,
When hackneyed hope springs eternal
And the year is suddenly reborn
No hearts broken at 0-0
When the smell of leather and cut grass removes all the sting of coming loss

There is, if we are ever lucky and blessed, the joy of union beyond ourselves
With something that transcends our mortal frames
And what great irony: we transcend within them, in their prowess and their power
In this, the best work, of filling the earth and subduing it, on perfect grass
And white lines running towards the bliss beyond

With popcorn, with peanuts, with dumb smiles
Which is to say, with hope
On opening day
 

The Place Where God Already Is

"Listen to the rain, we have so few nights to enjoy rain,”
I said, lying in bed with my wife, having read a book about how Christianity is subversive,
and that we should use cloth diapers on our babies and shop only at co-ops
And maybe this is true, or some of it, 
But I had no energy for the imagination of it
Not even guilt, just too tired to try anything but listening to the rain
When my wife said, 
“You know what I pray when I dance?”
All my thoughts hid from her, “No,” I said. “What?”
“Lord, give me this dance. Give me this one dance.”
I squeezed her leg, because it made sense to me
Somehow, the mystery is: 
All we do is enter into the place where God already is
the dance, the rain, the tired bed


Pages

It is clear by now there will be no great work, no magnum opus
No statue looking down serenely on crowds grateful for what I gave
No volume held with awe-struck hands by someone who,
Having poured over the pages, felt saved

But my God, my world is just so bright around me
The sun burning on my daughter’s face, as she faces, with no hint of guilt nor guile, the coming day
As my son smiles and embraces, with quiet pleasure, the first orange light

I want to tell them
Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, flourish it
Pass down unwritten pages of life and love
And that tree will stand in the coming city with its many gardens
Where there are no statues, just oaks so full of sap they almost droop,
And seeds, flowering
As bees surround and crown
Their many leaves  


Tide's Come High

Wake up, Jenny, for the tide’s come high
And the moon’s riding orange in the bright October sky
But the geese by the river sense that autumn is a-quiver
By the blue band of winter, sailing up the river

Sailing up the stretch of sea, girl
That’s where your true love should be,
By the brown and burnished heather
Where he pinned your hair in feather
Cause the boy couldn’t buy a golden ring, girl
The boy couldn’t buy a golden ring

Wake up, Jenny, for the tide’s by your side
And the moon’s riding low in the blue October sky
Out across the bay, the waters rush and play
But they pile on the rocks without shame, girl
And they’ll pile down on you just the same

Sailing down the stretch of sea, girl
That’s where your love let you be,
Past the brown and burnished heather
Where he pinned your hair in feather
Sailing for to buy a golden ring, girl
Sailing for to buy a golden ring

Wake up, Jenny, for the tide’s at your breast
And the moon’s gone to rest by the blackened raven’s nest
Cold as the morning is the ocean in his mooring
And it’s time for you to up and go

Sailing down the stretch of sea, girl
That’s where your love you will see
By the brown and burnished heather
Where he pinned your hair in feather
He’s gone and he’s bought a golden ring, girl
He’s gone and he’s bought a golden ring

Lie down, Jenny, for the tide has touched your lips
And you’ll soon taste the darkness, beyond the ocean’s kiss
Unforgiving in its blackness is the ocean in its passion
But there’s morning far beyond these broken dreams, girl

He’s sailing down the bay straight to you, girl
That’s where your love your face will see
By the brown and burnished heather
Where he pinned your hair in feather
And he’ll cry and he’ll throw away the ring, girl
And he’ll moan and he’ll throw away the ring

 

The Humbled Puritan

I always thought in protest,
As any Protestant should
That frills are frivolous
And guilt their just dessert
(And dessert a guilt)

But I see you there: The Wine Drinker
The same as He the wine did make
And still with perfume’s scent
Upon your robe’s bright filament

With no shadowed brow for pleasure gained
But a prayer of thanks and mercy
To the Father, 
Same Who made the rain to fall
And cleanse the land, with pleasure instead of pain

So here’s to you, my glass I lift
And as it kisses both my lips
I join creation’s song (I think)
And the secret of the saints--

Those who've learned to worship
Of this earth’s goodness
Where, like rain,
Pleasure need not leave a stain

 

Baseball

These men are common, like us
Felons and poets
In a game that makes them gods all afternoon

If you can find some glory that transforms you, seize it!
If you remain the same thereafter
What does it matter?
All any of us taste is a mere moment, anyway

So if it’s the game that restores you?
Let its poetry become part of you--
The perfection of 90 feet, from here to there
And let the beauty of a baseball curving at the far end of physics
Transform you
And the slow waiting in between slow your soul down in this, our sanctuary

Good God, I don’t have to play
Just give me warm evenings
Redeemed from the haze of summer’s sad heat

I’ll worship God all night
Starting at the long, slow slant of sunset
As they turn the lights on and we stand and sing like monks
In chant before, with once voice, saying our simple blessing:
“Play ball”

 

Praying in the Bathroom

I like to pray in the bathroom
When I shower or run the water
Or make of it the necessary room it is

It’s not a sacred space
Though of course we learn that every space is sanctuary
Everything a burning bush

It’s just that
With my hair askance from sleep
My indefatigable cowlick defiant
And my body bulging with new creases
Showing its age as I sit or stand or wash
It seems so much easier to say, with Abram,
“Here am I
And yes, I have nothing figured out
Not today, tomorrow, or yesterday”
And I have learned to say that it’s all okay
And that heaven then unfurls all around me
Weightless in my unclenched fists

These words—“Here I am”
Make it so much easier to pray
Make it possible, perhaps,
Since prayer’s prerequisite is dropping pretense
And becoming honest
Standing in our nakedness

 

I Am the Resurrection and the Life

Watching her struggle
Like an injured bug upturned on its back
Her breath searching, like so many legs desperate for something to hold onto
Reveals
The full brutal ugly of death
Which she labors into, helpless

But the nurse is smiling--
Cell phone to her ear--
As she walks by

Her charts mark the courses that are wandering ever nearer,
Inevitably, to the vanishing
Like bare strings that, broken, must fall into the dark below

That’s just the way of things
Which can be pushed aside for hours and hours
(The nurse, after all, talks about her weekend plans,
And something about a boat
And where they’ll catch it and where they’ll land)
That’s how most spend their lives:
Batches of hours and hours, pushing it down into the underground

But, then
It comes
And it comes to You

As my wife comes out
She smiles
Then collapses into the breaking of tears
That is the unsheathed honesty of a soul
With no energy left for holding itself back
(Which is what ‘normal life’ is, anyhow--
A holding back)

If not You,
No helpless are helped
If this is not truth and true
Pity us
And pity all who came before
Who labored on these shores
With no real hope of crossing

Somehow in her tears against the senseless farce of all of this
Something makes sense
As when a sky is pierced, just for a moment,
By sun
Before the black rumbles down again
And light is gone