Reading poetry is one of the ways some of us nourish our faith, a way we set or reset our inner compass and stay focused on the big picture, on the spiritual journey. I know that is true for me. In this monthly column, ‘Setting the Inner Compass’ I share some of the poems I find nourishing to the soul. My theme in this column is “Small Things.”
Like many others, I am a person who is attracted to and wrestles with the big questions of life: questions of meaning, purpose, what does it mean to be human, why are we here, how do we know what we know (epistemology), what do we talk about when we talk about God? To name just a few. I cherished the opportunity to explore those questions as a college and seminary student and as an instructor at Whitworth College where I taught CORE 250, a course about big questions. In my parish ministry, I found a variety of ways to explore the big questions and am now drawn to congregations that do the same. One of my favorite books of 2020 was The Socrates Express by Eric Weiner. It is about the big questions and philosophers who wrestle with them. Wrestling with big questions feels important to me and on my journey, has deepened my faith. I believe the church should be a place where people can ask and wrestle with big questions.
Alongside the big questions of life, I am very aware of the power of small things to move the soul and touch the spirit. Living in the Pacific Northwest the immensity of Mount Rainier causes awe and wonder. But I also feel awe and wonder at the brilliant yellow of a goldfinch or a wildflower poking through rocky soil or the way light reflects off a waterfall or the deep blue of the lilacs blooming in our back yard. As I ponder big questions, I am often nourished by the beauty of small things in creation and the everyday small generous acts of friends and strangers. The poems in this column are about small things.
The first poem, “Small Kindnesses” is about those small actions. It is a remarkable poem. I am thankful to the poet for granting permission to share it. I first discovered the poem in the anthology, Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection (Green Writers Press 2019). The second poem is by one of my favorite poets, David Budbill. I will always be grateful for the time he sent me a collection of his poems for me to use at Blues Vespers. His simple poem, with a title longer than the first verse, celebrates the beauty of ordinary things. The third poem by William Stafford reminds people who spend a fair amount of time looking ahead not to forget to be present to this moment now.
Small Kindnesses by Danusha Laméris
I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead — you first,” “I like your hat.”
During the Warblers Spring Migration, While Feeling Sorry for Myself for Being Stuck Here, the Dooryard Birds Save Me from My Melancholy” by David Budbill.
I am not a rare warbler,
brilliant migratory avatar,
here only momentarily
a brilliant song.
I am a common chickadee
a long time here to sing
a common song about
the ordinary is.
You Read This, Be Ready by William Stafford
Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life––
What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?
“Small Kindnesses“ by Danusha Laméris is used with the permission of the poet. It is from her collection Bonfire Opera published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pitt Poetry Series.
“During the Warblers Spring Migration, While Feeling Sorry for Myself for Being Stuck Here, the Dooryard Birds Save Me from My Melancholy” by David Budbill is from his collection Moment to Moment (Copper Canyon Press), used with permission of the publisher.
“You Reading This, Be Ready” by William Stafford from Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems © Graywolf Press, 1998. Used by permission of the publisher.
Rev. Dave Brown is a writer, creator/host of Blues Vespers, one of the PNW Interfaith Amigos and former pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA. He serves on the PCUSA Education Roundtable. (firstname.lastname@example.org)