Slowly, I digest the thoughts and experiences of the “Love Bade Me Welcome” conference at Yale Institute of Sacred Music. Much of what happened the first two days, I allowed to wash over me, to fill me, and not get stuck in notes. Those thoughts and experiences will need to resurface in other ways, perhaps in poems or worship.
Yet I did take some notes on the second day, and more on the third day. Often, they were just of phrases that caught my attention, so I’ll share them here, mostly just as is.
“Agony of a civilization which seems to have lost its coherence.”
“Come to a conference on poetry and theology not to escape the world but to explore it more completely”
“The landscapes of the heart gave us great art as well as The Third Reich”
“The divinity’s in the details.”
“To teach is to learn twice”
“Embrace ambiguity, not vagueness”
“Addicted to certainty”
Another part of my notes are of people to read and resources to explore.
Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the day – Added this to Doggcatcher on my smartphone
A Year of Being Here “daily mindfulness poetry by wordsmiths of the here & now”
Mary Karr (particularly her Descending Poetry)
Anthony Wilson – Livesaving Poems.
Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac - Also subscribed via DoggCatcher.
Commonweal Magazine apparently often has poetry.
For theological sources, Frederick Buechner, Walter Brueggemann (particularly "Finally Comes the Poet") Garrett Green (particularly “Imagining God: Theology and the Religious Imagination”) and Evelyn Underhill
Amos Wilder (Thornton Wilder’s brother)
During his plenary talk at “Love Bade Me Welcome” : Bringing Poetry into the Life of Your Church, Tom Troeger spoke about the “landscape of the heart” as a cultural context you understand God from. To illustrate this, he spoke about two churches he went to when he was young. One sang hymns like “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling” with very free interpretation of the music almost ad libbed from the piano, and the other sang hymns like “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” played precisely from the pipe organ. They both reflect different landscapes of the heart that we go back to when we think about God, worship and music. He suggested that the wholeness of God is not known if you stay within one landscape of the heart.
I thought about my own nomadic religious journey, starting off Congregationalist, drifting through Baptist, various evangelical and charismatic churches before settling down to currently being an Episcopalian. The idea of knowing many landscapes of the heart, or perhaps mapping the relationship between these landscapes to see one larger broader landscape is especially appealing to me. As our society becomes more multicultural, how do we map in the landscape of Jewish or Muslim hearts? What about adding in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shintoism?
Pushing this idea of emotional cartography further, I had to wonder about those not brought up in the church, the unaffiliated skeptics. What does the landscape of their hearts look like? How do we map it? How do we find the connection between these landscapes and the landscapes of those brought up in the church?
As science progresses, how does this change the landscape of our hearts? Is science moving beyond the abilities of our imaginations to use it for good? How must the landscape of the heart change as science changes? How do we keep the idea of being good stewards of God’s creation in a world overheated by climate change?
A secular part of the landscape of my heart includes the great song by the Canadian folk singer, Stan Rogers, “Northwest Passage”.
Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea;
What are the landmarks for a northwest passage of the heart, including various Christian landmarks, landmarks from other belief structures, landmarks from the skeptics, landmarks for scientists, to bring balance back to reason and imagination?
With these first few words, I’ve already probably broken several times one of the most important messages of Christian Wimaan in his opening plenary talk the conference, “Love Bade Me Welcome” : Bringing Poetry into the Life of Your Church at Yale Divinity School.
Especially in light of the new Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life report, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, Wiman recommended that when we write, we should think of the skeptic in the audience. What are we saying that makes it harder for the increasing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans to access what we are saying, to cross, as it were, the sacred threshold?
I imagine that talking about poetry, a conference at a divinity school, talking about churches, and using words like “bade” is enough to drive off many of my readers, but if you’ve made it this far, thank you, please stick around. I will do what I can to talk about divine mystery in metaphors to make it more accessible.
Instead of focusing on Wiman’s talk, I will focus on compline. Compline is the final church service, a completion of the working day. As my wife and daughter prepared to watch the final two hour episode the current season of SHIELD, I joined with several dozen other voices singing the great hymn, The Day Thou Gavest,
I would describe my singing as that of a weak bass. I like singing the bass part of songs when it is easy to pick out. Unfortunately, like church attendance, harmonic singing seems generally to be in decline. Not so around Yale Institute of Sacred Music. There were several basses around me carrying the part firmly enough so that I could feel comfortable singing along in harmony.
It is interesting to read that the hymn was written for missionary meetings since it is such a wonderful close of day hymn. This idea of the day being given by God seems so foreign to how I believe most of my skeptical unaffiliated friends think of their days. Instead, it seems many of them live lives of quiet desperation, to borrow Thoreau’s words, in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, to follow on with words from David Foster Wallace’s famous “This is water” commencement speech.
Before compline, several of us stood outside in the warm May evening, as a strong but gentle wind caressed us and the sun provided spectacular end of day light. Yes, the day, the evening, the compline service, was a gift from God, and it is hard to remember these blessings in our desperate day to day battles. It is hard to remember these blessings as we read the news of man’s continued exploitation and oppression of their fellow men. It is hard to remember these blessings as the pinnacle of beauty or wit is too often thought of in terms of Facebook memes, or at best the season finale of a television show.
At compline, we listened to scripture, to the words of more great poets like Langston Hughes and Denise Levertov. We sang in harmony. We worshiped the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
How do we speak to the skeptical unaffiliated people of our nation? Perhaps, first we reconnect with the beauty of holiness, and then let the Lord speak through us.
When I ran for State Representative, I remember being struck by the importance of the verse from the psalms, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” It struck me that most politicians will say what they think is expedient and not what is rooted in their core beliefs to get elected. I wonder how often people in the church, trying to reach the skeptical unaffiliated do the same thing.
The title, “Love Bade Me Welcome” comes from George Herbert’s poem “Love”.
LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.
I entered this conference like the guest in Herbert’s poem, guilty of dust and sin, but Love did bade me welcome and made itself manifest at compline on the first day of the conference.
Recently, I attended the OMMA conference about videos at Internet Week. One of the best talks was by Gary Osifchin of Mondelez, the parent company of Honey Maid graham crackers. He spoke about their “wholesome” campaign. He spoke about how people see graham crackers as wholesome, but that people often associate “wholesome” with “old-fashioned” or “boring”. In order to stand out in this world of constant advertising and marketing everywhere, you need to present a strong point of view.
He suggested that to make “wholesome” relevant and exciting against this background, you need to look at cultural truths, for example, the changing face of American families. It is a risky strategy, because there will always be people who rebel against changes in cultural truths, but I believe that Honey Maid’s “Wholesome” campaign was very successful and helped to get people to look at how the world is changing.
He spoke about how he hoped other brands would follow suit and how the wholesome campaign is not just a single set of ads, but is a ten year campaign. On twitter, they are using the hashtag “#ThisIsWholesome”. It made me stop and think about how this could be done for other brands.
“This is…” I work at a health center serving vulnerable populations. What would a campaign about “This is health” look like? Would it talk about programs we do to help people eat healthier food? Get more exercise? Read more? Become more involved in their community? All of that fits into broader discussions about health, including social determinants of health and health equity.
What about my run for State Representative? Can we change “This is politics” into something positive? Can we talk about caring for the vulnerable amongst us, instead of how so much politics of today seems to be about grabbing what you can for yourself at the expense of everyone else around you? Instead of politics, should we talk about governance, citizenship, responsibility, or some related idea? After all, it seems like the cultural truths are currently stacked up against any positive image of politics.
As I think about the phrase, “This is…”, various phrases come to mind. “This is… American Idol”. “This is Spinal Tap”, “This is water”, “This is my body, which is given for you”.
What do we want to declare as cultural truths? What do we hope such declarations will bring about?
“Do Not Fold, Bend, Mutilate or Spindle” The old phrase about computer punch cards in the sixties came to my mind Thursday as I attended OMMA Video as part of Internet Week in New York City. As experts talked about buying online video advertisements, based on increasingly sophisticated demographic information and programmatic buying, I had to wonder if the concern about being reduced to a number had far surpassed the greatest fears of those fifty years ago who protested the depersonalization that computers with their punch cards had brought.
Now, I understand the argument that improved targeting doesn’t depersonalize advertising, instead it makes it more specific, more personalized, but my mind drifts to the work of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”. Increasingly, our interactions have become transactional. They are losing the personal touch, the “I and thou”, the chance for transformation.
Perhaps that is because everything is becoming more and more about the numbers. We focus on ROIs, KPIs and how all of this ultimately relates to our “net worth”. At one point, I tweeted, “The talk about data, measurement and automation makes me think of Wittgenstein: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
In contrast to all of this, the keynote speakers touched on something else, creativity. The first speaker, Mike Monello, CCO of Campfire, referenced Spreadable Media, Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. It sounds like I book I need to get.
Monello spoke about the reason people share content, to elevate their status, to define their community, and to strengthen bonds. It seems like this returns us closer to Buber. He spoke about putting the audience in the middle of the story, breaking down the fourth wall between the advertiser and the consumer and noted that people look for experiences, not content.
All of this comes to mind as I think about my campaign for State Representative. People are tired of politics, of the strategists that carefully run the numbers and craft messages to appeal to the largest demographic. I’ve been getting into discussions about this on Facebook recently.
For example, Whitney Hoffman, whom I met through Podcamp years ago, is running for State Representative. Recently, she wrote,
there seems to be a big gap between what politicians think folks need to know and what's effective, and how voters feel about it. For example, direct mail is a staple of politics, and data typically shows direct mail has a 1% conversion rate in retail, but very few people I talk to pay much attention to the glossy information that comes in the mail, and often toss it right away.
I had a great discussion with Whitney about this. It does seem like things like yard signs, bumper stickers, campaign websites, and direct mail, have little impact, other than showing that you’re a credible candidate. It is the same old politics by the numbers. But what we really need is politics that people will want to share, to define our communities and strengthen our bonds.
When people talk about content that gets shared online, they typically talk about cat videos. Cat videos make us feel good. Jane McGonigal talks about looking at pictures of cute animals in terms of building emotional resilience. It seems like there is an ever increasing need for emotional resilience, especially if you are at all politically active. So, the question that I asked of Whitney, and that I ask here is, how do we build emotional resilience into political discourse? Instead of sending out glossy direct mail, how can candidates reach out with messages that makes us emotionally stronger and builds our communities? What are the cat videos of your campaign?