Palestinian shepherd

Communion Meditation: The Lord is My Sheperd

When my children were younger, one of our favorite books to read to them was an illustrated picture book of Psalm 23 by the artist Tim Ladwig. The words of the picture book are simply the King James version of the psalm, illustrated by a day in the life of an African American brother and sister. The pictures are simple — the boy and girl get up in the morning, their grandparents serve them breakfast, they go to school and then come home in the evening to a big dinner, warm bath, and comforting bedtime.

The words of the psalm, combined with Ladwig’s illustrations, show us how God cares for these two children. Small details in the illustrations — a family Bible, a stained glass window of Jesus — suggest that their grandparents and teachers are people of faith. Potential danger and hardship surround the children. Some rough-looking young men give the children a hard look on their way to school, and the absence of their parents suggest difficulties in their young lives. But this is the message of the Psalm — God cares for us in the middle of our messy, dangerous lives.

It’s amazing that we can relate so easily to yhis Hebrew poem, written 2,500 years ago, set squarely in the context of David’s life as a shepherd, soldier, and king[1]. It opens with the powerful image of God as a shepherd caring personally for us – his sheep – with food, water, rest, and guidance. I can imagine young David herding his own sheep and meditating on God’s care for himself.

The second stanza darkens the mood – the speaker is now travelling through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet God still protects him. The rod and staff, the tools that a shepherd uses to herd his sheep, now serve as defensive weapons, protecting the sheep from wolves, poachers, and other dangers. Whether facing Goliath in battle, or on the run from Saul the mad king, David had many opportunities to rely on God’s protection.

The final stanza of the poem shows us a celebration – a great feast! Enemies are still present, but the mood is joyful. Tim Ladwig illustrates this verse by showing the children enjoying a delicious homecooked meal with their grandparents while the unsavory elements of their neighborhood pass by on the sidewalk outside. I always imagine this a huge outdoor buffet on picnic tables draped with red checked tablecloths.

The psalm began with simple provisions: food, water, rest. Now, however, we celebrate a lavish feast, with more food and drink than we can handle. The psalm ends with eternal promises of goodness and righteousness. English has a difficult time translating Hebrew poetry, in part because modern English has so many more words than ancient Hebrew. In Hebrew poetry, certain words grow in importance and meaning, to the point that they are like complex, booming chords played on a pipe organ whenever they appear. Tov and chesed — goodness and righteousness — are two of these words. They are symbols of the work that God is doing in the world: goodness, righteousness, loving-kindness, everything-is-right-ness. More than just a feast of food and drink, God invites us to a feast of making everything right with the world, beginning with ourselves.

Photo via Flickr by Joe Catron

  1. Though traditionally attributed to King David, the Hebrew subtitle — literally “a psalm of David” — is ambiguous. It could mean that David is the author, but it could also mean that the psalm is simply about David or written in reference to him.  ↩
A place to rest

Resting Securely

Long weekends are hard for me. Vacations are even worse. Regular old weekdays I can handle: I get up at the same time, start my morning routine (with or without kids, depending on the time of year), and leave for work. At work, the first thing I do is start a new day’s entry in my work journal, list out any appointments I have, and identify any tasks that I need to get done that day. Throughout the day, if I get off track or distracted, I can return to that initial entry for the day and reorient myself to what I should be doing.

When I’m off work, though, it can be hard for me to relax. I often have a nagging feeling that I ought to be doing more: writing more, working in the yard more, exercising more, fixing up the house more, playing with my kids more. Instead of a day for rest and restoration, the day becomes filled with guilt and regret.

What’s going on here? What’s behind this sense that every day, even a day of vacation and rest, has to used for maximum productivity? Why is resting so difficult?

The root issue is the false idea that the worth of a day is measured in how much has been accomplished. By extension, the worth of a life is measured in the same way. How much have I gotten done? How many tasks have I checked off my list? How does my list compare to everyone else’s?

But the worth of a life is not measured in this way. A life has inherent worth, even if it seems futile or wasted. The worth of a life – the worth of my life – is based on the truth that a human life is made in the image of God. Each day of my life is worthy, even if nothing gets checked off my list.

I can rest securely from my labors because there is great value in simply being. Doing has its place – many places, in fact – but we have to make space for being. If we don’t, then instead of resting, we will collapse from exhaustion. Our bodies will force us to rest, whether we want to or not.

On this Labor Day, and on every day of rest, remember in whose image you are made. Remember your inherent worth as a person. Take pride in the good work you have accomplished at the appropriate times. And rest securely in the knowledge that God is with you.

Photo credit: Angelo Amboldi via Flickr

[Review] Glynn Young’s Poetry at Work

This review of Glynn Young’s Poetry at Work was originally published by the Englewood Review of Books.

Poetry at Work
Poetry at Work by Glynn Young (T.S. Poetry Press, 2013)

This book, the first of T.S. Poetry Press’s Masters in Fine Living series, is intended to be read slowly and reflectively. Poetry at Work consists of 20 short, practically poetic chapters, each offering a few pages of thoughts about a specific area of work, along with a poetic exercise and, in many chapters, a few lines of Young’s own poetry about his work. The chapters largely deal with Young’s own experiences with turning to poetry for encouragement, inspiration, and comfort during his career in speechwriting, public relations, and social media. He wants readers to share his discovery that poetry can be used to discover beauty and purpose in the everyday.

Key to the book is this passage:

Rather than seeing poets as outsiders speaking into the corporate world I believe, that poetry already exists within business and work. Though they may be largely ignored and unrecognized, I’ve seen poets and poetry within the business world — insiders if you will or vital to the ongoing operation and success of what we call work. They just need to be given the freedom to do what they do best: help navigate uncharted territory and speak with poetic precision to lead the way.

It took me several chapters (which wasn’t long; Young is an efficient writer) to catch on the purpose of his project. This wasn’t a book about poetry, per se, at least not in the way that I expected. While the first few chapters feature famous “working poets,” such as the physician William Carlos Williams, the insurance executive Wallace Stevens, and ad man Dana Gioia, and there are a number of fine poems about the topic of work throughout the book, Young is less concerned with the study and craft of poetry than with using the tools and habits of poetry to inform our life at work.

Young wants his readers to think poetically about their work and to write poetry as a way of understanding and processing their work. The vignettes about poets and their jobs stop early in the book, but every chapter includes a poetic exercise, encouraging the reader to reflect on a particular aspect of work and write about it: the commute, the office, the boss, layoffs, retirement.

Young finds poetry in unexpected places. A few of his chapters are titled “The Poetry of Vision Statements,” “The Poetry of the Organization Chart,” and even, God help us, “The Poetry of PowerPoint.” Just as I was wondering whether Young was taking this gimmick too far, “The Poetry of Unemployment” and “The Poet Blogs the Layoff” brought out moments of real depth from the theme. Not every chapter paid off so well, though; in “The Poetry of the Vision Statement,” for example, Young might have been pushing to discover poetry that simply wasn’t there.

Some of the best moments of the book came when Young reflected on the value of poetry in his own life and connects specific moments with poems and poetic themes. In the chapter on unemployment, Young introduces us Richard Cole’s terrific “October Layoffs” (available online at Cole’s website). I would have enjoyed more moments like these, and I could easily see a companion volume — Poetry of Work, perhaps? — collecting poems about work.

Poetry at Work would be a good resource for someone who wants to begin writing poetry or incorporate poetic reflection in his daily routine, or who would like a different take to the practice of journaling. More experienced students of poetry may wish that Glynn Young had gone into more depth in his explorations of poetry and the lives of poets, but they will recognize in Young their own love of the art.