I’m not wired, I guess, to appreciate poetry very much. I haven’t read many poets, ancient or modern; I can’t even name a handful of them. (Songs, I suppose, are different for me somehow. Here I mean poetry meant to be read.)

I love the concept  of poetry, how it breaks open reality, inviting us into an alternative world or dimension of imagination. As Walter Brueggemann said in one of his classic books, poetry is “language that moves…, that jumps at just the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion, and pace” (Finally Comes the Poet: 3). It’s subversive speech, resisting the claims of the “rulers of this age” to define what is real, true, and worthy, a privilege that belongs only to the sovereign God. Poetry, as Brueggemann observes, is expansive, while prose (“a world organized by settled formulae”) is reductionistic.

There is one poet, however. that I have read and found inspiring, thought-provoking, and heart-opening. He is Rainer Maria Rilke, an early 20th-century writer. Recently, I ran across on Krista Tippett’s blog on HuffPost a haunting work of his, “Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29.” It has affected me so deeply that I must share it with you. The translation is by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows.

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.


Here is another of Rilke’s poems I find evocative of the hope of freedom perhaps we all cherish and the benefit of experiences, hard though they may be:

Dove that ventured outside, flying far from the dovecote: housed and protected again, one with the day, the night, knows what serenity is, for she has felt her wings pass through all distance and fear in the course of her wanderings.

The doves that remained at home, never exposed to loss, innocent and secure, cannot know tenderness; only the won-back heart can ever be satisfied: free, through all it has given up, to rejoice in its mastery.

Being arches itself over the vast abyss. Ah the ball that we dared, that we hurled into infinite space, doesn’t it fill our hands differently with its return: heavier by the weight of where it has been.


© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.


Disclaimer: This post contains negative comments about Indiana GOP Senate candidate Richard Mourdock. The statements are my personal views. They should not be construed as official statements from First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS or from me as pastor of the church.

Last Sunday, I asked the church school class I teach to share the dumbest statement they had ever heard. One member, a ruling elder (lay officer), said: “It was God’s will.”

After my initial shock and dismay at Richard Mourdock’s statements on Tuesday claiming that pregnancy from rape “is something God intended to happen,” I thought of that elder’s assessment of views that apparently maintain that a) God makes everything happen; and b) the speaker has a direct line to God so he or she is sure of what God wills/intends.

Mourdock has refused to apologize for the statement, which has brought derision and outrage.  And he has also blamed Democrats for twisting his words. He said: “‘For speaking from my heart, from the deepest level of my faith, I cannot apologize…. I would be less than faithful to my faith if I said anything other than life is precious. I think it is a gift from God. I don’t think God would ever want anyone harmed, sexually abused, or raped. I think it’s wrong when someone wants to take what I said and twist it’” (http://thehill.com/blogs/healthwatch/politics-elections/263843-mourdock-stands-by-abortion-view-says-dems-twisted-his-meaning).

The article I just cited, like many others, is a political piece. I haven’t seen much theological comment on Mourdock’s outrageous views, but then I don’t read that widely. I did see recently religion editor and Baptist Paul Brandeis Raushenbush’s take on the issue: “No God didn’t. There are some things that God doesn’t intend. At some point, sane religious people must insist that not everything was meant to happen, including rape — and including conception as the result of a rape”  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-raushenbush/richard-mourdock-god-abortion_b_2009718.html).

All I’ve read about his affiliation is that Mourdock is an “evangelical.” Given his comments, though, I think I could also safely label him as a hyper-Calvinist. The media have pointed out that his views come from his opposition to abortion, but they also sound to me like the statements of someone who believes in an extreme (and I would say, corrupt and mistaken) form of predestination. This spin on Calvin’s “horrific doctrine” (Calvin’s words) says that everything that happens is ordained by God, whether in the world at large or your or my personal lives. Every detail is planned out from before the foundation of the world for everybody for all time, from what you will have for breakfast tomorrow to whether or not I will go to heaven.

Here is a sample from the Westminster Confession of Faith (17th century), which was the only official statement of faith for the Presbyterian Church for a long time:  “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” Even this lovely little catechism answer from The Heidelberg Catechism, meant to provide assurance, could be troubling: “Q. What is your only comfort, in life and in death? A. That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation” (emphases mine).

People who need to believe God intends everything or causes everything to happen do so, in my view, because they need to be assured that somebody somewhere is in control. It doesn’t matter how horrific the implications are, like God intends a pregnancy from rape or caused your only child to be killed in combat or a car accident or ordained the Holocaust. These folk bracket those concerns because their immediate need is to be free of the fear that the universe is spinning down into chaos or humanity is sailing off the edge of the world with no one at the helm.

But ultimately such ideas—and the people who espouse them—are dangerous and wrong. They result in everything from hurt feelings (as at the funeral when someone tells you your loved one is dead because it was “God’s will”) to genocide, when those sure of whom God favors decide to slaughter their enemies in God’s name. They lead to laws that take away your freedom and mine to choose our own course of moral action and substitute the narrow viewpoint of a legislator who is sure he or she knows “what God intends.”

Much better to affirm that indeed God will ultimately be victorious and his dream of peace, freedom, justice, and love will prevail. But in the meantime, we cannot know with certainty what God wants in every particular nor is our life planned out to the smallest detail. That doesn’t scare me. It makes me feel free and grateful and determined to make the best choices I can, by God’s grace.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved. 

We must not allow governments to impose Christian faith by legislation, nor should we demand undue advantages for the church. The church must be free to speak to civil authorities, neither claiming expert knowledge it does not have, nor remaining silent when God’s Word is clear (A Declaration of Faith, a document commended to the Presbyterian Church [USA] for liturgy and study).

…[W]e consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters thst respect religion, as universal and inalienable. We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others (Presbyterian [USA] Book of Order F-3.0101b).

As I thought about what I wrote yesterday, I realized I may have left the impression that I wanted politicians to leave the Church alone , that the Church or more broadly, religion of whatever sort, could demand for itself the privilege of special attention by government to its viewpoints. That was not my meaning. I want to clarify with this postscript that I also believe the Church/religion needs to keep its collective nose out of the government’s business.

I mean that while religion in our nation can and should be a partner in conversations, it cannot expect that its viewpoints will be more respected or put into practice in legislation than any other sector of society, like science or medicine or the military or  those who are thoroughly secular or the individual exercising his or her right of conscience free of religious dictates. Any attempt to control, not merely speak to, the actions of government, such as we have seen in the past week about certain health programs, is to me is the height of arrogance.

Maybe because I’m a freedom-loving Presbyterian and American, but I don’t want some church hierarch dictating my actions. “For freedom Christ has set us free” and”God alone is Lord of the conscience.” Religion can and ought to speak, sometimes with a loud voice, on matters of justice. But what has happened in the national conversation recently sounds to me more like the arrogant demand for unwarranted and undeserved power.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham

“We do not even  wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others” (Presbyterian Church [USA] Book of Order F-3.0101b, stating an historic principle guiding Presbyterians).

Probably the sole reason I remain a Presbyterian (the mainline/oldline kind) is our commitment to freedom. Freedom of conscience, with God as its only Judge and Lord. Freedom from tyranny, which led Presbyterians to participate actively in the American Revolution. Freedom in liturgy, which means that while we have an official guide, the Directory for Worship, that very standard gives me a great deal of latitude.

At no time, contrary to the claims of some politicians these days, have I felt such religious liberty threatened. Are there IRS regulations forbidding me, as part of a not-for-profit, from endorsing candidates from the pulpit or on church letterhead? Yes, and I respect and obey those rules as good and proper. Must my congregation, in personnel matters, follow the laws concerning fair employment (Book of Order G-3.0106) or must I, as well as my ruling elders, report abuse, neglect and/or molestation (Book of Order G-4.0302)? Again, yes, and we do this not simply because the law requires it, but as a theological commitment. I don’t feel that following the law oppresses me or my church.

When these politicians scream about religious liberty being attacked or curtailed, so often it’s a smokescreen to draw attention away from other issues or else they mean that the bigotry and fear-mongering of their particular brand of “Christianity” is  being exposed for what it is. Do you see these same people worrying about the freedom of expression or inclusion of Muslims, Wiccans/pagans, atheists or even other Christians, in national life or local decision-making? No. More likely they are promoting suspicion and hatred against people who do not share the beliefs of their fundamentalist supporters, with their checklist of hot-button, litmus-test issues.

The real threat to religious liberty is when government makes one brand of faith of any stripe and anywhere along the conservative-liberal spectrum, the de facto national/state/local official religion. That’s done when the leaders use their offices as bully pulpits to promote their own denomination, rather than values that may be common to all. It happens when there is no religious diversity on boards and in cabinets or when governments adopt one religiously-influenced viewpoint as the official one.

I’m glad there is no religious test for “any office or public trust under the United States” (Article VI of the Constitution). I wish there were no such test, implicit or explicit, at any level of civil leadership. And the Bill of Rights protects government from religion and religion from government. That “wall of separation” (Thomas Jefferson) has served us well these many years.

Politicians, whoever you are, leave religion to the church, the synagogue, the mosque, and other bodies equipped and called to promote and practice it. Do your job, which is to govern with justice and promote the common good.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham

“‘God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or
beside it, in matters of faith or worship.’… Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable….”
(Book of Order, Presbyterian Church [USA], 2011-2013, F-3.0101).

“It is necessary to the integrity and health of the church that the persons who serve it
in ordered ministries shall adhere to the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity as
expressed in this Constitution. So far as may be possible without serious departure from
these standards, without infringing on the rights and views of others, and without obstructing the constitutional governance of the church, freedom of conscience with respect to the interpretation of Scripture is to be maintained. It is to be recognized, however, that in entering the ordered ministries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one chooses to exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds. His or her conscience is captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church so long as he or she continues to seek, or serve in, ordered ministry”
  (Book of Order, Presbyterian Church [USA], 2011-2013, G-2.0105).

As I mentioned last week, Missy, the dachshund we’re fostering, is terribly overweight. Her owner fed her bacon and eggs every day, and of course, being a hound, Missy ate every morsel. She had no idea that the food she was offered wasn’t good for her, that it didn’t provide balanced nutrition or that it would turn her into a waddling and unhealthy animal, twice the size her breed was supposed to be. All she knew was that the stuff in her bowl tasted good and was readily available. It was up to her owner to make sure the dog was fed a balanced diet, as well as trained to heed commands, regulIMG_0645arly checked by the vet and kept safe and warm.

Missy, fed such fattening fare, was almost loved to death. A miniature dachshund simply cannot sustain that kind of body weight without consequences for her heart, her back and her general wellness. I call the way she was treated “benign neglect” or “loving abuse.” Her owner, for whatever reason, drew no boundaries at what Missy ate or what she was allowed to do. When we got her, along with being fat, she knew no commands and acted as if she were the Alpha Dog. Fortunately, she seems much happier now and recognizes the hierarchy of the pack, though she still has some work to do and weight to lose.

Our whole experience with Missy has led me to reflect on the matter of discipline and boundaries. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how hard it is to find that Goldilocks zone (“just right”), the “sweet spot,” in matters of personal freedom. What are appropriate boundaries for children and youth that encourage independent thought and nurture the love of freedom, yet are not so broad and open as to bring on confusion and endanger their safety? When is discipline too strict, the environment so conformist and repressive that it creates resentment and the desire to escape?

When it comes to matters of religion, the middle ground is especially hard to hold, the Goldilocks zone particularly difficult to discover. Some want to reduce faith to an ever-lengthening list of don’ts, while on the other extreme, whatever seems right to our consciences must be in accord with God’s way. Presbyterians are supposed to know better, given our standard quoted at the beginning of this piece. But we also tend to slide off one side of the moral and ethical plateau time after time.

Fortunately or I should say, providentially, the grace of God both restrains our worst impulses and empowers us to do the good we would otherwise not even contemplate. It turns out that the Goldilocks zone is wherever God, who is both merciful and just, is at work.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt” (John Philpot Curran, Irish judge, July 10, 1790).

Eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty” (Andrew Jackson, March 4, 1837).

What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias” (Judge Learned Hand, May 21, 1944).

Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Jesus, Matthew 26:41).

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers…” (Paul, Romans 13:11).

Vigilare (Latin,keep awake”)

Funny how my mind works. I was out pulling weeds the other day when I thought of the famous statement usually quoted as “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom”  (erroneously attributed to Thomas Jefferson). I suppose that at the same time I was thinking about my blog for this week, I was reflecting on how I have to keep a constant watch on the weeds or they’ll take over. And for good or ill, this post was the result of my down-in-the-dirt, on my knees meditation.

Freedom is extremely important to me. It forms a kind of trinity of essentials, along with love and truth. That’s why I’m glad I’m an American, blessed with a Bill of Rights that grants my neighbors and me freedom to worship (or not) as we please, to speak, to enjoy a press not under state control, to assemble with others peaceably, and to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Freedom is also one of the reasons I have chosen to remain a Presbyterian. One of our dearest historic principles is that “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship” (Book of Order, Presbyterian Church [USA], G-1.0300). Another important viewpoint from my tradition is that God is completely free and sovereign. Related to that affirmation is the recognition of the human tendency to try to usurp the place of God or to worship something or someone else in the place of God. Thus we become tyrants and seek to force others to bend to our control and our ideas (cf. Book of Order, G-2.0500a[4]).

For me, the greatest threat to our freedom comes not so much from outside enemies, but from those tendencies toward tyranny and idolatry that we have within ourselves. Because of our fear, lust for power, drive for control, ignorance, and whatever else, we want to restrict the freedom of others while maintaining the broadest possible set of rights and greatest array of choices for ourselves.

Ironically, some of the most vehement opponents of freedom are found among those who name the Name of Christ and profess love of America. Many preach and act against reproductive choice. Others (falsely) proclaim America a “Christian nation” and long for our land to be a theocracy, governed, of course, by their narrow interpretation of God’s law. Still more rail against the separation of church and state and/or try to have fundamentalist doctrine enacted into law or replace sound science in our schools. Freedom of thought, of exploration, of relying on one’s own moral judgment go out the window. Those of a different faith or none are looked on with suspicion, made to feel second-class or regarded as intellectually and morally inferior.

But don’t be smug, progressives! Just because you or I might have a kinder, more tolerant heart or a broader mind doesn’t mean we won’t be susceptible to the same tendencies toward tyranny and idolatry we see in fundamentalists and the Religious Right. We merely express them in a different way. So we need to be eternally vigilant, ever on the watch for those weeds of prejudice, hatred, and fear in our own lives that would lead us to be unfaithful to the One who said his Truth would set us free. Root them out lest they choke the good seed of the liberating Word. Freedom is too precious a gift not to be thus protected and allowed to grow and flourish in our hearts and minds and in those of our neighbors.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham