Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sacred Stories: a poem

What are we who have lost belief
to do with these sacred books, these stories,
which, for some of us, were etched
on our hearts before we could even read?
Shall we lose them as well?
For me, I cannot.
There will always live inside me the story
of the man who flew to heaven
in a chariot of fire, or the king who went mad
and lived in the forest as a beast,
or the son who went to war
with his father, and died.
King David crying, “Absolom, Absolom,
My son, O my son!” still brings tears
to my eyes.

Or what of the long-haired hero
who slew an army with an ox-bone?
And then, even after they’d blinded him,
brought down the palace of his enemies
in a final act of defiance?
What about the ax-head that floated in the river,
or the man who lived for a while
in the belly of a whale?

Even now, I imagine a picture book
given to me by my grandparents,
full of illustrated Bible stories.
To a child, these stories were different
from Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein’s poems,
perhaps because of the different tone
with which my mother read them to me,
These stories burned with sacred fire,
like the story of Elijah, who called down
fire from heaven on Mt. Carmel
to defeat the prophets of Baal.

When I think of these stories,
I imagine my grandparents’ cabin
in Endeavor, Wisconsin, and my grandma
Sally’s well-worn, hi-lighted, and annotated
large print Living Bible, and the way her
wrinkled hands would pass gently
over the thin pages, and the way
my grandpa Glenn’s voice would
tremble as he read from Daily Guideposts.

What are we who have lost belief
to do with these sacred books, these stories
which we cannot tear from our hearts
even if we wanted to?  Somewhere in India,
a mother is telling her child the story of
Garuda, the mighty bird, who single-handedly
went to war with the gods, and through his bravery
lifted the curse which had tormented his mother.
Somewhere in Iran, a father is telling his son
the story of the prophet Muhammad’s
Night Journey, in which he flew to Jerusalem
upon the flying horse/man Buraq, and then to the
seven levels of heaven, where he found
sacred wisdom.

In Spain, archeologists unearthed
several small stones which had been
hand-painted thousands of years ago
and left in a cave.  The painted stones
are believed to have had some religious
significance, though we have no idea what.
What stories lay hidden in the stones?
It has something to do with the
discovery of fire, and the stories people
told themselves around the flickering
warmth, a defense against the
great darkness, stories told in hushed
and earnest ones, as they looked upward
at the stars and inward, into the fire.

One could spend a lifetime

reading Hindu scriptures alone.
Buddhist monks make complex, multi-colored
sand mandalas, one painted grain at a time.
The mandalas are meant to give an outer map
of the cosmos, and an inner map of the soul. 

What are we who have lost belief
to do with the story of the prodigal son,
of the woman healed by touching the hem
of his garment, of the creation of the world,
of the great flood, of David and Goliath,
of a lush garden, guarded by an angel
with a flaming sword, of the fall of man.
I am the prodigal son.  I am the woman
at the well.  I am the wicked king who
built statues to false gods.  I am the righteous
king who tore those statues down.
I am the lonely prophet, fed by ravens
in the wilderness, my tongue
touched by a flaming ember.

“What is truth?” Pilate asked Jesus
before having him crucified. 
In that moment, was it true that
God incarnate stood among mortals,
about to die for their salvation? 
Or was this another failed revolutionary
(many came before, many more would come after),
executed for the good of the Empire?
Can both stories be true?
Is it possible that, in those moments,
Jesus himself wondered what stories
people might tell about him? 

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