Category Archives: Poems

This Is a New Year – by Howard Thurman

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This is a New Year. The calendar says so. I note the fact by marking it so when I wish to designate the day and the year as distinguished from some other day and year. It may be that my contract says so. It is indicated clearly in the lease I signed or the agreement I attested. It is curious how much difference can be marked between the two dates — December 31 and January 1.

Yet there are many things that move unchanged, paying no attention to a device like the calendar or arrangements such as contracts or leases. There is the habit pattern of an individual life. Changes in that are not noted by the calendar, even though they may be noted on the calendar. Such changes are noted by events that make for radical shifts in values or the basic rearrangement of purposes. There are desires of the heart or moods of the spirit that may flow continuously for me whatever year the calendar indicates. The lonely heart, the joyful spirit, the churning anxiety may remain unrelieved, though the days come and go without end.

But, for many, this will be a New Year. It may mark the end of relationships of many years’ accumulation. It may mean the first encounter with stark tragedy or radical illness or the first quaffing of the cup of bitterness. It may mean the great discovery of the riches of another human heart and the revelation of the secret beauty of one’s own. It may mean the beginning of a new kind of living because of marriage, of graduation, of one’s first job. It may mean an encounter with God on the lonely road or the hearing of one’s name called by Him, high above the noise and din of the surrounding traffic. And when the call is answered, the life becomes invaded by smiling energies never before released, felt, or experienced. In whatever sense this year is a New Year for you, may the moment find you eager and unafraid, ready to take it by the hand with joy and with gratitude.

  • Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas, 124 (1973).
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Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

Christmas PictureThere is much on my mind this Christmas Day, including the great joy to have my little family together and the deep sorrow for friends experiencing great loss, and my best response is to share three short poems from Howard Thurman’s “The Mood of Christmas” — a unity in trinity:

Christmas Is Yesterday:
The memories of childhood,
The miracle of Santa Claus,
The singing of carols —
The glow of being remembered.

Christmas Is Today:
The presence of absent ones,
The reminder of the generous act,
The need to love —
The need to be loved.

Christmas Is Tomorrow:
The miracle of faith,
The fulfillment of ancient hopes,
The reign of God —
The dying of Death in the land.

Christmas is yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

A Litany of Thanksgiving — by Howard Thurman

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In Your presence, O God, we make our Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

We begin with the simple things of our days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

For all these we make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

We bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that we have known:

Our mothers’ arms,

The strength of our fathers,

The playmates of our childhood,

The wonderful stories brought to us from the lives of many who talked of days gone by when fairies and giants and diverse kinds of magic held sway;

The tears we have shed, the tears we have seen;

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these we make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

We finger one by one the messages of hope that await us at the crossroads:

The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of our security,

The tightening of the grip of a single handshake when we feared the step before us in the darkness,

The whisper in our heart when the temptation was fiercest and the claims of appetite were not to be denied,

The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open page when our decision hung in the balance.

For all these we make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

We passed before us the mainsprings of our heritage:

The fruits of the labors of countless generations who lived before us, without whom our own lives would have no meaning,

The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;

The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp, and whose words could only find fulfillment in the years which they would never see,

The workers whose sweat has watered the trees, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations,

The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons, whose courage made paths into new worlds and far-off places,

The savior whose blood was shed with the recklessness that only a dream could inspire and God could command.

For all these we make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

We linger over the meaning of our own life and commitment to which we give the loyalty of our heart and mind:

The little purposes in which we have shared with our loves, our desires, our gifts,

The restlessness which bottoms all we do with its stark insistence that we have never done our best, we have never reached for the highest,

The big hope that never quite deserts us, that we and our kind will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the children of God as the waters cover the sea.

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel, I make as my Sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee, Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.

  • Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart, 147-149

This Unpredictable Life

18253094_119542288608447_7804326198149906432_n(1)We travelers, walking to the sun, can’t see
Ahead, but looking back the very light
That blinded us shows us the way we came,
Along which blessings now appear, risen
As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,
By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward
That blessed light that yet to us is dark.
– Wendell Berry, Given: Poems 74 (2006).

I first traveled to California ten years ago to attend the 64th Annual Pepperdine Bible Lectures.  At the time it seemed possible that it would be my first and only trip to beautiful Malibu (ironically blogging at the time, “I cannot imagine working in this gorgeous setting.”).  Life is funny.  By the next year, we were planning a crazy cross-country move to Pepperdine for law school with absolutely no idea that we would just stay—and “absolutely” absolutely no idea that I would ever return to full-time ministry.  So you can imagine the crazy déjà vu feelings this week when “Lecture Central” took up residence in my office for the 74th Annual Pepperdine Bible Lectures.

Life apparently is analogous to a box of chocolates (all rights reserved).

Life is unpredictable, and if you give me enough time to think about it I can pull my brain muscle.  What if we had stayed in Mississippi?  What if we had left California?  How did we really end up here?  Where are we headed now?  What’s for lunch?

But you know what?  I do know exactly how we got here: One day at a time.  And I’m pretty sure that’s how we will get wherever it is we find ourselves ten years from now, too.

Henri Nouwen wrote, “The real enemies of our life are the ‘oughts’ and the ‘ifs.’  They pull us backward into the unalterable past and forward into the unpredictable future.  But real life takes place in the here and now.”  I’m with Nouwen on this one.  I’m not good at it, but I’m with him.

Still, looking back every now and then, as Berry so beautifully described, provides nice motivation for the journey forward.

When the Song of the Angels Is Stilled – by Howard Thurman

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On this day after the celebration of Christmas, I share this fine poem by Howard Thurman for your thoughtful consideration:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

From “The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations” by Howard Thurman. © 1985 by Friends United Press.

‘Twas the Week Before Winter Break (at Pepperdine Law School)

sol‘Twas the week before winter break, when all through the law school
Not a creature was discussing the best evidence rule;
The students’ exams were all printed with care,
In hopes that the final grades soon would be there;

The students were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of CALI awards danced in their heads;
And the faculty in offices and staff at work stations
Were wishing that they had begun their vacations,

When out in the parking lot there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my desk to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the curtains and turned the little plastic thing that theoretically opens the mini-blinds.

The sun on the break of this morning so bright
Gave the lustre of mid-day, a beautiful sight,
When, what car did I see driving into my view,
But one with a bumper sticker: “I love judicial review.”

The driver was an expert in interpreting the law.
I knew in a moment it must be Dean Tacha.
Like a swift legal eagle she flew out of her car,
And called to her troops for an urgent sidebar;

“Dean Saxer, Dean Schultz, Dean DeWalt, and Dean Caron!
If he was still around, I’d call to Dean Perrin!
To the dean’s suite let’s run!  We have much work to do!
Let’s all meet up in the dean’s conference room!”

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the dean’s suite the administrators all flew,
With their blank legal pads and with Dean Tacha too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard in the deans’ suite
The shuffling and settling of associate deans’ feet.
As I ran up the stairs and was turning around,
In the front door Dean Tacha came with a bound.

She was dressed in blue and orange, from her head to her toe,
And her clothes were adorned with the Pepperdine logo;
A bundle of casebooks she had in her knapsack,
And looked like a law student lugging a backpack.

Her eyes — how they twinkled! her expression so merry!
Her gait was determined.  (I found it quite scary!)
I tried to keep up, though it wouldn’t be easy,
She works circles around me until I am queasy!

As she rushed in the conference room ready to go,
I marveled at the energy of this dean dynamo;
A wink of her eye and a twist of her head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

She spoke not a word, but went straight to her work,
And soon said, “I found it!” then turned with a jerk,
She arose from her chair and delivered her rule:
“Let there be peace on earth, and at Pepperdine Law School.”

She sprang to her car, to her team gave a whistle,
And away she flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard her exclaim, ere she drove out of sight,
HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD-NIGHT!

Summer of Twelve

SUMMER OF TWELVE

I hear tell we had another presidential election and that
London town hosted the Olympic Games,
But everything is hazy since that was
The summer my mother died.

Four years ago today.

Her traitorous liver transfigured her to a dark yellow
And took our sweet mother away from us.
“At least she didn’t have to suffer long” we said
To comfort ourselves.  To no avail.

Four years ago today.

I used to visit her office and unload my troubles as she
Patiently listened to my busy mind analyze the complexities of life.
I now suspect that she marveled and thought:
How did I make this strange man?  I wish she wouldn’t have left us

Four years ago today.

When she knew she was not long for this world she asked me to say
Words at her funeral.  I didn’t want to, but did, and made a
Blubbering fool of myself.  I’d do it again.  I’d do anything for her.
Even write an impromptu poem remembering what happened

Four years ago today.

– Al Sturgeon, Summer of ‘16

Fame

As I watch Michael Phelps tell Bob Costas that he was “on an express elevator to the bottom floor” after his initial rise to Olympic fame, and as I live in Malibu where celebrities live in secure fortresses, and as I see pretty much everything in this presidential election, and as I contemplate my own passion for distinction (to borrow Bruce Miroff’s great phrase), the following Hafiz poem comes to mind:

Two Bears

Once
After a hard day’s forage
Two bears sat together in silence
On a beautiful vista
Watching the sun go down
And feeling deeply grateful
For life.

Though, after a while
A thought-provoking conversation began
Which turned to the topic of
Fame.

The one bear said,
“Did you hear about Rustam?
He has become famous
And travels from city to city
In a golden cage;

He performs to hundreds of people
Who laugh and applaud
His carnival
Stunts.”

The other bear thought for
A few seconds.

Then started
Weeping.

Back from the Future

A couple of years ago I took StrengthsFinder 2.0 with our new law students as a part of their orientation.  StrengthsFinder is a test that reveals your greatest strengths, and the idea was to make sure that the new law students knew that they had strong points before law school did its thing and made them question whether they had any value at all.  I enjoyed the test and found it quite useful, but embarrassingly, messed up a bit at the first of the test, which kicked “brainiac” out of contention for one of my top five strengths.  Still, my top three—Discipline, Strategic, and Achiever—seemed spot on.

Recently, I retook the test alongside the entire law school staff and was careful to get it right from the start.  This time, my top three strengths from the first go-around came in as #1, #3, and #5—but #2 and #4 were new and spot on, too!  My second greatest strength, MIA the last time, is Futuristic according to StrengthsFinder.  “People who are especially talented in the Futuristic theme are inspired by the future and what could be.”  Oh yeah.  That’s me.

I have long believed that not only can our greatest strengths be our greatest weaknesses, but in fact they are our greatest weaknesses.  I don’t have to look hard at Futuristic to see how this is true with me—I can be so busy dreaming of the future that I miss out on the present.

A Wendell Berry poem in Given punches me in the gut on this particular point:

The Future

For God’s sake, be done
with this jabber of “a better world.”
What blasphemy! No “futuristic”
twit or child thereof ever
in embodied light will see
a better world than this, though they
foretell inevitably a worse.
Do something! Go cut the weeds
beside the oblivious road. Pick up
the cans and bottles, old tires,
and dead predictions. No future
can be stuffed into this presence
except by being dead. The day is
clear and bright, and overhead
the sun not yet half finished
with his daily praise.

I do think that looking ahead is important, and I value it as a strength, but looking ahead is important so that we see clearly how to act today.  If that element is missing, this supposed strength renders me nothing more than, to quote Berry, “a ‘futuristic’ twit.”

Don’t Keep Score

My friend, Andrew, gave me a gift titled, appropriately, The Gift, a book of poetry from Hafiz, the Great Sufi Master.  Reportedly, the poems may be more Daniel Ladinsky (the author/translator) than Hafiz, but either way the poetry is great fun.  I try to read a few each morning, and although I am not ready to call it yet, an early favorite has emerged.  Other than a meager attempt at a title for this blog entry, I leave this short poem to your individual interpretations.

THE SUN NEVER SAYS

Even
After
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe
Me.”

Look
What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the
Whole
Sky.