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Bring on the Poets: refuse the operation

Text: Romans 8:27-34


Libel Mueller, an American, German-born, Pulitzer Prize winning poet has penned a poem that I love more each time I read it. In her poem, monet refuses the operation, Mueller writes:

Doctor, you say there are no halos

around the streetlights of Paris

and what I see is an aberration

caused by old age, an affliction.

I tell you it has taken me all my life

to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,

to soften and blur and finally banish

the edges you regret I don’t see,

to learn that the line I called the horizon

does not exist and sky and water,

so long apart, are the same state of being.

Fifty-four years before I could see

Rouen cathedral is built

of parallel shafts of sun,

and now you want to restore

my youthful errors: fixed

notions of top and bottom,

the illusion of three-dimensional space,

wisteria separate

from the bridge it covers.

What can I say to convince you

the Houses of Parliament dissolve

night after night to become

the fluid dream of the Thames?

I will not return to a universe

of objects that don’t know each other,

as if islands were not the lost children

of one great continent. . .

Doctor, if only you could see

how heaven pulls earth into its arms

and how infinitely the heart expands

to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

(from Lisel Mueller’s, Alive Together)


The doctor in Mueller’s poem wants Claude Monet, the French Impressionist painter, to consent to surgery. Monet suffered cataracts in his later years, and yet refused to have them removed. The doctor wants Monet to return to normal sight, to stop seeing aberrations caused by aging eyes. The doctor wants to “cure” Monet so the artist can return to his youthful fixed notions of “top and bottom,” of right and wrong – of clear, binary ethics.

Oddly enough in this poem, Monet fears that it is the doctor whose sight is distorted. Monet wishes the doctor could see what he does, could see “gas lamps as angels,” could see “how heaven pulls earth into its arms.” To the prose minded, Monet’s response seems ridiculous, even wasteful. Who is he to turn down such seemingly essential surgery? Who in his right mind would turn down such a procedure that would allow him to see clearly again?

Long before Monet refuses the operation, the Apostle Paul does the same. An opus to his refusal is his magnificent letter to Rome. Ever since childhood, Paul has seen the world with 20-20 vision, a world of religious regularity from his circumcision just days after his birth, a world of Jewish identity set off against all other lesser identities, a world in which Gentiles were contaminants, unclean contagion to the righteous, a world in which Jesus was just one more religious huckster who got what he deserved.

In his letter to Rome, Paul explains his change in sight, how his once 20-20 vision was really only a religious illusion. He confesses that for quite some time that he suffered the “youthful errors” of fixed categories of who’s in and who’s out, of who belongs to God and who has no place in the heart of God.

Paul’s critics sound like Monet’s doctor as they call the Apostle back to the clear vision of his youth. They tell Paul that his vision has become cloudy, distorted, and is leading him to spill out religious nonsense. Once a proud Pharisee, they fear that now Paul has become delusional, seeing things that no clear-sighted Pharisee would ever see.

The proud cataract-bearing Paul tells the Romans, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” The youthful Paul would have easily answered that question: “We do. The people of the covenant. The people of the ten commandments. The people of God’s law. God’s chosen people of Abraham and Moses, of Sarah and Esther.”

The more seasoned Paul refuses to return to such a restrictive vision of God and God’s people; he refuses to have the operation, refuses to have his so-called “distorted” sight corrected. Paul will not return to the binary world of “us” and “them.” Along with Monet in Mueller’s poem, Paul declares,

I tell you it has taken me all my life

to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,

to soften and blur and finally banish

the edges you regret I don’t see,

to learn that the line I called the horizon

does not exist and sky and water,

so long apart, are the same state of being.

It would be a stretch to describe the Apostle Paul as a poet in any of his letters, including his letter to the church in Rome. Even so, there are moments when Paul soars with poetic eloquence in Romans, soars beyond his well-reasoned theological argument into an evocative world where

the Houses of Parliament dissolve

night after night to become

the fluid dream of the Thames


In the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul’s poetry overwhelms his prose and has many of the distinct marks of Mueller’s imagery:

Doctor, if only you could see

how heaven pulls earth into its arms

and how infinitely the heart expands

to claim this world, blue vapor without end.


Sounding less like a defense attorney arguing a case and more like a poet painting with words, Paul asks: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, nakedness, or peril, or sword?” In that very question, heaven pulls earth into it. God, through Christ, pulls us into infinity, into transcendence. Then, the poet-preacher Paul hits his full stride: “I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depths, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Just like Monet’s aging, distorted vision helped him see the buildings of Parliament dissolve into the Thames, so Paul’s cataract vision helped him see that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, a vision that pulls us into God’s transcendence. Powers, heights, depths dissolve day after day after day to become the fluid reality of God with us.

It was my first night on call as a chaplain at a Richmond Memorial Hospital. I had spent two years in classes at Union Seminary and I was sure that I was prepared for any pastoral situation. I was so wrong. Just as I fell asleep in the on-call room, my beeper sounded. I headed to the emergency room to meet with a large family, frantically worried about the accidental gunshot wound that the mother had suffered earlier in the evening. The longer I stayed in the waiting room, the larger the crowd grew.

Hours passed with no news. I did not know what to do. Finally, needing to do something, I found an ER nurse who informed me that the mother had died an hour ago and the doctor had gone back into another surgery and wanted me to tell the family.

I had no words to tell this family. They were absolutely sure that the mother would live and would be back home and in her regular routine in no time. What could I say? I would not insult them with preacher words about their mother having gone to “a better place” or that “God was ready to take her home.” Those words felt hollow and limp in the face of such a senseless tragedy and inestimable pain.

By wisdom greater than my own, the Spirit led me to the poetic question Paul asks in Romans 8: “What then are we to say about these things?” When I had no words to say, Paul’s poetry was sufficient, “Nothing – Nothing – Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – not even this horrendous, untimely, accidental death.”

Throughout my ministry, I have had the rare privilege of standing with beloved friends in hospice rooms and later by gravesides where the harsh prose of death has appeared to be the clear victor. In all of those times, personally and as a pastor, it is the poet Paul who has helped me see beyond my “youthful errors,” to see “how heaven pulls earth into its arms,” to know that there is “nothing” that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Throughout my ministry, I have sought the wisdom of Paul and Monet, the wisdom to refuse the operation, to see the world not as culture and family, schooling and white heterosexual privilege has taught me to see it, but to see it as God invites us to see it in the person of Jesus and the poetry of Paul.

So, I say, bring on the poets for

I will not return to a universe

of objects that don’t know each other,

as if islands were not the lost children

of one great continent.

Bring on the poets for

I am convinced that neither death nor life,

nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come,

nor powers, nor heights, nor depths,

nor anything else in all creation

will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Bring on the poets for they are the ones who give us the courage, the wisdom, and the tenacity to refuse the operation.

AMEN


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