The Road to Emmaus

The Road to Emmaus

Yesterday I drummed up the courage to went to church. Both services.

It took a bit of courage because I was slated to speak briefly about my experience in the psalms. The Rabbi (Brian Morgan) was preaching from Luke 24, the story of Cleopas and his wife, Mary, arguing along the road to Emmaus as they try to make sense of the events that had taken place in Jerusalem just a few days before, the events we know of as the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. I wanted to share here what I shared there…


I spent a year traveling through the first book of the Psalter, going one psalm at a time. In the early part of my year in the Psalms, it was like magic, like being in love. It was easy and every turn of the page, every line of poetry revealed something new about who God is and how He sees me. But the season turned, as all seasons must, and when it did it turned toward lament. I spent many months grieving – grieving wounds I didn’t even know I had, learning to let tears heal the past and make the present holy.

A funny thing happened there, deep in lament. As I learned to speak my truest self to God, I began to see in completely new ways the depth of my sin, my utter and complete inability to become the woman after God’s own heart. And so my journey took a new direction, now into the wilderness – but this was unlike any wilderness I had experienced before. Instead of shame there was feasting. Alone and bereft I discovered God’s presence to be more than enough for me.

At last I came to learn this was the destination of my psalms journey – the moment of awakening to an unearthly gratitude for God’s presence and the sure knowledge that the greatest gift He gives us is Himself and eyes wide open to see Him.

With the exception of those first few months in the psalms, what most characterized my psalms journey though was dissonance. Over and over I was ushered in to sacred space where there were precious few answers, where tension dominated, where God’s invitation to me was to loosen my grip, resist the need to pin it all down, practice holding the mystery of it all. I finally came to realize that the journey itself – the walking – was the thing. That the best part was the gaping, scary space that lies between starting and finishing.

It’s a place I would give almost anything to get back to, but God never takes us back does He? I can’t tell you how many times in the two years since I finished my book I have felt like the Pevensie children from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, grimly waiting for train in Paddington station but really what they are waiting for is the magical pull back to Narnia, back to Aslan, back to technicolor life.

So when Brian corralled me last weekend to see if I would stand in as Mary, Cleopas wife, I agreed because for me the Road to Emmaus is the road to Narnia, the road made by walking. I love the picture of these two people, arms and words flailing as they argue and debate and wonder, then joined by a stranger who sets their hearts on fire with a story so epic it simply has to be true because who could make up something like that?

I love the road to Emmaus. I love it so much I even wrote a poem about it.

When I wrote this poem two years ago, I was just beginning a new journey into trying to grasp the humanity of Jesus. I had realized in my psalms year that I related most of the time to Jesus as divine and grasped next to nothing of Jesus the human being. I couldn’t get past the idea that Jesus was like Superman, disguised as Clark Kent but really on the inside a superhero.

Like Thomas, I needed to put my hands on his scars. Not the ones from the crucifixion but the everyday scars that life had etched on his face – disappointment, frustration, discouragement, doubt, rejection, shame, heartbreak.

My Emmaus poem is written from the point of view of Jesus, which I realize is a bit presumptuous, but Jesus seems to like presumptuous women so I’m going to forge ahead here unapologetically.

It explores the place where the humanity of Jesus and the promise of the Road to Emmaus intersect — the place where one man with faith to trust God through the ebb and flow of the confusing, convoluted human experience gave birth to a whole new creation that will never again groan under the weight of death.


The Road to Emmaus
Can you love whom you do not love
even crushed beneath the
weight of your own pain?

Can you swallow evil down
bile turning to acid yet
not vomit it out?

Can you hold rejection in your own hands
while it blisters and burns
trusting Me to heal the scars?

Can you let Me kill you with the hope
I’ll raise you from the grave
and not forget?

I think I knew from that first moment
Dove resting on My head
How it all would end
Not the horror of it, mind you
No one could have foreseen that.

Can you feel the welts rise on your back
from the lash that loves to
separate flesh from bone?

Can you hold your tongue amid snarls of accusation
when you know better
when you know all there is to know?

Can you face the man who thinks he is your enemy
grip the table as he strikes you in the face
see him convulsed in confusion and fear?

Can you let your tears mix freely with your blood
without needing to explain
from whence they came?

Can you follow Me there
where theology fails and
evil plays every card?

Can you live without answers?
walk an untrod path?
die for a man’s choice to hate you?

Will you follow Me

Then take My hand
end My loneliness
walk with Me
to the cross
the tomb
wait for Me
to rise
journey with Me
to Emmaus
hear it all explained
until the ground
beneath our feet
turns to gold
in the New Jerusalem.

Mary and Martha

Mary and Martha

A little lament poetry to get me back into blogging and kick off the week. Because for me, when starting over is the only next thing to do, you start with tears.

Mary and Martha

Mary and Martha
Evangelical memes,

The one approved by Jesus
But excluded by His disciples

Who love nothing more
Than their boys club

Whitewashed with welcome
But locked from the inside

Holy Writ glued to the door
Edited to read: “Equal but separate.”

Leaning heavy on hope she wonders
How long, Oh Lord? How long?

Why won’t Yeshua let me in?

The other rebuked by Jesus
But applauded by His disciples

Who love nothing more
Than the labor she provides

Conditional inclusion a
Faustian bargain:

Her soul exchanged for the
Promise to play by the rules

She kneels to separate lentils from ash
Wondering at an unnamed ache.

Yeshua isn’t even here.

From the Rabbi: “When Evil Reigns Unrestrained”

From the Rabbi: “When Evil Reigns Unrestrained”

There are times in our spiritual pilgrimage when it seems as if the whole world is set against us and we are confronted with evil in all its darkest hues. What does our worship look like then? In Psalm 5 malicious liars (Absalom and his council) have banded together and threaten King David’s life with a military coup, forcing the king to abandon his the city in a shameful, humiliating exit (2 Sam 15-16). Bruce Waltke comments on David’s faith in the midst of this evil context and I offer my personal reflections in the poem that follows.

In Psalm 5 corporate Israel typifies the corporate solidarity of the Lord Jesus Christ and his church whose life is threatened by fraud and deceit. Christ comforts his church, warning: “Slaves are not greater than their master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20). In the alchemy of grace, God uses nefarious enemies to drive us to prayer and so to know him better and to participate more fully in redemptive history.[1]

Reflections on Psalm 5

The Watchtower
Caught in the crucible of evil, gashed
and bleeding through the terrors of the night,
your ’ebed[2] ever so carefully arranges
his well honed words on the altar;
lit with soul-fire,
they ascend like an ’olah[3] consumed in smoke –
a ringing cry splits the dawn
darkness flees
and our sentinel is seen standing
eyes fixed upon another place,
waiting for you in the watchtower.

Watching, waiting, gazing, penetrating –
its seems so foreign to my divided
distracted, doing heart,
but what little of it I have tasted,
has sent me longing for more
The Morgue
Caught in the crucible of evil
our ‘ebed is forced to stand up
and take a good long look at evil in the eye.
It is a dreadful trip to the morgue,
who can endure an autopsy?
But the medical examiner is relentless,
he pulls back the sheet, hands you the knife and says,
“Take him apart piece by piece.
He was a chain smoker, but don’t worry,
he’s dead, though he is still breathing.”
The gruesome task turns your world around
there are no more greys, or self-seeking lies
only flaming, everlasting truth
and the invitation to dine at Le Meurice
on the rue de Rivoli with Royalty.
Who could refuse?
If I’m honest…
I must confess I want to dine
in all the wanton extravagance of You,
yet I dread the thought of doing
what my father[4] did in the morgue.
Who will I see when the examiner
pulls back the sterile sheet…
will it be me?

The Party
From the towering heights of the watchtower,
out of reach of ribald rebels and bloodthirsty assailants
our ‘ebed peers past history’s horizon and sees
an explosion of light that sets things aright.
When the smoke clears
“unblemished eyesights now pierce time,”[5]
the future leaps out of its holding tank
to invade the painful present,
infecting everything it touches with simchah[6]
that spontaneous, unrestrained, riotous joy
that overtakes all our sensibilities,
such that even the Pope lifts his robes
to dance unabashedly like David before the ark of God.
It is a crucible of joy that remains and sustains,
it is perhaps the greatest gift poetry can give us,
or as we say among the “Men of Monday Night”
as we pass the cup and look into our brother’s eyes,
“It doesn’t get any better than this!”

[1] Bruce K. Waltke, James M. Houston & Erika Moore, The Psalms as Christian Lament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 24-25.

[2]ebed is Hebrew word for “servant.”

[3] ’olah is the Hebrew word for the “whole burnt offering” that was completely consumed in smoke.

[4] My father, Dr. Wendell Morgan, was a surgeon. But the image is dual edged. In one sense, Saul was David’s father, and the fear of every son is inheriting their father’s sins.

[5] This line is taken from Ionatan Ille’s Romanian poem “Vecernie,” translated by Marcelus Suciu.

[6]simchah” – the wondrous Hebrew term for unrestrained, full-bodied, spontaneous joy.

Poetry Friday — Psalm 9 &10

Its Friday … which means psalms poetry!

So many of David’s psalms grapple with the enemy. For David, the enemy was usually very specific – Saul, Absalom, the Philistines and other tribal enemies. For me, a big part of engaging with the psalms is to name and fully describe whatever enemy I might be facing in that moment. And of course, my enemy must be re-described in New Covenant terms; my enemy is not another person, not a government or a worldly power, but the father of sin, Job’s Prosecutor, who mocks my weak faith and tempts me to see with physical eyes what can only be apprehended through spiritual ones.

In the Septuagint, Psalm 9 and 10 are one psalm composed as a Hebrew acrostic, so I have taken them together here in my own acrostic/chiastic poem.

The A, B, Cs of ‘My Enemy’
(Psalms 9 & 10)

Around me, my enemy has encamped
blocking all ways of escape and
pressing closer each moment

Brandishing weapons forged not from steel
but from my weakness, he assails me with words
that make me doubt You.

Crushed beneath his words piled high
like stones I am deaf to Your voice.
Why, Oh Lord, do You stand far off?

Delighting in my failure and Your silence
my enemy boasts of victory while
the world watches, unfazed.

(Enemy is everything I see that
contradicts anything You reveal.)

Deliver me, Oh Lord from my enemy
from everything that would tell me
who You are – but You.

Crush my enemy beneath the heel of
Your Word made flesh,
Jesus, whisperer to the deaf, so that

Before the congregation I can sing praise
from a whole heart with words
to tell of all Your wonders.

Around me, Oh Lord, You are a shield
turning away the arrows of my enemy and
pressing closer each moment.

Harold Fry, Walter Mitty and Me

I am a pilgrim at heart.

One of my earliest memories is of my dad coming to say goodbye to 4 or 5 year old me in the dark hours of the morning as he headed off on a business trip to a magical, faraway place called Switzerland. That seemed to me to be a lot like Disneyland but for grownups.

I can still smell his cologne, feel his freshly shaven face on mine as he whispered his love and promised soon to return, and I knew the black fancy car was already out front waiting to whisk him away to the airport and off to his adventure. More than anything in the world, I wanted to go too.

The urge to travel, or more specifically, to journey, I am sure is etched deep in my DNA, and throughout the years of my life I have traveled as time, opportunity and good fortune have permitted.books

I have been transported by the requisite trains, planes and automobiles. I have traveled on foot, by bike, by boat and, dare I admit it, even in my imagination, but some of my favorite journeys have been by way of books and the millisecond frames of provocative films. My own story seemed best told as a pilgrimage, a travelogue of interior places, even though physically I rarely left the confines of my living room. The Spirit, however, seems uniquely undeterred by what we think of as boundaries of time and space. The world of the psalms, I discovered, was a place where past, present and future were all accessible, where physical space dissipated in ways that defied explanation, where the longest, most arduous portions of my journey were mysteriously begun and completed in the span of a few silent, still, knee-bent hours.

And so it should come as no great surprise that when my family made a bee-line for the Waterstone bookstore that was a mere stones throw from our Trafalgar flat last week, I hiked up my skirts and joined the mad dash. It should come as no further surprise that the book I selected and started thumbing through on the walk back, nose book-ward and thus running into people and trees, was aptly titled, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. The book tells the story of a simple English man, a few years into retirement, who sets out one day — in yachting shoes and a slight jacket — to walk down the lane and post a letter to a dying friend, and ends up walking the entire way across England to deliver the letter in person. His motivations are breathtaking — simple, painful, archetypal — and like most motivations for most of us, they are inaccessible to him until he actually begins to walk. It is in the walking, in the hunger of journeying, the leaving behind and the stepping forward one foot after the other, that he matures, a process that begins with a wrenching self-knowledge and ends with self-offering and joyful abandon.

I finished The Unlikely Pilgrimage somewhere over Greenland. The plane was dark, most were asleep, and I felt an exquisite sadness that there was no one else on that plane who knew Harold Fry, no one with whom I could reflect upon his well-traveled road. I blew my nose and dried my tears, sat for a spell in the dark, and pondered it all. Finally, feeling somewhat blue at having to say goodbye to Harold, I decided to see if there were any movies worth watching.secret_life_of_walter_mitty_ver7

My sister-in-law had posted on Facebook a few days earlier that she and my brother had immensely enjoyed the movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and seeing it there on the console I pushed ‘select’ and settled in to see what it was that captured Joe and Camille’s affection.

To my surprise and delight, Walter Mitty — like Harold Fry, like me — is a pilgrim.   I won’t spoil the movie for anyone interested, but suffice it to say that Walter, like Harold, can’t entirely figure out exactly how he ended up in the life he’s got. In his imagination, Walter is a different sort of person living a different sort of life, a life diametrically opposed to the real one he finds himself occupying. In the beginning, his journeying is all in his imagination, but as the film unfolds we realize that Walter’s imaginary life has imperceptibly done a deep work in Walter, enabling him to take an actual journey in the real world — a pilgrimage by plane and helicopter, by skateboard and bicycle, in the company of drunks and gurus and in the end, entirely alone. He traverses continents, runs toward active volcanoes, travels backwards in time to his childhood, and forward into an unknown future by way of relationships. In the end, Walter — like Harold, like me — is made new by his quest which began in imagination, was fueled by hope and hunger, and resolved ultimately in a quiet assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.

Perhaps all pilgrimages are ultimately about faith.

From the Rabbi: The Most a Poem Can Do

Bringing Four Worlds Together 

Slide1Stanford professor John Felstiner, reflecting on Paul Celan’s poem Es Stand, commented that the most a poem can do is to bring four worlds together through its metaphors or images. “And when it does,” he said, “the poem becomes explosive.” These worlds are the natural (creation), the spiritual, the political/geographical, and the personal.

When we apply the four worlds of the poet to David’s psalms, we can begin to appreciate their enduring significance through their many layers of memory. First, there is the historical situation that places them in the context of David’s story. Second, we find Israel using David’s psalms in new situations with different liturgical settings. Third, these prayers take on greater significance as they give shape to Jesus’ prayers. Finally, as we are “in Christ,” David’s psalms become our prayers.

I experienced the explosive power of the poem on my second visit to Romania in 1989.

While we were studying the David/Jonathan story, several agents from Romania’s secret police (the Securitate) were searching for us in the forest in order to arrest our hosts for housing us (it was illegal to have foreigners in their homes without reporting it to the police) and conducting a Bible conference. In the midst of their intrusions into our camp, four brothers (all were named Jonathan, as if by divine coincidence) put their lives on the line to protect us from the police. img124

I had never experienced this kind of sacrificial love before. It was as if the ancient David/Jonathan story was being re-enacted right before our eyes. At one point I took my position on a secure height to watch for any agents who might be coming up the road, while the Romanians took cover inside a large tent to worship and study God’s word.

Sitting in silence I began meditating on Psalm 27. David’s metaphors broke my soul wide open.

When evildoers assail me
      to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
      it is they who stumble and fall. (Ps 27:2)

On four different occasions, the Securitate came to devour our souls, but each time they stumbled and fell. And then I read further in the psalm:

                  For he will hide me in his shelter
                        in the day of trouble;
                  he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
                        he will  lift me high upon a rock.
                  And now my head shall be lifted up
                        above my enemies all around me,
                  and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of  joy;
                        I will sing and make melody to the Lord. (Ps 27:5-6)

As I was reading these verses, I could hear the voices of the Romanians singing their songs of praise concealed “under the cover of his tent.” The David story and song that had shaped Jesus’ story, was now shaping our lives in this new setting on a hillside in Costeşti, România. I was overcome with the joy of having a small part on the stage of God’s wondrous drama of redemption.

This explains why certain hymns or spiritual songs evoke strong emotions within us, while others may not. When specific lyrics give voice to significant experiences in our lives, or to emotions we haven’t yet been able to articulate, or evoke layers of memory and accumulated emotions, they can stir our hearts to the core.

The hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” has always been a favorite of mine. I came to appreciate it first for its lyrics that give voice to trust and contentment at a time of loss. My appreciation was heightened when I learned the occasion for which it was originally written.

But it wasn’t until I sang it with a couple grieving over their six-year-old son at Stanford Hospital, that its power became explosive. As Timothy had only hours left to live, we lifted our voices to sing the hymn. I didn’t remember the second verse, but the nurse taking care of Timothy did. And she did not hold back. With her full-throttled voice she boomed out the second verse. When she did, it was as if angels came into the room and flooded us with a peace I can only describe as transcendent. Suddenly the hospital room was transformed into the gate of heaven. I watched in awe as a mother held and caressed her dead son. Then Timothy’s nurse washed his body with as much dignity as if he was Jesus. The sting of death had disappeared, totally.

That Sunday at church our worship leader had selected the hymn not knowing what we had experienced earlier in the week. As the words rang out, I looked behind me and saw Timothy’s mother singing, tears streaming down her face. We made eye contact in the secret acknowledgement of what God had done that week. Such is the power of the poem.

[1] John Felstiner, Paul Celan, Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 268.

From the Rabbi: “Daughters, the doorway to a father’s heart”

Scholars tell us that over thirty percent of the Hebrew Scripture is poetry. 4-006_017Man’s first speech recorded in Genesis 2:23 is an exquisite poem of appreciation and praise, celebrating his wife’s equality.

This one at last, bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh,

This one shall be called Woman

for from man was this one taken. (Gen 2:23[1])

Exuberant lines spill over with exultation. No other form of speech would do, which may suggest that poetry is our highest form of speech––that which elevates us, making us feel wholly human and alive. Stanley Kunitz writes,

Poetry is the most difficult, the most solitary, and the most life-enhancing thing that one can do in the world. The experience of love and the creative act are the supreme expressions of the life force. They do more than express it; they refresh and renew it and give it back, magnified.[2]

For David poetry was not only the vehicle of articulating and processing his lament, but it was also his primary expression of thanksgiving and praise, so much so that he mandated it for future generations in Israel’s liturgy.


Becky and I getting acquainted.

“He (David) appointed some of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the Lord, even to celebrate (“to lament/petition”) and to thank and praise the Lord God of Israel.” (1 Chron 16:4)

In Israel it was a sin for the king not to offer public thanksgiving when God had answered his prayers. This is what David means by paying his “vows.” Though I did not discover the gift of poetry until I was thirty-seven, I have found to be a supreme delight in articulating my appreciation to God for the incredible gifts of daughters he gave to Emily and me after the death of our first two children, David and Jessica. After Jessica died on December 4, 1976, Emily and I wondered if we would ever experience the joy of being parents.

But the next day a strange sensation came over me. I felt as if God was doing something to intervene on our behalf. I said to Emily, “Let’s not put the baby furniture away like we did last year. Let’s just pray for a baby.” And that is just what we did. I asked Walt McCuistion, one of our pastors, to share the news of Jessica’s death with the congregation and to make our prayer request known. When I mentioned to him the feeling I had experienced, he indicated that he felt that same sensation of faith. Emily and I were too numb from grief to attend the service that night. After the service I received a call from Walt. He said that after he shared the news of Jessica’s death, his wife boldly asked God to intervene give us a baby by Christmas.

At the service was a young girl whose roommate was pregnant and due to deliver a baby the next day. Up to that point in her pregnancy, she had not told her doctor that she was interested in adoption. He had eighty people on a waiting list. After hearing our story, she said she wanted us to have her baby. Hearing the news, I felt an inconsolable stab of joy.


Emily and Becky bonding.

The next evening we drove to an attorney’s house to make legal arrangements for the adoption. I’ll never forget Emily asking, “Do you think it is okay to pray that the baby might look like me?” After we arrived the attorney shared with us notes from the birth mother about her personal background and that of the father. As we listened to her personal profile, it was as if she was mirror image of Emily. We were caught in the amazement of something wonderful, much bigger than ourselves. Legal matters progressed quickly, but the birth was delayed two weeks. Finally, on December 18, one week before Christmas, Becky was born. As the attorney drove us to the hospital he asked us what we were going to name our new little girl. “Rebecca Louise” was our reply. He quickly responded, “Why don’t you name her Noelle, since she is your Christmas gift?” And so her name became Rebecca Noelle, our Christmas joy.

Becky entered our lives like a bundle of joy and dried our tears. As Becky grew, she became bold, audacious, daring to go anywhere, and to try anything. She possessed great social skills that made her comfortable with adults as well as her peers. She also exuded a self-confidence that stretched beyond her means, sometimes got her into trouble, but always kept life interesting. Whenever Becky was around, you were never bored. As parents, she always welcomed us into her world and I was honored to coach her softball team during her high school years. She had a keen love for music and would often play the piano after dinner. She was unashamed to sing. Some of my favorite memories are of her singing scores from Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera at the piano while I dried the dinner dishes. I miss her voice terribly as our piano lies mute since her departure. I dedicated the poem to her on her graduation from High School, June 8, 1995 and re-read it to her on her graduation from nursing school in June of 2013. She is married to Corey and has two daughters, Mary and Emily, and one son, Wesley.

A Shout of Joy Comes in the Morning
Clothed in darkness
shrouded with pain
my soul poured out like water
drenched by heaven’s rain.
Was it not enough to journey to Moriah
to leave our first born, days from his birth
that he might reign above
an angel not destined for earth?
But now death’s dark shadow crushed my chest
to steal again the light of day and with it, dreams
and to stand before an empty crib, silence screams
no daughter to place upon a breast.
Would our home never hear an infant’s cry,
or see a mother’s gaze enfold a child
for whom she feeds,
would I never ever be a dad on earth.
But God,
bent the heavens and came down,
he heard the cry of this poor couple
and considered our low estate.
And did He delay?  Not even for a day!
Before Jessica found her place of rest,
he sent a messenger to pray,
“By Christmas Lord, and do not delay!”
With such strange inward stirrings
we knew, we knew a baby was on the way.
and while we waited expecting you,
he turned our darkness into day.
He bent the heavens and came down
he rode upon a cherub and flew,
he sped upon the wings of wind.
Oh, how my anticipation grew.
This is Rebecca Noelle,
heaven’s gift, Christmas JOY,
first carried, then caressed,
at last one to be laid upon breast.
A gift of grace from God alone,
who delights to repair a broken heart,
by breaking in from without
a New Creation to impart.
O Rebecca, will I ever forget that Day,
when I learned what it means to pray,
and see him touch our lives,
and turn our darkness into day.
And from that day
the void that grew,
that gaping ache,
he has filled with you.
Your vivacious smile,
your spirit bold,
unthwarted, undaunted
living life in ways untold,
To shatter walls,
fearing no place and no one,
but gathering all,
What you have been to me,
from those dark days,
so long ago yet so near,
words cannot tell, except to say,
“Tears may come to stay the night,
But a shout of joy comes in the morning.”
You have brought me more joy
laughter and song,
than ten sons.
How can I ever forget memories
etched upon the heart, playing ball,
being a dad, a coach, a friend,
even a Swiss comedian.
But what I’ll miss the most,
is that sweet angelic voice
which lighted among us
unashamed to sing and praise.
And now Rebecca, leave our nest,
take off and fly amidst the clouds
touch the sky, see his face,
but most of all, feel his grace.
But as you leave, glance back, and know
that though we shall never be the same,
it will be enough for me, your Dad,
if you take thought from whence you came.
Yes, these were the days
when words of the Ancients came true,
he bent the heavens and came down,
and dried our tears with you. 


Our three daughters, Katie, Jenny & Becky.


[1] Robert Alter, Genesis, Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 10.

[2] Gary Pacernick, Meaning and Memory, Interviews with Fourteen Jewish Poets (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2001), 38.


Lately, my words have been hurting someone I deeply love. My temptation is to be self-righteous, self-justifying and defensive, but I hate that tendency as much as I hate being hurtful, however unintentionally.

I want to come easily and without self-aggrandizing explanation to the notion that I am wrong (see previous post). The details don’t matter — if I am wounding someone I am, in some way, wrong. Insensitive. Not listening. Putting myself above. Defending myself when I ought to be defending them. Shrinking the acceptable space instead of expanding it. I am not loving well.

I’ve spent a lot of waking hours — even the ones I should be sleeping — praying about all this, and have come back over and over again to my Psalm 7 poem. I wrote this in the spring of 2011, but it is as true today as then.

I cannot wait to be rid of this body of sin.


Superscript: In Psalm 7 David represents the typical worldview of his day, namely that he is experiencing persecution as a direct result of his sin, that God is inflicting him with dire circumstances to force his repentance.  But David emphatically rejects this as the case, deciding instead that his enemies are unjust in their assault and that God will vindicate him.

This turnaround should give us pause to observe that David has just rewritten the “rules” that governed his theology. God is supposed to be like this, he says at the beginning, but then as his poem takes shape he discovers to the contrary that God’s dealings with him are less punitive and more faithful than he first supposes.

It only took one reading of this psalm for me to conclude that I was fully unlike David; whereas he was innocent, I was guilty through and through. God unflinchingly directs my attention to the breadth and depth of so many ways I fall short of His standard every day; my sin is ever before me. But God is also more than willing to painstakingly unmake me, beginning ever again to create in me a pure heart. It is the greatest hope of my life.

(Psalm 7)
If I have done this
If I have taken what is not mine
If I have spoken what should be left unsaid
or been silent when words were required
If I have played the part
If I have played pretend
If I have dug my own well
or forced new wine into old wineskins
If I have whitewashed my own tomb
If I have forgiven my own sin
If I have been deaf to Nathan and Shimei
or the donkey, even
Then Hound of Heaven
Rend me limb from limb
Tear flesh from bone
Leave no sinew or tendon whole
Trample my life to the ground and
make me sleep in the dust.
Then, El ‘Elyon, from the dust I will
sing praise, finally, with a pure heart.



From the Rabbi, on Mother’s Day: From “Tears in the Night” to “Wiping Away Every Tear”

Having ended my last blog with my poem, “Tears in the Night,” I thought I should recap God’s grace over the last 38 years to “wipe away every tear.” My grief for Jessica was not only due to the shortness of her life, but also the fact that I was not able to connect with her for her short six days of life or in the days that followed her death. With both our children the hospital offered to take care of their bodies to spare us the agony of having to make funeral arrangements. Little did I know then how much I would regret this “gift.” As a pastor, I am called to bury other people’s children. I stand beside them as they silently place their children in the ground and say their painful goodbyes. The grave of their son or daughter is forever marked with a stone. That stone becomes a sacred place of memory to which they return on a regular basis to remember, to mourn, to worship, to cry and to laugh. For years Emily and I had no place to go.

Where did the Sower plant the seed?
I long to know,
but it is hidden from me.

Years passed and then my friend Jim Zeigler, a counselor at Alta Mesa Cemetery, discovered that Jessica’s ashes had been scattered at his cemetery. He called me to get all the information about our children, and then had a gravestone specially made for them. Slide05Their names and dates are now etched in stone in our backyard. Underneath their names is the verse from David’s psalm:

Weeping my lodge for the night,
but a shout of joy comes in the morning.
Psalm 30:5

How do you thank someone who goes to such lengths to carve your children’s names in stone? One tear wiped away.

After we had been restored with sacred space, God gave me the gift of my daughter’s voice. Whenever I teach the Psalms, I always have my students share their personal psalms at the end of the quarter. It is the highlight of the class. On one occasion at Western Seminary, a young woman named Jessica stood to read her poem. Before she began I asked, “What is your middle name?”

She smiled and said, “Lynne” (my daughter’s middle name).

“What year were you born?”


“What month?”


Jessica Lynne Morgan


Now I can feel my gut tightening and my tears beginning to swell.

“What day?”

“November 30” – the exact day my daughter had been born.

As Jessica read her poem, I was in speechless wonder that, for just this one day, I was able to hear my daughter’s voice. There may be joys that equal it, but for this father none surpass the elation of hearing a daughter’s voice. One more tear wiped away.

Time would fail me if I were to recount the scores of conferences, retreats and schools where I have had the joy of teaching the Psalms and the power of the poem––locally, Southern California, Texas, Colorado, Canada, Oregon, Washington, Romania, Albania, Croatia––and on each and every occasion, after teaching on David’s lament for Jonathan, I offer my poem to Jessica. Funny thing about poetry, the words never get old, worn out or banal. The metaphors remain as rich and carry as much emotion as the first time they were uttered. And the love that I experience for my daughter is enriched and deepened in the presence of God’s people in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The key is you have to be free to cry. Many more tears wiped away.

God’s grace was still not done. In the spring of 2011 my dear friend Jim Zeigler died of ALS. Jim was deeply loved by our church and community, so much so that we had to move his memorial service to a church that could accommodate over 1000 people. The service was one of those rare times where time stood still, the worship was dense with a palpable presence that released our tears, and every word was as heart spoken and tender as our beloved Jim. A residue of God’s presence from Jim’s memorial carried me into the pulpit the next day. My text I had planned that week was 2 Samuel 1, to be concluded with Jessica’s poem. However, after Jim’s passing I wasn’t sure it was appropriate to do my daughter’s poem. But Karen (the one you all know) encouraged me and said, “When you read her poem, make sure you breathe in between the lines to let her in.” I took her advice and it worked. A special tear wiped away.

The next day our pastoral staff left for a retreat at Lake Tahoe. We were led by Jim Gaderlund, a fellow pastor and gifted spiritual director. The first night he led us in a reflective communion time. Before we took the elements he told us to take stock of where we have been. If we were hurting, we cold select a rock from a selection he had arranged on the table and place it on the altar. If we were rejoicing, we could select a flower from a large bouquet he had bought and place it on the altar. When my turn came, I decided I wanted to express my appreciation to Jesus for incredible gift of healing he had granted to me since the death of my daughter, Jessica. From the bouquet I selected a large yellow daisy and just before I set it on the altar I kissed it. Immediately after I kissed it I had the strange sensation that I had just kissed my daughter––Jessica’s presence was palpable. I couldn’t hold back my tears and felt compelled to tell someone, but I thought, “Who can I tell who won’t think I’m crazy?” When communion ended, I grabbed my friend and co-pastor, James, and said, “I just kissed my daughter!” Now more tears, but these are ones I don’t want to wipe away.

On the eve of Mother’s Day I thought it appropriate to include one more Jessica moment. Emily and I never had celebrated Jessica’s birthday until 2011. Two of our grandchildren were coming for dinner, and being that it was Jessica’s birthday, she thought it would be fun to celebrate her birthday. Since God had allowed me to hear Jessica’s voice, I thought Emily should as well. So I composed a letter from Jessica to her mother. I called my daughter, Jenny, and asked if she would come join us for dinner and give her sister a voice to her mother, which she did.

November 30th, 2011

Dear Mom,

Today is my 35th birthday and I heard you will be celebrating with dad and my little sister, Jenny, along with my nieces, Mary and Emmy, and my nephew Wesley. So I asked papa to get you some yellow roses to remember me by. Yellow is my favorite color, because it matches my blonde hair, but most of all, because it reminds me of you. You probably wonder what I look like. It’s hard to describe my glorious, new body – but I look a lot like Jenny, but with Katie’s curls. Lucky for me I didn’t get daddy’s nose, but like all your children, my eyes are blue.

As you celebrate my birthday I want you to know what a blessing you are to me.

Though I was tragically taken out of your arms to be by my brother’s side, my little life was shaped and sheltered solely by a mother’s love. For nine months as I bonded with you i n the sweet shelter of your womb, my delicate frame was knitted together by God’s loving hands. I was wondrously made, and all my days ordained for me, were written in His book, before even one of them came to be. You took such good care of me, even though you could not see my face. I know you and dad worked hard to prepare a special place for my arrival, with new wallpaper, a refurbished crib and a changing table.

When I arrived, you held me with an indescribable love and tenderness. For three wonderful days I had the privilege of gazing into your eyes as I nursed. The feeling of security and well-being you provided was so compelling, I quickly learned to trust God in the trouble that lay ahead.

Those were painful days, I know more for you than me. You wanted to see me grow up, to crawl, to walk, to sing, to play soccer, to date, to give me away, and to see my children. But, as daddy wrote, it ended much too quickly:

            My eyes could not gaze on your little tent,
            which would all too soon
            be broken down and laid to rest
            in the earth, rather than upon a breast.

As you and daddy were engulfed in sorrow, I lay down to sleep and awoke in a new world where heaven fills the very air you breathe. I began to grow and explore its never-ending beauty with my brother, David. Like him, I never experienced the pains of sin or any of the cruelty that happens on earth. I only knew a mother’s love.

But there is more. I got to see another side of things, that perhaps you could not see. When you prayed for me, heaven became silent for about half an hour. Then I heard the deepest groaning and sighs that were beyond compassion, followed by a sudden burst of energy and commotion. Angels were summoned and sent with an urgency I have rarely seen. Out of the death of dreams, seeds of hope were planted in human hearts and corporate prayers were offered in faith. A baby born by Christmas, who would have thought? The gift of another daughter for my broken-hearted mother.

As I peer into your world 35 years later, I can see the fruit of a mother’s prayers. Did you ever dream of being entrusted with so many gifts? One son and four daughters, three granddaughters and two grandsons! Not to mention the scores of preschoolers who found shelter under your wings.

In Hebrew your name means “mother.” And I, Jessica Lynne Morgan, am forever privileged to be known as your daughter.