Prophecy and Poetry

Today is the 4’th Sunday after Epiphany.

In Just a moment, we will look the word Epiphany means, but first, I would like to begin with a poem.

This is The Lanyard by Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly off the blue walls of this room, moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano, from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor, when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard. No cookie nibbled by a French novelist

could send one into the past more suddenly- a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake learning how to braid long thin plastic strips into a lanyard, a gift for my mother. I had never seen anyone use a lanyard or wear one, if that's what you did with them, but that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand again and again until I had made a boxy red and white lanyard for my mother. She gave me life and milk from her breasts, and I gave her a lanyard. She nursed me in many a sick room, lifted spoons of medicine to my lips, laid cold face-clothes on my forehead, and then led me out into the air light and taught me to walk and swim, and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard. Here are thousands of meals, she said, and here is clothing and a good education. And here is your lanyard, I replied, which I made with a little help from a counselor. Here is a breathing body and a beating heart, strong legs, bones and teeth, and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered, and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp. And here, I wish to say to her now, is a smaller gift - not the worn truth that you can never repay your mother, but the rueful admission that when she took the two-toned lanyard from my hand, I was as sure as a boy could be that this useless, worthless thing I wove out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

The author of The Lanyard is Billy Collins, Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003

Now, I need to tell you a secret that not many people know. The Bible was written by poets, not lawyers. Even the laws were designed to protect truth, harmony and vision. When a poet reads and explains scripture it rhymes, it sings, it soars. Poets recognize the bible’s truths as easily as the majesty of a misty dawn.

Still, poets of all kinds need to use words and I have to tell you, I have mixed feelings about the use of ancient words like epiphany. On the one hand, these words are time capsules that preserve the original meaning and context and of our most valuable traditions. Then again, if we do not make the effort and take the time to look carefully at what these words originally meant, we come away with blank spots in our sentences. There is a real danger that some of these, our most important words, mean nothing at all to many of our Christian brothers and sisters.

Epiphany is such a word. It derives from Greek επιφανεια (epiphaneia) which means "manifestation". More precisely, Epiphany means "sudden appearance" or "sudden perception". For Christians, the sudden appearance we are talking about here is the recognition of who and what the infant Jesus was. The Epiphany we celebrate during this season involves wise men from Persia. They were called Magi. This word Magi comes from the same root as our word magician. These Magi recognized the Divine promise of the Christ child. They perceived the truth of salvation, well before it had fully emerged through the ministry of Jesus. This is the essence of wisdom and prophecy, the ability to recognize the mature plant, while it is still just a sprouting seed.

This skill, the ability to recognize the end from the beginning is the essence of the prophetic gift that was discussed in Deuteronomy this morning. As we heard there, a prophet gives voice to the expression of God, and that expression is part of God’s creation.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was from God and the Word was God….”

Some may wonder, how do prophets achieve this insight? That is a very good question and a quality question like this deserves a proper answer.

As we know, creation is not just something that happened long ago, it is an ongoing process. We each have a span of life, but the animating basis at our source does not end. Therefore, our challenge, the interesting part of life, is to recognize how God emerges as us.

We need not concern ourselves much about the way others are leading their lives. If our life is well and truly recognized for what it is and is not, all is well. The days and years of our life come and go, but if we recognize the divine within the ordinary and the eternal in the present, we will be well on our way to becoming prophets. This is because everything we discover within applies equally to the rest of creation. The manner of God’s emergence into Creation is a universal phenomenon and everything learned within the laboratory of our life has an application everywhere and always. Such insights, discovered and properly appreciated, are of great value. They are the authentic coin of the realm within God’s creation.

But prophets require more than the skill of recognition. They need the gift of humility. When we discover of the river of God’s life as it cascades through us day and night, that flow requires an outlet of equal magnitude. Otherwise, we will swell up. This ballooning of our inner life has a name. It is called pride. Without the knack of humility, there is a real danger to our well-being. Therefore, a compassionate God must reduce the flow of his blessing for the proud lest we burst. Is this our situation? Read the Bible carefully and you will see that the prophets were all broken people. They leaked, they bled the truth, the compassion, the love of God. So, let’s look now to see if this quality is present in the author of The Lanyard.

By the time Bill Collins published “The Lanyard” in 2005 he was 64 years old. Life and time had taught him humility. His poem shows us that he was painfully aware of his limitations. The inadequacy of his appreciation for his mother broke him again. This insight was essential for his poem to emerge. God appreciated the opportunity of this brokenness, this remorse, within our poet and He did something worthwhile, something beautiful with it. The poet simple reported the action.

In order to effectively express the message of life as it emerges within us God requires a large canvas. If our story, our dream, our career and our ego we are too strong, we contained by them. However, if we are very fortunate, we become broken down and unremarkable. In this way, we become just strand of creation’s canvas, or a shallow valley in its landscape. Only when this is true, are we ready to receive God’s art.

So be of good cheer. Let’s continue to seek God within and let’s not take our selves too seriously. Because God has a poem, a psalm for each of us, and He is ready, when we are.


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