Sea plane in the wilderness with mountains and water
#48: Walter Wangerin, Jr. 2000
Glory Into Glory, April 13, 2022
Wangerin begins his Festival talk by comparing hard rain on a roof to the sound of applause and praise, and he says that he found it his job to seek God in the common things and know that the whole earth is filled with God's glory. He also dives into the whole process of writing–from observation to idea to final product.
- “The Panther” by Rainer Maria Rilke
- Psalm 19
- Isaiah 6
- Christopher Smart
- Sam Johnson
- Philippians 2
Jane Zwart: [00:00:05] Today on Rewrite Radio, a talk from Walter Wangerin, Jr. Wangerin begins this Festival talk by comparing hard rain on a roof to the sound of applause and praise, and he says that he finds it is his job to seek God in such common things, bearing witness to the truth that the whole earth is filled with God's glory. But Wangerin also dives into the whole process of writing, from observation, to idea, to final product.
My name is Jane Zwart, co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing and a professor in the English Department at Calvin University.
Starting with the renowned Book of the Dun Cow, Walter Wangerin's literary career encompassed nearly every genre: fiction, essay, short story, children's story, meditation, and biblical exposition. The author of over forty books, he won the National Book Award, The New York Times Best Children's Book of the Year Award, the CSIA C.S. Lewis Award, and several Gold Medallion Book Awards. Wangerin was an ordained Lutheran minister, as well as a professor and writer-in-residence at Valparaiso University. Walt joined us for a total of four Festivals before his death in 2021, and you can learn more about him on our website, CCFW.calvin.edu.
And now, Walter Wangerin from the 2000 Festival of Faith & Writing.
Walter Wangerin: You probably couldn't hear yourself the same way as I just heard you. I'm not talking about Schaap, you could hear Schaap, who just gave my entire speech.
No, I'm talking about your applause. Up here, I'm not applauding you see in, so I'm not occluding or messing up the sound that you just made. It wasn't long. It wasn't a long applause. And I'm not going to ask you to do it again because it wouldn't be exactly the same. But as I listened suddenly, suddenly I heard what you sounded like. You sounded like rain.
Your applause sounded a little bit like rain on a tin roof. I get to tell you that because I wasn't there with you applauding. You sounded like, well, this is what you made me think of. Several years back, Fan, who is my wife and I were traveling through Tanzanian Africa. It was over Christmas time, and I was doing, speaking in various villages from one place to another. And on a particular Sunday, it was the Sunday before Christmas, we went to church in a small village. I'm Lutheran, and it was a Lutheran church, but I didn't understand a word they were saying. It was in Swahili. And it was in a building which had no walls whatsoever. And it had a tin roof at the top of it, and Fan and I sat on the left-hand side on benches, on backless benches on a dirt floor, and when they began church people started dancing in from the back. One choir after the other would dance in. And the only music they had was a drone. Somebody would be at the front drumming, carrying the drum, but drumming with one hand or two hands, depending upon how the drum was carried. And I, I swear, I counted five and six rhythms. It took him a long time to dance in because they would come two steps forward and then one step back. And there was three choirs. In fact, that's most of the congregation was the choir.
So I felt a little bit like I wasn't in a Lutheran church. I felt a little strange, but when they were in and when they sang strangeness started passing away, truly, truly. Little children's choir got up in front, and one girl looked at me. Well we stood out, you know. We were a little salt and a lot of pepper. She looked at me and she grinned so broad while she was singing. Just so broad showing me all of her teeth that looked familiar to me. And then when they sang the hymns, I heard rhythms and I heard truly, I heard chords that were almost primally familiar to me. It was kind of a spiritual melt, meld.
And then they started singing in Swahili. "What a Friend we have in Jesus," which is very familiar to me. And that broke me down in the midst of this place of strangeness, they were singing the song I had sung since I was a child. I sang it in English and they sang it in Swahili. What a friend we have in Jesus. It broke down all the walls and all the separations. And I started to cry.
[00:05:34] And then got applauded, and then it rained on that tin roof in the midst of all of that, it was as if the sky itself opened up and applauded with it, except it sounded like you, you reminded me of that. It was the hard rain and they kept on doing worship, but we couldn't hear a thing because the rain comes down so hard with such joy. And I would add this word with such praise in the midst of these things. There is glory, there is glory. This has something to do with what I'm going to talk to you about, but I didn't plan on it.
Okay. Let me tell you several things before I start. Let's see. First of all, everything that I'm going to tell you this morning, my friend Melvin knows better than I do. And he never even graduated from college. He lives on five acres, which is what's left of their farm. He was the youngest of six children, my friend. He and I went to high school together in a prep school for the ministry.
My friend, Melvin midway through his college career went home to take care of his mother. And over the years they've had to sell the farm off. Melvin knows absolutely everything I'm going to tell you. So if you don't want to understand me, visit him. He's north of Milwaukee.
The second thing that I want to tell you is that I really believe that the whole process of writing from observation, even when you're unaware that you are observing. To product to pull them to story. When finally you let it go because you have to let it go. I think that entire process is an organic hole, and it's impossible to break it at any particular point all the way from the unconscious observation a writer does when she or he lives in the business of this world, mixes it up and is engaged by what's going on. This is an observation which is not aware of itself, but it's definitely there from that, that part, that first part through, by some kind of a catalyst to a self-conscious observing to a selection of all the things that one has felt or responded to or read and, and slowly, an individual comes to what they call an idea. They get an idea of what they're going to write, which is still nevertheless, the process of writing that second selection portion. Even unto the moment when the writer begins to do writerly things like write words and research those words and revise those words. I've given you three parts. There are not three parts.
I think this is my second preliminary point that it's all one. And the only thing that defines that first observation that's distinct or different from everyone else in the world is because you ended up writing about it. So you participate before you separate. Do you understand? So if I talk mostly about observation today, nevertheless, I am still talking about writing, and if you want to take notes, that's okay.
Oh, the third thing I want to tell you is I beg you, please. I implore you to listen to me glancingly. Out of the corner of your ear as it were. Because I find out so often that my words are smarter than I am. And if you listen for the images and for the story itself, for the things that I say, which don't sound so logical or discursive, you might walk away smarter than I walked in.
Does that make sense? Not to me.
Oh, and the fourth thing, I changed my title. Well, you know, when, when Dale called me up and he said that I was going to speak on, on Saturday morning at this big lecture, he says, I said, what should I talk about? And he said, oh, we want you to talk about faith and writing. I thought I was the only one.
I got here, and I saw this whole thing is faith and writing. I think what I would like to give as my title now is that terrible, beautiful cry from Isaiah 6. It's not much different from the title you have before you in Hebrew. Kadosh kadosh kadosh adonai tseva'ot. Holy holy holy is the Lord of hosts. Melo kol ha'aretz k'vodo. The whole earth is filled with his glory.
[00:10:10] Because that's what I think I do. If I put it briefly here at the beginning, this is what I think I do as a writer. And if you wish to walk this walk with me, that's fine. But I won't argue that you have to, I will say this. I think that it is my job to seek God in the common things. To believe that God is already in the common things ahead of me and outside of me. And so it becomes like three parts for me that first of all, I hope I have the capacity to see the glory of God in the world. To perceive it, to find it sometimes to be stunned by the discovery of it, because I didn't go looking well enough. And having perceived that, I think it's my job to acknowledge it, to salute it, to be aware of it, to know it, to dance with it, to think about it, to engage with it. And having engaged with it, I think finally it is my job to give that glory back to God. And that third part is what we call writing. Or maybe I should say praise. I think it is my job to praise. And I beg you please. When I say all that, I've just said right now, as simple as it is, don't think you fully understand that until we've talked a little longer.
Okay. Now I'm going to start. I'm going to start with a poem.
The title of this poem is 19.
Actually it's Psalm 19, but it's a poem and it embraces much of what I just told you and almost everything else. I'm going to tell you while we're talking so that if you don't gather everything I tell you right now in reading it, go back and look at it a little bit later on. This is a poem of no more than 14 verses and it's in the 14th verse, actually a few verses early, but it's in the 14th verse you will find me crouched down and waiting. That's where I am. The writer is in the 14th verse. Otherwise this is a poem which is filled with the language of languages. It's filled with a talk about speech it's filled, with what we do, dear writers, fooling around with words. Only it starts at a place before we are involved.
I'll read it to you part by part, and I'll give you a little bit of an explanation as I go. I think that there are probably four or five parts, depending on how you divide it. This is where I beg you to work with me.
"The heavens," it says..Oh, this is a Gideon Bible. I'm in the Holiday Inn. In room in room 118. There is not a Gideon Bible right now. So if any of, you know, the Gideons, tell them that they succeeded, what they wanted to do. They saved my life.
"The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork and declare his Saphar." In Hebrew, it means it makes a count of, or writes it up in the accounting books. It wants to be sure the heavens want to be sure that the glory of God is recognized and recorded throughout the universe.
That heavan as declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork. And the word there for shows is mageed. It comes from nagad, which means storytelling. It tells the story of the work of God's hand. The heavens declare the glory of God. This is language, and the presumption here at the beginning is that the heavens themselves are perpetually in inside.
Singing of the glory of God, what that is, what glory is. Be patient. I'll tell you about it in just a little while. And the firmament tells the stories of what God has done, and of course what God has done is all that is below. "Day unto day," this says, "utters speech, And night unto night reveals knowledge."
In fact, what that would be in Hebrew is speech or Amar talking. Talking gushes forth like a phone tin day after day. Talking gushes forth. Isn't that amazing? You are surrounded by the language of God in the creation of God, and earth itself is gushing forth.
"Night unto night reveals knowledge," verse three, "there is no speech nor language Where their voice is not heard." Writers: what do we do? We deal with speech and language and when it is well, when it is well with us, even the voices of the heavens find place in what you write. Are you with me? I'm telling you a marvelous thing. "Their line has gone out through the earth And their words And their words to the end of the world."
[00:14:59] Now. Part two. And here are the Psalmist or the poet draws upon an image that the Greeks and the Hebrews would understand. Here comes the sun like a living thing. Here is one of these pictures that talk about the way in which the heavens declare the glory of God. The only difference between this son and the son of Greek mythology is that in Greek mythology, the sun is a God here. It is something that God asks to work or serve.
"God has set a tabernacle for the sun." A pavilion, a tent for the sun. "Which is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber and rejoices like a strong man to run his race." See that sun? See it on the far east? It says here in the uttermost parts of the earth, "It's rising as from one end of heaven and its circuit to the other end." You can see a trembling to break out of its tent trembling to begin to rise and soar in the heavens above all things.
Singing, singing. Though, you may not hear the words. It takes a poet. "It's circuit is to the other end and there is nothing hidden from its heat." That's part two: the image of that sun.
I'm in the 14th verse. You have to wait for me, but in the 14 first, what I'm going to say is, oh God, let me be like the heavens, oh God, let me be like one of the suns that rise in a day.
Here's the third part, and this is parallel, not unlike the rest of nature. Verse seven, "The law of God is perfect. Converting the soul; The testimony of the Lord is sure." This is another kind of a language altogether, but this is the utterance of God unto a people of God. This is a little different now. It's narrower than the whole of creation and nature. It makes a focus.
"The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing, the heart," and this is all the goodness of this. "And the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." So the laws of God plays something here. When we come upon humanity. "More to be desired, are they then gold, Yea than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb, Moreover, by them Your servant is warned, And in keeping them there is great reward."
What is that reward? Coming to the last part now. "Who can understand his errors.". Or hers. I think we're approaching the writer. Now we're talking a little bit about the preparation for writing who can understand her errors or his. "Cleanse thou me from secret faults." Yeah. That's a piece of preparation. "Keep back your servant also from presumptuousness, let them not have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless And I shall be innocent of great transgression." And here it comes. Now, here I am. Here's the pleading I do unto God. "Then let the words of my mouth." It's the very same it's higgayon, but it's Amar. It's. It's like that fountain of language that breaks forth day to day, "Then let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart."
And in Hebrew, that's mumbling grumbling. It's like, it's like the old Jewish men going [mumbles]. Even that's a part of our writing. It has to be revised before others read it, but it's a part of it. "And the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight. Oh Lord. My strength and my Redeemer."
Fan and I were driving in Alaska from Fairbanks down to Anchorage and to the Kenai Peninsula. It was in October. It would not have been my choice to be driving in October from Fairbanks south because the weather changes suddenly. And I want to tell you straight up, as we were driving from the north to the south, I thought we were going to die.
Well, I was driving somebody else's car, a fellow in Homer had loaned it to me so that I could tour around the whole place. I had been invited first of all, to lead a seminar. And then after that, somebody had a really good idea. I liked it a lot. It was that I should go from village to village, to all those small places where big name writers don't come and read and talk and, and, and listen and preach.
And this friend in Homer said here, take my car, which is a very old four wheel drive Jeep. I never driven four wheel drive before in my life. That's one of the reasons I thought we were going to die. We had driven all the way north to Fairbanks, Alaska, and then another fellow, a friend of mine who almost never spoke at all, but who is a Bush pilot flew us even farther north.
[00:20:00] We had been spending time in Fort Yukon up there, there no way to drive there at all. Oh, and, and from Fort Yukon down this friend of ours, this Bush pilot said, "Why don't we look at the Denali on the way." It's out of the way, but he said, "Why don't we look at Denali on the way." My wife, the only time previously that she went up into a little plane like this, you understand, where you can only fit, squash four people in made a will for both of us to leave things to our children. She anticipated death too. To Denali, this fellow said we would go. And we drove in, in, in dead silence. Now the whole time we'd been in Alaska, there had been a cloud cover in, in, in October. So we had not seen this mountain, but as we drove, I could begin to see it ahead of me poking through the clouds a grand and majestic white. And at a distance, you know, you can see how the wind comes out of the west and scours the side of that mountain so that it must be a high wind, but you see the snow blowing off the peak of it in one great curl, like the curl of a wave. Which looks as if it's standing still against the blue sky. And we drove closer and closer to that.
We flew closer and closer to that. He said, here, do you want to take the controls? And I said, sure, I've never had before in my life. Fan started mumbling in the bed. Meditations of her heart. [loud plane noise] I took the controls and we started going like this. He said, no, no, no. He took them back. We came closer and closer to that massive mountain. We came so close to it, in fact, that two things happen. First of all, I saw mountain all around me on the right and it directly in front of us and on the left. And the second thing is that my silent friend, the Bush pilot spoke, he said, "Wow, I've never been this close before."
And I'm thinking, when are we going to turn around? How are we going to turn around? Looks to me like the snow is right there. I can see the crevices in the cracks. So I say to him, "How are we going to turn around?" Oh, he said, "Like this." And he dropped. [plane noise]
There are a lot of reasons why I thought I was going to die while I was driving from Fairbanks south to Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. That was in my mind. Denali, so huge, which I couldn't see under the cloud cover, but maybe the most important reason was that it was snowing. And it was a wet, icy snow.
And the world was above the muskeg. It was above wilderness left and right. If any of you have ever driven that highway number three, north and south. And the road was freezing and I'm in a four wheel drive, I've never been in before. And he tells me the way I can turn it into a two-wheel drive is get out and fiddle with the wheels. And I didn't listen to him well, but I don't like this four wheel drive because every time we go up a gentle incline, I can feel it's going like this. And I have in my mind this picture that we're going to slide off the side of this road, down into the muskeg, and nobody's going to find us because it's Alaska, it's a wilderness and we're going to die.
My knuckles are white on this wheel. And sitting next to me, Fan Fan's praying. Fan's praying out loud. And every once in a while, she says, "You're doing fine Walt. You're doing fine." I'm saving us from death.
After about an hour and a half and two and a half hours of driving, we came over arise and like magic for the first time in all the time we were in Alaska, the clouds drew back and the sky was blue. And we saw Denali standing up with that scallop of white snow off the side of it. And I relaxed. We're not going to die.
We drove through Anchorage and by evening, just as the summer's going down, we stopped to eat in the little town of Kenai on the Kenai Peninsula. While we were eating in the restaurant, somebody came in and said, the whales, the whales are breaching and everybody jumped and ran out to the coastline. We went too Fan and I to see the whales breaching.
[00:24:12] And now the reason I've told you this whole story is for what happened there. When we ran out looking directly west. We were looking at a great bay. This is on the Cook Inlet. To my left, the land rolls all the way up until you could see the bay sweep around. To my right, the land sank. I was standing on a precipice that was, I don't know, it must've been 60 or 70 feet straight down to the water. Very, very high. But the land sank as if it were in an incline until I don't know how far to the right it entered into woods. And it was about the same level as the water of the bay. And I scanned the water, and I saw no whales whatsoever. People started mumbling to one another, and they peeled off and went back to the restaurant.
But before I turn to the, go back to the restaurant, I looked down low, it must have been a mile away, and I saw an Eagle flying in my direction. The Eagle was flying right along the edge of the precipice. And so it was rising as it came, just as the land rose as it came. And I fixed my attention on that Eagle.
It never veered to the right and over the sea, nor did it veer to the left and over the land. It continued to follow that skirt, that edge of the land itself rising as it came toward me. And the closer that it came, the more I saw how it is an Eagle flies that its head makes a thrusting and rocking motion as it comes. And that its wings don't just go up and down. They come forward. You could see, as it got closer, I could see, even as though it had shoulders a pulling, it was as if the Eagle were rowing the wind as if it were rowing the wind to come closer because its wings went something like this forward and back, forward and back, and its head was directly straight forward. And I was entranced with this thing.
No whales, but the Eagle had gotten up and flown, and it was coming to me. The closer that it came, everything else fell away. I swear to you, I heard that wing, those wings strike the wind. I could hear them [wind sound] as if I had never heard that before. Now, I know I've heard burdens wings, little tiny flutters of birds wings, but I'd never heard that tremendous rowing of the air as it came closer and closer to me. And it was as if my own heart stopped. This thing was not going to the right north to the left, nor up nor down it was coming exactly to me. And I know that it was no more than 10 feet off the edge of the precipice.
Just as it came to my level, just as it came to me when I could possibly even have reached my hand out and felt the tips of its primary feathers strike me. Just then something happened that transfixed me forever. In that single moment, in that moment, it was as if everything froze while everything else went on, it was as if somebody had taken a snapshot, which was living an absolutely true, even as the living Eagle passed on, because this is what I saw as the Eagle was no more than 10 feet from me is that the Eagle looked at me, suddenly in a flash. It was as if that black pupil of the eye surrounded by its yellow iris was as huge as a rainbow broken free of the earth and filling the sky itself; the Eagle looked at me.
And whatever else happened that became its own moment detached from time. And I became one who could in the shock of that moment contemplate what was going on. Contemplate is an excellent word. It means to be standing in a sacred space, to be standing in the temple, to contemplate and all the feelings that rushed through me.
Delight, I will tell you delight at that sudden connection between all of Alaska in the eye of the Eagle as it flew by me, looking at me. I can't speak to you the sweetness of that delight. And at the same time, something awe-full because in that glance was Alaska. In that glance was Denali. In that glance was the still storm that could have killed me. In that glance was the sunlight, which was our freedom where I did not die after all. And grace came down like light itself. But in that glance too, and this is so terribly important was fear for me. I was scared, simple. I was scared in the midst of everything else. And the only thing I can say now, looking back at it is that it scared me because I suddenly was, you understand, I suddenly existed when you are looked at, when you are looked at by things that you didn't expect to have the capacity to look suddenly you are different from what you were. You are here, and it sees you. As if it called your name and that's frightening.
Am I making any sense?
[00:29:23] So what do we do with the eye of the Eagle? What do I do with that eye? I as one who lives in this universe. Whom suddenly called to account, you understand. Suddenly called to be. Have you ever noticed when you crossed in front of traffic, you're in Kansas. Maine New York, Grand Rapids, wherever you are, you're crossing. And the light has stopped the traffic so that it says, walk on, you're walking and you didn't even think about the sign walk. You just started walking across like this, casual. And for some reason or other, you don't know why as you're walking in front of these lines, these, these grills, these cars, which are hammering and murmuring, somebody beeps at you. Beep.
Have you noticed how your whole gape changes? It's harder to walk suddenly because you know, somebody's looking at you, especially if you looked at the beep, and it was nobody you knew before, and all of a sudden you think you're going to fall down because you can't walk casually. And you know what happened, don't you? Somebody just called your name. Somebody just said, "Hey, you!" And when you know that you are known, you're not the same anymore. So what do we do with that eye of an Eagle? Praise. Praise. Let me give you two examples before I get to my own. I know what Rilke would do. Do you know this poet? Rainer Maria Rilke. Yes?
He's a lyric poet at the end of the previous. Oh no, no, no. End of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century. Gave his entire life to his poetry as a matter of fact. And near the end of his life said that the most important thing that a poet can do is praise. I liked that. I liked that, that he said a little bit earlier in his life, you know, he might have done, what he might have done. It's a little bit less than what I hope to do myself sometimes, but it's remarkable, nonetheless. He would have watched the Eagle. He would have watched that Eagle as clearly as he possibly could. He would have, as he said, seen, he would have seen the Eagle so well that when he wrote the poem about the Eagle, the Eagle itself would seem to take up space and residence in the poem. And when you read his poem, you would see the world through that eye of the the Eagle. Do you understand?
He writes a remarkable poem called "The Panther." If we had more time, if we could have as like a seminar on this, I would read you the poem and break it down. Where, when you read that poem, because of the rhythms of the language, you can feel not from the outside looking into the cage, but from the Panther's view, looking out, you can feel that Panther as he paces back and forth going past the bar, the bar, the schlage, the schlage, the bar, the bar back and forth, back and forth.
And in that poem, it's only by the time you get to the third verse. All these bars says the poem make it seem to the Panther is if on the other side of the bars is nothing whatsoever. It's an empty world as he goes back and forth. But in the third verse, all of a sudden the curtain falls from the pupil of its eye, says the poem, and he sees something which goes into his body, into the supple motion. And for a moment, it trembles as if the Panther understands that minute passes away. That's what he would have done at, with the Eagle earlier in his life. Later in his life, he comes to something a little bit more like praise. Rilke writes this poem.
He's talking now, you must understand, by the way that praise doesn't mean always good things. And he's about to embrace life and death together. And then I'll tell you what he means by the word praise Rilke says, "What is it poet that you do?" In German, he says, "ich rühme." I praise. You understand has to do with the magnification of reputation. I praise.
The deadly monstrous and the out of place, the deadly, the monstrous and the out of place. How do you bear and how accept it? I praise. And the anonymous, the nameless phrase. How do you hail and how invoke it? How do you hail and how invoke it? This is not a lot different from what I told you I do at the beginning. How do you say hello? And then how do you give it place in the language invoke it? And he says, "ich rühmen." I praise. And when it's your right to be in any face, even the Panther's face and any mask is your own true self. And his answer is "ich rühmen." I praise. And why do silence and tempestuousness as star and storm acknowledge you. Say hello to you, greet you in the Eagle's eye. And his answer is, "ich rühmen." I praise.
What he means by praise now is that he doesn't just get it right in the poem, but he gives it back unto the world and he gives it back unto the singers. He gives it back onto the Eagle itself in a way that he says is more spiritual and eternal. He magnifies the things that he sings about.
[00:34:39] In fact, he says in another place, "Rühmen, rühmen, das ist." Praise is all there is. It's everything there is. Praise. So far, so good. Except then he takes a step that I can't follow. His suggestion is, is that when the poet praises something, that thing becomes song. So far. So good. The tree becomes song when Orpheus sings, except that in that song, it is made immortal. And what the poet does there is elevate himself almost to the godly realm. He is the one by that praise who confers immortality under things. That step I can't quite take. Here's another individual whom I appreciate very much.
You know, the poet, whose name is Christopher Smart? Who lived, oh, my heaven, in the 1700s died in 1771. Same time as Samuel Johnson. If you don't know, write the name down, check it out. They called a mad Christopher Smart. They called a mad because he had the unfortunate habit of praying.
Now, as they said about him, if the man was taken by a desire to pray in private, nobody would have noticed. And therefore they never would have sent him to the lunatic asylum. But mad Kit Smart would pray wherever he felt like praying. He'd dropped to his knees and involve everybody else in his prayers at the top of his lungs. And what he said he was doing was praising God wherever he was. Well, for that reason, they put them away. They locked him up.
Well, but he thought he was a poet. Mad Kit Smart. Sam Johnson said that he'd pray with Kit with Mad, poor Kit Smart as with anybody else.
This is what Kit Smart believed. And this is what he did. He believed that all of creation exists for no other reason than to praise the creator. He's with my Psalm 19, at the beginning. He believes that it's his job to recognize the praise that takes place absolutely everywhere. And if he had seen that Eagle, he would have rushed back into the restaurant, stood up on a table, dropped on his knees and asked everybody to pray with him in joy. Pray praise to God because he felt that the human job on the earth and the poet's job in particular was to give voice and word to the new praise that everything else did. He would have seen that Eagle praising God. And then he would have put that Eagle in a poem. In fact, he did, as a matter of fact, and with time, I would read you the passages of what he says about the Eagle flying. Well, you know, what Kit does. He climbs on the back of the Eagle and the two of them together, soar in song unto to God.
And I like that. I like Kit Smart. I like the extraordinary quality of his poetry, which ultimately was not crazy. Oh, by the way, expect it. If you bind yourself to praise and somehow or other thinking, the deity has anything to do with your writing, someone is bound to think you're crazy too, in this world.
There's one thing, however, that Kit misses for me, and that is that all of his praise, his joy. And all of what he recognizes is praising his creation, and he misses the human kind. And he misses the difficult things. What shall we do with the eye of the Eagle? Are you still with me? This is what I do. I remember the passage in Isaiah chapter 6. Where Isaiah heard something like that eye of the Eagle. Where Isaiah saw the curtain torn open. And on the other side of creation, Isaiah saw divinity, and Isaiah when he saw that divinity, first felt scared.
We have a right to draw the picture this way. And I'm going to draw that picture for you. This happened early in Isaiah's life. Chapter six is his call. I think many of you know that, huh? It begins like this, "In the year that King Uzziah died," says Isaiah, "I saw the Lord upon a throne, high and lifted up, and the temple was feud with the hem of his garment."
Now let's see if I can draw this for you. Here's very possible. Isaiah was a part of the priesthood. He had an access into the priesthood, and so it's very possible that he was performing some priestly duty at that moment. In fact, it's possible that he was literally kneeling between those door posts that shook, you know, when the cry occurred, when the, when, when the curtain in the temple was torn in two. It could have been that this was new year's day. See this, if you possibly can: Rosh Hashanah. On New Year's Day, they would open up the gates of the, of the courts around the temple. And they would open up the doors of the temple itself because this was east. Do you understand? And to the east was the Mount of Olives. And at a certain point, the sun would pierce its way over the top of the Mount of Olives and the rays of the sun, then you understand, would rush forward into the darkness of the temple itself with a brightness that was shattering and surprising.
So if you are Isaiah, if the writer is Isaiah every once in a while, we're kneeling about our business about this holy sacramental business of doing the writing, but by the grace of God, the sun rises up and ships into the temple in front of us. And if the altar of burnt offering is if the altar of incense is putting its smoke up, you can see how the sunlight would hit that smoke. And in Isaiah's perfervid and spiritual eyes that smokes throughout the whole temple begins to become, not look like, but it becomes the hem of the garment of God who is lifted up and above that God are the sparks of the fire itself, whirling so that they become the burning ones, the spark of the alter.
[00:40:48] Now this is all common stuff, smoke and sparks are common except that every once in a while, they become the evidence of the glory of God in the world. And those sparks become the burning ones, which are, you know, the Seraphim. That's what that means. They are the burning ones with six wings each. With two wings, he covered his mouth with two wings, he covered his feet. And like the Eagle with two wings, he flew and one cried until the other. And this is the tear in, in, in, in the matter and the material of creation to see the other side, one cried into the. Kadosh kadosh kadosh adonai tseva'ot. Holy holy holy is the Lord of hosts, terrible word.
It says other, other, other is the Lord of hosts, different, different, different unapproachable. And unknowable is the Lord of hosts. The holiness divides us completely, but this comes as a fearful grace. But kol ha'aretz. The whole earth, all of creation under the singing heavens. That entire disk that God created and all that is upon it. The whole earth is filled, Melo, with the glory of God. What a good thing. If the holiness separates the grace of God is to bring glory into the world. Where are you going to look? Where are you going to look? Going to look at the cockroach, you're going to look at the ground and you're going to smell the air. You're going to look at absolutely everything because in almost anything in any common thing, may the glory of God strake forth and call your name.
And of course, you know what Isaiah's response is. I don't hear this very often. And therefore it's important to tell you. It's fear. He's scared. And why is he scared? Notice what he focuses on. Oh, he says, "Woah, is me. I am undone. For, I am a man could be a woman of unclean lips. And I come from a people of unclean lips." We don't say it right. We say it wrong. We have obscure. We obfuscate. We lie. We become proud. Cleanse though me from secret faults. But one of the seraphim goes to that altar of incense and with tongs takes a coal. And in the baptism of fire, touches the writer's lip, and says you were clean. Forgiveness is a part of the process.
And then this voice comes and says, who will go for me? Who will talk? And the pitiful little writer, who's just seeing the Eagle fly says, ah, me?
What is that glory? And picking it right now, this Hebrew word, this beautiful Hebrew word out of Isaiah. What is that glory? What do we find? What do we see? Well, the image behind the word, the kebhedhuth is weight heaviness.
You know what we're saying? Somebody walks into the room, my German teacher, when he walked into the room, he had a great stomach in front of him in high school and his Bumbershoot would stick out in front of him. We say he throws his weight around. Gravitas. That's what glory is. It is the authority of God made present in all that. God created, all things reflect God's authority is the creator. That's the glory. Are you with me? And how do we see that glory? How do we recognize it? And I'm going to tell you the simplest thing right now, the simplest thing that I'm going to tell you at all, and if you remember nothing else, remember this, this comes actually directly out of dear Kit Smart. "When nature does what God commanded it to do, nature in its obedience shows forth the glory of God."
[00:44:49] When nature, creation, when anything within creation does what God created it to do, the authority of God is reflected in the sweet and speechless obedience. Seek obedience.
But I have to take one step beyond Kit Smart, who only looked at nature. And now we're back to Psalm 19. Listen to me. When human beings consciously or unconsciously also find themselves sweetly in the midst of obedient response unto God, there is the glory of God. So near, so near.
And so the rain on the roof is the glory of God. That's what you watch for, even when it's broken, because the glory of God ultimately is mercy to heal. Where are you going to look, please? Where do you think you cannot look? Where do you think you will not find anything, is nowhere. It's the looking not the thing you look at, which will find the glory of God.
I have to take now my final step beyond Rilke. Even beyond Kit Smart. To my friend, Melvin, knew this so well. Let me tell you about Mel. He was sent away to school just as I was. I'm the Lutheran tradition. It doesn't exist anymore. It was the Missouri Synod. At the age of 13, the boys were sent off to prep school. We were asked, oh, don't you like this? "Surely you want to be a pastor? Don't you?"
Yes. Prep school, Milwaukee. That's where my prep school was Concordia, Milwaukee. It was all together, male, which is its own thing to talk about. And in that school, I met a friend. I in my shyness had very few friends, but two doors down from me in a dormitory was a fellow who had odd habits. This was Melvin.
His odd habit was that he used to make tea in the evening and drink it. I'd never met.. [Melvin was] in the dairy farmer's family. And the dairy farm was north of Milwaukee. And so he would take me home, and I rejoiced in what I could see with him on the farm. And I came to love his momma, Gertrude. Every one of his brothers and sisters had gone off and they had gotten jobs as pastors or teachers within the church.
And of course, Mel was going to follow in their footsteps, his mother, a short German woman with a great round face and a powerhouse for speaking German used to invite me to help her sell vegetables in the farmer's market in Milwaukee.
Folks would come and try to buy potatoes for me. And they would try also to get those potatoes cheap because I couldn't speak German as fast as they could. [gibberish]
But when Gertrude stood beside me, I'm here in Gertrude's here, and when she began to speak her German, we always won. [speaking German] and she liked me and I became something of her son. She cooked when I went. I had my own bed upstairs since the others had left in the farm house. And in those days it was a beautiful farm. They called it real lane because they had a lane that was canopied by trees. That would go out to a meadow. I haven't talk about this in so long, a meadow where they kept their cows and it was a meadow. I called it a meadow. They didn't, they called it pasture. They had big stones in there and I used to preach, truly.
I used to preach at the top of my lungs and I would be overwhelmed by the fact that the cows would swing their moody heads and look at me. Saving cow souls, you know. I did. As we got on in high school, I saw wonderful things in that place. Let me tell you of one thing. This is when we were in our freshman college year, one night, I was staying up in my room and I woke up because I heard sounds outside through the window and I looked, this was, this is in the spring. And I saw a cow outside of the barn and I saw my friend Mel at the back of the cow and he was pulling. He was doing a strong pulling gesture and he was singing. Melvin was singing it top of his lungs. I got dressed and I went on and I went outside and I saw what was going on. The cow was trying hard to freshen. It was trying hard to bear calf, but it was a breech birth. And you could see sticking out of the volva the four white hooves of the calf. The hooves are coming first and he told me that's a dangerous, dangerous kind of birth. They looked white those hooves, almost like fingernails. You know, like they'd been sucked a long time, and small.
[00:49:20] What Melvin had done was to reach in and tie a cord around the legs of the calf itself. And every time the poor cow heave, he would do a gentle tug. He would do a gentle tug to help pull it. She'd sagged to the ground. And she lay on her side. She was so tired, but she'd heave. And I said, Melvin, I said, Melvin, is there anything I can do? And he said, yes, he said. He said, you can sing to the cow. Why? I said you have no idea. He said, just to sing, what should I sing? And then he gave me this little rhyme. He said, sing in the cow's ear, [singing in German]. "Beautiful. Beautiful, you the most beautiful of every vow in the world," is what I was singing. So I went from, and while my friend Melvin is heating back on those, on those legs, every time she groans I'm in this cow's ear singing [German].
And I swear she batted those long rashes, either in pain or ignorance or falling in love with me. I don't know where. And I remember that all of a sudden there was like a groan, a deep groan. I mean, this is as deep as the sound of the African singing, like, and Melvin slipped and fell because the calf had suddenly slurped out and it suddenly slurped out.
And I looked around and I saw what he was doing as fast as he could. He was on tying the cord from around the hooves and he dragged the collar around to the mother's mouth and right away, she was with her entire head licking that calf and licking that calf. And I stood up and I promise you, I promise you, it was at that point just the morning. It was just the sunrise, and I came round back and stood off from where Melvin was. He went to the back of the cow again. I do not understand anything I'm telling you, but it's true. Out of the cow from the same place that the baby had come, the calf, came a balloon of white fluid, clear, and whitish fluid. It came like a balloon and rolled on the ground just a little bit. And the sun having just risen, hit that. So the thing seemed to burn a luminous white. I almost said, "Melvin, what is that?" When he took his finger and he poked it and it was as if the water itself had merely been a standing shape that sloshed and washed the ground in a kind of a baptism. Took my breath away.
What do you do with the eye of the Eagle?
A few years ago, I went to visit my friend, Melvin, as I told you, he quit. His dad died. And so he quit college. He's the only one who stayed home. This farm is near Mequon used to be [unknown]. If you know anything about Milwaukee, you know that there's all kinds of subdivisions up there now. And the way in which Melvin was able to take care of his mother and to take care of the farmers that they had to sell it off bit by bit, acreage by acreage.
When they did it, they didn't make it all as much money as the developers did, but they made enough to live on. And now they are down to five acres. I went to visit Melvin in October, in the fall, not far from [unknown Milwaukee town].
And I knocked on his door. I don't see him very often. Maybe once in seven or eight years. Oh, it was a bright. It was a high blue sky. And you know that they still kept the old apple trees. And in the fall they hit the ground. He doesn't pick them. So there's a whiny smell on the wind. I knocked on the door and he opened the door and smiled.
My friend, Melvin, is so lean and looks so wise to me. When he reads, he wears half glasses. Otherwise he has the crow's feet all around his eyes. He looks much older than I do. We're both 56. He opened the door and he smiled at me, "Wally," he said, "good to see you." I smelled cinnamon. I smelled pie. I smelled apple pie.
"Melvin," I said, "your mother has made me a pie."
"Oh no." he said, and he ducked his head. Always shy. "No," he said, "I see to the necessary things now. Come on in," he said, "let me show you mom."
We went into the kitchen. We went through a little hallway and we entered what was always called the parlor. And they very seldom were in the parlor. That was the special room for guests. When I walked in, I saw that there was a bed now with its head to the wall on the right, and there was a chair on the left here with a little light, one of those old green shaded lights. Melvin pointed there. And he said, "that's where I sit at night." He said, "I sit there. And I read because I have to watch mommy," he said.
And there, I saw Gertrude, the woman with such power to sell potatoes, who was my mother for a while, sitting up in bed and smiling. And then Melvin did a not thing; he walked to his mother on the right hand side of her and he said, "Mother," he spoke very forward. He said, "Mother, be pleased to meet my friend Walter Wangerin. He's a writer."
Which surprised me because I'd known her for years and years when I was a child I'd known her. Be pleased to meet my friend Walter, and I walked forward, and I saw that she raised her hand as if I would shake it. And when she did that, then I understood. Gertrude's face was as large as it ever had been, but it was a shining and white and empty as a plate. She never looked me in the eye. She never looked higher than here. She raised her hand, and I reached to shake her hand, and I took hold of something like dough.
[00:55:03] Her skin was as white as if it were powdered in flour and she didn't hold me back at all. I shook her hand...mother be pleased to meet. She didn't know me. Gertrude didn't know me. And she only looked in this area of me the entire time. And I glanced at Mel, and he nodded and he said, "I see to the necessary things now."
He reached to the sideboard there. They had a sideboard, and there was a dish of prunes, and he brought the prunes to his mother and gave them to her. And she began to chew them. She has wonderful teeth. She chewed the prunes and smiled, and we left.
We spent the afternoon walking under the trees. Melvin. Melvin. So wise. So blameless.
Could school presidents and priests and kings, with his wisdom, if they would only listen.
Do you remember what the Psalmist said? Just as nature obeys God. So when human beings know the law of God, there is an obedience there that shines forth the glory of God. And one of those laws is this remarkable commandment that says honor your father and your mother. And you must understand that the word honor in Hebrew is related to Kavod. It's related to that glory. It's related to that weightiness. And what it means is that you honor your parents, not when you're little and obey them. Obedience has nothing to do with honor because they can make you obey if they wish. It means when they are older, and there is no honor in them. When they are no longer honorable to themselves, you grant unto them. You accord them the honor of weight and gravitas so that they take up a weightiness in your life.
And when you honor them, they therefore have honor. And then it will be well. Then it will be well with you and the Hebrew where there is tov. It means good. It's like God in creation saying good on it. God said that that tov is like good. Then it will be well with y'all. Parents and children alike, and you will then live long.
So I ate Melvin's cooking, which is pretty good. And his tea, I drank, and I ate his pie, and I went to bed. I woke up at about two o'clock in the morning to a sound that I could not understand it scared. It was this [yelling] throughout the entire house, I heard that sound. Woke me up, like cold in my blood. [yelling] It was coming from downstairs. I got up and honestly, this is all without thought. I put on my coat. I didn't have a bathrobe. I put my coat on. I went downstairs in the darkness, and I came into the kitchen and I saw through the hole that there was a light in the parlor. And it was from the partner that, that sound was coming. [yelling] And I walked into the parlor. I stopped right in the parlor door. The chair was empty. The light was on over the chair, not over the bed, but Melvin was kneeling next to the bed and it was his mother. She had thrown her head back. And at the top of her lungs, his mother was crying out. [yelling]
[00:58:27] As loud as she possibly could. I would have withdrawn because it looked like Melvin knew what he was doing. He saw me, and he smiled that lean and gentle smile and pointed to the chair as if to say, sit and I sat. And I watched, and I came to understand what was going on downstairs, what Melvin was doing. I smelled it; Melvin was changing his momma's diapers. He was cleaning her. He was washing her clean. Now, that's not all. Melvin was also singing to his mother in her own native tongue, softly, softly. I heard the son sing unto his mother. [Singing in German] A lullaby and evening hymn. He was singing to his momma in her own tongue. And I swear until you, she was singing back. That's what she was doing. Because in that music, you understand, in that old song being sung unto her, I have no doubt that she was young again and running and beautiful of an Easter morning. She was running on a green sward with a sun, bright above her and the blue sky. And she had some crinoline dress on as they used to have at Easter. And she was laughing and dashing and she was singing. And the voice of the song in her old mouth now was [singing]. Day unto day, fountains forth the language of the glory of God. Melvin was honoring his momma. Melvin was giving glory back unto God. Melvin, who had found glory where glory wasn't, and I'm the poor and fortunate author who was able to sit and watch the Eagle's eye one more time in the behavior of humanity, who writes a story and tells you the story now, and invites you to participate.
Isn't it wonderful what we do?
Glory into glory. And Melvin knows that it's more than the kavoth. Melvin also knows the glory of the New Testament, which is doxa, which isn't weight anymore, which is light. And if you follow very carefully, the glory of the New Testament, you see one more additional characteristic, the characteristic, which is in the Old Testament of mercy, but it comes like this, dear people, it comes like this in Philippians chapter two. It is said that we writers should have this mind among ourselves. We writers should have this mind among ourselves, which we have in Christ Jesus. Who though he was in the form of God did not count this authority, this equality with God, a thing to be grasped. Did not count this powerful thing, a thing to be grasped, but emptied he himself, emptied himself, and took upon himself the form of a doulos, of a servant.
Writers, writers. And being found in human form, where did Jesus fetch up? Where is the glory of God? Now listen to me. And being found in human form, he humbled himself. Writers? He humbled himself unto death, even death on the cross. This is the final word about glory. That you will find God in the places where human beings are lonely or sad or dying. But you won't find God in those places if you yourself don't also empty yourself and make of your observation, that first part of writing, make of your observation, a genuine participation in the lives of other people. Change their diapers. For this reason, God has highly exalted him and given him a name which is above every name on earth, the name of Jesus, every knee, which is above the earth, you understand, where they sing the glory of God. And on the earth, which is that disc where we exist. And under the earth, even the spirits should bow and every tongue declare that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God.
[01:03:05] Oh, one more thing to tell you about Africa. Melvin knows this, though he doesn't know this story. We were given a ride, Fan and I, in this case in Western Africa. Terrible, terrible roads, we were bouncing around in a four wheel, uh, Toyota Land Rover. Is that what they are? The woman who was driving was Norwegian. Every time we hit a bump, she said, "Uff da. Uff da." She said. Fan's bouncing around in the back. We're putting holes in the roof. It's terrible roads. You know that the, um, the potholes are so bad there that, uh, 18 wheeler truck goes down and disappears. You think I'm joking, I'm not. Because in the rainy season, those trucks dig that stuff out so far up and down.
But as we drove, I saw ahead of us a donkey. I saw a donkey on the right side of the road as we. Flies covering that donkey. As we drove by it, I saw it. It was one of these moments again, where I just gasped and I hold my breath at what I'm seeing. I saw that its haunch was flayed, that the skin was peeled back and that the flies are covering blood red area.
"Uff da," she said, the woman who was driving us, "Uff da," she said, "what that is is that there gets to be a kind of a disease that literally eats the flesh of the donkey and the flies come." She said it will die soon.
About a week and a half later, we drove back the same way. And I saw the donkey again and it was laying on the ground. And this time they were birds, "Oh, she said, I hate this." And what I saw was that the birds were landing on the haunch and they were pecking it. They were pecking that flesh, you're pecking the flesh of that haunch. And when they came up, it looked to me like the tips of their beaks were. I thought, how can they do that?
She said, "Uff da. I hate that." How can they do that? How can they eat the living blood of this thing, it's dying.
[01:05:03] When you were back in [African town], that just stuck in my mind, that image of the birds eating the sorrow and the pain and the grief and the wound of this donkey to kill it. And I mentioned that to, to one of the Africans who was there. And he smiled so broad at me. I said, "how can they do that? How can they kill the donkey?"
"Oh no, Walter," he said, "No, they're not killing the donkey." He said, he said, "They're eating the maggots. They're saving the donkey. They're cleansing it. When they are done, the donkey will heal, and the donkey will live."
If you seek the glory of God, you will at some time have to walk into the wounds of the nation. And if you do it wrong, it will look as if you're feeding off other people's sorrow. But if you do it right, and you're willing to look with absolutely clean and clear eyes at what exists among human beings, if you're willing not to lie to yourself about the maggots, you will come with healing in your wings.
Heidi Groenboom: [01:06:17] Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find more information about the Center, our initiatives, and our signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at CCFW.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CCFWgr. You can also subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more from our archives.