Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Poetry Tuesday: "Heaven on Earth"

In this post, I posited that reading more poetry could help our understanding of the Bible, and I promised that each Tuesday of each week of Lent, I'd post one of my poems, along with thoughts about the poem and Biblical interpretation.

I thought I'd start with one of my more popular poems. I'm always amazed to find that it's so popular. I resisted writing it for years because it felt so transgressive. And once I wrote it, I didn't publish it for years, because I worried about the reaction of readers, who very well might find it heretical. But it's gone on to be one of the ones that people like best. This poem originally appeared in Coal City Review and was reprinted in The Worcester Review, before it ultimately became part of my first chapbook of poems, Whistling Past the Graveyard. If you want to hear Garrison Keillor read it, go here.

Heaven on Earth

I saw Jesus at the bowling alley,
slinging nothing but gutter balls.
He said, “You’ve gotta love a hobby
that allows ugly shoes.”
He lit a cigarette and bought me a beer.
So I invited him to dinner.

I knew the Lord couldn’t see my house
in its current condition, so I gave it an out
of season spring cleaning. What to serve
for dinner? Fish—the logical
choice, but after 2000 years, he must grow weary
of everyone’s favorite seafood dishes.
I thought of my Granny’s ham with Coca Cola
glaze, but you can’t serve that to a Jewish
boy. Likewise pizza—all my favorite
toppings involve pork.

In the end, I made us an all-dessert buffet.
We played Scrabble and Uno and Yahtzee
and listened to Bill Monroe.
Jesus has a healthy appetite for sweets,
I’m happy to report. He told strange
stories which I’ve puzzled over for days now.

We’ve got an appointment for golf on Wednesday.
Ordinarily I don’t play, and certainly not in this humidity.
But the Lord says he knows a grand miniature
golf course with fiberglass mermaids and working windmills
and the best homemade ice cream you ever tasted.
Sounds like Heaven to me.

I have always been fascinated by the question my 5th grade Sunday School teacher asked: if Jesus came back today, what would happen? My 5th grade Sunday School teacher surely didn't dream that her question would spark a poem series when I was a grown up. I've written many poems that come back to this question, but the poem above was the first.

Even from that early age, I learned that Jesus was not what people were expecting. As I got older, I learned in a deeper way about how Jesus did not fit the image of the Messiah that people wanted. People had been looking for a savior who would rescue them from the Roman empire, not someone who would advise them to care for the widow and orphan, to create community (and thus, the Kingdom of God) right where they were. I've also been fascinated by the idea of table ministry that Jesus perfected: invite people to a meal and you've begun to form a bond. Yell at them shrilly, and they're likely to flee in terror or annoyance.

When I started thinking about this poem, I really was at a bowling alley. All around me, people smoked and drank. I thought that should Jesus appear here, he would smoke and drink too. I also thought about all the places Jesus took his followers and tried to come up with something similar: thus the miniature golf and homemade ice cream. And the part about the strange stories speaks to the parables of Jesus. We're used to those parables, so we forget how strange they would have seemed to Jesus' contemporaries.

For example, Jesus talks about yeast, but people of that time period would have seen yeast as something alien and unclean. A contemporary example would be if Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is like the mold on your bathroom wall when you go away on vacation for a month in the summer and your air conditioner stops working." We'd recoil.

Jesus was strange, but also alluring, and I wanted my poem to capture that concept. Jesus came to people where they were--he didn't insist that they come to a distant temple or mountaintop; again, I tried to think of where humans congregate. If Jesus came back today, where would he find us? Today I might cast Jesus as an office temp. Hmm, now there's an image (I've written about Jesus as fast food worker, but that poem is unfinished).

Here's a prompt, if you'd like to play: if Jesus came into your life, if Jesus invited you to "Come and See," what would happen? How would Jesus fit into your life? How would your life need to change? How would you know it was Jesus?

If you enjoy this poem, you might want to explore the poems in Sweet Jesus: Poems About the Ultimate Icon edited by Nick Carbo and Denise Duhamel. It's out of print now, but you can likely find a used or library copy.

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