Every life has its dark times. They may be personal – death of a loved one, depression, serious illness, loss of a job, bankruptcy, cruelty and humiliation at the hands of another. They may be universal – war, oppression, economic upheaval. Regardless, the dark times can be terrifying, especially when no measure exists for how bad they are, how long they will last, or if the light will ever return.
For Christians, dark times can test and perhaps even overwhelm our faith. God allows my wife to die of cancer? God wants my business to go down the tubes? My career destroyed? My child to be permanently ill? This is living the victorious life? Yes, I know it’s supposed to be all well with my soul, but this is awful. Take the pain away. Please.
Poet Sydney Lea has spent a lifetime considering the dark and light times of a life, and all the things that can challenge faith. He’s published 10 volumes of poetry, been a Pulitzer Prize finalist, seen his poems published in The New Yorker, the Atlantic and some of the most prestigious literary reviews. He’s received the fellowships, he founded the New England Review and served as editor for 20 years, and taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan and Middlebury College. His career has been successful by any measure.
And yet he’s known pain, and dark times, and he’s held fast to his faith. And he’s written what I can only call the poetry of hope, wonderful poems previously published and now assembled as Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Spiritual Poems. I discovered this volume because I read D.S. Martin’s blog, Kingdom Poets. Martin serves as the editor of the Wipf and Stock Publishers Poiema Poetry series, and the newest volume is this collection of poems by Lea.
These are longish poems, some stretching to three pages. They tell stories about family and friends, and self. They are about aging and death, and other senseless things.
I could read these poems all day. Repeatedly. I find new things with each reading. Most importantly, I find faith; over and over again I find faith.
In “Ghost Pain,” Lea describes a Christmas service; it’s clear that most of those attending are staring mortality in the face.
…It’s minus ten degrees out there,
for the love of Christ,
and it seems above all so safe inside,
safer even than home.
It seems home.
We’ve lit the half-blighted sprice by the road,
chanted our way through a tone-deaf carol,
repaired to our coffee and small talk.
Brian just wheeled in Joan.
We wish them all the cheer that humans can,
inquire how the leg is,
now that it’s gone.
Is there ghost pain?
Brave Joan and Brian kindle like matches…
The poem continues. Other friends are too sick to come; some have already died.
…A dear friend down south has gone;
his church’s prayer chain couldn’t hold him.
Not this time. People die…
But in this midst of this suffering and death, Lea still finds hope:
The girl sang well, enough to bring tears.
A small voice got big, rose over the pain.
And thus did Mary trudge in,
and Joan roll in on her chair,
and Red and Agnes and Willie figure thus in our prayers,
and the only miracle for this lonely minute:
we were inside,
even those who weren’t, who aren’t, who can’t be.
And the wind that blows no good—
And the cookies are good, and the coffee.
By God aren’t they good?
I’ve had those cookies, too, and the coffee, and Lea is exactly right: by God they are good.