The Circuit Rider

It has been a long time since I have posted a poem and it feels like I have been working to revise this one forever. Originally published in 1979, I have been working on it off and on ever since. Anyway here it is.

If it helps to know a member of my family had been a pastor in the Tennessee Conference of the various incarnations of the Wesleyan tradition in Middle Tennessee since my great-great grandfather, Mark Gray, was ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbia, Tennessee in 1836.circuitrider

The Circuit Rider

After all the waves are waved
The hands are clasped
The blessing said
And proof of the appreciation
Made good,
Women great with child chase off to bed
Tow-headed boys.
Shuck stuffing sounds creep from
Youth-filled beds
To slip like the outside night mist
Across the floor unnoticed.
The wood inside fired bright to chase the evening chill
From ancient bones
The grandfather stands outlined by the door-formed light
Sees before his clouded eyes
The union of the rider
And the night.
The broad-shouldered black coat bowed
Against the angry angel of early springtime chill,
The dooryard misty, still, and dark once more
(By the latch string door and light closed off)
Is united with the rider and the night.

“Brother Night, the word spoken in the forest
Falls upon the stump-seats in a hundred dooryards
In quieted tavern-stores and cellar-jails
Falls upon the stump-heads of hunters
The stump-ears of farmers,
And like the hardened grease and gravy leavings
On the plate is thrown out,
Left dripping off the porch in back.”
This promised land once dreamt of
Now forces the dreamer back across the threshold
Into darkness. This promised land
Now fertilized by native bones and blood
Brings forth a thorny tree. This promised land
Now flows with clabbered milk and sour wine
Woe to them.
“What gain ye pioneer
If ye gain the riches of a new-found world
But lose thy immortal soul?”
Woe to them that devise iniquity upon their beds
The inheritors, now, dispossessed can only die.

The circuit rider passes
Unrestrained by light-colored daytime
Not required in the cool evening time by anyone.
The dimming sun, slows down heated daytime thoughts.
The night’s fresh wet time
Caresses the rider’s stubbled cheek and chin.
The rider moves like smoke—drifting, suspended—
Into some rude, brooding breeze.
Be still
The evening quiet leaves time enough
For the unsaid words, the unspoken thoughts the journey long.
In the wilderness
Night leans sleepily against the sky
Entwined by spindly-fingered oaken sentries
Thoughts gripped deep within the broadcloth covered belly, arise.
And know
Thoughts of ancient fathers, men of God,
Creep up the cold chest
Vested and coated against winter’s rude
Intrusion into spring.
The fathers tempted at the sight
of the virtuous Suzanna.
Be still and know
The vineyard, darkened now,
The yoke is set aside
The ride relieves
The visitation of the angry angel
Of the night’s mist and chill.
The words sleep, resting for the next day’s labor.
The rider remains awake, month-long bridegroom longing,
Lies in the shuck bed half-sleep of the mind.
Only the dark angel, night, and rider remain awake.
How beautiful are thy feet

“Watcher, work your magic
Though rough shod, covered poorly,
My own fair tower waits. It is late
And two more days of riding left me
Until I reach the union of dream and flesh,
Flesh and dream.”
The moonlight draws night madness
From inside the riders veins
Brings visions from the darkened brain.
Cunning night brings forth the goblet and the jewels,
Displays before seeking, sleepless eyes
The pools of Heshbon.
The ivory tower stands burning;
The night angel only watching
The rider climbs the spiced mountain.
How beautiful are they feet with shoes, pioneer daughter
The gingham covered tower, ivory in the rider’s mind,
Conjured by the stone-covered vintage of muscadine
Or hot corn essence cut with water from the creek.
The night scent thickens, and so the blood
Grows hot as summer noontime.
How beautiful are thy feetMethodism Circuit Rider

The watcher stands, wings folded,
The tower, afire in the shadow
Of the moon.
Solomon on his mountain.

explor, Spring, 1979

Posted in Christianity, Creativity, Faith, God, grandfather, Imagination, marriage, Poetry, Preaching, Spiritual Practices, Stories, Tennessee | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Three Poems for the Season

The choir and brass yesterday at the West End UMC Choir Concert were absolutely inspiring. I have been asked to share the texts of the three poems I wrote, and which I read during as part of the concert yesterday afternoon. So here they are for those who are interested.

Mary’s Story67406_4837417466250_150192257_n


Just a girl.

I was just a girl.

I knew nothing of men,

Had never known a man – in that way.

Then this stranger appeared.

Neither halo nor wings betrayed

His angelic identity.


“Don’t be afraid,” he said.

Too late – – I was already afraid.


“You are with child.” He said.

This is supposed to comfort me?


“The child is from God,” he said.

I thought all children were.


“You will call him Emmanuel,” he said.

No one in my family is named that.


“He will save his people,” he said.

Who will save me from the stares and sneers of neighbors?


“Do not be afraid,” he said.

“God is with him,” he said.

“God is with you,” he said.

How will I tell Joseph? I wondered.

The Song of the Shepherds

Startled from sleep by the clatter of their wings

Waked by their mewling, blinded by their floodlight eyes

Terrorized by the frozen smiles, of these carolers of God


Don’t be afraid, they shout

Is it a trick?

We bring good news, they squeal

Can we believe?

Of great joy, they scream

For us?

For all people, they shriek


Below we shepherds plead, the sheep bleat

Above the night sky catches fire


Let us see if what the angels sang is true.

The glory of God wriggles in flesh and bone.

Let’s see if the world will indeed be made new,

When with common folk like us God makes a home.


A baby is swaddled in strips of cloth

A young mother sings a lullaby

A baby is sleeping in the cattle’s trough

A father whispers a prayer nearby.


Now we have seen what the angels have said.

We will tell the tale on the long road ahead.


Below the old world weeps, the sheep bleat

Above the morning sky bleeds gray



The Song of the Magi


It was a star – led journey West

In search of a child of whom some prophet –

Not even one of our own – had spoken


It is not everywhere that foreigners are treated like royalty.

It is not everywhere that professors are treated like kings.


When? Herod asks.

Just now. Not long ago. We don’t really know.

Where? Herod persists.

These are your prophecies, Herod, you tell us.

In Bethlehem the scholars declare.

In what direction might that lie?


Come and tell me where he is, Herod insists,

And I will see that proper sacrifice is made.


It is not everywhere that toddlers strike terror in kings.

It is not everywhere that children are hunted like prey.


It was a dream-led journey East

Sneaking home to save a child, a king,

– not even one of our own.

Posted in Advent, Creativity, Imagination, Poetry, Spiritual Practices, Uncategorized, West End United Methodist Church | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Poem for Lucien Stryk

The poet and  collector of poems, both Midwestern and Zen, and Professor for many year at Northern Illinois University, Lucien Stryk died this past January. Though I only met him once at a reading at Northwestern his poems and those he anthologized had a great influence on me in my twenties. I say in the published version that the following poem was written for “poets living in the Midwest”. To be honest it was really for Lucien Stryk.Lucian Stryk

                                                                                In the Library
for poets living in the Midwest

This is where your words come to sleep,
to rest from their busy-ness.
The nurse-smooth hands of student assistants
will put each in its own proper place,
children sleeping between their parents at night.
They are nourished on florescent sun
and book dust in this green carpeted
boarding school.
Perhaps someday
You will drive up to visit them
only to find that, like a jealous mother,
I have taken them to live in my house.
Illinois Quarterly, Spring 1976

The following is a poem written by Lucien Stryk, a work that has took up residence inside me when I first read it and has lived in my imagination since.Heartland


                                    Letter to Jean-Paul Baudot, at Christmas

                                                       Lucien Stryk


Friend, on this sunny day, snow sparkling

everywhere, I think of you once more,

how many years ago, a child Resistance


fighter trapped by Nazis in a cave

with fifteen others, left to die, you became

a cannibal.  Saved by Americans,


the taste of a dead comrade’s flesh foul

in your mouth, you fell onto the snow

of the Haute Savoie and gorged to purge yourself,


somehow to start again.  Each winter since

you were reminded, vomiting for days.

Each winter since you told me at the Mabillon,


I see you on the first snow of the year

spreadeagled, face buried in that stench.

I write once more, Jean-Paul, though you don’t


answer, because I must: today men do far worse.

Yours in hope of peace, for all of us,

before the coming of another snow.


(Final poem in Awakening (Swallow Press, 1973).)

Posted in Chicago, Creativity, Imagination, Poetry, Stories, Uncategorized, Zen | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Who is our King?

As I was preparing to preach this week on that odd text from Holy Week that is designated for Christ the King Sunday, I began to reflect on recent events in my denomination, The United Methodist Church. Christ is a king whose kingdom is not like anything we have experienced in this world, a reign motivated by sacrificial love and forgiveness. This is what Jesus demonstrated in his words from the cross and by his actions on the cross. As I eavesdropped on the conversation among three condemned criminals and tried to sort out the differences between the kingdom of the condemned man hanging in the middle of two thieves and the emperor whose representative put him there three distinctions came to mind.Image

1) Jesus never put anyone on trial but was the one who was put on trial.

2) Jesus never condemned anyone (in fact he forgave those who nailed him to the cross as he hung there dying), he was the one who was condemned.

3) Jesus never punished anyone, instead, he was the one who was punished.

As a follower of Jesus, which for me comes before being a pastor or a United Methodist this troubles me. We as a denomination continue to charge, hold trials, condemn, and punish those who violate a book we created (and revise every four years), The Book of Discipline. Since we have patterned our denominational polity along the lines of the American political system, it just left me wondering whether we are truly following the example of Jesus or someone or something else. Is Christ really the King we follow or have we remade him into the image the very system who tried, condemned, and punished him?.

Posted in Faith, General Conference, God, Jesus, Preaching, Religion and Spirituality, Uncategorized, United Mehtodist Church | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

November 22, 1963

My eighth grade class had just returned from lunch. Out teacher, Mr. Cooper, who also served as principal of Cumberland Heights Elementary School, walked into his office which connected to our classroom to get the history test we were scheduled to take that afternoon. Though he was delayed returning to the room, the noise level remained at the level of whispers. When Mr. Cooper returned he did not have the tests, but he did share the news that the President of the United States had been shot. Instead of the history tests he carried a radio from his office so we could hear the reports from Dallas.How could this have happened? Isn’t this the man who told us that we should not ask what our country could do for us but what we could do for our country? He was the president. He couldn’t be shot. Who would shoot the president?

A short time later the announcer told us and people all across the U.S. that the president had just died of his wounds. There was a stunned silence in the room. A girl two rows over from me began to cry. She was tall and overweight and because of that had been teased by some of the other children to an extent that today we would probably call bullying. Truth be told, because she was larger than most of her tormenters, she could hold her own and did not hesitate to confront those who would call her names, The fact was that I admired her courage and willingness to take up for herself. But that day her overt grief was the outward and visible sign of the inward confusion and hurt we were all experiencing.Image

I have many images from the television coverage from the days that followed which have stayed with me. LBJ and Jackie on the plane where he was sworn in as president, the caisson and funeral procession, John John standing at attention then saluting, and so many others. Each one can still return me to my cousin’s living room where we sat in front of the black and white television. We had no idea that we were watching events that would shape our country for the rest of our lives.Image

We were watching the live broadcast of Lee Harvey Oswald, who had been charged with killing President Kennedy, being moved from police headquarters in Dallas to a jail nearby. Suddenly, a man approached the suspect, there was a pop, and it looked like he had hit Oswald in the stomach. It took a moment for us to realize that we had just witnessed a man being shot and killed. I remember feeling numb and sick to my stomach at the same time. This was not at all like the staged killings I had already gotten used to from watching movies and television. This was real and it was different. Since that time I have been with a number of people and their families as they died, but that is the only time I have seen someone murdered in front of my eyes.Image

Every time another shooting is reported on the news I am taken back to a time during which not only I but our nation lost the last vestige of innocence we might had longed to hang onto. Today I remember my grief of fifty years ago and continue to grieve for the losses we have experienced far too often since that day.

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Ordination and Marriage: Positions of Priviledge or Opportunities to Serve?

There have been differences of opinion in the United Methodist Church on the inclusion of LGBT folk in the life of the church since before I was ordained a deacon and probationary member of the Tennessee Conference in 1974. I have kept up with the wrangling at General Conference and our inability to even admit that we disagree when our very unwillingness as a Church to state that truth indicates both that we do disagree and the depth of that disagreement. (Full disclosure: I have been in loving disagreement with my Church and in favor of the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the Church including marriage and ordination my entire time in ministry.)

Recent events have set me thinking about the reasons for the deep disagreement and hostility generated by this particular subject. I do not see the same level of hostility on other so-called hot button issues. Plenty of observers have offered their ideas and opinions on this ongoing division, but mine begin with this question. Why ordination and marriage?

First of all, we do not withhold the sacraments from LGBT people. We do not make being heterosexual a condition of baptism and we do not rescind someone’s baptism if they come out, nor do we turn them away from the table when they come to receive the elements at Holy Communion.

On the other hand when it come to two church rituals which we as United Methodists do not consider to be sacraments, marriage and ordination, our United Methodist Discipline does not allow LGBT people to be married or ordained in our churches, and prohibits our clergy/bishops to participate in either.

Since LGBT folk are “people of sacred worth” according to the UM Discipline why would we choose to welcome them to take part in our two sacraments and not allow them to be married or ordained, two rituals that are not sacraments? As I have considered this question it has come to my mind that this may result from the way we view marriage and ordination as positions of privilege rather than opportunities for service. People who are married are afforded legal and tax privileges that unmarried persons do not enjoy. Ordained elders especially are seen as standing in positions of privilege (although sometimes it doesn’t seem so to us). It appears to me that this is not the case with deacons, whose ordination is typically seen as  an opportunity to serve.

In 2010 we had a devastating flood here in Nashville. Not a single person interviewed after they had been rescued from the roof of their house by volunteers in a boat had asked about their rescuer’s sexuality before they climbed into the boat. I don’t know of a single person who indicated that only “straight” people would be allowed to donate food or materials to repair their homes or to work at the tasks of cleaning up and repairing those homes.

If we really viewed marriage as an opportunity to serve “with all that I am and all that I have” as the wedding service says, then would not anyone willing to take on that role of faithful service to another be allowed to marry. If we as elders (I will let the deacons speak for themselves here.) were to take on the role of a servant as Jesus did (rather than aspiring to positions of privilege), would not anyone who was willing to serve be allowed to serve, especially if that service was to those in the greatest need.

Perhaps it is our understanding of and expectations for marriage and ordination that stands in the way of full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the United Methodist Church. Just an idea to throw into the mix.

Posted in General Conference, LGBT, marriage, ordination, United Mehtodist Church | Tagged , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

The Song of the Shaman

I first learned about shamans when I was an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University in a class called “The Phenomenology of Religion”. It was taught by one of my favorite professors, Dr. Charles Hambrick. I now have the pleasure of serving as his pastor. Then when I arrived at Northwestern for graduate study I met a shaman. Well, not the kind that you would expect, but a professor who became a cross between a guru and a shaman for me (if you can imagine that) Dr. Leland H. Roloff. Lee Roloff was a professor in the department that was then called “Oral Interpretation”, which has since been enfolded into “Performance Studies” I think.JOSEPH CAMPBELL at Esalen 1982 photo @ Kathlean Thormod Carr

The first day I met him he already knew that I was studying to be a pastor and greeted my with, “Well, Brother Williams, why aren’t you out doing the work of the Lord.” I informed him that I was. I had come to see him! Later that year he was the one who encouraged me to go hear a speaker in Chicago from whom he though I would learn much that I needed to know. Joseph Campbell. After that introduction I attended every lecture or workshop that Campbell did in Chicago while I was living there.

I wrote the following poem for on of Lee Roloff’s classes. It was awarded a Triton Prize for Poetry and published in the anthology, Passage.

Song of the Shaman


When I was wizard of the daylight worldshaman1

            I stalked the simpering deer

                                                                  on foot.

Trees I metamorphosed into mountains.

                                                                 Come see

my tricks

                come view

the vital juices dribbling in my stomach’s cave.

I dressed in black

                to hide

                 the glowing skin

                                              from sun

                and brier

                               and slept naked

in the needle flesh  belly of earth.


I was court magician to the frozen lake

            I stopped the water’s rush

                                                      Like a photograph

remembered. Dusting with snow the crusted world

shamanism-found-at-crystal-linksI sought the secrets of the fractured crystal.

                                             The tree women

claimed my eyes were hazel

                                               or green when the sun was bright.

Come let my snowdrift wand dazzle you.

                                                For when our eyes

are as dried as crushed leaves

                                                and the waters of the lake

                                                move once again,

            we shall walk along the shore in summer.

                                                I will sprinkle

sand over the water

                                as green as wild onions

                                               and tell you

that I was wizard of the daylight world

and court magician to the north country

where the waters in winter

                                           thicken like blood.

Passage. River Grove, IL: Triton College Press, 1975

Posted in Chicago, Joseph Campbell, Leland Roloff, Northwestern, Oral Interpretation, Poetry, Religion and Spirituality, Seminary, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment