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Unpackaged grace: The story behind 'Wrap this'

"Wrap this" reflects my love for the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) and his capacity to perceive the pattern of Christ's incarnation everywhere-in cloudscapes, plowed fields, kestrels, lush weeds and our very human selves. The gift of Christ's birth, life, death and resurrection can be found all around us, but only if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Hopkins invites us to be aware of gifts that can't be wrapped up.

My own awareness of these "unwrappable" gifts sharpened when I began to emerge from a long and mystifying illness nearly 10 years ago. Overwhelmed by gratitude for the return of rain to my parched soul, I began to write poems that reflected the spiritual transformation I was experiencing.

Illness had all but silenced me. Pain had rendered me exhausted and tense. Pushed against a boulder, I wrote "outbursts" of complaint and yearning. Although God seemed far away, I was certain that I was meant to know and love myself as God's child. Today those outbursts read like some of the Psalms. As poet Jane Kenyon said: "Poetry matters because it tells the truth, the human truth about the complexity of life. ... It matters because it is consolation in times of trouble. ... It has an unearthly ability to turn suffering into beauty." Without realizing it, I was doing this very thing: consoling myself with the healing power of expressing what I could barely say.

Eventually I put together a collection of poems titled Carved Like Runes. This book reads like a series of meditations on change and loss, suffering and healing, grief and gratitude. Many of the poems draw on a life grounded in a Scandinavian-American Midwestern culture, a life formed by being a small-town, immigrant daughter with a Lutheran heritage. In calling up memories of childhood, I've recaptured the significance of rituals such as baking cookies, doing the laundry, sitting on summer porches and eating Sunday dinner around a big dining room table. These memories are reassuring beyond the death of a mother and father whose every sound made the world go round. They help answer, Who are we?-and, as one reader told me, encourage us to "compose" ourselves, to compose the stories of our lives, the truths we need to discover and tell.

Like many, however, my sense of identity has been enriched by experiencing a wider view of the world since childhood. To illustrate my point, I could tell many stories of people I've met through study and travel abroad. One such story began when my husband, Gerry Swanson, met twin brothers from a Palestinian Lutheran family when they came to study at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. Later we met another brother, Bassim Nijim, who became a Lutheran pastor and served for many years at the Lutheran Church of Hope in Ramallah. Still later, Nijim's daughters came to California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, for undergraduate and graduate degrees. Our friendship grew as we came to know their widowed mother and brothers, graduates of St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn. When I traveled to Israel and the Palestinian territories as part of an ELCALutheran World Federation delegation in 1989, I stayed with the Nijim sisters and their families.

Why is this story so important to me and to all of us as Lutherans in a time when our outreach must be as wide as the world is round? It's important because these friendships connect us with the suffering and loss of those in vastly diverse cultural settings. They help us develop compassion, a gift we can give to each other as we seek mutual healing from the wounds of conflict and war.

In a homily given at CLU last October, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson challenged us to engage in public acts of repentance and reconciliation. These are gifts to carry into the new year, gifts that will bring light and hope and peace. Wrap this!


Comments

Linda Cook

Linda Cook

Posted at 11:01 pm (U.S. Eastern) 10/30/2013

What a beautiful poem and meditation! Thank you so much.



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