Last week I was working on a sermon and a poem came back to me that I had breezed past earlier.
The poem is by a teenager named Brian. My friend Matt sent it to me. Matt works with Brian and other kids like him who are incarcerated in Skagit County, Washington. The program is called Underground Writing, and I admire what they’re doing very much.
When Matt sent me the poem, as I said, I didn’t give it much attention, not unlike the way I don’t give enough attention to folks in complicated situations. But I was writing a sermon on hospitality, drawing on that remarkable story in Genesis 18 where Abraham is visited by a stranger, or maybe three strangers. The text is unclear. But instead of interrogating the travelers, Abraham welcomes them. After he welcomes them, they predict the shocking birth of Isaac.
That prediction, and the realization that genuine hospitality opens us up to newness, brought Brian’s poem to my mind. Here it is:
On the floor in our cell.
Sun shining bright,
sticking our fingers out,
trying to feel that shiny bright sun.
The phrase that hit me—it really did feel like a smack—was “shiny bright sun.” That is exactly the way my own kids would describe sunlight. Most kids probably. But the problem with that description in the poem is the rest of the poem. A cell. Fingers are reaching, trying to feel, but not feeling the sunlight. With surprising few words, Brian manages to bring two impossibilities together—children discovering, and an experience of incarceration not just in the literal sense, but emotionally too—imprisonment from feeling.
I recognize that a teenager in jail is not an impossibility for everyone, but it is for me, in my little horizon of experience. And by attending to Brian’s poem, I was faced with the same thing Abraham was faced with—a confusing new reality. What would I do? If I follow Abraham, I would not try to explain the problem away. Instead, I would let it lead me to a new horizon. This is what my friend Matt does every day, welcoming what is in these kids in such a way that every word matters. By welcoming them, they make these poems that come to us and ask to be welcomed.
Hospitality is accepting a reality, especially a reality we don’t know how to fit into our horizons, and welcoming it, letting it sit with us, making a new space for it, and opening ourselves up to it. It’s surprising to me that the poem is not a defense. For that reason I think it is all the more compelling, and makes for a very good poem. Jesus didn’t offer a defense either when he stood in front of Pilate. He presented himself, something brand new in Pilate’s little horizon, requiring Pilate to either welcome him, or get rid of him.
Reality is often difficult to welcome, but if we do, who knows what newness may come?—for Brian, for all of us.