The tug of a prayer chain

June 17, 2011

Last spring I helped the church
I was in the process of leaving prepare for its 100th anniversary celebration.
One of my tasks was to track down contact information for the people on the
invitation list. It wasn't exactly what I went to seminary to do, but I'm a
librarian's daughter and otherwise generally disposed to exemplary
web-searching skills.

One of the people on my list
was Mark Jarman, the son of a former pastor. He stood out, even on a list that
included a fair share of interesting people: he's a poet who teaches English at
Vanderbilt University. I was slightly disappointed, though not surprised, when
the news came that he would not be attending the homecoming weekend.

I probably would have forgotten
about Jarman if not for a trinity of coincidences that unfolded one week a year
later. A member of the church sent me a copy of "The Prayer Chain," a poem from
Jarman's 2011 collection Bone Fires.
A friend unaware of my church connection to Jarman sent me a link to another
poem of his featured on Writers Almanac.

Then my new local public
library set up its National Poetry Month display by the circulation desk. I
stopped by to stock up on Dora videos and Berenstain Bears books for my
three-year-old, and I was delighted and bemused to happen upon Bone Fires.

It's a lovely collection of
poetry. Of course, I could no more dispassionately critique it than I could my
own mother's memoir. I am altogether too close to one of Jarman's occasional
subjects: South Bay Christian Church.

"The Prayer Chain" even
name-drops the church. The poem is a meditation on the mystery and efficacy of
that string of borderline gossipy phone calls congregations initiate when one
of their members is sick or injured. "You might shrug/ At this quaint belief
and its presumption," Jarman writes, "Unless you'd felt, as they each had, its

I've not only felt the tug of a
prayer chain; I have tugged on and been tugged by that very prayer chain. Some of the same church ladies peopled it
during my tenure as in 1961, when Jarman's mother paused during her dishwashing
to cast on a new row of prayers. The joyful news of my daughter's birth was
conveyed through that rustproof chain.

"In Church With Hart Crane"
takes place within the church's sanctuary. The young Jarman reads Crane's poems
during a church service--"knowing God could see/ And so could my father
speaking in the pulpit." The poem isn't just about that pulpit; it's about the
relationship between father and son, between scripture and poetry, between an
aspiring writer and the chastened poet he became. But as one who inhabited that
sanctuary for a season, I'm undone by these words:

was a sea beyond
holy space behind my father's back,
the baptistry that cupped its portion,
tepid, blessed to rinse off sin.

It was a revelation to learn
that the humble little pulpit in that scrappy, loving church has been honored
by a poet's ink. Before I was a preacher, I was an aspiring writer of poems. I
always sensed that there were poems to be written about the people and place I
served, though I also sensed that I wasn't the one to write them.

I wish every congregation could
have a Mark Jarman in its midst, because a poet's tithe of attention and
language is as valuable as the widow's mite. Bone Fires--with its meditations on faith and doubt, hope and
silence, and the sacred and desecrated fragments of God's world--is a gift to
the whole church and the whole creation.