Poems for Advent (III)

by Sarah Crowley Chestnut

This week I am pondering what it means that Jesus Christ is our peace.  I have long loved John 13-17: Jesus’s final meal with his disciples before his crucifixion, his humble act of washing their feet, his longing to see them love each other the way that he loved them, his promises to them–that he is going to prepare a place for them, that he will always come for them, that he is not leaving them alone, but in the gentle care of the Holy Spirit.  And there is this: his hard words to Peter, predicting his zealous friend’s betrayal.  Really?  Of all the disciples, Peter would turn tail and run?

Because our Bibles have chapter breaks, I never noticed that the very next words from Jesus’ mouth are these: “Let not your heart be troubled.  Believe in God; believe also in me.”  In this poem, I imagine those words spoken directly to Peter, whose anxiety (I imagine) was beginning to go through the roof.  And as the conversation unfolded, and all of Jesus’ weighty words about his leaving spilled out, I hear Thomas’s and Philip’s and (the other) Judas’s nervous questions rising from this same foreboding anxiety.  Jesus’s response?  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).  This is the kind of peace I want (and need) in the face of my own anxiety.

Simon Peter’s Anxiety

(for Annie)

Questions rose like a wave in my throat, questions

I could not wash down with the wine, the bread.

The water in the basin trembled as he drew breath

to speak words that rolled in my heart like stones—

until you have denied me, the rooster will not crow…

My questions stretched anxious hands, snatched

at tail feathers, the doorknob—I was an empty-armed child,

aching to be pulled close. The crumbs

around my feet grew heavy like bones, glinted white,

set the darkness in relief.

And there was a wild bird on that wave, rising

angry in my heart, beating frantic wings, hammering

a sharp beak from inside the cage around my soul.

He could have tossed a handful of seed to feed

that insatiable beak, and quieted, for a moment, those thundering

wings.  But instead he lifted new words

from the floor (those crumbs), slipped them between

my ribs like a key, turned until he heard the click,

set that wild bird free—

                                                    there’s a room inside you,

he said, where the Spirit will be, cupping warm hands

around the grist mill of your heart where these words will turn

and turn, will help you breathe: let not

your heart be troubled, I leave you with my peace.


Poems for Advent (II)

by Sarah Crowley Chestnut


Love Speaks to Nicodemus

     “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,

      but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).


Here’s the thing, he whispered

through the darkness, words bright

like sun on a steel blade. Love

is like a fallen seed, held tight

as it breaks and bleeds. I am

that small seed come to bleed.

Go down to the dirt with me,

where darkness cracks you open,

fills your lungs with a quiet musk—

you will raise a birth-cry the color of rust.

This is the work of being born

again: cracked seed, water, soil, sun,

Spirit holding you in red hands

laid open, gentle, like a fan.


Always I have been leaning low,

ear pressed to hear the stones,

dropped limbs, spent leaves,

upward cry of lowly things—

for you ache upward, too, like dew,

have known that downward pull since the womb,

beginning that is an end, end that makes you sing:

the world is lovely because he loves it,

love reaches for the light, breaks open from the deep.

Poems for Advent (I)

By Sarah Crowley Chestnut

Back in October I had the privilege of attending a poetry workshop at OQ Farm in Vermont with a dear poet friend of mine. It jump-started what was feeling like a stalled-out writing life, and since the workshop, I have found writerly camaraderie springing up both close to home (Liz, in the other wing of this big, old house) and afar (Anna and Hilary at Swiss L’Abri, and Andy and Lindsey in Greatham). There are many reasons I love poetry and believe people should include poetry in the pile of books on their bedside table—it hones my vocabulary, it schools me in image and metaphor, it makes me a more perceptive reader on the whole, and this: it slows me down and helps me pay attention to life and language.

Yesterday we marked the beginning of Advent, the start of the liturgical year, and the season of watching and waiting—for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and for his anticipated Second Coming. To keep watch expectantly requires that we slow down and pay attention in a season when most of us are racing to check things off our lists (the gift list, the party grocery list, the cleaning-before-family-arrives list, the winterizing list, the decorating list). But to what—or whom—are we meant to pay attention? In his Gospel, Matthew answers this question in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight…” This Advent, we are invited to slow down and pay attention to Jesus, the one who proclaims justice to the nations, the one who does not shout out about himself, the one who is gentle with the bruised reed, the one who tends to a smoldering wick. The one in whom the nations put their hope.

And so, in hope that it might help you slow down and pay attention to Jesus this week, I offer you this poem. If all goes well, there will be one for each week of Advent.


Hope     (Matt. 12:15-21)

because we were hungry

because sunlight was thick on the fields

because his hands were at home

brushing the tops of golden wheat

because at his touch

the grain fell heavy

because we were hungry

warm kernels rolled like hope

over our tongues, seed of bread

ground like mercy between our teeth

because we were hungry

as hungry as a bent reed, hungry

like a flickering wick—

he whispered mercy, hauled up hope

cold and wet, bleating like some frightened sheep

(some say hope has feathers—

let us say it has a woolen fleece)

but because we only saw what we could see

because even eyes can want to feed,

we dreamed of grinding him like wheat,

pinning down those reaching hands—

the flour sack dropped—dust on everything—

dust on the Sabbath, he made dust on the Sabbath

but still we trailed him for healing,

laid hope wheeled in like the harvest at his quiet feet,

saw the traceable trail he tracked

through the dust on everything

because we were hungry, it was hope that fell

into our dust-covered hands, silent like a seed.