If you’ve followed me on this blog or Facebook or Twitter, you know that I don’t do this. I don’t explain my stories. One of the things I love about prose and poetry is the necessity of the reader to interpret it. If I, as the author, explain my own understanding of the story, many readers will think of that as its “real” meaning and won’t allow the the piece to speak to them in a way that’s unique to them.
This story, though, is a special one to me. The idea first hit me in early 2015 and, as I tend to do, I stewed on it for a few weeks before putting it down into poetic form as “The War is Coming!” (published online in April 2015).
In the months preceding this, my denomination had been rocked with an uprising of far-right legalists seeking political dominion within our denominational institutions. The Church of the Nazarene seemed to be attacking itself in the guise of defending itself. The right bellowed that it had a divine mission to rid the denomination of anything it considered to be outside the scope of its narrow view of Christianity.
This story, unfortunately, was not one that was unique to the Church of the Nazarene. My former denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, had pursued a similar course of action in the 1970s, so I knew the broken path that lay before the Nazarene church.
The political maneuvering within our church at this time dominated much of the writing on this blog. In this season, Shannon authored “Yet Another Call to Transparency,” I penned “A Whisper, Stronger than the Storm,” and Justin Volker (who is neither a Nazarene nor a Christian) wrote a piece looking at the mess from the outside entitled “Transcendence and Decay.”
My understanding of the story I told in “The War is Coming!” cannot be separated from that context of conflict within the church.
That poem illustrates an army that has reiterated to themselves for generations that a war was looming on the horizon. They have become so obsessed in their preparation for self-defense that they twist the idea of defending themselves into a need to strike first. They mobilize and march to war against a perceived foe - a village of men, women, and children who rest comfortably in their beds. The army burns the sleeping village to the ground and marches off in victory without a single casualty, celebrating the Almighty Hand of God as blessing the battle.
For me, the army in this poem typifies the legalists on the far-right of American evangelical Christianity. Though they have historically lived within a position of power in the United States over the last century or so, they have more recently begun to operate within a paradigm of preparing themselves for war; whenever they feel the least bit slighted, they perceive that as an attack, and unify to march off to battle against those they see as the aggressors. The casualties, though, are all-too-often other people who are simply trying to live a life that reflects Christ in the best way they know how or, even worse, non-Christian bystanders that now want nothing to do with the Church or Christianity.
For more than a year, I was content to let the poem stand on its own. In that time, though, my understanding of the story at its heart began to evolve. Rather than being about militant legalism in search of an outlet for its aggression, it began to become more about me and how I have an innate tendency to see myself as a victim.
In some ways, this interpretation was a fulfillment of my original concept: instead of placing myself in the story as a peaceful villager, I was forced to confront those times in my life when I was the army.
As these thoughts developed, I felt like I needed to revisit the story and re-express it in a way that was more consistent with how I currently understood it.
Rather than rewriting the poem, I decided to take the underlying story and develop it in prose, tweaking it just slightly to reflect its new focus.
Although the story’s plot didn’t change, I tried in my storytelling to emphasize how ridiculous it is that I so often see myself as a victim and retaliate against those I see as persecutors. As a Christian, I am called to care for those very people that I feel are hurting me. “Falling on the Sword” is a challenge to myself to respond to conflict with grace, to counter challenges with humility, and, above all, to see in my neighbors (even the ones I dislike) the image of love of God.