Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
I came across this fragment of a Charles Bukowski poem…
A poem is a city filled with streets and sewers
filled with saints, heroes, beggars, madmen,
filled with banality and booze,
filled with rain and thunder and periods of
drought, a poem is a city at war…
…and I thought of the Bible.
In reality, however, it teems with life, speaks to all time–to today–for as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “there is nothing new under the sun.”
The good, the bad, the ugly, and the saved peer out from its pages in their flawed humanity, reflecting our own.
But though there is a likeness to the multi-genre works of Bukowski (this poem, a sample) in the multi-genre works of the Bible, it is only half a likeness.
The Low Life
The writer, known as “the laureate of American lowlife,” saturated his works with cynicism, forged his passion, rage, and heartbreak into poems and seeded his dark humor into short stories and novels crowded with literary golems brought to life, you might say, from themes scored helter-skelter on his soul from a childhood of abuse and an adult life of alcoholism, atheism, and failed relationships.
A lot like the stories of the people who populate the Bible and like our own narratives, to some degree, as well.
In the telling of the “low life” is where Bukowski and the Biblical writers resemble each other as they narrate the down side of human nature.
And none hold back.
To use Bukowski’s words, beggars and madmen populate the streets and sewers of all. Banality and booze slur reality, and rain, thunder, and drought trouble the landscapes of both fiction and faith.
It is clear to Bukowski, to the writers of both Testaments, both Covenants, and to us, that life can be pain. It can be heartbreaking, defeating, and (perhaps worst of all) dull, in between all the rest of it that includes…war.
Always war: personal, inter-relational, spiritual, local, regional, and worldwide. This is clear in the works of all chroniclers of the human condition.
But that is where the comparison ends, where the road forks.
Although there were some saints and heroes in his work and in his life who might have helped, Bukowski seems to have declared his atheism and his angst to the end.
Some of the people in the Bible remained “stiff necked” to the end as well.
Some of us have, too, at least to date.
Or perhaps we have, at length, weary, just quietly surrendered to our lesser angels–or to someone else’s–anything to still the cannons.
But there’s more to the story, more verses to the poem.
Enter saints and heroes.
The Saved Life
Many of the inhabitants of the Bible, though they navigated their own dark themes in search of sanity, recompense, or another hit of something to numb the pain, came to know something Bukowski may never have learned, or if learned, rejected: the rest of the story–salvation. Some of us have, too.
Not salvation in certainty or what the world might regard as sainthood, necessarily, but in the Divine Author Himself, the Poet of poets, Narrator of narrators, even He, Jesus Christ, “through whom all things were made,” and through Whom we are saved through fire and flood, addiction and doubt–despair and damnation (or just mind-numbing banality); Jesus, the Way, Truth, and the Life, Who inhabits both Old and New Testaments, Who lives today.
For we are all sinners saved by grace, if we will have it, if we will yield.
If we will choose.
Indeed, Jesus shed His blood in hopes of this for each of us, that our sin debt would be paid and we could live anew–no matter how “low” we have descended (no matter how many times), and no matter how war-ravaged our own streets.
As St. Paul put it in his letter to the Romans:
23 (For) all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (3:23-24, NIV)
As to forgiveness, Jesus the Son of God, reflecting His Father–and ours–said,
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22Jesus answered,“I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy-seven times! 23 Because of this, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.… (Matthew 18:21-23, Berean Study Bible)
And because of Jesus, in a new Covenant fulfilling the Old by His life bled out on that cross, our accounts were settled. As Jeremiah said, prophesying the words of the Lord about Jesus,
“I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (v. 31:34)
The New Life
Bukowski (1920-1994) may well have rejected the rest of his story, the hope of his redemption. But if you who are reading this haven’t yet found peace to quell your conflicts, comfort to soothe your wounds, or truth to dispel your doubts, there is still time. Jesus is still near, ready to heal you with the Balm of Gilead for which He paid a precious price, and, unlike Bukowski, you can rewrite the end of your story with the beginning of a new and with this promise of Help to come alongside,
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11, ESV)
And that’s the other half of the Biblical narrative, the good news of the Good News writ in Jesus sacrificial blood on that cross, perhaps the part such as Bukowski missed.
But we, you and I, don’t have to.*
*How? If you’ve not yet given it thought, consider this opportunity.
Image from old Bible from Wikimedia Commons
Image of empty cross from Wikimedia Commons