I am praying beside a bog. Marsh-grass grows tall and houses all sorts of muddy, slippery creatures. They cry out in many croaks, chitterings, and lamb-like bleats. Some sound harsh and coarse. There is one that sounds like a dog’s chew toy that when chomped exhales in gnawed laughter.
I am praying to listen. Praying to hear.
I don’t have words for the voices being lifted up here. Some are like flutes, some like runaway clocks, some like infant coos or infants woken suddenly from a dream by fear or hunger, sudden screeches, startling and mournful.
Thick plashing water to my left – a creature has dived into the swampy mush. To my right, a crowd of something – maybe frogs? – is in a fit of cackling as if this whole backwater bowl were a cauldron filled with the slime of their witchcraft. Thunder murmurs, seeming to seep through from behind otherwise clear blue skies. I pray for words. Pray to hear.
So many voices. Some extend raw from long beaks like the sharpening of steel against whetstones. A big red truck, pistons raging, growls and overtakes another car on the Natchez Trace.
I pray for someone else to pray. Here in this bog where so many unseen creatures send up their animal cries, giving voice, wordless voice, praise and lament and who knows what else to whatever degree they participate in love and fear.
Off across the water, maybe a half a mile, I can see the other shore. A huge bird unfolds like origami and expands against the cattails and marsh grass. He doesn’t call in words that I can hear, at least not from where I sit. But he seems to spread himself over every other crying creature like the sky itself. Seems to take up their voices into his silence and re-speak them, translated into a groaning rooted as deep under the earth as the sky is above it. Speaking for creation, within in, from beyond it.
It is thundering again, isn’t it? The air is hot and damp “as all get-out” as we say around here. The grasses are still. Only a little maple branch wiggles a bit, but I haven’t felt the breeze, so it seems to either be alive itself and waving at me in friendly fashion, or it is carrying on some real participation in a breeze blowing in another world; like that one branch is in two places at once.
Some people are like that. “Do you smell that?” they might say, then, “That! It smells like strawberries.” “No, I don’t smell it,” you say. They may have a nose for another world where strawberries are in season, or where some sweet smell like strawberries never goes out of season. Or they might say, “I hear my father’s voice calling to me.” And you say, “I heard thunder, I think.” Some people’s clothes may flap about like a horse’s mane at a gallop, while most of us, hearing no hooves, sit starched and stiff.
The thunder has a voice like a great mouth chewing boulders. Or breaking those hard gum-balls we used to get from the gum ball machine – breaking them down to softness. Those gum-balls were hollow, weren’t they? Hard and hollow and all kinds of colors, glad to be rolled around on the tongue of the lightning, softened, and enlarged by the breath of heaven – almighty boulders made light as bubbles. Stones given cord to sing. I pray for that.
High as the heavens are above the earth, so are the thoughts of God above the thoughts of men.
Just after that hopeless distance is announced by God through Isaiah, after a dramatic pause maybe, God says not to worry too much – doesn’t rain descend to earth from unreachable heights to water and give life to a world both dry and weary of words upon words and thirsty beyond belief for a word that won’t end up like all the others: void and empty? He does. Who can ascend to the heights? Don’t worry, have not the heights descended to you? Can you feel the thunder’s tumbling voice like summer rainwater being poured over your feet? The river rises and the beached boats start to make sense to themselves again, righted.
We were river-borne all along.
Matthew Clark is a singer, songwriter, and storyteller from Mississippi where he lives with his brother Sam, a ceramic artist. Each Fall he sets out in his homemade tiny-house-on-wheels named Vandalf the White to play concerts in churches and homes all over the country. Matthew is a lover of words, music, coffee, and conversations. Currently (and slowly) he is studying the interlacing of Theology and the Imagination at Fuller Seminary, while writing new songs for his next recording project. Matthew has several albums available at his website (www.matthewclark.net), including a Bible walk-through sequence called “Bright Came the World from His Mouth”, and a collection of songs celebrating God’s presence in the ordinary called “Beautiful Secret Life”.