“Melancholy Madness”: Poem by Mary Oliver & scripture for July 8

Matthew 8:23-27
And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A gale arose on the lake, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’

Maybe by Mary Oliver
Sweet Jesus, talking
his melancholy madness,
   stood up in the boat
      and the sea lay down,

silky and sorry.
So everybody was saved
   that night.
      But you know how it is

when something
different crosses
   the threshold—the uncles
      mutter together,

the women walk away,
the young brother begins
   to sharpen his knife.
      Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes
like the wind over the water—
   sometimes, for days,
      you don’t think of it.

Maybe, after the sermon,
after the multitude was fed,
   one or two of them felt
      the soul slip forth

like a tremor of pure sunlight
before exhaustion,
   that wants to swallow everything,
      gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy,
as they are now, forgetting
   how the wind tore at the sails
      before he rose and talked to it—

tender and luminous and demanding
as he always was—
     a thousand times more frightening
         than the killer storm.
_______________________________________
Questions
What images come to mind after reading either the scripture or the Mary Oliver poem?
What kind of Jesus is portrayed in the text, the poem?
What is your response when “something different crosses the threshold”?
What does Oliver mean by a Jesus who is “a thousand times more frightening than a killer storm”?

Paula Northwood
Minister for Education

About PlymouthSpirit

Plymouth Congregational Church is a progressive faith community grounded in the Christian tradition. We are spiritual, loving, relevant and transforming.
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5 Responses to “Melancholy Madness”: Poem by Mary Oliver & scripture for July 8

  1. Alan D. Hughes says:

    I think that Charlie Lloyd raises an excellent point:

    Didn’t anyone tell you to learn to swim if you’re going boating?

    I would add:
    Didn’t anyone tell you to put on a lifejacket when you go out in a boat?
    —–
    Sweet Jesus, talking
    his melancholy madness,
    stood up in the boat
    and the sea lay down,

    silky and sorry.

    What is the “melancholy madness” that Jesus was talking?
    —–
    Maybe, after the sermon,
    after the multitude was fed,
    one or two of them felt
    the soul slip forth

    like a tremor of pure sunlight
    before exhaustion,
    that wants to swallow everything,
    gripped their bones and left them

    miserable and sleepy,
    as they are now, forgetting
    how the wind tore at the sails
    before he rose and talked to it—

    tender and luminous and demanding
    as he always was—
    a thousand times more frightening
    than the killer storm.
    —–

    What is this “tremor of pure sunlight”?

    What can be “a thousand times more frightening than a killer storm”?
    —–
    LOVE!!!
    —–
    And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’

    It isn’t that they have little faith in Jesus; it is that they have little faith in LOVE!!!
    —–
    Along with your lifejacket, don’t leave home without LOVE.

    Jesus’ message is not all that complicated to understand until fear gets in the way.

    And so here we are two thousand years later still trying to grasp something that if we only stopped and listened might very well grab us.

    Namaste!!!

    • Alan D. Hughes says:

      And, so now, we come to Jesus’ melancholy madness.

      Two thousand years later and his sisters and brothers still don’t get that the essence of his message is LOVE.

      If this were only a week or two, a reasonable response would be melancholy, i.e., sadness.

      But two thousand years later, a clearly appropriate response would be madness.

      But hey, don’t feel sorry for Jesus; it is time that melancholy madness comes home.

      How about your melancholy madness?; how about my melancholy madness?; how about our melancholy madness?

  2. Charlie Lloyd says:

    Didn’t anyone tell you to learn to swim if you’re going boating?

  3. John Humphrey says:

    First, great choice of poem–I hadn’t seen that one of hers before.

    What images come to mind after reading either the scripture or the Mary Oliver poem?

    To be in that situation and see a person do that would be terrifying, would be supernatural. And then to have him say, “Why are you afraid, ye of little faith?”! It would depend so much on his tone of voice at that moment. Is it a putdown, or is it a calm and loving parent allaying the fears of a child in a storm? I think it is more the latter, but the ‘ye of little faith’ moves it a little into the former, and makes it sound like ‘I am a higher order of being than you. I can’t help knowing it. And because you are deficient in faith, I have had to come to save you.’ Interesting–Jesus as reluctant hero…

    The ‘ye of little faith’ is also interesting in another context. how many seamen/fishermen have been drowned in storms? How many colleagues/fathers/brothers had been lost to storms? And where was God in those instances? Yet Jesus expects them to know that they are somehow safe in this storm…??? And that they should have known/believed they were safe, because he was there? I don’t think they had seen him do any life-saving miracles up to this point, so how should they have known that? We feel wise and closer to God when we pray for those in peril on the sea. Is Jesus saying we should pray for their faith to uphold them? Sounds like Christian Science…

    What kind of Jesus is portrayed in the text, the poem?

    I really like ‘talking his melancholy madness’–it’s like his words are part of his otherworldliness, and not necessarily even meant for us to overhear. Maybe he’s asking God why God made us of such little faith, that we couldn’t quell a simple killer storm and save ourselves.

    What is your response when “something different crosses the threshold”?

    I am usually fascinated, and usually very impressed, when something different crosses the threshold. I am as much the younger brother sharpening the knife as the next person when a change starts to occur that I don’t want. But I also love seeing new and better ways (or old and better ways), and I love seeing people get excited about new possibilities/opportunities.

    What does Oliver mean by a Jesus who is “a thousand times more frightening than a killer storm”?

    I think my comments on the first questions can go here too.

    ———————————————————————————————–

    Thanks for an enjoyable hot summer afternoon’s respite.

  4. What a wonderful poem! I’ll be thinking about it all week. I wish I had answers.

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