Altar Call

Do you know what an altar call is?
Back then, I’d pray to accept Jesus
into my heart every time, because
what if the last time didn’t take?
Faith is operative in every human being

I want to have my mother’s faith. She’s one
of those weird mountain people, you see.
She holds snakes on Sundays
and once had to explain to an NPR reporter
the mechanics of why when one bites you
that means there’s something wrong.

Tell me, what does “do” mean?
If you try to bring something, you get nothing.
If you bring nothing, you get everything.
Behold, the calculus of the gospel!
Where am I supposed to go with that?

My plane crashed and I couldn’t see
out the window because of the flames My friend
the other pilot he was next to me and burning
The control panel was dripping here onto my thighs
I didn’t think I was going to die I thought
he was dead and that I was dead I prayed
the Lord’s Prayer and then the door opened
and I was pulled from the burning

You ever hear of something called a controlled burn? When the fire
rages and finds an already scorched earth, you are saved

I think: If I write Bible verses on index cards
and tape them to my bathroom mirror, things will change.
But nothing will change you, only the deposit
of an energy in your heart, the mechanism
from which all change stems

So what does God want? Does he want me to change
or does he just want me to want to change?
You are becoming wood and stone

I am so tired I can’t lay down. Why is God hiding?
the mechanism within each of us
called the human heart is from which
everything in life extends It locks
onto things you find beautiful and says
Feed me.

Your roommate tells you she’s been raped.
You are simply bodily present.

You begin to meet little needs. You wonder
about the ways you could become glue. Listening
is something we can always do better on This is not
just about your individual heart This is about institutions
and oppression
The nature of faith an empty hand
is such that it binds you to things.

You know how the Earth is spinning all the time?
I don’t understand the calculus of it, I don’t
even think of it, but that doesn’t stop it from happening.
I don’t have to spend each moment rejoicing
that physics is the way it is.

You don’t believe right Why do you worry
about believing right?
Even faith is gift.
Even my repentance needs repenting of.
You’re an unproductive vine, but faith
is the vehicle of salvation, not the reason for
It is what our hearts are reaching towards

How this was written

This is a poem I wrote sometime in Fall 2015. Each line is a direct quote from something I heard over the course of a weekend, specifically the weekend my campus fellowship, RUF, went on our fall conference.

Most of the content is made up of quotes from different sermons we heard at the retreat, and the part about the controlled burns is pulled from the sermon we heard at the church that hosted us on Sunday morning. The part about the burning plane is from a conversation I had with an older gentleman during lunch after the Sunday Service, when he told me about this experience he had while fighting in WWII. Finally, the discussion at the end about calculus and the spinning Earth is from a small group discussion I had with a few other young women while eating smores after one of the sermons.

The issues this poem addresses were basically the core spiritual issues I was wrestling with at the time. I hope that much comes through. The writing process was very cathartic—I was struck by how easily it all came together, considering I was very limited in what words I could use.

The actual process of writing the poem was pretty fun. Basically, I kept my notebook out throughout the sermons and just listened for phrases I thought were interesting all on their own, or that I thought carried some emotional or spiritual weight. During conversations, I just used my phone or wrote it down on my hand or arm to put into my phone later. The filter was very loose at this stage; anything that seemed even remotely compelling made it through. My hand was super cramped at the end of each talk, and there are some excerpts I can't even read now since I was in such a rush to get all of it down.

Once I got home, I immediately transcribed all of the notes into a Google Doc, then went through and highlighted the ones that seemed promising to work with. These highlighted quotes amounted to a little less than half of what I had written down. The narrative arc of the poem was already vaguely formed in my mind; I had spent the whole bus ride back to school thinking of it and testing out specific combinations of phrases. In short, getting all the content out was easy; however, the next step involved several hours of refining the small details.

In my original draft, there were italics, but in different places. There were more line breaks, the final two stanzas were switched, and the final line wasn't included yet. The revision process at this point involved mostly just rereading it over and over again, each time with maybe a phrase switched or added in to see what helped the cadence the most. Changing the italics and the line indentations made it read differently, and while originally these were there mostly to alter the flow of how it was read aloud, I realized that in fact the italics had come to represent a different voice, and the indentations served as a time break.

By far, the biggest challenge was in figuring out how to conclude the poem. As you can imagine, having the last stanzas switched really didn't carry the same emotional weight as the final configuration does. Switching the order seemed like a last ditch move, and at first I tried it just to see what it would look like, but I was really pleasantly surprised to see how well it flowed. My initial hesitation was that switching would alter the narrative arc to feel less conclusive, but in fact I think bringing in that alternate, more authorative italic voice really served well to bring all the themes together. I went through my Google Doc of quotes one last time to see if there was anything that could give the final stanza a sense of finality, and realized the "reaching hearts" quote did a really good job of that. Any changes made after this point were very minor.

Before writing this poem, I believed in the idea that a piece is never finished. This is true to my typical writing style--even now, when I go back through things I wrote in high school, I find myself editing as I read. There are always small changes I want to make; the work of writing never feels complete. This poem, however, is the first one I find myself not wanting to edit. It is the first piece that seems finished. My thoughts surrounding the spiritual issues of the poem have developed more since writing it, but I'm really grateful to have such an accurate portrait of my thoughts from that time recorded in this way.

Altar Call was published in the Spring 2016 issue of Cornerstone Magazine.