Friday, January 31, 2014

Can Camels Shrink? Or Only Grow?

Jim Wood, long known as @shrinkingcamel on Twitter before he threw off the cloak of anonymity and embraced his public persona, is “retiring” as the Work Editor at The High Calling this week.  

I met Jim online before I met him in person. It was via a web site devoted to faith and work, and this guy known only as Bradley Moore (a pseudonym) was commenting and posting. The site was retired a couple of years ago, but I had followed the camel over to his blog, and then we followed each other on Twitter.

One summer Saturday afternoon in 2009, the camel, Laura Barkat and I were tweeting on Twitter, the subject of the movie Bottle Crazy came up, and we exchanged a few lines of poetry. It was a fun thing to do, but that exchange led to poetry jams on Twitter and ultimately to the creation of Tweetspeak Poetry.

At the time, Laura was managing editor of The High Calling, and it wasn’t long before she enticed Jim to become the Work Editor and me a contributing editor.  Most of the articles I’ve written for The High Calling have been on work, and Jim has been my editor. He’s one of those editors who make it easy for a writer to write. We eventually got to meet face-to-face at an editorial retreat at Laity Lodge.

Jim’s the author of At Work As It Is in Heaven (I reviewed it here). I interviewed him at The High Calling about the book.

Now he’s headed back to college (with college-age daughters himself) to finish his MBA. And stay employed at his executive job (responsible for lots of stuff and people). And so he told us a few weeks back that he would be retiring from The High Calling.

It’s one of those decisions friends make that give you both joy and sadness at the same time.

And so, for Jim Wood:

Can Camels Shrink? Or Only Grow?

I saw a camel spit before
but never saw a camel shrink,
never saw a camel sink
at the oasis. One hump
or two, camels find it difficult
to slip through the eye of a needle,
even when lathered with olive oil.

I watch a camel slip away,
I watch a camel embrace his MBA.
I wish the camel well
at the oasis.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Un-Magic of Words

Most of my career has been in corporate communications, for several companies and as an independent consultant. It’s been an uneasy relationship, not the least for what may seem an odd and small thing.


It’s always been something of a mystery for me, and for 40+ years, why so many of the people I’ve worked with appear to have a fixation (bordering on mania) on words – finding exactly the right word, or saying something exactly the right way, as if the words by themselves contained a power that would explain and persuade.

If you saw what effort, what tortured effort, goes into creating the simplest news release, you would understand. If you’ve participated in the most basic of organizational activities, you know what happens.

It took Trappist monk, writer, and poet Thomas Merton, by way of the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, to explain it.

I’ve been reading Williams’ A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton. It’s a collection of previously published essays by Williams, and the five essays (and a poem by Merton) fit together well. In the chapter entitled “New Words for God: Contemplation and Religious Writing,” he quotes Merton:

“It is the businessman, the propagandist, the politician, not the poet, who devoutly believes in the magic of words. For the poet, there is precisely no magic, there is only life in all its unpredictability and all its freedom. All magic is a ruthless venture in manipulation, a vicious circle, a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

There it was, in all its simplicity. The uneasiness of my corporate relationships has, in part, been about how my employers and I have understood words. And we have seen them differently. I see them as Merton describes the poet seeing them; my employers have seen words as magic. When the words don’t work, when they don’t achieve the desired result, the reason must be we haven’t found the right words.

Rarely has the thought been expressed that we may be trying to get words to do something they can’t do.

It’s as if so many people in the workplace embrace “in the beginning was the word,” and stop there. Words and language aren’t magic so much as they are a means to understanding something greater.

Words are typically assigned a burden they cannot carry – to substitute for action or deeds. One CEO I worked for, and wrote quite a few speeches for, understood this. “Policy is not what you say,” he often pointed out. “Policy is what you do.”

Words don’t contain some inherent magic or power. If they did, we’d all be walking around casting spells. We can’t assemble the magic words like some shaman or witch doctor and make things happen.

Words work best when they represent something we believe, something we believe in, something we have done, something greater greater than ourselves.

Photograph by Piotr Siedlecki via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Who Are Your Egyptians?

A small group of us were sitting in a room, assembled to discuss a communications project. The organization had been dealing with explosive growth, a new finance campaign was starting, and we had been asked to consider how to communicate the new effort.

A senior executive led the group, and it was increasingly clear he was growing impatient with what he considered was the slow pace of the discussion. It was also clear he wasn’t thrilled having to deal with communications people, which he wasn’t one of.

I raised the question that turned out to be the tripwire. “We need to understand why the growth is happening. We simply don’t know. We should ask people what is going on, because it could be temporary, it could be permanent, it could be something else altogether.”

The executive had had enough. “I’m not here to ask people questions,” he snapped. “I’m here to get this campaign going.” We were supposed to be discussing articles and speeches and talking points, he said, not trying to find out why there was growth. He was running a campaign, not a research operation.

It was something of a rant, and when he finished, a noticeable chill had settled over the room. The meeting ended shortly thereafter, and the executive did not call us to meet again.

Would it make any difference if I said the organization was a church, the finance campaign was to raise money for a new church building complex, and the executive was a pastor?

The church had been dealing with the problem of explosive growth, and it was a problem. We had recently moved into a new building, and it was already insufficient. The parking lot has been been expanded two or three times, and it was still difficult to find a space on Sunday. The children’s ministry was getting overwhelmed. The facility lacked space for all of the youth programs and adult classes.

Instead of asking people why they were coming, the leadership was assuming growth would continue forever. And the church was turning to campaign programs, fundraising visits, sermons from the pulpit, and outside consultants who had all the right tactics for raising the most amount of money in the shortest possible time.

No one was asking people why people were coming. And no one was looking at the fact that attendance did not necessarily translate into membership, or at the fact that attendance might be “churning” – with a high “turnover rate” of who was making attendance permanent. That’s where the communications group was, and we were dismissed and not called together again.

In the face of a huge problem, as “good” of a problem as it might have been, the church leadership turned to the Egyptians.

In The Fire of Delayed Answers, Bob Sorge describes what King Hezekiah did when he faced the most ferocious and rapacious army of his time – the Assyrians. They had just conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, and they were not known for being merciful to their foe. Hezekiah, who knew better, turned to the familiar and the human – and made an alliance with the Egyptians. He didn’t turn to God, and he almost lost everything. The Egyptians turned out not to be much help, and Hezekiah found himself and Jerusalem surrounded. When it was almost too late, Hezekiah turned to God for help, and it was God who destroyed the Assyrian army, right at gates of the city.

Sorge’s point is that, when facing serious problems (our own version of the Assyrians), too often we turn to human agencies, human strengths and human resources, and we leave God out of the equation. We can do that individually, and we can do that collectively – like a church. Things make work, and we may succeed for a time, but ultimately it leads to more problems or, worse, to disaster.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Fire of Delayed Answers. To see more posts on this chapter, “The Assyrians Are Coming,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Poets and Poems: Amy Billone’s “The Light Changes”

In Amy Billone’s The Light Changes: Poems, the poet throws herself in front of a train. And lives to tell the story – not exactly what you expect from poets and poems.


I was raped by a speeding train. I asked it to. 

I threw myself before it. I extended my legs, arms. 
It came when I called it. Oh what enormous

metal thighs. Oh what fast thudding hips. Again

again against my blackening eyes, skull, chest, waist—
I loved its greasy sighs. I loved its wild blows. 
My mind flew away. Who pulled me from below? 

Who fed me with a tube? Who brought me
sunflowers? Who hummed me lullabies? Who

pardoned me? Who ripped my shame in two?

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Photograph by Alex Grichenko via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Dancers and dreams

And they dance in swirls
of light and shadow, left
to their dreams because no one
is watching, not even the artist
seeing only his own impressions
imagined, a kind a dream or series
of dreams, asking if the dancers
themselves know, or know to dream,
or even are. Still they swirl and pivot
in dances of light and shadow,
the dance transforming the dreams,
the dance becoming the dreams.

The poetry prompt at Tweetspeak Poetry this week is “Dancers and Dreams.” And I do love to dance, and dream.

Photograph of the Edgar Degas painting “Dancers in the Foyer” by Sallies Stone via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

The Poetry of Place

This is a revised version of the article that first appeared at The Master’s Artist.

Sunday nights have become evenings devoted to British television. My wife and I watch Downton Abbey, and this month it’s been followed by Sherlock. To say we’re hooked on both shows is not an overstatement, although I behave more like a normal fan while my wife, well, doesn’t. And in March comes the new American season of Call the Midwife.

The first season of this “Upstairs, Downstairs” type of production ended with the start of World War I; the second season started in 1916. We’re now in season four, and it’s the 1920s. While there are all sorts of plots and sub-plots (it’s a big, complicated story), the story always centers on the house, which, as the house of an earl should be, is huge. The idea of place is important in this story, because the place is changing, as are the people and the times they live in. The old order is giving way to the new, although the new is still largely unknown.

Poet Patrick Hicks, who teaches creative writing at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, knows about the importance of place. He has an entire book of poem about place, and the place is London. This London is a collection of 47 poems, almost all about London (the handful that aren’t directly about the city are inspired by London). Hicks loves the city, but it’s not a heedless, careless kind of love. It’s a love that sees all of what the city is, what is has been, and where it might be going.

The collection is not chronological but the poems do travel in time. We stand with Boudicca as she revenges her people with the sack of Londinium; we’re with Shakespeare at the Globe Theater and the crowd at a hanging at Tyburn; we experience the fire of 1666 and we see the boys off for France at Charing Cross Station, and I’m reminded of scenes from Downton Abbey:

Seeing the Great War at Charing Cross Station

It is 2007 today, but it feels more like 1917.
Squinting through a kaleidoscope of history,
an army is here, rifles slung over their knapsacks,
they are spun toward no-man’s land.

These soldiers walk on healthy legs,
they have yet to be baptized by the oil of war.
Women cheer them off into a termite existence,
where they will become little wasps
caught in pus, and mud, and bones.

Kisses are blown,
like from that blonde over there,
the one next to Delice de France–a pastry shop
that sells croissants dripping with the blood of jam.

I watch her boyfriend, dressed in a trenchcoat,
step into a train, waving.

His hand is swallowed from view
and he is gone,
simply gone.

This sense of beauty and harsh reality pervades the poems. Hicks wanders the streets above the bones of the plague victims; he sees the grave of the unknown soldier at Westminster Abbey; he experiences the great stink of 11858 when the odor of the Thames nearly emptied the city. He sees the tawdriness of the strip shops in Soho, and stands with the Ripper in a Whitechapel alley.

He knows this city, and knows it well, but loves it almost in spite of itself. It’s a city that speaks at some deeper level, and he knows he finds himself there.

The Same is Different Every Day

A fisherman in Galway once told me
the sea is different every day,
and this truth baptizes me
whenever I navigate London.

If we learn a city well enough,
our ghost lives on every corner,
time becomes a pool,
and we submerge ourselves

again and again,
pearl-diving for streetsigns.
On might rivers of asphalt,
my restless feet hopscotch through time,

neither here, nor there.

We spent our last two vacations in London, and I’m already thinking of a return this year.
This London makes me want to go back, to see the British Museum with its all things un-British, and Tennyson’s (and now C.S. Lewis’s) stone in the Abbey, and the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower, with all the famous bones buried below its floor stones. And I will take these poems with me, and read them aloud.

Photograph of Tower Bridge by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


So many paths to follow,
so many possibilities and
how to choose she asked,
why should I choose, she
asked, I can accept them all
for no one can say
which one is true
which one is real
because they are all real
and true, because they all
lead to the same end, she said,
as she convinced herself
to try everything,
to do nothing.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Saturday Good Reads: “How the Bible Came to Be”

You’re a major Christian publisher. You publish a major work about the Bible, like The Illustrated Bible Handbook. The immediate potential audience is going to be rather small – academics, theologians, and pastors. The material within the book, though, has a much wider potential audience.

But how are you going to convince people, people like me, to buy an 1152-page book filled with academic essays, even if it’s illustrated?

Maybe you don’t. Maybe you do what Baker Books did, and select eight rather representative essays, and assemble them as an “e-book short.”

And that’s how How the Bible Came to Be came to be. It’s an e-book short version of The Baker Illustrated Bible Handbook.

Both the much longer handbook and the e-book short are edited by J. Daniel Hays and J. Scott Duvall. Duvall has an essay included in the e-book, “Bible Translations and the English Bible,” which provides a great overview of where the English versions of the Bible came from.

Other essays include how the Old Testament canon developed, the Septuagint, how the Bible has been translated into the languages of the world, the New Testament canon, what we mean by “inspiration” as in the “inspired word of God,” and how the New Testament text was written, copied, and transmitted.

It is encouraging to know that the Bible has more documentary texts that any other book or literary work of antiquity. It’s also both interesting and helpful to know why one text is given more weight than another, how many of the texts were preserved, and what the Dead Sea Scrolls (discovered in 1947) can tell is us about the Bible.

It’s not likely that I would have picked up and started reading an 1152-page book. But this e-book short called How the Bible Came to Be makes that 1152-page volume accessible, and tells a fascinating story on its own.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, January 24, 2014

“Wounded Women of the Bible” by Dyer and Samples

It’s a book clearly aimed at women. It’s about women, women of the Bible. It’s written by women. The contemporary stories it includes are about women.

Readers are even addressed as “Ladies.”

Nevertheless, I persevered. I forgot being addressed as a lady and instead focused on the story that was being told.

And Wounded Women of the Bible by Tina Samples and Dena Dyer is quite a story, a story with a point: God uses wounding and brokenness to create something often surprising and sometimes plain astounding.

I like what Dyer and Samples do. They both write each chapter in their own words, and their own understanding and experience. The work from the same Bible character in the each chapter, but they approach their subjects differently, and call upon their own stories and the stories of the people they know today.

Such an approach, of course, transforms the Biblical into the immediately recognizable. We know people like these women. Their stories are familiar. Some of us are living these stories. And the stories are true.

The women they address include the two who argued before Solomon over whose baby was dead, and whose was alive; Abigail, the wife of David; Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and sister to the 12 brothers who became 12 tribes; Ruth of Moab; Hagar, maidservant of Sarah; sisters Mary and Martha who both loved Jesus; the widow who in faith gave the prophet the last of her food.

And others. Weary women. Wounded women. Struggling women. Women who endured tragedy through no fault of their own.

Dyer and Samples put their own skin on the story as well. They tell their stories here, and the stories of friends and family. Wounded Women of the Bible is a book for women, but it’s also a book their husbands, fathers, sons and boyfriends should read, too.

The point of this story of struggle and wounding is, ultimately, the story of hope.

Photograph by x posid via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Malcolm Johnson’s “St Martin-in-the-Fields”

One of my favorite places in London is a crypt. We had one of the best desserts we’ve ever had there – Victorian sponge cake. You can eat meals, have a snack, drink coffee or a glass of wine, and look down at the floor and read the memorial stones for the people buried there.

We’ve been to London on vacation twice in the past two years, and both times we’ve been partially anchored by St. Martin-in-the-Fields. On the northeast side of Trafalgar Square, it’s across the street from the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, a short two blocks to the Leicester Square ticket kiosk, a stone’s throw from Soho (if you’re so inclined), with a Charing Cross tube station entrance across from the back of the church. Covent Garden is close; a half-block walk and you’re in Whitehall or the Strand.

And it’s not just the restaurant in the crypt that’s the attraction (although the sponge cake is worth making a special trip for). We attended an evensong service there during our first trip in 2012, and a concert in 2013. And it’s magnificent building – a prototype for what we know in the United States as “the New England church.”

It’s also an institution, with a marvelously interesting history, once that includes the property now occupied by the national Gallery of Art.

Retired Anglican priest Malcolm Johnson published his history of the church, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in 2005. It’s slightly dated, but it was on sale in the church’s gift shop and it’s hard for me to resist a book like this, particularly of a place I’m visiting.

And so I learned about the saint and the church named for him.

St. Martin was a soldier, born in 316 A.D. in what is now Hungary. He left the army when he was baptized (pacifism was strong in the church at this time). He eventually settled in what is now France, and established the first monastery, which lasted until the French Revolution. He died in 397, and was buried on Nov. 11, now marked as St. Martin’s Day.

The place occupied by the current St. Martin-in-the-Fields actually had two previous churches there, one from 1222 to 1540 and the second from 1540 to 1600. The current building was constructed from 1720 to 1723. It’s associated with Sir Christopher Wren, but it was actually one of his students, James Gibbs, who was the architect (Wren at age 90 died shortly before the building was completed). Gibbs produced something of a controversial design – a number of critics didn’t like the steeple tower sitting atop the Greek portico. Today that controversial design is rather commonplace, especially in America.

The church has been somewhat altered since 1723 – galleries added, clear glass replacing the Victorian stained glass shattered during the bombing of World War II. The area has also changed considerably – especially in 1832, when the Royal Mews (stables) across the street was abolished and replaced by the national Gallery of Art.

And the people who lived here and/or worshipped here sound almost like a Who’s Who of London history – William Hogarth, Thomas Chippendale, David Garrick, Thomas Gainsborough, and a long list of kings and queens (St. Martin’s is officially a “royal” parish).

A considerable portion of the book is devoted to the 20th century and the men who were the vicars. It was their vision and leadership that saw St. Martin’s through two world wars and significant changes in the parish and in society and culture at large. Today the church has numerous outreach programs, and continues to be a draw for tourists all over the world (including two Americans I know).

And, as my wife will testify, it has great spongecake.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Who Are Your Assyrians?

I’ve been reading about the Assyrians, the people who had a much longer history than I had realized. And it’s a history that extends long before their highlight in the Bible and also long after their defeat and absorption into the Babylonian empire. If you’re not familiar with them, these were the people who defeated and destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel (roughly 722 B.C.) and then laid siege to the Southern Kingdom of Judah, where Hezekiah was king.

The people of the Near East certainly knew who they were – their reputation preceded them. Their capital was Nineveh, where Jonah was told by the Lord to go preach. Jonah didn’t ask for details; he fled, and for a very interesting reason. He knew the Lord would forgive them if they repented. He obviously didn’t want them to repent; he would have preferred to see them destroyed.

Their reputation? One article I read referred to them as the “Lords of the Massacre.”

If you opposed their expansion plans and were actually foolish enough to fight them, they would execute your soldiers after they defeated them. And the Assyrians were known for not losing.

Cities would be sacked and destroyed. The inhabitants, including children, would be beheaded and their heads placed on the city walls, or hung on trees like ornaments. Wealthy people and nobles might be packed off to slavery in Nineveh or elsewhere. The king would be executed. Women were automatically enslaved, with all that entailed.

This is what happened in the Northern Kingdom, its people (10 of the 12 tribes of Israel) killed or dispersed forever.

This is what Hezekiah and Judah faced – the most bloodthirsty and vicious army of its day or almost any day.

Hezekiah was one of the “good kings” of Judah, the Bible says. He followed the Lord. He was a reforming king. And when the Assyrians threatened, all thoughts of depending upon the Lord left his mind and he turned immediately to the Egyptians for alliance and support. That worked so well that the Assyrians surrounded and besieged Jerusalem, with no Egyptians anywhere to be found.

Hezekiah and Jerusalem knew what was coming. It was then that Hezekiah turned to the Lord, and the Lord responded. A plague broke out in the Assyrian army, killing more than 100,000 soldiers right at the walls of Jerusalem. What was left of the much vaunted army limped back to Nineveh. Jerusalem and Judah were saved – at least for another 125 years until the Babylonians arrived.

In The Fire of Delayed Answers, Bob Sorge recounts the basic facts of the Assyrians (without the gory details) and asks a rather startling question: who, or what, are the Assyrians in your life? Who, or what, fills with such fear or insecurity that you immediately turn to the wrong things for help? It is financial problems? Family issues? Your boss? (I identified with that one; I can safely say that because I haven’t had one since September.) Or might it be the threat of unemployment and layoffs, or the bully at church or school who has picked you out.

The fact is that we all have Assyrians in our lives, the people of things who strike right at our basic insecurities. And the temptation is also to run almost anywhere else except to where we should turn first.

We’ve been reading The Fire of Delayed Answers as part of an online discussion group. To see more posts on this chapter, “The Assyrians Are Coming,” please visit Jason Stasyszen at Connecting to Impact.

Illustration: a painting of the siege of Samaria by the Assyrians.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Poems for Poetry at Work Day: The Five Winners

Last week, we celebrated Poetry at Work Day, and while the White House didn’t pick up our declaration, a lot of people all over the world celebrated with us, including the Scottish Parliament, ABC News and CBS News, Huffington Post, university libraries, schools, office conference rooms, and all over Twitter and Facebook. Not bad for something that only had its launch in 2013.

Here at Tweetspeak Poetry, in addition to our declaration, we had a giveaway – submit a poem for Poetry at Work Day, and you might win one of five copies of my new book, Poetry at Work (notice the consistent theme). Twelve poets submitted their work. A few had multiple submissions, which was okay since the submission fee was a flat rate of zero (find a poetry contest that can boast that!).

The judging criteria were strictly subjective – and not disclosed. I simply had to figure out which five to pick. It turned out to be more of a problem that I anticipated – I liked all the poems. (I am not making this up just to make everyone feel good; these were some really good poems, and they need to be submitted to poetry journals, literary magazines, and major poetry publications like Tweetspeak Poetry.) (But I digress.)

To continue reading (and see who the five winners are), please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry

Photograph by Peter Griffin, via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Monday, January 20, 2014

How Others' Fears and Insecurities Can Hold You Back in Your Work

I don’t look like a workplace radical. I dress conservatively; I don’t even wear jeans on casual Fridays. I’m generally quiet and rather soft-spoken; no one would say I call attention to myself. I don’t espouse extremist political positions; in fact, I’m known for having a conservative tilt (that’s a tilt, not a hard lean).
But I’ve been called a radical. Conscientious objector. Crazy person. A radical in sheep’s clothing. Someone who will cause the organization’s IT systems to collapse and bring down Western civilization with it. And the worst phrase of all: not a team player.
To continue reading, please see my post today at The High Calling.

Photograph by Peter Griffin via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Paul Hoover’s “The Watchman of Ephraim”

This article is a revised version of the original posted at The Master’s Artist.

Poet and editor Paul Hoover is a professor of creative writing at San Francisco State University. He and wife, poet and fiction writer Maxine Chernoff, edit the literary magazine New American Writing. He’s won awards, prizes and fellowships. He helped found the Poetry Center at Chicago’s Art Institute and the Poetry Series at the DeYoung Museum of Art in San Francisco. He’s published 13 collections of poetry. He is definitely what we might call part of the “Poetry Establishment.”

The March 2011 issue of Poetry included three poems by Hoover: “House of Cedar, Rafters of Fire,” “The Dry Bones,” and “The Watchman of Ephraim.” It’s not unusual for Poetry to publish poems by such an established, widely respected and admired poet like Hoover. What is surprising is that all three poems are infused – obviously and overtly infused – with religious themes and symbolism. In fact, each begins with a line from a book of the Old Testament: Song of Solomon, Ezekiel and Hosea, respectively.

The Poetry website links three other poems by Hoover published in June 2010, which are also inspired by books in the Old Testament: “God’s Promises” (Zephaniah); “Have You Eaten of the Tree?” (Genesis) and “To the Choirmaster” (Habakkuk). (Click on this link and then the “About This Poem” tab for the links to the poems.)

It’s interesting what Hoover does with these six poems. They are not so much interpretations of the Old Testament books or even specific passages as they are applications to contemporary society. Consider how “The Watchman of Ephraim” begins:

Hear the word of the Lord,
ye children of Pittsburgh
of Calistoga and Tlaquepaque,
ye hierophants and wishbones,
teraphim and household plants,
for I am a jealous God betrayed.

The lines have the flow and the feel of Hosea, the sense of it connotes the themes of Hosea, but the use of the three cities injects a particularly modern feel – Pittsburgh, associated with industry; Calistoga, CA, at the northern end of the Napa Valley wine country; and Tlaquepaque, a part of Guadalajara, Mexico. Then Hoover calls the children he’s addressing “hierophants” (priests of the Greek Eleusinian mysteries) and wishbones, Teraphim (Semitic household gods) and household plants, combining references to ancient religions to common, everyday household items.

Hoover does the same thing in “God’s Promises,” using Biblically prophetic language to describe what are everyday items in our modern society:

I the Lord will make barren
your fields and your fairways.
Your refrigerators will be empty,
no steaks and no legs bones,
no butter and no cornbread…

In “The Dry Bones,” he sounds distinctly like Ezekiel (and Revelations, for that matter) when he describes the four creatures with the likeness of a man, each with four outstretched wings and  “each wing had four eyes emblazoned, wide open / given to weeping at the worlds they contained…” And then he names the four creatures: Dow Jones, Cargill, Chevron and DeKalb of the frozen seed – the financial news wire owned by the Wall Street Journal, a grain company, an oil company, and a corn seed company. The poem continues with describing what the princes of the sea wear – Nikes, Reeboks, scholar’s robes, sharkskin suits and Chuvashian mittens, and says that they shall cast these garments “upon the land’s end…for the-princes of fire consume what they love, / with the reckless ambition of gods.”

So what is going on here, with this use of Biblical language applied to contemporary life, society and even business?

One suggested approach is that Hoover is writing about the unchanging nature of humanity, that even with all of our knowledge ad and understanding we have simply substituted refrigerators and fairways for the idols of ancient Israel, that we have our idols and household gods just like idolatrous Israel did.

Ultimately, of course, the gods we create, the gods that make the one God so jealous, are ourselves. We are the princes of the sea, the princes of fire; we are the hierophants and teraphim with our household plants and our refrigerators and our Nikes. We are the idols of clay, and it is to clay, to dust, that we will return.

Photograph by Lilla Frerichs via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


It is not a question
of making a deal and guessing
which door the prize lies behind;
it is a question of choosing
which door to open first, which path
to follow, which future to select,
the choice to be made in a split sliver
of time, and once decided, once the door
is opened and walked through,
the possibility of return is non-existent,
even if the door remains open, even if
backward steps can be taken.
Or it is a question of choosing
which room to clean first, which interior
to dust and sweep and mop and wash and
scour. Or it is a question of waiting until
a door is opened. Perhaps the questions are
the same.

Painting: Interior by Vilhelm Hammershoi (1899), National Gallery of Art, London.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Saturday Good Reads: “11 September 1297: The Battle of Stirling Bridge”

When I was in elementary school, I spent a considerable amount of time at the local public library. It was located about two miles from our home in a rather nondescript building along a busy highway near the New Orleans airport, and it says something about the times that I was allowed to bike there by myself when I was seven and eight years old.

Some of my favorite books were part of a series called “We Were There,” like “We Were There at the Boston Tea Party” and “We Were There at the Battle of Gettysburg.” The books were children’s fiction (marked with the “Y” of the Dewey Decimal System), and followed a standard format – the story a boy and a girl caught up in momentous historical events. They were designed to get children interested in history, and the strategy surely worked with me. I still remember reading the one about the fall of the Philippines to the Japanese at the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War II.

I was reminded of the “We Were There” books when I read the ebook 11 September 1297: The Battle of Stirling Bridge, William Wallace’s Greatest Victory over the English. That’s a long title for a succinct book that can be read in less than an hour. It’s not a book designed for children, however, but for adults. And it’s part of a project by Decisive Days, which is publishing accounts of important days or events in history. The first book in the program is one on the Battle of Agincourt; the next will be on Waterloo.

Stirling Bridge isn’t the romanticized version of the William Wallace story created for the Mel Gibson movie Braveheart; instead, it is a factual (and gripping) narrative of how outnumbered Scot forces defeated the English army. And they won by being smart and picking the battleground.  The story is written almost like a factual eyewitness account, but with the needed context to explain why the English were there in the first place, what was happening with the Scot nobility, and how this no-account named William Wallace achieved a significant victory that changed the course of British history and is still remembered today (and celebrated, in Scotland if not England).

I enjoyed this so much that I went to Amazon downloaded the Decisive Days volume on Agincourt. (“We few, we happy few,” as Shakespeare tells it in Henry V).

If you enjoy history, British history, or military history, or think you should but haven’t read any in a long time, try Stirling Bridge. I suspect you will get hooked. I am.

Illustration: The Battle of Stirling Bridge (reconstructed from accounts)