Sunday, February 28, 2010

Busy Two Weeks Ahead

Events erupt into best laid plans, as the poet Robert Burns once noted. The next two weeks are going to be wild, for at least two reasons.

One is a good one – the grandbaby is scheduled to arrive, officially on March 16 but possibly earlier; the signs are that the baby will be of a good size. The grandparents-to-be can barely stand the waiting. The mother-to-be is long past the point of standing the waiting, but she is hanging in there.

The other reason is work – a mega-project will be occurring for the next two weeks and I’ll likely be buried.

So, I’ve actually been trying to plan and get some work done ahead of time – several posts for here; two poetry book reviews; the final installment of contributions to the “Why Poetry Matters” series over at TweetSpeak Poetry; a book review of Watch Over Me, a novel by Christa Parrish; two articles for The High Calling Blogs; and a blog post about an Edouard Manet painting for Christian Manifesto. We also have a poetry jam on Twitter scheduled for this Tuesday, March 2, at 9:30 eastern time.

I also got everything together for our tax filings. I know it's "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's," but there has to be a better way to do that than the Missouri state income tax forms.

It’s been a productive time for writing. In addition to what I mentioned above, I’ve also been working on two writing projects for others, one on the author Athol Dickson and one on Wendell Berry’s poetry volume entitled Leavings: Poems (Berry, by the way, also had a new short story in a recent issue of Oxford American magazine). I’ve also got an idea in my head for a writing project about the Mississippi River – using old and new memoirs, travelogues and novels to show how the river helps frame an understanding of ourselves. (The only question is where should it find a home.) And I’ve been doing considerable blogging for work, both for the official corporate blog and our employee intranet.

Someone asked me what’s sitting on the nightstand, waiting to be read. I’m in the throes of River Rising by Athol Dickson (connected to that writing project). Right behind it are a slender volume called Roualt/Fujimura: Soliloquies by Thomas Hibbs (and a “refraction” by Makoto Fujimura); a book of poems called Pencil Drawn and Paper Grown by Heather Truett, who’s joined us on our Twitter poetry jams; two love story collections by author Travis Thrasher (one of which was not easy to find); and three books about either the environment, technology or both: Eric Brende’s Better Off, Pete Dunne’s Prairie Spring, and Eagle Pond by Donald Hall.

So much to read,
so much to write,
so little time.
And then there’s that
grandbaby coming. Did I
mention that?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

In Defense of Poetry

In January, Laura Boggess posted an article at The High Calling Blogs about poetry, and picked up quite a number of comments, including one that said the writer "didn't get" poetry, even though he was often told his writing was poetic. (I follow his blog, and his writing his poetic.) I responded with a longer-than-usual comment, and for some reason it's been on my mind, possibly because of the postings I've been doing at TweetSpeak Poetry on "Why Poetry Matters."

Here's what I said. I'd be interested to hear what you think.

Children seem to understand poetry better than adults. Somewhere along the line, maybe in high school English, we guys somehow got it into our heads that, at best, poetry was for pointy-head intellectuals, or really something that just girls read. I can even remember the audible groans in my high school senior English class (all boys) when the teacher informed us that we had to memorize — and recite in front of the class — a soliloquy from Shakespeare. And recite it like we were acting it! Oh, the horror, the humiliation. It was awful. We were seared with shame, but since the alternative was an F, we all did it. (I did Hamlet’s dagger speech — and I still remember it.)

I read poetry a lot more than I used to, and now I’m occasionally writing it (or trying to). And here’s why, I think: all good writing inherently contains poetry. All good writing (and speaking, too) contains rhythm, flow, and artful and purposeful use of language. It makes you think in a different way, understand something for the first time, or deepen your understanding. The poetic elements of all good writing are, I think, the essence, often hidden or disguised, of what makes the writing good.

A good poet extracts that essence, and shapes it, translates it, describes it, reveals it.

The Bible is filled with poetry. The Psalms are the most obvious, but also consider Mary’s song to the angel, or the Sermon on the Mount which sounds like a poem. Ecclesiastes. Song of Solomon. Or the Ten Commandments, which sound like poetic thunder (granted, that could be attributable to the Cecil B. DeMille movie). And the words of Jesus on the cross, taken together, comprise the most heartfelt, tragic poem in any language, a poem of horror, rejection, death — and even love.

Sometimes, I think, maybe more than sometimes, poetry is “God language.”

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The 20th Day of Community: Kathleen Overby

Some time ago, a comment left here on a blog post took me to the commenter’s web site. And I discovered someone who, seeing that newbies like me were writing poetry and posting it online, decided to make the leap. I sent an email to L.L. Barkat, who with Eric Swalberg is my co-conspirator in publishing TweetSpeak Poetry, and said, “I think we’ve done a good thing here.”

The commenter was Kathleen Overby, who lives in Washington State and somehow manages two blogs – Neoteny and Almost Paradisical.

At Neoteny, she says that her purpose is about play: “One of my passions as a wife, parent, friend and woman, is to invite others -- to play. Let's not forget how to lie on our stomachs in the dirt, have water fights, lay on our backs and watch cloud pictures, laugh till we wet our pants and cry with cheek cramps. Deep play takes many forms. I want to explore this with you. Let's hold hands and skip.” And that’s where she invites fellow bloggers to guest post about what they do in their lives to play. In her most recent post, she reviewed Sex, Lies and Religion by Randy Elrod; read the review to see some of her thinking.

At Almost Paradisical, she publishes her poetry and what I would call her “prose musings.” I love to read her poems. There is a childlike innocence about them, like when a young heart creates something just for you, and rather shyly opens a hand to show you. Look at her poems and you’ll see for yourself -- poems like “Pile of Rocks,” “Sugar Words,” and “Rock Salt.” An example of her “prose musings” is “Twenty Camels?” – a love story about two people who fell in love on a trip to Israel and Jordan, and couldn’t be together on Valentine’s Day.

And to top all of this off, two of her favorite movies are “Babette’s Feast” and “Enchanted April” – which happen to be two of the favorite movies of my wife and me.

Check out her blogs. You can also follow her on Twitter. And you’re in for a real treat with her poetry.

(In December, a number of us participating in the “Twelve Days of Community” - see the button at the top right - sponsored by The High Calling Blogs. The purpose was to highlight the blog or web site of someone other than ourselves during the season of Advent and Christmas. I liked the idea so much that I’m continuing to do that each week -- highlight a blog or web site of a person whose thoughts and writing have had an impact on me and others.)

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Running Descent into Kindness

It was cool, and the view spectacular, as they hiked down from the summit, but Maggie was miserable. She hadn’t wanted to come on this youth trip, she didn’t like the youth group, she didn’t want to be part of this group activity, she hated what she looked like, she couldn’t stand her frizzy hair or her weight that stayed pudgy no matter how little she ate, and all she had around her were slim, confident girls with their straight hair and lilting voices and confident, flirty laughs and sideways glances at her frumpy clothes. And her hair.

Her parents had made her come. This was a rite of passage in the church youth group, this nightmare of a camp in the mountains. Everyone played nice, of course, because it was a church group, after all, and you didn’t want Jesus to think you thought yourself better than someone even if you knew you were. And all the girls were like that. Maggie wanted to scream sometimes, but she only cried when no one was around. She didn’t say much, because she was afraid of sounding stupid. The group leader tried to encourage her and get the other girls to include her in activities but it was hopeless. Maggie was all of 15 and felt either four or 40.

The trail down was wide but steep. Suddenly two boys at the front of the line broke into a run, yelling “Race ya!” as they took off. The rest of the group, 34 strong, followed, and Maggie suddenly found herself running downward, knowing at any moment she was going to trip.

Which she did. A half-buried rock caught her foot, and she tried to stay upright as she stumbled wildly across the trail, finally hitting a fallen tree and landing across it with a thud. It knocked the wind out of her, and she just lay there on the trunk, like a slug, not moving. She heard the laughter, and she felt the hot flush of shame and humiliation.

Then she felt hands on her shoulders, and his voice, the voice of the boy new to the group because he was dating one of the girls; he wasn’t even a member of their church. He was nice looking enough but not one of the handsome jocks; he’d been immediately accepted by the in-crowd because of his girlfriend. Maggie, are you okay? Are you hurt? Does anything feel broken? Take a deep breath. His voice was gentle, coaxing, soft. She was shocked that he knew her name. He pulled her back from the tree as she coughed and caught her breath. Does anything hurt? She shook her head. He stared into her eyes. Did you hit your head? She shook her head again.

His girlfriend stood behind him, staring. He smiled. We’ll walk you down the rest of the way. You need to be checked by the nurse. The youth group leader finally caught up with them, and together they finished the descent.

She spent the night in the infirmary, and was discharged in time to join the group in the large cafeteria for breakfast. She was sore and bruised, but nothing was broken or damaged. She found the group, and there he was. He looked up and smiled. “Maggie, how are you doing? Is everything OK? Guys, make some room here.”

She never saw him again after the trip; he and his girlfriend broke up and he went back to his family’s church.

But she never forgot him.

This is one of the contributions to the One Word Blog Carnival on kindness over at Bridget Chumbley’s place, One Word at a Time. This story, by the way, is true, or mostly true. It actually happened in the summer of 1968. “Maggie” is not the real name of the girl. What that young man did that day taught the entire youth group something about kindness.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A World Split in Two

Ideas have consequences. But I didn’t know that a question I was asked when I was teaching an adult Sunday School class had its roots in the Pietism movement in the 17th century.

For two years, I attended a lecture and study course called Salt and Light taught by Jerram Barrs of Covenant Theological Seminary. Barrs, who had studied with Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri, was teaching about culture and faith, and that the gospel was the transformational message for all of life, and all of creation, including the arts, education, the environment, the public sphere, work – everything that is the world we live in.

When I finished the series, a pastor at our church asked me to teach the material in an adult Sunday School class, and I readily agreed. The class was well attended, and things went fine until we hit the lesson on work, and I repeated what Barrs had emphasized again and again, that God saw work as another area to be redeemed, that we were to live and be our faith in the work place, that God saw all work as holy, and there was no difference between a pastor’s work, a missionary’s work, an accountant’s work, a salesman’s work, a writer’s work – it was all work in God’s eyes.

You would have thought I had just lobbed a live and very angry skunk into the middle of the room. The reaction was surprise. I was asked if I meant what I said. The reaction went to shock when I said yes.

Everyone was polite, but some people did not come back to the class.

The idea that full-time ministry or missionary work is “higher” than any other work came from, among other ideas, the Pietism movement in the 1600s, which, as we find out in John D. Beckett’s Loving Mondays: Succeeding in Business Without Selling Your Soul, started a good thing but evolved into the kind of two-tiered reality envisioned by Plato. This was a division between the material and spiritual world, with the “spiritual” being on a higher plane than the “material.”

And that was what prompted the question in the class – what was thought to be Biblical turned out to be Platonist, or cultural. And it’s defined a lot about how Christians view the world they live in.

Ideas have consequences.

Over at the High Callings Blogs, we’re discussing Beckett’s Loving Mondays. The discussion is led by Laura Boggess. This week, we’re focused on chapters 8 through 11 (the chapters are short and easy to read), covering the cultural and philosophical background of a Biblical understanding of work. Check here for last week’s discussion.

Related posts:

Lyla Lyndquist at A Different Story: Just Another Piece of Pie
L.L. Barkat at Seedlings in Stone: Chocolate Bread and Stripey Cookies
Monica Sharman at Know-Love-Obey God: Jesus Was More Than Hands On

Update: Jerram Barrs' newest book, Learning Evangelism from Jesus, was today named by Outreach Magazine as book of the year in the evangelism category.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

There Was a Barn Raising, Once

There was a barn
raising, once;
horses and cows
snorted and
jostled, once;
hay was baled and
lifted, once;
my father carried me
up the ladder to
the hayloft, once;
I lay on the floor
to fix the oil
leak on the
John Deere, once;
the we regret to
inform you
telegram came to
me there, once;
I lay dying while
they stored my
coffin there, once.

This poem was first (and mostly) published over at nAncY’s Just Say the Word in January. She posted a photograph of an old, dilapidated barn and invited comments in the forms of poems. I added two or three lines to the version above, essentially to round out the idea of encapsulating a man’s life.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Why Poetry Matters

Last month, I had a poetry-and-wine giveaway here for L.L. Barkat’s InsideOut: Poems. One copy of the poems would be given away at random to one person who simply entered a comment. The winner of the more challenging assignment – write in 100 words or less on “why poetry matters,” would receive a copy of the Poems and a bottle of Sineann wine.

The entries were stunning. Some were poems themselves; others short pieces of prose. All were good. Too good not to acknowledge.

Some were posted on the individual writer’s web or blog site; others were entered directly into the comment section of my blog post. All of them need to be shared.

I’ve started posting the entries, one a day, over at TweetSpeak Poetry. We have three up so far. Take a look.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sally Wright's "Watches of the Night"

I’ve written before about how much I like the mystery novels of Sally Wright. Her detective, Ben Reese, is a university archivist and tenured faculty member, so he gets sabbaticals for travel, study and (surprise) solving mysteries. The stories are set in the early 1960s.

In Watches of the Night, a patient and doctor with connections to the same hospital in Britain die. One appears a suicide, the other a hiking accident. But the doctor has left behind a letter. And Reese is eventually drawn into it by his friend (and possible love interest) Kate Lindsay, only to find that he’s confronting ghosts from his experiences in World War II. At the same time, he’s battling political intrigue at the university, with his president aiming to get him fired.

The action moves from England and Scotland to Ohio and Kentucky, and finally to Italy. And it is in Italy that Reese will meet his war ghosts and embrace love.

Wright produces (notice I didn’t say Wright writes) beautifully crafted stories, and Watches of the Night is no exception. And the reader doesn’t get only a good mystery story. Along the way, you learn things, and sitting in on academic lectures about preservation and conservation techniques.

But it is the character of Ben Reese that’s the main attraction. Modeled on an actual friend of the author’s, her detective is a man of integrity and a quiet faith. This story includes details of his war experiences and serious injuries, as well as his extensive recuperation afterward.

Watches of the Night is a great and entertaining read.

(I did not receive this book from the publisher. It was a Christmas present from my wife.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The 19th Day of Community: Bridget Chumbley

A native Californian, Bridget Chumbley lives in Washington State with her husband, Dale, and two children. She says that two psychotic cats live with the family, but as she well knows, “psychotic” and “cat” are redundant. In her spare time, she’s a writer, and she’s completed a manuscript for a Young Adult novel (and gotten a request for manuscript – which is a very cool thing, indeed).

Bridget is a co-host (with Peter Pollock) of the one-word blog carnival. Every two weeks or so, bloggers write posts on whatever the word is – patience, peace, love and even lust. The carnivals having been going on for several months now, and introduced writers from all over the United States and the world to each other. (In addition to the hosting logistics, Bridget reads every single post and leaves a comment.) (That’s not just being a good host; that’s a ministry.)

She had two recent posts on her blog, however, that demonstrated what a fine writer she is. One is called “Innocence,” and is about the child of a friend who was the victim of sexual abuse. The other, posted today, is the follow-up. Entitled “Healing,” it is about the struggles of a young man trying to come to terms with what happened to him, and how extenuating family circumstances make that so difficult. Both posts are heartbreaking.

So check out Bridget’s blog, One Word at a Time. Follow her on Twitter. Join in the blog carnivals – a wonderful way to meet writers who take an incredibly individualized approach to each word. And read her blog posts – every one is worth your while.

(In December, a number of us participating in the “Twelve Days of Community” - see the button at the top right - sponsored by The High Calling Blogs. The purpose was to highlight the blog or web site of someone other than ourselves during the season of Advent and Christmas. I liked the idea so much that I’m continuing to do that -- highlight a blog or web site of a person whose thoughts and writing have had an impact on me and others.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Matthew Paul Turner's "Hear No Evil"

Last week, I had a blog post over at The Christian Manifesto on what “edginess” can teach the church. And what I meant by “edginess” was something more akin to popular social criticism, as practiced by four writers. (They were meant to be examples, and not an all-inclusive list of everyone who’s out there.) One of those writers is Matthew Paul Turner.

Last fall, I read Turner’s Churched: One Kid’s Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess, an account of childhood in not only a fundamentalist church, but a fundamentalist Baptist church (and there’s a difference). And while most people focused on the funny parts (and there were a lot of funny parts), I saw something else, and that was the more serious side of a “social critic” who cares deeply for the church.

Hear No Evil: My Story of Innocence, Music, and the Holy Ghost advances the story through the teen, college and young-adult-earning-his-own-way years. But there’s a difference from Churched – the humor is still there, but it is a more quite, wry kind of humor. What I see emerging even more strongly is a concern for Christian music, on one level, and for the church in general on a broader level. Churched sounded so much like a kid speaking, which is what was intended; Hear No Evil sounds like a thoughtful young adult, poking fun, to be sure, but not taking himself so seriously, too.

We read about life in high school and college; we sense what a place like Nashville was for a college student in the 1990s, and especially for a Christian college student at a Christian college. We learn about the Christian music scene in Nashville, and it is not at all what we expect it to be. We watch an untalented woman bully her way into an open microphone session at a coffeehouse, and realize, as does Turner, that he was used to bless her. We sit through an interview with Amy Grant, who answers with great grace the questions that the boneheaded magazine publisher insists Turner ask.

Yes, there are funny, laugh-out-loud parts of Hear No Evil. But they don’t at all dominate the book. Instead, it is indeed a story about innocence, and music, and the Holy Ghost, but it’s a story told by a sensitive spirit who sometimes acts the clown but always speaks the truth.

(The publisher provided me with a review copy of Hear No Evil; I asked for it, in fact, because I enjoyed reading Churched. Just so you know.)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Smell, Taste, Sound

Walking a sidewalk anytime, I
smell a metallic, coffee-like pungence,
not unpleasant but sharp, almost tangy, and
I am 16, summer, sweating down
Gravier Street, halfway between Camp and
Magazine In New Orleans, with a delivery of
paper and envelopes.

I walk into a grocery store, for anything, and
see a baked circle of flour, cinnamon and
purpled greened and goldened sugar, and
I am 13, at a King Cake party, and my piece had
the plastic baby inside, and I will be the
king to host the next party until
we hibernate for Lent.

I hear an accented voice, anywhere, New
York or Paris or Montreal or St. Louis, with a
distinctive combination of German-Irish-Italian
English, immigrant blended, like Brooklyn but
not quite like, and I am 10, in my boy
suit and tie, punch in hand, at a cousin’s
wedding in the Ninth Ward.

I ache for that smell, that taste, that sound, and
each time I am surprised I didn’t know it.

Update and explanation: King Cake is an old Mardi Gras tradition -- my mother went to King Cake parties when she was young (and she's in her 80s now). Once a week in the month leading up to Mardi Gras, there would be a "King Cake Party," usually for boys and girls in the 12-14 year-old set. It was like a mixer, with junior highers standing around acting embarrassed and eyeing each other nervously. The cake, like a coffee cake, was cut into pieces and served. In one piece was a plastic baby (it was a bean when my mother was a girl). Whoever got that piece became the king or queen (and the host) of the next party. The last party was held the weekend before Mardi Gras. For the full blown history of the King Cake (and it's complicated), you can visit Mardi Gras Unmasked (and dozens of other sites).

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Why Bad Stuff Happens at Work

Over at The High Calling Blogs, we’re discussing chapter 4 through 7 (they’re short and easy to read) in John D. Beckett’s Loving Monday: Succeeding in Business Without Selling Your Soul. These chapters complete part 1 of the book, in which Beckett describes the history and the background of how he came to develop a business management practice and philosophy that were biblically based.

Beckett had joined the business his father started, and a year into it his father died, leaving Beckett the choice of running the business himself or selling it to one of several companies ready to buy it. With his mother’s support, he chose to continue the business, and in short order faced a warehouse fire that nearly destroyed the business, a unionization effort and his own internal struggles over business versus ministry.

Of all the material he covers in these chapters, one statement particularly stood out for me – the words of a conference speaker who had challenged Beckett to explore the Bible: “Vast areas of scripture will never be meaningful to us unless we go through the experiences for which they give insight. It was for this reason that God allowed all of his servants in Scripture to experience conflicts, and it is for this reason that we go through them as well.”

In other words, all of the conflicts, the hardships, the problems, the upheavals – all the bad stuff – are designed to drive us to God’s word, and thus to God. All of the problems and conflicts we experience at work are designed – purposefully – to lead us rely on God and not ourselves, to teach us and to mold us.

It puts that bad boss relationship I once had in a totally different light. It wasn’t about how to deal with him; it was about what I was supposed to learn about God.

Oh, boy.

Come take a look at the discussion on Loving Monday led by Laura Boggess.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

It Is Our Music, It Is Our Dance

Early January, 1973. I first saw her when she walked into the LSU student newspaper office. I was the managing editor, and she was one of my new reporters. She asked if I had anything for her to do, and I set her on a story about the new chemistry building. I also gave her the two beats she’d requested -– religion and student government (separation of church and state wasn’t as much an issue back then).

A cold day in January,
cold for the South, anyway;
the smell of ink, newsprint,
people moving in and out,
bustling with the
self-importance of
young journalists;
assignments made, student
reporters dispatched, a smile
and a nod. The dance begins.

We started talking. I learned early that she was a painstaking perfectionist. (“It’s midnight; I have to put the paper to bed.” “I just need a few more minutes to get this right.”) We talked more. We got caught in a light snow one night, unheard of for south Louisiana. I think the snow was the clincher.

Feburary 14th. The flowers
were simple, really, red and
white mums with a
blue iris in the center. Staring
through the large window I
could see you walking to the
office, radiant, your arms
around an album. Godspell.
For me. At that moment, I knew
it was indeed a dance.

Within a month of our first meeting, we were talking about getting married. It just happened that way, like it was the most natural thing in the world. Looking back from that moment 37 years later, that’s exactly what it was. She took me home to Shreveport to meet her parents. She told me later that her parents were scared to death, not knowing what she was going to bring through the door. Their expectation was a long-haired, barefoot, hippie-type who smelled bad. Instead, in walked Joe Fraternity.

Two strong wills mixed
together into one
binding, one oneness and
it is granite hard, until
the softening starts, the
softening begins, at some time
I can’t remember. We weren’t
looking when he transformed
oneness into intimacy,
into lasting.

We were married in August, at 5 p.m. on a Saturday, not quite eight months after we met. She wore satin and lace and a Southern belle-type hat; I wore a light blue suit, bow tie and blue-and-white saddle oxfords. (Hey! Don’t laugh! It was the 70s, after all.) We were married at Mildred Crowe Baptist Church in Shreveport; the church building is still there but Mildred Crowe got renamed once or twice since then. The wedding ceremony lasted all of about six minutes and the reception perhaps an hour – there was a revival service starting at 7 p.m. and we had to be out of there.

I think of the girl who
gave her heart, who
thought I was worth
giving her heart to;
I think of the jolt
from my touch
on her skin, still.
The music is playing
just as loud, just as right;
the dance goes on.

Friday, February 12, 2010

What Can "Edginess" Say to the Church?

A number of Christian authors, bloggers and writers are taking on some of the sacred cows of evangelical Christianity -- and usually managing to stimulate, provoke and, sometimes, infuriate. Over at The Christian Manifesto today, I have a new post about it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"The Supper of the Lamb"

Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection is not like any cookbook I have ever come across. At least, I think it’s a cookbook. Or it might be a book of theology. And it is funny. And perhaps that’s what describes it the best.

A funny, theological cookbook.

First published in 1969, Supper of the Lamb is about as different a cookbook as you can imagine. It’s about the preparation of one recipe, lamb for eight persons four times. The reader is warned early on: “Lamb for eight persons four times is not a recipe. It is a way of life.” Capon does eventually arrive at the completion of the recipe, but it is one wild ride along the way.

But during the journey to complete the meal, you discover, among a lot of other things, one entire chapter on onions and one on kitchen tools, especially knives; a discussion about tin fiddles (poor, pale substitutes of the real thing); the need to avoid diet foods (no margarine for Capon; it must be butter); the art of soup stock; how to make a good dough; the delights of real bread; the critical role of the amateur; and the importance of hosting dinners, including the blow-by-blow description of the preparations for a dinner that only narrowly avoided disaster.

Capon, now 85, is an Episcopal priest, or was, since he retired from the priesthood to devote himself to full-time writing. And he was a “High Church” Episcopal, which meant his theology was far more common in the Episcopal Church of the 1960s than it would be today. But, even today, it’s easily recognizable for a Christian who’s a theological conservative.

And his preparation of this supper is infused with his theology. Good food, prepared well, is part of the creation that God pronounced “good.” Here, for example, is what he says about cheese: “Cheese is at once a testament to the Creator’s ingenuity in providing enzymes and bacteria that will do fearful and wonderful things for milk and to man’s audacity in the face of some pretty forbidding stuff.” It might take a thesis to unpack that statement which is at once a description of cheese and some formidable theology.

And it is this combination of insights into food and its preparation and theology that structure this book into a thing of joy.

Supper of the Lamb is the February selection of the Readers Guild of the International Arts Movement. If you’re interested, you can download a discussion guide. (I did, because I wanted to see what discussion questions they had.) For March, the selection is The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Repair Job

A toilet handle needs
replacing, sporting a crack
that will become a
My dark hour of

What should be short, effortless
minutes will be long, toilsome
hours. Nothing goes as

Perhaps the store will
not have the part, but
they do. Perhaps the
rapture will come before
I’m home, but
it doesn’t.

Despair. Resigned to
my fate, I
face the offending
part. I read, even,
the instructions.
(It’s that bad.)

I remove the
tank top, apply the
screwdriver, unscrew the
bolt, insert the new
handle, tighten the

And it works.
Flushed. Grace.

The 18th Day of Community: Sam Van Eman

I can’t recall when exactly I started following Sam Van Eman’s blog New Breed of Advertisers, but judging by where it falls on my RSS feed, it’s been at least several years.

Sam works for CCOJubliee, a campus ministry involved in colleges and universities all over the United States that seeks to develop young men and women to live out their faith in all areas of life. He is also the author of On Earth as It Is in Advertising: Moving from Commercial Hype to Gospel Hope, in which he discussed the negative messages of advertising and contrasted them with the positive messages of the gospel.

He calls himself both a “critic and a fan of advertising,” and he places advertising squarely in the midst of the concept of being a neighbor, as he describes on his blog: “You're good at what you do. You study and listen and read - honing your trade - only to understandably and occasionally forget that behind the progress toward success are real neighbors consuming your work. So you must ask - and keep asking - not the myopic, ‘How can I get customers to fall in love with my product?" but a more generous, "How can I love by getting this product to my customers?’"

It’s that belief, and how he writes about it, that first pulled me into New Breed of Advertisers, and kept me there. It doesn’t matter whether the subject is an ad about soup or Volkswagen or the NCAA, he takes the same insightful look, grounded in faith, and then looks at what the ad is really communicating.

Sam is also a content editor for The High Calling Blogs, focusing on the area of culture.

So check out New Breed of Advertisers. For someone like me, with a background in corporate communications, his blog and his writing in general provide the background story of familiar territory.

(In December, a number of us participating in the “Twelve Days of Community” - see the button at the top right - sponsored by The High Calling Blogs. The purpose was to highlight the blog or web site of someone other than ourselves during the season of Advent and Christmas. I liked the idea so much that I’m going to continue to do that -- highlight a blog or web site of a person whose thoughts and writing have had an impact on me and others.)

Monday, February 8, 2010


There are a lot of things I’m impatient with.

Traffic congestion. Long lines at a check-out counter. People anywhere who decide to strike up conversations in aisles and other strategic locations so that no one else can move around them. My computer at work. My computer at home. Phone trees (of any kind). The Missouri State Income Tax forms (designed by sadists). Trying to download music so that someone can burn a CD or put it on the iPhone (I am music-download impaired.) (I’m also useless for trying to hook up anything to the television set, like CD and DVD players, receivers, etc.) Waiting extraordinarily long times in doctors’ offices, as in, longer than 10 minutes.

I could go on, but that’s sufficient for now. I need to get to the point.

My impatience is packed with a lot of things, unfortunately, like how I value my time, my expectations for how others are supposed to behave and my own sense of self-importance.

Occasionally, and I’m trying to avoid using “rarely,” I will stop and ask if there’s anything I’m supposed to learn from whatever is causing me to pace like my dog when he’s within two hours of being fed or needs to enjoy the great outdoors. Am I being taught something here (and I don’t mean being taught patience, but something more significant and cosmic, really)? Should I be looking closely at the situation to gain some profound insight?

I don’t want to think that I’m being taught how to wait.

On Sunday, I took a very small step on the road to patience. At least, that's what the road sign said.

After church, my wife and I drove to a local hospital, to see exactly where it was and how long it would take to get there from our house. It’s about eight miles, and the drive took about 15 minutes. We considered alternate routes in case the direct route was closed for some reason. We checked out the parking.

Neither one of us is planning a hospital stay.

But we are planning a visit.

We want to make sure we know exactly where we’re going in approximately five or six weeks. Because sometime in mid-March, there will be – a grandchild. A grandson, to be specific. Our first. The first great-grandchild in my wife’s immediate family. The first grandchild with the “Young” last name on my side.

I’ve been good. I’ve not pestered my son and daughter-in-law. I’ve not asked them a bazillion questions. I’ve not given them all kinds of great advice. Neither has my wife, although she did suggest that more calcium intake would be a good thing for my daughter-in-law.

We wanted to check out the hospital because, well, you know babies, they can happen at the most surprising of times. And we want to know how to get there for a visit. Or two. Maybe three.

No, I didn’t ask if the hospital had rooms for grandparents.

But I thought about it.

I’m learning patience.

For now.

But just wait.

There’s a One-Word Blog Carnival on patience underway right now, sponsored by Peter Pollock and Bridget Chumbley. To see more posts on the topic, visit Bridget’s web site.

Loving Mondays

Over my adult life, one of the things I’ve thought and prayed about has been work, and specifically, what it means for me as a Christian to live my faith in the workplace.

Some assumptions are packed into that statement. First, that my faith has a place where I work and in what I do. Second, for a Christian, work is a ministry field, and it doesn’t matter whether I’m a full-time missionary working overseas or a full-time writer or PR person working in a Fortune 500 company. The mission field is the mission field.

This doesn’t mean I preach in the hallways or hand out tracts in the cafeteria or corner people in their offices or cubicles and ask questions like “Have you ever thought about eternity?” That’s not me.

Instead, no matter where I’ve worked, I’ve tried (note I didn’t say “succeeded”) to live my faith. That is, I’ve strived to make my words and actions speak for my faith, or, more accurately, be my faith. Work is a gift from God, and like all gifts, there’s an expectation I be a good steward.

It hasn’t been easy. In fact, it’s been downright hard. I’ve tripped up. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve struggled with all of the contradictions and inconsistencies and failings that are the workplace, and that are me. I’ve seen the workplace soar with human achievement, and I’ve seen the workplace descend with a viciousness and human destructiveness that’s astounding.

The workplace is a lot like life because it is life.

Over at the High Calling Blogs (HCB), Laura Boggess is starting a discussion of Loving Monday: Succeeding in Business without Selling Your Soul by John D. Beckett. The book is about the application of Biblical principles to the workplace. I’m joining the discussion, and I’ll be blogging here on Mondays for the next several weeks about what I’m reading and thinking, and commenting on the posts at HCB.

Laura is one of the editors at HCB, and she blogs at The Wellspring. I did a blog post about her back in December. She’s a great, and faithful, discussion leader, and this promises to be a deep and wide discussion.

Read her first post on Loving Mondays.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Church Smiles

Church smiles grow,
widen until they
shudder, crack, then
founder upon a
rock of redemption,
flounder at the
collision of
Light with a
heart hurting, a
heart broken, a
heart darkened, no
longer hidden but
revealed, opened,
washed, cleansed,
My name is.
I am a.

Photo by nAncY. Used with permission.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Face on the Wall

I’m looking at a painting of a man who died in 1572. It hangs in the St. Louis Art Museum, near an arch in a hallway connecting the huge room housing the art of the Enlightenment and a smaller gallery for American art of the 19th and early 20th centuries. On a recent evening, my wife and I joined 16 others from our church for a walking lecture by a student at Covenant Theological Seminary.

The tour wasn’t about the museum’s collection; instead, it focused on particular paintings and how they represent the power of ideas in culture, and how they relate more broadly to ideas and events of the times they were painted, and to our own time. The theme of this tour was how ideas in the 19th century reinvented the world, and we spent most of our time with the Naturalists and the Impressionists. But first, there was this introductory stop in the Renaissance collection. And that’s where I wanted to linger.

The hallway contains paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries. The museum doesn’t have much from this era. And this particularly painting, of a man named Gaspard de Coligny, is very easy to miss, just another face on the wall. Other, more interesting (and larger) paintings are nearby. This one is a miniature portrait, perhaps 8 inches by 10 inches. The artist was Francois Clouet (1510-1572), famous for his miniature portraits of the French and English royals of the time, and most famous, perhaps, for a drawing of Mary Queen of Scots, not for this painting of de Contigny.

He was a handsome man, with ice blue eyes and a penetrating gaze, known for his integrity and his faith. He corresponded with John Calvin. He was a leader of the French Huguenots, a military man who led victorious armies and won a short two years of official toleration for the Protestants from the French king. He was named Admiral of France. He helped organize and fund settlements in what eventually became Florida and Argentina. More remarkably, he was an advisor to the Catholic king, and increasingly influential at court. And that was his undoing. He survived one assassination attempt, possibly masterminded by the king’s mother, Catherine d’Medici. He didn’t survive the second two days later.

On St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1572, an assassin stabbed de Coligny in his Paris home, then pushed him out of the window to the street below. To make sure the job was finished this time, he was beheaded. The murder triggered an outburst of violence against the Huguenots in Paris and across France that left anywhere from 5,000 to 30,000 dead. Persecution continued for years. Eventually, most of the remaining Huguenots departed for Holland, Scotland and America.

Their departure had enormous consequences, bad for France but good for the places they settled. France lost a major portion of its middle class, and it would reap the harvest of class injustice and hatred 200 years later in the Reign of Terror. De Coligny’s death was a part of the religious wars that so plagued Europe after the Protestant Reformation, wars that eventually led thinkers to look for something other than faith, something like human reason. And you follow the thread from there, from the Enlightenment to the French Revolution to Romanticism (“feelings, not reason, reign supreme”) to Naturalism and Impressionism (“my individual feelings reign supreme”) right through the 1960s and to our own day.

De Coligny was 52 or 53 when he died. His family survived; one daughter married William the Silent, Prince of Orange. His son and a grandson were in the French military, so at least part of the family remained in France.

I look at his face, the face in the painting, and I see the determined look of a man leading armies to defend what he believed. He was so well regarded for his integrity that a Catholic king trusted him, despite standing on the opposite side of the religious divide of 16th century Europe. He was intellectual enough to correspond with John Calvin.

His faith, and his integrity, threatened powerful interests. And they killed him for it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The 17th Day of Community: Kelly Sauer

This is how Kelly Sauer introduces herself on her blog, This Restless Heart:

“This is me, photographer, writer, wife, mama to two; struggling to be; every day desperate in need of Jesus; writing from here.

“I dream big, fall hard, live on grace, and change diapers.”

Several months ago, I came across Kelly’s writing the usual way you do on the web. You’re following someone, someone leaves a comment; you click on the someone’s link, and then find yourself in an entirely new world. That’s what happened to me when I clicked on the link to her blog.

She writes about her family – her husband Peter, young daughter Piper and new baby son Bredon. (She posted a five-year slide show on their life together this week.) She writes about her faith. She writes about her struggles.

What struck me about Kelly were the openness and the honesty of her writing. It is all right there in front of you. Some days I read her posts and afterward, I just sit, staring the computer screen, marveling at the beauty of the words and how she opens her heart.

And then there’s her photography.

She’s a professional photographer. She does wedding photos like you’ve never seen wedding photos, capturing joy and reality and romance. She photographs her children and Pete, and every photograph says “love” (it’s amazing how she does that). And then there are photographs like Good Gifts, photographs that blow your socks off.

So visit her blog. Follow her on Twitter. See where she and Peter and their family are going on their journey. You’ll find yourself signing up for the trip, too.

(In December, a number of us participating in the “Twelve Days of Community” - see the button at the top right - sponsored by The High Calling Blogs. The purpose was to highlight the blog or web site of someone other than ourselves during the season of Advent and Christmas. I liked the idea so much that I’m going to continue to do that -- highlight a blog or web site of a person whose thoughts and writing have had an impact on me and others.)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Next Viral Video is...Not

A short conversation on Twitter this morning:

llbarkat: @gyoung9751 thanks for the RT. Isn't that live-stream the coolest thing? Just think, you could live-stream eating your breakfast. :)

gyoung9751: @llbarkat Livestreaming my breakfast? Cheerios with sliced banana? The next viral video on YouTube!

I have a friend who works in social media for another company who is plagued by her boss. He’s generally a pretty good guy, she says, but he has one major character flaw, a flaw that affects her directly and has become like a millstone around her neck.

He wants her to create a viral video.

He wants her to produce a viral video that will put their company on the map and make the world love them.

She understands how viral videos work. She asked me what to do. Other than quit.

I had some suggestions.

Her boss could do a version of the Bud Light commercial, the one where the woman is collecting items for the clothing drive and offers a free Bud Light for every article donated.

Or her boss could dress up in a frumpy housedress, show up on Britain’s Got Talent and act slightly off, and then sing like the angels. And he could keep the dress on and go celebrate the Saints being in the Super Bowl with the rest of the crazy people in New Orleans (I’m a native New Orleanian, so I can say that.)

Or he could do a walk down the wedding aisle that looks more like a rock concert. Or learn to ride a bike. Or learn to sing opera. Or dance in the Antwerp train station. (And the Antwerp one was an ad.)

The fact is, no one who deliberately decided to make a viral video ever succeeds. There’s no explanation, no definition, not even some flimsy guidelines on how to make one. The would-be video producer is totally at the mercy of the people who see the video – they’re the ones who determine what does and doesn’t go viral. Think of social media in general -- it's not the people who produce content who are in control; it's the people who determine whether or not your content is worthwhile.

Viral videos are a combination of content, mood, humor, where the public psyche happens to be at the moment, and – most important of all – phase of the moon. Which phase, however, is unknown. And it changes, like all phases do.

My Cheerios with sliced banana has a better shot at going viral than anything anyone sets out to do deliberately.

Monday, February 1, 2010

“Every Breath You Take”

Thomas Rowe awakens on an airplane bound for Chicago. Nothing unusual for most of us, except Thomas Rowe died 24 years before in a traffic accident, leaving behind his two-year-old daughter Kayla. The man sitting next to him tells him to fasten his seat belt, and that he’s being sent back because there’s something only he can do. It has to do with Kayla – and the man can’t tell him what it is.

Kayla Rowe is getting married in three months. She has spent a lifetime missing the father who was killed. She’s spent the last two years missing Billy Harris, a young musician she met in college and whom she fell in love with. And Billy Harris, despite his musical talent, is going nowhere, because he can’t get over Kayla Rowe.

It’s obvious that Travis Thrasher’s Every Breath You Take is a love story. But it’s not the kind of love story you expect when you start reading it, and it certainly isn’t the kind you expected by the time you finish it. But it is many things more than a simple romance. A deeply satisfying story. A story about love and misguided intentions. A story about love getting derailed and set right. A story about soul mates. A story about a father’s love that is so strong that it reaches across eternity. A story about the love for music.

I was captivated. I didn’t want this novel to end. There are scenes between Kayla and Billy that are so real and so familiar that it’s like living your own first love all over again.

Thrasher started his writing career with two love stories, The Promise Remains (2000) and The Watermark (2001). He then moved into suspense, and has written a series of outstanding suspense novels, like Admission (2006), Isolation (2008) and Ghostwriter (2009), along with several before and since. Sky Blue (2007) might defy classification; it is a kind of combination suspense novel and love story that’s an extraordinary work.

And now Every Breath You Take. While all of his other novels have been published by conventional publishing firms, this one is self-published. It fell outside publisher expectations and, I suspect, he wanted to do this one entirely himself, because it is its own love story – Thrasher’s love story for his own daughter.

The love story about music is important, too. The novel’s title comes from a song by the Police/Sting. And there are a lot of references to Cold Play and other groups (I like Cold Play, although I know I’m not supposed to at my age, and I was tickled to catch all the references in the novel).

A final note. This was not a review copy. I bought it through Thrasher’s web site because I’ve read a lot of his other works. And I knew this one was going to be special. But it surpassed even my high expectations.

For more information on the book and how to buy it, visit Thrasher’s web site. And I give you my strongest recommendation to do so.

Every Breath You Take is that good.