Thursday, January 31, 2013

Another Day

Trembling and gasping for breath, he sat up straight in the oversize king bed. Drenched in sweat, he looked wildly at the digital clock on the bedside table: 4:12 a.m.

The space next to him, the one that should have been filled, remained empty.

He threw off the covers and almost ran to Tommy’s room. The 7-year-old boy was sound asleep, breathing deeply.

He went next to Helen’s room. She, too, was asleep, and he touched her cheek. She moved slightly but didn’t wake.

As he reached Sophie’s room, he was breathing rapidly, almost out of breath, almost hyperventilating. Sophie was asleep.

The last room was 12-year-old Hank’s. He hurried to the bed. Hank, too, was asleep. He lightly touched the boy’s arm, but he didn’t stir.

He was still sweating. He carefully and quietly shut the door to Hank’s room, then leaned against the wall, eyes closed and breathing deeply. They’re all right. They’re okay. It was a bad dream. Another bad dream. But what was the dream? I can’t even remember it. What is happening to me?

He felt the panic rising again. Closing his eyes, he did what the psychologist had said to do. Focus on controlling your breathing. It’s a little thing, but it’s important to get some control, even over a little thing. Gradually calm it down.

He felt foolish. He wanted to cry, but couldn’t.

His breathing under control, and knowing sleep was as hopeless as so many other nights, he walked to the kitchen and fixed coffee. Cup in hand, he walked to the living room. Standing at the large window, he looked out over the back garden, packed in snow, watching the few lights on in the distance.

He was still standing, and watching, as daylight began to stream upward from the night, with the prospect of another cold winter day ahead. 

Got to get them up for school.

It’s just a fragment of a story, one I’m still playing with.

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

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Brennan Manning’s Fury

As you get older, your understanding of God changes.

It doesn’t mean it gets better or more insightful, but it changes. Brennan Manning knows, and he describes this change in The Furious Longing of God.

“So much of what was presented to me as real in bygone days, I now see as fictitious,” he writes. “The splenetic god of alternating moods, the prejudiced god partial to Catholics, the irritated god disgusted with believers, the warrior god of the ‘just’ war, the fickle god of casuistic morality, tut-tutting our little weaknesses, the pedantic god of the spiritually sophisticated, the myriad of gods who imprisoned me in the house of fear: I could go on.”

The closer he gets to death, he says, the less inclined he is “to limit the wisdom and infinity of God.”

When we’re 28 we know everything; when we’re 61 we’re astonished at how little we actually know, and how much less we understand.

Perhaps it’s the battering of life, or the decline of the appropriate part of the brain that deals with certainty.

What I do know is this: as I get older, I’m thinking more with my heart than my head. I understand that it doesn’t really matter who’s in the White House, or what the composition of the supreme Court is, or what the American Civil Liberties Union is up to. Not long term, anyway. Not in the grand scheme of things.

We are but a breath, a whisper in time.

What I am growing  more certain of is that God cares about the whispers. And more than that, he cares mightily for them. Manning talks about that might care in terms of longing, on fury, a desire for union that is overwhelming.

We don’t resist that desire. We can’t.

When it focuses on us, we’re done for. We can’t escape it. When it comes we have no choice but to give ourselves up.

This is terrifying. This is exhilarating.

This is humbling.

That fury comes upon us, and we are changed forever.

And we will never fully understand it. But we accept it.

When we are young, we question.

When we are old, that acceptance is enough. It is sufficient.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’re discussing Brenan Manning’s The Furious Longing of God. To see more posts on this chapter, “Fury,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


No warning, or portent,
only a slight movement of air
at first, birthing wind
forcing small droplets of vapor
together, into clouds
darkening, edged in gray
then blue-black, a herald
of destructive desire
clouds baptizing softly
then hard, tiny stilettos stinging
skin, tearing at pores
as the fury wraps around me,
offering not destruction
not violence or death
but love, ultimately.

I’ve been reading The Furious Longing of God by Brennan Manning, and his chapter entitled “Fury” put me in mind of the images above. More on that tomorrow.

This poem is submitted to Open Link Night at dVersePoets.

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

Talking about “The Tenth Plague”

Today, my friend (and editor) Adam Blumer is publishing  his latest suspense novel, The Tenth Plague. If you think the novel might have some connection to the 10 plagues visited upon Egypt in the Old Testament, you would be right. Here’s the summary: “Water turns to blood. Flies and gnats attack the innocent. Marc and Gillian Thayer’s vacation resort becomes a grisly murder scene, with a killer using the ten plagues of Egypt as his playbook for revenge.”

Downton Abbey it’s not.

Adam is the author of Fatal Illusions (Kregel Publications) and now The Tenth Plague (Kirkdale Press). (My review of Fatal Illusions is here.) A print journalism major in college, he works as a freelance writer and editor after serving in editorial roles for more than 20 years. He was the editor for both of my novels, Dancing Priest and A Light Shining. He lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with his wife, Kim, and his daughters, Laura and Julia.

We asked Adam about The Tenth Plague, and here’s what he had to say.

What was your inspiration behind The Tenth Plague?

One day I was reading the book of Revelation and came across 22:18–19. “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (ESV). My mind began playing the “what if” game. Would God really bring a biblical plague on someone who tampered with His Word? I chatted with a few theologian friends, and the plot emerged from there.
How does this novel compare with your first novel, Fatal Illusions?

Though the plot, of course, is different, the two novels share a number of similarities. Both are set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where I live. I like to write about average folks like Marc and Gillian Thayer, a pastor and his wife who face unexpected, even threatening, events. Of course, there’s another really bad killer who wants to do them harm, and their retired homicide detective friend, Chuck Riley, once again comes out of retirement to help them. I also like to weave in a historical event that somehow relates to the present day. In Fatal Illusions, it was the killer’s obsession with Houdini; in The Tenth Plague, an old mine disaster plays an important role. The past always plays an important role in the present—a running theme in my novels. Overall, I like to write about redemption: how biblical truth offers the answers to the complicated issues of life. Stories, like parables, present some of the best ways to illustrate biblical truths.

What was one of the most important lessons you learned during the writing of this novel?

The power of the collaborative process. I had a fairly strong first draft, but I was stuck. A novel editor provided a creative springboard and helped me see where my true story lay. Without her help, I doubt this story would have seen the light of day.

What part of writing this novel took the most work?

This novel required a ton of research. From an old mining tragedy to autism, from adoption law to anthrax, from pheromones to the Oklahoma City bombing, the research for this one required much more than I ever expected. I’m so thankful for technology and ease of access, thanks to the Internet. Without Google and so many resources at my fingertips, I’d probably still be researching this story. 

So far, what has been your favorite work experience in life?

During one summer between years in high school, I worked at a library, a book lover’s paradise. Granted, a lot of the work involved stocking shelves, but being surrounded by so many fascinating books and interesting authors was pure heaven. I was born a die-hard book lover, and I’ll probably die one too. 

Consider the qualities that make you unique. How do these qualities come out in your writing?

I love suspense fiction and history, so a blending of the two always seems to come out in my writing. In high school, I won awards in calligraphy; Gillian Thayer, my female lead, is into calligraphy in a big way (it’s her job). I’ve always been intrigued with how one’s past impacts his or her present and future. This is a recurring theme in my novels because it’s part of who I am. Now that I think about it, what I write is inseparable to some degree from who I am.

Introduce your plot summary and main characters. What is your favorite part of the story?

Water turns to blood. Flies and gnats attack the innocent.
Marc and Gillian Thayer’s vacation resort becomes a grisly murder scene, with a killer using the ten plagues of Egypt as his playbook for revenge.

When their friend turns up dead, Marc and Gillian put their vacation on hold, enlist the help of a retired homicide detective, and take a closer look at the bizarre plagues as they escalate in intensity. Meanwhile, a stranger is after the Thayers’ newly adopted baby. Will they uncover the truth behind the bitter agenda before the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn son?

My favorite part is when the firstborn son is revealed and the novel culminates in the tenth plague. This is the most suspenseful and action-packed part of the story, with several key characters in jeopardy. I had a blast writing it.

One of the main themes of The Tenth Plague is confronting and dealing with your past. What can readers take away from this theme, especially in a novel that deals with religion and death?

Both the villain and my heroine, Gillian Thayer, grapple with heartbreaking real-life issues from their past. But how they respond shows two very different paths. My hope is that readers will see the stark contrast in the context of biblical truth presented in the story. The bottom line is that God is enough, and He offers the solution to every problem of life. This is another repeated theme in my stories. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my latest project.

(Some content used by permission of
Kirkdale Press.)

Poetry at Work: The Best Job You Ever Had

You’re interviewing for a job. The interviewer asks you, “What’s the best job you ever had?” Employment consultants will tell you that the best answer is, “The one I have now.” But that begs the question, “Then why do you want to leave it?”

Job consultant advice aside, I can think of three that could tie for the best job I ever had.

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

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

Monday, January 28, 2013

John Donne and Marriage

Karen Swallow Prior tells us in Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, that it was poet John Donne who taught her about marriage. 

If you’re not familiar with the English poet John Donne (1572-1631), you will at elast have heard of some of his more famous liens and poems – “Death be not proud;” “No man is an island;” and “Ask not for whom the bells toll; they toll for thee.”  

Born to a Catholic family when being Catholic could be a dangerous thing, Donne converted to Anglicanism after this brother died in his prison for his faith. Donne attended Oxford and Cambridge. He was appointed private Secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, falling in love with Egerton’s niece, Anne, and secretly married her. Egerton, when he found out, was not pleased; he had Donne briefly imprisoned and provided no dowry.  

Eventually Egerton accepted the marriage, and Donne eventually found himself running in royal circles. King James I told him to become an Anglican priest, which he did, and served as royal chaplain until the King’s death. In 1621, Donne was appointed dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Donne’s poetry (and he wrote a considerable amount of it) is considered among the best of the metaphysical poets, a group that included George Herbert and Andrew Marvell. 

Donne was deeply in love with his wife. They had 12 children; she died in childbirth at 33. He had written a fair amount of love poetry to her, and some of fairly erotic, but he never wrote another love poem after her death. And he never remarried. Their marriage was an expression of their faith, and that expression included spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and physical love. 

Prior’s reference to the marriage ceremony in The Book of Common Prayer, which Donne would have been intimately familiar with, reminded me of something I did in my novels. I found a facsimile of the 1928 version while we were on vacation in Williamsburg a few years ago, and I read it cover to cover. A chunk of Dancing Priest that didn’t make it into print was the wedding ceremony for Michael and Sarah, the two main characters; it followed the Book of Common Prayer ceremony almost exactly. 

True confession: I used elements of Donne’s life in the character of Michael Kent. 

Come August, my wife and I will have been married 40 years. We have children and grandchildren. We manage to hide (most of) our gray hair. We have been times of plenty and times of need, fat years and lean years, good times and bad, hard times and easy times. We have been through life, and we are still going through life. 

We’ve now been married longer than my own parents, and almost as long as her parents. We have lived with each other longer than we have lived with anyone else, including our parents and our children. I love my wife as much as I did when we married. No, that’s wrong. I love my wife more than I did when we were married. I can say that only because of the grace of God.  God has blessed us in our marriage.  

His blessing hasn’t meant our marriage would be easy. But it did mean it would be true, and lasting fort however long we’re physically alive, and even after that. And it meant that we would be bound together as one. 

Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” was written to his wife, not when she had died, but when he was leaving on a trip. And I understand it. 

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
   And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
   "The breath goes now," and some say, "No." 

So let us melt, and make no noise,
   No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
'Twere profanation of our joys
   To tell the laity our love. 

Moving of the earth brings harms and fears,
   Men reckon what it did and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
   Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers' love
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
   Those things which elemented it.

But we, by a love so much refined
   That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
   Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion.
   Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
   As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
   To move, but doth, if the other do;

And though it in the center sit,
   Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
   And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
   Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
   And makes me end where I begun.

We’ve been reading Booked at The High Calling, and today is the final discussion. It’s a marvelous book, totally delightful in so many ways, and I highly recommend it. If you love great literature, Booked will take you back to high school and college. You can read the final posting at The High Calling.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Silver time

To walk with you
in silver time
is to know
a baby’s laugh
a first snow
a summer moon 

To walk with you
in silver time
is to sense
a softness shimmering
white sheets warming
an unexpected rose 

To walk with you
in silver time
is to see
the hand of God. 

Photograph by Anson Centeno via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Saturday Good Reads: Mario Frangoulis

In October, my wife and I had tickets to see Mario Frangoulis in concert in St. Louis. He’s the singer whose song “Luna Rosa” inspired the idea that eventually became Dancing Priest. We had seen him in concert a few years ago; we learned about the October concert about two weeks before the performance. There was one potential snag that might make us miss the concert, but it generally looked like a go. The night before, however, the snag snagged, and we had to miss it.

Amazingly, the concert was recorded for the HEC, and then posted to YouTube. My wife found it on Wednesday. It’s 127 minutes long, and I’ve now watched it all. It’s here if you’re interested.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Pleasantly Disturbed Friday

It’s been a while since I gathered up my “notes to self” and Post-Its and what-not, and had a Pleasantly Disturbed Friday.

The picture above is none other than Roller (Caden) (because he likes to roll) and Cameron (Dancer) (because he likes to dance). Cameron, unbeknownst to his mother, was hiding in Caden’s pop-up bed. Mom got a real surprise, and Caden, who was supposed to have been sleeping, remained unflappable when Cameron yelled.

We had the opportunity to babysit them last Saturday. Grandpa had a ball.

I mentioned last weekend that we had seen Les Miserables, the movie. I still have the scenes and music running through my head. And I’m still amazed at the quality of the singing by actors I didn’t know could sing. A friend at work told me all of the songs were recorded live, on the set and not in a recording studio, which, if true, makes the singing all the more remarkable.

Current reading: Hurt, by Travis Thrasher, the final installment in the four-volume Solitary series. He’s managed to maintain and increase the momentum of this young-adult-but-older-adults-will-like-it-too story.

Next up on the reading list: an advanced reading copy of The Crystal Scepter by C.S. Lakin, another volume in the Gates of Heaven series. These are the books that helped convince me to read fantasy again. The book will be published Feb. 15.

And on the Can’t-Wait-to-Read List is Adam Blumer’s The Tenth Plague. Adam’s first book, Fatal Illusions, was one suspenseful read. His new one will published as an e-book next Tuesday. (Adam is the editor who slogged through both of my novels, and he did a wonderful job.)

My Novel News: My two novels have been getting some attention. Pastor Ron Edmondson of Immanuel Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky, called Dancing Priest one of the best descriptions of relationship evangelism he’d come across; I did a guest post for his blog on where the novel came from. And the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a “Penned in St. Louis” about A Light Shining.

My Not-Novel News: It’s early in the process, but I’ve signed a contract with another publisher for a non-fiction book. I’m being deliberately vague; we’ve agreed on the idea and I’m working on a very extended outline, which will have to be accepted and then turned into a draft. If all goes well, it will be published late in 2013.

Finally, a picture of Roller (Caden) that I absolutely love. Taken by my daughter-in-law, it shows him peering around the corner of the sofa. Did I mention that I love having grandchildren?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Christian Wiman’s “Every Riven Thing: Poems”

I have a habit of writing down titles of books I might be interested in reading on yellow Post-It notes, and letting them accumulate until either I toss them all or transfer them to a single page. If they make the single page, I’m likely to buy them at some point.

In 2011, I scribbled Every Riven Thing on a Post-It note. I didn’t write the author’s name, but it sounded like a book of poems, or possibly a book by Stephen King. I looked to up on Amazon, and sure enough, it was a poetry collection; the poet’s name was Christian Wiman. It was written on the same Post-It note as a poetry book by Luci Shaw, which suggested there might be some connection. Or not – it couldn’t have been I ran out of Post-It notes and was conserving space.

I recognized the name. Wiman is the editor of Poetry Magazine. That is, until June 30, 2013, when he steps down to join the faculty of the Yale Divinity School.

I did order it, and then read it during the Christmas holidays just past. I didn’t know anything about Wiman other than he was editor at Poetry Magazine (and how I was often surprised to see some various obvious Christian poems make it into the magazine). But I found the poems haunting, sometimes riveting. They clearly spoke to an experience of serious personal illness, and a difficult spiritual journey. And they spoke of grace, and faith, and even hope. I made a note (another yellow Post-It) that said “find out more about Wiman.”

Within just a few days, the January/February issue of Christianity Today arrived, and as I’m thumbing through it I find a major interview with Wiman. Many of my questions were answered. I was so moved by the interview that I went back and read Every Riven Thing again. And knowing didn’t change understanding, but it surely enhanced it.

The second reading evoked the sense of a deep, deep silence. Not an emptiness, but a silence, a silence enclosed within a sharp wind, sand and

The interview was less about Wiman’s poems and more about his new book of essay, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. The day he turned 39, married less than a year, he was diagnosed with a cancer of the blood. One that’s incurable. According to the article, the essays came after the diagnosis.

I haven’t read the essays, but I suspect that, much like the poem of Every Riven Thing and what he talks about in the interview, they will be the story of a man who lived Psalm 23, and walked in the valley of the shadow of death. “Illness,” he says in the interview, “has brought a great urgency to my work. One speaks differently when standing on a cliff.” Yes, I will read the essays.

In the meantime, I will read the poems. Again.

Here’s the title poem, “Every Riven Thing:”

God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why

God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he’s made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into a stillness where

God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows
apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The 40th Anniversary of a Furious Longing

I’ve started reading Brennan Manning’s The Furious Longing of God. The Wednesday book discussion led by Sarah Salter and Jason Stayszsen is up and running, and we’re reading the Manning book.

And all it takes to pitch me backward in time is the first sentence in Manning’s introduction: “For two years, between 1971 and 1973, I lived with a community of Franciscans in Bayou La Batre, Alabama.”

While Manning was with the Franciscans, I was finishing my last two years of college at LSU, and crashing toward my own confrontation with the Creator.

Forty years ago, on Jan. 25, 1973, I discovered the furious longing of God.

I should be more precise: Forty years ago, I recognized the furious longing of God. It had been there all along. I had had occasional glimpses of it before then – taking my catechism classes in 7th and 8th grade more seriously than anyone of my fellow catechumens; breaking away from my Lutheran roots and attending a Baptist church late in high school; considering the possibility of Lutheran seminary when I discovered I was not designed for a pre-med curriculum.

The dance had started, but I didn’t understand that the different steps were actually a dance.

To those who knew me, especially at college, I did not seem a candidate for God’s furious longing. I was not attending church. I didn’t hang out with the Christian crowd in the fraternity. I was majoring in journalism – proof of my basic paganism. I was known for enjoying fraternity football-game parties, jungle juice parties, just about anything that had the word “party” in it. I filled my non-party hours with work – school work and my work at the student newspaper.

I filled up as much of my life as I physically could in the vain attempt to block out the reality of emptiness – mentally, emotionally, spiritually.

I’ve previously told the story of what happened. But that night, I came face-to-face with what I had been running from – my own sorry self, and what Manning calls “the furious longing of God.”

This is how Manning describes it: “the furious longing of God is beyond our wildest desires, our hope or hopelessness, our rectitude or wickedness, neither cornered by sweet talk or gentle persuasion…It cannot be tamed, boxed, captivated, housebroken, or templebroken. It is simply and startlingly Jesus, the effulgence of the Father’s love.”

That was it. Almost exactly. I was overwhelmed to the point of prayer.

And then came the next 40 years of honing, polishing, shaping, breaking, reconstructing. One day, I expect to see all this finished. But not anytime soon.

To see more of the discussion on this first chapter of The Furious Longing of God, netitled “Genesis,” please visit Sarah Salter at Living Between the Lines

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Coffee or cola, in half-light

She sits in the half-light, facing
the bed with its tubes, wires,
humming scanners, glucose
bags extended above, all
working or trying to work
in the general vicinity
of life, sustenance at least,
holding the cup offered
by the nurse, coffee or cola
murmured as a question
so softly, politely, and she
could only stare at the nurse
and then the bed, wondering
if he could survive the weight
and noise surrounding him,
unconscious but breathing,
and it seemed coffee or cola
had assumed an equivalence
to life or death and she couldn’t
choose, didn’t know how,
prayed that no choice was needed,
 so the nurse handed her
coffee, black, which sits
in her hands, turning cold
in the half-light.

At TweetSpeak Poetry, Seth Haines has a “Battle of the Beverages” poetry prompt this week, although I think he’s looking for something a bit more humorous than what I came up with. You can check TweetSpeak to see other poems submitted.

This poem is also submitted to dVerse Poets for Open Mike Night. The links will be live at 2 p.m. Central time today.