Friday, February 28, 2014

Reading Clausewitz

I was reading Clausewitz and Gibbon,
Tacitus and Caesar, Gallia est omnis
divisa in partes tres, and I heard
the legions, the sounds of marching
feet matched to beating hearts,
giving way to the barbarian riot
storming the gates, jihads across
desert sands, crusades and wars
of Christendom giving way
to an American Illiad.

My grandmother,
in reverent memory
of a father-in-law
she never knew
continued to fight
Yankees at every turn,
casting the occasional
suspicious eye at me,
wondering why
I spoke like one.

Photograph: Gettysburg Battlefield by Tim Emerich via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Wendell Berry and the Land

This post first appeared as an article for The Christian Manifesto.

Novelist, essayist and poet Wendell Berry is a kind of living icon for Christian writers and environmentalists, especially “crunchy cons,” those conservative Christian believers who eagerly and rather joyfully embrace an environmentalist ethic (and I would have to count myself among that number, at least to some degree). There are good reasons for his iconic status.

First, Berry is a fine writer and a fine poet. His work embraces a considerable body of novels, short stories, poetry and essays.

Second, Berry is a writer who happens to be a Christian, and his faith is not an obstacle for readers and critics who don’t share it.

Third, his writing is all of a piece, a coherent worldview and way of understanding the world. It is a worldview with deep roots in the American agrarian tradition, a reverence for the land and a reverence for the human connection to the land. And that reverence leads to what Berry sees as the contemporary “disconnect” between the vast majority of people and the land, the source of physical and even spiritual sustenance. From Berry’s book of poems A Timbered Choir (1998):

I have again come home
through miles of sky
from hours of abstract talk
in the way of modern time.
When humans live in their minds
and the world, forgotten, dies
into explanations. Weary
with absence, I return to earth.

A Timbered Choir contains some of Berry’s most articulated environmental views, as least as he expresses them in poetry form. These views are more pronounced, sharper, even darker in Leavings: Poems (2010):

If we have become a people incapable
Of thought, then the brute-thought
Of mere power and mere greed
Will think for us…
Those who use the world assuming
their knowledge is sufficient
destroy the world…
Industrial humanity,
an alien species, lives by death.

What’s interesting is that Berry does not articulate some concept of a return to nature, or “back to the woods;” instead, it is an agrarian view of small farms and abandoned small farms, with trees growing where fields were once tilled and planted, once-sturdy barns weathered and collapsing, symbols of a people disconnected from their ancestral roots.

Berry develops these same themes and ideas in his novels and short stories, and one compact place to see them all is in That Distant Land: The Collected Stories (2004), which not only includes 23 short stories but stories arranged in chronological order – not in the order they were written but in the order of the time in which they fictionally occurred. (Berry’s seven novels are included in the list to show as well where they fall in the overall story narrative.)

He tells wonderful stories, stories that are geographically compact. They are all set in the fictional Port William region, in Kentucky along the Ohio River across from Indiana. The stories explore both people and the land, and how they interrelate, and Berry writes with both humor and serious purpose. We meet people like Ptolemy Proudfoot and his wife Miss Minnie when they are courting and when they are an old married couple; Elton Penn as both a 12-year-old driving a Model A and a young farmer striving to create a batter life for both his well-born wife and himself; Wheeler Catlett, who “inherits” the care of his alcoholic Uncle Peach and later helps Elton Penn gain ownership of a farm; and Uncle Peach himself, who we meet in a drunken stupor in a Louisville hotel and eventually bid farewell to at his funeral. (Wheeler as a boy and Uncle Peach made new appearances in a short story by Berry published in the Oxford American Magazine in 2011.)

And the land – the land is always a character in Berry’s stories and poems, perhaps the main character. He writes about the land in religious and Christian terms, using words like faith, resurrection, heaven and Sabbath. “The land must have its Sabbath/or take it when we starve,” he writes in A Timbered Choir.

And, Berry writes in his stories and poems, we moderns, we “industrial aliens,” live cut off from the land, from our agrarian past. Because of that, we have lost something, not just our history, but also something of our very souls.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Waiting is Un-American

Which one of the following do you think is the worst?

Standing in line at the checkout counter.

Waiting for a web page to load more than five seconds.

A traffic light at rush hour. Or a traffic light when you have red and there’s not a car in sight for the green light.

The server to bring your check for dinner.

Waiting from the phone call from the Human Resources Department that tells you if you got the job, or if you didn’t.

The final month of pregnancy, for yourself or your wife.

Waiting for your teenager to clean his room, or at least wash his clothes.

All of the above.

Waiting, or patience, is not an American national virtue. At some point early in our history, the patience gene became regressive, and the impatience gene became dominant. The advent of the internet only worsened the condition. Remember the Mosaic browser and how it took to load a web page?

For the record, I checked all of the above for the choices I listed. I listed them from my own experience, and my own impatience. Although I should point out that the traffic light at Clayton and Brentwood roads in Clayton, Mo., the traffic light I have the pass through to get to church on Sunday, is a waiting abomination.

We don’t like to wait. None of us. Waiting is time wasted, and we have things to do, places to go, and people to see. We live and work at a frenzied pace, and we simply can’t afford to waste time – or have our time wasted. Especially by the traffic light when we’re already late to church.

God, however, is not an American. His definition of time is radically different from ours. His purpose in time is radically different from ours. That traffic light at Clayton and Brentwood may not be about wasted time at all, but something completely different.

In The Fire of Delayed Answers, Bob Sorge suggests that it has to do with the work God has planned for us. And the greater the wait, the greater the work. The Bible is filled with examples of waiting for what must have seemed like an eternity: Abraham and Sarah waiting for the promised son; Moses tending sheep in the wilderness (40 years!), the Israelites wandering around the wilderness (another 40 years!), David hiding out in the wilderness from Saul.

And then there was Saul, waiting for the priest Samuel to arrive, and finally doing what a lot of us would have done and said phooey on this, I’ll do it myself.

Saul’s aggravated “I’ll do it myself” response is one of the two typical responses to what we consider too long a time to wait for something. The other is succumbing to doubt, and then unbelief. Nothing is happening, so what was promised is clearly not going to be delivered.

We all wait for things large and small. Some of us are rich enough to pay others to do our waiting for us, but most of us have to wait. There is a purpose in waiting, and it’s not our purpose.

God uses waiting to prepare us for something we may not expect, something that will perhaps be even great.

I’m still trying to figure out the purpose of that traffic light, though.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Fire of Delayed Answers. Today concludes the discussion on the chapter “Waiting for Delayed Answers.” To see more posts, please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.

Photograph by Adryana Nicoleta via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

On the shore

He sits on the shore
by the sea, hollowed
out as he waits
for the tide to arrive,
the tide erasing,
renewing. He waits
as he sits by the shore
hollowed out.

Photograph by Dawn Hudson via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Poet and Poems: Scott Cairns’ “Idiot Psalms”

I met Scott Cairns once, in 2010, down in the Hill Country of Texas. Laity Lodge was hosting a writer’s retreat, and I had signed up for the poetry seminar. Cairns was our seminar teacher. I had previously read
two of his books of poetry, which I’d found in the faculty publications section at the University of Missouri at Columbia bookstore.

He taught our seminar like he writes poetry – quiet, reflective, low-key, questioning, gently probing. We sat on a terrace in cool September sunshine, on a bluff above the Frio River. We reads poems written by others, and we read poems we had written as overnight assignments. The experience had something of the liturgical about it, with the words, the coolness, the sunshine resembling more of a worship service than a poetry seminar.

Cairns new collection of poems, Idiot Psalms: New Poems, has that same sense of the liturgical.

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

Monday, February 24, 2014

Struck Dumb Coming Out of Work

It’s the end of the work day like the end of any other work day. Turn off the computer, pack up the briefcase, put on the jacket, turn out the light, and walk quickly down the hall to the entrance door in the building lobby.

I glance at my watch. I have, perhaps, just enough time to get ahead of the swath of traffic that will soon clog the southbound streets. A normal commute home is 15 minutes. Many days, however, it’s 30 and 40 and 45. If you hit the traffic just right, it will be the normal 15.

I come out of the entrance of the building and turn toward the parking lot. I work in a campus-like setting – buildings no more than three stories tall. The time is approaching dusk.

That’s when I glance up. And I am struck so dumb that I literally stop in my tracks, all thoughts of beating the traffic gone.

To continue reading, please see my post today at The High Calling

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The silence, listening

What becomes the obvious thing,
so obvious it is almost unnoticed
at first, is the silence, overwhelming,
so profound even the cows on the bluff
across the river are silent, even the
river below the cows on the bluff
is silent, even the birds flying
over the bluff and the river
are silent, as if creation
awaits God’s voice.

Photograph: Shaw Nature Reserve, Gray Summit, Mo., Jan. 20, 2014.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

C.S. Lakin’s “The Sands of Ethryn”

A king thrown into a trance. A power-hungry vizier. An evil spirit awakening from a sleep of thousands of years. The discovery of what looks like a tall tower, buried in the desert sands. Archivists trying to deciphering ancient scrolls. Add them together, and you discover C.S. Lakin’s The Sands of Ethryn, the sixth novel in the Gates of Heaven series.

It may be well be the best one in the series so far, and that’s saying a lot.

The central idea behind the series is the concept of gates – that from ancient days, heaven had established seven gates to keep evil in the world at bay. Lakin has constructed a story around each of them. In The Sands of Ethryn, the city of Ethryn has developed near the established gate, but it is ailing: the city’s river is drying up, and families have begun to move away.

Nearby an archaeological dig is underway, and a remarkable discovery has been made – a tower, a very tall tower, just how tall no one can yet tell because it is buried in sand. Palace archivists are set to work searching ancient scrolls to find references to the tower and possibly translations of some of glyphs carved into the structure. Then the king of Ethryn visits the dig site to see an uncovered altar, and when he touches an altar gemstone, he falls into a deep trance.

This provides the opportunity for the king’s vizier to consolidate power. He has tapped into an ancient source of evil, one associated with the tower, and it takes over his human form. Standing against the evil are Hashubah, the king’s primary archivist and keeper of the library of scrolls; his granddaughter Ra’daf, who is a young scholar in her own right but limited because she’s prone to seizures and blackouts; and Avad, an archivist who has grown up with Ra’daf and secretly loves her.

As she has in some of the other books in the series, Lakin plays with the idea of time, that characters can slip through time or are suddenly forced to slip through. The king in his trance becomes a young man in a village, who is forced to become part of the massive slave labor gangs building the tower.

With the right mixture of action, suspense, and a little romance, Lakin has written a compelling story. She blends the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel with a work of her own imagination, and she explores how heaven operates outside human understandings of time.

The Sands of Ethryn is not a simple story; it must be closely read to catch all of what Lakin has packed into it. It is, however, a deeply satisfying story, rewarding that close reading.

Lakin was the author raised my interest inw hat fantasy writing can do. She has one book to go in the series. I can’t wait to see how she completes the stories of the gates.

Related: My reviews of the other Gates of Heaven novels:

Photograph by Lynn Greyling via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Tim Stafford’s “The Adam Quest”

Years ago when I was in a Masters program at Washington University in St. Louis, my very first course was one called “Science, Creation Science and Pseudoscience.” It was essentially a philosophy of science course, and the heart of it was how science was defined.

A respected member of the university’s Physics Department taught the course, and while he made it very clear he embraced evolution, he spoke respectfully of other beliefs, avoiding ridicule and derision. What that allowed the students to do was explore and discuss science, evolution, creationism and related subjects without much of the heated rhetoric that often attends these subjects.

And I learned one definition of science that I’ve never forgotten: science is what scientists say it is. In other words, what constitutes science is determined by broad consensus among those who practice it. And when it comes to evolution, the broad consensus in the scientific community is that evolution is the explanation. It doesn’t mean that Charles Darwin was right in everything he postulated, but his basic ideas are still accepted by the large majority of scientists as science.

The church (speaking in the broadest possible sense) has a wide and varied history when it comes to human origins. The Roman Catholic Church long ago made peace with evolution. The response of the Protestant wing has been more diverse, ranging from eventual acceptance to ongoing rejection and hostility. In recent decades we’ve seen the rise of creationism and intelligent design (which are different despite what they have in common).

Tim Stafford, senior writer for Christianity Today magazine, took a look at the subject of human origins and how it’s addressed with the church today. But he took a rather different route than what might be expected – he talked with eleven scientists who also happen to be Christians. Their understanding of human origins range across the spectrum, from young earth creationism to full-blown evolution. The result is The Adam Quest.

Stafford doesn’t simply interview the eleven scientists about their understanding and work in the various related fields surrounding origins. Instead, he profiles them, and considers their families, their backgrounds, their faith, what they believe about origins and how they came to their understanding and beliefs. What emerges from this engaging and well-written discussion are at least two basic ideas. First, science and faith are not enemies. Second, the eleven scientists have more in common than they have differences, suggesting that faith can provide a common ground for very different understandings and approaches to the subject of origins.

The eleven scientists include young earth creationists, intelligent design creationists, and evolutionary creationists. They include:

·       Kurt Wise, who is a young earth creationist who studied geology at the University of Chicago and went on, with the recommendation of his professors, to study at Harvard under one of the most well known evolutionary scientists of the modern era, Stephen Jay Gould.

·       Georgia Purdom, who has a PhD in molecular genetics from Ohio State University and is executive director of the Creation Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio.

·       Fazale Rana, who was raised a Muslim in West Virginia, earned a degree in biochemistry from Ohio University, became a Christian through his then-fiancĂ©e and now-wife, and now expounds a positive view of intelligent design.

·       Mary Schweitzer, who was a Montana mother who wanted to learn about dinosaurs, studied under paleontologist Jack Horner, and turned the world of dinosaur paleontology upside down.

·       Simon Conway Morris, a British geologist led to Christ through the writings of C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield (the four men here being the “Inklings” at Oxford) and who accepts evolution.

Reading The Adam Quest is like an exercise in civility. And Stafford notes the eleven were chosen partially on the basis of the high regard they have for both science and the Bible and are not quick to condemn others who don’t believe as they do – something rare in this polarized culture live in today.

It is possible to disagree, and do so respectfully. Stafford knows what emotions can be provoked in the church on the subject of human origins, emotions that often lead to a “take no prisoners” mentality. And he suggests that this isn’t a positive thing, or even necessary. Young earth creationists may not be accepted by mainstream science, but they are not yahoos from the backwoods. Evolutionists are not disparaging spokesman against faith (Richard Dawkins and a few of his fellow atheists notwithstanding).

In that sense of civility and intelligent discourse, Stafford’s book takes me back to my course at Washington University. That class was not an exercise in polarized polemics and screaming rhetoric. Instead, believers and non-believers alike could come together, study together, work together and learn. No one lost their faith during the course, and no one came to faith. But we did learn to respect each other and learn from one another.

And The Adam Quest offers that same civility and intelligent discourse.

Photograph by Irina Pechkareva via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Taking and Receiving

The last two weeks, as I read Bob Sorge’s discussion on quietness and confidence in The Fire of Delayed Answers, I saw where the discussion was at least partially headed – the theological chasm that has divided evangelical Christianity for a long time.

I mentioned last week what a difficult time we had finding a church when we moved to St. Louis from Houston. We had been attending a non-denominational church in Houston. We were in our mid-20s, and were something of innocents when it came to theology wars. Sorge would say our church in Houston was in the “confidence camp” – the camp that emphasizes “the availability of God’s promises and power to those who believe.” We ended up joining a church in St. Louis that Sorge would say was in the “quietness camp,” which emphasizes the sovereignty of God.

“Camps” is probably the right word, although we never heard anyone in our church in Houston refer to the theological debate between the two. Later, when we joined a “confidence” church in St. Louis, again we rarely if ever heard about the debate.

The church we joined in the quietness camp, however, was anything but quiet. Here, the debate was a living, breathing thing. The confidence crowd was simply wrong. Flat-out wrong. And it was discussed a lot. Sunday School classes. Small-group Bible studies. Membership classes. Training for deacons (I stepped away from this training when the book we were using went way off the deep end about “confidence” churches; it didn’t help to be told that this was a standard, widely accepted text).

Our problem was that what we were hearing about the Christians in the “other camp” simply didn’t square with what our experience had been in Houston.

We had walked into the great divide in the evangelical church, and we were ill-equipped to deal with it. We didn’t even know there was a divide.

Sorge uses this discussion about quietness and confidence as a lens for a discussion about the kingdom of God. Is the kingdom something you select, or does it select you? And there it is in flaming technicolor: free will or predestination?

I am not drawn to this debate. I’m aware of it: I’ve read about it; I’ve even studied it. But it’s never drawn me in, on one side or the other. (I’m also not drawn into the debate over human origins; there might possibly be a connection.) Perhaps that explains why I can be comfortable in churches on both sides of the question, except when they go overboard (like our first church in St. Louis). I understand that people can become quite exercised about it, but I’m not one of them. (And this may well reflect my own Lutheran upbringing.)

Sorge turns to the words of Jesus in the gospels of Luke and Matthew.

In Luke, Jesus says we must receive the kingdom of God as a little child, and note the word “received.” That means it’s given to us; we don’t make the choice. (I hear cheers from the quietness camp.)

In Matthew, Jesus suggests the kingdom is taken, and taken violently (likely where Flannery O’Connor found the title of her story “The Violent Bear It Away”). Unless you think the two gospels are on different sides of the question, Luke also expresses the same idea of taking in “Seek and you shall find.”

So which is it? Quietness or confidence? Receiving or taking?

Sorge says that Jesus simply answers “Yes.”

I think he’s right.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Fire of Delayed Answers. To see more posts on this chapter, “Waiting for Delayed Answers.” Please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.

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

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Poets and Poems: Gwendolyn Brooks’ ‘Selected Poems’

My childhood was 1950s and 1960s New Orleans, during the last hurrah of segregation. I often rode the buses with my mother, who hated to drive into the city, and I learned area which section of the bus we were to sit in. The suburban movie theaters, smaller versions of the big palaces on Canal Street, had two segregated sections – downstairs and the balcony.  If I needed a drink of water when I accompanied my mother to the A&P supermarket, I was directed to the water fountain designated “white.”

Children, especially Southern children, didn’t question their parents. For me, the questioning didn’t happen until I was 14, preparing to enter high school. The schools in our New Orleans suburb had integrated the year before, with enough violence to require the presence of federal marshals and local police every day. My parents began to search for every option imaginable to avoid sending me to the public high school. I finally told them no. I was going to the public high school, regardless of what concerns they had.

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

Monday, February 17, 2014

Chesterton on Poetry

In A Million Little Ways: Uncover the Art You Made to Live, author Emily Freeman quotes G.K. Chesterton on the difference between poetry and reason.

“Poetry is sane,” Chesterton says, “because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion…To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

The first time I read that, I thought two things: first, it sounded just like Chesterton. And second, it appeared to be a salvo in the religion versus science debate. But on reflection, I don’t think it’s that at all. In fact, it makes perfectly good sense.

I just finished reading The Adam Quest by Tim Stafford, in which he profiles 11 scientists exploring human origins who also happen to be Christians. The 11 cross the range of understanding, from ardent creationists to equally ardent evolutionists. But whether it was Stafford’s unstated intention or not, they all sounded more like poets than they did what we think of as scientists. None of them sounded like someone seeking “to get the heavens into his head” (and not all were male, I should note).

What I think Chesterton is actually contrasting here is faith and reason, and he is putting the poets, and poetry, on the faith side of the ledger. The fact is that we, as the general mass of humanity, will never actually be able to “know everything.” Poets understand this, have made peace with it, and are comfortable floating in that “infinite sea.”

Those Chesterton calls logicians are not comfortable with this. They reject the notion of the infinite, replacing it with the “finite if not yet known.” They are confident all can be and will be made known.

It occurs to me that this may be another way of saying that logicians seek to understand and control, while poets seek to understand and accept. This is not an argument against science; far from it. But it is an argument against a certain kind of philosophy and belief, one that often shows up in the workplace. It includes the notion that we can control everything that happens in our work environment.

Freeman considers this idea of Chesterton’s, and recognizes there’s more to it than a surface reading (and I’ve only touched upon it here). She suggests we become comfortable with the idea of floating upon the infinite sea, and “show up within your limits.” Know yourself. Show up human. Show up authentic because, ultimately, it is our only choice.

“Showing up where you are with what you have is all you can do,” Freeman says.

The rest is pretense, and possibly self-deception.

Over at The High Calling, we’re discussing A Million Little Ways. Today’s post will be live at 2 p.m. Central time. Please visit to see what others are saying about the chapters on showing up, waiting, and offering.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Ruins on a hill

The temple, a ruin, stands
stark, still, at the top
of the hill, gazing
down at the ocean
below. A small affair,
it lacks the majesty
and presence of Diana
or Athena or Aphrodite,
or Zeus, or the Coliseum
or the Forum. Instead,
its intimacy invites presence
and attendance, the broken
columns offering an embrace.
The floor’s eroded mosaic
still bears the outline
of a fish.

Photograph by Graham Ridgewell via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, February 14, 2014

I remember

For Janet Young

I remember an album
            Father hear your children call
            Humbly at your feet we fall
            Prodigals confessing all
            We beseech thee – hear us!
I remember flowers, and photographs
            of flowers.
I remember snow, a mere half-inch,
            the third snow I’d ever seen
            each a mere half-inch
            each filled with magic, wonder
            but nothing like the third.
I remember sitting on a curb, trying
            to avoid your waiting
bus ride north
            my waiting car drive west
I remember the phone bill Ma Bell
frowned upon, demanding
immediate payment before
it was due
I remember driving north with the dog,
            leaving near midnight to drive
            five hours in the night arriving
not long before dawn to go back almost
the same way, the same time
I remember, always remember,
            the time becoming we,
            becoming us, the first valentine
            signifying what was to come.

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