Saturday, May 31, 2014

I went to Smyrna

I went to Smyrna, my usual
sales trip, bringing with me
what I had to sell. I arrived
amid the cries, torches in the night,
soldiers dragging men, women
off, children taken, too, and some
too young left behind. What is
this, I asked my innkeeper, what is
this thing. Avoiding my eyes
he said, simply,
it’s faith. As he pushed the ledger
to me to make my mark,
his hand shook.
It’s faith, he said.
Only that.

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

Friday, May 30, 2014

Finding Social Justice Unexpectedly at the Department Store

Forty years ago, my wife and I had been married a little over a year. We were living in Houston, and I was working for a big corporation downtown. My wife was finishing up her degree at the University of Houston, and we needed extra money for Christmas, so I went to work as a part-time salesman for the Christmas season in one of Houston’s big department store chains, at its store in the southwest part of town (for Houstonians who might remember, it was Foley’s at Sharpstown Mall).

I was all of 23 years old, still a brand-new Christian. I didn’t know I was going to play a central role in what today we would call a social justice issue.

It wasn’t difficult work, but it was tiring – two or three nights a week after working all day and then all day at the department store on Saturday. I was assigned to the men’s clothing department. The Christmas help was paid on an hourly basis; the regular salespeople were salary plus commission. It wasn’t unusual for the salespeople to elbow the Christmas help out of the way if the likelihood of a sizable commission was looming.

I quickly learned the ropes. The department manager was the czar; you did what he told you to do. But the department buyer trumped the manager; our buyer was known for rather imperiously walking into our department and telling whoever was closest to remove that display, change that mannequin, or immediately replace entire sections of clothing. And then he would waltz out, knowing his commands were being obeyed.

All the salespeople, and the manager, griped about the buyer.

Early one evening, when we were in something of a lull, a woman by herself walked into the department. She was in her 40s, well dressed, and looking, well, really poised. I didn’t immediately go to her, because I figured one of the commission salesmen would, or perhaps even the manager.

I saw that they had noticed her, and then turned back to the conversation they were having. She was looking around, clearly wanting to be helped.

They glanced again, and continued to ignore her.

So I walked over to her and asked if she needed assistance. She looked at me, glanced over at the group of salespeople still talking, and nodded. “I need your opinion,” she said, “I need you to hold some things while I look.” I told her I wasn’t exactly a fashion expert, but I would do whatever I could.

She laughed. “You’re about the same size at my husband,” she said. “I need to see if the clothes should fit.” She looked again the salesmen, laughing at some joke. “Are you a trainee?”

“No, ma’am,” I said. “I’m Christmas help.”

She smiled and nodded. And then she began to shop.

She would pick out a shirt, study it, and then hold it up against me, nod, and hand me the shirt. One short became two, and then three. Then she moved from dress shirts to sport coats, and then belts. She fitted a belt around my waist, and nodded. She’d ask a question, and I’d answer. She asked me several times if I like a particular shirt or jacket, and sometimes I’d nod and sometimes smile and then shake my head.

After 15 minutes, with my arms laden with clothes, we were suddenly approached by the department manager, smiling and saying he would be glad to take my place. She looked at him with a cold stare, shook her head, and pointed at me. “Him,” she said in her soft, upper-class voice. “He will continue to help me.” And from then on she ignored him.

My manager was not pleased. He was even less pleased when I rang up the bill. It came to more than $800, and this was in 1974 dollars. One of the biggest single sales of the year, and no one received a commission.

I carried her bags to her car. She asked me if I would receive a commission, and I shook my head. “I’m paid hourly,” I said.

She laughed. “Your friends learned a lesson today,” she said. “They cannot tell the difference between what they call a wetback and someone who flies with her husband from Mexico City on his private plane.”

She smiled again, thanked me, and then she was gone.

I walked back inside the store, where my manager was fuming.

“How did you know she was wealthy?” he asked.

“I didn’t,” I replied. “She was just a customer who needed help.”

Over at The High Calling, there is a community linkup of writings on social justice. To see the other stories posted, or write one yourself for consideration to be featured next week, please see Share Your Story: Social Justice at Work at The High Calling.

Photograph: Foley's Department Store at Sharpstown Mall in Houston the late 1960s.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Eugene Peterson's "Holy Luck"

He’s best known for writing The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. (The Message was so popular that Bono quoted from it at U2 concerts.) He’s also written more than 30 other books. He was the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. In the words of Christianity Today, he is a “shepherd’s shepherd,” a guide and mentor to pastors who shepherd their congregational flocks.

And in addition to all of that, Eugene Peterson is a poet.

Over the course of many years, Peterson wrote poems and shared them with or gave them to friends and family. Two years ago, 70 of them were collected and published under the title of Holy Luck. The poems were an education in words, and what words can and should be. “I…learned that poets are caretakers of language,” he writes, “shepherds of words protecting them from desecration, exploitation, misuse. Words not only mean something, they are something, each with a sound an rhythm all its own.”

The poems are divided into three sections: “Holy Luck,” a series of poems based on the Beatitudes; “The Rustling Grass,” about finding God in the everyday; and “Smooth Stones,” the daily life of following Jesus. Not surprisingly, the poems are often from the perspective of the pastor, the shepherd, seeking to train, to educate, to explain, to encourage, to guide and to direct. They flow from scripture, often a single verse.

Here is “Tree,” taken from Isaiah 11:1 – “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, And a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

Jesse’s roots, composted with carcasses
Of dove and lamb, parchments of ox and goat,
Centuries of dried up prayers and bloody
Sacrifice, now bear me gospel fruit.

        David’s branch fed on kosher soil
        Blossoms a messianic flower, and then
        Ripens into a kingdom crop, conserving
        The fragrance and warmth of spring for winter use.

Holy Spirit, shake our family tree;
Release your ripened fruit to our outstretched arms.

        I’d like to see my children sink their teeth
        Into promised land pomegranates

And Canaan grapes, bushel gifts of God,
While I skip a grace rope to a Christ tune.

"Tree" is generally typical of the poems in Holy Luck, based on scripture, a combination of the personal and theological, with a psalm-like quality (Peterson says that the psalms of David were one of his early introductions to poetry). The presence of God is seen is something as everyday and common as a tree, in this case a tree that will eventually bear a shoot that signifies first David and then Jesus.

The poems range across human experience and daily life – a kiss, a choir, prayer, friends, hospitality, silence, beauty, snow, pregnancy, war, a candle, and more. They flow from scripture, and from the shepherd’s understanding of scripture.

These are quiet poems, some to be read aloud and some to be read silently, some to extend understanding and some to simply be in the experience of scripture, and God.

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

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

“Safe Haven” by Nicholas Sparks

Bestselling author Nicholas Sparks published Safe Haven in 2010, and it’s been sitting on my bookshelf since then, waiting rather patiently to be read. I have to be in the right mood to read a Sparks novel, of which there are a multitude. They’re generally formulaic (strong male character, often with a military background; love interest, complications, resolution), strong on romance, and easy to read. I waited so long to read it that they already made a movie of it in 2013.

The mood – one usually characterized by the need to indulge in some escapism – finally came upon me, and I pulled it from the shelf. Yes, it fits the formula, although this one had a twist. Sparks isn’t known as a suspense novelist, but Safe Haven has a strong dose of it.

Young father and widower Alex Wheatley runs a small general store in coastal Southport, North Carolina. His beloved wife Carly has been dead for two years, and while he’s managing to raise his son and daughter, he’s still dealing with grief, loneliness and emotional pain. And then one day, in walks Katie Feldman, new to town and working as a waitress in a local diner. She seems to spend most of her time trying to ignore Alex while she spends rather meagerly on food.

Alex is interested. Katie seems to be not. We know where this is going, we think.

Katie has a secret. Actually, she has several secrets. Katie is not her real name. She’s married. She’s the victim of wife abuse. She’s finally managed to run away from her husband, but she knows he will find her. She knows because his job is a police detective.

At first, she’s only able to confide to a new neighbor, Jo, who’s a counselor and, we’re led to believe, has counseled Alex in his grief. She certainly seems to know a lot about Alex, and she’s encouraging Katie to develop a relationship with him. Jo and Katie live in houses that sit by themselves on an isolated road.

Sparks weaves the recent past and present together, carefully building toward what we know will be a confrontation and climax. Safe Haven is a good story, although the resolution of the character of Jo is unexpected and problematic.  But the novel follows the author’s successful formula, and it definitely satisfies the need to escape.

Photograph by Andrew Schmidt via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

It wasn't a knock

It wasn’t a knock
but a pounding, shaking
the door. He sat, the pages
open before him, hearing
the vibration from the door,
an axe hacking at an already
fallen tree. He knew the time
had been coming, arriving
in thunder. He first thought
to hide the small cross
around his neck, the cross
that was his noose. Instead,
he waited for the door
to give way.
He heard the first splinters.

Photograph by Teodoro S. Gruhl via Public Domain Pictures. Used with Permission.

Poets and Poems: Ron Padgett and “Collected Poems”

When Ron Padgett was a teenager, according to his biography at the Poetry Foundation, he and some friends founded a poetry review – and he convinced Allen Ginsberg (among others) to submit poems to it. The review lasted for five issues. But still, not bad for a young man from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Padgett has published more than 20 volumes of poetry, translations of French poets (like Apollonaire), essays, and memoirs, and edited or co-edited poetry anthologies. He is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and was a finalist or a Pulitzer Prize in 2012.

In other words, he is a presence in American poetry. And now he’s assembled selected work from a lifetime of publishing into Collected Poems. It’s a hefty volume (782 pages of poetry, and then notes and an appendix). It’s also a rewarding volume, a fascinating collection of the poems of youth, maturity, middle age and beyond.

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

Photograph by Larisa Koshkina via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Can Poetry Help Us Understand Scripture? Part 2

This article was first published at The Master’s Artist.

Last week, I noted that I had attended a poetry workshop taught by poet (and University of Missouri professor) Scott Cairns. Twelve of us spent two days talking about poetry, and talking about poetry in relation to Scripture, and writing poetry, our overnight assignment: pick a difficult passage of Scripture and explicate it – using poetry. In other words, we had to write a poem that might help our understanding of the passage.

Much of that idea of explicating Scripture underlies Cairns’ Philokalia: New and Selected Poems. Published in 2002, the volume includes both new poems and poems from his previously published collections (he’s also published more since then). The term “philokalia,” or “love of the beautiful,” is taken from the collection of texts written between the fourth and fifteenth centuries by Easter Orthodox theologians.

Among the new poems in Cairns’ collection are five “Adventures in New Testament Greek,” in which uses the form of poetry the meanings of five words: metanoia (repentance), hairesis (heresy), nous (mind), mysterion (mystery), and apocatastasis (universal redemption – a heresy of Syriac origin). Here’s what he does with metanoia:

Repentance, to be sure,
but of a species far
less likely to oblige
sheepish repetition.

Repentance, you’ll observe,
glibly bears the bent
of thought revisited,
and mind’s familiar stamp

--a quaint, half-hearted
doubleness that couples
all compunction with a pledge
of recurrent screw-up.

The heart’s metanoia,
on the other hand, turns
without regret, turns not
so much away, as toward,

as if the slow pilgrim
has been surprised to find
that sin is not so bad
as it is a waste of time.

Philokalia contains far more than explorations of words; Cairns considers and examines all kinds of themes, divine and human. What the poems have in common is the use of a spiritual lens; these are themes and subjects best understood as subjects of faith, including issues we wrestle with and including the idea of poetry itself. (One poem, “Interval with Erato,” is a sexually charged poem about poetry and its inspiration.)

I have many favorites in this collection, but the one I found particularly appealing is “The Translation of Raimondo Luz.” It’s a long poem, and Cairns tells us it’s about “the greatest postmodern poet writing in Portuguese.” We learn he’s never left his hometown in Brazil; he’s self-taught, speaking seven modern languages and three ancient ones; he’s known as a radical theologian; he loves American rhythm and blues; and he’s an accomplished chef. And then Cairns tells us he is also a complete fiction.

That’s Scott Cairns – giving all of this extensive background and then offhandedly mentioned the person isn’t real, and then goes on to write a 10-page poem about him.

That same sleight of hand (or is it?) can apply to using poetry to explain difficult passages of Scripture. I know. I did it for the workshop.

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

Sunday, May 25, 2014

To love them

To love them is
to live him, often
the only way
to love him. To love
them in their anger,
to love them in all
their ugliness and
meanness, to love them
in their brutality
and hatred is to love
him. No one, not even
one, knew that love,
and faith, were
of the hands.

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

Friday, May 23, 2014

At the midpoint of darkness

At the midpoint of darkness
he planted a light, small
to be sure but sufficient
to burn, a defiance
against the darkness
choking the life it smothered.
The darkness laughed
at the impunity, even as
the light began
to tear it apart.

Photograph by Marina Shemesh via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Scott Cairns: Using Poetry to Explicate Scripture

This article was first published at The Master’s Artist.

In 2010, I attended a writer’s conference at Laity Lodge, in the Texas Hill Country about 90 minutes or so west of San Antonio. I had signed up for the poetry seminar taught by Scott Cairns, a professor at the University of Missouri, which is about 90 or so minutes west of where I live in St. Louis. I had previously read his A Short Trip to the Edge, an account of his pilgrimages to Mount Athos (Cairns in Greek orthodox), and Compassion of Affection: Poems New and Selected.

I was looking forward to the seminar; I was not disappointed (and I loved Laity Lodge). Twelve of spent two days doing something I’d never heard of – using poetry to explicate Scripture.

That’s the idea, or one of the ideas, behind Recovered Body: Poems, published by Cairns in 2003. Cairns uses poetry to explicate Scripture, and more than that, to explore poetry as a kind of Biblical enterprise. And it’s utterly fascinating.

The poems are divided into three sections.

The first, “Deep Below Our Violences,” covers a range topics – a line from a Wallace Stevens poem, the Old Masters’ paintings, archaeology, a rather erotic discussion between the poet and his muse Erato, the death of a father. The poems are characteristically Cairns, and I can hear his deep, slow voice now that I heard in Texas on a windblown patio near the Frio River. And I can hear that characteristic wonder of life. Here’s “Regarding the Body:”

I too was a decade coming to terms
with how abruptly my father had died.
And I’m still lying about it. His death
was surely as incremental, slow-paced
as any, and certainly as any
I’d witnessed. Still, as we met around him
that last morning—none of us unaware
of what the morning would bring—I was struck
by how quickly he left us. And the room
emptied—comes to me now—far too quickly.
If impiety toward the dead were still
deemed sin, it was that morning our common
trespass, to have imagined too readily
his absence, to have all but denied him
as he lay, simply, present before us.

In the second section, “The Recovered Midrashim of Rabbi Sab,” the reader is given an introductory warning about the rabbi, who has often been accused of “apostasy, blasphemy, manic-depression, drunkenness, bad manners. He has been praised for his compassion, revered—if not much liked—for his eager upbraiding of the pious.”

Then you read the rabbi’s “commentaries” on the image of God, sin, Lot’s wife, the sacrifice of Isaac, Jacob wrestling with the angel, Joseph thrown into the well and then sold, the death of Moses, Solomon and his Song, Jephthah’s terrible vow, Jonah’s imprisonment, and the exile. Yes, those accusations against the rabbi have validity, but his commentaries force the reader to confront and wrestle with the meanings of the Biblical texts being commented upon.

And I wonder if I didn’t hear a little of that rabbi down in Texas, too.

The third section of poems, “Supplications,” is devoted to New Testament themes – Christ in Gethsemane, the thief himself crucified who ridiculed Jesus on the cross, a beautiful poem about Mary Magdalene, and Jesus descending into hell, among others. The poem about Mary Magdalene, entitled “Loves” is simple and strong, and a memory, declaration and hymn all at once. Cairns subtitles it “Magdalene’s Epistle,” and it is written as a kind of deep, thoughtful and profound letter.

Recovered Body is a strong collection. Many of the poems were previously published by Chariton Review, Image, The Paris Review, and Prairie Schooner, among other publications and two anthologies. The poems, individually and collectively, provide a different way to look at both Scripture and poetry, as text and a way to understand text, and how to apply that text and understanding to life.

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

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A letter

He sent a letter, not
knowing if it would fall
into silence, not
be seen by closed eyes, not
be opened by fortified hearts.
He sent a letter, not
knowing if it would arrive, not
discerning if it would be opened, not
seeing if it would be heeded.
He sent a letter, knowing
there was purpose
in the sending.

Photograph by Randi Klugiewicz via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Poets and Poems: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and “Prussian Nights”

It was first job out of college. I was a copy editor at a newspaper in Texas. Turnover was high, and with a few short months I was No. 2 on the copy desk. One of my tasks was sorting through all of the stories from wires services and deciding what should be included in the newspaper.

One day, in late 1973, we received a notice from the New York Times News Service. A manuscript of worldwide importance was soon to be published, and it promised enormous impact on world politics. A few weeks later, we learned what the manuscript was: The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a detailed and documented account of life in the Soviet Union’s huge network of labor camps.

Solzhentisyn had emerged as a writer during a small sliver of freedom in the early 1960s. His novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich had been published (or approved for publication) by the Soviet magazine Novy Mir in the early 1960s (translated into English in 1963). Two other manuscripts (Cancer Ward and The First Circle) had circulated in Russia via samizdat and then smuggled out to the West. The Soviets were not pleased when Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. When the non-fiction Gulag was published in early 1974, the Soviet Union responded almost immediately by expelling the writer from the country. He made his way first to Germany, and eventually settled in Vermont, where he continued to write fiction and non-fiction and edit the next two volumes of Gulag.

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

Photograph by Nuzrath Nuzree via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Disruption That is the Sabbath

When we first moved to St. Louis, we lived in a suburb that had two large synagogues or temples. In fact, we were the westernmost of three adjacent suburbs with large numbers of people of Jewish faith. On Saturdays, it was not unusual see Orthodox Jews walking to their synagogue. In St. Louis society, this observance of the Sabbath set them apart as few other things could or did.

At the same time, Sundays were governed by state blue laws. Very few stores or businesses were allowed to operate on Sunday. Shopping malls were closed, as were grocery stores. As a result, Sundays were phenomenally quiet and relatively unhurried days.

Thirty-five years later, those notions of the Sabbath as a day of quiet and rest seem charmingly quaint. Our secular society has roared ahead, driven by frenzied schedules, the demands of commerce, and general “busy-ness.” We need those weekend days to get done what we don’t have time for during the week, and if we fill them with children’s and professional sports activities, entertainment, and yard work, well, the time is there to be utilized.

What happened to the idea of rest?

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

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

Sunday, May 18, 2014

I walked on Patmos

I walked on Patmos
when the man appeared
or like a man appeared
he knew me

write, he said
write what you see
write what is revealed
send it

are you prophet
are you priest
are you king

yes, he said
send it

we kill prophets
yes, he said
send it

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

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Then and now

He hung, filthy
he stands, glorious
naked, beaten
radiant, shining
pain, gasping
strength, roaring
voice, dying
word, commanding

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

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Visit to Impressionist France

Tuesday night, we went to a wine-and-cheese reception at the St. Louis Art Museum. The reception was for members only (they do member-only events on a regular basis), and this one included either audio tours or docent-led tours of the museum’s latest exhibition, Impressionist France.

The exhibition was in the museum’s new East Building, which opened last year and is mostly dedicated to contemporary art (lots of Gerhard Richter paintings there, which I generally like and my wife generally doesn’t). And what an exhibition it was – almost a century of French photography and painting, arranged by themes but all generally aspects of the building of France as a nation.

The exhibit is a joint project of the Nelson Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City and the St. Louis Art Museum. It was curated by Simon Kelly of the St. Louis museum for the paintings, and April Watson of the Nelson Atkins museum for photography. And it is a marvelous show.

We chose to do one of the docent-led tours, which started with a short discussion by Simon Kelly about the exhibit, French Impressionism, and the importance of photography to Impressionism. On the tour, our docent moved us to and from about 10 stops, focusing upon a particular painting or photograph to represent specific points. In addition to sharing what was clearly a lot of knowledge, she carried with her laminated photographs of the painters and photographers which she would pass among the tour group.

As we walked, observed and listened, I began to meditate a bit on art, and why it has come to be something much more important now that I’m older than when I was young. We’ve always enjoyed art and art museums, going back to a spectacular Cezanne exhibit at the Museum of Fine Art in Houston in early 1978. But it seems more important now, more engaging, and we try to include it whenever we travel.

I don’t think it’s just us. This seems to happen with age. As one gets older, one gets more interested in art. Perhaps it’s because older people have more leisure time (or disposable income). Looking at the crowd at the reception last night, I would say more were over the age of 50.

I think it might be someone else, too. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to see art as some akin to divine creation. Whether it is literature, art, music, photography, or other artistic endeavors, creating something “out of nothing” is something of a human echo of the original creation. Part of what it means to be made in God’s image is to be made in his creative image; it’s almost as if we can’t help ourselves – we are made to create.

If you have the opportunity, you should see this exhibit. We’re going back, and likely more than once. The creators of the works on display read like a history of French photography and art: Le Gray, Corot, Rousseau, Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne, Manet, and Morisot.

And I’ll try to figure out where they put the Gerhard Richters in the meantime.

Painting: The Promenade with the Railroad Bridge, Arguentil, oil on canvas by Claude Monet (1874), St. Louis Art Museum. 

Photograph: Adalbert Cuvelier, French, 1812–1871, printed by: Alphonse-Louis Poitevin, French, 1819–1882; Effect of Fog, 1852, printed 1855.