Sunday, August 31, 2014

Dislocations of Faith

The Apostle Peter’s first letter was written to believers in what is now Asia Minor, or Turkey. We don’t precisely know what they were experiencing, but the sense is that they were suffering persecution for their faith. Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire ran the full gamut—from mild, to torture and death. Most persecutions tended to be regional or local, like the one Peter is referring to.
No matter how mild or severe, what persecutions did then, and what they do today, is to disconnect Christians from the familiar environment and culture they live in. 
To continue reading, please see my Daily Reflection today at The High Calling.

Photograph by Ken Kistler via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

The spirit said

The spirit said
to the bride come
to those who hear, come
to those who suffer, come
to those who lack, come
to those who show mercy, come
to the meek, come
to the hungry, come
to the pure in heart, come
to the persecuted, come
to the peacemakers, come
to the mourning, come
to the poor in spirit, come
to the sick, come

Come, the spirit said
come, to the tree
the tree of life

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

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Ten Books, Sort Of

It’s easier than the Ice Bucket Challenge, that’s for sure. Less wet, anyway. And less cold.

Sandra Heska King tagged me on Facebook. And it’s clearly one of those Facebook things. The question: What 10 books have most influenced you?

The easy answer (and the most Christian-ly correct one) would be to start the list with the Bible. And in my case, I would say that’s true. 

After the Bible, one book immediately – and I mean immediately – came to mind.

Although I think it would be more correct for me to list the authors who influenced rather than individual books (ask my wife; I tend to read clusters of books by authors I like).

Here’s my list, in no particular order. And I’ll stick to books. I’ll note at the end which one of them first popped into my head. (And the number of the books in the list are actually slightly more than 10.)
The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

October Light by John Gardner.

The Source by James Michener.

David Copperfield / Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.

The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes.
Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.

The Gulag Archipelago and The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

And the one that immediately popped into my head when I read Sandra’s Facebook post?

Don Quixote.

What about you? What 10 books would you say have most influenced you?

Top photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Where the text goes 2

No words for years
decades, no statement
no explanation the texts
left behind for years
decades, destroyed, buried
transmitted by mouth
imperfectly, parts omitted
forgotten, seeping
into the ground,
spilled blood.

The winds blows foe years,
decades, eons, the texts
forgotten, a few locked
in cupboards and chests,
covered with dust, waiting
for light.

One day

the sun rises.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Where the text goes

He wrote a poem
words on a page
words in a journal
he carried with him
a few words
scattered over weeks
disparate thoughts
varied inspirations
but falling together
in a pattern of birth
unexpected, unanticipated
pieces fitting together
lines adhering
to one another
forming coherence.

Photograph by Karen Arnold via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ambushed by “The Cure”

I didn’t expect to find myself in a book about theology, even one written in a popular accessible style. In a sense, I was ambushed.

Here’s how the story begins.

You’re walking down a road, and you see ahead that the road forks. Fortunately, each fork has a sign.

One sign, pointing to the left, says “Pleasing God.”

And the other sign, pointing to the right, says “Trusting God.”

You didn’t necessarily have a specific destination in mind, but you surely didn’t expect the choice before you. What you don’t know is where either will take you.

So begins The Cure: What if God Isn’t Who You Think He Is and Neither Are You, by John Lynch, Bruce McNichol and Bill Thrall.

The story takes on both roads; you’re not left wondering what you might have missed on the other road.

I suspected that “Pleasing God” was not the way to go. I was right, but not for the reason I thought. “Pleasing God” is the road to man-made religion, which is likely the most common form of religion in the world today, Christianity included. It’s the road that leads you to a room full of those famous paving stones; we all know what the road to hell is paved with. And the people in that room may seem familiar.

“The Room of Good Intentions broke and jaded their hearts, robbing them of hope,” the authors write. “It made them so sick they’re nearly anesthetized to believing life can ever be different. Man-made religion has beaten them down. Many are oozing with apathy. They can think of no good reason to try, they simply don’t care. Some of God’s most passionate, gifted, and dedicated servants are despondent along that road.”

And for me, it was so far, so good. I was cool. I understood what was happening, and what the point was.

Then this:

“These wounded express themselves in many forms. Some are cynical and smug, but it’s a cover. They’re self-protecting from vulnerability. They’re still articulate and insightful—they just now speak from the fringes of the arena. They’re bleeding from having risked vulnerability in a community that didn’t know what to do with it” (emphasis added).

Smack between the eyes. I thought I had been on that other road, “Trusting God,” the one that leads to the Room of Grace. Initially, it’s the harder, more difficult road. But it has a destination that matters. The other road doesn’t, with predictable results.

I pondered this. I chewed on it. Or perhaps it chewed on me. They’re bleeding from having risked vulnerability in a community that didn’t know what to do with it.

That could sum up a good part of my career.

That could sum up a good part of my experience with church.

I’m still pondering. Or being chewed upon. And this is only the first chapter.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’re just beginning to read The Cure. To see more posts on this chapter, “Two Roads,” please visit Sarah at LivingBetween the Lines.

Photograph by Bobby Mikul via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Poets and Poems: Meeting Edgar Allen Poe

A drunkard. A poet. An editor. A reporter. A military man. An orphan. A lecturer. The father of the detective novel. The Shakespeare of America. A slanderer and libeler. The husband of a 13-year-old bride.

And a writer. Above all, a writer.

We associate Edgar Allen Poe with 19th century gothic. His stories – “Fall of the House of Usher,” “Twice-Told Tales,” “Masque of the Red Death,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” among many others – are full of mystery, passion, horror, violence, death, and the supernatural. And yet his poems, especially “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,” made him famous in pre-Civil War America and established his literary reputation.

Questions and mystery surrounded Poe’s own life and death and continue even today – we may never know who left three roses and a bottle of cognac on his grave in Baltimore for decades until 2011 (alas, the “Poe Toaster” disappeared or died, to be seen nevermore).

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

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Geography of Church

I grew up in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. Churches were expanding in the western suburbs of New Orleans, and we’re began attending our church when I was 4. The church as brand new; it didn’t have a kindergarten so I attended an older Lutheran church closer to the city. In fact, my going to kindergarten was the reason my mother learned to drive.

There were no Lutheran churches within walking distance of our house. In fact, there were no churches at all within walking distance. The closet church was a Catholic one about three miles away.

I grew up associating church with automobiles.

When my wife and I were first married and living in Houston, our first church was six miles away, right in downtown. When we moved to the northwest part of town, we attended a different church, but it was still six or eight miles from our home. In St. Louis, it has been much the same: we’ve attended churches six miles, 21 miles, and five miles from where we lived. Our current church is about six miles, situated in one of the wealthiest communities in the state of Missouri. One family in the immediate neighborhood actually attends our church.

Our experience is not atypical. As a country, we are church-nomadic people. It is not unusual for people to attend churches miles and miles from where they live. “Neighborhood” and “church” are not necessarily connected. For most of us, they aren’t connected at all.

The question is, should they be?

Christopher Smith, John Pattison, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, say this: “God is redeeming creation place by place by gathering communities of people who, like the ancient apple tree, mature, flourish and livingly engage their neighbors. But in order for the good, joyous and freeing reign of God to leaven creation, there must be a commitment to rootedness, a virtue the Benedictines have long called stability.”

Stability. It’s a word I would not necessarily ascribe to my own church experience. We’ve tried. We’ve been members of four churches here in St. Louis over the past 35 years. At one the politics became overwhelming. One was some 21 miles from our house – one-way. We loved the church, but Sunday and Wednesday programs and children’s activities became problematic. And we were plugged into a community church that had connection to where we lived.

Another church was closer. We were members for 15 years. By any definition it was a flourishing church, and for the right reasons. That is, it was flourishing until a small group quietly decided that our church should be the next Willow Creek. The church almost wrecked itself.

We’ve been members of our current church for 10 years. It’s a long-established church, with a history stretching to the 1840s. It took a while for us to get plugged in, but we did. We found a good Sunday School class. We got involved. I became a deacon. And then the signs of change, eerily similar to our previous experience, began to blow. They’ve ceased blowing, but it’s been a very, very difficult time, for us and for the church.

The closest churches to our home – one a mile to the north and the other a mile to the south – are Lutheran and Episcopal. The denominational theology of the Lutheran church isn’t so different from our church; that of the Episcopal church is quite a bit different. Perhaps that’s the issue – denominations. The early church didn’t have them, although it certainly experienced any number of theological differences and issues.

I wonder if, in the context of community, how much do theological differences actually matter? I believe they do matter, but should I find out? Neither of the close-by churches may draw from the community, either.

But are we missing something important by commuting to church, driving past our neighbors each Sunday, just as they drive past us? And is rootedeness important? 

I suspect the answer to both questions is yes.

I’ve been reading Slow Church, and I’ve been devoting Monday posts to some of the things the book has to say. It’s well worth reading.

Photograph by Bobby Mikul via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ferguson: A cycle

Ferguson 1: The wedding

The wedding: I hear
voices , not bells
voices rising in song
joined in song
joined in rejoicing

Outside: war, armies
clashing, wearing
armor, not linen,
linen saved
for afterward

The wedding: ends,
we walk outside
into the destruction
of the darkness. We step
over the slain.

Ferguson 2: The wedding

We step over the slain
as we walk the streets
of iron rusting in moonlight

We hear the music
the music of voices, raised
the music of voices, raged
the shattering of bottles, alight
rubber ping of bullets in flight
the music of shattering glass
scant protection against the burning
the music of alarms splitting
the night
shuffling feet, running past
the slain

The bride and groom gone
the wedding party gone

Ferguson 3: The fusion of narratives

One: walking in the middle of the street
Two: racist police
Three: blood in the middle of the street
Four: police protecting
Five: convenience store robbed
Six: the media, just the media
Seven: Molotov cocktail in memory of the slain
Eight: tear gas
Nine: the out-of-towners
Ten: the pastors speak
Eleven: the media, just the media becomes
             its own narrative
             as always

Ferguson 4: He walks the streets

He walks the streets
of concrete and stone
singing in his words,
the words only he can speak,
understood by all
who can’t speak the words.

He carries a staff of gold
taps it on the street
keeps time to the song.

Wherever he taps on the street
becomes gold on the street
golden street

He looks for the temple
the temple in the city,
to stand in its courts
to hear the cacophony
of its halls and rooms
He looks to see the priests
and servants walking
ban and forth talking
back and forth  watching
the temple’s business.
He looks for the sellers
of sacrificial offerings,
baaing, lowing, chirping
in fear and anticipation.

He finds no temple
only silence in the streets
only silence in the lanes
only silence in the grand boulevards
and avenues
only empty courts
of the temple that isn’t there

He walks down the streets
to see boarded windows
empty sidewalks
burned remnants
signs and bottles left
for trash collectors
to gather
he hears no birds
a rat scurries in the gutter.

The white dove comes
hovers above the madness

He smiles as a white dove
settles in a tree by the street

Ferguson 5: Hope shimmers

Hope shimmers on the horizon
or perhaps hope is the horizon
there, visible a song flying
across the plain stretching
toward hope, the plain that
is not the desert but a promise
a promised land
hope is there
in the promised land

always there

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Fun Day with Nancy

Nancy Rosback, my online friendship with whom goes back to when, well, we were a lot younger, has been in St. Louis for the past couple of days. Last night, Janet I met her and her childhood friend Faye Fullerton for dinner at the Tavern of Fine Arts. And virtual friendship became face-to-face friendship.

Nancy in person is exactly alike Nancy online.

She and Faye visited the St. Louis Art Museum today, and then Janet I picked her up at her hotel. And we did what we call in St. Louis "the Central West End thing."

First, we went to the World Chess Hall of Fame. It's been in St. Louis for three or so years, and it occupies a former house / former business on Maryland Avenue in the Central West End. (The photo above is the exterior of the museum, with what is believed to be the largest chess playing piece int he world.)

The museum has three floors, and three changing exhibits. On the first floor is an exhibit combining composer John Cage and artist Glenn Kaino. The focus of the exhibit is a performance of Cage's Reunion in Toronto on March 5, 1968, in which 16 chess players (masters and novices alike) literally performed music each time they moved a piece on the chess board.

On the second floor was "Strategy by Design," an exhibit of the games and household items designed by Michael Graves. Graves designed a number of chess sets (among other games) for Target for several years running in the 2000s. Especially cool was a chess set whose pieces were designed to look like how the pieces can be moved on the chess board.

On the third floor was an an exhibit devoted to chess master Bobby Fisher, who wrested enough world titles from Russian players to break the monopoly Russia had long held on the game.

A small part of the Fisher exhibit
We checked out the hall of fame's gift shop. It's considered one of the best small museum gift shops in St. Louis, and with good reason.

After the chess museum we walked three short blocks to Left Banks Books, one of few traditional bookshops left in St. Louis. It's a local institution, and likely a labor of love on the part of its owners. It's managed to survive big box bookstores and Amazon, but it can't be easy. (Yes, I bought a few books. Janet wandered around the store. Nancy sat on the floor and read poetry.)

Left Bank Books has one of those St. Louis 250th birthday cakes sitting outside the store. Someone deemed it one of the 250 most important sites in St. Louis (others being Grant's Trail, Busch Stadium, the Missouri Botanical Gardens, the art museum, and so on).

Then it was time to eat, which we combined with the plan for the evening. It was back to the Tavern of Fine Arts, for dinner and a poetry reading by Richard Newman, editor of River Styx Magazine. He read from his just-published collection All the Wasted Beauty of the World.

It was a great afternoon and evening, and it was great to spend it with Nancy.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Not good biking weather

I sit near the door
man in tights
black Lycra shorts
my favorite jersey
yellow helmet tucked
under my arm
I sit near the door
waiting out the rain
my mind on the asphalt
I should be biking but
I’m not so instead I read
a poem or think I read
a poem or imagine I read
a poem, Luci Shaw perhaps
hiking a rocky seashore
or Wendell Berry walking
the woods and keeping
the Sabbath especially
in the rain
I don’t need trails
in the woods or rocky climbs
by the seashore, not today
anyway instead just a ribbon
of asphalt that replaced
the railroad tracks that
carried dreams then
but now the dreams
are carried only
on two inflatable tires.
It’s still raining.

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

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Laurie Kolp’s “Upon the Blue Couch: Poems”

Write what you know, the experts say.

As I sat reading the poems that comprise Upon the Blue Couch by Laurie Kolp, the thought kept recurring: She writes what she knows. These are the poems about a life. These are the poems about a life being lived.

And where is life lived? Where most of us live it. The car wash. The doctor’s office. On vacation. Working. Seasonally. Who is it lived with? Spouses. Children. Relatives. The people at church. And how is it lived? With joy and zest and fear and depression and laughter and tears.

Kolp’s poems address all of these subjects and themes, and more. But whatever she turns her eye to, you can be sure it’s where life is lived. Like in the title poem – upon the blue couch.

Upon the Blue Couch
Maybe I didn’t write a thing today.
Maybe I sat on this twenty-year-old
muted blue couch and did nothing
but think about the wear and tear
from move after move we’ve been through,
with washed over mars, the scars
of cigarettes and vomit,
having been passed out upon and puked upon,
a shoulder when I needed one
to cry my eyes out upon.
Maybe I remembered all the lovers
who have lied
sprawled upon its pillows
with hungry lips I’ve kissed,
hands upon thighs, breasts upon chest,
all to feel something better than
what was missing in my heart.
Maybe I dreamed about my husband
and all the time we’ve rued upon
blue obsequious fabric,
worrying about the economy we’ve fallen upon—
with curse words or whispers
sometime sat opposite ends,
sometimes hand in hand,
but always with a love
never to be crashed upon.
Maybe I recalled my babies
sleeping upon their daddy
sleeping upon the cushions
as they sought solace in colicky times
and I was too tired to stay awake,
my nipples having been sucked upon
and sipped upon one too many times,
their cracks a small sacrifice
for a lifetime of nourishment.
Maybe I didn’t write a thing today,
but this twenty-year-old blue couch did.

The blue couch is an artifact, and over the course of a life and its own life becomes a repository of memory. But more is happening here then memory. And it has to do with the one word that’s the single most repeated word in the entire poem. (See if you can find it without reading on.)

It’s the preposition, upon. It implies relationship, a physical presence, almost a kind of platform. And that’s what the blue couch becomes – a platform for memory, and memories, both good and bad.

Kolp has published poetry in a number of literary magazines, and is also an accomplished photographer. She’s also a wife, mother of three children, manager of two dogs, and the vice president of the Texas Gulf Coast Writers. She blogs under her own name.

Because Kolp writes of the everyday, she writes of the familiar. These poems and the life they paint are recognizable. We see ourselves in the poems; we share the emotions they evoke; and the life and lives they represent become our lives.

And we, too, find ourselves sitting upon the blue couch, sharing the laughter, the anger and the tears. It is our blue couch, too.

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