Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: The Poem in the Dentist's Chair

Tuesday, I was at the dentist for a temporary crown. I should have been there 90 minutes tops; the hard work had been down the previous week. But because my teeth have a will of their own, and for a few other, unexpected reasons, I was in the dentist’s chair for four hours, four hours of alternating intense work on my mouth and waiting.

So, I wrote a poem, the one I posted yesterday, “Once a Place.” Six handwritten drafts, redrafts and edits, all done while my mouth and sinuses felt like numbed cotton. The idea had been in my head, prompted by a photograph of me at 5 years old on my new Christmas bike. (It was red, with plastic streamers coming out of the handle bars.) I found the picture, one of many, in an envelope from a cousin in Shreveport; the photos all belonged to my grandmother and had been sitting for years in the accumulations of the long life she lived. (My family is Southern; we get around to doing things like cleaning out relatives’ estates when we get around to it.) (My grandmother died in 1984.)

I’ll likely write about some of the photos another time; quite a few of them are pictures of my father as a little boy in the early 1920s. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine my father as a child, but there’s the photographic evidence. And he looks a little like me but a lot like my younger brother; the resemblance is almost uncanny.

I found that picture of me on the new bike, and began to consider that only two years before that picture was taken, that front yard was part of a shallow swamp. Somehow, bike and swamp connected in the dentist chair, and thus the poem.

A poem in the dentist’s chair: for me, a kind of mixed metaphor summarizing 2009.

I rediscovered poetry this year, in terms of reading it; I discovered it, or perhaps it discovered me, in terms of writing it. And now I help edit an online poetry journal called TweetSpeak Poetry.

I had never had a broken bone in my life; this year, I had four – ribs, to be precise, courtesy of a bike crash (and no one blame except myself). The upside of spending my first night in the hospital since 1974: I read L.L. Barkat’s Stone Crossings straight through in the dark hours of a summer morning.

I started this blog in March, and I’m awed by the people I’ve met because of it, the talented, gifted people who share their gifts for stories, for humor, for art, for encouragement, for a good rant, for unorthodox and off-the-wall thinking, for faith, for life. I’ve learned about farm life in ways I never could by simply reading news stories. I’ve followed the progress of a pregnant mother through to the birth of her son, and how she managed a toddler in the meantime. I’ve seen one friend publish a book of poems and another get a contract for a novel for publication next year, and got to share in the joy and excitement of both of those achievements.

I’ve found new friends, so many that I’m still surprised. I’ve found and been edited by good editors, who are so good that I don’t mind being edited by them for guest blogs posts and online articles because they’re improve what I write. (I do mind being edited by people who don’t make improvements but are doing other things, like promoting agendas.) I’ve read stories that made me laugh out loud and stories that brought tears to my eyes.

I led a team at work that accomplished extraordinary things, achieving things no one thought possible. It was amazing to be a small part of that.

My wife and I learned that, come March, we’re going to be grandparents. A whole new chapter of life is starting.

I read a few outstanding books, a lot of good books and a few not-so-good books. I was introduced to a a genre of writing called something like Stephen-King-like-Christians-horror-suspense-scare-your-socks-off. And the debate that’s continuing to grow about what is, isn’t and perhaps should be “Christian fiction.” I learned that if you write a review of a book, and you’re honest about your reaction to it, you better be prepared for the imperial storm troopers to attack.

I learned the kindness of strangers in comments on blog posts, both my own posts and those of others.

So yes, 2009 was, for me, a lot like a poem written in the dentist’s chair. And I’m grateful for all of it.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Once A Place

Once a place of water
moccasins sleeping lightly
and gators and lizards
watching quietly
beneath ramrod straight
cypress trees
and lazy
swamp ferns, swaying in the
slightest wind.

A boy of five sits on
his Christmas bike, blinking,
smiling as the camera
shutters a permanence
of time, of moment;
the boy of
five, silently plotting to
turn four wheels
into two.

The man remembers the boy,
the place, the day four wheels
became two and the boy flew
down the sidewalk
into sunlight,
past where the gators
and lizards had watched
quietly and the snakes had slept
lightly with open eyes.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Disciple

“The disciple whom Jesus loved.”

The first time we read the reference, we smile. The way that the Apostle John describes himself is actually rather charming. He doesn’t use his own name or refer to himself as “I” or “me;’ instead, he uses that phrase: “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” a recognition of whom Jesus was and what he did, and what he did for John. We read it, we nod, we agree with the sentiment, and then we go on.

Maybe we should stop and reconsider.

I love reading John’s gospel, possibly because it was the first thing I read after becoming a Christian. I return to it again and again, because of its personality and because it seems so personal, and because John always seems so astounded by what he’s writing about. He brings a sense of wonder and the miraculous to the gospel story. It’s no coincidence that John’s gospel is often the first thing recommended for new believers to read.

And there’s that phrase he uses to describe himself – “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” It’s attention-grabbing, especially for a new believer, likely because you don’t know immediately who the disciple is. And John doesn’t actually say until the very final verses of the gospel.

He uses the phrase five times (13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7 and 21:20). What I find striking now, some decades after becoming a new believer, are the contexts in which the phrase is used – always in association with someone else – four times with Peter and one with Mary, and all five with Jesus (including the one at the empty tomb). John asks a question of Jesus on behalf of Peter; he’s given responsibility for Mary by Jesus; he’s running to the tomb of Jesus with Peter after being told by Mary Magdalene that the tomb was empty; he recognizes the resurrected Jesus while fishing with Peter and the other disciples; and he dispels a rumor that starts when Jesus “reverses” Peter’s three denials into an affirmation of ministry.

In other words, John doesn’t use the phrase only to describe his relationship with Jesus. He does that, of course, but he also uses it to describe himself, his relationship with Jesus, in the company of others.

To be a disciple, to experience the love of Christ, is not just a “me” thing.

Wanted more than pull of net, more
than straining of moving
weight, more than the
iron smell of fish.

Wanted more than pierced
blues of mirrors reflecting,
glistening from the sea. Wanted
not reflections but sun.

Then voice, eyes, call touching
inside my soul, icing my
heart like mountain snow.
Chose us, twelve.

Did not know the
disciples he loved until
the day of death

(To see other posts on the word “love,” visit the blog carnival at

Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping”

Some years back (pre-Netflix so it must have been Blockbuster, most likely about 1995 or so), we rented a movie called “Housekeeping.” It had been originally released in 1987, but we didn’t see it at the time, most likely because the release was limited. It’s an odd, quirky kind of movie; I liked it when we watched it but I have a tendency to like odd, quirky kind of movies. It starred Christine Lahti in the lead role, and she’s an actress and director known for independent films. She also played Dr. Kathryn Austin in the TV series Chicago Hope from 1994 to 1995, and she won an Academy Award for the short film she directed, Lieberman in Love (1995).

So I watched it, liked it, and forgot about it, except for one scene in the movie – a train crossing a lake on a bridge, and the train goes off the tracks. For whatever reason, that scene stuck in my head, and would arise occasionally, especially when I’d read in the newspaper about train wrecks.

Fast forward to 2009.

I read an interview with Marilynne Robinson about her new novel, Home (2008), and I’m intrigued enough to order it. But before I do, I decide I want to read her two earlier novels first – Housekeeping (1980), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and Gilead (2004), which won the Pulitzer Prize. So I start with Housekeeping. I don’t make the connection with the movie; there’s nothing on the paperback cover to even suggest it had been made a movie (you know, the old “Now a major motion picture” or some variation on that theme, as if Hollywood made anything else other than “major” motion pictures).

Ten pages into the novel, I discover my train wreck scene from the movie. And I realize I’m reading the work on which the movie was based. I remember enough of the movie to connect it to Christine Lahti and I remember how it ends. But the writing is so good I don’t care that I know what the ending is going to be. In fact, knowing the ending allowed me to enjoy each and every line of the writing, and the writing is extraordinary.

The novel is set in a small town called Fingerbone, Idaho (Robinson was born and raised in a small town in Idaho). A woman raises three daughters alone after her husband dies in a train wreck (yes, the train wreck of my memory). One daughter goes off to China to be a missionary and is never heard from again; a second marries and moves to Seattle but doesn’t stay in touch with the family; and the third drifts away, becoming something of a hobo. Life goes on until the second daughter, abandoned by her husband, returns to Fingerbone, sits her two little girls on her mother’s front porch, and drives her car over a cliff.

The story centers on the two little girls, Ruthie and Lucille, and is in fact narrated by Ruthie. They’re raised for a few years by their grandmother, than two elderly aunt-in-laws, and finally Sylvie, their youngest aunt and the one who returns from a life on the rails to take care of the girls. Sylvie is all things odd. She serves dinner in the dark; she wanders a lot; she walks out on to the train bridge over the lake; she comes home from her walks with fish in her pockets.

This is a story about many things – family, small towns – but it is also about the impermanence of life: the death of the girls’ grandfather in the train wreck; the disappearance of aunts; the abandonment of a father and the suicide of a mother; the periodic flooding of the town; and Sylvie herself, the quintessential model of impermanence. The two girls, drawn closely together by their circumstances, eventually take what seems to be two very different paths in reaction to that impermanence. One will reject it and one will embrace it but both are shaped and defined by it.

Robinson is a member of the permanent faculty of the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. She’s also a Christian. That is another way to read this novel, which has no direct references to church, religion or God anywhere in it, but seems suffused by the gospel message.

Sunday, December 27, 2009



Begins in the seed of silence,
the quiet of the darkness before
dawn, as night
whimpers, finally, into day; when for
a moment of fragile stillness
night and day become one, when
a death and a birth exist
as a life;
a life.

Within the seed, the intended
destruction of the quiet, the
silence to be wiped away. The
seed erupts, the warm birth
shedding death’s cold grip, its
absence, its emptiness. The
seed bursts from its husk,
becoming a faith;
a faith.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Christmas Curmudgeon

Author John Mortimer (1923-2009)died earlier this year. He produced a considerable number of plays, screen plays, radio plays and novels, and managed a full-time legal career as well. But his legacy, what he will be remembered for, is the Horace Rumpole stories.

Rumpole of the Bailey. Quoter of Worsdworth and Shakespeare. Smoker of smelly cigars. Husband of She Who Must Be Obeyed. Sipper of the occasional glass of Chateau Thames Embankment. Defender of presumed innocence until proven guilty. Hero of the Penge Bungalow Murders. Curmudgeon Extraordinaire.

I love the Rumpole stories. I first met him on PBS Mystery, played by Leo McKern, the Australian actor who came to be identified with Rumpole. McKern died in 2002. And now Rumpole’s creator is gone as well.

But Rumpole lives on, in A Rumpole Christmas, a delightful collection of five stories published in magazines and newspapers over the past 12 years.

In “Rumpole and Father Christmas,” our barrister meets an old friend (of sorts) playing Father Christmas at the office holiday party. Meets him, that is, as he’s returning things he stole during the party. In “Rumpole’s Slimmed-Down Christmas,” Rumpole’s wife Hilda has booked them at a health farm during the holidays – and Rumpole finds himself defending the owner of the health farm against a charge of murder. In “Rumpole and the Boy,” he finds himself the object of admiration of a boy who wants to be a barrister just like him. “Rumpole and the Old Familiar Faces” shows how the old British holiday tradition of a pantomime can unravel the best-laid plans to frame someone for a crime they didn’t commit. And in “Rumpole and the Christmas Break,” Horace is defending a Muslim student accused of murdering a professor – and wondering what his wife is up to with Justice Graves (the Gravestone, as Rumpole calls him).

These are all vintage Rumpole stories – well done, charming, funny, and just the right amount of Mortimer’s pointed and insightful wit.

Friday, December 25, 2009

For to Us a Child: Isaiah 9:2-7

“The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.

“You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice in the harvest,
as men rejoice
when dividing the plunder.

“For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them.
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.

“Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.

“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

“Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom;
establishing it and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
Will accomplish this.”

(Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.)

(Painting of Bethlehem, copyright Cinnamon/ Used with permission.)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Giving of a Name

In the gospel of St. Matthew (1:18-23), Joseph, shocked and likely reeling from the news of Mary’s pregnancy, and confronted with the evidence that she had obviously been unfaithful, determines to divorce her, but quietly. It says a lot about the man and his regard for Mary. He didn’t rant and rave and react with outrage. He didn’t make a scene. Instead, he determined upon a quiet course.

Then he has the dream, and the angel tells him what really happened.

Rereading this passage, I’m struck by what I’ve always missed about it. I’ve focused on the result of the dream – Joseph listens, accepts Mary and takes her as his wife. How many times have I read this, and yet I missed something, something I think is important.

And it’s about names. In the dream, the angel does a lot of naming.

The angel calls Joseph by name, and calls him the “son of David,” indicating his heritage, yes, but also an indication of one of the names of Jesus. In other words, the angel was identifying Joseph with the child Mary was carrying, even if that would only become obvious later.

The angel names Mary, and tells Joseph not be afraid of taking her home as his wife.

The angel names the father of the child – God, working through the Holy Spirit.

Then the angel tells Joseph that he, Joseph, will give the child the name Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus, as my Study Bible points out, is the Greek form of Joshua, which means “the Lord saves.”

Finally, in verse 23, Matthew writes that all of this happened to fulfill what the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah, that the virgin would be with child and give birth to a son, and they will call him “Immanuel, which means, ‘God with us.’” More naming.

But the naming that struck me was that the angel tells Joseph that he will name the child Jesus. This wouldn’t have been news to Mary; the angel had told her at the beginning that she was to name the child Jesus. But the angel didn’t explain why to Mary -- according to the gospel of St. Luke, the angel only said what the child would be. But Joseph was told why the name would be Jesus – because he would save the people from their sins. The angel spelled it out for Joseph.

It was the practice at the time that a son’s name was given at circumcision when the child was eight days old, with the father likely announcing the name. But here the angel is telling Joseph what the name is, telling him that he is to give the name, and essentially telling Joseph that he’s responsible for both Mary and the child – that Joseph would be this child’s earthly father, that just as Mary had been chosen to give birth to this child, Joseph had been chosen to be his father.

And what did Joseph do? He took Mary as his wife, he had no union with her until she gave birth, and he named the child Jesus.

He listened. He did what he was told to do by the angel. He honored Mary and the child. He honored God.

He named the child, like any father did at the time. Like Mary, Joseph accepted the responsibility he’d been given. His obedience was just as striking as Mary’s. And it’s both implicit and explicit in this idea of a name.

(Painting of St. Joseph's Dream by Rembrandt, 1645. Staaliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz,Gemäldegalerie; Berlin)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An HCB Top Ten Blog Post

A post I did for the High Calling Blogs on good performance reviews (as opposed to the bad ones) has been listed as one of the High Calling Blogs best posts for 2009. The article can be found here. What a cool thing - and a nice gift.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas: Community

In one way, celebrating the 12 days of community with the High Calling Blogs has been difficult. There are too many people to celebrate.

Here are the links to my 11 previous posts:

The First Day of Christmas: Athol Dickson
The Second Day of Christmas: Laura Boggess
The Third Day of Christmas: Two from Bellingham (Jim Schmotzer and Fred Sprinkle)
The Fourth Day of Christmas: Maureen Doallas
The Fifth Day of Christmas: Nancy Rosback
The Sixth Day of Christmas: Marcus Goodyear
The Seventh Day of Christmas: New Friends (Doug Spurling, Susan Etole, Randall David Tipton, Phoenix Karenee, Claire Burge)
The Eighth Day of Christmas: Farm Life (Ann Vosberg and Jennifer Dukes Lee)
The Ninth Day of Christmas: A Book (L.L. Barkat’s InsideOut: Poems)
The Tenth Day of Christmas: Suspense (Mike Dellosso, Travis Thrasher, Adam Blumer, Sam Batterman)
The Eleventh Day of Christmas: A Shrunken Camel (Bradley Moore)

All of these are people I’ve come to know, to a greater or lesser extent, through the internet: Twitter, Facebook, blogs, blog comments and email. I’ve talked to one of them on the telephone one time. Truly a “virtual community.”


Except: I’ve shared prayer requests with many of these people. I’ve prayed for them and they’ve prayed for me. I’ve prayed together with some online via email. (You should try that – a prayer exchange via email or Twitter direct message.)

Except: we’ve gone well out of our ways to encourage each other – possibly because encouragement seems to be in such short supply. Fifteen minutes of fame, 15 minutes of adulation – these we have in abundance. But too little encouragement.

Except: to one degree or another, we’re all writers. And we share that curious combination of courage and fear, audacity and intimidation, that seems to be the trademark of most writers.

Except: the community doesn’t stop here. You can’t cover an online community in 12 days of posts. There are many, many others I could have highlighted. And I think I will. So don’t be surprised to find the “27th Day of Christmas” or “44th Day of Christmas” except I’ll substitute “community” for “Christmas” in keeping with what the original High Calling Blogs idea. (Yes, L.L., I changed it.) (Deliberately.)

Except: we are of a faith. This is the most important “except,” the reason why all the rest even happen. We share a common faith, a faith with an earthly set of origins in Bethlehem but a heavenly set of origins whose beginning cannot be measured or defined or even understood, ultimately. But even with our human understanding falling short, we are forever grateful.

And I’m grateful for this community of faith that we’ve been celebrating at the High Calling Blogs.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Eleventh Day of Christmas: A Shrunken Camel

He’s a business executive, a senior business executive with a VP title. He works for a diversified company in the Northeast; I’m not sure which one exactly but he knows a lot about my company which tells me that some of that diversification relates to agriculture. He’s written for the Conference Board Magazine, the Chicago Sun-Times, Sales Gravy and a lot of other publications. He’s been a management consultant. He likes being in the executive suite, and, as he’s written in a formative essay, he likes making money.

He also wrestles with issues of faith in the workplace, and he’s one of the most thoughtful and articulate writers on the subject out there.

His name is Bradley Moore. His blog is Shrinking the Camel. He’s also an editor at the High Calling Blogs, and he’s one of the key organizers for conference held at Princeton University on transforming the workplace. His writings are also regularly featured at InsideWork. An example is his essay on leadership and power. And he makes no apology for business and work – there’s no inherent contradiction between business and faith. Read the linked essay at the end of the “What is Shrinking the Camel all about?” on his blog.

His writing is brash, enthusiastic and irreverent, and he doesn’t hesitate to take on sacred cows. He’s also unfailingly positive (it’s a good antidote for me who leans to a slightly – not much but slightly – more negative view of organizations and management).

Read Bradley’s blog. Follow him on Twitter. Check out his links (he reads more journals and publications than just about anyone I’ve run across). You’ll learn a lot about faith, the workplace, business and organizational life.

And you’ll get to meet a pretty cool guy – who’s proving that a camel can shrink enough to fit through the eye of the needle.

(Over at the High Calling Blogs, we’re celebrating the 12 days of Christmas by highlighting a blog or web site of someone besides ourselves during this season of Advent and Christmas.) (Which is what we should also be doing the other 353 days of the year.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Wisdom of Wilderness - What I Learned

We’ve now finished our online discussion of Gerald May’s The Wisdom of Wilderness that started back in October at the High Calling Blogs. Thanks to Laura Boggess who served as our discussion leader with grace and occasionally mirth, and smiled at minor rebellions from some of the participants (me).

May, who died from cancer in 2005, embraced the idea and the reality of wilderness in the early 1990s as a kind of healing. He discovered what he called “the power of the slowing,” and he learned a lot about himself while experiencing often extremes of weather in isolated areas.

It was an important book for me to read, because I learned from May an appreciation for nature that I’d forgotten. I was reminded, and wrote about here, some of my own experiences, like hiking in the White Tank Mountains near Phoenix, finding myself in the middle of a herd of elk in the dark, biking with an American eagle on the Katy Trail near St. Louis, and even a time when I wasn’t in the wilderness but experienced one of the those incredible moments of felling absolutely alive. I recently went hiking with my oldest son at Shaw’s Nature Reserve near St. Louis, and wrote and posted a poem about it yesterday.

Where I found May troubling was the theology. Along the way, he began referring to the “power of the slowing” as a she, which at first I thought was Mother Nature but then realized that he was veering dangerously close to equating creation with the creator. He also had a problem with Scripture when it didn’t appear to conform to human reality, i.e., rejecting the concept of stewardship over the earth because it implied mankind was separate from nature, and that separation was the source of numerous problems that people face collectively and individually. Separation from nature is not the basic human problem; it’s a result or symptom of the basic human problem.

But even reading the parts of the book I disagreed with, and often strongly disagreed with, I learned several things. I had to clarify what it was I did believe, and not take my beliefs for granted. I had to carefully consider what was being said, and not to accept it blindly or reject it in a knee-jerk fashion (too much of both defines almost all of political discourse today). And I engaged with May’s statements and arguments and learned something about engaging with the culture.

So reading The Wisdom of Wilderness was well worth the journey and the effort. Listening to how others responded and reacted was just as valuable. I'm not going to be dancing around campfires in thunderstorms any time soon, but I'm glad I read the book.

Related post. Our discussion leader, Laura Boggess, has some final thoughts on the book:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Trail Through Gray and Brown

A Trail Through Gray and Brown

Leaving tended gardens behind,
following a trail through fields
of tall prairie grasses
and woods latticed with
arches of almost bare limbs
in hibernating birth;
a trail of gray and brown, muted green
undertones and flecks of yellow holding on like
small dabs of paint on canvas.
A trail down to the river.

Mulched pieces, gravel
for feet to walk,
to follow, to find
the silence of the other, the
non-sound – defined by what it is not.
Down to the river, small
but swiftly moving, silently, a liquid
emerald coursing in silence through its
channel, older than

Silence: the measure of what is.
Sound: the measure of what is not.

(Photos taken at Shaw's Nature Reserve, Nov. 28, 2009. Top photo is of the Outlook Trail, facing north. Bottom photo is of the Meramec River, facing south.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Tenth Day of Christmas: Suspense

I’ve loved reading mysteries and suspense since I was six or seven years old. The first one I can remember reading was Trixie Belden and the Secret of the Mansion. I can also remember ordering ever mystery offered by Scholastic Book Service at school, inhaling all of the Hardy Boys (with a slight detour into the Tom Swift science fiction stories), and then going on to mysteries with murders and general mayhem. Even today, I usually can’t resist the newest mystery novel by Elizabeth George, P.D. James, Ian Rankin or the Spanish writer Arturo Perez-Reverte (English translation).

Christian fiction has its own sub-genre of mystery and suspense, and a growing category of horror. And there’s a lot of controversy within the ranks, so to speak; not everyone likes it or believes it to be “edifying.” But I’ve found four novelists are who tell great stories, and I will read anything by them.

Earlier this year, not too long before I started blogging, I discovered Mike Dellosso and his novel The Hunted, shortly before he published his latest novel, Scream. Set in Pennsylvania where Mike lives, these are stories more influenced by Stephen King than P.D. James. There’s mystery, to be sure, but there’s also horror, and sometimes the supernatural. He writes about life in a small-town, but it’s life like you’ve never run across before. I got hooked. His next novel, Darlington Woods, is due out in May 2010.

Then I saw a recommendation for Isolation by a Chicago-based novelist named Travis Thrasher. He’s a full-time writer, and has written 12 novels, including a love story and a lot of mysteries and suspense. His novel Sky Blue is a personal favorite, and I’ve also read Admission and Ghostwriter. Some are mysteries, all are suspenseful and a few fall into the horror category (As I read Isolation, I had to occasionally put it down, go walk around and calm myself, and then come back – the tension that Thrasher creates is something else). He’s under contract for a series of Young Adult novels, and has just self-published Every Breath You Take because it was something he wanted to do. (Yes, I’ve ordered it.)

Adam Blumer's novel Fatal Illusions was published in the late spring, and I don’t think I will ever look at magicians the same way again. Adam is a freelance editor who lives in Michigan’s U.P., and this is his first novel – and it’s a corker of a story about a family trying to take a healing sabbatical, and instead finding themselves being stalked but not one but two different people for two different reasons. Don’t read this novel before turning the lights out for the night; I made that mistake and lay in bed wide-eyed for some time. Adam is also working on his next novel.

Sam Batterman also published his first novel this year, called Wayback. It leans more in the direction of science fiction than the other three novelists, and it’s more like Michael Crichton than Stephen King. It’s got a fascinating premise – that scientists are able to prove the Biblical flood, and travel back in time to do just that. The descriptions of the landscape – and of the cataclysm of the flood itself – are incredible. Batterman is working on a sequel to WayBack.

(Over at the High Calling Blogs, we’re celebrating the 12 days of Christmas by highlighting a blog or web site of someone besides ourselves during this season of Advent and Christmas.) (Which is what we should also be doing the other 353 days of the year.)

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Ninth Day of Christmas: A Book

So I veer off a bit from what we’ve been doing at High Calling Blogs to celebrate Christmas – celebrating 12 days of community by pointing to favorite writers, bloggers, tweeters – “others” besides ourselves.

For this ninth day, I want to talk about a book. And not just any book, but one for which I can’t really give a dispassionate review. Several of us were “there at the creation” of one part of this book – we actually saw it unfold online. We were there when the first news of the book-to-come was eked out in barely contained excitement via Twitter and email. (To be truthful, there was no “barely contained excitement” about it – it was more like squeals of euphoria, and we joined in.)

I had the privilege to read a partially completed manuscript (Word) version of the book. The author asked, hesitantly, what parts I liked best. I said it was easier to say what parts I didn’t like – because they weren’t any. And then to see the first reports of “it’s arrived on my doorstep,” followed by “it’s up on Amazon,” well, that was excitement of the first order.

The book is InsideOut: Poems. The author is the friend I’ve never met but talked on the phone with once, L.L. Barkat. The book's web site is here.

I first met L.L. through her memoir Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places, published in 2008 by IVP. I’ve told the story here about how I read it straight through one night, actually one morning in the wee hours, while I was in the hospital for broken ribs and a partially collapsed lung. And I told the story again here as well, with a little more information about what happened when I read it. Books can have big impacts, and some books can have profound impacts, and Stone Crossings had a profound impact on me.

And now the poems.

The one several of us saw being created was “In Your Dream,” because it happened during one of Twitter poetry jams (plug here for TweetSpeak Poetry, our online journal for the poems created on Twitter). Here’s one of the poem’s stanzas:

I was the story
in the burning book,
leading you beyond
frost and fields
lapped by time
towards a clearing.

The poems of InsideOut are about life and death, about family and brokenness, about color and lushness, about children and art and love. They’re arranged in seasons bit they transcend that arrangement. Just when you think you understand one, your eye catches a word or phrase you missed the first two times and the meaning changes again.

I’ve read the volume twice in its bound form, three times if you count the manuscript stage. I’ve gone back to read portions again. And I will do that again, and then give it another full reading. It’s that good.

InsideOut is published by the International Arts Movement, an organization that does some pretty cool stuff.

(Over at the High Calling Blogs, we’re celebrating the 12 days of Christmas by highlighting a blog or web site of someone besides ourselves during this season of Advent and Christmas.) (Which is what we should also be doing the other 353 days of the year.)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Eighth Day of Christmas: Farm Life

Most of my online friends know I work in the agriculture business. If you don’t, well, now you do. Over the last three months, following a fairly extensive reorganization, I’ve found myself doing some new things and some old things in different ways.

And one of those is that I’m doing a lot more writing at work, and that’s a good thing for me. I’ve become one of the four corporate bloggers, and I’ve been able to spend a lot less time “administrating” and a lot more time talking with employees, customers and other people in the agriculture business. I now lead a team responsible for online strategy and the corporate web site. And I love working in this business.

In recent months, I’ve been following blog posts by people in farm families – men, women and even some older children. Ann Voskamp, for example, lives in Ontario with her farmer-husband and children, and she writes an incredible blog of text and photos called Holy Experience. Maureen Doallas did a post on her the other day that I couldn’t hope to improve upon; you should read it and find out more about her.

And then there’s Jennifer Dukes Lee, who has a blog called Getting Down with Jesus. She writes about her family and she writes about farm life, and she writes well – no surprise that in her spare time she teaches college journalism. The Lees live in northwest Iowa, and while I took some liberties and made it a bit more general, they were indeed the inspiration for two of my favorite posts since I’ve been doing this blog – “A Farmer in Northwest Iowa” and “Harvest Thanks,” a poem I posted on Thanksgiving.

This year has been hard for farmers – a wet spring that delayed planting; a wet fall that delayed harvest to the point where there is still unharvested corn standing in a lot of fields. In early November, Jennifer wrote about the late harvest, with photos illustrating the story – her husband on the combine in the fields at night. At Thanksgiving, there was still corn in the fields, and she described the encouragement of a letter from 1912. And she did a post about the worry of a late harvest and the faith that sustains a family that is simply a beautiful thing to read. And when I asked her via email if they had been able to complete the harvest before winter weather hit, she said yes, they did. In fact, her husband was closing the doors on the combine just as new snow started.

So I can read articles in farm publications and reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and my own companies news releases, and learn a lot of facts, data and important news. And then I can read Jennifer’s blog and learn a lot of the reality of farm life, and faith, and family. You should, too. You'll be the richer for it.

(Over at the High Calling Blogs, we’re celebrating the 12 days of Christmas by highlighting a blog or web site of someone besides ourselves during this season of Advent and Christmas.) (Which is what we should also be doing the other 353 days of the year.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tom Mason's "Transforming the Valley of Grief"

When a man has to deal with grief, relatively few resources exist to help him through the process. The closet thing might be A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, in which he talks about the death of his wife Joy. But it’s more a discussion of the intense personal loss Lewis felt, with little guidance for others. And the culture generally expects men to deal with grief differently – we’re more accepting of the process for women (I know – a totally politically incorrect statement – but that doesn’t make it any less true).

In November of 2004, Thomas Mason, a professor at Northwestern University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, celebrated a normal Thanksgiving with his family. The next week, his wife went to the doctor with stomach pains. Seven weeks later, she died from cancer than had spread from her colon to her liver. And Mason went through a personal “tsunami” that transformed his life and left him in a struggle he was ill-equipped to face.

He got through the grief of losing his beloved wife of 31 years. And one of the things he did was to write about it. And that writing eventually became Transforming the Valley of Grief, designed especially to help men cope with the loss of a loved one – and to help other men help a man coping with grief. The book is not a how-to manual, because every death, every grieving experience is individual and different. But it is a guide, and one that helps fill the resource gap.

Mason organizes the book around dealing with the initial shock and pain; relying upon resources like friends and one’s church; the need for personal time, including a retreat or series of retreats; the need to avoid making major changes immediately; relying upon another man who can come alongside; and the idea of the process of grief, a process that includes setbacks and unexpected “relapses.” Each chapter concludes with questions and guides for both the man who’s grieving and the friend who’s trying to help him through that grief.

Transforming the Valley of Grief is a book that should be read before it’s needed – because you never know when you yourself will face “the valley of trouble and grief” or when you will be called upon to help someone go through that process. Read it before you need it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

We All Sing Lutheran Hymns

I was raised in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. It’s a liturgical church, and to this day I can recite the LCMS order of worship. When I visit my mother in New Orleans, I’ll attend church with her, and while a few changes have been made (like the pastor chanting part of the service), it is still the same liturgy I knew as a child.

The church building was an A-Frame, with four or five classrooms along the side. The first Sunday School class I can remember was in one of those classrooms, and it was taught by Miss Gail, who was pretty and young and now must be in her 70s. About 20 years ago, a new church building was constructed, and the old A-frame is now mostly a storage area. When I see it today, I can’t believe how small it actually is – it seemed huge me to as a child.

I also learned certain hymns by heart, because our Lutheran pastor liked them and used them a lot in the worship service. I’ve always thought of them as “Lutheran hymns” because that’s where I learned them. Some were written by Martin Luther, like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” so that’s a fair claim to make. Others, however, like “Fairest Lord Jesus,” can be rightfully be claimed by all Christians (but I still “go Lutheran” when I hear it and sing it).

Today I’m a member of an Evangelical Presbyterian church, Central Presbyterian in Clayton, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis and the county seat of St. Louis County. It’s an old church, by American standards, founded in 1846 with the present sanctuary building constructed in the 1870s (back when all the riff-raff lived in the county and the well-to-do elites in the city) (times have changed). Clayton is one of the wealthiest suburbs in St. Louis, in Missouri and in the United States. The church is more diverse than that, attracting people from all over the metropolitan area, but by any standards, it is a wealthy church. And it’s a generous church, doing what a church is supposed to do, funding ministries and missions all over the community and the world. It also occasionally has “Lutheran hymns” in the worship service.

But by themselves, my childhood church home in New Orleans and my current church home in St. Louis are not “the church.” They are local manifestations of the church, and the church realities I’m most familiar with. But, by themselves, they are not the church. No individual congregation is. No denomination is. And certainly no political party is, even though plenty of us think that way.

So what – who – is the church?

The church is the pastor of the underground house church in China who’s been arrested four times and tortured twice because he is a Christian who has to keep serving his Lord.

The church is the man in Rwanda who stepped in front of a machete to protect a neighbor who belonged to the wrong tribe.

The church is the pastors and churches who took to the streets all over Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990 and helped take down an evil empire simply by standing for truth (even if the news media likes to forget that fact).

The church is the couple with four children in Brazil who belong to a charismatic church and speak in tongues.

The church is the young man in Norway who seems to be fighting a one-person battle against an onslaught of secularism determined to destroy him.

The church is the faithful blogger who lives in Michigan and wears her faith on her sleeve, with no embarrassment and no apologies.

The church is the mother in New Jersey who is homeschooling her kids because she wants them educated in academics and faith.

The church is the couple in Colorado sending their children to public school to be in this world but (they pray) not of it.

The church is the dirty, smelly, unkempt, alcoholic bum who just became a believer in the basement of a Salvation Army mission in Seattle.

The church is the murderer and rapist who became a believer because a businessman with Prison Fellowship cared enough to visit and pray for him.

The church is the narrow-minded hypocrite who sees and often comments on everyone else’s faults but also knows that God loves her and is working on her mean spirit.

The church is the artist who is determined to paint the gospel, the writer with a heart for telling stories to the world and the poet who is broken enough to speak truth.

The church drives a Cadillac Escalade and a Honda Civic hybrid; rides a bicycle with patched tires and the bus; and walks six miles each way to and from church on Sunday because that’s what you have to do to worship as a body in rural Kenya.

The church prefers traditional worship, contemporary worship, orchestras, praise bands, choirs singing classical music, suits and ties, jeans and cutoffs, video, big auditoriums, meeting in someone’s family room, and meeting behind closed doors because they have to for safety.

The church is that sweet lady who prepares the coffee every Sunday for the fellowship time between worship services and never asks for recognition, and the quiet man who shows up for every work project at the church building because that's what he knows to do.

The church is the man and the woman who struggle with and doubt their faith and doubt God and keep coming for worship anyway.

The church is the young 20-something who wants to bring Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and multi-media into the church because he’s convinced it will grow the ministry.

The church is that 13-year-old Catholic girl and her almost 50-year-old Catholic mom who’ll together be traveling to Washington in January to stand in silent protest in front of the Supreme Court.

The church is the 30-something man who turned his back on a promising and successful corporate career to take his family to serve in the mission field in Central America.

The church is sinners and saints because they’re the same thing.

The church is not bound by denomination or color or creed or nationality or geography or time zone because it is all of these things and more, because it belongs to God and God is not bound or defined by man or woman.

And the church, I suspect, sings Lutheran hymns.

(This post is part of the One Word Blog Carnival hosted by Peter Pollock and Bridget Chumbley. To see more posts on “church,” visit Bridget’s web site.)

A Line I Can't Cross

I reached the line in Gerald May’s The Wisdom of Wilderness that I can’t cross.

We’ve been reading May’s book as part of a discussion group over at The High Calling Blogs. This past week, we read chapter 10, “Natural Being,” in which May recounts a dream he had about encountering a mountain lion. From the dream, May moves to a short discussion about animal being and healing. When he talks about healing, he says this:

“Some of us still see the earth as an enemy, something to conquer, subjugate, and squander. More of us, thank God, now see it as something to cherish and to care for. But even in our cherishing, the earth remains an ‘it,’ a ‘something,’ an object that is not us. The popular language is ‘stewardship of the environment.’ Stewards are managers, overseers, caretakers, and no matter how benevolent they are, they must forever remain apart from that which they care for…Before we can effectively heal the wounds we have inflicted upon the rest of Nature, we must allow ourselves to be healed. And we must allow the rest of Nature to help us…

“I have never been able to do this for myself. It has to come through grace, in the Presence of the One I called the Power of the Slowing, the Wisdom of the Wild.”

May is not talking about God, but he is talking about a kind of god, a god that is creation. He’s infused it with a supra-human spirit and given it voice and personality, but it is still, ultimately, creation, the natural world, but the natural world that has a very human-like presence projected on to it.

There's one chapter left, and I will finish the book. But this is a line I can’t cross. Perhaps I’m too modernist, too corporate, too “religious” – but May has now formally established the point he’s been aiming at all along – oneness with, and the worship of, the creation. It’s an old, old problem, and it’s called idolatry. And it’s ultimately destructive of that very self May is so desperate to find in his book.

The Seventh Day of Christmas: New Friends

For the seventh day of Christmas, I want to highlight some new friends I’ve found via blogs, comments on blogs, Twitter, and various web sites.

Doug Spurling. Doug lives in Minnesota. He has a blog called Spurling Silver (I like that name), where he writes about family, grandchildren, life, faith and God. He had two posts last week, one entitled “Frozen” and the other “The First Christmas Tree,” which will give you a good indication how he can surprise a reader, and take you where you didn’t expect to go. You can follow him on Twitter, too.

Susan Etole. Susan lives in Minnesota, and posts about the “three Ps” on her blog, Just…A Moment – poems, prose and photos. She’ll take the simplest of ideas and combine a few words with a photo to blow you away, like she did with “No Storm Here” and “The Riven Heart.” Susan and I have at least three things in common – faith, a love for poetry and a love for good mysteries.

Randall David Tipton. Tipton is an artist in Oregon, and he posts his oils and watercolors on his blog, Painter’s Process. He does some beautiful work, painting in a luminous way. His subjects are often nature – woods, trees and other natural settings – but he also did this recent work of “Steam and a Mill” on the Willamette River. And thanks to my friend Maureen Doallas for introducing me to Tipton’s work.

Phoenix-Karenee. Phoenix-Karenee is an artist, a poet and an author. I don’t know her or his real name or (obviously) gender; the blog site is something of a mystery and that’s part of the enjoyment. I suspect it’s a she, but I could be wrong. But I really enjoy the poems and the art that’s posted occasionally.

Claire Burge. Claire, who lives in Ireland, writes a blog called My Memoir of You, and she posts her poetry and photography. She also has a tutoring business, a blog devoted to her photography, and a blog about family, where she posts occasionally. I tweet her poems whenever she posts one – they’re good.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Arrows, Near the Rocks

I send the arrow-fetcher back,
To town, holding the
Arrows I arced
Beyond him.
Beyond was the
Sign, the
Signal, the
Talisman of
A king’s rage, a father’s fury
A prince’s anger, a son’s grief.

I stand alone, in
Anticipation of Beloved’s
Emergence from the
Outcroppings of rock.
He peers round;
Our eyes meet our hearts,
Hearts of joy and
Desolation, the
Joy of friendship present, the
Desolation of absence to come.

He bows, three times
He bows; he bows to
Pay obeisance to what the
Lord has ordained, what
We both know
The Lord will take away.

We say but few words,
Words mostly unneeded now.
We weep the tears of together,
Repeating vows. He
Heeds my words, my warning, and
Leaves in our shared peace.

We know we will not
Speak again,
Shattering our souls.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Mysteries of Sally Wright

Some years back, I had discovered Sally Wright’s mysteries, with her university archivist Ben Reese finding himself in the middle all sorts of murder of mayhem. What I liked (and still like) about the Ben Reese stories was that they’re intelligently written stories that respect their readers. I had read two of her mysteries when they published in the 1990s, and then the bookstore I found them at closed, and I couldn’t find them at other stores. I lost touch.

I was in Big Sleep Books in St. Louis recently. A small shop in what we St. Louisans call the Central West End, Big Sleep is devoted to one genre of books – mysteries, broadly defined to include suspense and a few related areas. I wandered alphabetically about the store, and then found myself looking at the Ws. And there was Sally Wright. The store had the two mysteries I had previously read -- Pride and Predator and Publish and Perish -- and one additional one – Pursuit and Persuasion (yes, the titles sound like Jane Austen; they also sound like Dorothy Sayers). I bought all three.

Set in the early 1960s, Pursuit and Persuasion finds Ben Reese in Scotland and briefly in England, helping a former student and assistant find out what happened to the woman who left the student a large estate in Scotland – and a letter indicating that she was likely murdered. Reese has two mysteries to solve – what caused the deceased woman to make the young woman her heir to the estate, and who, if anyone, killed the deceased.

The first thing a reader notices about Pursuit and Persuasion and all of Wright’s mysteries is how well written they are. The next thing is how many characters are involved in the story, and the list of characters at the beginning of the story is immensely helpful, as is the map of the estate. (I love mysteries with maps like this – like the old S.S. Van Dine mysteries from the 1920s and 1930s).

This time, Reese finds himself running up against a mania – a mania known only to collectors whose desire to possess sometimes lead to murder. And Wright introduces a love interest, or actually, two potential love interests, for Reese.

Pursuit and Persuasion is a great read and great fun to rediscover. Best of all – there are three more in the series I haven’t read.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Sixth Day of Christmas: Marcus Goodyear

An editor, a poet and a philosopher/thinker about the workplace. That’s a lot, but even collectively it doesn’t quite do Marcus Goodyear justice.

Marcus is senior editor for The High Calling, the High Calling Blogs and Faith in the Workplace. I connected to him in blogs and blog comments via L.L. Barkat, a managing editor at the High Calling Blogs (and author of Stone Crossings and the recently published book of poems InsideOut).

He takes editing seriously. Here’s what he says on his web site: “When I agree to edit a work, I take such a commitment very seriously. I am a tough editor. I will not hesitate to change verbs, cut sentences and paragraphs, and work on issues of style like pacing. I do not attempt to usurp a writer’s style, but too often writers are simply avoiding the work of revision and editing under the guise of defending their stylistic integrity.”

Marcus was my editor for an article I wrote for High Calling. Marcus takes editing seriously. Trust me.

He writes poetry, including one we republished at TweetSpeak Poetry called “Sometimes I Cannot Always Be There,” which he called a poem for All Saints Day. He’s written poems about Eve’s garden, the risen Christ, zombies, mowing dead grass after church on Sunday, and the Large Hadon Collider (he may be the only person in the history of the planet who’s written a poem about the Large Hadon Collider, not to mention the fact that it was about motherhood and the Large Hadon Collider).

And his writing about work, well, you have to read it for yourself: an interview with Michael Card on freedom and slavery; the work and faith movement; and “why I don’t go to church.” He actually does go to church but the title certainly pulls you into the article.

Marcus is a husband and a father, too.

Explore his blog, Follow him on Twitter. Enjoy his writing and his poetry – and in the process you’ll learn that he edits himself harder than he edits anyone else.

(Over at the High Calling Blogs, we’re celebrating the 12 days of Christmas by highlighting a blog or web site of someone besides ourselves during this season of Advent and Christmas.) (Which is what we should also be doing the other 353 days of the year.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Fifth Day of Christmas: nAncY Rosback

A short conversation on Twitter started with wishing a happy birthday to a son, when it was actually a daughter. And then this:

@poemsandprayers: thanks glynn...cj a girl :-) jane is her middle name...on my grandmothers' side was a baby taken in that was left…on church doorstep in kentucky, they named her america jane, so we used jane as a middle name for her. america jane was one of my ancestors that was from ky. and ended up in so. illinois.

So meet nAncY Rosback.

Descended from America Jane

a baby, a foundling
left in the hands of God on
the doorstep of a church.
they named her not Jane but
America Jane, because this was
frontier-like and that’s what you did
frontier-like and everyone understood.
and she grew, and grew up, and had
babies of her own whom she loved and
treasured and didn’t leave on a doorstep of
a church because she knew God had left them
in her arms instead.

And a baby had a baby had a baby,
and a baby found herself growing up in the
prairies not too far from where Lincoln lived.
and she grew up playing in corn field and a ditch
and she learned to ride a bike that moved her all over
town, because it was okay to do that unafraid in the 1960s.
she grew up and got married and lived in Oregon where
she grew a family and some grapes for wine named Sineann.
now she takes these beautiful photos and she writes poems,
about a voyage, and youth, and relationships, and community
and all the other things in life that matter, like God. to find her
you have to just say the word, or tweet.

(Over at the High Calling Blogs, we’re celebrating the 12 days of Christmas by highlighting a blog or web site of someone besides ourselves during this season of Advent and Christmas.) (Which is what we should also be doing the other 353 days of the year.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Fourth Day of Christmas: Maureen Doallas

I think of Maureen Doallas as the Renaissance lady.

I met Maureen like many are met on the web – via blogs, comments and web sites. She operates a business called Transformational Threads, which licenses images of original fine art for rendering into embroidery “paintings,” also known as thread or needle paintings. She officially retired in 2007 from a job as writer and editor, but you wouldn’t know it from the sheer energy she exhibits when it comes to the arts and poetry.

She’s into all things art. She loves art, and you can see and experience her passion by reading her posts at her blog, Writing Without Paper. She’s introduced me and a lot of others to artists all over the United States. She keeps tracks of what’s going on with exhibitions, gallery openings, theatre, dance performances, concerts and movies, mostly in but not limited to the Washington, D.C., area, and she shares them on her blog in what she calls “All-Art Fridays.”

How she finds all the art-related videos on YouTube is beyond me, but when she posts one, it’s always worth watching.

And then there’s her poetry. Maureen has been writing poetry for a long time, has published some, and regularly posts her poems on her blog. She’s also a faithful contributor to our poetry jams on Twitter, which we publish at TweetSpeak Poetry. She writes beautiful words and lines – raising the bar for the rest of us. Take a look at the one she wrote for the One-Word-At-A-Time Blog Carnival on grief, or her three-part Christmas poem. Moving, simple, elegant.

She also does occasional interviews of people. And speaking from experience, she’s the most intelligent interviewer I’ve ever run across (and I’ve been interviewed by 2,000+ people in the course of my career). Likely reflecting her background as a researcher and writer, she spends an enormous amount of time researching her interview subjects, and then developing insightful, meaningful questions. I was blown away.

Maureen’s happily married (except, apparently, when it comes to fighting for space on bookshelves) and the mother of a son. She has four sisters and two brothers, and family is important to her – that comes through in all of her writings.

So read Maureen’s blog. Follow her on Twitter. She may have officially retired, but as she says on her blog site, “I’m not done yet, as you can see.” And you’ll be glad for it, too.

(Over at the High Calling Blogs, we’re celebrating the 12 days of Christmas by highlighting a blog or web site of someone besides ourselves during this season of Advent and Christmas.) (Which is what we should also be doing the other 353 days of the year.)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Third Day of Christmas: Two from Bellingham

The internet is all about connections. You read someone’s blog post, you decide to make a comment, you read someone else’s comment on that post, you click on their blog link – and voila, a connection is made.

That’s how I met Jim Schmotzer. I don’t remember exactly whose blog we were both commenting on, but that’s how we met.

He lives in Bellingham, Washington. He’s a husband, a father and a grandfather.

Jim’s blog is The Faithful Skeptic, and he posts poems and short, short, really short stories on it. That’s not entirely correct. He posts really good poems and short, short stories on it. One poem he posted in September is entitled “Thirty Five” – and it’s about a wedding anniversary. It especially caught my eye because a month earlier, I had celebrated my 36th. You can follow Jim on Twitter, too.

In November, Jim wrote what was only slight longer than a short, short story, called “The Tipping Point.” Two people commented – me and a guy named Fred Sprinkle (or that’s his online name). Fred’s also from Bellingham. I clicked on the link – and found a young poet and writer.

He says he grew up living on a sailboat, but that he can’t sail very well. Fred’s blog is I Force It to Rhyme, and he primarily posts poetry and short random memories. I really like his poetry; one example is “Produce of the Spirit” (“Give us cabbage/ in the kingdom/ of God”). And a random memory can be found in Random Memory 1. Fred can be found on Twitter as well.

(Over at the High Calling Blogs, we’re celebrating the 12 days of Christmas by highlighting a blog or web site of someone besides ourselves during this season of Advent and Christmas.) (Which is what we should also be doing the other 353 days of the year.)

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Second Day of Christmas: Laura Boggess

Over at the High Calling Blogs, Mondays have been devoted to a discussion of Gerald May’s book, The Wisdom of Wilderness. We’ve all learned that May is nothing if not provocative. But he’s telling his story, he writes well, and there’s a lot to learn from his book. So I’ve been content to read and offer an occasional comment if I think he goes off the deep end. Like in chapter 9, ‘Rainstorms,” when he does a wild dance in the wilderness around a campfire in the middle of a thunderstorm.

I laughed. I remembered something a friend in college once said – that we are ordained by our creator to have the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and to make monumental fools out of ourselves.

Instead of a rant about Gerald May, I wanted to talk about our discussion leader, Laura Boggess, who has intrepidly guided us through the discussion with good humor and grace.

Laura lives in West Virginia, and was born and raised there. She has a master’s in Clinical Psychology from Marshall University, and that’s where she met her husband. They have two sons and a Boston terrier named Lucy and are active with the Boston Terrier Rescue League. (I identify here: my very first dog was a Boston terrier named Mr. Ike, which tells you who was President when I was three years old.)

She works in a physical rehabilitation unit at a hospital, where she counsels individuals and families going through traumatic medical experiences. Experiences like spinal cord injury, brain injury, stroke, amputation. (Consider the grace and the strength needed for that job.)

Laura teaches Sunday School and works with middle school kids at church midweek meetings. Her husband is the praise band leader, and she says music has always been a big part of their lives. And she’s a runner (as in exercise).

And she is a published author of a novel for young adults called Brody’s Story, the first in a series (and the second is set for 2010).

You can find Laura at her blog, The Wellspring. She writes about the stuff that matters, like family, and children, and God, and you'll find your heart warmed and your soul encouraged. This weekend, snow arrived, and she was inspired enough to write this simple, beautiful poem. And you can follow her on Twitter, too.

(Over at the High Calling Blogs, we’re celebrating the 12 days of Christmas by highlighting a blog or web site of someone besides ourselves during this season of Advent and Christmas.) (Which is what we should also be doing the other 353 days of the year.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Shadows of Dawn, Like Smoke

Leaning against a wall
Washed of earth-like gold, a
Wall fading into the
Shadows of dawn, like smoke;
Shadows bending beneath
The first faint beams of the sun,
Beginning, then blinding.
Canvas rucksack beside him,
One strap frayed,
He leans against the wall,
Pulling his coat closer
Against the cold.

Half in hope, the other in fear,
His heart watches as
She fills her own bag,
Her life with him.
She opens a quiet door.
Peers down a hallway washed in darkness,
Glances at a closed door,
Descends silently each step,
Turns a knob,
Steps out into the night
Almost gone, the
Day preparing to begin the new.

He waits, listening for
Her step, the crunch of gravel under
Her foot; the flash of
Her eyes; the sweet song from
Her lips.
He waits,
Leaning against a wall
Washed of earth-like gold,
Rucksack beside him.
He waits as the new-day sun
Imagining the wind.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The First Day of Christmas: Athol Dickson

Athol Dickson’s Lost Mission is one of the best books I’ve read this year. And there’s a story behind its publication, as in, the publisher screwed up and forgot to do the things publishers are supposed to do. Okay, it happens. But it’s worse than a shame it happened to as fine a novel as Lost Mission.

I reviewed the book in October; you can read the review here. I had no idea what had happened to the book until I read Dickson’s blog post on the Advent season, “Peace During Advent.” There’s more information about the book and the author at Dickson’s web site.

If you’re not familiar with Athol Dickson, you should be. He’s writing really fine fiction. My first experience with his writing was The Cure, about what happens to a town in Maine when people here there’s a cure for alcoholism there. Then I read Winter Haven, about a young woman who travels to an island off the coast of Maine to identify the body of her long-missing brother, a body, almost perfectly preserved for years, that washes up on the shore. And there’s River Rising, a novel about the 1927 Mississippi River flood that’s of special interest to me, who grew up about a mile from that river in New Orleans and who currently lives about 13 miles due west of it in St. Louis.

For me, discovering Athol Dickson was like opening up a whole new world of fiction – Christian fiction unlike any I had ever read. And Dickson led me to other writers (and you should let him lead you to them as well).

Read Athol Dickson. Read him. He’s better than good.

(Over at the High Calling Blogs, we’re celebrating the 12 days of Christmas by highlighting a blog or web site of someone besides ourselves during this season of Advent and Christmas.) (Which is what we should be doing the other 353 days of the year as well.)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The 27 Books I'm Not Recommending for Christmas

I love reading lists of books that people suggest for Christmas. I don’t know exactly why. Perhaps it’s what the lists tell me about the list makers, or to see if I’ve read any of them, or just to see what people have been reading and enjoying.

I also read the “list of fall books” published by the newspaper, usually at the end of August. Maybe I have a thing for book lists. But only book lists. List readers tend to gravitate toward “The 5 Ways Twitter Will Make You Rich” or “The 7 Things You Can Do to Make Your Boss Love You” or similar ones. Just watch this on Twitter for a while – you’ll be surprised.

But I look at book lists. I don’t usually compose them. Until now: my list of the “Best Books I’ve Read in 2009.”

I’m not recommending these books to give as Christmas presents. Reading is too personal a thing for me, and I start to get antsy when people give me books as presents. I’m polite, of course, but still antsy. This isn’t the same as telling my wife what books I would really like to read, leaving subtle hints like email messages and handwritten notes where she’s most likely to see them.

So here’s my list of the “Best Books I’ve Read in 2009.” Not all of them were published this year. If you wanted to give some of them as gifts, well, I’m not stopping you, of course. But all I’m saying is that these were the best books I read in 2009. For me. That’s all.

· The Credible Company by Roger D’Aprix.
· The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton.

· Stone Crossings by L.L. Barkat
· Churched by Matthew Paul Turner
· Quiet Strength by Tony Dungy
· Uncommon by Tony Dungy
· The Eyes of the Heart by Frederick Buechner

· Scream by Mike Dellosso
· Faces in the Fire by T.L. Hines
· Through the Fire by Shawn Grady
· Fatal Illusions by Adam Blumer
· Ghostwriter by Travis Thrasher
· Offworld by Robin Parrish

· Providence by Chris Coppernoll
· Dogwood by Chris Fabry
· Chasing Francis by Ian Cron
· Talking to the Dead by Bonnie Grove
· Lost Mission by Athol Dickson
· Return Policy by Michael Snyder
· The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner
· Summer of Light by Dale Cramer
· Wayback by Sam Batterman

· A Village Life by Louise Gluck
· Breakfast with Blake at the Lacoon by John Estes
· The Feast by Walter Bargen
· Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins
· Beyond the Masks by Harvey Stanbrough

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Grief of Bethlehem

I can’t imagine the grief. I simply can’t.

I’ve been reading and studying about David, one of the most complex and human characters in the Bible. His story is told in 1 and 2 Samuel, as well as in the Psalms he wrote. David came from Bethlehem, and Bethlehem is (and was) known as the city of David.

David is one of three kings most directly associated with Bethlehem, the other two being Herod (“the great”) and the King whose kingdom was not of this world. David and Jesus were born there; Herod committed a crime there that was (and is) almost beyond comprehension.

The account of what is known as the slaughter of the innocents is found only in the Gospel of Matthew. In chapter two, Joseph is warned by an angel in a dream to escape to Egypt, because Herod was going to be searching for the child to kill him. Joseph listens, he takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt, and the family spends an extended period there, likely some years. (Novelist Anne Rice, who had best-sellers on vampires long before anyone had heard of "Twilight" and "New Moon," wrote a wonderful story imagining this time, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.)

After the family leaves, according to Matthew, Herod – always insecurely paranoid when it came to his throne – orders the murder of every male child under the age of 2 in Bethlehem, to make sure the so-called king he had heard about was destroyed. There was room for only one king in Judea.

It was a brutal time, but this act stands out even for that era.

A number of scholars today discount the story. Only Matthew records it; Josephus doesn’t mention it in his histories; and so on and so on. (I have to remind myself that the Gospel of Matthew will still be read long after these scholars are forgotten.) But it is an act perfectly in keeping with what Herod was like and known for. If he didn’t hesitate to kill his own children, why should he worry about the children of people he didn’t know and for whom he cared nothing?

The movie The Nativity (2006) has a glimpse of the slaughter, but it’s only a glimpse. It’s hard to fathom the scene in Bethlehem. Very young children and babies struck down by soldiers, most likely with swords, along with anyone else who tried to protect them – fathers, mothers, siblings, relatives. The stories that died with those children; all the hopes and dreams replaced by unhealing wounds; the chaos as the attack occurred. How did the soldiers do it? Order all families out into the streets? Strip the children to identify gender? How many “mistakes” were made?

The mind reels and goes numb. And then the aftermath – the wails, the crying, the shock, the horror at what had happened. How do you survive seeing the murder of your child? And the question few if any in Bethlehem would have known how to answer – why was this happening? How did this happen in the city of David? How could it?

The contrast between what had just been and what came to be is enormous – the miraculous birth of the promised Messiah, and the slaughter of innocent children. Two poles of human experience. Two extremes of reality that happened in the same place, very close to the same time. The most extraordinary good, and the most extraordinary evil.

Because of the escape of his family, Jesus may well have been the only survivor of the attack – the one who was the intended victim.

And yet, in a way he wasn’t. Some three decades later, another innocent fell victim to a barbaric regime – the only survivor of that massacre at Bethlehem. And like those innocent children, the innocent man died in front of his mother.

I don’t know how to comprehend such grief. I’ve experienced the deaths of loved ones – a niece at age 2, my grandmothers in their 90s, my father at age 70, aunts and uncles, good friends. But I’ve never experienced what those families did in the city of David, and what the mother of Jesus watched happen in front of her – the grief of Bethlehem.

I can only be horrified by one, and grateful for the other.

(To read more about the topic of grief, visit the blog carnival at Peter Pollock's Rediscovering the Church.)