Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Poets and Poems: Dave Malone’s “View from the North Ten”

The Missouri Ozarks is a distinct region within the state of Missouri, yet geographically indistinguishable from the Arkansas Ozarks. It presents distinctly different faces, depending upon what one is looking for: the entertainment complex of Branson (and upscale resort at Big Cedar); the natural beauty of the hills, small mountains, rivers and streams; St. Louisans’ favorite weekend resorts at Lake of the Ozarks; the rural, backwoods movie setting of “Winter Bone;” the Ozarks of the Baldknobbers legend and Harold Bell Wright’s “Shepherd of the Hills.”

Behind the legends, entertainment extravaganzas, resorts is the region that tens of thousands call home, where they live, work, get married, raise families and die, much like any other part of the United States. This is the territory of farms and small towns (Springfield, Mo., population of 162,000, would likely be the unofficial capital). Away from the glitz of the Branson Strip, it’s an area of rugged, stark beauty; I even have two photographs from the region on the walls of my office at work.

This Missouri Ozarks is the home of poet Dave Malone.

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

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

Monday, December 30, 2013

Night train

Standing outside,
darkness, she watches
him settle
in his seat

newspaper, magazine,
candy bar,
captain’s hat perched
carefully above

bathed in light
he turns and sees her,
smiling, he
places his palm
on the window for her
to fit her palm against

as the train begins
its first lurch

 Tweetspeak Poetry has a poetry prompt today – night poetry, with a promise.

Photograph by Rostislav Kralik via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Drinking, Culture, and Faith

When we moved to St. Louis from Houston, we had a difficult time finding a church. Houston had no dearth of good churches. St. Louis had a lot of churches, too, but they tended to be mainline Protestant or Catholic, and we tended to the more evangelical. (The four houses of worship closest to where we lived were Catholic, United Church of Christ, and two synagogues.)

We visited a lot of churches. We found one that seemed to have solid preaching and teaching, with friendly, welcoming people (more of a problem than you might imagine). A small group from the church came to visit us at our apartment, and in the course of the conversation the subject of drinking alcohol came up. To join the church, we were told, we would have to sign a no-alcohol pledge.

That would be a problem. We drank alcohol. Not much, and most days none. But we did consume alcohol.

We didn’t join the church. I later learned that the elders at the church occasionally had champagne breakfasts, that many people at the church signed the pledge but drank anyway. After all, this was west suburban St. Louis, one of the wealthiest parts of the metropolitan area.

None of that sat well with me. If you have a no-alcohol pledge, fine. But don’t have a pledge and then blatantly ignore it with champagne breakfasts, by the elders, no less.

What we encountered could be a story out of Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty. Author Brett McCracken, in the final three chapters of the book, focuses on drinking, and the attitudes of Christians about drinking alcohol. Over the years, I’ve heard all the arguments, pro and con, and I agree with McCracken – the Bible doesn’t teach against consuming alcohol, but it does teach consistently against drunkenness.

McCracken provides a good overview of the history of Christians and our attitudes about alcohol (the Puritan Pilgrims in the New World were “largely friendly to alcohol,” he notes, with the Mayflower well provisioned with beer and wine). And he finds five themes in the Bible concerning alcohol and its consumption:

·       Drunkenness is a sin.
·       It is part of the joy and blessing given by God.
·       It is an eschatological (last things) symbol of the bounty of the new creation.
·       Abstinence is a good option, but it’s not mandated
·       Moderation is the operative principle.

What he does point out is that we need to understand Christians’ historical opposition to alcohol within an American cultural context. Drunkenness was common in the 18th and 19th centuries, and associated with family breakdown and crime in general. People could easily see the effects of drunkenness in their communities. We Americans still carry our historical baggage with us. “Ours is a culture,” McCracken points out, “of college binge drinking, keggers, underage drinking as rebellion, and Bud Light commercials.” And how many stories of drunken drivers killing people do we have to read before we say “Enough!”?

It’s easy to ridicule Christians’ historical antagonism to alcohol. But drunkenness wasn’t then and isn’t now simply a personal choice. It’s a personal choice with public ramifications.

Over at The High Calling, we’ve been discussing Gray Matters. Today concludes the discussion. You can read comments by others by visiting The High Calling.

My previous posts on the book:

Photograph by Holly Chaffin via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Advent: Three Gifts

We followed the star
knowing only it led
to the west
to what all the portents
the predictions fulfilled
to the west
to the west

I bring gold
the gift fit for a king

I bring frankincense
the gift fit for God

I bring myrrh
the gift fit to prepare
a body for the tomb

we follow the star
to the west
to the west

even wise men don’t
fully comprehend

It was the English scholar Bede (the “Venerable” Bede), writing in the 7th century, who first pointed out the symbolism of the three gifts of the wise men.

Painting: Adoration of the Kings by Jan Goessaert (Jan Mabuse), 1510-15; National Gallery of Art, London.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Saturday Good Reads: Four on Kindle

One nice thing about combining a long stretch of holidays and vacation days is the opportunity to catch up on some reading. Here are four short works that I’ve read recently on Kindle.

The Battle for Christmas Castle, by Eldon Eric Johnson. This is something of a morality tale for children, but the basic message is also aimed at adults. What Christmas rules your heart – the Christmas of materialism or the Christmas of the King? Johnson tells his story through the eyes of a little girl named Emma and a talking dog named Shu-Shu, along with a few talking horses, mice and a chipmunk who overcomes a bad self-image to become something of a hero. And applying his own lesson, Johnson is giving all the proceeds of this book to a special cause, which you can read about at Emily Wierenga’s blog.
Picturing Christmas: A Novella, by Jason Wright and Adrien Fuss. Jason Wright has written a number of popular Christmas stories, including The Christmas Box. In Picturing Christmas, Aubrey Porter, an only child, has just graduated from college and aims to make a career in photography in New York City. What she can’t deal with is her parents’ recent divorce. Her parents are also having a difficult time dealing with it. New York becomes a kind of getaway, with its glamour, Darwinian business practices, and street crime. She meets Jole Muller, a young and successful entrepreneur who has sought New York for his own kind of getaway. Picturing Christmas is a love story but it’s one with a strong dash of realism.

Vermont November: Poems, by Jonathan Neske. With all the controversy swirling in the publishing world over e-books versus traditional publishing, one positive thing about electronic publishing is the ability to create a poetry chapbook. This is a small collection of poems, written by Neske as he stayed a friend’s cabin in Vermont. The poems reflect much of the season and the natural world he experiences – the winter, the wind, what he sees on a given day, simple working tasks like chopping wood, and the snow thaw. The collection even includes a short, short ghost story. The poems are beautiful.

Why We Run from God’s Love, by Ed Cyzewski. This is actually more of an e-article than an e-book, and bit it thought-provoking and the subject will be familiar to many Christians (including me). Cyzewski found himself struggling to pray, and much of it had to do with how much he was running and the busyness that fills up a life. “the problem with loving Jesus, at least for me,” he writes, “is that I can’t see him.” He needs to touch the Lord, because he feels the gap between himself and God.

Photograph by Kajoch Adras via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Jean Fleming’s “Pursue the Intentional Life”

The art of the journal is practiced for any number of reasons – to remember what we might forget; make observations; remember significant words, phrases, quotations, and ideas; take notes; and so on. It was some years ago that I noticed people at work beginning to take up “journaling” – to keep track of the multitude of meetings required in modern organizational work life.

I keep a journal, too, for all of the above reasons, but most of all for writing drafts of articles, blog posts, and poems. Sometimes I combine several of those journaling functions – and take notes from a sermon in the form of poems, for example.

Jean Fleming is a mother, grandmother, and former member of The Navigators staff, with assignments in California, Korea, Colorado, Arizona, Seattle, and Colorado. She is also the author of several books: A Mother’s Heart, Feeding Your Soul: A Quiet Time Handbook, Finding Focus in a Whirlwind World, and The Homesick Heart: Longing for Spiritual Intimacy. Fleming also keeps a journal, which has been transformed into Pursue the Intentional Life.

This is not simply a reprint of a writer’s notes, jottings, and observations. Instead, Fleming has created a cohesive understanding of why life should be pursued intentionally, that life is not simply something “that happens” but is instead filled with purpose and meaning, and often profound meaning.

“Numbering my days,” she writes, “forces me to confront universal and irreducible truths. Life is short. Soon my life on earth will give way to my life in heaven. Rather than leading to panic, the reality leads to a peaceful and settled urgency. Although thoughts of heaven are so lovely to consider, the Lord reminds me that my short stay on earth is my only chance to honor Him with faith and faithfulness. Isn’t this, after all, gaining a heart of wisdom?”

And gaining a heart of wisdom is what lies at the core of Pursue the Intentional Life. This is a book meant to be read slowly and savored, with wisdom and experience reflected on every page. It isn’t a “finding joy in 10 easy steps” book that can be devoured in a few hours and then tossed aside, forgotten like most of those books should be. It is a thoughtful, carefully constructed, work, filled with what Fleming has learned about faith, life and God over a lifetime.

She also de-romanticizes what a life of faith is, even including a chapter with that title. Life is hard. Faith is hard. But both life and faith offer great reward.

Pursue the Intentional Life is what I’d call a wisdom book. It’s not a book that could have been written by a millennial or a GenX-er. It’s not a book written for people focused on time management and squeezing even more activities into a hectic schedule. It is a book written, as writer Monica Sharman suggests in the foreword, for people asking the question, “What kind of woman (or man) am I becoming?”

And Fleming answers that question with insight and grace.

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

Thursday, December 26, 2013

William Brown’s “Aim True, My Brothers”

Ibrahim Al-Bari is highly skilled terrorist, trained in Afghanistan and Iraq. His last operation in Israel was both a success for attacking a bus in a rural area but also a failure for the death of his brothers. He’s determined to punish America. He wants to do it in as a spectacular way as possible. And so he arrives in America via Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., and implementation of his plan gets underway. He’s barely through U.S. Customs when he makes his first killing. Al-Bari knows how to use an ice pick

Because of his connections with security at the Egyptian Embassy, FBI agent Eddie Barnett learns that Al-Bari is in the country under an assumed name (and passport). He teams up with Moustapha Khalidi, chief of security for the embassy, and they begin looking for the needle in the haystack that is Al-Bari in America.

Barnett and Khalidi are joined by Rachel Ullman, a colonel in the Israeli army and an agent for Mossad. Ullman, scarred by the deaths of her husband and daughter, has become a lethal killing machine.

The three don’t have much time. The target is the President, and the plan is to launch the attack while he’s making a major (and televised) speech at Yorktown. But they don’t know that; they only know an operation is planned.

And so writer William Brown swerves another espionage thriller in Aim True, My Brothers.
And this one is just as “hang on by your fingernails” a suspense story as his The Undertaker, Winner Lose All, Thursday at Noon, and Amongst My Enemies. I’ve read them all and they’re all riveting works.

Brown swiftly moves the story from the back streets of Washington, D.C., northern Israel, to Boston, the White House, and historic Virginia. The reader is given the story through the action of Al-Bari the terrorist as he moves toward the culmination of his plan and how the three agents begin to track him. And Brown mixes in international politics and a nice dose of betrayal.

Aim True, My Brothers is fast-paced and well written, with a sense of immediacy and a story that could have been taken from today’s headlines.

Related - my reviews of:

Photograph: Yorktown Visitors Center, Yorktown, Virginia.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A different choir

A different choir:
donkey brays
cattle low
sheep bleat
wood creaks

out in the fields
the choir sings

in holy terror
terrifying songs
terrifying words

here in this quiet
dirty place fit
for animals
a different choir
a different chorus

a baby’s cry

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

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Poetry at Work: Clement Moore and the Work of St. Nicholas

Over about 25 years in the 19th century, three events helped create the Christmas holiday celebration we know today. One was Charles Dickens and his series of Christmas stories, beginning with A Christmas Carol. Second was Queen Victoria’s embrace of the Christmas tree as a holiday tradition. But before both of those, and across the Atlantic, was a poem.

Clement Moore, the son of a clergyman and soon to become a professor at a theological seminary, wrote a poem for his children in 1822. And he recited it to them. Word spread, and the following year “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published in a newspaper. We know better by its first line, “’Twas the night before Christmas.” The poem became widely known and included in anthologies, volumes of poetry, holiday publications, and newspaper articles. Various versions of the poem have been produced over the years; one popular one for those of us born and raised in New Orleans and south Louisiana is The Cajun Night Before Christmas, which I can still be compelled to read aloud by my family, complete with Cajun accent, which I don’t have but can imitate fairly well (I will admit to being one fourth Cajun from a genetic perspective).

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

Monday, December 23, 2013

Going to the Movies

The first movie I can remember seeing is Walt Disney’s Bambi. My mother took me to the theater to see it, and I cried when Bambi’s mother was killed. I was about five.

That first movie experience contained two themes that affected the rest of my movie-going life. The first is that I cried; I am a schmuck when it comes to crying at movies. I have embarrassed myself countless times with dates in high school and college and my wife for the last 40 years. I cry at movies.

The second theme is “my mother took me.” From That first experience with Bambi until I was about 12, I was my mother’s movie partner. She loved movies (she called it “going to the show”); my father did not. The two movies that had shaped her adolescence and movie-going life were The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. Consequently, they shaped mine as well.

The last movie I can recall her taking me to was Mary Poppins. I can still sing most of the lyrics from the movie’s songs. The same is true for the lyrics for The Sound of Music and Hello Dolly.

By the time I was in high school, movies were changing. The Sound of Music gave way to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. My college years brought Easy Rider and Deliverance, although I did manage to sneak in Man of La Mancha (Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren) and Cabaret.

Movies have helped shaped my life, as they have most of us alive today. I still go to the movies. My wife and I prefer “smaller” art house movies like Babette’s Feast and Chocolat; this past weekend we saw Philomena with Judy Dench and enjoyed it. But we also like the bigger blockbusters, too, like Chariots of Fire (perhaps my all-time favorite movie), Slumdog Millionaire (I love the Bollywood ending) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

We’re both more discerning about movies now than we used to be. We’re more conscious of propaganda masquerading as art, although I think that’s more common to commercial television entertainment than to movies. I don’t like movies with violence, especially violence involving children (although that was certainly a theme of Slumdog Millionaire). I don’t generally like war movies, although The Lord of the Rings movies were filled with it, and I thoroughly enjoyed The Book Thief recently. But I pay attention to reviews and movie trailers, both of which help the decision-making process for what movies to see.

I don’t participate in movie boycotts. If something seems blasphemous or offensive or disgusting; I simply don’t go to it, no matter what the local and national critics might say. But I don’t sign petitions and all the rest of that stuff; they only serve to give publicity to what otherwise will likely sink out of sight into the pit of mediocrity and bad films.

In Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty, Brett McCracken truly shines in his three chapters devoted to movies. He loves the cinema; he’s been a movie critic since his college days; and the reader can sense his deep, profound engagement with film. But that doesn’t mean he embraces everything, regardless of content. In fact, he offers what he calls “five considerations for how far is too far” in choosing to watch a movie (or a TV program):

·       What is your own weakness, one that may be affected by what you see?
·       What are the weaknesses in your community?
·       Is it beneficial?
·       Has the filmmaker earned the right – does the content serve an aesthetic purpose?
·       Have you prayed about it?

Those are necessarily easy questions to answer, but they are good questions for determining what movies to see.

Over at The High Calling, we’re discussing Gray Matters. To see what the discussion is this week, and what others have to say about movies, please visit The High Calling.

Photograph by TaniaMaria Cabrera via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent: First to Know

Not to kings
not to rulers
not to wealth
not to merchants
not to priests
not to soldiers
not to fame
or celebrity
not to power
but to those
on the edge, those
unclean, those
who were outcast,
those, who knew
the need for

Painting: Adoration of the Shepherds, by Rembrandt or pupil of Rembrandt (1646). National Gallery of Art, London. For a discussion of who the artist may have been, see the National Gallery’s article on the painting.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

“Poetry at Work” Available at Barnes and Noble

My new book, Poetry at Work, is now available at Barnes and Noble in both paperback and Nook versions. 

And poet and poetry editor Mary Harwell Sayler posted a five-start review at Amazon today. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Poet as Priest

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

Mary Karr is one those rare individuals in poetry – a success. She’s won a Guggenheim Fellowship; Pushcart prizes; and a number of prominent awards and recognitions. She’s written two bestselling memoirs (The Liar’s Club and Cherry), and her poetry is often featured in The New Yorker. She’s currently a professor of English Literature at Syracuse University.

Karr is also a Roman Catholic, a practicing Roman Catholic, and she came to faith late, she says, after spending the first 40 years as an agnostic. And she explores and discusses her faith in her poetry and her essays.

In its essential grittiness, her poetry and non-fiction work can be compared to the writing of Anne Lamott. But it is distinctive, with its own voice, and that distinctiveness, marked by a keen self-awareness, approachability and often outright humor, can be seen in her 2006 collection Sinners Welcome: Poems. Consider this account of the birth and life of Christ in “Descending Theology: Christ Human:”

            Such a short voyage for a god,
and you arrived in animal form so as not
            to scorch us with your glory.
Your mask was an infant’s head on a limp stalk,
            sticky eyes smeared blind,
limbs rendered useless in swaddle.
            You came among beasts
as one, came into our care or its lack, came crying
as we all do, because the human frame
is a crucifix, each skeleton borne a lifetime.
            Any wanting soul lain
prostrate on a floor to receive a pouring of sunlight
            might – if still enough,
feel your cross buried in the flesh.
            One has only to surrender,
you preached, open both arms to the inner,
            the ever-present hold,
out-reaching every want. It’s in the form
            embedded, love adamant as bone.
In a breath, we can bloom and almost be you.

In an essay for Poetry (included in Sinners Welcome), Karr described how poetry, from a very early age, may have anticipated her eventual found faith.”Poets were my first priests,” she writes, “and poetry itself my first altar. It was a lot of other firsts, too, of course: first classroom/chatroom/confessional. But it was most crucially the first source of awe for me, partly because of how it could ease my sense of isolation: it was a line thrown from seemingly glorious Others to my drear-minded self.”

She goes on – the essay is fascinating – but it’s worthwhile to pause and ask what it is about poetry that could inspire such a response in a young girl growing up in a Texas oil town where “bookishness” was not exactly an advantage. Poetry indeed suggests something higher – it moves out of the plane of narrative and story into a plane of speech and memory.

Try this experiment: read Karr’s poem above again, and then read it aloud. Something happens in the speaking: we fall into a voice and cadence that is not part of everyday conversation, and yet we recognize it. It is familiar. We know this voice, this sound, even if it we’re not quite sure of its origin.

It could be a faint echo, a very faint echo, of the voice that spoke creation into being: “Let there be,” and there was. Order was brought out of chaos, and it became recognizable, something that the best poets, and even very good poets, do routinely.

It’s no wonder that Karr refers to poets as her first priests.

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

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Books I’m Not Recommending for Christmas

I’ve noted before that I don’t recommend books for Christmas. For me, books are personal, and about the only person who knows how to find a book that I’ll like is my wife.

That said. A lot of good books that I read were published this year, and some were published earlier but I only caught up with them this year. No surprise: the list is heavy on poetry. And my publisher would give me a dark look if I didn’t at least mention Poetry at Work, which would make a fine gift and a timely one, given that National Poetry at Work Day is Jan. 14.

So, I mentioned it. And here’s the rest of the list of books I’m not recommending for Christmas this year.


Christian Wiman’s Every Riven Thing: Poems

Poet in New York by Federico Garcia Lorca

Bone Fires: Poems by Mark Jarman

Metaphysical Dog: Poems by Frank Bidart

99 Psalms by SAID

Weak Devotions: Poems by Luke Hankins

The Customs House by Andrew Motion

Fallow Field: Poems by Scott Edward Anderson

Crow by Ted Hughes


When Mockingbirds Sing by Bill Coffey

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

Thunder and Rain by Charles Martin


January Justice by Athol Dickson

Hurt by Travis Thrasher

Winner Lose All by William Brown

Litany of Secrets by Luke Davis

The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Warren Adams

The Tenth Plague by Adam Blumer


Dragonfyre by Ian Thomas Curtis

The Crystal Scepter by C.S. Lakin

The Glade Series by Martha Orlando: A Trip, A Tryst and a Terror; Children in the Garden; and The Moment of Truth.


A Week in the Life of Corinth by Ben Witherington

Life After Art by Matt Appling

Activist Faith by Dillon Burroughs, Daniel Darling and Dan King

My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman

The Furious Longing of God by Brennan Manning

History/Biography/Literary Study

The Genius of Dickens by Michael Slater

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior


Growth in Leadership by Dr. Larry Little and David Rupert

Photograph by Nick Bell via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.