Monday, September 30, 2013

Born to create

You read a book like Matt Appling’s Life After Art, and you remember things long buried and forgotten in memory.

What I remembered was that I wrote poetry in high school.

It wasn’t love poetry. If I remember correctly, it had more of an apocalyptic, alienated bent to it. And I actually held on to the poems for years, stuck in a box or old filing cabinet in the basement. I went looking for it recently, but it wasn’t where I thought it would be.

What I can’t recall is what prompted me to write poetry in the first place. I would have been 16 or 17. This was at least a few years before I knew that writing forever would be a part of my life.

Forty years would pass before I started writing poetry again. And I can’t really explain why I did this time, either.

But I think it has something to do with the idea of beauty.

I was trained as a journalist, and have spent most of my career in public relations.

You have to look hard to find beauty in journalism or public relations. It’s there, of course, as it is in all of life, but journalism is a lot about ugliness, and public relations is, too, for that matter.

“The world is full of ugliness,” Appling writes. “It is desperately searching for beauty. And even the beauty the world thinks it finds is usually ugliness in disguise.”

I was in a boringly routine meeting at work when I first began to hear the beauty of work, a kind of poetry pouring forth from the repetition of the same thoughts, ideas, words, and sentences. At first I thought I was hearing things, but as I continued to listen, I discovered there was beauty in some the most mundane aspects of my workplace (a meeting, no less!).

The novelist Athol Dickson has written a lot about beauty, and it what he strives for in his stories. “Maybe we’re embarrassed by the idea of discussing beauty in our work,” he says. “Maybe we feel it is immodest to admit pursuit of such a goal. Or maybe we’re intimidated by the subject. Maybe we fear open talk of beauty makes us more accountable for its absence from our words.” (The whole article is here.)

It’s one thing to say something is beautifully written. It’s quite another to say the writing is beauty, that beauty is what we strive for because it is beauty that so distinguishes the work of God from the work of humanity.

Beauty points to God. We are creators, and the beauty we create points to God.

At The High Calling, we’ve been discussing Life After Art this month. Today concludes the discussion. To see what others are saying, please The High Calling.

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

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The blue ceiling

I keep looking at the blue ceiling
royal blue ceiling
crisscrossed by white timbers
framing the blue ceiling and think
of the blue heaven and the white bridge
to the blue heaven, the one way,
and consider the blue heaven
framing the white timbers
the heaven highlighting the one way.

The blue heaven remains, unchanged,
blue highlighting white
white highlighting blue
and I keep expecting to see the flames
of red, orange red, to lighten
the dark places
the dark spaces
the dark interiors.

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

Friday, September 27, 2013

We Are the Church (Part 2)

When we stayed in London earlier this month, our hotel was right near (same block as) Westminster Chapel, a rather Victorian building (a variant on faux Romanesque). It had services on Sunday at 11 and 5:30, and other programs were advertised on the church doors, like Comedy Night on Mondays.

I looked up the church online – door to door from our hotel to the church, it might have been all of 90 seconds. And I discovered that this was the church where G. Campbell Morgan and David Martyn Lloyd-Jones had been pastors. The church had a long history of evangelism and outreach.

And, as it turned out, it still does.

On our last Sunday in London, I went to the 11 a.m. service. Keep in mind where this church is – three blocks from Westminster Abbey and Parliament, three blocks from Westminster Cathedral, three blocks from Buckingham Palace, and about two blocks from Scotland Yard. The area is called St. James Park, and it’s an interesting area for a church to be surrounded by all that royal, ecclesiastical and government power.

The interior of the church is what I would call “plainly beautiful” – a royal blue ceiling with white crossbeams (see the photo), unstained leaded glass windows, double balconies that curve like horseshoes around the interior until it reaches a beautiful and large pipe organ.

There were about 250 people waiting for the service to begin. The building could hold more – likely 1,500 or so.

The preacher that Sunday wasn't the regular minister but a member of the staff (who confessed during the sermon that he was a former attorney).

The worship service was contemporary, which for some odd reason didn't seem out of place int hat old building. I think the reason was the congregation.

To be alliterative, I would call the congregation demonstrably demographically diverse.

Young. Old. Children, Babies. Singles. Families. Various racial backgrounds. In fact, likely all of the major racial backgrounds. The congregation was not homogeneous by any stretch of the imagination.

Some of the hymns were familiar (if a Chris Tomlin song can be considered a hymn). Some weren't familiar at all. The minister, in blue jeans and open collared shirt, was a gifted preacher.

But what I found most remarkable was the prayer time, two of them, in fact.

The individual prayers were not silent. They were spoken aloud. Gradually, as more and more people prayed – aloud – the murmuring grew collectively louder. And it seemed to combine and become one, a fusion of many voices of many people becoming one voice.

A voice called the church.


Thursday, September 26, 2013

We Are the Church (Part 1)

Earlier this month, we had the privilege and blessing to spend two weeks in London. And on one day, we took the train to Canterbury.

In my ignorance or perhaps arrogance, I thought I would prepare for our Canterbury visit by reading Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (modern-day prose version; I’m not into Old English).

It’s one of the seminal works of the English language, and Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the King James Version of the Bible largely accomplished what we know today as English. And I had a new purchase on my Kindle – Peter Ackroyd’s translation of Chuacer’s great stories.

I started reading on the plane to London, and continued reading once we arrived. But it took actually going to Canterbury to realize I had read the wrong thing. Chaucer might be a preparation for taking the trip to Canterbury,a nd our train from London stopped at so many places that I might have read the entire work in the time it took to get there. (I exaggerate.) (Slightly.)

The temptation is to think, especially in a place like England, that Canterbury would be “just another cathedral.” And cathedral it is, and a beautiful one that managed to survive Henry the VIII, Oliver Cromwell, and Hitler’s Luftwaffe. It might be argued which one was the more destructive; the cathderal’s audio tour made it clear that Cromwell will never be forgiven.)

But Canterbury turned out to be more than the cathedral it is, much more.

At 3 p.m., as I stood in the choir of this great cathedral, a voice came over the loudspeaker, asking everyone to remain in place for a short prayer. Hundreds of people stopped whatever they were doing or looking at, and we listened.

It was a short prayer, followed by a request to join in the saying of the Lord’s Prayer. And in that moment, hundreds of voices began to recite the well known words.

We were British, American, French, German, Japanese, Chinese, various African nationalities, Russian, Eastern European, Spanish, Italian – and we all recited the Lord’s Prayer together. In English. I was standing next to a sizeable group of Japanese tourists, and they all recited the prayer in English.

We were all in the middle of this beautiful edifice called Canterbury Cathedral, hundreds and thousands of miles away from our homes.

And in the moment, we were the church.

Photograph: The choir of Canterbury Cathedral, where I stood during the prayer time.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Suffering and Why

For a year, my work had been intense. Some organizational changes reduced resources, just as major calls on those resources were getting underway. It was one of those perfect storms. The work mushroomed; the resources didn’t. the resources were diverted to whatever was the fashion of the moment.

And it didn’t get any better. The work demands grew in intensity. It became so intense, in fact, that I had to do something once unthinkable for me – I “triaged” the work, and determined what simply wasn’t going to get done.

There was a cost for this, of course. There was an organizational cost, and there was a personal cost. More than once I silently asked the question, “When is this going to end?”

I didn’t think that it might not end. I didn’t consider that this might be a permanent state of affairs.

Things changed, eventually. But the change happened slowly, and in ways I didn’t expect.

I look back on that time today, and I still don’t know if I can see the point. Perhaps that’s the point – there wasn’t one. Perhaps it was a simple demonstration of a broken human workplace, inhabited by broken human beings.

As difficult as it was, it wasn't a life-threatening event. It wasn’t a serious illness or loss of a loved one. This wasn't the horror of the Holocaust or genocide. There are many more worse things to experience than a broken workplace. And I wasn’t Bob Cratchit working for Ebenezer Scrooge.

But it was hard. It was daily, very daily. It became hard to get up each day and try to look forward to work. It became hard not to become a clock watcher.

And the circumstances led to an inevitable question, one that Bob Sorge asks in The Fire of Delayed Answers.

“Is it God’s will for me to suffer in this way at this present time?”

In his own case, the answer to the question was yes.

And as I’m drawn to the same answer, I don’t want to be. I don’t want to think through the implications of that “yes.” And yet the “yes” is plainly there.

The “yes,” of course, is immediately followed by “why.” And there’s no good answer to “why,” no humanly understandable answer. This is the question of suffering so often asked – if there is a God, why does he allow suffering?

The honest answer is “I don’t know.” A theological answer is probably readily at hand, but when someone is suffering, the last thing they want is a treatise on theology. Or being told there must be some major sin in their life.

Pat answers to suffering have been around a long time. Since the Book of Job was first written, in fact, and it’s the oldest book of the Bible. The answers weren’t very satisfying then, either.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’re reading The Fire of Delayed Answers. To see what others had to say about this chapter, “The Perseverance of Job,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.

Photograph of the Holocaust Monument, Moscow, by Lynn Greyling via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Glass, no stain

The window glass is not clear
but it is not colored, no stain
to reflect reds, yellows, blues.
The light filters through,
suffusing and bathing the interior
and this on a cloudy day.

This poem is submitted to Open Link Night at dVerse Poets. To see more poems, pleasevisit the siteThe links will be live at 2 p.m. Central time today. 

The poem was inspired by my attending a Sunday service at Westminster Chapel, London.

Photograph via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Poets and Poems: 99 Psalms by SAID

He came to Germany to study engineering, and stayed because he was a bit too anti-Shah in his native Iran. The shah was overthrown, but his prospects were no better under the revolutionary Islamic regime. So he stayed in Germany, and wrote poetry.

His name is SAID, pronounced “Sah-EED.” He’s a leading poet in Germany, and has published several collections (in German). And now Mark Burrows, translator of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Prayers of a Young Poet, has translated  SAID’s most recent collection of poetry, 99 Psalms, published by Paraclete Press.

It is a perplexing volume of poetry.

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

Monday, September 23, 2013

Failure is an Option

One of the most intense movies I’ve ever watched is Apollo 13, the story of the space mission that was to land on the moon but went awry. Based on the true story of the ill-fated mission, it was a gripping tale starring Tom Hanks, Ed Harris, Kevin Bacon, and Gary Sinise.

At one point, Ed Harris, playing Gene Kranz at Mission Control in Houston, tells his colleagues that they have no choice but to figure out how to save the astronauts’ lives. “Failure is not an option,” he says – in the movie.

The real Gene Kranz said something like that during the actual crisis, but it took Hollywood to turn what he said into a line both memorable and enshrined in the American cultural lexicon.

In the case of Apollo 13, failure was indeed an option – and three lives hung in the balance. In fact, in anything worth doing, be it space missions, writing a novel, implementing a new program at work, or anything else, failure is always a possibility, and it is always an option. We can experience failure through unforeseen circumstances, and we can choose to fail by the actions we take and the decisions we make.

The question is, is the possibility of failure sufficient to stop us from trying in the first place?

Over the years, I’ve worked for several large organizations, mostly in the corporate and educational fields. Organizations become large for many reasons – marketplace success and natural monopolies (like school districts or county governments) are two of them. One thing all large organizations have in common is the desire to minimize risk.

It’s a natural phenomenon. You become successful, and the desire to remain successful leads you to minimize risk and seek control over things that can upset your success, or challenge your natural monopoly. The problem is that that the desire to control or reduce risk comes with a cost – the stifling of creativity and innovation. Over a long period of time, creativity and innovation can become anti-cultural, which may explain what happens to so many Fortune 500 companies that have disappeared forever.

This desire to avoid risk isn’t limited to large organizations. It also applies to individuals. “It’s our survival instincts that help us judge when to take a risk of failure and when to retreat,” writes Matt Appling in Life After Art. “But we’ve reprogrammed our instincts with the assumption that failure is not an option. So we stay home and protect ourselves from failure and deprive the world of our gifts.”

If we believe in what we’re doing, or what we want to do, we have to accept the reality that failure is an option. Creativity is dangerous. It upends the status quo. It challenges vested interests. It challenges the whole notion of “this is how we do things here.” If we are being creative, we should expect opposition, or worse, indifference.

Failure is always an option. The fear of failure is always present.

We can play it safe. Or we can choose to create, knowing we may fall flat on our faces.

We’re discussing Life After Art over at The High Calling. To see the discussion, please visit the site.

Photograph: The damaged Apollo 13 Service Module, seen after separation from the Command and Lunar module; via Wikipedia.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The sea was a sheet of glass

The sea was a sheet of glass,
no wind offering even a tiny wave,
or a small whiteness riding a swell.
Was this the Sea of Galilee before
the storm, before Jesus slept
in the boat, before John baptized,
before Peter walked, and Lazarus
rose, and the young girl lived,
and the woman drew the water
from the well?

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

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Saturday Good Reads: The Music of Rich Mullins Lives

He died 16 years ago, but his music lives on. Brandon Heath and Third Day recently recorded "Creed."

Friday, September 20, 2013

The brother was walking

The brother was walking
   to the side chapel when
   the air split in half knocking
   him to the stone floor.

On his back he looked up
   to see faces peering down
   but not seeing him instead
   seeing what the brother

Could see: a ruin of stones.
   Looking up from where he lay
   In the grass he sees the ruins
   around him, only foundation stones

Visible, the walls and windows
   gone, the shrines vanished,
   the towers crumbled, the altar
   gone, the statues of the saints

Disappeared. He watched the sky
   change colors, dark and light
   tumbling one after another in frenetic
   speed, suns and moons rising and

Waning, seasons changing, time
   exploding 0ver his forehead,
   He expected to feel terror but
   Only sensed the rain falling, lightly.

Photograph of St. Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, courtesy Britain Express.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Kaleidoscope of Perspectives

(This article was originally published by The Master’s Artist. The site is still live but ceased publicationmore than a year ago. I’m posting some of my articles here.)

Poet and essayist Nick Samaras grew up a P.K. (preacher’s kid) in England, the island of Patmos in Greece, and Massachusetts. Except he wasn’t exactly a P.K. like we think of a P.K. His father is Bishop Kallistos Samaras, a well known Greek Orthodox theologian and clergyman.

His first book of poetry, Hands of the Saddlemaker: Poems, received the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1991. It’s a wonderful collection, full of poems of distance, separation and measured judgment, as if the time Samaras spent growing up in several different places made him a permanent exile – but one who loved where he was. It’s a tension Samaras carries throughout the poems in this volume.

How he writes also allows an insight into what a poem can do, or perhaps even should do. Consider this one from Hands of the Saddlemaker:

A Plum Night in Jerusalem, Three A.M.

Go out into a dry, blue heat.
Walk alone in a sleeping city.

Leave your friend sleeping.
Curve and wind your way through the old sector.

Come to live only in the oldest sector.
Mark how fine the dust is, how

smooth the cobbled hallways,
how much they are what they are.

Listen to where the report and echo
of your footsteps go, how

many years they travel back.
Know that a city is in its deserted hours.

Know that to be alone is to be for once yourself.
And know there are

stones that breathe.
Stones that remember you,

remember the weight of your stance,
where you’ve come from and are

going for years. 

The first time I read this poem, I saw the words of a traveler or visitor, exploring the city of Jerusalem, walking through the old city in the early morning hours, while it is still dark. To find himself, he has to separate himself from those he knows, yet the stones he walks on recognize him.

Now reread the poem, and imagine that it is Jesus who is speaking. See how the meaning changes, how the words themselves become something different. This could be Jesus in the middle of his ministry, walking though a city he loves, knowing that alone he can be who he really is, and yet the very stones (one expects them to cry out) know his identity.

I read the poem a third time and imagined the speaker was Paul. He has returned after a long absence, possibly his “wilderness years,” and he has left his friend Barnabas sleeping while he walks through the city he knew as a student of Gamaliel – a very different perspective, almost a different lifetime. This was my own particular favorite reading. You can also try it with Pontius Pilate as the speaker – and it’s just as interesting.

This poem does what good poems do. It encourages you to read the same words but find something new each time, leaving something ambiguous enough where you have to go back and reread it. And then you find something unexpected. Or, as in the case, the perspective itself is ambiguous, and the meaning changes depending upon who is actually speaking.

And so a poem ostensibly about walking around a city at 3 a.m. becomes a meditation of faith and understanding.

Photograph by Ron Mzr via Public DomainPictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Perseverance, Nor Patience

Until I read The Fire of Delayed Answers by Bob Sorge, I never questioned where the expression “the patience of Job” came from.

“Keep in mind that Job wasn’t writing a book of the Bible,” Sorge writes. “He was journaling his honest, gut-wrenching wrestlings with God. He’s not tiptoeing through the tulips in his discourses, trying to say it nicely, nor is he trying to keep from offending God. You’re getting him in the privacy of his inner thoughts, and in that transparency we see a man who survived a horrific ordeal but never relinquished his fundamental faith in and trust in God.”

That’s not a description of patience. It doesn’t resemble anything close to patience.

So when, and where, did we come to associate Job with patience?

I looked up “the patience of Job.” Every reference associated with the story on the Bible. Most acknowledged that it had at some time in the past become proverbial. All referred to Job’s faith in waiting on God to answer him.

What I found most interesting, though, was that these are explanations that have the big picture – that know how the Book of Job ends. God restores (or replaces) Job’s family and possessions. All’s well that ends well.

But when Job is going through the trials he endured – loss of his family, destruction of his property, physical affliction, and no help from his friends – he doesn’t know how the story will end. He is suffering unimaginable physical and emotional agonies, and he has no idea of whether or not God will hear and answer his cries.

Job is adrift in a ferocious storm, and he has no idea when or if the storm will end.

This isn’t patience. This is perseverance. This is hanging on by your fingernails, and they’re breaking apart.

Job’s wife tells him to curse God and die. He refuses to do that, but still he hurts and questions – he profoundly questions God. He slips into serious depression. He feels utterly alone and utterly abandoned, and his friends and their wisdom are worse than useless.

He doesn’t wait patiently, believing that good things are just around the corner.

He perseveres.

That’s what Job is about.


Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’re reading The Fire of Delayed Answers. This week’s discussion is on chapter 2, “The Perseverance of Job.” To see more posts on this chapter, please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Poets and Poems: Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith doesn’t read her poetry. She performs it. Her performances fuse poetry and acting into something distinctly, well, distinctly Patricia Smith.

Her performances aside (for the moment), consider her literary accomplishments.

She’s the author of six collections of poetry: Life According to Motown (1991);  Big Towns, Big Talk: Poems (1992); Close to Death (1993); Teahouse of the Almighty (2006); Blood Dazzler (2008);  and Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012).

She’s written a children’s book, Janna and the Kings (2003) and is the co-author of Africans in America (1998), the companion book for the television series by WGBH.

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

Monday, September 16, 2013

Coloring Inside the Lines

It’s a lesson few of us like to learn.

“God created a world constrained by gravity, constrained by innumerable physical laws,” writes Matt Appling in Life After Art. “He created animal and plant life, each kind with its own strengths and limitations. And he created humanity to live and die by all kinds of constraints. God created all of these constraints and limitations—and called them good.”

Not exactly our favorite words.







That’s like seeing a 65-mile-per-hour speed sign on the interstate, and declaring it to be good.

The fact is, though, we all work and live within constraints. It might be legal, or financial, or moral, or ethical. But constraints are our daily fact of life.

My constraints are often called lawyers. And experts.

My day-to-day work is in the freewheeling, Wild West atmosphere of the internet – web, social media, blogs, online news sites. What’s critical to functioning in this kind of environment is speed. Wait too long to respond, and you can find yourself to be roadkill.

Companies and other organizations are not designed or structured for speed; what they are structured for is deliberate consideration by all parties concerned. Lawyers review things; other kinds of experts review things; people seek a calm and orderly approach to anything that must be said publicly. There are reasons for this, including the lawsuit-happy society we live in.

But when you’re dealing with online time, that’s institutional roadkill. Wait too long and you won’t know what hit you.

The need for constraints and limitations run smack up against a world where the very natures of time and speed have fundamentally and profoundly changed, and they have changed forever. Constraints are still needed, but of different kinds and in different ways.

The tension with all of this is sometimes unbearable. They think they’re dealing with the guy who always wants to color outside the lines; what they don’t see is that the lines have changed.

We’re trying to accommodate each other. It’s not easy. I’m constantly chafing against institutional constraints. Some days the response comes way too late to be useful; I ‘m often left with finding someone credible outside the organization who’s already responded or communicated. It can make us look foolish, but foolish is better that looking stupid or arrogant.

As Appling says, constraints and limitations are good. The lines, the design, are what give us order, stability, and even beauty. The trick honoring those limitations – and still doing what’s needed to be done.

And sometimes you have to color outside the lines, and perhaps in the process draw new lines.

Over at The High Calling, we’re discussing Life After Art. To see the discussion on this chapter, “Coloring Inside the Lines,” please visit the site.

Photograph by Junior Libby via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The walk home was long

The walk home was long
across a landscape devastated
destroyed afraid and he found
himself having to beg because
his money was considered
counterfeit worthless confederate.
The walk from Appomattox
to Brookhaven took eight months
through the winter, and arriving,
finally, he found the family
gone, others claiming the homestead,
land fallow, little growing. Told to go
west, he crossed the Mississippi
and the Red, to find his way
to east Texas, largely spared if
occupied. The family, operating
a general store in a nameless time,
farmers become shopkeepers,
and they didn’t know him.
He was 17.

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

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Saturday Serious Reads: What is Happening Here?

I’ve published this blog for more than four years now, and the one subject I’ve largely (if not completely) avoided is politics. Opportunities to talk about politics abound, but I prefer to let others seize them. An argument can be made that the state of American politics has almost always been abysmal, even if today we seem to be searching for new depths. And I’ve generally avoided the subject.

It will be no surprise that I lean to the conservative side. I used to lean a lot more to the conservative side, until the inept response of government at all levels to Hurricane Katrina. People died because of that inept response. And then to learn that the ineptness had been a disaster waiting decades to happen – poor construction of so many of the levees – well, it was more than I could stomach.

I didn’t think the ineptness of Katrina could be surpassed.

Then came Syria.

What my government was preparing to do in Syria – after so badly mismanaging what had come before, not only in Syria but also in Libya and Egypt – compelled me to write letters to my two senators and my congresswoman, urging them all to vote against military action. We’ve demonstrated we don’t understand what’s happening in Syria, and why we believed military action would solve the problem we didn’t understand in the first place was beyond me.

And we still don’t understand the problem. What is happening in Syria is not the good guys versus the evil government, but some good guys (we’re not sure who they are, though) and some bad guys (remember al-Qaida?) sometimes fighting the government, and sometimes each other. And caught in the crossfire are both innocent Muslim civilians and innocent Christian civilians as well. (And here's an interesting note: Christians are being killed and churches destroyed, and not by the Assad government.)

Of all the things I’ve seen and read, what’s made the most sense to me are some comments by Christian speaker and apologist Ravi Zacharias. And it makes the most sense because all we have right now are questions and uncertainties, and no real understanding of what's happening in Syria, or why.

Top photograph: Wounded civilians arrive at a hospital in Aleppo, Syria, October 2012; photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.