Saturday, December 15, 2012

Not Just a Survival Story

Life of PiLife of Pi by Yann Martel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The narrator of Life of Pi tells us that his story will make its hearers "believe in God." I'm not sure any story can quite live up to that. However, this novel's journey certainly isn't limited to what the protagonist endures at sea.

The novel is divided into three sections. Each is named for a place, which is a bit ironic, since the protagonist's sense of place has been disturbed by the events of his life. In the first section, "Toronto and Pondicherry," we meet Pi as the adult looking back over his life and story. He tells about his desire to learn about religion and how he become Christian, Muslim, and Hindu at once. This part provides most of the comic part of the story, but also lets us in on what sort of person young Pi is before the tragedy that marks his life.

Part Two, "The Pacific Ocean," is the longest part of the book. It tells of the accident which brought Pi to be lost at sea with Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. (On board the lifeboat is also a severely injured zebra, and orangutan, and a hyena, but they don't last long.) This is where the narrative really takes off, as one might expect. Having no nautical training or knowledge of survival skills, I cannot tell how realistic this adventure really is. However, Martel's narrator is so detailed about what he does to fashion a raft, catch turtles and fish to eat, and training the tiger, that I could not help but believe it all was true. The prose here is striking and vivid, better than the first section, the reader left to believe on the story's own merits.

The last section is called "Benito Juarez Infirmary, Tomatlan Mexico." It is here where Pi, after 227 days lost at sea, finally finds civilization. While recuperating in a hospital, he is visited by two men representing the Japanese company who owned the downed ship. They do not believe his tale of survival with a tiger and there is an interesting argument about what it means to believe. Pi offers a different version that seems more plausible, but even darker than what readers are likely to think actually happened. At this point, I'm not sure whether we are supposed to choose which version is real. I also cannot decide whether I like that an alternate story has been offered or why.

I can say that for most people the middle section of Life of Pi is going to be the part of the story that most readers will hang on to and remember. But the other two sections are important and keep this from being a mere adventure story. Without them, we only have an incredible physical journey. And most as most of our philosophies and religions teach us, the body is only one segment of the self.

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Recognizing The Beautifully Absurd

Tenth of December: StoriesTenth of December: Stories by George Saunders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tenth of December, George Saunders’ new book, is overwhelming. Reading these stories sometimes gives the effect that one is being pelted with foam bricks. You blink and jump at first because you realize you are being assaulted, but then you realize thrower isn’t trying to injure, just get your attention. That isn’t to say that cumulative effect isn’t painful, even though you pretend everyone is just playing.

"Victory Lap" is a bit confusing, not so much because of the three different points of view, but because it is not clear whether the central action of the story is a rape, a killing, or both or some other type of assault. Perhaps it doesn't really matter. One point of view is from the young girl who has been assaulted. Another is from the attacker. For me the most interesting point of view was from the neighbor boy who seems to have a crush on the girl and who has witnessed some of the event, but we are not quite sure what.

In "Sticks," a pole in the yard become where and how a father expresses what is on his failing mind. Like so many of Saunders' tales, it is both whimsical and sad.

"Puppy" is about a "family mission," led by a hopeful mother to get rid of a family dog it seems only the father doesn't want. The narrator says, "Love was liking someone how he was and doing things to help him get him better." This is a powerful story about the conflict inherent in trying to control one's environment as one gives in to the need for companionship, a theme I sensed from many of Saunders' stories.

Convicted murderers become participants in experiments on behavior and drugs in "Escape from Spiderhead," an engaging and disturbing story. Its tone is well-controlled, and the climax scary and a little beautiful at the same time. This is followed by another story with the absurdity of authority as a principal theme: “Exhortation.” Here a boss tries to encourage his underlings, via memo, to take a more positive attitude and stop second-guessing those in charge. Both stories are comic and tragic, revealing the logical conclusion of the Peter Principle.

In “Al Roosten,” a middle-aged single man participates in a charity auction and thinks of the many ways life has held him down. This is followed by "Home," the story of a court-martialed soldier returns to his wacky, dysfunctional family. When the protagonist arrives, he finds his mother and her recent husband have been evicted and that he isn’t trusted around his sister’s baby. People continue to thank him for his service to the country at the same time they add to his misery.

In “My Chivalric Fiasco,” a man is put in a difficult position when he realizes his boss has had sex with his co-worker. The question of whether the affair was consensual keeps coming up, but never gets quite answered. The protagonist finds out that doing the right thing has negative consequences, not only for him, but for the person he expects to save.

The collection closes with the title story, about an imaginative boy who falls through the ice in a pond after thinking himself a hero to a young girl, and is saved by a man with cancer who is trying to kill himself. The story encapsulates a number of themes found throughout the book: the flights and limits of imagination, the ugly reality of being a hero, the fragility of all existence, and how closely we are connected to people whose existence we are unaware of.

George Saunders' fiction may take some getting used to, particularly for readers who want their stories to have clear cut, happy or sad endings or characters we can easily "relate" to. But like the work of Flannery O'Connor, what we find with Saunders is that the more we look at his characters, the more we recognize them. Then what passes as absurdity becomes frighteningly real.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Just When America Seemed Lost to the Grouchs

America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren'tAmerica Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't by Stephen Colbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Certainly any fan of the The Colbert Report is going to enjoy this book, a zany extension of the television show. But will it be funny to those who don't watch the program? I suppose that depends on how much the reader is comfortable with satire. More and more people seem to take everything literally (thank you arts cutting jerks and literature killing legislators!), so I can't be sure.

I can say that I thought the book was very funny. Perhaps not as hilarious as the show, but funny nonetheless. Chapters on Jobs, Healthcare, and Elections will have fans of the show rolling. But I also enjoyed the sections on Food, Wall Street, and the chapter that should have ended the book "Easy Solutions." (The hysterical "I Am Drunk" chapter, I think, should have been in the middle of the book instead of at the end.)

All in all, this was a fun read. If there is anything Americans really need, it's more laughter. America Again delivers plenty of that.

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Monday, November 19, 2012

Meditation XXV -- Weeping

Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.

The resurrection of Lazarus is one of the most significant parts of the Gospel. Here we see the power of God to triumph over what seems final: death. Here the story of Christ's ministry turns as the chief priests and Pharisees no longer can abide with Him as a prophet and miracle worker, but now see Him as a credible threat to them and their "way of life." Here we see the God who took on our humanity and wept with grief.

We see something else: God who is troubled by our pain. Not only the pain of losing a loved one, but the pain that causes us to set a face to God as say "If only." If only God had done something else or been with us or handled things differently. Some of us don't want to question God, but our hearts betray us. We know God could have kept us and others from that pain, no matter what that pain was. Some of us will say, "Well, God has a plan in this tragedy," but that is little comfort to one who has lost so much or one who suffers so greatly.

Jesus knew what He was going to do (and not do) when He heard of the illness of his friend. Even as He tried to explain His actions to his disciples, he was met with confusion. Sweet Thomas, best known for doubting, even said, "Let us also go, that we may die with him!" Jesus knew that God would be glorified. Jesus knew that Lazarus would be restored to his sisters and the mourners would rejoice. This did not stop Him from being "deeply moved" and "greatly troubled" by the hurting hearts and soul crushing grief he saw around Him.

God understands everything. Nothing escapes His grasp or His notice or His plans for the future. The Scriptures are filled with stories where God took the worst people and situations and made things right. (And most Christians are testimony to this as well.) However, it is also comforting to know, at least for me, that He also hurts along with me, not because I need to see the Lord suffer, but because He cares about my suffering, even as I wait for His redemption.

Jesus, You endured humiliation I could never stand up to and torture I could never endure. You fought death and won, and continue to win over and over. Thank You for this, and also for standing with us as we grieve and as we question and as we look to You for answers it is not time for you to give. Remind us of your Presence as we await the glorious resurrection to new life. Amen.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Sequel of Communion Songs

I enjoy still Frio Suite,the first collaboration by Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy, so when I saw they would release another project together, I was very excited. Both are certainly master craftsmen of their instruments, and the first outing proved to be a tremendous collection.

However, when I first listened to WaterSky, I wondered where the guitars were. Half this duo is one of the greatest guitar players in the world, and I could barely hear what was happening. Sure there were some nice arpeggios and tender effects, but where was the skilled fretwork?

Then I adjusted my chair and found better speakers, and the effect was like getting new ears. Keaggy does play some awesome guitar here, meshing a little better with Johnson's keyboard to create a smoother palette, one suitable for meditation or one's own pursuit of the holy and/or the artistic.

Another fine element to this musical panorama is the percussion and vocal work of keyboardist Jeff Johnson. WaterSky may seem at first to be minimalist with its percussion, but careful listening reveals a sense of a heartbeat in the wilderness waiting on the voice of God.

"When We Were Young" opens the disc with a gentle keyboard melody reminiscent of the No Shadow of Turning, Similtudes, and Born of Water days. Keaggy's guitar on this and other songs reminded me of the classic Wind in the Wheat album. "To Somewhere Else" and the title track follow in these footsteps, segueing wonderfully to create an impression not so much of the ending of one song and the beginning of another, but that attention has been refocused as the undercurrent of spiritual longing remains the same.

Songs like "Air and Light" and "Thermal Dance" are among those where Keaggy's acoustic guitar might seem overshadowed. However, the playing here is more a second layer of beauty, like walking in the woods one way to enjoy the sunrise, only to walk back and take in the sunset.

Two of my favorite songs on this project are "When Cicadas Marched" and "The Cody Incident." In the former, Keaggy plays a unique sounding instrument called a cumbus. On the latter, the duo plays like two haiku masters, bouncing the sharpened melodies off each other in a tune that feels both structured and improvised. Both also change the tune and tempo, like soundtracks for the listener's inner narrative.

"Waltzing By Moonlight" wonderfully closes this set of what I can only call communion songs. Listeners are invited to make their connections to the Creator or the creative force as they understand it, to be still and let the heart and mind do its work or be worked on. WaterSky is not so much a follow up to Frio Suite as it is a sequel for the spirit.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Noetic Prayer and Verse

Love's Immensity: Mystics on the Endless LifeLove's Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life by Scott Cairns
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Love's Immensity is a wonderful collection of sayings, encouragement, wisdom, and observations from many of Christianity's most influential mystics, all put into accessible and often time powerful verse by Scott Cairns. While some of the poems are a bit prosy for me, the overall collection is delightfully edifying.

Making poems of these wonderful words is certainly more than putting line in breaks in, and Cairns handles the task with the aplomb he puts into crafting his own marvelous verse. These poems are not only quite readable, but they seem to take into account the need to be aware of ones breathing and focus, as they not only discuss, but become part of the noetic prayer of the reader who is open to it. For those outside of religious tradition, I think the poems offer unique insight into the world of the mind and spirit.

I believe I will return to this book several times. For anyone on a spiritual journey, this volume is a fine companion.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Meditation XXIV -- Facts

it [Love] does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.

In the well-known parable, the prodigal son returns home to his father after throwing away his inheritance and coming to the realization not only that his wasted life has brought him to ruin, but also that his father's servants are fed better than he is. He makes up his mind to go home, and prepares a speech of repentance. The father, upon seeing his son, throws his arms around the profligate and kisses him. Then he orders a feast to be prepared and they celebrate.

But the older son, the one who had been good, obedient -- righteous, if you will -- was resentful. We are told "he was angry and refused to go in" when his father encouraged him to join the party. Perhaps the "good" son has a point. What sense does it make to celebrate an adult who acts irresponsibly, who worries the father and throws away what everyone else seems to have worked for so he can live in debauchery. Those are the facts, and the older brother cannot see past them to the truth.

We might note that Jesus tells his parable in response to the charge that He "receives sinners and eats with them." He had already told the Pharisees and scribes "there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." Does God then ignore the righteous, those who do good? No. Remember the father says, "all that is mine yours." The father does not say the son who abandoned him, who insisted on his own way and has reaped the fruit of his sin, has done right. The father does not accept the wrong. But he is happy to have his child (and what parent doesn't see the child in the adult?) back safely: "for this your brother was dead, and is alive."

There are facts and there is truth, and we should not confuse the two. The good son could only see the wrong, and not the repentant sinner. And how can we share the good news of Jesus if we only see sin and evil, but not the greater truth of what was done to reconcile all of us with the Father?

Lord, whether we sin or live in Your grace, You are with us and Your Love never fails. It is stronger than the riches You bestow on us or the blessings we think we earn. Make us mindful of your mercy and help us to celebrate every face that turns to You. Amen in Christ.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Meditation XIII -- Mercy

Whoever is wise will ponder these things,
   and consider well the mercies of the Lord.
I am not, whether by nature or upbringing, an upbeat, look on the bright side sort of person. Even when good things happen, I sometime look for the other shoe to drop right on my head. I could ponder this about myself or explore all sorts of theories of personality, but that is for another time. For now, let's say I'm not alone in this way of seeing the world.

What I can say is that most people so much ask "Why me?" concerning their suffering that eventually all suffering becomes an indictment of God. God allowed this suffering or caused that pain for this or that reason. Eventually the question becomes "Why, God, did You do this? Why did You let this happen to me? To those innocent people? To those I love?" I can then speculate, as so many do, or merely give up on God. We can decide He's mean or that He does not exist.

I must be honest. I am not equipped to answer such questions. Perhaps I never will be.

And perhaps I will not be able to quite answer another question, one that may well be even more important: Why is God merciful?

You see, we may be programmed in some way to avoid even considering first that God has mercy. I know that when calamity comes for me or those I care about, my first thought is so often to ask God, "Why this? Why me? Why them? What are You trying to get across to us?" It takes some time for me to consider that even amidst my woes, God has had mercy on me. God has been kind and generous to me and to others (even those who do not acknowledge Him.). A truth unseen does not become less true; however its power may not be evident and even diminished.

Father in Heaven, open us to seeing your beautiful, even if painful, mercy. Let us, today, realize how good You have been, especially when the world seems so lost. Amen.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

After reading

The cat spread on the book in front of me. That book was my Bible, but I suppose I was done reading for the day. I cannot say I was still contemplating the words, but I was not ignoring them either, but perhaps I was expecting them to bounce inside me until something happened. What happened was the cat, who lay across the open words and rolled onto his back and looked up at me expectant.
    I obliged. I stroked his fur and bent my head to listen to him purr. I made a humming sound as I breathed in.
    Then I coughed, and suddenly felt the rawness in my throat I realized had been there some time. The cough, slight though it was, shook the cat, and he looked at me a moment, I was sure with the pinched look of the irritated. But cats can't make that face, can they? Or do they was look so when they stop purring?
    I bent my head against his.face, feeling the loose fur mingling with my beard. The purr returned. I lifted the cat up to my chest and listened.
    There were no other sounds but the fan and the scrape of my feet against the floor. My coffee sat cooling in its cup, and the cat and I waited for God to speak.

Friday, August 31, 2012

What if we prayed?

When there is a calamity on the news, we are almost never there, but so often the horror of it strikes so deep in us, that we feel that we are. When talking heads are arguing over hot button issues, we inwardly argue with or right along with them, even though if we were honest, much of our lives would not be different no matter what the outcome is.

It strikes me that most Christians are more interested in issues than Jesus. They seem more in a hurry to prove a point than to allow Christ to reign. Too many Christians have become issues evangelists and have forgotten the very basics of Christian life, the most significant of which is prayer.

I wasn't ten minutes into watching news coverage of the horrible mass shooting in Aurora, when I knew what I would see as I logged into Facebook. People on all sides of gun issues were posting their thoughts about how things would play out if there were more guns or less guns or if laws allowed this or that. Most of the posts, on both sides, were downright illogical and silly. Then of course came the mocked up pictures and "ecards" with supposedly pithy witticisms that were really the same tired bumper sticker cliches that are really, to use another cliche, preaching to the choir.

And that cliche is apt, at least from what I could see, because most of these posts, vitriolic and vicious, came from Christians.

The urge was strong that day to respond in kind, as so many others did, with my own "reasoning" and explanations of facts. And had I done so, I would likely have spent the day engaged in a number of conversations that would have gone ultimately nowhere and done no more than alientate me from those I care about, make it hard for me to sleep and distract me from the work I had to do.

I chose, instead, to call on my Christian brothers and sisters to pray instead of posting their opinions. I tried to spend time in prayer specifically about this situation and everyone (yes, everyone) involved and affected. I do not write this to say I am an exemplary Christian. I am well aware of Our Lord's mandate to avoid praying in public or publicizing my spiritual life.And I certainly don't want to offer up some sort of formula or panacea for world peace. But I offer the question that perhaps most of us should ask about the controversies and chaos in the world: What if, instead, we prayed?


What if, instead of knee jerk reactions to the terrible things that happen and the horrendous people who have perpetrated and/or allowed them to happen, we took a few minutes to pray for the victims and their families. What if, instead of crying "Monster" toward person who had done something evil, we prayed for those who have become our enemies (don't pretend Jesus didn't tell us to do this), and for the families and friends who must live with the tragedy in a way we could never understand. What if, instead of placing and proclaiming blame to a politician or group or idea, for the hurt and pain that has come into our lives, we prayed for healing and wisdom and strength. What if we prayed for our leaders (another command of Christ) instead of emptying our brains with rhetoric? What if we asked for God's will to be done and for us to be at peace with it, no matter what it is?

What if, instead of reacting to the posts and proclamations on Facebook, we turned the computer off and prayed, for those we want to "correct," and for those whose opinions we agree with and feel compelled to add our own take to?

What if we looked to and relied on the Holy Spirit we say we believe in instead of (or at least before) we went searching the internet or our Bibles for something that backs up our position? Perhaps we need not only to get the mote out of our eyes, but the cross in our hearts before we let loose words we know in our hearts come from anger and fear as much as conviction.


I am not saying these opinions are not deeply felt or even wrong. I do not, in any way, want to minimize the importance of the issues we hold dear. But the truth is, if we are really honest with ourselves, most Christians do not put prayer first and foremost in their lives and when they do it is the perfunctory morning/bedtime prayers that are essentially the same unless we feel a personal attack or something is going wrong in our personal lives. And that is a good reason to take these matters to God in conversation. If they are personal enough to spread our opinions, they should be personal enough to talk to God about. And to shut up long enough to listen. If Christianity is to have the impact in the world we think it should, then shouldn't we want God's perspective and not our own?

Once, when I was trying to teach a class about research, I had a student who proclaimed, "I don't need to do research. I already know what I think." Sadly, more and more Christians take that approach to life. They already think they are right (and well may be), but forget that "being right" isn't enough. All the rhetoric in the world is useless if we are not centered on Jesus and willing to be silent sometimes and let God do the talking.

What did praying do for me? One of the first things it did was put me in a place of calm, where my emotions were not ruling me. One effect was that I did not attack the people who were posting things I not only disagreed with, but felt were harmful and sometimes hateful. I realized after a while that they didn't need correction as much as they needed Christ at the center. I found it easier, a couple of days later, to find more rational conversations and took part in those. 

And guess what, the fact that I did not participate in those conversations right away did not change anything. The dead still were dead. The criminal was still a criminal. The issue of gun control was not, as if it could be, resolved. But I was in a better place to listen to those I disagreed with and to express my thoughts. Or to just let things go.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Caliban's Senryu

The Collected Poems: 1945-1975The Collected Poems: 1945-1975 by Robert Creeley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted so much to love this book, because I have read several Creeley poems here and there and enjoy so much his collaboration with Steve Swallow (Home). But I could only like some of this massive collection. Much of it left me baffled.

I suppose what troubles me is that some of what I enjoyed in reading this book might well be said of poems I could not find much to get excited about. I love the haiku-like quality of several of the poems, and it is the short, compact pieces that got to me. However, several of the short poems just seemed to sit there. No image. No idea. Just words.

Despite the musicality of Creeley's work, several poems seemed to jumble syntax for its own sake and repeat words for no particular reason. Maybe I just missed it. But a few of the poems made me feel that E.E. Cummings and Williams Carlos Williams had created a kind of Caliban, at times tender, but often mumbling semi-coherently.

I did find some beautiful love/erotic poems. And despite my harsh reaction to my first reading, I do think I will need to return to this book and certainly to other Creeley collections. I haven't given up that I'll find more jewels.

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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Not a World of Men

Glengarry Glen RossGlengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"it's not a world of's not a world of men,'s a world of clock watchers, bureaucrats, officeholders"

Glengarry Glen Ross is, on the surface, about men trying to sell real estate. But it is really about more about the lies upon which businesses are made and conducted, lies which layer upon each other and compete with each other until no one has a moral compass, and all are guided the simple idea of "getting what's mine."

The story is also about fairness. The system here rewards the successful with a Cadillac, but punishes the less successful (or unlucky) with the loss of job. But it is also a system where only a few are given the best opportunity to cash in on that success. While the play is set in a particular world, this theme is universal.

While it was sometimes difficult to follow the plot because some details of the setting are not familiar (and Mamet provides next to nothing to help), I managed to keep up and get the hang of the story. Glengarry Glen Ross is a sad, riveting tale, one that needs to be read.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

That Eighth Step's a Doozy

A Drop of the Hard Stuff (Matthew Scudder, #17)A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After dozens and dozens of novels, sixteen of which feature Matt Scudder, one might think Block could mail a few in. But A Drop of the Hard Stuff is a tight, well-crafted story that should delight the fan and those who are new to Block's work (where have you been?).

The novel is told as a flashback, set just before the first anniversary of the protagonist's sobriety. He briefly reconnects with a childhood friend, Jack Ellery, who is killed not long after. Scudder, still an unlicensed detective, is hired by the friend's AA sponsor to look into Ellery's death via his Eighth Step list. (This is a list of people a recovering alcoholic believes she/he has hurt or wronged with the goal of making amends when possible and prudent.)

Scudder is also trying to understand his relationship with Jan and facing new stress about his anniversary, and these weigh heavily on him as he travels New York City (often cited as a character in the Scudder novels) talking to people from Ellery's past and trying to figure out who and why someone would kill him.

I was very intrigued by Scudder's own psychological struggles. I have read novels where he was still drinking and some where he had long been sober, but here readers get a glimpse at the unique circumstance of a psychological middle ground, not new to the changed life, but far from being in the position where he could sponsor others. But none of this information bogs down the novel. It is still a fine page turner, with typically crisp dialogue and intriguing characters.

I had a ball reading A Drop of the Hard Stuff, so much so, I'm ready to go back through the whole series.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Parables, Good Soil, and Vision

Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?

As a teacher, I cannot help but find this verse telling. Jesus asks this of his disciples after quoting from Isaiah and sort of explaining why he uses parables to teach. The others are to "see but not perceive...hear but not understand." But those following Christ are "given the secret of the kingdom of God." Some secret, the disciples, seem to say, if we don't know what the heck you are talking about.

I teach literature every year to students who mostly do not want to read stories and poetry and have so long been conditioned to hate literature that they are actively resistant to it. And thus the joy and wonder and thrill I have in reading is lost on most of them. I try to help them along, and a few do manage, I believe, to get something out of the course. Lots of them say, "Why can't these writers just say what they mean?" I want to answer, "They do." and "Why don't any of us say what we mean?" The problem isn't really with poetry, but with communication. We can do our best to communicate what we think is important, and still not get our message across.

My students often blame the poets. But at what point should we blame the reader? At what point can we admit that we didn't listen well, or at least didn't put ourselves in a position to listen well. Jesus said, "those that were sown on good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit." How do we make ourselves "good soil," so we can hear and read well?

One of my goals as a teacher is to help my students to read well, not only the literal words in front of them, but the world around them. Because poetry is everywhere, not only in words and verses, but in our cars, our math, and in our computers and the rain and sun and the animals we love. We must take in this poetry and learn to interpret our world before reacting to it. We have to hear the parables and cultivate good soil if we ever want abundant life within.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Meditation XXII -- Doctor

Painting by Sieger Koder
"Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?"

How many times have I read the second chapter of the Gospel of Mark and thought about the power and wisdom of God to put those smug, judgmental scribes and Pharisees in their place. And certainly Jesus does this. At the same time he recognizes the humanity of the "sinner" and emphasizes God's love for that sinner.

And how easily we relate to that sinner, saying "God loves me. God calls me. God cares for me." And how quickly we can become smug and judgmental of those worthless scribes and Pharisees.

The truth is we are not always the "sinners" eating dinner with Jesus, but Pharisees complaining about His relationship with the crippled, unclean and unlovable. Search your heart with God's help and you will see.

I am struck when Jesus says, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick," because the Pharisees and scribes should have been the doctors who brought about healing. Yet their "cure" was to create distance, to confuse the sick person with the disease itself! Yet Christ came to heal them (and us) too.

Lord Christ, we are all sick and in need of healing. Let us come to You as Levi did. You called him; he came. Simple as that. May we also open ourselves and our homes to You, and receive healing. So be it.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Movie Notes -- Courageous

In general, I do not like "message" movies. In fact, to say I do not like them is an understatement. I LOATHE them. Most moviegoers don't seem to understand that a good or important message alone cannot make a movie worth the trouble and expense of watching (let alone the trouble and expense of making). That Courageous is brought to us by the same group who gave us the horrendous Facing the Giants did give me room to pause.But I found myself really enjoying this interesting little film.

There are five main characters in Courageous: four policemen and an honest, hard working day laborer. The main character of the story is Adam Mitchell, played by director and co-writer Alex Kendrick. He seems to be the mentor and unofficial leader of the group, someone who wears his faith on his sleeve, but is likable even in his crusty mannerism (or because of them perhaps). When his daughter is killed, he doesn't so much question his faith (as the promo material says), as much as whether he has been and is the father he should have been, saying that "good enough" is not good enough. He eventually decides to make a resolution that he asks his friends to help him stay accountable to, and his friends decide to sign it as well. 

There is more, much more, to the story than this, but that is the gist of the message and the plot, which I'm sure will put off some. But this isn't just about being a good father or a better father or even a biblical father, but about the importance of fatherhood. That also may put off some, but because this story is written  and acted pretty well, and isn't so preachy, I think most people will enjoy the movie, even if they don't buy its basic premise.

I haven't decided if there is too much story or not. On one hand, there is a lot to follow, as each of the other male characters have their own issues to deal with. I loved (and related best with) the character of Javier, and felt that, David,  the one unmarried man in the group (played by Ben Davies) could have had a whole movie about his story. On the other hand, these stories ask a lot of an audience in terms of emotional investment. I can say that the film, for the most part, pulls off all these narratives without leaving gaping holes or confusing the audience. And it is much more honest and gritty a movie than most in its rather narrow genre.

Yes, the movie is hokey in places. Yes, it is heavy-handed with its message in places. But overall, the experience of watching Courageous is quite satisfying and well worth your time.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Bookmarks -- Letters to Malcolm

Letters to Malcolm:  Chiefly on PrayerLetters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After spending several hours of my life reading about the subject, I have come to the conclusion that Prayer is something better discussed than taught. In fact, I will go so far as to say that most "instructional" books on the topic may do the reader more harm than good. They either box the reader in with formulas, often on only one type of prayer, so that when the prayer is successful (whatever that means) a cult member is created, and when unsuccessful (which usually means they didn't get something they didn't need), the reader is left frustrated and lost, thinking she/he didn't have enough faith or wasn't doing it right or is cursed by God.

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer is the kind of book that could and should be read by people faith (even non-christians). I found it quite edifying to read this half-dialogue between two intelligent individuals which covered topics as diverse as whether God is changed by prayer, why pray when God knows our thoughts, and our mental images of God during prayer. Instead of directions and dogma, I found open conversation (Lewis does a good job of letting us know Malcolm's thoughts), that left me in an encouraging state of awe.

We get Lewis' trademark insights into human thought and foibles. On The Lord's Prayer, he writes, "It seems to me that we often, almost sulkily, reject the good that God offers us because, at that moment, we expected some other good." I loved the humor and openness of his remarks on Communion: "The command, after all, was Take, eat; not Take, understand....All this is autobiography, not theology." And I found it comforting to read, "One of the purposes for which God instilled prayer may have been to bear witness that the course of events is not governed like a state but created like a work of art to which every being makes its contribution."

I probably learned more about Prayer from Letters to Malcolm than I have from dozens of books on the subject (some of the best of which have quoted it). I gave my personal reactions to a handful of passages because I'm sure not everyone will respond to this little volume as I have. Maybe that is the beauty of the book. I think it has something for everyone. Like Prayer.

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Bookmarks -- Apocalyptic and Dystopian Tales

Apocalyptic and Dystopian TalesApocalyptic and Dystopian Tales by Celesta Thiessen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

These stories have potential, but read like rough drafts. The ideas are engaging, but that isn't enough to sustain the narratives. Some are more like sketches for novels than developed and smooth short stories. The author has clearly read a good deal, particularly the Book of Revelation. I think she needs to study the form of the short story a little more and revise.

This all seems negative. I found the story "The Carefully Wound Clock" particularly interesting. I do not believe the writer needs to "tone down" her message or ignore her influences. I'd prefer the stories were not so heavy-handed, but that vision of them is more a matter of my taste than the flaws of the material. There is something to build on here. What Celesta Thiessen has to say is worth telling.

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Man of a Certain Rage

Everyday I see more and more evidence that television is not supposed to be for people like me. And by "like me," I mean old enough to remember days when people would write about the Kardashians on bathroom walls instead of in tabloids. As I try to make my way through the middle of summer, I am going to get my crotchety old man on. So turn down your music, pay attention, and stay off my lawn.

Am I the only person who is annoyed by that fake cowboy in the 5-Hour Energy commercials? And by "annoyed," I mean I wanna crush his hat and make him cry so he'll go away. These commercials have two guys (no women) who are smiling and drinking coffee, and Sheriff Stick In The Mud comes in and starts riding them about how coffee will only give them energy for about 45 minutes. Doesn't that guy know that we don't drink coffee for energy? We drink coffee to wake up. We drink coffee because it's cool. We drink coffee because it is part of a social ritual. Have you ever been at work and had someone say, "I'm going to take a 5-hour energy break. Want me to bring you back some?" Any guy ever ask a girl out to a cozy cafe for an "energy shot"? I don't think so.

I do like and admire Abby Wambach. But I have to take her to task for her recent Gatorade commercial. In it, players are coming off the field at halftime of a soccer game. She has this interior monologue where she says this woman "is easy to spot," and the camera shows us an opposing player who is clearly exhausted. During her speech we see the opponent drinking water (gasp!) and Wambach drinking Gatorade. At the height of the monologue, Wambach says, "She's also easy to break." Then we see Wambach shredding defenders and making the other team look like they are stuck in mud. Thanks a lot, Abby! Why not undo any progress we parents have made in getting our kids to be healthy. Way to make it even harder for youth soccer coaches to get their kids to drink water during games instead of sugar filled sports drinks that taste better, but only give kids a ten-minute rush.

And speaking of girls soccer, I watched an interview with speedy Alex Morgan before a friendly between the U.S. Women and Canada. Off the camera there were several young girls watching the talented player,and the interviewer remarked about them and asked questions about being a role model to young girls. And I wondered, why can't she be a role model to young boys too? Why must role modeling be gender specific?

The fact is I have not gotten over the cancellation of two of my favorite shows. Men of a Certain Age was one of the smartest, funniest shows I'd seen in years, and I guess because I happen to be in the age group of the main characters, I  found myself identifying with them. Mostly, I enjoyed the dialogue between the characters, remembering all those breakfasts and lunches of serious hilarity. Okay, the show had low ratings, but it shouldn't have. It won a Peabody and had two Emmy nominations in only two seasons. Curse you, numbers, for you have foiled me again!

And then I find out that another favorite, Harry's Law, has been cancelled as well. Here is a show that actually did have high Nielsen ratings, but not in the 18-49 demographic, so it got axed. I can't figure this out. The show does well, but not with the right people? Why didn't dull stupid Matlock suffer the same fate? Harry's Law dealt with interesting and timely issues, had good drama counterpointed with excellent humor, quirky and thoughtful characters. It was well-written and well-acted. It starred Kathy Freaking Bates! But no, it had to go, I guess because it didn't sell enough acne cream or hot pants to the Bieber crowd.

Sigh. I guess I should resign myself to the fact that if I like something it is not going to last long. (Don't tell the people at CBS that I like Big Bang Theory or The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.) And complaining about it has gotten me tired. So I'm taking a nap. Wake me up when my stories are on.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Meditation XXI -- Appropriate

I am continually surprised when I read the Gospels that anyone considered unclean in Jesus' time ever became clean. There were prescriptions for becoming clean in the Old Testament. But it seems that those who would be in the best place to aid such people instead stood as barriers against them. It is no wonder Our Lord called them "whitewashed tombs"!

Only a couple of chapters before in Matthew's gospel we hear Jesus telling the people, "You will recognize them by their fruits." And what was fruit of the Pharisees? Nothing. If anything, they merely produced more Pharisees. What was the fruit of Jesus? The "unclean" and "untouchable" brought to repentance, serving
and loving God.

Lord, help us to obey You and be willing to dine with the lost, worrying less about what is appropriate and more about being a friend to sinners who need You. Let us all, no matter how unworthy the world says we are, sit at Your Table and dine with You, our compassionate Savior. Amen.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Meditation XX -- Speak

It was curious to me that after Peter said this to the authorities who threatened them, he and the other believers gathered together to pray for boldness. Before Peter said this, he had spoken about the resurrection of Jesus and the priests and elders had noted he and John’s boldness.

Before the coming of the Holy Spirit, these men hid in fear. With good reason, they worried that they would suffer the same fate as their leader. They didn’t worry about what to say, but whether they would survive. Easily, they could forget Jesus’ words: “And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what to say.

Peter here has no reason now to fear the authorities unless he is only concerned about his body or his standing in the synagogue. No sane person wants to be put to death or booted from her or his church. But a sane person might be willing for either if the cause is right. Peter is more concerned with what is right. And he is compelled, now that he has been filled with the Holy Spirit, to speak of the resurrection. For Peter, Christ’s resurrection was reality. The priests and elders did not want the resurrection to be a reality, and they reacted as fearful men do.

It is not that we must challenge others with the Gospel. The
Gospel is challenging enough. Remember that the leaders confronted Peter and John, not the other way around. Our call is to obey as these disciples did, and between times to pray.

Lord fill us with your Holy Spirit, that we may be Your Hands to heal. Shake the places we pray that we see You working in our hearts. Give us the wisdom of words, but also the wisdom of work in silence, so if the world cannot see tongues of fire, it may see arms of Love.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Meditation XIX -- Fear

And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel.

Fear, we know, is a powerful motivator, but it is often an evil one. It is too easy to miss the line between self-preservation and bigotry and hatred. And let us not presume that good people are immune.

The word dread here shows that what may have begun as caution on the part of a leader had turned to an pervading, irrational, and consuming emotional force. Earlier in the chapter we are told "there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph." That king led his people into forgetfulness. Once they forgot history, forgot the good Joseph and the people of Israel had done for his kingdom, it would take little time to assume a threat where none existed.

We must cast fear aside, not only for our own well-being, but also that justice and peace may prevail, permeating our culture rather than fueling oppression. The scriptures tell us, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." And so we must labor, doing the hard work of love; otherwise we live in destructive dread.

Lord God who is Love and teaches us love: Perfect us in love that we not live as slaves to fear, but have the courage to mirror your Love and live in Peace with You, our selves, and the world. We ask this in the Name of Him who is Our Peace, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Publication Notes -- Summer/Winter Sale

During the month of July, I will be participating in the Summer/Winter Sale at Smashwords. This means that my ebooks will be either available at a huge discount, and some will be free.

The following books will be available:

Fiction: Rope ($2), Die Laughing ($1), and Quick (free).
Poetry: Wrestling Light ($2), Three Laments ($1), Making Rounds (free), and Walking In Circles (free).
Personal Essays: They Live With You ($1.50)

These deals are only available at Smashwords. Use the coupon code SSW50 when checking out. 

Go here to see my profile and to read a little about each book. Thank you much for supporting my work. And if you like it, spread the word!

Bookmarks -- Man-Fate: The Swan Song of Brother Antoninus

Man-Fate: The Swan Song of Brother AntoninusMan-Fate: The Swan Song of Brother Antoninus by William Everson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The story goes that when Brother Antoninus had completed his public reading of the opening suite in this collection, "Tendril In The Mesh," he removed his monk's habit and "fled the platform" in a symbolic gesture in his return to secular life (and the name William Everson). But the decision was not as easy for him as taking off his clothes.

This is difficult book, not because the poems are hard to read, but because the conflicts Everson addresses in here are difficult to watch and read about. And I suspect most readers cannot "relate to" (how I've grown to loath that phrase!) the mental and emotional difficulty of turning one's back on religious vows, especially since he does not turn his back on the religion. But such difficulty should not presume that the subject is not worth writing about. Even when the poet gets into uncomfortable territory (particularly frank discussions of sex), I was thoroughly engaged.

Some of the passages were a bit prosy for my tastes. Yet for every awkward line, there are two remarkably beautiful ones. I found the third section of the book, a suite entitled "A Time To Mourn," quite moving.

In some poems, the speaker addresses his lover. In some, God is implored and praised. In many, the poet weaves narratives and observations concerning his arduous wrestling matches with his soul. The poems do not carry the theological impact of St. John of the Cross or the raw power of John Donne, but they reach into similar hemispheres to reveal what are modern (albeit neglected) dilemmas.

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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Meditation XVIII -- Witness

"If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?"

After Jesus was arrested and before he was taken to Pilate, he was brought before the high priest for interrogation. The high priest knew who Jesus was, and knew about His teaching, and Our Lord reminds him of this: "I have said nothing in secret." But Jesus takes a further step and suggests, "Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said."

This statement is significant. Jesus is going to be "tried" for his "corruption" of the people. The Jewish leaders want Him dead because His teachings challenge their authority, and they will appeal to the secular authorities on the basis that Jesus challenges the authority of Caesar. Jesus not only trusts His disciples with His words, He tells the high priest to look directly at what He has said and the real effect it has had on those who heard him.

For this, Christ was struck by an officer who asks, "Is this how you answer the high priest?" Jesus had not been disrespectful of the man or his position. He gave a true answer, one that also could have provided those seeking his life more "evidence" against Him. Under the guise of putting Our Lord in His place, the officer revealed that Christ's truth was too much for the ruling powers to bear.

Lord, give us strength to bear witness to Your truth, no matter who asks us or what earthly punishments we might receive. Let our words shine Your glorious Light onto a dark and unbelieving world. Amen.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Music Notes -- 2CELLOS

I'm guessing that most who do not listen to classical music do not realize how rich and versatile the cello is. Okay, some of you may have felt a little more cultured watching Yo-Yo Ma play behind James Taylor, but that's not quite what I mean.

Some months ago, I heard Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" played by a two cellists named Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser, and I was blown away. Not only did they retain the fire of the original, they maintained a verve and intensity that might make those who had not heard Jackson's version think the song was composed just to be played in this sort of ensemble. So it is with some joy I bring you the self-titled album by this group who call themselves, simply enough, 2CELLOS.

The first couple of times through, I was really impressed, as I had been with "Smooth Criminal," with the way these guys play a variety of pop and rock songs. I mean, you have a big range: from U2 to Nirvana to Sting, and each track is enjoyable and interesting. After a couple of listens though, I worried that this project would eventually wear off for me and seem like an interesting gimmick. An album of rock "standards" could get old pretty quick.

Suilic and Hauser of course save themselves with virtuoso playing, but also in their arrangements. Thankfully, tunes like "Welcome to the Jungle," "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and "Misurlou (Theme From Pulp Fiction)" are short (under three minutes). Unless going for some kind of improvisation (a la Brad Mehldau's treatments of Radiohead or The Bad Plus' doing Rush and Blondie), it seems best to stick to solid melodies and hooks from the originals and let the instruments make the magic.

Some of the more interesting tracks here are the more mid-tempo numbers. Jackson's "Human Nature" is really a delight. Repeated listening provides more and more nuances that remind me of how good a tune this is, even without the words (it was also covered by the great Miles Davis). And if you can get the bonus track, "Fields of Gold" is worth the extra bucks."Viva La Vida" is fine, but may barely escape a Muzak label

But my favorites after several times through the project are probably the slower, more emotive numbers. That might seem where the cello sounds most natural as an instrument. But hearing Sting's "Fragile" reminds me of how many beautiful sounds the cello can make in a short space. And the Trent Reznor (and Johnny Cash) favorite "Hurt" is transplendent.

2CELLOS may not be for everyone. But it should be.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Bookmarks -- The Jungle

The JungleThe Jungle by Upton Sinclair
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Despite its flaws (particularly preaching at the end that is out of keeping with the narrative), The Jungle is a book that should be read by every American. Most who talk about the book focus on the horrible conditions and practices of the meatpacking industry, and particularly since this takes place at the turn of the twentieth century, they pretty much stop there. One might get the impression that having been instrumental in the creation of what eventually became the Food and Drug Administration, The Jungle has done its job and should be relegated to the dusty shelves of history. But that would be wrong. Sinclair's novel is every bit as timely today as it was a century ago.

We might assume that because of the FDA, food is safer and the industries that bring that food to our tables are less corrupt than in 1906. However, books such as Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation demonstrate otherwise. Yet there is more to the novel than an expose of the industry.

The story of Jurgis Rudkis is one in which we see the evils of unchecked capitalism and greed and how they work to rob an honest, working man of physical and emotional life, his dignity, his morality, and eventually: hope. We do not get a lesson in how bad luck can bring a man and his family to soul crushing poverty. We see the machinations that bring that poverty and perpetuate it, destroying everything human in its path, with nothing to stop it.

This book needs to be read now because there is something of Jurgis Rudkis (or one of his ill-fated family) is every working American. Only the players and some of the schemes have changed. Many like to believe we live in a country were we can do and be anything if we work hard enough, but the poor know better. The plight of the "wage slave" has only been obscured by an a obese and television soaked nation.

Upton Sinclair famously stated about The Jungle, "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach." If we do not want history to repeat itself, I suggest we read this book with our hearts and our minds.

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Reading Response -- Of Voting and Damnation

After considerable thought, and the help of family, friends, and well meaning ministers, I have decided against voting in the upcoming  election. In fact, I will not vote in any election of any kind. It isn't just that my vote really does not matter, or that voting perpetuates the illusion that I have a hand in democracy, but that I value my salvation.

You see, Mr. Dennis Marcellino stated recently, "The Bible does say that if a person votes for a democrat (the promoters and supporters of sin) and were to die without repenting of that, he or she is going to hell.". He quotes Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians: "Then everyone who did not believe the truth, but was delighted with what God disapproves of, will be condemned" (verse 12). This is from, by the way, the GOD'S WORD Translation. I prefer the English Standard, and hope the "reverend" Marcellino will permit me: "in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness." Gee, I hope the "minister" won't condemn me for reading a different translation. I do hope we can agree that the two versions say essentially the same thing, that one who approves of the sin of someone else, even in his or her thoughts, will go to eternal perdition for doing so.

For now, I do not want to quibble over the loving minister's theology or his stance (after all, he states that he does not want to be "inflammatory" or "emotional"). I am going to take him at his simple word. He has a simple argument.

  • Certain actions are sin. These actions include abortion and homosexuality. 
  • Approval of what God disapproves of (such as sin) brings about condemnation from God. 
  • Voting for a person who approves of what God disapproves of is the same thing as approving those sins and thus will bring about condemnation.
Let us assume all three points are, as Mr. Marcellino says, fact. If so, voting for any Democrat will cause me to go to hell. I cannot even vote for a Democrat who is pro-life and against gay marriage because by being in the group with other Democrats, he essentially approves of what he does not approve of and thus voting for him will also send me to lasting flames.

Now, the kind "minister" does not explicitly say that if I vote for a Republican, I will avoid this fate. I think he kind of implies it. But he does say, "one way that a person expresses that delight is: how they vote … especially if it’s for a candidate who supports gay marriage or any other sin" (emphasis mine). 

Uh oh.

While Republicans do not, in general, support gay marriage or abortion, they do seem to support other things that displease God, at least if the Bible is to be believed. For example, Jesus famously said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money" (Matthew 6:24). Lots of Conservatives say they are for moral values, but their actions demonstrate that money is much more important to them. In fact, in Proverbs we find "Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy" (31:9). Now one can easily be a good businessman (businesswomen are not allowed by many conservatives unless they are the governor of Alaska), and still defend the causes of the poor. But most of what I hear from Republicans seems to make all the poor and needy out to be vile criminals.

So supporting someone who reviles and ignores the poor would be "delighting" in that person and "approving" of their sin. So I can't vote for that person either.
(Don't get me started on "Third Party" candidates. I've been convinced by my family and friends that voting for any of them is a waste of time even if I am voting for the person I think it best suited for the job. So we don't even get to make that a spiritual matter.)

Come to think of it, I cannot vote for anyone without risking the wrath of God because as the writer of Romans (quoting Psalm 53:3 ) states, "All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one" (3:12). Since everyone has sinned or supports some sin or has otherwise displeased God, I cannot delight in voting because that would mean to approve of someone, even if I don't approve of what it is that that person does or says or thinks that displeases God.

Gee, I hope my friends and family, don't find out about this. Because it seems to me anyone who talks to me or does something nice for me or says something supportive of me, a person who has certainly displeased God on occasion, will be in danger. And I don't want anyone go to Hell for loving me.