I wrote this after talking briefly with a friend who was struggling. It seemed to me that the friend needed nothing so much as a brother to share his burden — a brother who is willing to suffer alongside, to let the smoke blow in his own face. No lectures. No correction. Silent compassion can speak louder than words. At least that’s what I’m told.
Why “Job’s One Good Friend”? The biblical character Job had friends who sat with him for a while in silence. They had come together “to show him sympathy and comfort him.” But then they opened their mouths, and it wasn’t helpful. It seems that the one who came closest to being a true friend kept his mouth closed the longest.
And why a campfire? If you’ve ever sat around a campfire in the mountains, you know that as the wind direction shifts, the smoke sometimes blows in your face. Some guys feel that they are the target, no matter where they sit! I picture Job and his friends sitting around such a campfire, perhaps one that burned down to embers and then to ashes. “And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes.”
This poem is about photography AND learning from older people. See the commentary below.
The thought in this poem crystalized as I was looking at a friend’s Instagram photos. The friend is not a photographer, just someone who understands and appreciates the great outdoors. I was looking at one of his early-morning mountain scenes. The sky was literally grey and the trees had no green in them. The photographer in me always aches to edit such photos so that they match my ideal of beauty, and I often excuse my own editing as an attempt to make sure the photo depicts the scene as our magnificent human eyes would have seen it. This all assumes or suggests the conceit that I am the expert, that my vision is the standard.
But my photography and poetry are expressions of something far more important: the desire to fully appreciate and reflect the beauty inherent in a world created by God. In this pursuit, I revel in the wisdom that is both longed for — loudly insisted on — by youth and quietly attained in old age.
Perhaps what I wrote on Facebook will clarify:
Here’s a book that needs to be written: “removing THE BARNICLES OF CHRONIA.” I say this partly in jest, partly “en serio.” As I age, and come to important new realizations about life, I think of my older friends. Many have been down this road already, but were not inclined to chronicle the journey. It seems that we could serve others by offering an honest, thankful, hopeful account. Thoughts?
[Edit, 11/8/2019: Last night, I discussed the project above with fellow creative writers. It’s still on my mind. The poem and photograph below ponders the subject by different means.]
By the way, I know the last stanza is difficult. I’m using “prove” in the sense of “testing so as to find what works.” I think that a full appreciation of beauty is attainable. I fancy that is one of the things that God is even now perfecting in His children. But we all have false or incomplete ideas about beauty in its various manifestations (visual, physical, emotional, intellectual, theological, etc.). For instance, I highly suspect that I still have a false idea about the relationship of beauty and suffering: “Suffering is bad, not suffering is good!” How can suffering have anything to do with beauty?
The answer to the question I just posed is one which I suspect people older than I — and some younger than I — understand far better than I currently understand it. The answer surely goes something like this: through suffering, we are prepared for the beauty that is coming. The answer is somewhere in Romans 8. Perhaps in this passage:
16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. 18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.
It was dark in the living room. My wife and boys had already gone to bed, and I was left alone in the papa chair. By faint light coming from the kitchen, I could see Princess on a blanket we had set for her on the floor. She sat there, as peaceful and dignified as ever, probably purring. Two days before, she had stopped eating altogether, even when Joshua stroked her bony back and tried feeding her from his hand. The tumor in her stomach had won, and now she could barely walk, let alone jump or climb onto the couch.
In the morning, Joshua and Susan would take her to the vet. They’d ask the vet for some locks of her beautiful hair to remember her by. It seemed more appropriate than ashes.
Sitting there in the dark, I thought of how Princess’ well-being had been my responsibility for most of her seventeen years. Under my protection, neither hawks in the trees above nor the bitter cold of winter nights had ever touched her beautiful form. But now…. Now, tears began to stream. “I’m sorry, Princess. There’s nothing I can do for you this time.”
Up to this point in my life, I had never really understood corporate guilt. “Yes,” I could admit — only because good theology demands it — “I somehow share in the sin of Adam and Eve. But slavery and other atrocities? If neither I nor any of my relatives ever committed this or that sin, how can I — why should I — feel any guilt in the matter!”
That’s not what I was thinking about in the darkness of the night.
Looking at Princess across the room, I was sad. That much was clear, especially in the darkness. But then a little window opened. Through my tears, new light came streaming. It was sorrow, an emotion I barely recognize. “Princess,” I wept, “Not only am I unable to help you now, but in a very real — painfully real — sense, I am responsible for all that brought us to this dark night. I am truly sorry!” In that moment, for the first time ever, I was Adam. Once upon a time, God set me over His creation as its protector and provider. But I failed. And now, my Princess, like everything else under my charge, was dying.
A small window opened for me that night. Wisdom whispers, “Don’t let it close!”
Perhaps, in the light of that account, this poem I wrote the following day will make sense:
My pastor had this response: “I like it. Slowly we die as we are absorbed by the fictional lives of others dancing before our eyes when real life is just a power button and a glance away…” My riposte: “… and a good pair of sneakers if you’re so disposed!”
Commentary: despite my riposte, this poem is more about the first stanza than the second. Not everyone can don a pair of sneakers and join me on long hikes. But everyone can seek to live as directly as possible, fully appreciating their own God-given life and embracing God’s offer of rebirth, restoration, and eternal life. For most people, this appreciation and embracing requires a little — or a lot — of contemplation, meditation. Noise and distraction are the enemy. Compare my poem “Alone at the Lake.”
About the title: I’m not completely happy with the title. You can probably tell that I started with “Television.” From there, I started pushing on “Tele,” “Tell,” and finally landed on “Tolled.” It may be too far out there. But consider that “toll” is associated with death (“For Whom the Bell Tolls”). It also sounds like “told.” Even as the flitting and vapid* “lives” of fictional characters displayed on a television have “tolled” our dying, and have “told” us the bad news, nature itself has “told” us about better news, the hope of resurrection. A big stretch, I know! This is my blurry vision, and now I have told you.
*This needs work. I do think there is something of “the medium is the message” in this. In television, we have lives that are extinguished with the press of a button.
This morning, I was beginning to read a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. He’s a poet I know little about, but am confident he will be worth getting to know. His poem, “The Windhover” begins I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin… The effort to unravel “morning morning’s minion,” and the delight I felt as a result, suggested my own “morning catch,” which morphed quickly into “meaning’s catch:”
Here is how I commented on my own poem on Facebook:
The creative writers I recently began meeting with spent much of our first few sessions grappling with the PURPOSE of our writing. In the case of poetry, one question is “Why use metaphors when plain words could express the thought?” One of the best answers for me is that truth has more impact on a person when he or she puts effort into understanding it (this applies to the author and reader alike). My father and I spent years puzzling through Robert Browning’s “Rabbi Ben Ezra” (Grow old along with me…). I’m convinced that Browning’s insight has had far more positive effect in my thinking BECAUSE of that puzzling than it would have had Browning “just said what he meant!”
IT’S ALWAYS DANGEROUS to admit your faults in public. But here goes….
I’m occasionally an idolater. Not just any idolater, but one whose idol
is himself. HOWEVER, God is merciful. He knows that I want to leave
idolatry behind, and — with the patience of one who knows the end from
the beginning — He’s working on me. I wrote this several weeks ago, and
have not had the courage to post it until now, except to some other
creatives who intimately understand the struggle.
Yesterday, I attended a birthday party for Youssef Sleiman. All who attended were given the opportunity to read something they had written, or to extemporize about how God has uniquely crafted this man to bring Himself glory. It was something like a memorial service, where the eulogies went on for over two hours. But in this case, the eulogee — the dearly not departed — was sitting there right beside us laughing and occasionally weeping.
I wrote a poem for the occasion, and was happy to see that much of what I wrote matched the reflections of people who have known Youssef far longer than I:
Background image stolen from Lynné Sleiman’s Facebook feed, where it was titled “Meta.”
We know these people. Sometimes we are these people.
I like this little piece, and I must laugh because as is sometimes the case, I seem to be one of the few people who likes it! Why do I laugh? Here is something I’ll have to explore: when I write something that gets good response, there’s a sense in which it belongs to the readers; when it’s something that does not get a good response, even though I like it, it remains my “private stash.” As I said more than once to my sons in their youth: “Oh, you don’t like it? Good. There’s more for me!”
Most biographies end badly. It didn’t help that I was already unaccountably sad* yesterday as I listened to the final chapters of Alister McGrath’s biography “C.S. Lewis – A Life.” Lewis had beautiful things to say about the resurrection. But they were barely acknowledged or reflected in his final days, at least as recorded by McGrath.
To be fair, I was LISTENING to the Audible version of McGrath’s book. At the close of the audio version, there were two recordings of Lewis which somewhat brightened my perspective on his death.
About the image above: I stopped and took this photo while I was walking and listening to the biography. The flowers are Rain Lilies. When park maintenance comes and mows down all the wildflowers, these flowers spring up quickly, especially if there is any rain. They seem apropos the subject.
*I began writing a poem while walking and listening to the final chapters of Lewis’ biography:
The End of Biography How can it be so humid In this arid place? The rain within me Wants to fall, And surely will Before the day is done.
The story I have finished now Is of a man who died. Oh sure, he lived, And still his fame endures… But after all he died. And so will you, And so will I.
Death, for now, Is the final chapter Of all biography.
Does your contribution in this world seem laughable or small? This one’s for you. Stand up to your mocking self!
I suspect almost ALL of us feel odd at times. Lately, I have felt odd on many an occasion as I work at this art of poetry. Other poets assure me that it isn’t always necessary for us to fully understand what we write in our own poems. Often we’re trying to access and express thoughts buried deep inside. The words may or may not perfectly match the thoughts. My expectation is that as I continue practicing, there will be an increasing correspondence in thoughts and words. In the meantime, I sometimes feel like a blathering fool… one of God’s unaffiliated odd fellows.
But I do believe my circumstances and desires are being orchestrated by God’s good will; working at poetry is something I’m supposed to do. To what avail? I don’t know. It doesn’t seem likely that I’ll ever be good enough to publish. Here’s a theory: I often ask God to increase my ability to teach important truths. Perhaps the writing of poetry is making me more sensitive to truth and beauty. Perhaps I’m learning to convey that truth and beauty in a way that breaks through to others’ hearts.
(This poem USED to follow the rules for a Shakespearean sonnet. But forty years later, I have forgotten a few words and four lines! They were important to the flow and form, but probably added nothing to the sentiment. I was a freshman in college when I wrote this for an English course. It recalled the powerful crush I had on a girl who worked with me at a summer camp. She was older than me, beautiful and charming beyond description. When the summer passed, she returned to her home in the city, and shy young Brad — still working at the camp — could only watch for the ghost of her memory.)
I read the claim that “seasons rule man’s heart” And thought, “Absurd! I know that cannot be! Such stuff is nothing but poetic art For mine was ne’er affected one degree!”
“My heart in dead of winter, as in spring Has always changeless been despite the time! Such stuff is used for rhyme By poets who in fact don’t mean a thing.”
And still I’d think the poets’ claim untrue, Had I not spent this Fall apart from you.
I won’t embarrass the young people I wrote this for by telling you their names. Suffice it to say that it is a young man and his girlfriend. They got to know each other at a time when both were dealing with anxiety. Their kindness to one another was soothing, leading in time to genuine love (affection coupled with determined efforts to seek the good of the loved one). Buoyed by countless long conversations, they have each grown stronger, assured of the love and support that overcomes anxiety.
But life continues to be hard. Pressures abound. Schoolwork is taxing. Other responsibilities pile on with each year of young life. What this poem advocates is that my young friends face those pressures, spend the time and mental/emotional energy that is demanded of them now without resorting to the comfort they have come to know in each other’s presence (physical and virtual, thanks to the Internet). In devoting time to their duties, they are not denying the affection they have for one another, but investing in themselves, investing in the valuable person they are, the valuable person loved by the other.
In a storm, darkness and curtains of rain may limit how far we see, but hearing our friend calling out encouragement is a powerful aid. I like to imagine some code phrase like, “Together through the storm!” Literally. I like to imagine a literal phrase that conveys love in other “mere” words… think of “As you wish” in The Princess Bride. With encouragement like that, the storm loses it’s power. It may separate for a time, but it cannot ultimately separate those whose love for one another was forged by its menace, those who learned there is something more powerful than a storm.
[NOTE: The following is not yet edited; it’s a first go at wrangling my thoughts. Call it meditation.] I am slowing working my way through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. As I do so, I’m trying to extract principles that apply in the context of my own life. I ask myself, “If Paul were writing to fellow Christians in the United States of America in 2019, how would he frame the argument? Would the motivations of people who are drawn to political poles be called into question by Paul’s arguments? Do we base our righteousness on identification with lesser things?”
This morning, I was in verse 10 of the first chapter: “or am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servantof Christ.” I asked myself, “Do I take sides in a perishing system because I want to please man, to feel righteous based on the ideas I hold?”
I thought about Paul’s pre-salvation rise in the ranks of Pharisees. He surely was advancing because he was zealous. But how much of that zeal was motivated by a desire to impress other Pharisees? Today we might use the term “virtue signaling.”
That was the general setting. In the poem, I focused more tightly on the ambition to be someone “great.” This idol has been on my mind a lot lately. The poem pokes fun at me. The greatness I aspire to (even in last gasps) is not greatness. Relative to true brilliance, we are all 99.9% darkness.
My son Joshua helped illustrate this poem. Let me first clarify that his artwork (and this style in general) is NOT the problem addressed by the poem. In fact, the process of drawing such a complex design can afford time and mental space to be contemplative, to “listen, feel, and face.”
Here’s how I tentatively explained the poem to Joshua (you may notice that I’m still struggling to understand this poem myself)….
“a tendency divine” God designed us to relate to Himself, with creativity, a desire to work and build. But as with so many other things, we pervert those qualities. We abuse the qualities. Instead of finding a balance of work and rest, we work all the time. God offers a Sabbath, promising that He’ll supply what we would have produced in that period of rest. Instead, we work straight through. We also let the qualities draw attention to the creation instead of to the Creator. While we could stop to enjoy the complexity of His creations, we instead busy ourselves building and admiring our own creations. In a hundred other ways, we say to God, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m kind of busy supplying for myself, expressing myself, making sure that others recognize how great I am. Catch you later, pal.”
“To fill each void” Jesus wasn’t impressed with the elaborate prayers of religious would-be leaders. He taught his disciples to pray simple prayers of dependence. He wasn’t impressed with the self-satisfied, self-righteous, and judgmental religion of many grown ups, so He taught his discples they’d better come to Him with the simple dependance and delight that characterize children.
“We fear” Why do we blow off the opportunity to breathe, to take it easy with our Heavenly Father? One reason may be that we don’t trust Him to prevent catastrophe. We think our security depends on us. Approaching the rim of a Grand Canyon, we doubt that He’ll hold our hand, and so we run back to the safety of the Visitor Center. There, surrounded by gee-gaws of plastic, we need not fear the hardness of rocks in the chasm below.
“In time, the power fails” But God is a good Father. One way or another, He’ll take us to the rim. It may be when a storm damages the electrical grid. It may be when age, disease, or exhaustion leave us dependant on Him.
Grand Canyon photo by “Pexels” on Pixabay. I personally have never been to the Grand Canyon. It seems like a vast depression to me. Perhaps someday….
This old sign tapped me on the shoulder as I walked by yesterday: “Remember me? Sure, you may see better now (slightly better than a newborn kitten), and judge less harshly. But you’re also prone to forget.” Thank you, Seven.
This poem refers to someone you almost certainly do not know. Don’t even TRY to guess who—you won’t get it right. He appears in the carousel of prideful men and humble men the Lord has lately set in motion before my eyes… pride and humility in the mirror and lessons of life. Underlying image by Enrique Lopez Garre on Pixabay.