Hatred, The Squatter

Commentary

I wrote this first thing this morning, after giving up on a restless night. About 2 or 3 am, I woke up, and could tell I wouldn’t be getting to sleep soon. So I used my monthly credit at Audible and downloaded “The End of The Affair” by Graham Greene. That title intrigued me ever since a theologian I respect recommended it to a fellow writer in response to the request, “…name one (and only one) novel that you recommend I should read?” The Audible version has the bonus of being read by Colin Firth.

So, by 7 am, I had listened to at least half of the novel. Admittedly, I dozed off during parts, but a check on synopsis sites tells me I didn’t miss much….

“Errant Love”
This is the only line I’ll expand on in this commentary. “Errant” usually means something like “erring or straying from the proper course or standards.” That definitely describes the illicit affair referred to in the book’s title. I won’t describe that here. In fact, I wouldn’t want to make a regular diet of this kind of material.

But “errant” has a more archaic meaning of something like being “out on an adventure.” When the thrill seeker wanders from home, he vacates his usual place… leaving it empty. Thus, the “empty place of errant love.”

The main character in the book — Maurice Bendrix — says very early on that “This is a record of hate far more than of love.” While I don’t know much about affairs (thank God!), I do know about hatred. I have felt it. I see it, almost daily, in the most unlikely places. It occurs to me that it only takes up residence where love has abandoned its rightful place, or where love is disordered.

The Background Image
The background image (adapted from a photo by Susann Mielke on Pixabay) was suggested by the setting of Greene’s novel: 1944 London, during the German blitz. The V-1 “robot” bombs buzz in from the South and make a mess of Bendrix’s apartment. In the process, they change everything, including Bendrix’s relationship with his love interest, Sarah.

Writing a Psalm, Day One

Commentary

I’m not very good at understanding poetry (feel free to join me in laughing at this ironic weakness). But I’ll give this one a try….

I woke up early this morning, my mind churning about what seem to be intractable problems. I say “churning.” It was not productive thought. It seemed that no matter how hard I tried, I could not state the problems in a way that would suggest solutions. I was flailing: “falling… failing.”

Falling, Failing… Filling
The pictures in my mind as I wrote the first two lines were first of a man falling off a cliff, crying out indistinctly; and second, of a man trapped and dying (failing) in a pitch-black cave, blindly scratching words on the cave wall. In both cases, the words seem to be of no use.

But words are sometimes more useful than they seem. In the writing of this poem, the words “falling” and “failing” led my little poet brain to another gerund: “filling.” Call it serendipity; I call it poetry: following words where they lead. Try as I may to be intentional, sometimes I’m just accidental.

So… “filling.” There was no distance between landing on that word and landing on the phrase “filling in the blanks.” And who could fill in the blanks? Who knows me through and through? Who knows the end from the beginning? God, of course.

Sometimes we simply don’t know what to ask of God. That’s when we’d do well to remember something that’s probably happening more of the time than we realize:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

Romans 8:26

“Until we meet again”
This line may disturb the reader. It’s trite, something we’d say to a mere fellow human. But it gave me great comfort to write the words. God doesn’t require our undivided attention. He generously works in our behalf while we go about our day, and even while we sleep at night:

Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves.

Psalm 127:1-2

Writing a Psalm, Day One
Since we can finish reading most Psalms in a matter of minutes, it’s tempting to imagine that the Psalmist went through the experience he describes in the same short amount of time. But it seems more likely to me that the Psalms are a record of what happened over several days, or even months. The first few verses of a given Psalm may describe what the Psalmist was struggling with in summer. The last few verses may describe the joyful resolution that came in autumn.

My intractable problems? Perhaps they’ll be solved tomorrow, or next week, or next month. Then I can finish the Psalm.

Imagine If At Night

Commentary

I’m not aware of any deep meaning in this.* I had taken a photo of broomweed by the path and began editing it, trying to help the viewer see the yellow flowers standing out as much in the photograph as they did in my eye. Stereoscopic vision is a magnificent gift. With it, we isolate objects from their background. Flowers stand out from foliage. That’s what we SEE. But most photographs fail to convey their subject in three dimensions — photographic images are flat.** In this photograph, there was little separation between the yellow flowers and the green foliage, especially in the yellow light of late afternoon.

So…. I was editing. And the more that I edited, the more I isolated the yellow flowers from their background. Eventually, I pushed all but yellow to black. That’s when I thought of the line, “Imagine if at night….” Phosphorescent flowers…. Wouldn’t THAT be something?!

THE ORIGINAL, AND A MEMORY
Below is the original photograph. And here’s a memory about broomweed:
When I was a teenager, I got to help the gardener at a camp I was working at in Mexico. One day we drove to the other side of the lake where Cayo gathered stiff little bushes that we fashioned into brooms and rakes. I recall that they worked better than the store-bought ones.

The original photo

*On the other hand, one could easily make the case that all beauty in creation illumines our path to understanding a beautiful Creator.

**Incidentally, this is part of why I insist that in editing photographs, “you have to lie to tell the truth.” That is, you have to lie about what the camera captured in order to tell the truth of what our magnificent vision captured.

Ledge of Gratitude

Commentary

When I sent this to a friend, he said “I have questions.” Yes. I imagine that this “poem” raises questions. Perhaps my friend has more questions than the ones I’ll try to answer here….

First, let me include what I wrote on social media when I posted this, along with the hashtags:

The Phantom Terrace is a real place. I’ve been there. And gratitude’s a real grace. I’ve been there too. Both are narrow ways.
#remembrance #gratitude #hope

As you can probably guess from the hashtags, this is more about the positive emotion of gratitude than it is about other, negative emotions.

Don’t read too much into the first two stanzas. I was mainly establishing the setting of a real place. One thin line of grass, growing on the ledge, stretches from one side of the mountain’s rock face to the other. Thus the “smile” imagery.

There’s a lot of ambiguity in the third stanza. The greatest ambiguity is in the phrase “unforgiving treachery.” Traversing the steep face of a mountain — even on a ledge like the Phantom Terrace — is treacherous. One slip and the fall could be fatal. It’s treacherous terrain. That is an unforgiving treachery. So, in one sense, it refers to the real danger of a real place.

“Unforgiving treachery” could also refer to what we experience interacting with fellow sinners. I was especially low when I wrote this. I was thinking about how little I can rely on some people some of the time.

“Unforgiving treachery” is also a backwards way of referring to how I can be unforgiving, and how treacherous that unforgiving attitude can be.

Regardless of what “unforgiving treachery” refers to, it is dangerous. But when I think of things and people for which I’m grateful… there is safety in that emotion. Today, I was grousing to my wife about the many disappointments I had experienced in the last 48 hours. She was patient. She let me grouse. But all that grousing was unproductive. In the midst of my complaints I did remember a fellow who this very morning demonstrated thoughtfulness, patience, kindness, reliability: Joe. What an uplifting thing to think of that brother’s attitudes and actions! Being grateful for him is definitely NOT a treacherous emotion. It gives me hope. It gives me incentive to persevere, to myself become more thoughtful, more patient, more kind… even more reliable. In short, gratitude is an emotion that safely takes me from this place of anger and disappointment to the place I long for: the fulfillment of Jesus’ intentions for us in Eternity. Gratitude is a long Phantom Terrace. Thank God it’s there!

NOTE: I did not take the background photo, but “borrowed” it from a website. If/when I publish this in a book, I’ll need to get permission to use it. Or maybe I’ll just drive up to Colorado and take my own photo of the Phantom Terrace.

Thinking to Yield?

Commentary

Let me try to recap this in one sentence: Instrospection and merely thinking about doing right don’t bring about the purpose for which God created us.

“Lifeless Field” and “baser part”
Prisoners on death row are sometimes spoken of as “dead men walking.” They’re still alive, but they’re headed for death. Because of our belief in Resurrection of the body and of “progressive sanctification,” we Christians could refer to ourselves as “resurrected men walking.” Jesus isn’t through removing deadwood, cultivating the otherwise sterile soil of our hearts just yet. For now, we’re still partly dead, but we’re headed for thorough life, especially when we experience the Resurrection that Jesus experienced after His crucifixion.

Counseling
These days, I’m working with a counselor to help me understand why I have been an irritable man most of my adult life. The work I’m doing now could be compared to using a spade to turn over the dead parts of my life: my disordered affections and stupid coping mechanisms. The aim is to replace irritability with joy and equanimity.

But if I were of the opinion that merely THINKING about what needs to change, or “getting my head on straight” would effect the desired change (“the fruit”), I’d be mistaken. Only God can breathe life into dust and bring it to life.

My counselor has twice suggested something that would really turn away a person who doesn’t believe in God’s active work in our lives. He has said that God seems to have arranged human relationships in such a way that all our attempts at peace and reconciliation lead us to the realization that OUR ATTEMPTS won’t work. We need God. We need the Holy Spirit. We need His intervention and His life-giving work in our lives. At least that’s how I’m understanding the counselor at this point. In one sense, I’m paying the counselor to help me understand that counseling alone is worthless.

“Fig tree leaf so very large”
I’m an elder in my church. It’s a position of esteem and responsibility. It suggests that I am spiritually mature. If I were compared to a tree, one might say that I SEEM to be healthy. But appearance isn’t everything. Who am I really blessing? Who do I comfort? Who do I inspire? Who do I correct? What do people learn about Jesus by looking at my behavior? Just yesterday, I asked one of our deacons to pray for me: “Pray that I’ll actually spend time with people.” No amount of merely thinking right and diligence in administrative work will achieve what God intends for me to achieve: the fruit of being/looking more like Jesus and helping others to do the same.

And then, of course, there’s my family… my wife and boys. Am I blessing them? Or do the dead parts of me — my baser parts — just bring misery to them? Thankfully, they’re walking together with me in this journey.

Daughters of Rebellion

Commentary

This one is likely to lose me some “friends.” It is sarcastic and appeals to a sense of justice that not all share.

Whenever I see the complaint that removal of Confederate monuments will result in people not being able to learn history, I just about lose it. People who object to removal of Confederate monuments would NEVER object to the removal of statues to Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Those people would NEVER have said, “If our Marines take down statues to Saddam Hussein, how will the Iraqi people learn history?!” Why would they appeal to the “history” argument in the one case, but not in the other? Ask them. I suspect that if they’re honest they’d tell you that they’re proud of their Confederate history. In my opinion, they should be ashamed of it.

I used to defend the “States’ Rights” cause of the South.* Regardless of the extent to which States’ Rights was the real motivation for the South’s rebellion, it doesn’t fly with me anymore. RIGHTS. First of all, that’s not what followers of Christ should dedicate themselves to obtaining or retaining for themselves. See Philippians, chapter 2. In Augustine’s “Confessions” he asked, “How do I know that God is changing me, that I have made progress?” His answer: “I have learned to give up my rights.”

Securing rights for others? Well that’s surely more justified for the follower of Christ. But in the case of the Confederacy, the “rights” that the Rebels fought for was the “right” to enslave, to oppress. That’s certainly not the kind of right a follower of Christ should secure. No, that “right” is just wrong.

This poem was prompted by today’s headlines.

*”States’ Rights” is something I still hold to at a conceptual level in that I prefer decentralization of power. But when decentralized power uses its rights to cause harm (e.g., slavery), something higher kicks in. How would one define that higher principle?

Waiting, Not Alone

Commentary

When I woke up this morning, one of the first things I did was read a post from someone I follow on social media: Daniel Hanson. As is often the case, Daniel’s post was long. As is always the case, his post was intellectually stimulating, largely because it was intellectually honest. Daniel struggles with depression.

Daniel drew on the painful experience of several remarkable people: Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, Mother Teresa, T.S. Eliot, Robert Browning, the prophet Habakkuk. The leading quote was written to him by his personal friend, Michael Novak: “Often enough, faith leads one to feel abandoned to darkness, isolated in inner dryness, undermined by a fear of having been seduced into an illusion. It is not at all hard for a person with faith to understand why one would walk away.” Daniel then told one of the stories that explain Novak’s “particular brooding depression.”

So, Daniel would conclude, “I know that I am not alone in these feelings. I know that others carry the weight of staggering pains that every day threaten to make them stumble and fall.”

As I processed what I had read, I thought especially of Michael Novak and Mother Teresa. Michael Novak spoke hopefully of suffering as a “sign of spiritual adulthood.” Daniel quoted Mother Teresa as saying “how sweet and merciful is the lord” despite being in “the place where she must only wait — a place where no hope would appear.”

My mind turned to this very short but very long (“so close to/Here so far from”) wait for resolution. I pictured Mother Teresa in a doctor’s waiting room like the one I recently visited, and set out to write this poem.

THE LAST LINE
The last line is ambiguous. In what sense are we not alone? Other mortals experience the same grief we do. Knowing that brings a little comfort. But some of them point us to a greater comfort: the Immortal One stepped into our experience of time and space and suffered with us. Jesus personally understands grief. Moreover, He is willing and able to effect all necessary change, to bring relief.

False Flourishing

Commentary

The photo in the background of this poem is of two stages in the full life of a thistle. On the right is the bloom that people admire. On the left is something less admired… what the same bloom will look like when it has gone to seed, and the wind begins tearing it apart.

This full life cycle is something I have been observing on my long walks. One late-summer day, I was lamenting that there were no more flowers to photograph. Then, I began looking more closely at the seeds that those flowers had produced. Their shapes, textures, even colors are every bit as fascinating as — and far more promising than — the blooms that preceded. Nowadays, while I enjoy walking with my wife at the Botanical Gardens, there’s something sad there about not seeing this great achievement of flowers: their seed.

Flourishing
This poem arises from something I have been considering lately: the nature of flourishing. What does it mean to thrive, to prosper, to flourish? Here’s one hypothesis…. Flourishing is wrongly viewed as a short-term concentration of obvious vitality: the plant in bloom, never gone to seed; a dash, not the trek of a million miles; something exhausted in 80 years… or even less, in a life ‘cut short.’

I recently watched a conversation between Miroslav Volf and David Brooks. A friend had referred me to Volf’s “Joy and Human Flourishing,” in response to my question, “Who does a good job of tracing the concept of ‘flourishing’ through the Bible?” If I understood Brooks correctly, he objected that Volf needs to better account for suffering as a possible component of flourishing. That objection resonates with me.

In the Genesis 1 account, the first organisms are created on day three. Notice the prominence of “seed” in their description:

And God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.’ And it was so.

Genesis 1:11

We tend to be so fixated on the blossom that we ignore what comes as a result: seed. But it was in reference to “plants yielding seed” that “God saw that it was good.” Who can seriously say that the thistle, gone to seed, then torn and scattered by the wind is not flourishing?

What’s Next?
Where I seem to be going with this line of thought is that true flourishing requires eternity.

Search of the Silly Private

Commentary (needs work)

This poem is a defense of how I often wake up in the morning. My brain starts the day by trying to dress thoughts in presentable words. The thoughts may be silly. They may be as bizarre or disordered as the dreams from which I woke. But I clothe those thoughts with orderly words: poems, if you like.

“Surging Ugliness” is like a sergeant who barks out orders, the duties of the day. He isn’t interested in the silly private’s search for beauty and meaning. I mistakenly thought that “sergeant” was etymologically related to “surging” (my French isn’t that good). Nevertheless, “surging” does suggest the nature of a real conflict, a real battle between ugliness and beauty. We’re easily fooled by which of these combatants is winning. Beauty seems often to be overwhelmed by surging ugliness. It takes careful reconnaissance to find the truth. Sometimes it takes the silliness that I call poetry.

We Have Work to Do

Commentary

The final line of this poem is intentionally ambiguous. First, it could serve as an excuse: given the amount of “work” we have to do, there is little time for the leisurely activity of “considering” things like flowers. Second, it could — and does — serve as an indictment: the “work” most of us really have to do is work on our own hearts, being more obedient to God. He instructs us to be reflective, but we often are not. We’re too busy to take a few hours of the week — much less a whole day — to cease from labor and gain new perspective. You see?

So, have you ever stopped to consider the lilies? Do it! Look not only at how they bloom, but how they grow, and how they prepare for new growth when the bloom is spent. Pick off a spent blossom and untwist the drying petals. Ask yourself why they twisted. Are they protecting something precious? Or is ugliness all you can see?

September 14, 2021… A friend told me today that his friend, Dr. Carisa Ash, had passed away at a young age. I didn’t know her, so I looked her up, and found this video. Carisa got it. I look forward to meeting her.

As If By Death

Commentary

This poem is a companion to one I wrote almost a month ago. It arises from a growing recognition of what it means to continue serving in a ministry when a close partner in ministry has left. What’s true in this case is probably true wherever close friends work together on something difficult and then one of them leaves. Picture soldiers in war, or parents in the child-rearing years. Even triumphs that follow that separation can feel hollow.

TWO INTERPRETATIONS
From the introductory paragraph, and from the way that I recorded the poem, it should be clear that “as if” introduces a comparison to a death that has not actually occured. It just feels like death. Going separate ways feels especially like death when the friendship is deeply valued. I’d guess most of us experience only a handful of such friendships in our lifetimes.

But the simile gains its power from something we all experience: the loss of friends and families through actual death. So, if it helps you draw out an emotion, read the poem in that second way. Turn it on its head. Let the “as if” introduce a comparison of actual death to abandonment. When a loved one dies, do they leave us alone? It’s as if they do! They’re gone for now. We need to acknowledge that emotion, to be honest about it, even if we live in hope of the Resurrection. One comfort of that hope is this: if stories of what we experience while separated by death are worth remembering and relating, I imagine we’ll be able to share those stories hundreds — or billions — of years from now.

AN EXAMPLE OF THE SECOND INTERPRETATION
Over the last two years, I have grown in the direction of kindness, something I pray for almost daily. God is using current events to soften my unkind heart. I have come to care for things that I didn’t care for in years past, and to not care for things that I cared for too much in years past. In this process, I often wonder how my father would have responded to the same current events. Would he have grown bitter, as I see some growing? He was making progress — looking more like Jesus — right up to his death in late 2016. Had he still been living, would we have seen together what I now see alone? I imagine so. But because he and I share another Friend, and because that Friend secures our eternal life, we may some day look back together on what we now see apart. Oh, the stories that — reunited — we’ll share!

Eternal life. That’s my hope. Is it yours?

Listening to Attenborough

Commentary

This is my second silly poem in one day. When I was young, that’s the only kind of poem I wrote.

The inspiration was watching one of the beautiful nature documentaries that David Attenborough put together. While I have never seen Zebras in the wild, I HAVE seen — or barely seen — ptarmigans on mountain climbs in the Rockies. It’s amazing how close you can get to these birds before you recognize that they are birds, and not just rocks!

Outcropping of Hospitality

Commentary

About four miles into my hike, I called one of the ladies in our church. I rely on her for advice.
“Do you have time to talk?”
“Yes,” she answered.
For the next two miles, we talked about hospitality. By the time I reached my half-way point, we had thought through several options for how our church can practice hospitality in this lingering pandemic. We wrapped up the conversation.
“Thanks,” I said, hung up the call, and began retracing my steps to home.

As I walked, I reflected on how hospitable my friend had been to me in our conversation about hospitality. “Here, where the weeds give way to a mowed meadow… it’s one of several places in the path where she suddenly grew silent, yielding to my impetuous mind.” There, where rainwater recently rushed through the grass, “I was babbling, while she listened politely.” Up the white rock path a ways, I remembered what solid footing I felt when we shared a memory of Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow. There, where petrified wood sticks out of the limestone… “That’s where I was stepping when she recalled how Count Rostov arranged the seating at dinner parties, thus insuring a perfect evening for everyone.”

These weeds, that grass, this petrified wood in a limestone path…. Insignificant, except when they mark moments in a good conversation, an outcropping of hospitality.

Kitten Loves Shoelaces

Back in late May, Joshua rescued a kitten that he found on Ferguson Road. Here’s what I wrote a day or two after:

Jonathan promptly renamed him Furrgie. I’m going with Furrguson. So far, he understands that friends check you for fleas, and that purring melts hearts.

As the days and weeks passed, Furrguson seemed to forget all about his “early life.” He got his first kitten vaccination. All the fleas are gone, and he is fattening up. Now he pounces on anything and everything, often terrorizing the older cats despite their hissing and powerful bat-downs. But when he has expended all his kitten energy, he does still like to curl up as close to our faces as possible. He purrs his little heart out, and occasionally reaches up to gently touch our lips or noses with his velveted paws.

Voice Lessons

This poem comes out of struggling with what constitutes love for the Creator. Is it only fixation on signs of his return? Will we even recognize his voice then if we cannot recognize it now?

[NOTE: the following may be gobbledygook. Perhaps I’ll wake up early tomorrow morning and do major edits to the post, or even take it offline. That occasionally happens. Let’s just say for now that I’m “thinking out loud.” I’m trying to put words to something I sense more than understand]

Not Just an Expression

Nature expresses the majesty of the Creator. King David spoke of that in Psalm 19:

1 The heavens declare the glory of God;
the sky displays his handiwork.
2 Day after day it speaks out;
night after night it reveals his greatness.
3 There is no actual speech or word,
nor is its voice literally heard.
4 Yet its voice echoes throughout the earth;
its words carry to the distant horizon.

Creation and the Creator are not the same thing. That would be pantheism. HOWEVER, let me suggest that creation bears the same relationship to God as the soundwaves of speech bear to the speaker: they are his expression. When a child hears her father say, “I love you,” she doesn’t look around and say, “How curious… sound waves emanated from somewhere and landed in my ears.” If she separates the sound waves from the speaker at all, it’s only to say, “Those sound waves tell me that Daddy loves me.”

Nature expresses the majesty of our loving Father. Perhaps it would be better to say that in creating the universe, our Father spoke to us, He expressed his glory (intelligence, kindness, power, beauty, love), and creation is the “sound waves” of His voice.

Are we impressed by what He has expressed? That’s not an idle question.

“They’re Just Flowers”

Long ago and far away, I accompanied two friends on a long hike. Our path entered and followed an arroyo. At one place the walls of the arroyo were covered with tropical flowers. “How beautiful!” said one friend. I agreed. “They’re just flowers!” said the other friend. To this day, I think of that second friend’s response with pain and sadness. God’s beauty was there speaking to us in those flowers, expressing His powerful love. But the second friend was not impressed. He seemed to make no connection between creation and the Creator, between the expression — the “words” — and the Speaker. For him, it seems, Daddy wasn’t saying “I love you.” It was just flowers, random sound waves from who knows where.

RELATED POST: The Day Trees Became Weeds.

Lord’s Day Vision

As I catch up with posting my poems on this blog, here’s one that I am especially eager to get “out there.” It was written on the day that my dear friend announced that he was resigning as our senior pastor. I had known for a couple of days that this was coming. I knew it was going to be painful. I knew that my friend would have other duties on that Sunday. It was Mother’s Day. This day was not all about him. In his typical humble fashion, he carried off his duties for the morning with graciousness. Then, at the end of the service, after he had concluded by announcing his resignation, I and the other elders stood with him and his wife on the stage and prayed for them. The tears came at last — I was close enough to see. And since I know what lead up to this resignation, it was especially painful for me. Here and there, my friend made strategic errors as a senior pastor. WHO DOESN’T?! But any such errors were dwarfed by his faithfulness to God, by all he had put in motion to make our church a place where shepherding and spiritual growth really happen. Let’s just say that two years of extremely painful personal circumstances were exacerbated by the pandemic and a handful of implacable opponents who made my friend their lightning rod.

My pastor’s benediction that day was the old Anglican “Go into the world in peace….” That afternoon, I took a long walk. This poem came to mind as I walked. Here’s how I introduced it on Facebook:

This poem was the fruit of a tearful Sunday walk. It refers to real friends and real expectations. We live now in a long, painful beginning. Someday, that beginning will have reached its end, in terms of time and purpose. For now, “Go into the world in peace; have courage; hold on to what is good.”

Hope
Do you see the hope? It’s real. There’s something about selflessness that reminds me: Jesus triumphed over the grave. When a brother acts like Jesus, I’m reminded of what Jesus’ actions have put in motion. “Have courage. Hold on to what is good.”

Empty Trophy Shelf

If this NEVER happens to you, please spend time with me. Perhaps you can pull me up, and I won’t pull you down.

Commentary

It’s almost impossible to write this commentary without doing the very thing I do NOT want to do: to claim credit for something God has empowered me to do. But I’m tempted, over and over. I’ve succumbed often enough to know the short-lived intoxication.

Is it wrong to feel affirmed in our exercise of God’s gifts, even to revel in them? I don’t think so. Don Regier and I talk about this occasionally. As a fellow creative, he knows what it’s like to create something and then to enjoy the creation. Don points out that we are made in the image of the One who looked on His creation and concluded that “it was very good.”

Where does appropriate affirmation and pleasure bleed over into inappropriate pride? I’m still trying to figure this out, to put my finger on just when I go astray. But I sense it when I’m overstepping. Perhaps the Holy Spirit makes me aware.

The empty trophy shelf…
I do have a sort of trophy shelf in my office. There are two actual trophies that I won back when I was running competitively. Everything else on the shelf is a memento: rocks from mountain climbs, a music box I made for my grandmother, a fun photo edit I collaborated on with Glenn Clark. The actual shelf is not empty. In fact it’s overcrowded:

While the shelf is not empty, I find that some of the trophies I’d like to display there and elsewhere ARE empty, vapid, vanishing as soon as displayed. The substance of those trophies is like whatever was in that little bottle I found in the firepit at high camp below Blanca Peak. It meant something to someone long ago. What’s left now is just a little broken bottle. As far as trophies go, it’s quite empty.

We Are Not Pools

Commentary (Thoughts Running Amok)

Ever since I began writing poetry on a regular basis, I have also pondered what this activity indicates about me: what are the weaknesses a poet needs to acknowledge, and what are the strengths he can celebrate?

A Sample Weakness
[EDIT: I originally wrote and published this late at night, but woke up before dawn with the realization that I had to UNpublish the post and come back with some edits. I had revealed more than I ought to reveal, which is the very tendency I lament in a paragraph below. Someday, the world will suit a poet like me. But not today]

Today, I had a conversation with the senior pastor of a local church. Before I headed over to his church, Susan cautioned me: “Don’t reveal more than you should.” She knows me well. I said, “Pray that I’ll control my mouth, and that I’ll be a blessing to him.”

So, I met the senior pastor at the back door of his church. We walked in, and I immediately began pelting him with questions about his church: how they interact with the neighborhood, how well that is working, etc. After looking at his sanctuary, and talking about how it has served during the pandemic, we went to a more private setting downstairs. I began….

“These last few years, I have been developing as a poet. While some think that poets conceal, their actual drive is to reveal. That’s my natural inclination. But today, I need to control that. I’ll be talking about [something private], and there are things I should not say. Forgive me.” The pastor was understanding, and we talked for another 40 minutes. I believe that by God’s grace I did not tell him more about [the private matter] than I should. Reflecting on what I shared, the pastor gave me hope that I 1) am not alone and 2) serve a God who is changing lives.

The Poet as a Lithe Cat Who Loves Counselors
The little story above is about how I deal with the downside of being a poet: I have to be extra careful about not revealing what’s in my heart. But I usually am not so guarded. Think about it…. A poet is always digging into his own heart to surface emotions and thoughts that would rather stay hidden. He drags them up and exposes them to the light of day where they can be dealt with, sometimes by the poet himself, but more often by the reader, by wiser souls, by counselors. That’s why the poet is a friend of counselors. Like a domestic cat, he brings his daily offering of lizards and rats, and lays them at their door. “Here’s a rat that was running through my heart. What’s its name, and how do we deal with it?”

“Wine That Fills Our Cup”
In the poem I refer to “wine that fills our cup.” Believe me, I like wine, and wine’s not a dead rat. Forget about rats and death. A poet at least this poet celebrates life in his expression of emotion. It is not despair that drives me, but hope. Even when speaking of negative, deadly emotions, there is an essential optimism: “This emotion is not my master. I discovered it, am revealing it, and by God’s grace I will see its cure. He will make me whole.”

Even the Wine of Lament
I have been seeking lately to replace anger and bitterness with sadness and sorrow. In essence, to learn lament. Here’s what’s great about lament (at least as I understand it): it is sorrow felt and expressed in the presence of One who can change things, who will change things. When I move to lament, I move closer to hope. Wine is that which dulls, but also cheers.

Coexisting Crows

[written April 14]
At a gasoline station this morning, the driver of the truck at the pump next to mine opened his door, and the truck’s alarm began blaring. I immediately thought, “I’d love to be where the loudest thing I hear’s a crow!” This poem is about the unpleasantness of distrust when provision and purpose are broken. It’s so much of our lives….

Tell Me Again…

I continue to be amazed by seeds. On my walk today, I saw these rubbery seed pods I had never noticed, or felt before, and then realized they are the seed of grape hyacinths, that were in full bloom a few weeks ago. More importantly, there’s something I’m trying to come to terms with: in this fallen world, not all that I think of as loss really IS loss. [I’m getting around to posting this two months after writing that last sentence. It’s a sentence that I’ll have to come back to many a time, to see how much better I understand the nascent thought]

Unfinished Work

I HAVE NOTICED THAT…
In Spring, artists are drawn to Creation.

Commentary

Back when I posted this on Facebook, I wrote, “Please subscribe to my blog, where I give the background of my simple poems like this one, and the more complex ones, the ones even I barely understand!”

“Simple poems like this one,” eh? So it’s over two months later, and I’m getting around to posting this on my blog. How simple was it? Do I remember what I was saying? Well, kinda….

I encountered this artist on Flagpole Hill, and asked her about her technique. Interestingly, she had a lot of dark areas on the canvas, areas whose eventual subject I could SEE, by looking where she was looking: the bright green grass, the shimmering green leaves. These, she began as dark blobs, explaining “I find it easier to start with the darkness as a base, and then apply the lighter colors.”

My poetic response is a reflection on how eternal life has barely begun (“canvas barely stretched”). We don’t understand yet how God will work beauty out of the painful and ugly experiences we now encounter. But we have hope, because we know Him to be a skillful artist.

A Skillful Artist
I went home and looked up this artist (she sells in galleries). I like her finished work. What I saw that afternoon on Flagpole Hill was not a finished work. It is fair to say that if this is all I had seen, I might feel foolish admiring her “technique,” such as it is, in this unfinished work.

The Elder’s Garden

Commentary

I covered what used to be the walkway leading up to the glass door and windows of my office with moss. It’s a far more pleasant vista when I’m working than the concrete walkway ever used to be. Along with the moss that I “liberated” from stream banks, there’s a mass of wild violets, also “liberated” from vacant fields. Finally, there’s an area where wheat grass will soon be sprouting for our cat.

Invariably, my transplants bring in some weeds and even fungus. Last year, I watched what would happen if I left a big puffball mushroom to “do its thing.” Its “thing” turned out to be killing a section of the moss. So this year, I’m being diligent about removing fungus as soon as I notice it growing in amongst the moss.

WITCHES’ BUTTER
One annoying invader is a small black, gelatinous fungus that really seems to enjoy the moist environment. If you look real close in the background image for the poem, you may be able to see some that remains after I spent 20 minutes picking it out this morning. If I’m not confusing it with another fungus, it goes by the names “Black Jelly Roll Fungus” and “Witches’ Butter.” Yuck! I like my butter yellow, not black.

PRAYER
So, while picking out that fungus, my mind turned to invaders that have destroyed the lives of family and friends. Initially, what came to mind was cancers: brain cancer, bone cancer, etc. I prayed for friends who are still fighting this battle. But then, my mind turned to other invaders, like hatred and bitterness. Other acquaintances came to mind, and I prayed for them.

Prayer is an increasingly important part of my life. Soon after I became an elder in my church, it began to dawn on me that I will somehow be held accountable for the spiritual health of people in my care. In that day, I want to be able at least to say, “Lord, I asked for your intervention. There was far more than I could handle.”

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.

Hebrews 13:17

P.S. The dime was there in the photo initially because I was trying to identify the fungus, and I needed it for scale. Then, when I wrote the poem, I realized that the dime could be left in the photo… it reinforces the smallness of the plot. If I think long enough, I may realize there was some other, subconscious reason for leaving it in there. I hate to admit it, but I don’t always KNOW what I’m saying or why!

To a Misguided Cedar

Commentary

I saw this cedar growing in the crotch of a liveoak in front of Lakepointe Church. The poem is not about that church. But it does issue from thinking about churches. Every time a new church is planted, there are certain goals that the church planters are trying to achieve. While they may state a fine-sounding church “mission,” there is sometimes what Robert Schnase refers to as a “shadow mission,” the REAL mission of the church. If that shadow mission is some piece of idolatry like “having a form of worship that is comfortable to us,” the church may initially attract a lot of like-minded idolaters. Thus, it may grow rapidly. But such a mission can only carry the church so far; it contains the seed of its own eventual failure. A dedication to comfort rules out the willingness to change when change becomes necessary. There are probably as many “shadow missions” as there are sinners. I have just described one I see in myself.

As I was thinking about that, I remembered the photo above. Then I knew that the baby cedar may seem attractive in its current location, but it’s doomed to failure. The “shadow mission” of having “altitude” is no use to a cedar. As any cedar-burning Texas rancher will tell you, what cedars do exceptionally well is not to grow tall, but to send roots deep down into hard ground and draw up water for themselves, water that the ranchers need for other purposes! And so, they chop them down, and burn them.

MORE BROADLY, BECAUSE GOD IS MERCIFUL
It isn’t sad when cedars miss their purpose in life. But how about us? What if we are wasting our strength on things that won’t last? Who will save us from such a bad investment? The poem concludes by pointing to the mercy of humbling, of being brought low. This seems to be what James had in mind in his powerful letter:

9Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.

James 1:9-10 (ESV)

[September 4, 2021 Update]: Here’s a picture I took 9 months later, when folly gave birth to death:

Matters More and Less

Commentary

BACKGROUND
Recently, I have been trying to imagine what it might look like to be in a church that welcomes people from all kinds of backgrounds. Would I be willing to give up my comfort for their sake? What if they’re REALLY different? What if their politics are different than mine, different than the politics of most others in the church? Would we be able to keep things in perspective, or would we chase them off because their politics make them feel like pariahs?

Which is more valuable: a soul, or my opinion?

I was once part of a church plant where my chief motivation was comfort: I wanted to be comfortable with the style of worship, and the kind of people I’d be worshipping with. Now, I recognize comfort as an idol. Doubtless, I retain — and am even now creating — other idols, things that are more important than God’s glory. May He have mercy on me.

SEE THE DARK IRONY?
I’m not smart enough to have intended the searing irony in the next-to-last line. “Like hell” was drawn lightly from recent events. But there is a reality darker than current darkness, infinitely more consequential than current comfort.

THE PHOTOGRAPH
The background photo is of St. John’s Episcopal Church, which I pass by on my walks from home to Flag Pole Hill. One evening, the clouds were threatening. I confess: “HDR Scape” in Snapseed accentuated the drama. Do I feel bad about editing a photo? Not in the least…. It’s part of artistic expression. I’m not a mimeograph!

To The Church, 2021

I wrote this little poem partly as a sermon to myself. Here’s how I prefaced it on Facebook:

SINCE WE’RE SCROLLING…
I don’t want to waste this short lifetime, do you? And yet, I devote hours to things that won’t matter in eternity. Meanwhile, there are incredible riches — within reach — that I leave untouched, unexplored.

THE RESULT? My very speech is impoverished.

you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 2:5 NIV
https://1peter.bible/1-peter-2-5

If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Peter 4:11 NIV
https://1peter.bible/1-peter-4-11

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
Colossians 3:16 NIV
https://colossians.bible/colossians-3-16

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Colossians 3:17 NIV
https://colossians.bible/colossians-3-17

Far From Done

My comment on Facebook:

I just wrote about a musician who got better over the years. It felt odd to say of him that with age, he was “increasingly full of promise.” Does language banish Eternity in our hearts?#eternityintheirhearts #ecclesiastes311 #wetmorevalley #westcliffecolorado #poetography

My friend Scott Thibaut posted an insightful comment:

It’s nice to read a poem that recaps the song of Simeon in six lines.

[August 15, 2021 Note]
I recently used this poem to illustrate another post:

NEVER TOO OLD TO GROW
In my 60s, I don’t expect big career developments. But how depressing would it be if I don’t make major headway in spiritual/emotional growth in this decade? Fortunately, I’m surrounded by people who help me in this, including a professional counselor, immediate family who keep me honest, and a wise friend who regularly goes for long walks with me. Is growth painful? Maybe, but not as painful as a long slow slide into futility.

The background image

The background image is part of a photo I took of the Wetmore Valley July 21, 2004. I was staying with my family at Horn Creek Family Camp. In the late afternoon, after suppers, I’d go out driving with the family, as that was the magical time when light was especially interesting and animals were venturing out from the woods.

Poet’s Daydream

Here’s What I Wrote About This

DON’T HATE ME FOR THIS
Almost every day, I take an afternoon nap while listening to music. I try hard then to let my imagination wander free. Often, I think of other artists, and the grasp they have of beauty. I, too, have known beauty. Someday, all of us who know the Author of beauty will have unbridled joy in His creation. Nap time is a good time to savor that hope. In Him, we rest.

Socks Like Poetry

All day, I asked myself if I should refine a poem I tossed off earlier that morning. This struggle reminds me of when I was a teenage perfectionist, and the head cook told me to stop mixing the pancake batter already.

Well, it turns out that I did NOT refine the poem in question, partly because the poem was one of my most popular ever: “Let The Dishes Soak.” I ran it by another poet, and we both saw its weaknesses, but part of its strength was surely the immediacy — words that someone might speak on the spur of a loving moment.

The Most Important War

Commentary

Depressed tonight, I recognize a silent battle — THE silent battle — that rages in me and friends. We occupy ourselves with any conflict at hand rather than the conflict at heart. We are intended by God’s merciful will to be fully won over in the battle to be reconciled, to be transformed into children worthy of fellowship with our Elder brother, Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the Victor. He won over sin that enslaves, weakens, and demoralizes us. He knows how we began; He also knows how we’ll end. Getting us there is His kind purpose (the Victor’s end).

So, why am I depressed? Largely because I see a problem in truly dear friends, a problem that probably afflicts me as well. They are — perhaps I am as well — occupied with silly, worthless conflicts. They are living in echo chambers that reinforce their perception that what they occupy themselves with is important. I sometimes despair of getting through to them. I don’t want to argue with them. They sometimes “like” what I write, apparently not realizing that it is completely antithetical to the trivial pursuits, the phony wars that call them forth. Some undoubtedly see me in the same sad light.

I wrote on Facebook that we need to pray for one another. God alone is able to rescue us from meaningless, hollow lives. He alone can replace depression with love, hope, and commitment.