A Literary Pursuit of Beauty, Grace, and Truth

It’s been a long time since I browsed in a Christian bookstore. They’re exceptionally rare here in Maine, but on one of my last excursions, I inquired about the poetry section hoping to lay hands on something by Luci Shaw or Marjorie Maddox. Alas, it was not to be on this day.

“We don’t carry poetry,” I was informed, in a tone that somehow made a virtue out of the omission, and given the disappointing nature of the Christian poetry that has found its way onto greeting cards and into cheerfully vapid collections over the years, maybe it’s just as well to save shelf space for more substantial material. Of course, the tragedy is that poorly written inspirational verse has inoculated the church against the rich treasury of  devotional poetry that is part of our heritage and our history. Taking the religious life as its subject, devotional poetry shows rather than tells, suggests rather than argues, and has the lovely effect of prompting “us to think about God and spiritual truth.” (14)

Leland Ryken, professor of English at Wheaton College for nearly 50 years, has done us the tremendous favor of sorting through the endless possibilities of great works and narrowing the field down to a manageable representative collection that begins with the oldest surviving poem in the English language and works its way up through modern times.  The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems provides helpful commentary on each work, beginning with explanation of unfamiliar or archaic terms and then moving on to enhance the reader’s understanding of artistry and content while noting specific devotional aspects of the poem.

Ryken’s contributors include all the Johns (Milton, Donne, Bunyan, Dryden) and the Williams (Draper, Shakespeare, Wordsworth) along with a  multitude of well-loved names including George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, C.S. Lewis, Christina Rossetti, Anne Bradstreet, and the Brontë Sisters.  Perhaps the greatest treasure, however, is his inclusion of lesser known poets who wrote with great depth of soul. Exercising considerable restraint, I will share a few favorite excerpts along with insights from the commentary that have added to my contemplation of their deep theological truth and have enhanced my understanding of the rich mode of expression used by skillful poets throughout history.

On the Incarnation:

“‘Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God would be made like man, much more.”   (78)

“It is commonplace in Christian thinking that God made man in his own image. John Donne reverses that fact in a thought that is so unexpected that it can be considered a paradox: it is even more noteworthy that in the incarnation God was made in the image of man. [These] lines are an aphorism (a succinct and striking statement that we remember.)”  (80)

On Human Restlessness:

“Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”  (92)

In these words put in God’s mouth by George Herbert, “we are given the reason why God created people to be restless in the world. The poet imagines that God created people with a built-in ‘pulley’ that draws them to God.”  (93)

On the Key to a Meaningful Life:

I confess to finding Milton’s writing to be beyond challenging — inscrutable, even — without assistance, but with the insights from Ryken’s notes alongside a slow and careful read, this excerpt in Adam’s words from the epic poem Paradise Lost are a road map for life in a fallen world:

“Henceforth I learn that to obey is best,
And love with fear the only God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend.”  (133)

On the Place of Lament in the Life of a Believer:

Anne Bradstreet’s “Verses Upon the Burning of Our House” renders tragedy in verse without trivializing it. “The pitfall that a poet needs to avoid in a poem like this is allowing the consolation to come across as facile (too easily achieved and glibly stated). Bradstreet meets the challenge by fully acknowledging the human and earthly loss that she has sustained.” (137)

“My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under the roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy table eat a bit . . .
Then straight I ‘gin my heart to chide:
And did thy wealth on earth abide,
Didst fix thy hope on moldering dust,
The arm of flesh dist make thy trust?”  (136)

By her example, we may carve out our own faithful living of lament and peaceful acceptance of the will of God.

The Soul in Paraphrase as a title has been lifted from a poem by George Herbert:

“Prayer, the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth.”  (8)

Herbert is referring to prayer, the ability to live in God’s presence as angels live, but Ryken argues that devotional poetry serves the soul in the same way, rendering and representing our souls in words that we might have come up with ourselves— if only we had the skill.


Many thanks to Crossway for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems, simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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Are You Ready to Receive the Gift of Advent?

One day, the Gift of all gifts was carried into a public space.

Although the Gift could have come with a transcendence too glorious for human eyes,
It came instead in the arms of a young Jewish woman.

No one noticed,
For the Gift was small,
Unexpected.

Besides–
No one was looking for a Gift that day. . .

No one but Simeon.

We don’t know when Simeon’s vigil began or how he discerned that the wait was finally over,
But he was there, standing watch at the Jerusalem Temple.

His life had been lived in anticipation of an arrival, and
His leading was no less compelling than an angel appearance,
For the Spirit was upon him,
Communicating with him, and
Compelling him to take his post.

With roots planted in the thin soil between the Testaments,
Somehow Simeon grew to hear the voice of God.
Did it come with audible clarity?
Or was it more like a raised eyebrow,
A nod, or the lift of a chin to point in a certain direction?

Seeing the Child,
Simeon sang his dismissal from duty,
a new psalm from Jewish lips
with lyrics of hope that moved beyond
the great salvation of Mary’s song;
With a wider circle even than
Zacharias’s anthem of redemption and blessing.

Simeon’s cameo appearance trumpeted
Revelation to the Gentiles AND
Glory to Israel,
A Divine Fiat of both/and,
Intended to rebuke an either/or culture that had all but forgotten Old Testament prophecies of Light to the Gentiles.

“How silently, how silently the Wondrous Gift was given,”
for even now, the Gift of all gifts goes unseen and unheard.
We are out for flashing lights,
Our gifts are mired in the moment, and
The lyrics to our songs get it all wrong.

After all, a message with a sword running through it is hard on the ears.

Mission fulfilled, Simeon was dismissed from his post,
But his shadowy sword-words concerning those who would “speak against” the Babe in his arms came to pass, and the sword would, indeed, flash through Mary’s heart,
Leaving the human race still divided, but along a new fissure–
the line between darkness and light.

Unbelievably, my eyes, too, have seen God’s salvation
And Simeon’s words, spoken over a tiny Baby, have been fulfilled:

Jesus has revealed the true God and the true Way.

The question is, are we
(Am I?)
ready to welcome Christ as He really is?


Celebrating the Season of Advent with Joy,

Michele Morin

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Do Good So That Goodness May Be Done

When the herald sounds the arrival of a Great One,
Heads turn.
Eyes focus on The Coming.
This is the goal, of course,
For greatness must be seen.

But
“Sound no trumpet,” said Jesus
To those who would do good for others.
Fold the bill to hide Ben Franklin’s face in the plate.
Avoid the conversational boast, so casual:
“When I took on my third Compassion child . . .”

In the synagogue,
In the streets,
In the moment,
Mute the fanfare,
Shut the door,
Shut your mouth.

And do good.

Do good, so that goodness may be done.
Do it for the Father who sees in secret
And for Him alone,
For His Greatness must be seen,
And this is your reward.

 


Because the Sermon on the Mount demands an exceeding and often unseen righteousness,

michele signature rose[1]

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Run Toward the Darkness with Borrowed Light

In times of danger and disaster throughout history, true believers have made their mark by running toward the darkness. Whether it was a plague in second century Rome or a twenty-first century hurricane in America’s deep south, if we follow Mr. Rogers’s advice and “look for the helpers,” we might be surprised by how many of them are Christians who have chosen to be part of this particular dark setting in order to put the Light of the World on display.

As Christians, we have no light of our own, but the nature of our Borrowed Light is so compelling that others are drawn to its warmth and luminosity, just as we are drawn to the borrowed light of the moon against an inky sky.  In her poetry collection (The Consequence of Moonlight: Poems), Sofia Starnes has expressed this exact quality of sainthood, the here-ness or there-ness of a life that “orbits the earth but [is] not of the earth.

It is the discipline of recalling the source of our Light that keeps the underlying Presence in proper view. G.K. Chesterton borrows the same reality for his own timeless metaphor, for “just as the sun and the moon look the same size” at first glance, a right understanding of the universe soon reveals that “the sun is immeasurably our master, and the small moon only our satellite.” (229)

An accomplished poetess, Starnes employs delightful wordplay to embody the intangible to convey the loveliness of her observations:

“I wonder how such puny a word as pit,
could be both seed and slum, both dormant agency
and tomb; both conflict verb–met up against–

and scoop; a stone that yields, yields small,
yet hurts the hand. I wonder how,
but pittances deceive; thus is the way of potency

and plea; the oil is notched by hooves
and by the Fall, and then by falling fledglings,
insecure.

How measured is the earth for gift and scar,
for creaks and croons, for the precarious child.”  (69)

Borrowed Light for Living

One of my favorite elements of poetic writing is the surprising Scriptural connections that arise. Writing of Israel’s waste and desolate places, the prophet Isaiah imagines the complaint of future generations:  “The place is too cramped for me, make room for me to live.” (Isaiah 49:20 ESV) The poem “Catacombs” (64) adds to the imagery with comparison to an 80-year-old woman’s real-life six-day confinement in earthquake rubble, prompting the reader to examine her own surroundings. From what cramped places may I also emerge unscathed and with a great story to share?

Let us continue to trust in the borrowed Light that dwells in power, living our way into richly share-able tales by holy risk and trusting in the the “Lord of spill and swell” (118). May we also, in our own day, run toward the darkness with a glorious excess–“not merely patched: pampered, festooned, unspent,” but instead (YES, Lord!) trusting in the future of “a risen body our flesh has never dreamt.” (118)

Many thanks to Paraclete Press for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase The Consequence of Moonlight: Poems simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Rejoicing in the Brilliance of Our Borrowed Light,

Image Credit:  Calvin R. Morin (on the bridge to Rackliffe Island) 

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What You Believe About God Matters

What you believe about God matters.
Is He malleable, pliable, well-intentioned, but out of touch?
A bit like you, only ever-so-much-more-so?
Can you embrace the reality of a transcendent, crucified God who preceded matter
and interrupted the natural order “to save mankind in the awful shape of man?” (217)

What you believe about humanity matters.
Are we ever-improving, well-intentioned, but weak of heart?
A bit like God, only fatally subject to “common nonsense?” (212)

Far from the stuff of ivory towers,
my answer to these questions
flows like blood in the veins of my concept of morality,
stands like bones in the framework of my convictions on the boundaries of liberty and the nature of progress.

Orthodoxy reads the red letters of social justice alongside the venom of the angry psalms and the stories of Old Testament genocide and worships at the feet of God, incomprehensible.

Orthodoxy celebrates the boundaries of law as a “wall round the cliff’s edge” that shields God’s children from the “naked peril of the precipice.” (216) The orthodox dance with abandon inside the freedom of that wall of safety, singing and rejoicing within pleasure’s open-handed framework.

Orthodoxy is the exhale from newborn lungs, sweet and fragrant with contagious life, relieved to have left choking dogma behind in exchange for evidence that miracles actually do happen.

Orthodoxy is not deceived by the pull of lesser gods, but has discerned by grace that “just as the sun and the moon looked the same size” at first glance, a right understanding of the universe soon reveals that “the sun is immeasurably our master, and the small moon only our satellite.” (229)

The orthodox heart lives in anticipation, “always expecting to see some truth that she has never seen before” and always seeking “the fixed meaning” of everything, which will be revealed either in this life or the next. (231) She looks at the utilitarian rake and imagines fruition and flowers, at original sin and finds empathy. She embraces sorrow and mourning as part of being human, because underneath all of creation lies the truth that “joy . . . is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” (238)


And thus ends our journey through all nine chapters and 200 plus pages of G.K. Chesterton’s thoughts on  Orthodoxy!

I am grateful for your partnership in this adventure. Be sure to share your own thoughts in the comments below, and if you have written a blog post about the book, leave a link so we can continue the conversation at your place.

Because what we think about God matters,

michele signature rose[1]
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Summer Selah

There’s a reason why,
In the architecture of Your perfect poetry,
You ordained that this foundation of a phrase
Should bear repeating:

The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge.
Selah”  (Psalm 46:7 and 11)

Pausing at Your command
to reflect on words that should stop me in my tracks everyday
(but, often enough, do not),
I will carry the truth of Your presence
and Your protection
into this summer day.

Lord of hosts, God of incomparable power;
God of Jacob, the One Who knows me by name:

You are present
in the rich fruition of summer gardens
and in the joyful gatherings of family and friends–
evidence of Your delight in our pleasure.

You are my refuge
in the blazing heat of temptation
and in the drought of discouragement.

God of the Angel Armies,
God of the Old Testament Patriarchs,
God of Middle-Aged Mothers
who grow weary and fall short:

Thank you that Who-You-Are
redeems who-I-am.

Thank you for this pause–
the most productive moment of this summer day.

Selah

_The Lord of Hostsis with us;The God of Jacobis our refuge.Selah_

 

Thank you for pausing here with me here to read and reflect on truth,

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Half Way to Entirely

C.S. Lewis described the human condition as a process of always becoming more of what we already are. These are cautionary words for me at this point in middle age, particularly as I consider the possibilities. In Lewis’s The Great Divorce, the Teacher speaks regretfully of a seemingly harmless woman who has come to the end of her life, not as a “grumbler,” but as “only a grumble.”

It begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. . . You can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine. (74, 75)

Thanks be to God, it seems that this tendency can work in positive ways as well, and the poet Hayden Carruth bears witness to this, declaring in his “Testament”: “Now I am almost entirely love.” Whatever sifting and sandpapering process brought him to that state, his words inspired Jennifer Wallace as she collected an offering of her own poems.

In Almost Entirely: Poems (Paraclete Poetry) the reader is treated to the process of a woman becoming. As one who is “predisposed by nature to question everything,” (17) Wallace reconciles her doubts with the presence of a God who is well able to take in hand her persistent wondering. In the process, God shows up in both surprising and ordinary ways within the pauses:

  • In the foreordained turning of the head to view a crow in flight or a “squirrel passage, or a person with whom I share an ever-present reaching toward.” (20)
  • In a poignant pondering of “life’s second half”:

“Tell me, someone:
with the spade of days remaining,
how to turn the soil
and where.” (34)

Finding Joy in the Cup of Shadow

Far-from-glib reflections excavate grief and plumb the depths of disappointment with God, borrowing  words from C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed to lament that faith can sometimes feel like “the rope that holds until we need it.” Wallace riffs on Psalm 23 when her “cup of shadow” (24) overflows, and she asks for grace to unbolt the door and walk into a season we’re so tempted to deny.

For most of us, by the time we reach middle age, the jarring truth has been well-established that “the world won’t behave, not even for me.” (39) We are ruefully accustomed to the phone call that describes the disappointing diagnosis of a parent, a friend, a spouse. These are the days when we awaken to an early dawn and begin to take attendance:

“Whose time will come next?
Storm taken.
War taken.
A tiny fracture in a cell.”

Even now, there is grace to find joy in a dusty yellow warbler who hops “in the autumn dogwood near the gate . . . on its way to Venezuela” (49) and to rejoice in the memory of a beautiful, normal day (77).

In every season of life, we dwell in the conflicted joy of The Two Pockets:

“In one is the message, ‘I am dust and ashes,’ and in the other, ‘for me the universe was made.'” Receiving the second in light of the first is the course of health and wholeness. This is enough. A simultaneous comprehension of these two truths will set us on a path that is almost entirely hope.Many thanks to Paraclete Press (here in beautiful New England!) for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Almost Entirely: Poems (Paraclete Poetry), simply click on the title within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Thank you for joining me today on the path of hope,

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular content delivered to your inbox. Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging communities on a regular basis. They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week. I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.