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.

Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash

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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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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.

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Welcome a New Season of Peaceful Change

Welcome the peaceful signs of this new season by
Beating your swords into plowshares.

Then go till up a garden!

Beat those blades back into swords again
And do battle against an ensnaring sin.

Don’t be anxious about
What is coming or
What might come.

Pick a bouquet just for today’s table.

Turn regret on its squeaky hinges
And resolve to make a change.

 

Blessings to you as we welcome the wonderful signs of spring!

michele signature[1]


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Easter Anthology

Pilate and Peter (and me)

The truth: Clean hands will not suffice

“What shall I do with Him called Christ?”
The truth:  clean hands will not suffice.
Your acts of treachery which rise
From disillusionment; your cries
Of protest which reveal your fear
Add to your guilt. Easter draws near.
Be still and let the rain of pure
Truth fall on you and make you sure.

The Body

Raise up the Body of Your Son and gain in us another one!
Incorporeal You are. Eyes
cannot see the face of God; prize
clues that tip Your holy hand;
We see what Your salvation planned.
Raise up the body of Your Son
and gain in us another one!


We know it!
Or at least, we profess to know it:  the truth of resurrection is foundational and credal. Even so, we hold fear and embrace darkness with steps weighted down. My prayer for us this Easter is that our steps and our hearts would be lightened by a new awareness of the truth of an empty tomb that spreads a layer of clear abundance across the sky of our lives throughout the year.

With Fear and Great Joy (Matthew 28:8)Run! Let's live in power going forward in that sacred knowing.

In the shadow of a lie, we
Know the truth:  The tomb was empty,
Yet we join the women at dawn
Knowing joy, but holding fear on
Hearts that know of resurrection,
But embrace death’s dark direction.
Run! Let’s live in power, going
Forward in that sacred knowing.


Poetry was meant to be heard, particularly rhymed poetry. The eye stops at the ends of lines and misses the scope of a sentence, but reading poetry aloud offers  the gift of a complete thought, rather than a series of bouncy phrases.

I confess to a certain prejudice against rhymed poetry.
When it’s good, it’s very good, but “Christian poetry” so often has settled for rollicking rhythm and cheap rhymes over content that I’ve hesitated even to experiment with it.

However, a few years ago I began playing with a very strict, metered form of rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter with eight syllables per line. (Can you find the line where I “cheated” on syllables?) This kind of verse is really more effective if it’s read aloud, so if you are in a place where you are able to, and if you have time, I encourage you to read this collection of poetry out loud to yourself.

Poet and theologian Rowan Williams observed that “poetry piles the pressure on theology–through imagery, sound, form, and figures of speech–to release wonder from the familiar.”

My hope is that you will enjoy that release of wonder somehow in the coming days, either through poetry or music or a fresh reading of Scripture that will enable you to penetrate the truth of Easter more deeply and to embrace it more passionately.

Jesus is Risen!
He is risen, indeed!

Going forward in that sacred knowing,

 


If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews 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.

Musings: February 2018

On a day when snow was sticky and ankle deep, I took kitchen shears and lopped branches off a bush that grows in disarray outside the dining room window. The rush of school and schedules had bowed to the will of February vacation, and suddenly there was time for hope. Three fourths of the way through a winter season feels like just the right time to remind myself that naked branches can sprout vivid yellow blossoms, internally luminescent and unlikely as warmth in winter.

Bare twigs await spring.
Where only memory gives hope,
Faith sees greening leaves.

February Reads

In February, I reviewed four books that run in four very different veins.

First, Carol Kent’s real life story is heartbreaking, but in He Holds My Hand: Experiencing God’s Presence and Protection, she shares the truth that carried her through her son’s arrest and imprisonment for murder.

For anyone who has struggled with fitting into Christian culture or embracing their role in a church family, Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community offers an understanding ear coupled with a firm push to set aside our petty preferences and to remember that worship is about God and not about us.

Alan Jacobs challenges believers to a life of cognitive courage in How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. He’s a C.S. Lewis scholar and a skilled thinker himself, so I appreciated his words on what it means to think well in a world where the informational fire hose is on full blast.

The life of Walter Wangerin, Jr. has been populated by memorable characters, and he has skillfully woven together a collection of stories to demonstrate the truth that there is always grace shining behind our darkness.  Wounds Are Where Light Enters: Stories of God’s Intrusive Grace is a glance into the rear view mirror in which theology and biblical narrative lie just beneath the surface.

February Discussion of Orthodoxy

There were some great February conversations at Living Our Days, probably the liveliest centering around the monthly post on G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. 

Parenting After the FallChesterton is laugh-out-loud creative and stop-you-in-your-tracks sobering on the topic of original sin. He maintains that it’s “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved,” and I’ve certainly done my part in providing evidence for humanity’s fallen condition. As a parent who is in the middle of preparing (with fear and trembling) to teach a parenting workshop here in Maine, I was thankful to spend some time pondering the plight of sinners parenting sinners.

February Hospitality

It’s always a stretch and a great grace to be invited into the writing space of on-line friends. This month, I offered a compilation of two book reviews on racial reconciliation to the readers of The Redbud Post. If you’re not already a subscriber to this monthly collection, I encourage you to take advantage of this regular infusion of good writing and thinking from The Redbud Writer’s Guild.

Diversity and the Church: A Culture with No Excuse

Decoding the Beauty in the Universe

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Perennial Gen is a gathering of readers and writers “of a certain age” so I wanted to introduce them to one of my “book mentors,” Luci Shaw through her wisdom found in  Thumbprint in the Clay: Divine Marks of Beauty, Order and Grace. Well into her eighties, Luci is a poet who writes with skill about a life of decoding the rich presence of purpose, design, and beauty in the universe.

On Vacation!

Cinnamon rollsTo be honest, there’s nothing relaxing about vacation here on this country hill. This recap will be shorter than usual because this morning, the most important writing task is to scribble white glaze across the top of cinnamon rolls.

The week has been full and fun:

  • A day of tiny cars and thick tempera paint with the adorable grand boy;
  • A great visit with our second son and his wife, which included the bonus of a long listen, both coming and going, to the audio book To Kill a Mockingbird;
  • Extra time to soak in Jeremiah’s warnings against false messages from voices who claim to speak truth for God;
  • The great satisfaction of finishing the purging, cleaning, and organizing of bookcases!

Michele Morin Living Our Days

We’re still a month away from the calendar’s demarcation of the season of greening leaves. While the official beginning of spring is an empty promise here in the northeast U.S., it’s a reminder that the snow won’t last forever. Thank you for your eyes here and for the encouragement of your reading, commenting, sharing, and inspiring contributions to the discussion.

Blessings and love to you,


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 any of the books mentioned in this post,simply click on the title here or 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:

He Holds My Hand: Experiencing God’s Presence and Protection,

Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community,

 How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds

Wounds Are Where Light Enters: Stories of God’s Intrusive Grace 

Thumbprint in the Clay: Divine Marks of Beauty, Order and Grace

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews 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.

The Familiar Glories

Glory is everywhere in these short days of summer.  A walk to the mailbox overloads the senses with unusual bird sightings, progress in the garden, and the frenzied buzzing of bee scouts filling their saddle bags with the makings for a flourishing life.

Clyde Kilby* laments:

“One of the greatest tragedies of the fall is that we get tired of familiar glories.”

YES to this, so in these fleeting days — of summer and of life — I’m putting on the brakes and lingering in a few moments that have already flown by.

Poetry is glue that repairs the split seconds.

Counting syllables; choosing one word and rejecting another; spinning a spider web netting that will capture and hold a memory; I’m pausing for a languid look at the longer realities that live behind the images.

Let’s agree together that we will never lose sight of those “familiar glories.”

The Familiar Glories

He runs from the house, his face aglow.

Expectation shines from every pore

As a gushing stream of welcome runs

Over the rocky bed of toddler-ese.

 

 

E & KWhite lace enhances youthful beauty.

Love and joy collide in radiance,

For without words, bride and groom clasp hands,

And every promise shimmers in their eyes.

Capture

Fragment of bird-life hangs suspended,

Sipping in mid-air her floral fuel

From color and fragrance that drew her

And hold her savoring; slake her wanting.

 

birch tree

White birch; emerald leaves on blue sky:

Were the greens this glorious last year?

The familiar glories press themselves

Against the day insisting, “Wake up.  See.”

 

//

Photo credit for lovely picture of the bride and groom:  Carrie Mae Photography 

*Clyde Kilby was a noted C.S. Lewis scholar and professor of English at Wheaton College.  I found this quote in John Piper’s new book, Reading the Bible Supernaturally (Crossway, 2017) Kindle Location 574

//

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews 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.