Friday, January 30, 2015

Bubble gum, peanut butter, kitschiness & Rod McKuen

“Rod McKuen, former prolific poet and songwriter of the 60s and 70s, died today. He was 81.”

This was a brief mention on the 11PM local news last night. When I got up today, I was surprised there was zero mention on or on the homepages of several other news outlets. It took a Google search to pull up the details.

Seems a little disrespectful, something McKuen was probably used to.

I first encountered the poetry of Rod McKuen when I came across his books in the Hallmark store on Broad Street in New Castle, Indiana in the late 60s. The same place I bought my beloved sandalwood candles.

The books had warm abstract covers and simple titles: Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows, Listen to the Warm, Lonesome Cities, And Autumn Came, In Someone's Shadow, Twelve Years of Christmas.

If you were alive in the late 60s, early 70s, you may remember the song “Jean” sung by the recording artist Oliver. McKuen wrote the song for the 1969 movie “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.”

What? You never heard of the movie, the song, the singer, or McKuen?

Sad. But not unusual.

McKuen was, as my friend and former high school English teacher Steve Dicken so aptly noted, my “gateway” poet. Dicken also referred to him as a “bubble gum” poet.

Someone once told me reading McKuen for them was like getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of their mouth. Peanut butter is tasty but the experience is a tad discomfiting, was the point they were making.

Okay, I get it. Now.

But back then, I was completely enamored of McKuen’s poetry. Unlike so much “better” or “real” poetry, his writing was accessible. That it tapped into the always-in-flux emotions of adolescent romanticism was probably also a factor.

Dicken wisely maneuvered me toward the better poets and craftily whetted my appreciation for finer writing. Dr. Zenas “Big Z” Bicket picked up in college where Dicken left off.

I grew up, my literary sensibilities shifted, and I grew away from McKuen.

But not entirely.

McKuen, by critics and academics, has been pooh-poohed as smarmy, saccharine, schmaltzy, mawkish, and he was even dubbed “King of Kitsch” at one point.

Snark is easy and cheap.

Yet, the man was prolific and successful. In fact I have to wonder if at least some of the harsher criticism was fueled by jealousy.

McKuen published more than 30 books of poetry and song lyrics, plus two non-fiction books. He produced hundreds of albums of music, spoken words, original compositions, and movie soundtracks. He earned two Oscar nominations and one Pulitzer nomination for his music. Frank Sinatra even commissioned him to compose an entire special album of music.

His books and albums sold in the millions.

He did this coming from an abused background, with no formal musical or literary training, producing poetry every day, proud to write what anyone could understand and that millions appreciated.

And you have to respect a guy who, for years after running away from home and an abusive stepfather, supported himself by holding a variety of hard labor kinds of jobs such as ranch hand, railroad worker, lumberjack, rodeo cowboy, and  stuntman, among others, always sending money home to his mom in the process.

Not too shabby for “bubble gum” poet.

Still, as my literary sensibilities “matured,” his books were slowly culled from my library. Somehow I managed to keep one and recently picked up another in a moment of nostalgia in a thrift store. I also still have two of his old albums, as well as a Jacques Brel album with whom McKuen collaborated.

In recent months I had been wondering what ever happened to McKuen. It turns out he fell into a depression in the 80s and basically stopped giving concerts, more or less withdrawing from public life. And his poetry just wasn’t cool anymore. His final books were published in 2001 and 2004.

But here’s the thing.

If, for some weird reason I was about to be exiled to a desert island and told that the only poetry I could take with me was either the complete works of Rod McKuen or the complete works of, say, John Ashbery, Gertrude Stein, or Charles Bukowski, I’d go with McKuen in a heartbeat.


Because his writing is accessible, warm, genuine, and unpretentious, like having a good friend to hang out with. Which is the effect you’d want if alone on a desert island.

Of course, if my choices were expanded to include James Dickey, Wendell Berry, Stephen Dunn, or some others, well, my decision would be a little more difficult.

Still, if it weren’t for McKuen piquing my interest in poetry and drawing me in, I might never have discovered the “greater” poets and writers. Or wanted to try my own hand at the writing craft.

So, all you teachers of English out there. When one of your students shows interest in words and shares with you their favorite, but in your opinion “somewhat poor excuse for a writer”, be careful not to speak that thought. Instead, validate their interest, and gently nudge them toward what you believe to be “better” writers.

Besides, if those you believed to be the worst of the worst wrote as well as Rod McKuen did, it would not be a bad thing and all poems would be at least as lovely as a tree, if you catch my drift.

As for me, I’m unashamedly grateful for the gentle influence of Rod McKuen.

Thanks, Rod. I owe you.


Links to more about Rod McKuen:

Are there writers or musicians that have influenced you or that you enjoy that others pooh-pooh? Do you snark about the likes and dislikes of others? Why? To feel better about yourself? For shame. Share and sound off in the comments!

“It's Bartok time and this party’s had it.”:

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Stinking to high heaven: Sorry dad.

In the 60s and 70s I think every teenager went through a phase where they were into burning incense or scented candles.

Sometimes the point of these were to disguise other, um, shall we say “troublesome” odors?

For me, I just liked them. I wasn’t trying to cover up other smoky smells.

My favorite scent was sandalwood. I made frequent trips to the Hallmark store to purchase the largest orange sandalwood candle they had. One nearly new candle bit the dust.

The college I went to grew up around an old Army hospital. Some of the original buildings were still in use as dorms and heated with steam. Over one Christmas break, for reasons still unclear, the maintenance department went into our vacant rooms and opened the radiators full blast.

Returning from vacation, when we opened our doors our rooms were bursting with heat! It took hours with the windows open to cool everything down.

In addition to warping a few of my vinyl albums, a sandalwood candle I had sitting on a shelf completely melted away. Since the shelf was a hunk of unfinished wood, the wax simply absorbed into it!

C’est la vie.

I also liked those little black cones of pine incense, especially around Christmas.

My dad, on the other hand, had a much different attitude about these and other artificially scented things. He hated those “smelly candles” and you didn’t even want to get him started on incense.

I never really understood his objections. I mean, how could you not enjoy the lovely scent of sandalwood wafting through the house?

He didn’t. At all.

In recent years, something has happened to my olfactory system.

As a result I’m realizing what my dad was objecting to. And now I feel a little bad I wasn’t more sensitive to his nasal sensitivities.

My wonderful wife loves scented candles. She’d have them burning all the time if she had her way. But not me. Not anymore.

Maybe it’s years of sinus infections or who knows what, but now, I’m just like my dad when it comes to those smelly candles.

We’ve experimented with various scents, all to no avail and to my wife’s grave disappointment. Just going into a candle shop is a challenge for me.

In fact, walking past a perfume counter in a store can send my head reeling. Dad had the same problem!

Strong smells do me in. When she needs to do her nails, my wife, lovingly, goes upstairs to our bedroom, closes the door and opens the window, even when it’s cold outside. I love her for that.

Oddly, her sense of smell is somewhat lacking. As a result, our opinions on how strong something smells will vary, to say the least. Like when she decides to roast garlic in the oven. Oy!

But we work through it. Sometimes I just have to endure. Still, she is more sensitive to me than I was to my dad.

Sorry, dad. Really. I get it now.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some candles to blow out.

What do you think the moral of this story might be? Or is there one? Any spiritual application(s) you can think of? What memories do you have of your mom or dad? Share in the comments!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Keep this in mind when writing anything (#PoetryMonday*)

Ideas take form through words.

Words are powerful.

Power influences.

Influence changes behavior.

Behavior reveals character.

Character is defined by passion.

Passion follows from thought.

Thought generates ideas.

Ideas take form through words.

Words are powerful...


  * It's PoMo! To learn about PoMo (POetry MOnday), click here and then scroll down. 

 This is a repost from June 3, 2011 (also reposted on June 9, 2014)

Okay, so technically this may not be poetry. But poetry is a flexible and fluid concept, so maybe it is. At any rate, how we use words, in speech or in writing, is serious business. Words do matter.

Agree? Disagree? Neutral? Share your reactions and thoughts in the comments!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

5 tips for clearer thinking. Or, Don’t be lazy! Take two minutes to clear off all the snow to navigate safely! Or, don't be a port-hole...thinker.

Every winter you see them out on the roads and do your best to avoid them.

They are the cars covered in snow with only a small port-hole sized spot cleared on the windshield. The rest of the car is covered in snow and ice.

Could these people be any lazier?

How much more time would it take to clean off the entire car?

Whenever I get in my car in the winter, I clear it off completely, including the roof, hood, and back of the car, as well as the lights all around.

I want to be able to see clearly on the road, as well as be seen clearly. It only takes a minute or two to get the job done right.

Sadly, there are people who are like snow covered cars careering through life with a distorted, incomplete “port-hole” viewpoint.

Are you like this? Don’t be! “Port-holing” is a good way to get blind-sided and be viewed as a jerk.

Here are five view-inhibiting lazy-minded attitudes to clear away from your thinking.

1. Truisms are often false

I hate truisms. Especially when people cling to them like life rafts.

A couple of my most loathed are “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” and “Past behavior dictates future behavior.”

Both are incredibly dismissive of people. They deny the power of God’s transforming grace, the reality that people do change, and that we often misperceive others.

While there may be some modicum of truth to these and other truisms, when applied to living, breathing people they fail to reveal the multi-faceted dimensions of individual personalities.
The truth: People are complex, defying easy categorization. Even though we like to box each other in with our quick, shallow impressions of one another, truisms always fall short of describing who a person really is. They may make for clever posters, but they are damaging to people and relationships.

2. Issues are not one-sided

When I was in high school, part of our speech class involved debating. We were required to argue both sides of an issue. This was especially tough when the issue was near and dear to my heart and I felt strongly about which was the right side.

But it was an excellent exercise. Even if I still held my position in the end, I gained a much better understanding of those on the other side.

Actually, there are usually multiple “sides” to any issue or argument. You know, like that proverbial accident viewed from different positions in the intersection?

As a result of my debating experience I get a little suspicious of those who refuse to see the various sides to an issue always insisting there’s only one right way to see everything.
The truth: Events and issues are seldom black and white but rather abound in complexity. Insisting on interpreting events and issues through a myopic viewpoint is as dangerous as going the wrong way on a one-way street.

3. Rumors deflect away from truth

It wasn’t too long ago a rumor that was burning up the Internet and filling everyone’s inbox with forwarded messages revolved around the P&G logo and company executives.

Rumormongers insisted the logo was filled with Satanist imagery, that company profits supported the devil’s causes, and that some executives worshiped Satan.

None of it was (or is) true.

But even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the rumor persisted for decades. I’m sure that there exist pockets of wrong-believers who still cling to the idea that the rumors were indeed true. Nothing will dissuade them from their port-hole wrong-headed view.

Sadly, starting a rumor or making a false accusation are easy while countering them is arduous. This shouldn’t be the case.
The truth: Rumors and its cousins -- hearsay, gossip, speculation, and innuendo -- will always bear false witness to the truth. Slander and libel are founded on rumors and false assertions. Rumors must always give way to facts.

4. Ignoring context leads to wrong conclusions

A minister told an anecdote recounting what a senior member of a congregation had alleged to have seen.

Esther, a bit of a biddy, reported to anyone who would listen that she had witnessed Eddie, the president of the church youth group, smoking by the school. She was outraged and poor Eddie was scandalized. At least until their pastor brought context to the situation and confronted Esther.

It was true that Esther saw Eddie standing near the school with his hands up to his face and what looked like smoke coming from his mouth. It was a cold day and he was waiting for his parents to pick him up after band practice. While he waited, he was idly fiddling with his trumpet mouthpiece and warming his hands blowing “smoke” through the mouthpiece.

Had Esther paid attention to the context of Eddie’s character, the fact that his trumpet case was at his feet, and knowing as she did that Eddie was in the school band and was not a smoker, she may not have jumped to a wrong conclusion. Unless that’s what she really wanted to do.
The truth: Context is king! Too narrow of a focus or personal agendas will block out essential facts leading to a skewed understanding. A broad, open view is needed to see clearly.

5. Your first impression is probably wrong

Socrates is to have said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” An unexamined life is one that is lived without contemplation or thoughtful consideration.

Information and data pour into our awareness. We skim it all, make snap assessments and quick judgments, and move on. We live, believe, and offer opinions while stuck in our initial knee jerk, bone-headed reaction.

Kind of like looking out your window and thinking that you see a rabbit, when, upon closer examination, it’s revealed to be a chunk of frozen slush fallen from a car.

We eschew the effort of careful examination and avoid taking time to reconsider. We ignore new information and insight. As a result, we become convinced dirty slush is a bunny.

Too often, whatever fits our preconceived notions is all we care to hear, read, or learn. We feed our foolishness and send truth on a holiday while basking in ignorance.
The truth: Refusing to mull, to go deeper into context, and to question ourselves is choosing to operate from willful ignorance. And that is a dangerous place to be in a world that is as complex and troubled as ours. It is also how bias, prejudice, bigotry, false assumptions, and wrong-headed beliefs are created and fueled.

Better living with nuanced thinking!

In the Bible, we are encouraged to be “sober minded” (1 Thessalonians 5:6, Titus 2:6, et al). R. C. Sproul, Jr. explains, “To be to treat truth seriously and to have a healthy doubt as to our own understanding of truth.”

Being sober minded is practicing nuanced thinking and being willing to engage others without bias, as opposed to flat-line thinking, being hard-nosed, and short-sighted.

The Apostle Peter puts it to us like this: “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:13-15, ESV).

The bottom line is that, especially as Christians, we should eschew lazy thinking and take the time to listen to, learn from, and love those around us, even when we disagree with them.

Sober up! Be smart! Clear off all of the snow! Take the time to discern truth with the Holy Spirit’s help (Romans 12:2).

Relevant links:

“No one wants to consider that it's not a SKIN issue but that it's a SIN issue.”


Have you ever realized that you were engaging in faulty thinking? If so, how did you become aware of it and how did you change your attitude? Do you believe there are some issues that do have only one right way of seeing them? What are they? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Brief Review: Cutting the Bible down to (big) bite size

The Bible is a big book. Picking it up for the first time can be intimidating.

After all, it’s a book that contains 66 books! And each of those books often contain dozens of chapters. Plus the whole thing is broken out broadly into two “testaments” and broken down on a more granular level into “verses.”


And these are just the structural challenges. When you toss in the grand themes, the various literary styles, all the characters, and more, well, it can be a little overwhelming.

Still, for any true believer, becoming familiar with God’s Word is essential to a godly life and overall spiritual well-being.

Fortunately there are a variety of helps available that can make accessing the Bible and grasping key themes a little bit easier.

A good one is Believe: Living the story of the Bible to become like Jesus which has just been released by Zondervan.

The back cover copy describes the book, stating,
“Grounded in carefully selected Scripture, Believe, NIV is a unique spiritual growth experience that takes you on a journey to think, act, and be more like Jesus. General editor and pastor Randy Frazee walks you through the ten key Beliefs of the Christian faith, the ten key Practices of a Jesus-follower, and the ten key Virtues that characterize someone who is becoming more like Jesus.”

A big book breaking down a bigger book

The book is divided into three broad categories of ten chapters per category. These are:
  • Beliefs: What do I believe?
  • Practices: What should I do?
  • Virtues: Who am I becoming?
The bulk of the book consists of extensive excerpts from the NIV arranged around 30 topics in as many chapters. If you already own one or more Bibles, the inclusion of these excerpts is not particularly advantageous. In fact, if they were stripped out, you’d be left with a much smaller “study guide” rather than a full “book.”

However, for those who don’t own a Bible, own a Bible but not the NIV, or don’t like carrying around multiple books, the included scripture excerpts will be a plus.

Each chapter focuses on a single of aspect of Christian living such as church, prayer, spiritual gifts, self-control, and faithfulness.

Frazee offers clarifying commentary that introduces and ties together the excerpts.

Included at the end of the book are discussion questions for each chapter.

A good reference for new believers & others

Believe: Living the story of the Bible to become like Jesus is designed as a follow-up to The Story  that was a resource and program several churches have taken advantage of in recent years. A website for Believe -- -- points to additional related tools being released throughout 2015.

This is a good resource for an extended small group study or for use by an individual. It is especially valuable for newer believers, or any believer wishing to better understand and live out their faith.

NOTE: To comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255): I selected this book to review and received it free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Have you read “The Story”? If so, what was your experience like? Are there other resources similar to “Believe” that you would recommend for gaining a better understanding of the Bible and faith? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Clap On! Clap Off!

 I wrote this meditation a few years ago. It's included in Words for Winter.

It’s that time of year again when the TV is filled with visions of sugar plums, Chia Pets®, rosy-snouted reindeer, and those ever-popular commercials for The Clapper®—that favorite Christmas gift perfect for everyone in the family!

What a cleverly wonderful little gadget. Plug it in and then clap your hands all ye people and shout with a voice of triumph when your stuff goes on and off from way across the room.

The Clapper turns things on and off. The apostle Paul exhorts us to put things off and put things on. In Ephesians 4:22-24, he says “to put off your old self…and to put on the new self.” Or, un-deck yourself of the old and don ye now your new apparel.

But unlike with The Clapper, what Paul says to put off is supposed to stay off. What is put on is totally different and to be kept on. Often, though, we allow circumstances to clap us on or clap us off spiritually!

Life is good…clap on…shout “Glory!” Life hurts…clap off…woe is us, take us back to Egypt!

Wouldn’t it be better to be like the amazing Ginsu Knife! It cuts nails, saws lumber, and still slices tomatoes—tough, yet gentle. It has a lifetime warranty—an eternal benefit. But wait, there’s more! It comes with several handy gadgets—equipped to deal with a wide variety of circumstances. No matter what it comes up against, the Ginsu can always cut it.

As we move into yet another new year, may we clap off the old, clap on the new, grow in the Spirit like well-watered Chia Pets, and live on the Ginsu-cutting edge of God’s amazing promises. Don’t delay! Act now! And have a wonderful year.

What are some of the Christmas memories you treasure? Share them in the comments! Read more like this in Words For Winter: A small collections of writings for the season, available for Kindle or in Paperback.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Madrigals, Leonard Cohen, perfection, Della Mae Tronchuk, target practice, Paul (no, not the Beatle) & process

I like to sing. Always have. Especially at Christmas.

I’ve got an okay voice, although it’s not as good as it used to be. Still, I’ve not gone the way Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan have over the years. I can carry a tune in a bucket without sounding like I’m gargling a bucket of gravel at the bottom of a well. Usually.

And I'm a fan of both Dylan and Cohen, by the way.

In junior high I was in the choir. In high school I was in Madrigals and, yes, had to dress in those silly costumes of green tights and big hats with floppy feathers. Not one of my more proud memories.

In college I was in chorale and even tapped by the director to help fill in the tenor section of his church choir, and got paid for it! So I guess that means for a time I was a professional singer.

As a kid, my sister and I did duets in church. She played the piano and I hid behind her while we sang. Even if I was soloing, I’d still hide behind her. I love to sing, but not as much when I’m doing it by myself in front of people.

But I do love the “song service” portion of Sunday morning church. Well, except when it’s Christmas and carols are avoided. Or the worship leader has chosen a song better sung by pre-pubescent boys with ridiculously high voices. Or when a traditional hymn is re-cast with a “modern” or “fresh” tune that is foreign to the ear leading everyone in the congregation to hit false instead of familiar notes.

These are the times I miss hymnals.

Still, I will struggle to follow along and even occasionally manage to find a harmony to fall into.

I’m not a perfectly good singer but I do my best.

The impossible command

I think Matthew 5:48 is one of the most dreaded verses in the Bible. In it Jesus states somewhat bluntly, “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Seriously? Be as perfect as God is perfect? In this lifetime?

From my flailing experience, living a perfect life just isn’t possible. And this one verse has always given me a touch of angst.

I’m not a fan of “positive thinking” or “motivational” literature, seminars, or those who are often obnoxiously proponents of them.

Their posters shout such inanities as “Think it! Be it!” Or, “A high mountain is a molehill to the positivity minded!” Or, “Only believe your way to success!”

You know the shtick.

So, for a long time, Matthew 5:48 felt a lot like one of those absurd positivisms. But it’s not. It’s a command straight from the mouth of Jesus so it carries far more weight than a positive thinking truism on a bumper sticker.

A couple of things helped me get a better handle on how to live out this command, albeit not flawlessly.

Being perfect isn’t about being flawless

First, since context is critical, another biblical passage helped shed some light. James 1:4-5 explains, “And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”

Here, “perfect” is used again in a more clarifying context that points to the word’s true meaning. This is coupled with the advice about going to God for the wisdom which is another clue.

In Greek, the word “perfect” is teleios which carries the connotations of completeness, maturity, and being full grown. This is unlike how we tend to think of “perfection” in terms of, say, a flawless diamond or unblemished skin. In scripture the meaning tends more toward “having all you need to do what’s required of you.”

People who are “perfect” for their jobs are equipped with knowledge, training, tools, and the like so that they are “completely” ready to do their work well. The same is true for Christians when it comes to living a godly life.

As James puts it, we are “complete, lacking in nothing,” because God fully equips us through his Holy Spirit with all we need to live out Jesus’ commands. We can also ask for what we feel we lack.

Thinking high to avoid falling flat

Second, what I learned in choir about staying on pitch was helpful.

To be the only one off-key in a choir can be devastatingly embarrassing. To be soloing and come in flat sounds way worse than being a little sharp. It was my high school choir teacher, Della Mae Tronchuk, who taught me how to hit a note perfectly.

“Think high,” she always told us. Or, rather, semi-screamed at us during rehearsals as she bounced around looking half-crazed waving her hands in perfect time.

“Think above the note,” she shouted. “You’ll be more likely to hit it!”

She was right.

The same advice -- aiming a little high -- also came on the rifle range, one of my favorite Boy Scout summer camp activities. Aiming right at the bull’s-eye on a target always put you below it. But aiming just slightly above increased your chances of being dead on.

Funny how this all works.

Resistance is not’s a process

The Apostle Paul provides even more clarification about this “being perfect” stuff when he instructs us to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2, ESV).

Many in society eschew conformity as a bad and restrictive thing. So their response is to be non-conformist (aka “different”) by emulating those viewed as culturally hip, in, with-it, chic, trendy. Basically they trade one line of conformity for another, all of it away from godliness.

Paul says that to be “perfect” in the eyes of the One Who Matters requires going a completely different direction, being truly counter-cultural -- aiming higher -- not just being different.
You won’t hit the bull’s eye by aiming directly at it. You won’t sing on key by trying to hit the note dead on. You can’t be perfect by going with the flow.

And perfection is not a “once and done” effort. It’s a process.

Paul again notes, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1, ESV). Other translations replace “bringing holiness to completion” by stating simply, “perfecting.”

Cleansing, or washing ourselves off, whether it’s a shower or daily devotions in the morning, is an ongoing process to be repeated as often as necessary.

We don’t need to settle for trying to live a good life or even a best life now. By aiming a little higher, leaning on God for all we need to be complete, we can live a godly life and stay in tune.

If we do go “off key”? Fortunately, his mercies are new every morning and he allows all the do-overs we need (Lamentations 3:22-23).

Looking toward the New Year, let us all resolve to aim higher, resist, renew, be transformed daily.

After all, it’s not about being flawless, but rather, about being faithful.

Is being good good enough? How do you deal with trying to live a perfect life? Do you always feel equipped to live in a godly manner? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Four Christmas Poems

Christmas poems from “The Godtouch”*

The Shepherds

The night began as any other
night begins with darkness,
starred sky, and imploding
But the slow rising moon
was followed by a brighter star
that settled strangely low
over the glowing town beyond the rise.
This bright beaming newcomer
became the topic
of their quiet evening murmuring
as they sat glowing
around the warming fire.

Then the night dissolved in sudden terror
as the star seemed to fall
right on them, flashing huge
and hovering over their frightened
bowed and befuddled forms.
As they cowered, awestruck
and trembling against the frosted ground,
they heard voices.
Above their disbelieving heads,
the star was talking to them,
                     singing to them,
inviting them to look up to see faces,
briefly, angels with a message.
Then nothing but silence blowing
over the low Christmas christened hills.

They rose, still trembling, stunned, awed,
and curious. They made their way,
wondering, sensing hope,
toward the soft glow of Bethlehem,
just below the beckoning star. 

* * * * * * *

The Angels

The presses of heaven
were stopped.
The rumored event had happened,
and cherubim had the scoop.
It was Christmas for the first time.
And as if they couldn't wait
for the morning's first edition,
the angels burst brilliantly
over the front page of the sky
with a joyous banner headline
and a miraculous news story.
And the shepherds, like excited paperboys,
delivered the heralded word
from street corner to stable
as they made their way
to the scene of this sensational event.
And as they gazed at the child,
they kept one ear tuned toward the sky
just in case
late breaking additional information
were to come over the wire
from the choiring heavenly press room.

* * * * * * *

The Nativity

AS helpless as he was,
he deserved more privacy.
Yet they gathered and stared,
not completely understanding what they saw,
just that they had to see ...

Mary was tired and sore and a little sick.
But she had heard the heralding angels
and knew they would come, that they had to come.
To see this new small life
that had been holy conceived inside her.
She did what she could to tidy the dusty stall,
putting fresh hay in the manger
and carefully wrapping the child
in her only spare clean skirt. There was no more,
for the time, to be done. She smiled bravely, trying
to look her best, trying to collect her thoughts
and slow her racing heart ...

Joseph stood by,
beside his beloved young wife,
uncertain how to act, how to stand.
He was a father, yet not a father.
He was proud of his brave Mary, and awed
by this birth. Just moments before
she had been wracked by the shrieking pains of labor.
And above her screams and sobs, he could have sworn
he heard singing. Voices, sweet like only voices
of angels could be. Then
the child's first gasping cries
crashing against the impinging darkness.
He wasn't sure he would ever understand
what was taking place, and not sure he wanted to.
Shifting his weight, he stood silent,
his brow creased in thought, watching
the gathering people ...

The shepherds, gesturing from stall to sky,
began talking in quick, excited words
about what they had seen and heard in the hills.
How night turned to noon,
and of angel choirs singing tidings of joy
and birth, and the child, found just as was promised,
small, red, and wrinkled, sleeping next
to cattle and chickens ...

It was all too amazing. Yet,
he lay quietly dozing, having just been fed,
not totally unaware of the world,
but not more so than any other newborn.
He deserved more privacy.
Yet they would never leave him alone.
But always come to him, time after time,
to adore and obey, or to mock and kill,
as the paradox of Christmas
began burning in their hearts.

* * * * * * *

The Wisemen

Miniature magi march majestically
down the middle aisle of the church
mistakenly placed in the annual Christmas pageant.
They really came two years later
to give their gifts and long considered
adoration to the patient child.
But in our modern reenactment
of this eternal event,
the kings come to the stable
along with the sheep and the shepherds.
God doesn't mind
this once-every-year-error,
because the message is still clear.
Magic is vanquished by the intense reality
of this fragile fatal incarnation
worshipped in remembrance
at every church that is our Bethlehem.
Bathrobe wrapped wisemen
bearing gifts of gold painted cardboard
and mom's empty perfume bottles
make up an inexact scene.
But draw us just as strongly just the same,
to that holy point beneath the star
that burns His perfection into our hearts,
daily becoming His wisemen.

* * * * * * *

Merry Christmas to all!

 These are from my only collection of poetry, “The Godtouchwhich you can get using these links:

• Kindle version.



Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Calls Us Home

 I wrote this meditation a few years ago. It's included in Words for Winter.

Christmas calls us back and calls us home, swelling our world with promise, hope, and great expectations. We become children again, leaving footprints in the snow, tracking the way to where the heart draws.

Cold and snow drive us to the warmth of being together. Lights blinking in windows and bright stars in the darkening sky lead and guide us.

Oak, hickory, and pine smoke scents the crisp air. A thick blanket of snow wraps us in intimate quietness. The white earth glows in the brimming moonlight and crunches beneath our booted feet.

Opening the door, fresh baked cookie steam sheens our pinked-cheek faces. We are home and safe. It’s Christmas again.

It is the season of redemption that we carol. New life is His gift, green and fresh as a Christmas tree trimmed brightly with love, joy, and peace.

A candle glows, the star of Bethlehem, above a tiny nativity where frozen figures stand their roles as they do faithfully year after year. And just as faithfully, the Christ whose birth we celebrate stands guard over our hearts, a stable, immutable presence.

The child-man, Jesus, who is the Star of Bethlehem, the Dayspring, the Candle of Love lighting our hearts, heralds us back to Him, to a life evergreen and bright, to shine forever against the night.

What are some of the Christmas memories you treasure? Share them in the comments! Read more like this in Words For Winter: A small collections of writings for the season, available for Kindle or in Paperback.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

What exactly did you meme by that? Things Jesus didn’t (& wouldn't) say...

I love a good quote. Especially quotes about writing. One of my favorites is from Peter De Vries who said, “I love being a writer. What I can't stand is the paperwork.”

So true.

Another good one comes from Gene Fowler: “Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Yes, writing can be sweet torture!

Witty, humorous, and inspirational quotes from well-known or barely-known people can be fun to share and hang on our cubicle walls.

A lot of people like to share favorite scripture passages.

Standing on the paper promises of God

When I was a kid, Promise Boxes were a big deal and the source of good quotes. Just about everyone I knew had at least one in their house.

Basically, a promise box was some sort of attractive container made of wood or plastic that held a few dozen slips of heavy paper about 1 inch by 3 inches. Some boxes were cleverly crafted in the shape of loaves of bread with the mini-cards in the top, offering “daily bread.”

Nicely printed on each mini-card would be a “promise” verse from the Bible. For example, verses such as these:
  • “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” - Romans 8:1, ESV
  • “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” - 2 Corinthians 5:7, ESV
  • “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” - Jeremiah 29:11, ESV
  • “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” - Romans 8:28, ESV
Promise box verses tend always to be positive, upbeat, and generally what would be called faith-affirming.

Don’t harsh my promise box

What you probably won’t find in a promise box are verses like these:
  • “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake.” - Matthew 24:9, ESV
  • “And you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” - Mark 13:13, ESV
  • “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name's sake.” - Luke 21:16-17, ESV
  • “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” - 2 Timothy 3:2, ESV
Ouch! Sometimes the truth hurts.

It’s this imbalance of scripture presented that cause some to look askance at promise boxes.  “Promise box faith” is not seen as particularly well-rounded or mature.

Depending on a promise box for your scripture in-take is like nibbling on snacks instead of eating full, well-rounded meals.

Promise boxing your way through life is as bad as trying to be healthy while eating only junk food.

In fact, the way some use their promise boxes can be akin to seeking wisdom from daily horoscopes or finding more than entertainment in a fortune cookie. If you’re wondering, these are not good things.

Meme me up, Scotty!

With the advent of social media, something new has come along that fills the same function of promise boxes. Today, we have memes!

Positive and happy sounding memes with backgrounds of kittens, flowers, and sunsets abound on Facebook, Instagram, Imgur, Twitter, and all over the Interwebs espousing meme faith.

The positive, inspirational, and uplifting quotations come from people with very diverse worldviews.

On the surface, they seem harmless. But, for people of faith who pledge allegiance to the inspired Word of God, many are far more troublesome than proof-texted verses from a promise box.

Why? Because many meme quotes, besides not being scripture, aren’t even scripturally defensible. They are empty words that can deceive (Ephesians 5:6).

For example, a popular meme passed around recently bore this quote: “Whatever makes you feel bad, leave it. Whatever makes you smile, keep it.”

Can you imagine Jesus saying something like this? Just look back up a few sentences to those examples of not-so-happy Bible verses. All of them contradict this meme quote.

What makes this even more egregious is the meme with this quote was passed around and applauded by a lot of believers.

Let’s look at a few more meme quotes up against scripture:
  • Meme says: “Go where you are celebrated, not where you are tolerated.”
    Bible says:
    “And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.’” - Mark 16:15, ESV
  • Meme says: “All I want is for my children to be happy.”
    Bible says:
    “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” - 3 John 1:4, ESV
  • Meme says: “You cannot hang out with negative people and expect to live a positive life.”
    Bible says:
    “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” - Matthew 11:19, ESV (Or, how about Jesus “hanging out” on the cross between two criminals and one being influenced positively into heaven described in Luke 23?)
You get the idea.

Eschewing memes for the solid food of truth

Just because something sounds good doesn’t mean it is good, or right. A critical aspect of the mature Christian life is the development of discernment. 

When it comes to memes and inspirational quotes:
  • We need to discern the truth and value of what’s shared with us: Allowing nice-sounding truisms that really aren’t truth to seep into our thinking can quietly undermine our faith like a growing cavity on an unbrushed tooth. In other words, it’s bad leaven. (Matthew 16:12)
  • We need to discern the impact of what we share with others: Sharing truisms that promote philosophies and worldviews counter to scripture calls our own faith into question, creates confusion, and casts doubt on the validity of the Gospel. In other words, we become the bad leaven. (1 Timothy 5:5-7)
Before buying into or sharing a meme quote, here are a couple of simple tests to help clarify its value:
  • Can you imagine Jesus saying it? If you can’t then you probably shouldn’t share it or dwell on it. (John 14:6)
  • Does it jibe with scriptural truth? If not, then sharing it could mean sharing a lie and we’re called to share truth! (Philippians 4:8)
Dr. John White wrote, “For the Christian the essence of honesty lies in not only being faithful to the truth but to the Truth.”

While memes can be fun and provide a quick hit of inspiration, anything that inspires us away from solid truth -- or the Truth (Jesus) -- is dangerous. There’s nothing trivial about flippantly sharing a cute meme that conveys something askew.

Eugene H. Peterson stated, “Good poetry survives not when it is pretty or beautiful or nice but when it is true: accurate and honest.”

The same could be said for good memes. And you can quote me on this.

Do you agree or disagree? What memes have you encountered that seemed a tad off? Is the content of a meme really all that important? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Just for fun: