Tag Archives: mystery

National Poetry Month Wrap-Up & Giveaway

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If I’m being honest, I’ll tell you that it’s been a weird month.

It started with snow, and it’s ending with cold, gusting rain (and a chance of more snow. But let’s not talk about that).

In between the storms that have trumpeted both the beginning and the ending of the month, I feel like I’ve swung through an entire emotional pendulum and back: the unexpected redux of Depression…and the relief of healing. Wild grace and love from friends, family, and church…alongside some unprecedented new (and slightly debilitating) Internet Hate.

Inspiration and encouragement for my writing journey at the Festival of Faith and Writing…and the slow, daily struggle into the heart of the beast that is my second book.

I’ve been wanting to write here but haven’t known what to say.

And it strikes me now that this is exactly why we need poetry. We need it to draw our eyes to what can’t be said in prose, to what can’t be argued, to what can’t be figured out. We need the ones who are able to settle deep into the bottom of the ocean that is One Moment and to take us with them. We need the poets so that we can breathe. We need them so that we can understand, and also, so that we can realize how much we don’t understand.

Looking back through this month’s post, I’m amazed at all the amazing poets who took the time to come share their work and their insights with us.

If you missed it, here are some highlights:

The Contradictory Nature of Poetry by Dave Harrity: “They aren’t silver bullets, tweetable platitudes, divine deliveries, or didactic directives that help you “be a better person.” If a poem made your world easier, simpler, or more livable, then it’s almost certain that you haven’t read a poem.”

Poetry and the Reading Soul by Tania Runyan: “Poetry, I have a confession to make. I’m a poet, with two degrees and many editorial positions to my credit, but I don’t always want to spend time with you.”

Big, Wild and Unanswerable by Hannah Notess: “It was in college that I discovered poets who wrestled with faith and doubt in their work. This was awfully convenient, as I was wrestling with faith and doubt myself.”

Your Twenty-First Century Prayer Life by Nathaniel Hanson: “How could I call out my own tepid prayer life, a prayer live marked by solipsism? As it has so many times before, poetry rescued me.”

Honky-Tonk Bride by Sarah Wells: “The writing of poetry is my meditation practice; it’s the quiet place I find to be still and listen, to be still and know, or at least to be still and wonder.”

The Wall Is You: Entering Faith Through Poetry by Thom Caraway: “Sometimes the Spirit speaks poetry into your life, and you receive it. I’ve learned to feel blessed rather than lucky.”

The Popular Poet by John Blase: “Sometimes, if you’re not careful, you can talk yourself out of writing poetry or any creative endeavor for that matter simply because you don’t have the credentials. You can diminish yourself that way in terms of your faith too. In both cases that’s sheer nonsense.”

A Poetry of Reconciliation by Daniel Bowman Jr.: “Great poetry should always invite us to enter into union with what is beyond us.”

The Reflection of God by Amy McCann: “Poetry is not a flat thing, a page thing, but curved, as an eye must be to clearly see our likewise-curved world.”

Poetry is Useless — Thank God by Brad Fruhauff: “Poetry isn’t “useless” in an absolute sense, just an instrumental sense. You can’t use poetry to open a jar or to change a law. But if truth is something more than wishing, then you may be able to “use” poetry to open a mind or change someone’s mood long enough to help them—or you—become a different, perhaps better, person.”

April is just about over, but that doesn’t mean that our  pursuit of Truth and Beauty should end. One of the great gifts to me this month was the chance to spend some time at the Festival of Faith and Writing with artists and editors who are living in that gray middle space of mystery, faith and unknowing.

These wonderful people are, of course, found in all sorts of places. But right now, I want to tell you about the ones who are working on and writing for literary journals — those great, unsung heroes of popular publishing. While these journals and magazines exist across the whole spectrum of literature, I think that they’re especially critical to people who are seeking to explore the dark shadows, questions and uncertainties of their faith. And there are a few journals out there that are dedicated almost exclusively to these issues.

Listen, there has been much made lately of the “gatekeepers” — the ones barring controversial material from Christian audiences, bowing to the power of fundamentalist pockets, keeping things out of Christian Bookstores across the country and the world.

I’m not interested in having a discussion about that right now. (Except to give a shout-out to my excellent publisher, Convergent, who let me keep all of the curse words and complicated content in my book.)

What I want to tell you are that there are beautiful, brave voices who are breaking through those gates. And we need to be reading them.

literary magazines

Magazines like Relief Journal, Rock & Sling, Ruminate Magazine, and Image are consistently putting out excellent poetry, essays and fiction by artists exploring faith and mystery, trying to come to terms with their own darkness and doubts.

These magazines and journals operate outside the more-is-more, publish-what-sells business models that most publishers find themselves anchored (often begrudgingly) to.With small operating budgets and staffs that are largely volunteer, literary magazines and journals get to push the envelope, explore the gray, sink deep into the moment and stay.

They are a force of truth and beauty that the Church at large has been missing and that we need to zero in on.

If you want more of this, subscribe to one of these beautiful publications right now. If this poetry series has spoken, in some small way, to your soul, there is more here for you.

[Image Rock & Sling Ruminate Relief]

I harassed the editors of each of these magazines while at the Festival and scored a copy of each one for a giveaway today. Simply offer a comment below — preferably about some way poetry has spoken to you this month…but if you’re feeling brain-dead on this April Tuesday, I’ll allow a simple I want one! instead. I’ll pick and announce the four winners this Friday, May 2nd.

UPDATE: An amazing reader just asked to anonymously underwrite the cost of more literary magazines. So instead of having only 4 copies to giveaway, I now have 13! Contest extended until Saturday, May 3rd!

Thanks so much for following along with us this month. I hope you were moved.

Faith is a Long Poem

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I spent my senior year of high school buying weird clothes from thrift shops, downloading secular music (for the first time ever) from Napster, and reading poetry.

It was the year after my Super Christian Boyfriend had called it quits for the third and final time, based, of course, on secret intel from God. I’d spent much of my junior year of high school trying to recover from the fallout of that first love, but by senior year, something had changed. I felt strong. I was wandering around Chicago in old-lady sweaters, blissed out on Jesus and on Coldplay.

That year, I took AP English with a brilliant, serious woman. It was her last year of teaching before retirement, and I think she felt the weight of it – the finality of it. She wasn’t just teaching us the classics – she was trying to teach us something about life.

We read Hamlet, and she spent a long stretch of time talking about one beautiful line of the play: Readiness is all. We read Crime and Punishment and talked about guilt, regret, and grace. She looked at us with keen eyes while she played a scratchy recording of T.S. Eliot reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and I was captivated by the lines, the images, the way she opened a door into the poem and let us wander around it.

Back before I’d met Super Christian Boyfriend, I’d loved poetry. I’d spent long afternoons rambling around an Emily Dickinson anthology, making stars in the margins. But then I’d gotten serious about my faith, and it had been all Bible verses and concordances, memorization and indoctrination.

In those years, stopped reading what I couldn’t easily understand in exchange for what I could. They were the years of the how-to’s, the directives, Paul’s firm and sturdy voice in one New Testament letter after another, reminding me how I should now live.

I was listening for Modern Prophets, waiting for a sign. I forgot that Prophet and Poet are most often all tangled up in the same beautiful, tortured soul.

But then, the next year, I turned seventeen and started my senior year of high school, and I began the tentative work of re-making myself. It was a year of song lyrics and early mornings at Lake Michigan and poem stanzas scribbled into handmade journals. I didn’t understand every line or image, but each poem cracked me open a little bit more. Faith began to feel mysterious and big again. The God I found in poetry seemed closer than the one who spoke to me through my Super Christian Ex-Boyfriend and that intense Teen Mania ministry he belonged to.

I went to church and youth group, but I found myself, strangely, closer to God in my English class than in the church sanctuary. On a scrap of paper, I wrote a few lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” poem:

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still

And I don’t have a life verse, really. The closest thing I have is a poem fragment, a couple of beautiful lines I found that year and that I continue breathe over and over – a prayer that I want God to make true in my life.

*

When I was a freshman in college, I took a poetry writing class, and I wasn’t the best at it. My brilliant professor was constantly returning my poems marked up with green pen. “Stop trying to cover so much ground,” she said to me once. “Poetry is about depth.”

I fell in love soon after that and I settled into the writing of creative nonfiction. I put the poetry away. I got married and busied myself with the work of life. Dishes and decorating. Figuring out the recipes in my Betty Crocker cookbook: Corn-Flake Crusted Chicken. Classic Italian Lasagna.

I forgot to pack poetry when we went to China that next year, and there was certainly none to be found in the sparse library in our overcrowded English Teaching Office. It hadn’t occurred to me that the absence of familiar words around me would hollow me out in like a reed. I tried to stabilize myself in the familiar words of the Bible, but I spent more and more afternoons zoned out at my desk, disappearing.

It didn’t occur to me that in China, I would need the poets. I would need their winged words. I would need them like air.

*

I’m thirty years old now. It’s another year of re-making myself.

It hasn’t really been that long since my own major faith crisis. Since I stopped hearing God and no how-to book could help me find his voice. That was the year that I pressed my ear against the wall of the wild world, and I moved to the drumbeat of my own desires and my lack of desire until the ground broke up under me and I found myself at rock bottom.

But now, something has changed, and I feel stronger. I’m too old to look cute in weird, thrift-shop-inspired outfits, but I’m wearing dresses again. The ambiguous ethics of my music-downloading teenage self have yielded to an adult sense responsibility. So I buy my new music now on iTunes. I put it into Playlists and listen while I clean the kitchen.

I’m part of the Blogosphere, where articles and criticism fly back and forth, chase each other in frantic circles. Open Letters and Responses. Criticism and critique and so much noise that my ears are constantly ringing. Everyone is so sure. Every question has a hundred editorial posts and eighty-five-million tweets.

It’s enough to make you crazy. I can feel it making me crazy.

I’ve been reading poetry again.

Much of it still evades me. I don’t know what this image means or that metaphor. And yet part of the beauty is that I don’t have to. I don’t have to understand it totally to be moved. To be changed. To be cracked open a little bit more, reminded that faith is more mysterious than I ever thought it could be.

*

It’s April, which means it’s National Poetry Month. I am not a poet, but I believe in poetry. I believe that it is part of the cure to a Christian Culture that is obsessed with finding the Right Answer. To winning the argument. To being LOUD and being HEARD and being IMPORTANT.

In the midst of all of our debate and anger, poetry sits there, unassuming and wise like a great oak tree. It’s circling and questioning, going deep instead of wide. And we need more deep. I need more deep.

This month, I’m going to be introducing you to some beautiful and brilliant poets of faith. I know it’s new. It’s not what you’re used to seeing here, but listen: this will help break us open. This will help us learn to let each other in. So please read their careful words. Offer comments and kindness as these poets show up and bring their gifts to us. Take a moment to care and not to care. A moment to sit still.

It’s National Poetry Month, so let’s celebrate! Buy a book that you probably won’t entirely understand – and find yourself changed by it.

This is Your Gift of Tongues

This post originally appeared at A Deeper Story.

firey dove - Gary Buchanan

He came back from his Teen Mania internship, his faith burning brighter than ever, his life broken purposefully into the disciplines of devotion. He was reading the Bible morning, noon, night – three chapters or more every single day.

He was leading Bible studies, diving headlong into his missions major at a local Christian college. On his nightstand, there was a stack of books about Christian martyrs. He fueled his faith with the power of their legacy.

I was sixteen, desperately glad he was home. I was standing in the wild glow of his captivating faith, wanting to be passionate enough, godly enough, on fire enough for him – this boy I had loved since the first time we’d held hands a year-and-a-half ago.

But he’d changed during his year away. He’d been baptized by fire.

He looked at my Bible, underlined and circled, all manner of notes scrawled in the margins, just as his had been before he left. “You really shouldn’t do that,” he said. “All your eyes see is what you’ve underlined before. Not what the Holy Spirit wants you to see now,” he told me, and I closed my Bible quietly and slid it out of sight.

He gave me pamphlets about the Holy Spirit and he said he’d been given the gift of tongues. He hadn’t known true intimacy with God until now, he said.  The language that coursed from his mouth in worship now was not his own but a secret God language. Spirit to spirit, deep to deep, and this was it. This was what he’d been waiting for.

He said I should pray harder. Ask and it will be given, he said, if only I would wait on my knees until that dove of fire descended into my heart and set my lips ablaze too.

*

At the local youth church/coffee shop, Vertical Connection, I knelt on the floor until I couldn’t feel my feet, and I asked for a secret God language of my own.

The minutes stretched on, and the beautiful punk-rock girls sang the same chorus again and again, and I could feel Him there, the whole room thrumming with the hidden heart of God.

Around me, people spoke in angel voices, and I waited for something to happen. I held my heart up like an empty cup, and I waited to be filled in a way that I couldn’t understand but coveted.

It never came.

When the boy I loved broke up with me a few months later because God told him to, I traced it back to this moment on the floor.

In both that moment of prayer and in the moment of the breakup, I felt as though I had been assessed. Found wanting. Passed over.

*

Nearly fifteen years later, so much has changed. I am learning the beauty of my own journey.

I am trying, less, to copy the faith of others. I’m trying to sit, stay, breathe in the God who loves me just as I am.

I carry a notebook in my purse everywhere I go, and on a rock at the edge of Lake Superior, I find the Holy in the blank pages of that book and in the deep, cold water.

The sun shines down on me and warms my tired body, and as I write, I hear it like an answered prayer, fifteen years later.

This is your gift of tongues.

And I realize that I was never passed over. Not really.

I didn’t get the “prayer language” that I understood as tongues or that my Teen Mania boyfriend held in his own mouth. But I learned to commune with God with pen and paper, to lay my whole heart bare, to hear His whisper with clarity and understanding.

In this strange tongue of ink, I have found God. I have been found by Him. It is deep calling to deep. The words are my own…and also not my own, and I didn’t recognize it until recently. This is it. This is what I’ve been waiting for.

And in spite of all the pamphlets, I never really did figure out The Holy Spirit, and maybe we’re not meant to.

Maybe we’re meant to sit, to wait. To be filled with awe when we recognize the unexpected Voice singing in angel tongues in our own wild hearts…and to realize that the prayer has been answered all along.

Morning Prayer [A One-Word Check-In]

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It is August, the quiet middle of the year. There seem to be more and more ducks every morning. When I come down the stairs into our quiet kitchen, I can see them, diving and flapping in the morning mist. Their sleek bodies are dark silhouettes against our pond.

They’ll start coming in droves as fall creeps nearer and that fine-tuned instinct kicks in: Get ready. Cold is coming. They’ll stay here because Dane helps our neighbor spread corn feed on the lawn every evening at dusk. Because in these pre-winter months, this is a place of plenty. A place of safety. They will stay until ice closes over the lake, and then in one quiet moment, they’ll disappear.

*

In January, I chose my One Word for 2013. Ask.

In the white-washed newness of the year’s clean slate, I felt motivated and inspired and ready to tackle my issues with prayer head on. I ordered books online, and I imagined that I’d read them all in a row, filling my heart with good, true words.

I wasn’t looking for a formula exactly. But I wanted to figure out what prayer might look like for me now. I wanted to know what it meant and what it was about and what I could expect of God in those moments of quiet intimacy. I was all kinds of motivated, like you are at the beginning of a new year.

This is the time of year I’m supposed to do a check-in here about my 2013 One Word, and it occurs to me that at some point in the icy pre-spring, my search for prayer petered out.

one word 2013 - ask

In the first month, I was reading like crazy, sorting through my prayer baggage and cynicism with the loaded words of The Circle Maker. The author suggested that “If your prayers aren’t impossible to you, they are insulting to God,” and I thought No and Yes all at once. Because in the humble place of mothering toddlers while trying to be a writer, it’s all impossible. Every big and small moment of it. The wispy, unrealized dreams as well as the hard moments of daily love, grace and patience.

In The Praying Life by Paul E. Miller (easily one of my favorite books of the year), I learned to come weary. I found a freedom in that book that I never expected, and for a few months I experienced rich, vibrant, distracted, messy, beautiful moments with God in front of my sun-lamp at the kitchen table.

I picked up the next book, a meditation on contemplative prayer by Richard Rohr, but I never could start it. And it has to do with the late days of February when two big things happened at the same time.

First, I began to ask in regular, fragmented pleas for a publisher for my book. I asked God to bring the right editor, the right publisher, the right people. And in the course of one surprising, wild week, He did.

And, in the same breathless week, I had my second miscarriage in a row.

During those early moments of Knowing about each of those babies, I prayed quiet prayers of grace and health. I prayed for the new life growing. I prayed for the child who would be born into this hard world, into all of my baggage, into our loud, beautiful family. I pressed my palm against my stomach and felt the holiness of it all.

The second baby dissolved into miscarriage in the midst of a flurry of publishing contracts and Big Announcements. I was bleeding away the remnants of an unrealized life. And, at the same time, I was realizing a deferred dream.

I stopped trying to understand prayer.

Because really, how can you understand any of this? How can these two things exist in the space of your mind at once? The beauty and the pain, the excitement and the loss – all of it true. All of it real. All of it filtered, somehow, through the grace of God and through those early-morning fragments of my prayer.

*

In the morning, I come down the stairs in my pajamas and I turn on the coffee pot. The morning lights early still, even though the days are getting shorter.

The ducks are on the pond, quiet in their movement, beautiful in their mystery, and I don’t know anything more about prayer than I did in January, but I sit there in the silence, and I pray.

I murmur the old worship chorus under my breath. It’s been in my head for months.

In the morning when I rise
In the morning when I rise
In the morning when I rise
Give me Jesus

And I don’t know what it means – Ask and it will be given to you. Seek and you will find. I only know that in these early morning moments of weariness and half-hearted trust, this is a place of plenty. This is a place of safety.

The ducks are gathering, and the morning is rising, and I don’t understand what I’m finding here. But I know that somehow it is Enough.

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