Qualm Before the Storm

O faith once delivered for all the saints,
Built, against the gates of hell, on truth’s rock.
Secure, sealed by grace from all earthly taints,
Fitting man to don his heavenly smock.
Holy Word of God on high, placed in feeble hands.
Holy church on earth, guarding the good deposit.
Holy Ghost within to guide, convince, and sustain.
With great strength and courage, sent out to all the lands.
Authority and order, to truth apposite.
Full-arrayed in mighty armor, the Devil’s bane.

O! Doubt that cries out from behind restraints,
And bristles at that double-dealing flock.
God, who made the world, does not take complaints?
Stout cathedral doors cannot bear a knock?
Lament opens a chasm, untying stale bands.
Horrors in the name of Christ would likely cause it,
How should “Love thy neighbour” unleash such pride-wrought pain?
Confidence, a casualty of our warring clans.
Our baptized idols spill from the church’s closet
Upending joy, sapping power, shading hope vain.

“O child, I know thy strife.
Take now bread, breath, and life.
O sinner, I have died
For every evil plied.
No one is good,
No one is right,
But I have stood
Despite all blight.
I alone good.
I alone right.”

Photo: Summer Sunset, Chattanooga, Tenn., July 2017.

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Game Theory

A board lies open upon the coffee table,
Twenty-four points, four dice, thirty shining chips.
Toe to toe across the field these five thousand years
Have sat friends and warriors, suffering through its fun.
Fiercest strategies on the line with each quick roll,
The wildest chances undone by other well-placed men.

In another’s eyes glow the wishes of all men,
Their fears and dreams laid at the altar and table.
We cast our lots, counting on the skill of our roll.
Time and chance shave down our purposes, bits and chips,
Husking us from the inside-out as though for fun.
Ambition, sin, spite work their chaos through the years.

Little bits of wasted time gather into years.
Energy poured into safely bringing home men,
‘Round the board again, again, just for fun.
Life, pique, and laughter unfold across the table,
No anguish outlasting the resetting of chips,
No happiness beyond the reach of one bad roll.

Clear heads seldom prevail when disappointments roll
Down troubled brows, breaking hearts and ruining years.
Carefully stockpiled wealth cashed out like poker chips,
Paid out in snippets to cadres of bluffing men
Peering from between stacked forms on a bank table.
Whoever said this game was supposed to be fun?

To call it mental exercise is to poke fun,
Serious analysis gets a big eye roll,
But there is value yet in this ancient table.
Passing time in contest bears the wisdom of years
Giving vent to the zeal of competitive men,
Spending their frustration crunching potato chips.

When joy depends on the work of silicon chips,
And every moment is given to hunting fun,
Perhaps we are all Eliot’s hollow, stuffed men.
In time, though, Peter (or someone) must call the roll.
The curtain drops on our eternally numbered years;
Six men and true carry us to one last table.

The dice may be loaded, still we cannot but roll.
Listen as the plans and paths of our striving years
Rattle down to His body, His blood, His table.

Cultural Appropriation

“Write what you know,” wisdom conventional,
Threatens to morph into ironclad law.
Fearing aggressions unintentional;
The best lack all conviction in its claw.
Sympathy is nice; empathy divine,
But you’d better think twice (or more), you cad,
If you think your words can ever touch mine;
If you, you WASP, you geezer robed in plaid,
Dare deign to make artist’s gestures this way!
What you know (not much!), keep it over there,
While I sit here and type, to my dismay
Using all your best English words with care.
Forsooth! Never could I more clearly see
That your culture appropriated me.

Photo: Feeding Time, Tracy Aviary, Salt Lake City, Utah, October 2016.

Why Write?

Why do we attach such significance to the written word? What is there on the page that is not in the mouth?

Speech is living, is fellowship, powerful and fleeting. Writing is two-dimensional, durable, lying there unmoved until read. What works in one ought to work in both, but different streams from the same spring develop distinctive tastes.

Talk at its best is considerate, shifting tone and meaning in a dance with the perceptions of its audience (whether of one or one thousand). A stroke of the pen can only be ever so mindful of who pays attention. Saying something of consequence in a conversation happens often enough that we don’t notice, but finding true meaning in permanent words is a rare gem. Lives are changed daily by a quip, a word of advice, a confidential aside. To read something and take it to heart requires time, a slow ferment to the bloom of understanding.

Somehow, I’m never satisfied with giving voice to ideas; they aren’t real until they’re on paper. E. M. Forster was not merely being coy when he asked, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” Therein lies the danger, though. It is too easy fake knowledge in person, so much simpler to eat words spokeBenton Fallsn in haste. What we write (what we truly think, if Forster is to be believed) lives on, returning to us for good or ill years later, unchanged yet never the same. Solomon warned us of this much: “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecc. 12:11-12).

I’ve only recently taken to telling people I want to be a writer. Looking back it seems so obvious–from starting a school broadside (rendered with dot-matrix éclat) in fifth grade to spending seven semesters on the student newspaper in college to taking a job that requires me to think on paper all the time. Ever in thrall of professions that seem to be waning in their ability to feed a family, I dreamed for years of sticking with journalism to become the lone voice of reason at a big-city mainstream newspaper (in other words, being Ross Douthat) and now I’m carving up time and resources chasing after the novel(s) in my head. It’s bad enough to want to spill the contents of your mind on others, much worse to plumb and plunder the depths of other minds also.

At times, articulating a vision for telling stories with excellence for the glory of God almost makes sense. At others, it seems like a petty grasping after the privilege of being paid for my thoughts, as though there are things that must be said which no one else could say. For better or for worse, this is the closest thing I’ve ever felt to a calling. Even so, it is always intermingled with craven pursuit of recognition. O, to be sought after, to be thought wise.

Having something to say and saying it somewhat originally, though, tampers with strong magic. It’s one thing, I suppose, to unfold your own troubled soul to the world, but quite another to play the observer. Anything of worth necessarily touches nerves, and the stories that make up our stories aren’t ours alone, but belong to children, sisters, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends. What does it cost to set a life in text? What if that work is accursed rather than acclaimed?

Teasing out that which will not let you go demands both obscene arrogance and humble fear. And so we write.