He Knew How to Keep Christmas Well

Rain of Snow in Town Painting
Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

…and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed; and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

Almost every year I try to set aside a little bit of time to read Charles Dickens’ famous holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. You can see in the pictures above my favorite copy, an edition of beautifully vibrant water-color illustrations done by P.J. Lynch and put out by Candlewick Press.

This classic story is filled with a powerful lesson; it is more than a warm-fuzzy Hallmark-esque display (though, to be fair, there’s some of that too). A man is forced to reckon with his own cold heart and the consequences thereof.

I need this reminder every year. I can easily become focused inwardly for the holidays, but the birth of Christ was always meant to be a Star for all.

My challenge for me this Christmas and for you is to keep Christmas in your heart all year: turn away from our cold hearts and seek the welfare of our neighbors January through December.

Will it be said of you, “She knew how to keep Christmas well?”

 

Merry Christmas Greeting Photo
Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

“Advent”: A Poem

abstract-abstract-expressionism-abstract-painting-1530710
Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

Advent

We hold on
to our demise–
what things we
hold on to!

Lamp-posts line
cold streets: lightless,
lifeless, leafless poking
about in irrelevance.

Rosy cheeks cross rosy
streets, a subtle blush
sponged upon the winter droll;
everything is fine.

“Say it enough, and it’s
yours if you just believe,”
thumped from a television
set, just another sound.

We hold on
to our demise–
what things we
hold on to!

Many years ago some shepherds were
in a quiet place waiting but they
didn’t know it: angel news
has never been too common.

The ugly earth in naked
unconcern started glowing
with the messengers. Do not
fear didn’t stop the trembling, but

in a pinprick moment
a baby squealed, wrapped in
prophecy and misguided expectations.
Are we held? Despite everything.


I began writing this poem back in the winter of 2014, sitting in a coffee shop on Brookline Avenue in the Boston area. (I’ve tinkered with it here and there and perhaps will tinker with it more.)

I wanted to capture in one poetic space the frailty of our grasp on fleeting things, the emptiness that many experience around the holidays, and the paradox of the real Christmas event in Bethlehem.

This Christmas–in joy or sorrow–I hope we can better reflect on the earth-redefining significance of a seemingly innocuous moment in a small, Middle Eastern village two thousand years ago. I pray that it triumphs over all our silly little trivialities.

My First Published Poem


Really, this is late news, but last fall a poem of mine was selected to fill the pages of Glass Mountain, “a literary journal edited by undergraduate students at the University of Houston” and “dedicated to showcasing the works from undergraduate and emerging artists.” This, of course, is a humble achievement (I wasn’t exactly published in The New Yorker), but I am extremely grateful for the consideration and encouragement that at least something of mine was halfway decent. I continue to write, polish, and submit poetry (I actually just joined a critique group in my area) and hope to share more in the future. I also am working on a novel. Many people know how important reading and writing are to me but very seldom get to see any of the fruit of my constant labor. So here’s something. 


This is perhaps one of the “heavier” poems I have written, but from the perspective of a teacher, I wanted to capture the tension between the ephemeral and eternal. The question, “What redeems the time?” is an allusion to T.S. Eliot’s poetry. 

Macbeth, the anti-David

 

Just the other day, my class was performing skits of various scenes in the life of David before becoming king of Israel (and the king of Israel’s brief Golden Age). As I was sharing a few personal thoughts to the end of one performance, I suddenly realized just how closely it paralleled the story of Macbeth. In 1 Samuel 24 we read that Saul is in pursuit of David. Taking a break to relieve himself, Saul goes into a cave where, unbeknownst to Saul, David is hiding with his own men. David creeps up to Saul probably to kill him (the text never says that was his original intent but can be surmised from the context of the situation), his enemy, and gain the throne of Israel. However, instead of killing Saul, David secretly cuts off a piece of Saul’s robe. Even that act, though, causes David deep remorse for touching “the Lord’s anointed,” and he orders his men not to attack Saul.

So what are the parallels with Shakespeare’s famous Macbeth? First, in Macbeth the titular character begins as a brave warrior and Thane (nobleman) of Glamis. However, he receives two prophecies by a group of three witches. First, he would be Thane of Cawdor; this takes place later that scene. Second, Macbeth would become king of Scotland. However, Macbeth toils over the conundrum of his own role in the fulfillment of the second prophecy. “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, Without my stir” (Act I, Scene 3). Can he trust the prophecy that what had been foretold will come to pass without his direct intervention? Or must Macbeth act on his own behalf? Well, SPOILER ALERT (for those of you who somehow are unfamiliar with the story of Macbeth), Macbeth takes matters into his own hands: He kills the king and, to secure his throne, kills many others besides. Before he knows it, he declares, “I am in blood. Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (Act III, Scene 4).

Image result for stepped in blood

David, the antithesis of Macbeth, also receives a prophecy that he will become king, foretold by the prophet Samuel. Not only must David decide if he will wait for the efficacy of the prophecy (and God’s dictation), he must submit himself to the temptation of seizing control when fate seems to have favored him with the opportunity to kill Saul in the cave at En Gedi. David, however, remains true to his own humanity (and God’s law), and passes through the test having only gone so far as to cut a piece of the king’s robe. God, true to his word, later allows Saul to be killed in combat, and David, integrity intact, ascends to Israel’s throne.

****

Do you believe that Macbeth would have eventually become king even without his own violent intervention?

Can you think of other examples of leaders (fictional or real) passing inner tests of integrity before ascending to their position?

6 Reasons to Read Macbeth

Image result for macbeth

Macbeth is definitely my favorite Shakespeare play…so far (I am more widely read in Shakespeare than the average person, but I am still woefully ignorant of the entire Shakespeare canon). However, spending any time at all among Shakespeare’s works quickly enlightens us as to why the Elizabethan playwright is so profoundly famous and global: his fantastical use of history, myth, and folklore as the backdrop to his stories; his ability to tap into the human predicament with violent images and lovely romances; his wordsmithing and timeless passages. All these and more have made his legacy timeless. We may not all be the lovesick youth of Romeo and Juliet. We may not all be the desperate and revengeful Danish prince, Hamlet. But Shakespeare has tapped into the universal human longings for love and justice, the plots in all of our lives that merely take various forms.

This morning I was reading in Jerram Barrs’ Echoes of Eden, and in his chapter “Shakespeare and a Christian Worldview,” Barrs goes into a more thorough examination of Macbeth. This of course summoned in me all the passionate emotions I have experienced during my multiple readings of the play. So here are five reasons why you should take some time to read Macbeth this fall.

1. The supernatural elements are great for your fall/October/Halloween reading list.

Witches, spells, curses, ghosts, visions of floating daggers, murder. Here is a fantastic backdrop for your spooky seasonal reading. “Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble” (4.1.10-11).

Image result for macbeth's witches

2. The Scottish setting

Scotland is the more rugged, wild neighbor to the north of England. The misty, green landscape is the perfect backdrop to the evil machinations of Macbeth. Though Shakespeare takes great liberties, there is a historical connection to the play’s characters.

DunsinaneHill From BlackHill 12APR03.jpg
Dunsinane Hill from Wikipedia

3. The universal themes

Fate versus free will. The thirst for power. The meaninglessness of life. Here are themes that have been gripping audiences throughout all eternity. Biological determinism is a contentious idea today. Greedy capitalism drives men and women to do unspeakable things in order to get ahead. And sometimes we feel like the arbitrary puppets of a madman.

…[Life] is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing. (5.5.30-31)

Basically, Macbeth uses vivid images to examine what is actually in humanity’s hearts. Your life might not be surrounded by royal bloodshed, but it does not mean that a battle doesn’t rage just below the surface of what’s seen.

4. The enticing plot

From the very beginning of the play, Shakespeare’s plot moves quickly from royal prophecy to bloodshed to massacre to madness and finally to its gripping conclusion. Don’t be fooled by the fancy language; this is a fast-paced story!

5. The brilliant writing

Books have been written about Shakespeare’s contribution to language. He is responsible for penning new words and phrases that are still in use today. His ability to express the depth of the human experience in profound ways is unparalleled. Yes, it may be difficult for the untrained reader, but keep at it; there’s treasure to be had. Here is the expanded passage of the lines already quoted above, my favorite of the whole play.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (5.5.22-31)

6. The great adaptations

Okay, so perhaps I can’t speak immensely into all the adaptations because truthfully I’ve only seen the Michael Fassbender film. But I really enjoyed the interpretation. I felt that Fassbender played the part well, the cinematography was top notch, and only the original dialogue was used. It was a great treat for the class I was teaching last year. However, I still need to check out other adaptations.

 

Finally, if reading Shakespeare is daunting, I highly recommend the Folger editions of the texts. On the right page is the original text, but on the left page are thorough notes to help with more challenging words and phrases as well fascinating factoids.

So, what’s your favorite Shakespeare play?

8 Books about Faith and Art

The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by [Nouwen, Henri]

 

For many years (decades, centuries), there has been debate as to what should be the relationship between art and religion. From a Christian perspective, should art have any prominent role in the church? What do we do about art made by those who believe differently than us? This might be visual art, literary art, music, or some other form of creativity. Is there a proper response to these things?

Here are eight books that I have either read in full or I am currently reading (currently reading Beauty Will Save the World and Echoes of Eden) about the relationship between art and faith (from a Christian perspective) which will encourage your engagement with the arts while maintaining a thoughtful attitude. You can check out more resources on my page “Faith and the Arts.” 

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams a biographical sketch of the memorable Christian literary group, the Inklings. More than individual profiles, this work also traces the interchange between these literary greats.

For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts a call for the local church to embrace the importance of the arts and their artists.

Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling Andy Crouch’s thoughtful approach to cultural engagement for Christians–being involved in the creative process rather than merely reactionary.

Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture a collection of post 9/11 essays regarding the intersection of faith, art, and culture by Japanese American Makoto Fujimura.

Liberal Arts for the Christian Life a defense of more traditional academic subjects (the humanities) during a cultural crisis in which STEM subjects are often promoted at the expense of a broader education.

The Return of the Prodigal Son Catholic priest Henri Nouwen’s examination of faith and grace (drawn from personal experience) through the lens of Rembrandt’s famous painting.

Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological AgeGregory Wolfe’s defense of Christian humanism, reflectively discussing the faith elements present in less discussed authors such as Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Conner, Shusaku Endo, Wendell Berry, and more.

Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts more accessible than Wolfe’s work (above), it highlights the proper Christian stance towards art and literature and the discusses the specific faith evident in the works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, William Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.

 

So here is a primer for anyone interested. Are there any other good ones to add to the list?

Poetry Wednesday: Shel Silverstein

Image result

 

Nearly everyone has been exposed to some of the fun, whimsical poetry of Shel Silverstein: The Light in the Attic, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Falling Up, and The Giving Tree are some of his most notable works. His writing–targeted primarily at children–shows itself to be both entertaining and often quite surprisingly deep. Today I wanted to share his poem “Invitation.” CHEERS! to fellow dreamers and creators. May your tales always find a welcome heart.

If you are a dreamer, come in
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by the fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!

Tolkien, Fairy Stories, and Sub-creation

I was first introduced to Tolkien’s The Hobbit when I was a pre-teen. At that point I was not familiar with The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings trilogy (the movies had not yet premiered). I had the joy and privilege to experience this story with a blank slate, knowing nothing about the book besides the cover image. Image result for the hobbit coversThus I was immediately whisked away into the magic of the Shire, Mirkwood, the Lonely Mountain, and Bilbo’s adventures with his “Unexpected Party” of dwarves. To my great relief upon completing the book, I discovered that The Hobbit was only the prequel (though it was not originally written with the intention of being a prequel) to the much grander and epic The Lord of the Rings, and soon after I dived right on in to that as well.

Few worlds have captured my imagination and inner longings like Middle Earth. Perhaps I could add Narnia (I have probably read that whole series ten times or more), Hogwarts, and the Fairy Land of Phantastes. I am being very serious when I describe my experiences in these worlds as mystical. It was not merely a matter of entering a great story–I entered into a new reality of wonder. It was not merely escapism–I began to see the magic of my world in new ways (what Tolkien would call “Recovery,” discussed below). Great imaginative writers have written detailed apologias defending the power of fairy literature. Stories and worlds such as those I’ve already mentioned have unfortunately been quickly dismissed into genre fiction: fantasy. It is almost never critically viewed as serious literature. But its importance is far greater than just another pop-novel category.

Tolkien’s mythopoeia is best detailed in his famous Andrew Lang Lecture, “On Fairy-Stories,” delivered at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland on March 8, 1939. In it he describes the importance of the Faerie realm equal to and even beyond the narrative itself. Tolkien goes on to explain that writers become “sub-creators,” drawing upon the Christian doctrine of the imago dei. Humans are made in the image of a Creator-God and are endowed with similar (though not equal) abilities to create: “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

Tolkien went on to dispel the myth that fairy stories are only for children (similar to my statement about the dismissal of the “fantasy” genre):

At least it will be plain that in my opinion fairy-stories should not be specially associated with children. They are associated with them: naturally, because children are human and fairy-stories are a natural human taste (though not necessarily a universal one); accidentally, because fairy-stories are a large part of the literary lumber that in latter-day Europe has been stuffed away in attics; unnaturally, because of erroneous sentiment about children, a sentiment that seems to increase with the decline in children.

Tolkien concluded his lecture by listing three important functions of fairy stories: recovery, escape, and consolation. First, fairy stories help readers recover the magic of their “Primary world,” which is often lost in our overly scientific, overly explained universe. Escape, in Tolkien’s view, is not a bad thing. Instead, he likens escape to the noble desire of the prisoner rather than the ignoble flight of a deserter. Escape in this sense is one who imagines a better world. Thus, in many ways fantasy begins overlapping with the real world to help heal it. Finally, consolation is Tolkien’s and the fairy tale’s highlight. Tolkien names this the “Eucatastrophe”: “the good
catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale)…” I’m reminded of Gandalf’s eucatastrophic appearance at Helm’s Deep when it seemed that all would be lost. Tolkien, however, goes further, and here his Catholic Christianity is very evident. Consolation envisions the fulfillment of the Christian’s longing: paradise, the new heavens and new earth provided only by the eucatastrophic death and resurrection of the Christ.

Thus, I hope it is evident that fantasy, true and good fantasy, is something much deeper than a superficial pop-novel. By creating a secondary world of imagination and magic (if you will), it plays out consistently the deepest human and universal themes of the primary world.

Poetry Wednesday: “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time”

Image result for wb yeats

C.S. Lewis (the author who first cultivated my love of literature with his Narnia chronicles) once said about the Irish poet, essayist, and playwright William Butler (W.B.) Yeats, “I am often surprised to find how utterly ignored Yeats is among the men I have met: perhaps his appeal is purely Irish–if so, then thank the gods that I am Irish.” Yeats remained staunchly Irish at a time when Irish heritage was often overshadowed by their more imperialistic Anglo neighbors to the east. His poetry featured Irish legends and heroes and an overall connection to his own roots. Despite his mystical and occult tendencies that at times drew criticism, there is no doubting the magnificence of his supernatural imagination. To read more about the life of W.B. Yeats, you can check out his biography at the Poetry Foundation here.

In his poem “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” Yeats balances the immortal (the rood or crucifix of time) with the mortal. According to Suheil B. Bushrui’s and Tim Prentki’s An International Companion to the Poetry of W.B. Yeats, “The strength of the poem is derived from the tension revealed by its title between immortality and mortality. The Rose is identified as ‘Eternal Beauty’ but it can only be perceived in such things as an actual rose which must die. Thus while the poet wishes to experience the influence of the Rose, he does not wish to be overwhelmed totally by its power and so lose contact with this world” (83). The poem highlights the timelessness of epic, historical deeds of Irish ancestry as well as the common, mundane realities of a “weak worm hiding” and a “field-mouse running.”

I personally appreciate and am moved by the delicate balance of mortality and immortality, or, if you will, finding the immortal in the mortal. Thus, I hope you appreciate Yeats’ masterful poem.

Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days!
Come near me, while I sing the ancient ways:
Cuchulain battling with the bitter tide;
The Druid, grey, wood-nurtured, quiet-eyed,
Who cast round Fergus dreams, and ruin untold;
And thine own sadness, whereof stars, grown old
In dancing silver-sandalled on the sea,
Sing in their high and lonely melody.
Come near, that no more blinded by man’s fate,
I find under the boughs of love and hate,
In all poor foolish things that live a day,
Eternal beauty wandering on her way.

Come near, come near, come near—Ah, leave me still
A little space for the rose-breath to fill!
Lest I no more hear common things that crave;
The weak worm hiding down in its small cave,
The field-mouse running by me in the grass,
And heavy mortal hopes that toil and pass;
But seek alone to hear the strange things said
By God to the bright hearts of those long dead,
And learn to chaunt a tongue men do not know.
Come near; I would, before my time to go,
Sing of old Eire and the ancient ways:
Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days.

Transcendentalism, Nature, and Concord

About a year and a half ago I remember having what can only be described as a really good day. Now, if those superlatives don’t exactly bowl you over, it’s simply because nothing truly spectacular happened; I was just able to look back at the end of the day and realize how incredibly refreshing it was.

I had a day off from work (this was when I was managing a cafe in Harvard Square) and decided to spend it by myself exploring Concord. So I walked from my house-converted-into-an-overpriced-apartment to Davis Square, took the red line one stop to Porter and changed to the Fitchburg commuter rail line out to Concord. I then visited various locales including Thoreau’s replica cottage, Walden Pond, Louisa May Alcott’s home, the Old North Bridge, and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. I felt rather transcendent myself as I ate my lunch by the water’s edge of Walden Pond. It was a clear, mild (low 70s probably) October day. The leaves were just beginning to change. As I sat in that place near Thoreau’s little Walden experiment, and as I later visited the graves of several famous writers, I somehow felt connected to that legacy, that heritage of literature. I don’t necessarily agree with all their worldviews, but I still felt as if I was breathing in the fresh air of greatness. Call their ghosts muses or whatever, I also spent time writing; one poem in particular I am still eager to publish eventually. Thus, it was…a really good day.

In my American Literature class we will be taking a look at Transcendentalism over the next couple of weeks. Here is a small excerpt from M.H. Abrams’ immensely useful A Glossary of Literary Terms (7th edition) under the entry “Transcendentalism in America”:

What the various Transcendentalists had in common was less what they proposed than what they were reacting against. By and large, they were opposed to rigid rationalism; to eighteenth-century empirical philosophy of the school of John Locke, which derived all knowledge from sense impressions; to highly formalized religion, especially the Calvinist orthodoxy of New England; and to the social conformity, materialism, and commercialism that they found increasingly dominant in American life. Among the counter-views that were affirmed by Transcendentalists, especially Emerson, were confidence in the validity of a mode of knowledge that is grounded in feeling in intuition, and a consequent tendency to accept what, to logical reasoning, might seem contradictions; an ethics of individualism that stressed self-trust, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency; a turn away from modern society, with its getting and spending, to the scenes and objects of the natural world, which were regarded both as physical facts and as correspondences to aspects of the human spirit; and, in place of a formal or doctrinal religion, a faith in a divine “Principle,” or “Spirit,” or “Soul” (Emerson’s “Over-Soul”) in which both humanity and the cosmos participate.

It’s amazing how relevant some of these tenets are still today. In an over-commercialized, super-technological, empiricism-is-our-only-truth type of world, we need a return to nature, to unplugging, to spirituality.

DSCF5716
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life. And see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” -Thoreau

I am most refreshed in nature. I have been blessed to get out into the wild in my life: the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali coastline in Hawaii, the West Highland Way in Scotland, Acadia National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and more. I live in El Salvador right now. And while it’s difficult to be isolated in nature (security reasons), there are some spectacular views, spectacular opportunities to witness another marvelous part of the world.

So here’s my advice. If you’re feeling the grind of the machine (corporate culture, for example, or whatever system is stymieing your life), break free. For a moment at least. Where is it you can go to transcend, to commune in nature? To know that you’re not just useless mass of atoms? You’re made of special stuff.