Note to Readers: My historical fiction novel Prester John and the Brigand King is once again available to read in full. Just click on the novel's title in the "Full Series" menu on the sidebar.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Poem for my Grandpa

Early this past Thursday morning, my grandpa, Almon McDougal, passed away at the age of 89. I want to post a poem in his memory, one that I had written nearly ten years ago. I was in my college season of life at the time, back home for the summer, and I had attended my church's Wednesday night prayer meeting, where my grandparents were faithful attenders. That night he was reflecting on his advancing age during the discussion time, and I recall him saying, with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, that he never expected to get this far. "I always thought I'd be gone at 65!" he laughed. And then he told us, in his simple but expressive way, how he regarded each new day as an unexpected gift of God, above and beyond what he thought he would receive. I went home that night and wrote a poem about his words. Here it is:



“Every day is a treasure,”
So he told us with a twinkle in his eye,
Raising an instructive finger
Now covered in the calluses of years gone by,
Of his tireless working of the land.
I sat there with my Grandpa
In the quiet of the old church vestry,
Ready to go to prayer with him,
To learn once again from the humble faith
Of this simple, grateful saint.
He is old, and nearer the end,
And I am young, still only beginning,
And his words, wise from all the years
Of weathering the harsh Maine winters,
Ring true in my heart.
Whether we find that truth in the peaceful joys
Of a journey of eighty years
Or in the thrilling rush of adventurous dreams
That stir a younger heart,
We must learn to greet the dawn each day
And in the fire of the ever-rising sun,
To breathe that grateful prayer
And commit to the gift of the time that is ours,
That this day, each day,
Will be the best day we can make of it;
For it is in the journey of every moment
That we return the heavenly gift
In a dance of wondrous praise.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Finding God in the Smell of Mud

(Note: this is a piece that was written for the devotional column in our local newspaper, to be published next week.)




I grew up here in Maine, but my wife Rachel is a Pennsylvanian. For those who are “from away,” our version of springtime here in Maine is a difficult one to appreciate. Rachel rhapsodizes about springtime in Pennsylvania as a season of green on every side, of dogwoods blooming, of warm sunshine streaming through forests that have come alive in a concert of birdsong. With such a picture of spring in mind, our version of spring—a couple months of mud and chilly rain, followed immediately by blackflies, does not seem appealing at first glance. But, having grown up in Maine, there is something about springtime here that speaks to me in no uncertain terms about the vibrancy of life. And for me, spring is not so much about the colors of green leaves or blue skies, but about smells—the rich, heavy scent of the frozen earth slowly coming back to life. Even if deprived of the main sense I rely on—sight—I could still tell you it was springtime in Maine simply by breathing in the air, by catching the scent of the ground thawing out.


Faith is a little bit like this. Many of us rely on our rational impulses and gut instincts to make sense of the world—these, like our sense of sight, are our primary way of understanding life. But in certain seasons of our life, seasons of doubt or skepticism, these senses don’t have much to offer us. Like looking for greenery at the beginning of a Maine springtime, looking for clear signs of God’s activity using only our gut instincts and a veneer of rationality might not bring a lot of results. So if you’re in that place where it seems like evidence of God is hard to find, I would encourage you to listen to your other senses. All human beings have certain intuitions placed deep within them, intuitions which we take for granted, but which provide clear signposts of God’s gracious presence in the world. We are all wired to desire justice, for instance—everyone objects when treated unfairly. We are also wired to appreciate beauty—in the natural world around us, in works of art, in the sound of a song: something in our hearts responds to beauty in a way that we wouldn’t expect to find if this were a meaningless world. Intuitions like this—our nature to be predisposed towards justice, goodness, beauty, joy—these are things  which stand as signposts in our own nature that we are created for more than merely ourselves. God is there to be found, but sometimes, like finding springtime in Maine, we find him most clearly when we close our eyes for a moment and breathe deep.


Let me draw one more parallel between springtime and the life of faith. Some people try to grudgingly keep God at a distance, as if opening our eyes to his truth would primarily mean having to buckle down to the hard and bitter work of trying to be good. This attitude entirely misses the point. It would be as if we Mainers, having sat through a long, bleak winter, said to ourselves, “I really don’t want spring to come, because springtime brings a lot of work—raking, planting, mowing, cleaning—I’d rather just sit inside and let it keep snowing.” Rather, most of us are joyfully ready for the simple and soul-cleansing work of spring when it arrives. It’s the same way with coming to faith in God through Jesus Christ—yes, it will mean a change in some of our habits and ways of living—but just like springtime, it will be a change ushered in by incredible joy and energy and new life. The call to come to faith in God is not a subpoena that forces us into a life of gray drudgery; it is an invitation to leave behind our old, closed-up homes, step out into the spring rain, and dance.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Contentment

This is a short poem I wrote last year, at a time when I was feeling a little down. Its archaic language stems in part from the fact that I was reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at the time.


Contentment lies beneath the loam

Of frozen fields as yet unplowed;

It flies beyond seraphic skies,

Untouched, unfelt, and disallowed.

 

As errant knights before me rode

For grail bound, ‘neath rampant shield,

So do I make fearless quest

And seek contentment’s bounteous weal.

 

But whither I? Where shall I seek

To find the rarest prize of all?

Where its lodgings, where under heav’n

Does make its place in blissful hall?

 

I know not yet, but still I find

That I, undaunted, love this quest:

To find myself, at once, at last,

Ahold the beautiful and best.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Apokatastasis

This is a poem inspired by a very ancient interpretation of eschatology from the early church. I don't claim to know if it is true or not in all its details, but I do find it beautiful. In any case, whether the final details of this hopeful vision are true or not, I hope that it encourages you to believe and rejoice in the ultimate triumph of good.


Apokatastasis

Fire, fire,

        All-consuming fire,

                A world made beautiful in fire.

 

We see beyond the curtain now,

Beyond the marrow and the haze,

Beyond mere substance

        And its shadows—

Into the dance at the heart of all things,

        Into the world where matter leaps for joy,

                Twists and whirls like a dervish;

Where the happy chaos of our realm

        Learns its ordered rules;

Where time itself dissolves

        Into bliss that cannot be measured

                By fragments of duration;

Where to opened eyes appear

        Heavenly armies next to us

                And chariots of fire:

               

Fire, fire,

        All-consuming fire,

                A world made beautiful in fire.

 

Everything is illuminated by it:

        Everything.

The universe seethes with light,

        Is suffused with light,

                Shines like a billion mirrors

                        Circling around the throne.

We look back, and see a world

        Where heaven was bound up

                Silently, right beside us.

We look back at history

        And find only part of the story,

                A broken prolegomena

                        To this one moment.

We look back at our pain

        And see the Crucifixion,

                Only the Crucifixion,

And we wonder…

        How could we have missed the fact

                That the Cross is only understood

                        After Resurrection?

So now we dance, we raise our hands,

        Now we fly,

                Now we rise, rise, rise

                        Rise to unending joy.

Like metal in the forge,

        We glow, we burn,

                We are filled up with fire:

 

Fire, fire,

        All-consuming fire,

                A world made beautiful in fire.

 

Eternity fills up the cosmos

        Like a surging tide:

                We wait, as he taught us,

                        We watch and pray.

One by one, they begin to turn—

        The last lonely ones,

                Unsheltered, alone,

                        In the fading rim of darkness:

The light sweeps over them;

        Some see and turn with wonder,

                Some fight and struggle,

                        Holding on to the vanishing horizon

                        Where the light is yet to touch.

But that horizon is fading fast,

        Against the speed of uncreated light

And slowly, caught up in a radiance

        Beyond their wildest dreams,

                They turn, they weep, they laugh,

                        They shine.

Even he, the loneliest one,

        Clawing at the flying edge of darkness

                In one last and desperate cry,

                        Finally lets go.

Borne up by clouds of long-forgotten friends,

        He is pulled back toward the Fire,

                And darkness melts off from him

                In effervescent waves.

There, in the center of all things,

        He pauses,

                Sobs,

                        And bows down.

He shines, we shine,

        Full of uncreated energies not our own.

Around the throne we sing,

        We dance, we burn,

                For Christ is all in all.

 

Fire, fire,

        All-consuming fire,

                Our God is a consuming fire.