5 Instructions to My Sons

 I’ve been considering what it means to employ the craft of writing for my immediate community, and what community could be more immediate than the community of my family? To that end, I’ve written this piece, titled “5 Instruction to my sons.” Enjoy.

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Dear Ike, Jude, Bean, and Titus Lee:

Last night, as I was walking Lucy around the neighborhood waiting for her to tend to her business, I considered those things I’d like you to know. I typed a short list on my phone, and this morning, I gave flesh to the bones of that list. It is true, there are many words of instruction I’d like to leave you; among those many words, though, are these five.

1.  Good prayers are not wordy prayers.

When I was a young boy, I listened as an older young boy prayed from the front of my Sunday class. He was a home-schooled boy, one who boasted a great vocabulary and the will to use it. He tossed about large words like “omnipotent,” and “sovereign,” broke into the occasional use of Hebrew or Greek, and more than once employed rhyme. “Sovereign Abba, omnipotent Logos” he prayed, “may your grace shine on my face.” I was ten at the time of his prayer, and I had no idea what he was saying. I am thirty-six now, and having reflected on this prayer again, I still have no idea what he was saying.

As you grow in faith, some might try to poison you with the notion that big, complicated, poetic prayers capture the ear of God. The truth is, these sorts of prayers, if not from the heart, capture only the ears of men.

Prayer, especially public prayer, is not an opportunity to show others the many large words you know. It is not an opportunity to be praised for being “such a good little pray-er.” Instead, prayer is an opportunity to be present with God in quiet places. As the Gospel of Matthew records,

“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”

Mary Kate Morse says that prayer is “attentiveness to God.” And attentiveness, she says, “is an awareness that we are in God’s presence, and God is in ours.” If God is always in our presence, and we are always in his, shouldn’t prayer sound a lot more common? Shouldn’t it sound like the words we use everyday? Shouldn’t it come from the heart, naturally, just like the way you talk with me or your momma?

2.  Friendship is simple presence, too.

If prayer is the “awareness that we are in God’s presence, and God is in ours,” maybe the secret to good prayer is learning to be present with God in the moment. What does it mean to be present? The dictionary describes it as “being with one or others in the specified or understood place.”  In the same way that good prayer relies on being present with God, being a good friend also relies on the ability to be present.

For illustration, let’s use an example.

If our little friend Melody came to play, and you were tapping on an iPad while she was trying to talk with you about her new kittens, would you be present with her in the moment? Sure, you might be in the same place, but would you be fully aware of her joy in the new kittens if you did not note the smile on her face, or see her hopping around in excitement? Presence, then, requires interaction. Presence involves looking people in the eyes, noting their joy, pain, elation, or agitation and responding to them. Presence is being with someone instead of merely around them.

3.  It’s not the size of your Cadillac that matters.

This is a fact of life: men will judge you by the size of your Cadillac, the shine of your shoes, or the height of your mansion. And as has been the way of men for all eternity, the more wealthy you appear, the more honor you are likely to receive. (Doesn’t everyone seem to value the opinion of the rich businessman more than the blue-collar factory worker?)

In this, there will come a great temptation to live in such a way that other men might esteem you, might judge you as wealthy. You might begin to purchase cars you cannot afford (or can, for that matter), might buy a large house on the highest hill so that everyone might know the size of your manhood. And do not get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with having a few nice things. But always remember that men are suckers for judging a book by its cover. As old Sammy said, “God doesn’t see things the way men see them. People judge by outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.”

Remember, it’s not the size of your car that matters; it’s all a matter of the heart.

4.  Folks will talk about global crises and wanting to change the world; don’t let that distract you from a more neighborly mission.

There are a great many global crises these days (climate change, the orphan crisis, kidnapped children, wars, revolutions, rumors of wars and revolutions, dictators run-amok, immigration, Fox News). And though I hope that you are voracious learners, that you know the things that impact the world, know this, too: these things can distract you from being present to your neighbors and friends.

These days, popular psychology, theology, and sociology will teach you that “you can change the world.” I think that I believed them, once, that I strived and strived and strived to make a grand difference. In that striving, I forgot to be present with my friends and family. Maybe I even forgot to be present with you. This was a mistake.

In the 1960s, a good and smart frenchman named Jaques Ellul (Zh-ok El-ool) wrote,

“scripture never asks us to bear the world’s suffering. It is enough to bear that of one’s neighbor. Once again, we encounter the very bad presumption of putting ourselves in the place of Jesus Christ, who alone bears the sufferings of the Algerians, the Tibetans and the inhabitants of India. He does not ask us to substitute ourselves for him.”

(Jacques Ellul, False Presence of the Kingdom.) I hope that you see the world, and I hope that your work alleviates suffering wherever you see it. I have some great friends who are engaged in this kind of humanitarian work (get to know Sarah Bessey, John Sowers, Kristin Howerton, and others). But I would tell you, and they would agree, that if you are seek to change the world at the expense of knowing your neighbor, you’re missing the point of the Great Command, “love your neighbor as yourself.”

5.  Jesus isn’t as rigid as we want him to be, and not nearly as silent as we think he is.

This is, maybe, the most important instruction I could leave you. Jesus is not as rigid as men might make him. He is not Baptist, or Methodist, or Anglican, or Non-Denominational (which is becoming its own sort of denomination), or Catholic. Jesus exists outside the small boxes of men. In the Gospels, he was present (there’s that word again) to the Jews, the non-Jews, the religious and non-religious alike.  Jesus was all things to all people, was in all of the boxes but outside of them, too. He was not as rigid as some would have made him to be. (As an aside, this is likely why he was murdered.)

Yes, refuse to believe that Jesus is as rigid as all of that. In the same way, refuse to believe that, in the words of Buddy Wakefield, “that guy [God] hasn’t spoken in… like… ever.” Refuse also those who would teach you that God doesn’t still speak today, that he’s not active in the world around you. He will speak and you can hear him if you’ll develop the ears to hear him. And developing those ears takes a lifetime of practice.

 

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On the Poetry of the Workplace (A Guest Post by Glynn Young)

In April, I began exploring the reason for poetry. I’ve invited a few guests to enter the conversation in hopes that we might find a collective answer to the question, “why poetry?” (Read all “why poetry?” guest posts, here.) Today, I’ve asked Glynn Young to stop in and share his answer. Glynn is leading some wonderful conversations about poetry in the workplace at places like Tweetspeak Poetry, The High Calling, and his own blog. In addition, he’s recently released Poetry at Work, a book well worth any working stiff’s time.

Without further adieu, please welcome Glynn Young.

*****

I was educated in public schools, and it was in public schools that I was first introduced to poetry. Elementary education was a basic overview of all subjects, with a focus on whatever subject or theme our teachers were interested in at the moment. Middle school and high school had a focus on fiction; since this was the South, the Really Deep South, William Faulkner reigned supreme even years after his death. So we studied fiction, with an occasional cursory nod in the direction of poetry and essays.

The seeds for my love of poetry were planted in high school; and the love of poetry began in a discovery that I loved British literature. William Shakespeare. Charles Dickens. Thomas Hardy. John Milton. George Eliot.

And then T.S. Eliot. T.S. Eliot was the key that unlocked the poetry door. I read “The Hollow Men,” and something changed forever.

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!…

In college, I started in pre-med but abandoned it (too much chemistry) for journalism. And literature. I took the English classes the English majors took – two semesters of British literature, from Beowulf and Piers Plowman to (again) T.S. Eliot. Along the way, my classes had a significant immersion in the Romantics – Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and Byron (I survived tests consisting of nothing more than single lines or fragments of lines of poems – and had to identify the poet and the poem) (consider going through 30 or 40 lines like that in under an hour) (#IHatedPoetry).

A few years later, I found myself working as a speechwriter. A friend suggested I read three poets for a broad understanding of how language–and spoken language–could really work. He recommended Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, and no surprise, T.S. Eliot. I read the collected poems of all three. I became a serious speechwriter.

From that point on, poetry became a regular part of what I read. As a result, I wrote better speeches. My perspective changed. I began to look at problems differently. I often found myself running against the corporate herd (and trampled more than once). But that different perspective helped rescue two different companies, both of which believed they had hit a reputational dead end. Poetry shaped and framed that different perspective. Poetry and faith together were that different perspective.

About three years ago, I was sitting in yet another recurring weekly meeting, listening to the recurring weekly conversation, my attention drifting to something more interesting, when I caught something unexpected. I was hearing something in the repetition and in the conversation. And what I was hearing was poetry. Not necessarily good poetry, but poetry nonetheless. I looked around to see if others had noticed, but they had the same weekly recurring faces.

I began to pay closer attention to all of the forms of corporate work life–the interview, the performance review, the PowerPoint presentation, the reorganization and downsizing, the vision statement, the cubicle and other work spaces, unemployment, and even retirement. Wherever I looked, I found poetry.

Some well known business writers, like David Whyte and Clare Morgan, have long advocated for what poetry can bring to business. I love their books, but they see poetry as something from the outside of work brought inside and applied. I was startled to realize that poetry didn’t have to be brought in from the outside; it was, and is, inherent in the work we do.

Poetry is already there. To realize it, to grasp it, is to understand something powerful about who we are and what we do with a considerable part of lives.

We don’t work. We write poetry.

Glynn Young is the author of two novels and the recently published non-fiction book Poetry at Work. He blogs at Faith, Fiction, Friends, and is an editor at Tweetspeak Poetry.

*photo by takomabibalot, Creative Commons via Flickr.

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On Sandra’s Grandbaby

Sandra is a lean, sinewy woman, with arms well-defined from lifting heavy wheels of organic pecorino cheese.  She greets us with open-arms and sincere hugs at the entrance to Podere Il Casale, the organic cheese and vegetable farm she operates with her husband Ulisse. “Welcome to our humble farm,” she says with a broad smile. “It will be my pleasure to show you around.”

Through the courtyard, past the mural of Sandra created by a local artist from the shards of broken dishes dropped over the years at Podere Il Casale, we make our way into the heart of the farm.

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We pass the enclosure for the newly captured wild-boar piglets. They are rooting in the straw, and Sandra attempts to catch one, hopes to allow us to pet their pink snouts. It seems, though, that Italian pigs are as difficult to catch as American ones, and Sandra quickly gives up. “Follow me to the sheep,” she says.

We pass the beehive, make our way to the pride and joy of the farm. “These are our sheep,” she says, “which are raised organically and treated only with natural medicines. They produce the best milk through the spring, and this is the milk that we use in cheese making.” She smiles, and a dog the size of a small lion rounds the corner, makes his way to the fence. Sandra reaches in and pats the dog on the head. “Don’t touch the dog,” she warns. “He is the protector of the sheep and might consider you foe if you get too close. Me he knows; you, he does not.” On its hind legs, the lion-dog’s paws could easily rest on my shoulders. I note its wolf-like frame, its jutting snout, its pointed teeth. It is docile enough looking at a distance.

From the sheep pen, Sandra leads us to the cheese factory, where Ulisse, clad in a long white apron, meets us. She instructs us in the artisanal ways of organic cheese making, shows us how young cheese is aged on wooden boards while Ulisse stands watching. “The aging process,” she says, ” reduces the amount of moisture in the cheese and concentrates the flavors.”  She walks into the refrigerator, pulls out a large wheel. “Also,” she says, “it allows for the growth of natural bacteria. The bacteria lend to the flavor of the cheese, but they also enhance the probiotic content of the cheese, which is good for the body.”

Large Cheese

“How much would that wheel of cheese run?” someone asks.

“Oh, perhaps eight-hundred Euro.”

Ulisse, arm propped against a large piece of machinery, interrupts any discussion of economics. “We do things by the old ways here–raw milk organic cheeses, all aged on wooden boards. This is the way that humans have been making cheese for hundreds of years,” he says with a waive of his hand. “But we’ve been told that your Government has recently banned these kinds of artisanal practices. This is ridiculous,” he says, with no sense of hyperbolic overstatement. “The science has proven that the cultures and bacteria preserved in this manner of cheese making are beneficial to the human body. And now your government says it is illegal? Why? Do the people no longer want what is natural and good for the body?”

Ulisse

“It’s not about what the people want,” I lament.

“That is the true shame,” he says. “Is this how the United States people,” he begins, but is interrupted by a ding from Sandra’s iPhone. We turn to look at Sandra, who is gasping, hand on her chest.

“Our second grandchild is born!” she says, and the lot of us break into wide smiles. All notions of overreaching governments, the passing of the artisanal ways, and dogs the size of baby lions fade. She gushes like a proud grandmother, and Ulisse remains in place, smiling in quiet. “Out of the body!” she exclaims, and we laugh, living into what it means to be human together.

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On Swimming Holes

An Arkansas summer is made for exploration. An Arkansas summer is made for boys.

There are tangy homegrown tomatoes to be picked, to be eaten straight from the hand; the Arkansas Traveler being my favorite variety. There are lightning bugs to imagine as fairies, to catch and keep in grandmother’s mason jars. There is popsicle relief to summer heat, the melting strawberry legs which run rivers down a shirtless chest.

These are the glories that might interrupt the more digital life of the modern boy if we train our children in the way they should go. Chief among these glories is one: the Steel Creek swimming hole at the Buffalo River.

The turn down Highway 103 is nothing short of a walk through the professor’s wardrobe into the magic of Narnia. By Independence Day, the farmers have bailed their hay, have left well-manicured fields under the watch of the Ozark mountains, the most gentle giants of our country. The boys look out the window, say, “isn’t it beautiful daddy?”

We wind through the valleys and climb up a ridge, fall down into the heart of the Buffalo National River. There, the bluffs rise tall from the water, and trees reach from the tops of those bluffs.

Isaac says, “inconceivable,” an homage to the movie The Princess Bride.

“What?” I ask.

He laughs, says, “those look like the Cliffs of Insanity!”

We choose a campsite near a path that leads down to the river, unpack a picnic lunch, and eat in double-gulps. There is a swimming hole to explore, and this is the prize of an Arkansas’ summer.

 

Down the Path (Instruction to Sons)

Down the path,
brothers together
walk through time,
past a digital today
and into a yesteryear
of RC Cola, of Moon Pies
and Jolt’n Joe.

“Hold Titus’ hands, son;
the path is muddy, mossy;
be careful; don’t slip.”

Into the hole,
under the keep
of Buffalo bluffs,
down to the depths,
where feet cannot touch,
there is a pearl for boys
with imagination
and breath enough
to find it.

Ike Jude
Ian up
Ian down

Titus Ian

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Psalm #20 (Genesis)

From time to time I pen my own psalms. Follow the link for the entire corpus (such as it is). And too keep up to date with all of my writings, drop by my Facebook page and give it the old thumbs up. (Thanks!)

Today’s psalm was inspired in part by the artisans of Tuscany. In the same way, though, it was inspired by the artisans I’ve encountered in the Ozarks, the Appalachians, and the Mississippi Delta. Enjoy.

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Psalm #20

These are imperfect metaphors:
the wine-maker in the vineyard,
tender with his grapes;
the fromagère with aging cheese,
gentle in the salty-washing of rind;
the leather worker etching a name,
shadows past the surface of tanned skin.

These are imperfect metaphors
for times more tender,
washings more gentle,
and hides more etched
with words eternal.

Creation creates;
the work of hands
echoes, “it is good.”

Amen.

 *****

*Enjoy a few photos of the artisans of Italy.

 

Luciano

Luciana cultivates a vineyard and olive grove on the outskirts of Castelmuzio.

cheese

Sandra and her husband Ulysses (you read that correctly) operate a cheese farm on the road from Pienza.

Leather

Valerio Truffelli crafts amazing leather goods at Bottega Artigiana del Cuoio in Pienza.

Art

Amber and Erika Morrison ran across this wonderful artist who’d set up shop near a small church in Pienza.

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