Friday, October 24, 2014

James Wilson’s “The Dark Clue”

It is 1850s Victorian Britain. The great British painter J.M.W. Turner has been dead since 1851, and a rather unscrupulous writer is researching a biography of him. Turner’s friends and supporters are alarmed, so they commission a biography as well. Artist Walter Hartright is convinced by his sister Marian Halcombe to undertake the assignment, and she will assist him in his research.

As Walter and Marian undertake their project, they soon learn that nothing about Turner is what it seems. The artist appears to have been a bundle of contradictions. As the brother and sister are pulled deeper into the story of Turner’s life, they begin to sense dark forces at work. What starts out as a biographical project becomes a descent into darkness – and possible madness.

Published in 2002, The Dark Clue is author James Wilson’s recreation of the Victorian suspense novel. In fact, the characters of Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe are borrowed directly from what may be the classic Victorian suspense novel – The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Wilson goes beyond a simple recreation of the times of the Victorian 1850s, however. He transports the reader and almost seductively places you there, so that you experience, see, and even smell what is happening in the story, as it envelops and happens around you.

Turner (1775-1851) was an artist who transformed landscape painting. He made his name when he was quite young, exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Art on a regular basis for the rest of his life. But he wasn’t without controversy – one can see the rather large collection of his paintings at the Tate Britain (he bequeathed them to the nation at his death) and see the forerunner of Impressionism and even abstract art. As he grew older, Turner became increasingly absorbed with painting light; while his paintings seem familiar to us in the 21st century, many of them seemed odd and puzzling to his own contemporaries.

He painted light – but his own life contained elements of darkness. And it those elements, along with the darkness of Victorian Britain, that Wilson mines in The Dark Clue. He structures the novel in three parts. The first is Walter’s perspective; the second is Marian’s; and the third is a combination of both. The Turner biography leads both characters, and especially Walter, to the brink of madness, as they journey deeper and deeper into his life – and art.

Turner as a young man, self-portrait (1799)
Wilson takes the story where a writer like Wilkie Collins might have wanted to take it but could not, given the sensibilities of the day. And it is at the point that the story becomes too dark, the main characters too personally entangled, for this to be only an impressive, perhaps even brilliant, recreation of the suspense novels of the period. It’s at that point the story becomes disappointing; it does not need the titillation that it includes. The author could have restrained himself, and his characters, but he does not. And at that point the story becomes something else, something less Victorian and more contemporary. To have remained true to Victorian sentiment he would have had to only suggest and perhaps hide.

That may have been the point; Wilson may have been attempting to do with The Dark Clue what Turner did with his paintings. Had he stopped short, he might have achieved it.

The Tate Britain currently has an exhibition of Turner paintings, Late Turner: Painting Set Free. The exhibition runs to Jan. 25, and we were fortunate enough to see it during a recent trip to London.

Painting: The Blue Rigi, Sunrise, watercolor by J.M.W.Turner, 1842, The Tate Britain.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

We move into a place

We move into a place
we do not know
to learn what it is
and who lives here

who thinks, talks, believes
in unfamiliar ways
in unknown ways
often misunderstood

we abide
we abide in the heart
  the only heart that knows
  the only heart who knows

what is is
what it is to be
not one of us
but one of us

a stranger and alien
so consumed by love
the he accepts

I look at my hands
  and consider nails
I feel my thirst
  and consider gall
I touch my side
  and consider piercing
I see my life
  and consider death

and so I abide
I abide

Image by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Does it always have to be this painful?

This week at The High Calling, Mark Roberts has had a series of daily reflections that speak directly to what has been creating considerable turmoil for a considerable period of time for many churches – the worship wars. He started the week by asking a fundamental question: Who is the audience for worship? On Tuesday, he talked about avoiding the temptation of audience worship, and today he continues that discussion.

Before we older church members get too smug, “audience worship” isn’t only about worship services that seem more like rock concerts (usually aimed at being more relevant to a younger “demographic”).  It’s also about getting caught up in thinking that worship is about whether or not the pastor had a good sermon today, the quality of the playing of the organ and the singing of the choir, and why was the order of service slightly different this week, since the congregation sang three hymns instead of the usual four.

Yes, the worship wars have two sides. And both can be wrong, especially when they forget that worship isn’t about being culturally relevant or how good the pastor’s sermon was.

Reading Mark’s reflections happened at the same time I was reading chapter five of The Cure: What if God Isn’t Who You Think He Is and Neither Are You, by John Lynch, Bruce McNichol and Bill Thrall. The chapter actually has two titles – “Two Healings” and “Two Solutions.” It addresses a very real issue – when Christians hurt Christians, and how Christians can sometimes make a cottage industry of their hurt by other Christians.

I know; I’ve been there. My expectations of Christians have always been higher than for non-Christians. I forget that Christians are sinners, too; Christians fail and Christians screw up. And I am a Christian, too.

The Cure has what is almost a cookbook recipe for what happens (which tells me this happens a lot). You get hurt, and it causes pain. You become preoccupied with the event. You become a “prosecuting attorney, consistently building your case.” You become obsessed with the record getting set straight. You become unable to love well and neglect the needs of others. And the steps go on as your anger builds, alienating others and finally questioning God’s motives.

The authors are directly addressing what happens when a Christian is hurt by another Christian. But reading those reflections by Mark Roberts, I understand that it isn’t just a problem between individuals; the local church itself can be the offending party.

The cause may be the worship wars. It may be part of someone’s idea to be more culturally relevant and become more attractive to younger people, “because we’re aging and losing our future.” It may be that a handful of people (usually including the pastor and a few elders) decide the church needs a “new model for growth” and communicate that vision badly (or, in some cases, with stealth, because they know they will meet opposition). Or someone decides that the church has much to learn from the management and marketing of corporate America.

We attended a church that we loved for 15 years; the last five were difficult and the last two were agony. All of these things were happening. It didn’t end well, for us, other members of the church, and the church as a whole.

We found a new church, and experienced the pain of breaking relationships from our old church (leaving a church in these circumstances always has a cost). But we worked our way into an adult Sunday School class, and began to meet people. I joined the ushering team and then was elected to the deacon board. Six months into my three-year term, I attended a Saturday training seminar. About two hours into it, I realized the same thing was happening all over again. There was a “new vision.” There were outside consultants. Not everyone in leadership or the church staff knew this was happening.

We didn’t leave this time, but I can say that no one at our church today would say it ended well. It was corporate vision, “demographic relevance,” worship wars and bad communication all over again. And it was painful all over again. The cost to the church has been huge. But what happened has been recognized; there has been confession to the church. We’re still not out of the woods. And we may never be out of the woods.

I’ve heard similar stories from friends and people all over the United States (and some in Canada, too), so many that it suggests that this is all too common and that something larger is in play.

The church – the North American church evangelical church – is being split apart and refined. Sometimes it worship wars; other times it social and cultural issues. This “sundering apart” can be seen not only in individual church problems but in popular Christian books, blogs, conferences – everything we associate with the church at large. And it’s easy, too easy, to get caught up in that cycle of pain and personal turmoil the authors of The Cure are describing.

There’s a better way. We’ll talk about it in the second part of this chapter discussion next week.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading and discussing The Cure. To see other’s posts on this chapter, please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.

Illustration by Junior Libby via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Most Famous Poem of World War I

Perhaps more than any other conflict, World War I is the most closely associated with poetry. Poets enlisted and wrote from the fields and trenches; poets helped bury their comrades and wrote about it; poets died; and poets survived to write the poetry of the war. And poets and their poetry helped shape especially the British perspective on the war and war in general for a generation.

It was also, perhaps, how war was changing. The American Civil War had signaled the end of the old style of war; World War I turned war into an industrial enterprise, with its advanced weaponry, airplanes, and even chemical gases. World War I also changed what people understood war to be – no longer battles between armies and navies but total war, pitting nation against nation, including the civilian population.

This was a time, too, when newspapers and general interest magazines routinely published poetry, and the public engaged in reading and reciting poetry far more than what we know today. Poetry spoke of the war and to the war in ways that even the best written and most devastating news accounts could not.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry

Monday, October 20, 2014

Hospitality in a Foreign Land

I’ve been reading Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, by Christopher Smith, John Pattison and Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove, and highlighting it here for the past several Mondays. The book is important, with an important story to tell.

Little did I expect to experience directly the message of the chapter entitled “Hospitality.”

We left for a two-week vacation in London on Sept. 28. Travel was uneventful, movement through British Customs at Heathrow uneventful, and soon we found our jetlagged selves at the same hotel we had stayed at last year, 51 Buckingham Gate.

Yes, it’s expensive. But it’s also reasonably expensive, and located two block from Buckingham Palace, three blocks from Westminster Abbey and Parliament, a block from a tube station, close to buses and, rather surprisingly, in a quiet courtyard off the street. In fact, when you’re in the courtyard, it’s so quiet that it’s difficult to imagine you’re located in the very center of London; it’s that quiet. Our room was on the seventh floor, and I could look out the window and see the top of the gold-plated memorial to Queen Victoria that sits in front of Buckingham Palace.

Our first two days went as planned – recover from jet lag, see a few things, start easing into a new schedule and time zone. On Tuesday I took an early morning walk across St. James Park to St. James Square and Piccadilly, and watched the swans and pelicans in the park lake.

On Wednesday morning, I was in the shower, and leaned to wash my foot. I felt my lower left back muscle pull. It had happened before; I know what it means. Take some ibuprofen, and take it easy. I took ibuprofen, and stuck to the original schedule. We had limited our activities for that day because we were meeting friends for dinner. On Thursday, we took a long walk on the South Bank, from London Bridge and Southwark Cathedral to Westminister Bridge, with a few stops along the way. On Friday we hopped a train to Salisbury to see the town and cathedral.

Back in London, I went to bed late Friday night. About 2 a.m. Saturday morning, I woke up, any movement causing severe pain in my back. My wife helped me get out of bed (it took several minutes to maneuver this). I finally did what I knew was the most comfortable thing to do – lie flat on my back on the floor, in the living room area next to the coffee table. Any movement created a back spasm that froze the left side of my back in knock-your-breath-away pain.

On Saturday morning, I was able to get myself up and stagger to the bathroom. I immediately went back to the living room, and my wife had moved her Pilates mat next to desk and phone. I got myself down on the mat, curled in a fetal position on my right side, while she called the hotel concierge.

Severe back pain is no fun. Severe back pain in a foreign country is frightening.

I remember snatches of the conversation. The hotel doctor on call was not available. Another doctor, from the National Health Service, was coming, promised with four to six hours. The alternative was an ambulance to a hospital, and the wait there could be as long.

Boots on Victoria Street
The NHS doctor arrived about 11:45 a.m. “You back muscle feels like a brick,” he said, “and any movement creates a back spasm.” He explained what he would do – a pain shot, followed by three prescriptions – one for acute pain, one for longer-term pain, and one like Valium to control the spasms (and keep me calm). He was caring and knowledgeable. He did write the prescriptions on one form – and one was a controlled substance, needing a different form.

My wife, after getting the first two prescriptions filled at a nearby Boots pharmacy, got herself on a bus and headed for Soho, to get the form from the National Health Service office near Soho Square. (She can now tell you about Soho; it’s never been on our list of “must-see” tourist attractions.) (If you don’t know about Soho, Google it.) She encountered a problem: the center couldn’t write the prescription.

NHS on Soho Square
Arriving back at the hotel, and not having the most important prescription, she turned to the hotel staff. Kristina was the receptionist on duty. She calmed my wife down, told her to go upstairs to tend to me, called the hotel doctor (who was at his daughter’s birthday party), had the doctor talk directly to my wife, and arranged to have a bellman pick up an over-the-counter medicine prescribed by the doctor. A few minutes later, I was taking the equivalent of Tylenol in Alka-Selzter form – with codeine (they can sell this over-the-counter in Britain).

The hotel staff delivered dinner for my wife, maneuvering around the fetal-like husband on the floor. My wife was able to get a cheese-and-tomato sandwich for me (and I couldn’t eat much more than that).  By midnight, I was finally able to stand and walk around the hotel room.

Bus 24 on Charing Cross Road
I still slept on the floor – the hardness stabilized my back. I slept for 11 hours straight. I stayed in the room on Sunday, taking my medicine, with the hotel housekeeping staff working around me.

The entire hotel staff knew what had happened. We were tended to and taken care of. I actually left the hotel on Monday morning for a short walk, and Sergio the concierge (who had not been on weekend duty) immediately asked me how I was feeling, and that he was glad to see I was up and about. For the next two days, I received the same question from the entire staff, include the dining and housekeeping staff.

“Hospitality connects us to a place,” the authors of Slow Church write, “because while hospitality can happen pretty much anywhere, it has to happen somewhere. Hospitality requires proximity, and by definition, proximity requires nearness in space, time or relationship – all of which assume certain limits.”

Hospitality happened to me at 51 Buckingham Gate, some 5,000 miles from home. And yes, it connects me to a place, and the people at the place.

We knew where we will stay the next time we go to London.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A sea of poppies

A sea of poppies
an ocean
where red is not
but there
the placement
is part of the story
   of course
   the course
because so much is
about placement
about place
   the form is as
   important as
   the content
the form becomes
the content
the how matters
as much as
the what

instead of green grass
the old moat
surrounding antiquity
instead the experience
of more modern antiquity

 a red poppy for each
   color of blood
   color of death
   color of life

Photograph: On our recent trip to London, the first place we visited was the Tower of London to see “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red,” the art installation of red ceramic poppies to commemorate the British and colonial military fatalities of World War I. By Nov. 11, Armistice Day, there will be 888,246 ceramic poppies in the moat.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Story of the Second Chance

I was raised a Missouri Synod Lutheran, courtesy of my mother. I was raised with a strong Protestant work ethic, courtesy of my father. Both of those influences fused me into something of an overachiever, although only for those things where I felt I had a chance to overachieve. Academics were one area. Sports were not.

Until my senior year in college, my life followed that overachiever pattern. Set goals, achieve them, surpass them, and then set new goals. As a college freshman, I set several goals, and kept adding to them.

By the middle of my senior year, I had achieved or overachieved everything. All the positions, honors, accolades, recognitions – I had captured them all, including being the managing editor of the student newspaper for my final semester – the position that ran everything in the paper except the editorial page. I had the power position on the paper, likely as powerful as any student office on the campus.

Nothing was left. Nothing.

I crashed and burned.

I kept working; the work ethic was too strong for that to stop. But I crashed. Everything I had accomplished seemed meaningless. Everything I had done seemed like wasted effort. Meaningless. Chasing after the wind.

What I didn’t know was that I was careening, wildly careening, right into the arms of God.

Through what seemed a strange series of circumstances, I landed one night in a conversation with the director for my college’s Campus Crusade for Christ chapter. I was angry, believing that I had been taken advantage of by this man’s organization, which seemed to preach one thing and practice another.

We talked, possibly for hours. I don’t remember how long. But by the end of our conversation, I found myself in God’s arms. I had become a story – the story of the second chance.

This wasn’t an opportunity to reinvent my life. This was a transformation of my life. In a matter of minutes, I understood that everything had fundamentally changed.

About 11 p.m., I found myself in the newspaper editor’s office. He was working late. He asked me if I was okay. “Has something happened?” he asked. And I nodded. “Everything happened,” I said. “Everything. And I can’t explain it.”

The story of the second chance didn’t begin and end that night. If I have learned anything about my life, it’s that the second chances keep coming.

Fourteen years after that night, I had a career crash and burn. Same pattern of overachievement; same result. It happened again 10 years after that, and then 11 years after that.

And each time brought an opportunity for a second chance.

I can say this: had not that second crash and burn happened, I would not have written a speech that changed an entire industry.

Had not that third crash and burn happened, I would not have spent nine months as the communications officer for an urban school district in extreme crisis, learning that a lot of people think differently than I do and they all don’t live in nice, comfortable suburbs, and that some of their children attend schools with 110 percent turnover – annually.

Had not that fourth crash and burn happened, I would not have had published two novels and a work of non-fiction. I would not be a weekly columnist on poetry. I would not be an editor and writer for The High Calling.

Four stories of second chances. And each time, something changed, something was learned, and something was realized.

Something was being grown inside of me.

What was growing, what is growing, is less of me.

The High Calling has a community linkup this week on finding new life – and discovering second chances. If you have a story to tell about your own second chance, visit The High Calling for details. The deadline is tonight.

Photograph by Patricia Lizbeth Medina de Anda via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.