Voices-only Wednesday: Poetry slam edition
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God loves poetry. We know this because he authored a good deal of it — about a third of the Bible comes to us in poetic form. For 2,000 years, Christian poets have expressed their faith through hymns and poems of stunning variety. That grand tradition continues with the publication of “The Essential Walt McDonald.”
McDonald — the late poet laureate of Texas, Air Force pilot, rancher, professor, and disciple of Jesus — has bequeathed to us a remarkable work: a collection of over 500 poems, lovingly selected and arranged by the author himself.
In McDonald’s poems, the sacred is seldom overtly named, but rest assured, Christ is near. “The foundation of all my work is Christ,” he once declared. “Not one poem would have come without that rock.”
McDonald’s mission is similar to C.S. Lewis’ — to do one’s best to pay attention, to see what is squarely set before us and discover a world crowded with God’s presence. “Keep your eyes wide,” he counsels in one poem. “Find what’s in the skies.”
Religious verse is notorious for sometimes turning cloyingly sweet or maudlin, for putting on airs. McDonald travels a more direct, warts-and-all path devoid of obscurity and pretention. He is honest about humanity’s flawed and fallen state.
Whether the subject is a near-bankrupt farmer pleading for rain, a grandfather praying for a dying granddaughter, a cowboy fixing fences, a couple savoring their morning coffee or a father waiting on news from the war front where his son serves — grief, desperation, hope and joy are treated with equal candor and compassion.
Even when answers aren’t forthcoming, McDonald reassures that God’s grace is sufficient: “Nights, / you turn for me to hold you, faith and hope / and love, if not the answers, enough for us.”
McDonald is a love poet, enamored of the Word and words, of natural beauty and people, his ordinary saints. “Those who overcome the everyday with simple faith are my heroes,” McDonald said. In memorable scenes of graceful realism, ordinary folk perform simple acts of goodness — without fanfare or expectation of reward.
He especially delights in family and friendships. Scenes of parents and children, aunts and uncles, rural neighbors and war buddies appear often. But he is at his finest celebrating married love.
Like the singer in the Song of Solomon, McDonald soars when he recalls time spent with Carol, his beloved wife (an Abilene Christian University honor graduate and graphic artist). “The blaze of lavish hours together … the swift and playful nights like wild / hosannas dangling on a string. I love the halo / of your hair, the simple mystery of your eyes.”
The psalmist used ordinary material things — a starry sky, a shadowy valley, a green pasture, a deer seeking water — to convey spiritual realities. McDonald similarly finds truth, beauty and the sacred in human relationships, nature, and the smallest of things.
Few poets from Churches of Christ have ever achieved national recognition for their literary excellence. Walt McDonald is the exception, authoring over 20 books and 2,000 poems and receiving numerous awards. We owe him and his memory a great debt for leaving us his last, best work — a masterwork overflowing with hope, love, wisdom and beautiful, honest faith.
DARRYL TIPPENS is a retired University Distinguished Scholar of Faith, Learning and Literature at Abilene Christian University and former chief academic officer at Pepperdine University.
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