The Preacher’s Burden: “Sunday’s Hour” by Arnold Kenseth


Arnold Kenseth wrote some wonderful poetry, but he never lost touch with the challenges of having to stand up on your hind legs each Sunday morning and try to make words become the Word for the people.  Here he names the impossibility of such a task, a task he and all preachers must nonetheless take up each week, because that is what God has called us to do. This is one of my favorites of his:





Comes Sunday’s hour, and speech hangs itself
On God’s red tree. Preacher, word-monger, I
Defy the interdict, naming dark Yahweh, taking Him
And His fire in vain. O havoc, cry havoc! Sigh
His deep blue breath into phrases and praises. 
Still, it is impossible. He will not dwell half 
Or anywhere in my capture. Yet I must draw home 
The net, try to catch somehow His graces.

For it is by grace we live, and all the people
Must be told. So I could wish my body more 
Contained Him, that my walks more shaped, here 
And there, His amble. How ill beneath a steeple 
I incarnate! Despite me, then, come now, 
Let His enlightening strike us row by row.

(Arnold Kenseth, From Seasons and Sceneries, Windhover Press, 2002.  Photo by Wilson Poole

A Poem for Late Winter and Lent by Arnold Kenseth


My friend the late Arnold Kenseth was a Congregational minister and a first-rate New England poet with an eye for God’s presence in the world all around him.

It’s late winter here in the Berkshires (he lived about forty miles from here in S. Amherst).  I matched up his poem with a photo I shot yesterday of a still frozen lake while snowshoeing on the Taconic Crest Trail on the Massachusetts/ New York border.

I thought Arnold’s poem has a Lenten ring to it.


There in the rudest tree
Where winter grips and rocks
The black indefinite cold,
Comes the small chickadee,
And like my soul, pipes
Anxious prayer, implores
An opening of doors,
Some crust and surety.
My hand, give him his bread!
May whirlwind God pause
From His storms and come
To me with Cup and Crumb.
Arnold Kenseth (The Ritual Year, 1993)

(Photo: R. L. Floyd,  Frozen Lake,  March 8, 2010)

“On the Death of Karl Barth” by Jack Clemo


December 10, 1968 was a day of loss for the church of Jesus Christ, as two of her intellectual giants, Karl Barth and Thomas Merton, died within hours of each other.

On this eve of the forty-first anniversary of their deaths I offer this poem by the late British writer and poet Jack Clemo (1916-1994). Clemo, who was from Cornwall, became deaf as a young man and blind around the age of forty. His poem is entitled:

 “On the Death of Karl Barth”

He ascended from a lonely crag in winter,
His thunder fading in the Alpine dusk;
And a blizzard was back on the Church,
A convenient cloak, sprinkling harlot and husk—
Back again, after all his labour
To clear the passes, give us access
Once more to the old prophetic tongues,
Peak-heats in which man, time, progress
Are lost in reconciliation
With outcast and angered Deity.

He has not gone silenced in defeat;
The suffocating swirl of heresy
Confirms the law he taught us; we keep the glow,
Knowing the season, the rhythm, the consummation.
Truth predicts the eclipse of truth,
And in that eclipse it condemns man,
Whose self-love with its useful schools of thought,
Its pious camouflage of a God within,
Is always the cause of the shadow, the fall, the burial,
The smug rub of hands
Amid a reek of research.

The cyclic, well-meant smothering
Of the accursed footprints inside man’s frontier;
The militant revival,
Within time and as an unchanged creed,
Of the eternal form and substance of the Word:
This has marked Western history,
Its life’s chief need and counter need,
From the hour God’s feet shook Jordan.

We touched His crag of paradox
Through our tempestuous leader, now dead,
Who plowed from Safenwil to show us greatness
In a God lonely, exiled, homeless in our sphere,
Since his footfall breeds guilt, stirs dread
Of a love fire-tongued, cleaving our sin,
Retrieving the soul from racial evolution,
Giving it grace to mortify,
In deeps or shallow, all projections of the divine.

(From The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, Edited by Donald Davie, 1988, p 290-291)

(Portrait of Jack Clemo by Betty Penver)

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poet of A Vast Incarnation 2



Back in October I posted one of my favorite poems by British poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889).  Here is another:

The Windover
To Christ our Lord

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

>“A Word To The Calvinists”
 by Anne Brontë


You may rejoice to think yourselves secure,

You may be grateful for the gift divine,

That grace unsought which made your black hearts pure
And fits your earthborn souls in Heaven to shine.
But is it sweet to look around and view

Thousands excluded from that happiness,

Which they deserve at least as much as you,

Their faults not greater nor their virtues less?
And wherefore should you love your God the more

Because to you alone his smiles are given,

Because He chose to pass the many o’er
And only bring the favoured few to Heaven?
And wherefore should your hearts more grateful prove
Because for all the Saviour did not die?
Is yours the God of justice and of love

And are your bosoms warm with charity?
Say does your heart expand to all mankind

And would you ever to your neighbour do,
The weak, the strong, the enlightened and the blind -­

As you would have your neighbour do to you?
And, when you, looking on your fellow men
Behold them doomed to endless misery,

How can you talk of joy and rapture then?

May God withhold such cruel joy from me!
That none deserve eternal bliss I know:
Unmerited the grace in mercy given,

But none shall sink to everlasting woe

That have not well deserved the wrath of Heaven.
And, O! there lives within my heart

A hope long nursed by me,

(And should its cheering ray depart

How dark my soul would be)
That as in Adam all have died

In Christ shall all men live

And ever round his throne abide

Eternal praise to give;
That even the wicked shall at last

Be fitted for the skies

And when their dreadful doom is past

To life and light arise.
I ask not how remote the day

Nor what the sinner’s woe

Before their dross is purged away,
Enough for me to know
That when the cup of wrath is drained,
The metal purified,

They’ll cling to what they once disdained,

And live by Him that died.

(On this Five Hundredth anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, many of us who proudly claim his tradition would want to repudiate the doctrines of double predestination and limited atonement so closely linked to his legacy.  Here Anne Brontë, the parson’s daughter, graciously does so in verse.)

Arnold Kenseth: A New England Poet of the Sacred

Arnold M. Kenseth, who died in 2003, was a Congregational minister and poet. He wrote in 1989,
 “Among the clergy, I’m known as a poet, and among the poets I’m clergy. But by being in New England, being where there are birds and trees and meadows, there’s a very natural marriage between religion and poetry.”

I met Arnold in 1977, when I was still a pastor in Maine. Martha and I were on vacation in Canada, and were camping at Fundy National Park in New Brunswick, which is one of the most beautiful spots in the world. On Sunday we left our tent to find the nearest church and found a United Church of Canada parish in the little fishing village of Alma, right outside the park. The pastor was a Scot and had a bit of a brogue. But the highlight of the morning was when the pastor called up a distinguished looking gentleman from the congregation to give the pastoral prayer.I had never heard anything like this before in my life. The prayer was dignified and reverent and not showy, but the words were so beautifully chosen that I imagined the man must be a poet, as indeed it turned out he was. At coffee hour we approached him and introduced ourselves. It was Arnold. We discovered that we were both pastors in the United Church of Christ in the United States. He served the South Congregational Church in Amherst, Massachusetts, the pretty little town near the University of Massachusetts, where he also taught poetry. I asked Arnold where I could get a copy of some of his prayers and poems, and he told me about Sabbaths, Sacraments and Seasons, published by Pilgrim Press in 1969.

As soon as I got back to Bangor I ordered a copy and it has been a treasured resource ever since. On the back page was some information about the author. It indicated that Arnold had graduated from Bates College. My father graduated from Bates as well, so I asked him if he knew Arnold. Sure enough, they were both in the class of 1937.

Five years later I left Maine to accept a call to be the Pastor of The First Church of Christ in Pittsfield in Western Massachusetts. It wasn’t too long before I attended an event in Amherst, and there was Arnold. I reminded him of our meeting in Alma, and told him how much I loved his prayers and poems. I also mentioned my Dad, and Arnold remembered him warmly (my Dad died shortly after that.) That meeting was the beginning of a friendship with Arnold that involved lunches and long phone conversations and exchanges of letters. He would from time to time send me copies of new poems and books. After he retired I had him come to Pittsfield and preach for me several times.

He told me how he had become a minister. After graduating from Bates with a degree in English, he went to Harvard University as curator of the Harvard College Library Poetry Room. There, he cared for the Edwin Arlington Robinson collection and the Amy Lowell collection. He wanted to write about the relationship between poetry and religion.

It was there that he met the Reverend Samuel H. Miller, another minister once known for his lovely and moving prayers. Miller later became dean of Harvard Divinity School. It was Miller who got Arnold interested in the ministry, and he enrolled in the Harvard Divinity School and received a bachelor’s of sacred theology in 1944. He received his master’s degree in English in 1950, also from Harvard.

He was friends with many of the poets of his generation, including Robert Frost. I have always heard intimations of Gerard Manley Hopkins in Arnold’s poems, but his influences were wide and deep. For his 50th Bates College Reunion, he wrote, “I rejoice in Van Gogh, Henry Adams, Dostoyevski, Chopin, J.S. Bach, Saint Francis, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Isaiah, the Gospel of Luke, and Mother Teresa – the light bearers.”

He served as Pastor of the South Congregational Church for 40 years, and was a model for me of a gracious long pastorate. I was privileged to have a visit with Arnold just days before his death, and he was still lucid and gentle and full of hope. If you don’t know this man’s writings I highly recommend them to you. Here’s a sample:

On Easter the great tower of me falls.
I had built it well; my mind had planned it
After being schooled; my will had special wit
To dig me deep foundations, solid walls,
Blocks of moral toughness, windows to see
The enemy, the friend; large rooms, I thought
For light; and storey upon storey me
I raised, and famously my fame I sought.
So driven to prove the world with my estate.
I had not heard Christ on Good Friday die,
His body crooked, broke, and all friends fled.
I had not wept his cause in my carouse.
But now bold bells scatter against the sky,
And Christ is shattering my death, my pride;
As walls, blocks, windows, rooms, my silly penthouse
Spill into the dust I am, my narrow fate.
At last set free from virtue, knowledge, strife,

I mourn, then praise my God, and enter life.

(“Easter” by Arnold Kenseth)

The Ritual Year, Amherst Writers and Artists Press, 1993)

A George Herbert Poem about PRAYER

The Welsh Metaphysical poet George Herbert (3 April 1593 –-1 March 1633) is one of my favorite poets who deals with religious themes, my other favorites being Isaac Watts, John Donne, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Herbert was a well-educated man who became an accomplished poet and noted orator. He served in parliament for two years, but in his late thirties gave up secular life to take holy orders in the Church of England. He spent the rest of his short life as the rector of a small parish, Fugglestone ST Peter with Bemerton St Andrew, in Wiltshire near Salisbury.

He was known as a faithful pastor to his flock, unfailing in his care of the sick, to whom he brought the sacrament, and to the poor, to whom he provided food and clothing. He himself was in poor health and died of tuberculosis just three years after his ordination. Here is one of his poems about prayer:

PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an hour,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well dress,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls blood,
The land of spices, something understood.

(Herbert, George. The Poetical Works of George Herbert. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1857. 61-62.)

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poet of A Vast Incarnation

British poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) is once again a subject of interest, prompted by the recent full-dress and somewhat controversial biography by Paul Mariani (Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, Viking 2008).

Hopkins is one of my favorites. When I was at Oxford in 1989 there was a display of his original poems and notes for poems at Christchurch College where I was taking a lecture. I loved to go and look at these strange and wondrous scribblings with Hopkins’ own unique pointing and punctuation. Hopkins’ verse often discerns the grandeur of God in the commonplace. Here is one of my (many) favorites:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundly wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is for me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.