Ruminations on the Perplexing Task of Ministry: Arnold Kenseth’s “Ordination”

I have been ordained now nearly thirty-six years, and although I can rattle off a pretty coherent explanation of the meaning of ordination my own has never entirely lost a sense of mystery and wonder about it.

My daughter is presently in her final year of divinity school and about to present her ordination paper this week, and I think it was reading hers that got me ruminating on my own.

Being a minister of the church is a living conundrum, as Karl Barth describes it so well in his section on “the Task of Ministry”: “As ministers we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory. This is our perplexity. The rest of our task fades into insignificance in comparison’ (The Word of God and the Word of Man, p. 186).

Where prose fails to capture this paradox poetry frequently does better.  I have often turned to the poetry of my friend Arnold Kenseth, who died in 2003, especially the collection of poems he entitled “Reflections of an Unprofitable Servant.” Here’s one of my favorites:

Ordination

I was anointed. A fire. Yes, I tell you.
An adazzle. His rare thump numbed me, awed
Me down to size and up to Him. Prayed, pawed
By the laying on of hands, myself anew
And aloft; I became lion to roar Him,
Eagle to lift Him, donkey to bear Him. I,
In that sunburst, languaged with seraphim,
Promised myself to be (Ha!) His emissary.

I did not, friends, manage much. True, I found
Fluency, but not roar. I have been sparrow;
And though jackass as most, I could not be least
Even for Him.  He was scarlet and vast
And radiant and restful. He sang such sound
I heard the earth unloose itself from sorrow.

(Arnold Kenseth, Seasons and Sceneries, Windhover Press, 2002)

Spring comes late and slow to the Berkshires

We had a tough winter here in the Berkshire Hills, tons of snow and only now in May are we enjoying a brief and somewhat damp and cool Spring.  Nonetheless, it is beautiful.  I heard this poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins on the Writer’s Almanac today.  It is one of my (many) favorites of his:

Spring

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)

(Backyard photos by R. L. Floyd)

“Huswifery” by Edward Taylor

 

Make me, O Lord, thy Spining Wheele compleate.
Thy Holy Worde my Distaff make for mee.
Make mine Affections thy Swift Flyers neate
And make my Soule thy holy Spoole to bee.
My Conversation make to be thy Reele
And reele the yarn thereon spun of thy Wheele.

Make me thy Loome then, knit therein this Twine:
And make thy Holy Spirit, Lord, winde quills:
Then weave the Web thyselfe. The yarn is fine.
Thine Ordinances make my Fulling Mills.
Then dy the same in Heavenly Colours Choice,
All pinkt with Varnisht Flowers of Paradise.

Then cloath therewith mine Understanding, Will,
Affections, Judgment, Conscience, Memory
My Words, and Actions, that their shine may fill
My wayes with glory and thee glorify.
Then mine apparell shall display before yee
That I am Cloathd in Holy robes for glory.

(Edward Taylor, 1642-1729, was a New England Puritan pastor and poet.  He was the pastor and teacher at the Church in Westfield, Massachusetts and wrote poetry as part of his personal spiritual discipline, leaving instructions to his heirs that they were not for publication.  They were all but forgotten for two hundred years.  Thomas Johnson discovered a 400-page quarto of the poems in 1937 in the Yale Library, and published some of them in the New England Quarterly, which established Taylor as a singular American poet of his time.  This poem, “Huswifery,” is probably his best known.)

Spring busts out in the Berkshires, but “Nothing Gold Can Stay”

 

T. S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month,” but it was another poet that better described our Berkshires today.

After recent rains the season’s first really hot day brought out the early buds, as well as lawn rakers and walkers out taking the air after a long winter indoors.

The Forsythia bloomed since yesterday, and the branches are full of the delicate gold that a week from now will be the green leaves of spring.

Our great New England poet Robert Frost described such days in his poem:

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Robert Frost
(October 1923, The Yale Review)

(Photo:  R. L. Floyd)

The Resurrection is not a metaphor: “Seven Stanzas at Easter by John Updike”

 

A few years ago, a friend of mine, a college professor, was driving by a local Lutheran Church and saw in big letters on their sign, THE RESURRECTION IS NOT A METAPHOR!

Those who read this blog know my love for the work of John Updike, one of our best Twentieth Century Christian novelists. His poetry is pretty good, too.  Here’s his take on the wise Lutherans’ signboard.


Seven Stanzas at Easter
by John Updike

 

Make no mistake: if He rose at all

it was as His body.

If the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the

amino acids rekindle,

the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,

each soft spring recurrent;

it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the

eleven apostles;

it was as his flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,

the same valved heart

that – pierced – died, withered, paused, and then regathered out of

enduring Might

new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

analogy, sidestepping transcendence;

making of the event a parable, a thing painted in the faded credulity

of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier mache,

not stone in a story,

but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of time will

eclipse for each of us

the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,

make it a real angel,

weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in the

dawn light, robed in real linen

spun on a definite loom.

Let us not make it less monstrous,

for in our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,

lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour,

we are embarrassed by the miracle,

and crushed by remonstrance.

– John Updike, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” in Telephone Poles and Other Poems (London: Andre Deutsch, 1964), 72–3.
(Photo by David Macy:  Easter, yesterday, North Haven, Maine)

Good Friday: “Sometimes it causes me to tremble!”

 

“Sometimes it causes me to tremble” is a line from the refrain of the well-known spiritual, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The trembling comes upon the witness to Jesus’ crucifixion, and like many hymns and spirituals puts the singer or hearer in the role of a witness to the event.

This is a particularly modern approach, an existential one we might say, where the “religious affections,” to use Jonathan Edwards’ term, are profoundly moved by contemplating Jesus on the cross.

But there is another parallel tradition as ancient as the New Testament that sees in the death of Jesus not merely a profoundly agonizing event which moves the witnesses, then and now, but also as an event that changes the whole world, even the natural world.

In theology talk we would call the Cross of Jesus a “cosmic and eschatological” event, meaning that its implications were both universal in scope and ultimate in time.

We see some of this imagery already in, for example, the Gospel of Mark, our earliest Gospel, where he describes the earth darkening at the hour of the crucifixion, and the veil of the temple being torn in two. (Mark 15:33 and 38)

Matthew’s account says even more of this kind of thing: “The earth shook and the rocks were split.” (Matt. 57: 21b)  Luke adds that “the sun’s light failed.” (Luke 23:45)

P. T. Forsyth once got at the cosmic implications of the Cross by saying that the very atomic structure of the universe was changed by this event. Whether he meant this as science or as a metaphor, either way it points to the vast repercussions of the moment when “They crucified my Lord.”

Earlier generations were more able to see in such an event, not the merely personal and individual, where our time seems to want to safely relegate all religious phenomena, but the cosmic.

Here’s an example of such a cosmic view from Frances Quarles, a Seventeenth Century poet, which refers to a trembling that shook not just the believer, but the earth itself.  He doesn’t ignore the personal. On the contrary, he asks, if these senseless things can tremble so, “Shall I not melt one poor drop to see my Saviour die?”

The Earth Did Tremble
“The earth did tremble: and heaven’s closed eye was loathe to see the Lord of Glory die.
The skies were clad in mourning, and the spheres forgot their harmony;
The clouds dropped tears.
The ambitious dead arose to give him room; and ev’ry grave did gape to be his tomb.
The affrighted heav’n sent down elegious thunder;
The world’s foundation loosed, to lose their founder;
The impatient temple rent her veil in two,
To teach our hearts what our sad hearts should do:
Shall senseless things do this, and shall I not melt one poor drop to see my Savior die?
Drill forth my tears and trickle one by one till you have pierced this heart of mine, this stone.”
Frances Quarles, 1592-1644

“The Stones Would Cry Out!” Palm Sunday Ruminations on the Cradle and the Cross

 

At which end of Jesus’ life should we look for the reason we call him “Lord and Savior?” My friends in the Mercersburg Society put heavy stress on the Incarnation.  Others, such as P. T. Forsyth, insist that we only can understand the Incarnation backwards in time, from the perspective of Christ’s death and resurrection. (See, for example, on this point, a great quote from Forsyth here.)

From my teacher and friend Gabriel Fackre, one of the early and still best narrative theologians, I have learned to be careful not to take any episode of the story to represent the whole.

But I must confess I do agree here with Forsyth, though he has sometimes been criticized as being so focused on the cross that he neglects other parts of Jesus’ life and work.

So what is the relationship between the cradle and the cross?  If one were to only read Marks’s Gospel, the answer is simple, since he has no infancy narratives at all and begins with Jesus’s adutlt ministry.

But for many of us, this is the year of Luke in our lectionaries, and it is well to remember that of all the Evangelists, it is Luke who includes the most infancy material: “the Annunciation,” “the Visitation,”  shepherds and heavenly choirs, etc.  It is no accident we all read Luke at our services on Christmas Eve.  If we read Mark, we’d get home much earlier.

I heard somewhere, I can’t recall where, that “the wood of the cradle is the same wood as the wood of the cross.”  There is much theological truth in that.

So once again I turn to a poet to express deep truths that may elude the prose of the theologians.

Richard Wilbur (1921-) is one of my favorite poets (I have many), and although I have never met him, is my Berkshire County neighbor and a sometimes worshipper at the congregation where I now mostly worship.

A two time Pulitzer Prize winning poet and former Laureate, Wilbur has made a startling but brilliant connection between Christ’s Incarnation and Cross in his poem A Christmas Hymn.

It is often sung to one of several musical settings at Christmas, but the refrain is right from Luke’s Palm Sunday story, and the concluding verse reminds us of the reason for Christ’s vocation that led to Good Friday.  Such a good reminder to keep the whole arc of the story in view when looking at the any of the parts:

A stable-lamp is lighted
Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
And straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.

This child through David’s city
Shall ride in triumph by;
The palm shall strew its branches,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
And lie within the roadway
To pave his kingdom come.

Yet he shall be forsaken,
And yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
For stony hearts of men:
God’s blood upon the spearhead,
God’s love refused again.

But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
In praises of the child
By whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled.

(A Christmas Hymnby Richard Wilbur, New and Collected Poems, 1988, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1988.)