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12 / receiving life

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I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord; “plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

the CULTIVATING

journal

Lines Last

April 15, 2020



 

Lines Last

after Chris Rice

● ● ●

 

It was the very last lines

Of “Our Best Minds”

That compelled me to risk:

Return prodigal pen to poetry.

 

“Where are you now?” he wrote.

You with the great art in you, where are you?

“Withering unknown on your dying bed

Because you were afraid to risk?”

 

Well, that great person is not me but

I wondered what could be if

I spilled a little more ink and

Learned to live with the mess.

 

Who knows?

My pen could free a line

To liberate

Another soul as shy, but great.

 

I need never know.

I need only create.

 

● ● ● 

 

When I first picked up Chris Rice’s Widen: A Collection of Poems, I was famished. My family and I had moved to Thailand as missionaries less than a year before, and though I had started out spiritually strong, after a few months my spiritual rhythms were starved. I struggled to connect with God in the ways I always had: journaling, studying the Bible, and reading Christian books.

I had bought Widen for my wife, who was a long-time fan of Rice’s music. But when I cracked it open, his humility invited me in at the door. “I offer this poetry collection loosely,” he wrote in the introduction. “I’m not an expert poet nor an expert on any subject that I approach in these poems. I do this only for the love of words . . . as an amateur.” To my surprise, I liked his poems more than most “professional” poems I could remember!

More significantly, his book was the beginning of God restoring and re-shaping the ways I engaged with Him and the world—preparing me for a new season of life. God used Widen to sit me down at the banquet of Christian poetry, a table set with food I did not know I needed. Since then, God has used poetry to enrich my reading of Scripture, enliven my relationship with Him, and enlarge my view of the Church’s work in the world.

But God did more than just satisfy me. A few of Rice’s poems, like the book’s title poem, “Widen,” awakened something in me:

 

Create, create, create!

Rearrange the molecules

Of the already astounding universe.

 …

And hint at beauties you can never outdo,

But try anyway!

Create, I say!

An eye will widen

Because of it.

 

If Chris Rice could stir my soul with words like these, then maybe, I thought, I could try writing poetry too. I had written a few poems in my life; what would happen if I picked up my pen and tried again?

My poem above, “Lines Last,” was one of my earliest attempts. In it I quote from Rice’s poem, “Our Best Minds,” which ends,

 

Tend the Garden!

The world starves for writers again!

For great minds to appear!

Ah, let there be just one!

Who will it be?

Where are you now?

In a womb?

At your elementary desk?

Waiting out a few more generations?

Withering unknown on your dying bed

Because you were afraid to risk?

 

Rice’s words here carry an important truth: “The world starves” for people who will steward their God-given gifts in order to feed hungry souls. Creating art—whether writing poetry or writing a letter, glazing a bowl or glazing a donut—can be a simple and powerful way to love our neighbors. We miss these opportunities if we are “afraid to risk,” worried that our work won’t be good enough.

We must always be willing to offer up what little we have when Jesus calls, like the boy whose wholly inadequate bread and fish were more than enough for Jesus to do his miraculous work one spring day. Whether we are amateurs or masters at our craft, it is only in Jesus’ hands—broken and blessed—that our work can meet hungry people’s deepest needs.

You will not find Widen on any list of the greatest poetry books of all time. Chris Rice does not stand sculpted between Langston Hughes and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in a hall of great poets. And yet… God used his book to bring me life. I am so glad “amateur” Chris Rice decided to risk, to offer up his art and see what Jesus might do with it.

There is always someone who can do it better than you—write better poetry, preach better sermons, parent more wisely, bake more delicious desserts, share the gospel more eloquently, pray more fervently.

But God is not concerned about that. He does not demand that you be the best. Rather, God invites you to faithfully create with Him and leave the results in His hands.

Last month, my poem “Lines Last” hung at our local school’s community art show. This art show is not on any list of Bangkok’s best art galleries. And yet… perhaps my lines of poetry—or the beautiful painted, wood-cut, or photographed lines around the room—will awaken in a student (or “grownup”) the courage to create. To try. To fail. To learn. To “rearrange the molecules of the already astounding universe” in the company of our Creator, receiving—and giving—His life in the making.



The exquisite image of the feather in the book of poetry is (c) Julie Jablonski and used with her gracious permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project. 



 

Michael Stalcup

comments

  1. Michael, this hits me right in the center of my chest. Made me cry. This is a very important piece of encouragement for me right now. Thank you.

  2. Adam says:

    Michael,
    This gave me courage and energy to “get out of bed” (metaphorically and physically) this Saturday. Thank you Sir!
    Adam

  3. Dotty Vanderhorst says:

    Yes, Michael, to what Matthew said. This is good writing and good poetry and good theology. It is the second time in two days God has given me a nudge toward getting some of my writing collected in Give-able form or my children’s stories out of my mind and into a book.

  4. Matthew, I am so glad to hear that these words encouraged you. Thanks for taking the time to let me know! I have been so in awe lately, particularly as part of The Cultivating Project, at how much God sees each of us and graciously uses us to minister to each other. Praise him!

  5. Adam, thank you for writing back. I pray that God would fill you anew every new day and meet you in every creative act throughout your days.

    “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    His mercies never come to an end;
    They are new every morning;
    Great is your faithfulness!”
    -Lamentations 3:22-23

  6. Dotty, thank you for your kind and encouraging words. I love when God graciously speaks the same thing in multiple ways to get my attention like that. I pray your creative process is filled with joy and bears good fruit in those who read it.

  7. Mary says:

    Michael, what an encouragement for me. I have set aside my lens and allowed the ink to dry up for far too long because my work seemed too childish and insignificant compared to the Greats. I had also felt that my words were nothing compared to the Holy and didn’t even need to appear. Creating again.

  8. Mary, what a delight to hear that you are creating again! I very much identify with your feeling of “Why even bother creating when others have done it better?” But I pray that, as you tend the garden that God has given you, God will lead you to the “good works He has prepared” for you and for your words. I am confident that there are people that God wants to use YOU (not “the Greats”) to reach. I would love to see some of your creations someday! Blessings!

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