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.
My pen could free a line
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 is, before anything else, an adopted child of God. He continually marvels at God’s grace in his life and the good works that God has prepared and surprised him with. Currently, he serves overseas as a missionary in Bangkok, Thailand and writes poetry in his free time—neither of which he could have imagined himself doing years ago. Michael lives with his wife Christie and their three young “third-culture” kids who will take a bowl of egg noodles over a sandwich any day. He is currently working on his first book of poetry and hopes to play his part in gathering and supporting other artist Christians in Bangkok and beyond. Soli Deo Gloria.