The Earliest Expression of European Vernacular Poetry

Even Patrick’s great prayer in Irish – sometimes called “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate” because it was thought to protect him from hostile powers, sometimes called “The Deer’s Cry” because it was thought to make him resemble a deer to the eyes of those seeking to do him harm – cannot be definitely ascribed to him. Characteristics of its language would assign it to the seventh, or even to the eighth, century. On the other hand, it is Patrician to its core, the first ringing assertion that the universe itself is the Great Sacrament, magically designed by its loving Creator to bless and succor human beings. The earliest expression of European vernacular poetry, it is, in attitude, the work of a Christian druid, a man of both faith and magic. Its feeling is entirely un-Augustinian; but it is this feeling that will go on to animate the best poetry of the Middle Ages. If Patrick did not write it (at least in its current form), it surely takes its inspiration from him. For in this cosmic incantation, the inarticulate outcast who wept for slaves, aided common men in difficulty, and loved sunrise and sea at last finds his voice. Appropriately, it is an Irish voice.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 116

Read St. Patrick’s Breastplate here.

Photo by Scott Carroll on Unsplash

A Song on the Wonder of Marriage

Take my hand 
I won’t let go 
We’ve waited so long 
And all my life 
I walked alone 
To you, my heart, my home 

Like the first man 
I was cut so deep by heaven’s knife 
When I awoke from my sleep 
Oh my Lord, she’s beautiful 
She’s a part of me 
She’s my wife 

Bound by love 
One flesh to be 
An unbroken ring 
And I lay down 
My life for thee 
In love we are free 

Like the first man 
I was cut so deep by heaven’s knife 
When I awoke from my sleep 
Oh my Lord, she’s beautiful 
Walking up to me 
Oh she’s wonderful, standing next to me 
Oh she’s all 
All that I could need, yeah 
She’s beautiful, she’s a part of me 
She’s my wife

“Heaven’s Knife” by Josh Garrels

A Song About the Only One to Conquer Death

Nero is dead, Constantine is dead
Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun are dead
Alexander the Great is dead - however
Jesus is Alive

Napoleon is dead, Lao Tzu is dead
Che Guevara and Henry VIII are dead
Saddam Hussein is dead - however
Jesus is Alive

Through faith in Christ, we've been saved from hell
Because He's risen, it means we'll be raised as well
In glorified bodies fit for the new earth
For now, we participate in the new birth
The universal reality of the true church
With resurrection power, watch the Spirit do work!
United with Christ, we reside in His light
Abide in His might, keep in stride as we fight
The pride in our life, the lies and the spite
We strive to be wise as He guides through the night

“Jesus is Alive” by Shai Linne

A Proverb About Home

The Levant is like sugar, but the homeland is sweeter still.

Local Oral Tradition

This proverb recalls a time before the Levant became a war zone, when it was a region full of lore and luxury. Many Middle Easterners and Central Asians from rugged and remote areas would travel there for business or while on pilgrimage. Yet even in the Levant, they still sensed that nowhere quite compares to home.

A Song that Glories in the Atonement

It’s hard to pick my favorite lines from this song. I love the coming together of deep theology, artful rhyme, and a beat that wakes my heart up.

Regeneration- the Holy Spirit’s true work in His love
To the elect, who receive new birth from above
Expiation- expiation means God’s removed my filthiness

The old testament type was the goat into the wilderness
Redemption- we’ve been freed from slavery to sin
And His very own blood is the price He paid, my friend
Propitiation- Propitiation means since the Lamb has died
His work is finished- God’s wrath is satisfied
Adoption- adoption means God is now my Father
I got the hottest Poppa and by the Spirit holler Abba
Reconciliation means there’s no more enmity
God is now a friend to me, we’re no longer enemies
Justification- God declares us righteous
Sanctification- we’re being made into His likeness
Glorification- that’s what happens at the finish
When God conforms believers perfectly to Christ’s image!

“Atonement Q&A” by Shai Linne

A Central Asian Proverb on Fair Weather Friends

As long as there were melons,
the relatives were score. 
But when the melons had run out,
The kinfolk were no more. 

-local oral tradition

In Central Asian culture, one’s extended family visits each other often and one’s closest friends can often be relatives. But alas, as in every culture, some of these prove to be only coming around for the metaphorical melons.

Photo by Kenny Timmeron Unsplash

When God Saved the Guy Next to the Guy I Was Trying to Reach

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8 ESV)

In the summer of 2017 I hosted an experimental English poetry group in my living room. I’ve written previously about how my Central Asian students were asked to wrestle with the messages of Herbert and Henley, among other famous English poets. Some students showed up for the English practice, but dramatically bemoaned the fact that we had to study poems. One older man came primarily to demonstrate his skill at pulling secret and hidden meanings out of poems, like so many rabbits out of a hat. When this happened the rest of us were typically left scratching our heads and trying to graciously move the discussion on. But one student in particular continuously responded well to the poems and questions that drove at biblical themes. His name was *Aaron, and by the end of the summer I knew if I followed up with any of my students, it should be this guy. He showed a resonance with the humility of Herbert’s Love III, the mortality of Shelley’s Ozymandias, and the questions of missed opportunities and fate raised by Frost’s The Road Not Taken. But after our poetry group disbanded and normal English classes began again, Aaron disappeared. Still, I waited and wondered what might come of the stirrings I thought I saw in his eyes when we had discussed poems like The Universe As Primal Scream. Could the Spirit be working in his heart, preparing him to keep following these themes into a study of the Bible?

One year later, Aaron unexpectedly reappeared. He was a student in one of my colleague’s classes, but he mentioned how much he had enjoyed the poetry cohort the year before. He invited me to spend time with him and his group of friends. Eager to see if my sense of Aaron’s spiritual sensitivity was accurate, I readily agreed on the plan. I wondered if he had been chewing on some of the topics we had discussed in the months that had passed since our poetry group disbanded.

Not long into the visit, however, I was disappointed. Aaron and his two college friends were very kind and hospitable, but just didn’t seem to want to take the conversation in more serious directions whenever I tried to do so. The conversation was fun and pleasant, but not what I was hoping it would be. I wondered if we were just hanging out so that they could sharpen their English skills, nothing more. As I had done so many times before, I prayed. “Lord, if you will turn the conversation and open the door, I will step through it.” The evening hours passed, we grilled chicken, ate sunflower seeds, and enjoyed the cool air of Aaron’s family’s picnic house (nestled into a cooler neighboring valley). But the conversation about spiritual things wasn’t happening.

I had already given up the evening as lost regarding gospel conversation when we transitioned inside because the night was getting chilly. Some nights you just trust in the sovereignty of God that the relationship-building will somehow be a part of eventual fruit, even if you didn’t get to share much truth. Then, out of nowhere, sometime around 12:30 a.m., Aaron’s friends started talking about the things in Islam that really frustrated them. Aaron joined in, though not as enthusiastically as his friends. They asked me my opinion about the topics they were discussing and what exactly it was that I believed. I quickly tried to rally my thoughts. Here, unexpectedly, was the open door.

I remember sharing with Aaron and his friends in detail about the difference between gospel and religion, a major theme when I find myself sharing with Muslims. Whereas Islam and all other religions promise salvation if you’ve done good enough and your good has outweighed your bad, the good news of Jesus promises salvation based on what Jesus has already accomplished for us in his death and resurrection. It is the contrast of a paycheck vs. a gift, a contract vs. a covenant, an employee vs. a son, a conditional salvation vs. a salvation safe and guaranteed by God’s own promise of pardon.

As I dug into these topics I noticed that Aaron wasn’t really interested. Maybe I had misjudged what was going on in his heart – it would certainly not be the first time that had happened. Aaron’s second friend by this point had actually fallen asleep. Too much chicken and not enough chai. But the other young man, *Darius, was sitting, mouth wide open and eyes transfixed. He was tracking every single word I said. I started focusing more on Darius, sharing more and more aspects of the gospel and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. He had very few questions, but it was clear the wheels of his mind were turning. Later, Darius shared with me that he knew that evening that his search was over. God had confirmed in his heart that whatever this following Jesus thing meant, he needed to do it.

We hung out several times more, but Aaron and the second friend slowly drifted away, while Darius kept coming back for more and more conversation. He started visiting our fledgling church plant and again, sat mouth agape, stunned by this small circle of locals and foreigners worshiping Jesus together and studying the Word.

Trying to discern how the Holy Spirit is moving is a tricky business, not unlike trying to see the wind. The man I was so convinced was the one being drawn was actually not interested at the end of the day. But his best friend was. At some point around 1 a.m., at a picnic house in the mountains, the Holy Spirit landed in power and arrested Darius where he sat, munching on sunflower seeds. I’m not sure at what point exactly he came to faith, but a few months later it was crystal clear. Darius was a new creation. God saved the guy next to the guy that I was focused on. Maybe the whole poetry group a year before was just so that I would get the chance to meet Darius. How strange and wonderful.

Darius continues to grow in his faith to this day.

Photo by Dlanor S on Unsplash

The Oldest Poem in the English Language

My wife bought me Leland Ryken’s The Soul in Paraphrase for a Father’s Day gift. It begins with this gem, the oldest extant poem in the English language, which is fittingly about creation.

Now we must praise the Keeper of Heaven's Kingdom, 
The might of the Maker and his wisdom, 
The work of the Glory-Father, when he of every wonder, 
The eternal Lord, the beginning established. 

He first created for the sons of earth 
Heaven as a roof, Holy Creator, 
Then middle-earth the Protector of mankind, 
Eternal Lord, afterwards made, 
The earth for men, the Lord Almighty. 

The poet is Caedmon, an illiterate English farmhand in the 600s who did not know how to sing. When he fell asleep one day in a barn, someone in a dream told him to sing. Caedmon protested that he did not know how, so the voice told him that he should sing about creation. When he awoke, Caedmon was able to sing this song. Ryken says, “The new poetic gift never left Caedmon. English poetry thus began with a miracle of the word.”

I enjoyed the unique titles that Caedmon uses to speak of God, the “Keeper of Heaven’s Kingdom,” the “Glory-Father,” the “Protector of mankind.” This is one of the advantages of being exposed to the worship of God in other languages or in an archaic form of your own language – different kinds of titles are possible and prominent (For example, Acts 1:24 in Greek calls God “Lord Heart-Knower”). I also noticed how the verbs come at the end of some of the sentences, an old trait of Indo-European languages that has also held on in the Indo-European language we are learning in Central Asia. And I always find it interesting whenever I come across an account from church history where the Holy Spirit communicates in dreams, a phenomenon quite common among those who come to faith in Central Asia. Strange as it might seem to us now, dreams are more common in our own spiritual lineage than we might think.

As I read, I wondered if this first poem of the English language also hints at some influence of Celtic Christianity, the main cultural source of English Christianity, with its Patrick-esque emphasis on the goodness of creation (See this post on St. Patrick’s Breastplate). Like creation, English poetry has since been abused and broken in many ways, but it sure had a good and beautiful beginning.

For the linguistically curious, here is “Caedmon’s Hymn” in Old English and in Bede’s Latin translation.

Nū scylun hergan hefaenrīcaes Uard,
metudæs maecti end his mōdgidanc,
uerc Uuldurfadur, suē hē uundra gihwaes,
ēci dryctin ōr āstelidæ
hē ǣrist scōp aelda barnum
heben til hrōfe, hāleg scepen.
Thā middungeard moncynnæs Uard,
eci Dryctin, æfter tīadæ
firum foldu, Frēa allmectig.
Nunc laudare debemus auctorem regni caelestis,
potentiam creatoris, et consilium illius
facta Patris gloriae: quomodo ille,
cum sit aeternus Deus, omnium miraculorum auctor exstitit;
qui primo filiis hominum
caelum pro culmine tecti
dehinc terram custos humani generis
omnipotens creavit.

-Ryken, The Soul in Paraphrase, pp. 19-20

-Marsden, Old English Reader, p. 80

-Photo by Stephanie LeBlanc on Unsplash

Are You With Henley or Herbert?

Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

A few summers ago I hosted a summer poetry class for interested Central Asian students. Poetry is notorious as the hardest expression of any language to understand, but a brave crew of students made it through the summer. Together we surveyed some of the most famous and impactful poems of the English language. In each session we first worked through the basic meaning of the lines, then we would spend some time debating the message of the poem, and finally whether or not the students agreed or disagreed with that message. I finished the summer with these two poems, whose moral posture couldn’t be more contradictory. When asked whether my Muslim Central Asian students resonated with Henley or with Herbert, a fascinating discussion ensued, one which gave hints about which students might be experiencing initial conviction of sin.

What about you? Do you resonate with Henley or with Herbert? To allude to yet another famous poem, Henly and Herbert could be represented as two roads that diverge in a yellow wood. And you can’t take them both.

Invictus, William Earnest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.
Love III, George Herbert

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back 
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack 
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

Props to for the access to these poems

Like A Salty Sailor Loves the Sea

Photo by Bella Bogart on Unsplash

Meditations on the fear of the Lord from Psalm 128:

“Blessed are all who fear the Lord…” What does this phrase mean, to fear the Lord? Does it mean that we are to live in terror of God, that if we step out of line at any point he may decide to squash us? Does it mean that he is some kind of tyrant king who demands allegiance without deserving it? Can we fear God and still love him since 1st John 4:18 says that “there is no fear in love?” Here we are at a disadvantage because of our culture and our language. We have a very limited understanding of the term “fear” and we use it mainly with negative connotations. Yet in the Bible, to fear the Lord is a very good thing. It means to honor him, to reverence him, to even have friendship with him. Ps 25:14 says that the friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him. To fear the Lord then means to know him as he truly is, a perfect, holy God who is all powerful and a righteous judge, yet instead of running in terror from him, we draw near in worship and affection and obedience to his word. Here Psalm 128 fleshes out the fear of the Lord a little more for us in the second line, blessed is everyone “who walks in his ways.” To fear the Lord is to know him as he is, and to live according to his desires and character, to live in a way that lines up with who God is and what his laws are. 

In years past I read a history of the Atlantic ocean. I was struck as I read it by the many descriptions of men who had made their living from the ocean. I was struck in particular by their relationship to the ocean. Picture a salty New England fisherman who makes his living from the sea. His very livelihood and life are dependent on the ocean. And so he studies it and he knows it. Over the years he comes to know its character and its moods, its patterns and its warnings. He knows that the ocean is incredibly more powerful than he is and so he respects it, he does not treat it lightly or carelessly. He has lost friends and neighbors to storms over the years. He knows that life on the sea is dangerous, and yet given the chance for a life on land he would not take it. The ocean has his heart. Yes, it is powerful and dangerous, but it is also beautiful, captivating, and life-giving. This fisherman and countless men throughout the centuries have had a relationship with the sea of both fear and love, right respect and affection. These things can go hand in hand, and I find this a helpful picture of our relationship with God. The sea is massive and powerful. God is infinitely more massive, powerful, and unchanging. He is the way that He is. We disregard God and his character at our own peril. There is a way to safely approach the ocean. There is a way to safely approach the God of the universe and even to find our very life in him, to love him. Most think that we can approach God based on our own record of good deeds. But this is like trusting in your doggy-paddling skills deep out in the ocean when a hurricane is coming. We cannot approach God’s holiness standing on our own self-righteousness, saturated as it is with our sin. His holiness is not compatible with sin, it will destroy us. We must have an ark, a covering of righteousness that will enable us to walk with him in holiness, with the fear of respect and love, but without the fear of punishment. To fear the Lord means to approach him clothed in his righteousness, the righteousness that comes through faith in his promises. This is how the Old Testament saints approached him.