Only God Can Make a Poet

By

Ladies and germs, please welcome the newest contributor to the Rabbit Room, S.D. Smith.  I first came into contact with Samuel when he wrote a glowing review of my book and I decided that he must be quite intelligent and possessing of a finely tuned sense of humor.  I visit his blog The Maple Mountain Story Club from time to time (mainly to re-read his review of my book) and it’s often made me chortle.  (Did you know that the word “chortle” was coined by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland? It’s a combination of the words “chuckle” and “snort”.  Just a little something for you to share at the water cooler today.)  Welcome, S.D. Smith of West Virginia, to the esteemed halls of the Rabbit Room.

The Proprietor


“Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”  –Joyce Kilmer

There are few finer pieces of practical theology I have read (outside of Scripture) than those tremendous words. I want to consider them in light of the Word of God, and alongside some thoughts by three guys I met at a football game -guys named Lewis, Tolkien and Milton. OK, to be honest, it wasn’t a football game. It was in books. Books are things people used to read before they invented text messaging. Sadly, these three amigos are unlikely to appear at any football games I may attend. But if my fantasy life is ever fully realized then you may see Jack Lewis coming on to kick the game-winning field-goal for the West Virginia Mountaineers with an able hold, laces out, by “Tollers.” Milton, blind as a bat, would be the long-snapper.

Like most Christians I have been through many phases and have, to my great regret, fallen for some of the most popular and foolish trends of faddish Christianity. I hope and believe, by God’s grace, that this is happening less and less. One of these phases consisted of my being convinced that I needed to know every answer to every question any unbeliever could posit. I wanted to be the apologist’s apologist. But, while recognizing and appreciating the wonderful work that our brothers in the fore of apologetics do, I now see it in a different way than I once did. I now believe much of my initial desire was to have good answers to serious inquiry so that I wouldn’t be seen as foolish. I was motivated by pride and fear of my own loss of esteem (glory). This is an improper motivation.

From there I transitioned to being worried about God’s reputation, that he might not look so good if I couldn’t say all the right things. This is better, but still far off the mark. I needed to understand that the wisdom of God is foolishness to those who don’t believe, and that God was not a kid sister on the playground needing tough older brothers like me to stick up for him. No, God reigns in power and glory, he is sovereign over all. Above all, he is interested in his own glory and is not dependent upon me to act as his press secretary to spin the daily news in his favor. We are his ambassadors, yes, we do make appeals to the world for reconciliation to God. But he does not need us. In his great mercy he loves us, and he uses us. We are his workmanship, his poems. But the idea that he needs us is both blasphemous and laughable.

I have come to believe that beauty and the arts, creation and sub-creation, are as vital in the reflection of the glory of God to an unbelieving world as is the finest intellectual answer. And not for unbelievers only, but for we who believe as well. That is not to say that we must not be people of books, of doctrine, or thinking people. We certainly must. Only we must not lay aside imagination for logic, nor logic for imagination, but use both under the Lordship of Christ for the glory of God. We will find, I believe, that each helps the other. We will be helped by both poets and preachers, philosophers and painters. We will learn, if we read our Bibles, that a man’s heart must be changed by the work of the Spirit. He may use a considered intellectual appeal to begin that work, or he may use a sunrise or a song. It does come to believing the Gospel, which is news, but how God breaks a sinner’s heart is not something we can manufacture in our cleverness.Two quotes help us in this consideration.

“A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.

C.S. Lewis

…God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.

John Milton, from “On His Blindness”

These masters speak eloquently for themselves, so let us return to Joyce Kilmer’s poem. Yes, let’s. It concludes, after some fine, simple verses: “Only God can make a tree.” J.R.R Tolkien believed that trees were God’s crowning creation in the plant kingdom (and horses correspondingly so among animals).

 

Anyone who hs read Tolkien can appreciate his love of trees and their centrality in his mythology, and rightly so. In his subcreative art Tolkien expressed the beautiful truth revealed to us so plainly in Joyce Kilmer’s poem. Kilmer’s artful language is lovely, the truth he reveals profound. Thank God for poets, especially for poets who help us to thank God.


27 Comments

  1. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    S.D.
    Welcome to the Rabbit Room. Looking forward to reading more from you in the future. That C.S. Lewis quote is gold. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Paul Burkhalter

    Welcome to the RR Sammy! Enjoyed the post. As a fellow former bible braniac (say that 10 times fast), my heart is with you in saying, “I have come to believe that beauty and the arts, creation and sub-creation, are as vital in the reflection of the glory of God to an unbelieving world as is the finest intellectual answer.”

  3. Stacy Grubb

    Samuel,

    Your quote reminded me of our every day life, anymore. My little boy (he just turned 4) has started asking where things come from. He could go on and on for hours, especially when we’re in the car because he sees so many things to ask about. We recently went to Nashville and I listened to about 30 minutes of him asking my husband, “Where do we get cars?” “Where do we get roads?” “Where do we get trees?” “…dirt?” “…rocks?” “…mountains?” It struck me that a child’s natural curiosity is one of our best tools in teaching them the gospel. Couple that with a child’s willingness to believe and there can be no doubt that I was making a mountain out of a molehill when considering my responsibility as a parent to share God’s Word with my child. Yet another reminder that God has done the work for us.

    Stacy

  4. Joshua Daniel Perry III

    A very hardy welcome to the Rabbit Room, Smithers. Although this is my first time as well. I love reading your posts regularly and look forward to yet another place to do that. I enjoy you enjoying poetry.

  5. S.D. Smith

    Howdy, humans. Thanks for the nice words of welcome and encouragement.

    As for my name: I go by Sam, or Samuel. For my writing I go by my initials for three reasons. 1. My name is very common, like witness protection plan common. 2. Many of my favorite writers did the same: C.S. Lewis, P.G. Wodehouse, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, S.K. Moe. (OK, I made that last one up). 3. My friend Jodi convinced me that it wasn’t too pretentious.

    Short answer for Russel, Russ, Rusty, Russman, Pastor Russ, P-Russ, R-Diddy: Call me Ishmael. Or whatever. I am Sam. Sam I am. Samuel. Smithers? Whatever. I’ll write under S.D. Smith and that is accurate. But my first name is Samuel.

  6. Don Smith

    Great post! I particularly enjoyed the photo of Chuck Kinder, with the atypical jersey number, 100, kicking in the centennial year of ’63. Kind of poetic, if you know what I mean.
    More seriously, ever wonder how folk could see such a creation (trees, horses, to mention two aforementioned) and not at least suppose there is a Creator? Yep, beauty all around demands a richer source than some imaginary “mother nature.”

  7. Sir Wilbur

    Your words are incredibly refreshing. Thanks for sharing your special gifts of writing and insite with us.

    “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and ENJOY Him forever.”
    – Westminster Shorter Catechism

  8. Brant

    “I have come to believe that beauty and the arts, creation and sub-creation, are as vital in the reflection of the glory of God to an unbelieving world as is the finest intellectual answer.”

    I would argue that beautiful art is becoming more important that sound intellectual answers. Like you, I think Christians need to cultivate both, but as Veith says “The modernist loves an argument, the post-modernist, a story.” Sound arguments are less convincing in a world where people think that truth is a construction.

  9. Johnathan

    Yes, welcome to the Rabbit Room. This is also my first time to leave a reply. Not my own words, but your post made me think of Piper’s description of C.S. Lewis:

    “He [C.S. Lewis] demonstrated for me and convinced me that rigorous, precise, penetrating logic is not opposed to deep, soul-stirring feeling and vivid, lively- even playful imagination. He was a “romantic rationalist.” He combined things that almost every body today assumes are mutually exclusive: rationalism and poetry, cool logic and warm feeling, disciplined prose and free imagination. In shattering these old stereotypes, he freed me to think hard and to write poetry, to argue for the resurrection and compose hymns to Christ, to smash an argument and hug a friend, to demand a definition and use a metaphor.”

  10. Josiah

    Samuel,

    It’s always great to read your insights – thanks for thinking so deeply and sharing so down to earthly. I’m excited that you are collaborating here at the Rabbit Room.

  11. Tony Heringer

    Samuel

    I will add my hardy welcome to those posted above. You will find this a most hospitable place. The Proprietor, whom I refer to as Barliman Butterbur, has done a wonderful thing by opening up this cyber-version of the original pub room in Oxford.

    Your post reminded me of a quote I frequently put at the end of personal emails. It is from Charles Spurgeon:

    “The truth is a lion. Whoever heard of defending a lion? Just turn it loose and it will defend itself.”

    When it comes to apologetics, I strive to follow the spirit of 1 Peter 3:15 where Peter seems to be hinting that faith will beg the question “Why are you so hopeful in such a hopeless world?” Our answer to that question, Peter tells us, should be given with gentleness and respect.

    This past year, I was challenged by a message from Steve Brown where he called the hearers to pursue not just orthodoxy, but also orthodoxy of love. That phrase has been stuck in my head ever since and I imagine my remaining days will be spent trying to unpack it.

  12. R. Mark Judd

    Samwise,
    As you well know, this is a message that I practically ignored for a long time – thanks for pressing upon me the importance of art. You were (and still are) a big help in convincing me that it really was okay to put down my grammars and lexicons every once in a while and spend some quality time experiencing the gifts of literature, music, etc. Yes, you share much of the blame for my recent Dostoevsky run. Thanks for expressing your gifts.

  13. Hamlet

    Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart. Ecc. 5;18-20

    Enjoyment in toil is God’s gift.
    Accept it.
    May God grant you joy…
    May that joy occupy your heart Samuel.

    Beauty is Beautiful

    Thanks Samuel

    Hamlet

  14. Peter B

    Well, SD, a hearty — though belated — welcome to you! You’ve put your finger on why we gravitate toward AP’s work (and that of the other Roomers); truth and beauty together pack a punch that neither could imagine alone. Kind of like speaking the truth in love, I suppose.

    As I get older, I seem to appreciate trees more and more. When a nearby construction project resulted in the felling of hundreds of these fine specimens, I almost found myself sympathizing with the tree-huggers. They certainly do express God’s power and beauty in a subtle yet undeniable way.

    Speaking of overcommon names, who’s Steve Brown? Other than, of course, a close friend of mine at church, and a fellow I played with in a band in college, and so on…

  15. Peter B

    Okay, I just visited your site and read the announcement of your Rabbit Room debut… and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but gorilla high-fiving a shark.

    It’s not exactly divine truth, but your stock went up about twenty points with me (take that, Dow Jones industrial average) upon my viewing of that Dr. McNinja goodness. Good art, indeed.

  16. Jon

    “Each helps the other”

    I find that living in an Asia and relating to it from the well of my Americanism has helped me see more clearly the truth of your post. I can now usually see the good and the bad in American and Asian, and I find myself somewhere in the middle trying not too judge either of them too harshly or praise one exclusively over the other.

  17. S. D. Smith

    @sdsmith

    If you were looking for my drooling review of AP’s book, I have the link posted now at my blog. I should have done that yesterday. Whoopsie daisy.

    Anyway, thanks so much for all the kind words, the welcome. Even the hazing I received from the old hats wasn’t too bad. Although, I will say that the banjo broken across my face by Ron Block was completely inappropriate. That banjo was worth something.

  18. Tony Heringer

    Peter B,

    Steve Brown would be right at home here. To get to know him, check out this link:
    http://stevebrownetc.com/podcasts/steve-brown-etc/lagniappe/

    It’s an interview with the guys at Lagniappe Church down in Bay St. Louis, MS (a town nearly wiped out by Katrina). The show “Steve Brown, Etc.” is a lot of fun.

    I was introduced to Steve via a 15 minute radio broadcast through his KeyLife minsitry. The man really spoke to my heart and took my faith to another level.

    We all have these sorts of teachers as we journey along in the faith and Steve is one of mine. He continues to challenge me and the message on developing an orthodoxy of love was just another such time.

  19. Mike

    Great Post Sam and great to have you as another fine contributor to the Rabbit Room. I too have been one who thought I had to have all the answers, and although fading a bit, I still want some answers. Its seems the bigger God gets the more my questions change. My latest hang up is the issue of hell and the church. I wonder why our best arguement for loving God is what He will do to us if we don’t. Some questions need to be answered for those who have yet to get to know Him. Yes I am well aware that some may be unanswerable but if we believe what we believe we are debtors to the world.

    Again thanks, I’m be lurking around your site.

  20. Tony Heringer

    Mike,

    C. S. Lewis gives a good answer to your latest question about how a loving God sends folks to Hell. It is in his book “The Great Divorce” (reviewed by Ron Block here http://www.rabbitroom.com/?p=100 and available for sale here in the Room https://store.rabbitroom.com/index.aspx#/details/d98a4969-90fd-44b4-bd74-15839f58367f ).

    This is a wonderful book. In it, Lewis uses one of the cleverest names for Christ outside of Scripture—“The Bleeding Charity.” It is a humorous turn of phrase that takes place in my favorite chapter in this work.

    He brings us to a good answer about Hell through George McDonald—a man he admired and I’m sure he enjoyed bringing him into one of his own stories. The passage goes like this:

    “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without the self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”

    God is loving the Bible is clear on this point. The Bible is also clear that God is just. Justice is a loving act and therefore in concert with who God is. Hell is the consequence for our sin. For God to ignore this consequence would violate God’s character on both counts (i.e. it would be unloving and unjust).

    The great news is Jesus paid the price for our sin thereby removing this consequence — eternal death – bringing us into eternal life. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set [us] free from the law of sin and death.” – Romans 8:1-2 (Heringer modification of NIV).

    There is a lot to unpack to the reality of Heaven and Hell. Michael Card wrote a great song called “Could It Be”. That is a fitting poem to close with:

    “Could It Be” (Corinthians 1:19-25)

    In the ebb and flow of living
    As we wander through the years
    We’re told to listen to a voice
    We can’t here with our ears
    They say to live by something
    That you can’t see with your eyes
    Is there really any purpose
    To this foolish exercise?

    Chorus
    Could it be You make Your presence known
    So often by Your absence?
    Could it be that questions tell us more
    Than answers ever do?
    Could it be that You would really rather die
    Than live without us?
    Could it be the only answer that means anything
    Is You?

    In our words and in our silence
    In our pride and in our shame
    To the genius and the scholar
    To the foolish and insane
    To the ones who care to seek You
    To the ones who never will
    You are the only answer even still

    Chorus

    It’s a question you can’t answer
    An answer you cannot express
    That the gentle Man of Sorrow
    Is the source of happiness
    You’ll never solve the mystery
    Of this magnetic man
    For you must believe to understand

    Chorus

    Could it be the only answer that means anything
    Is You

  21. Mike

    Thanks Tony, I’ve read the Great Divorce and am fairly settled on the point. It still seems to me though that we use the argument “If you don’t love God you are going to hell and burn forever” in the church. This makes it near impossible for someone to have a relationship with the Lord outside one of fear. What if the message that Lewis puts forth was taught in our churches?

  22. Tony Heringer

    Mike,

    Depends on the church, eh? It isn’t that we avoid the topic of Hell, but that we are sensitive to the audience — i.e. “speak the truth in love.” James tells us there is one Lawgiver and it’s not any of us. God alone makes the judgment, so if our preaching is “love God or face the consequences!”, then we aren’t being very loving in our approach. We may be right, but God is more concerned about us being righteous — i.e. we can do the right thing for the wrong reason, thereby being wrong in speaking or doing something right. God judges the heart.

    If the churches you are involved with teach in this unloving way, as someone used to say “run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit.”

    Barliman’s poem “Come, Lord Jesus” is a fitting close to this post:

    “Come, Lord Jesus” – Andrew Peterson

    Tonight in the line of the merchandise store
    While they were packing up my bags
    I saw the pictures of the prophets of the picket signs
    Screaming, “God hates fags”

    And it feels like the church isn’t anything more
    Then the second coming of the Pharisees
    Scrubbing each other ’til their tombs are white
    They chisel epitaphs of piety

    Oh, there’s a burning down inside of me
    ‘Cause the battle seems so lost
    And it’s raging on so silently
    We forget it’s being fought

    So, Amen
    Come, Lord Jesus
    Amen
    Oh, Amen
    Come Lord Jesus
    Amen

    It’s taken me years in the race just to get this far
    Still there is no end in sight,
    There’s no end in sight
    ‘Cause I’ve carried my cross into dens of the wicked
    And you know I blended in just fine

    Well, I’m weak and I’m weary of breaking His heart
    With they cycle of my sin, of my sin
    Still He turns His face to me and I kiss it
    Just to betray Him once again

    Well, I’ve got oceans down inside of me
    I can feel the billows roll
    With the mercy that comes thundering
    O’er the waters of my soul

    So, Amen
    Come, Lord Jesus
    Amen
    Oh, Amen
    Come, Lord Jesus
    Amen

    Tonight in the light of the gathering rain
    I could hear creation groan
    And a sigh rose up from the streets of the city
    To the foot of Heaven’s throne

    Oh, and the people hear the sound of a sweet refrain
    An absolution in the fray, in the fry
    It tells of the death of the one for the lives of the many
    More than any picket sign could say

    So, Amen
    Come, Lord Jesus
    Amen
    Oh, Amen
    Come, Lord Jesus
    Amen

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