Arnold Kenseth

Afraid of roots and depths …

Discovering the work of Arnold Kenseth – a poet, liturgist and preacher from Massachusetts – has been for me one of the real joys of the past two years. For that discovery I owe a debt to my dear friend Rick Floyd. Four of Kenseth’s books grace my desk at the moment, and one my bedside table. (The loo is spared for CS Lewis books, for fishing and gardening magazines, and for other ‘spiritual’ reading.) All of Kenseth’s books are true friends to those charged with the responsibility of leading public worship, and to those charged with the responsibility of being human and not mere decoration in the world. [Public health warning: Those contemporary readers especially allergic to the use of non-politically-correct language that frequented writing until recently may choose, sadly, to steer clear of Kenseth. But for those of us who can more easily distinguish between a piece of rubber and a shoe, drink deeply!]. Anyway, here’s one of the prayers assigned for this Sunday past:

O God, we live not so much in light or dark as in the gray middle, the muddle, the meager, the half-felt, the half-known, the half-delighted in. Not wanting joy, we are unprepared for sorrow; not accepting sorrow, we are unprepared for joy. Afraid of roots and depths, we have no tree, no height. O Lord, shake down the paper houses that we hide in and spill us out on the ground of thy strength. Unfasten us from fear, and set us free in trust. Undwarf our souls that we may come alive and grow within thy giant love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

– Arnold Kenseth, Sabbaths, Sacraments, and Seasons: A Collection of Meditations, Prayers, and Canticles (Philadelphia/Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1969), 51.

Amen indeed.

‘Death and Resurrection’

I am your double man, though first you will
Me one estate: this meadowed flesh my bones
Do comfort in; the blood’s warm brooks that hill
And waterfall me through; my browsing senses
Nostriled for adventure, five unicorns
That rampant in me run; the mind’s huge barns
All attic’d overhead with my pretenses,
All cellared underneath with my unknowns.

And here I landlord, jubilant a while,
To store up meanings in the bins and ricks,
A sundial farmer faithful to my rites
As morning robins: except my brother, sin,
Prides in the yards and warfares at the gates.
And then my countryside is stones and sticks
And straw, and death soon wooden fences in
The ruined body of my land all still.

Yet you recover me from my disgrace.
This little ground I am, this cipher earth
I corner in, this night that densely nights
Me down to stay; you mine-field with the sun,
The fuse as long as love, the burst a birth,
A second world after the blackout’s done:
And out of my debris you timber heights,
And into my despair you hammer grace.

– Arnold Kenseth, ‘Death and Resurrection’, in The Holy Merriment (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1963), 61.

The impossible possibility of being a minister

Many Barthians, non-Barthians and anti-Barthians alike like to quote and debate the so-called ‘impossible possibility’ in conversations about soteriological universalism and about das Nichtige. But a more pressing ‘impossible possibility’, for Barth, concerns the fact that the Word of God might be unveiled ‘through the foolishness of our proclamation’ (1 Cor 1.21). I was reminded of this again recently while reading Barth’s wonderful chapter on ‘The Task of the Ministry’ in The Word of God and the Word of Man wherein Barth sums up the pastor’s dilemma thus: ‘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’ (p. 186).  I am also reminded of the ‘impossible possibility’ when I read Arnold Kenseth’s poem ‘Sunday’s Hour’:

Comes Sunday’s hour, and speech hangs itself
On God’s red tree. Preacher, word-monger, I
Defy the interdict, naming dark Yahweh, taking Him
And His fire in vain. O havoc, cry havoc! Sigh
His deep blue breath into phrases and praises.
Still, it is impossible. He will not dwell half
Or anywhere in my capture. Yet I must draw home
The net, try to catch somehow His graces.

For it is by grace we live, and all the people
Must be told. So I could wish my body more
Contained Him, that my walks more shaped, here
And there, His amble. How ill beneath a steeple
I incarnate! Despite me, then, come now,
Let His enlightening strike us row by row.

– Arnold Kenseth, ‘Sunday’s Hour’ in Seasons and Sceneries: Poems (Iowa City: Windhover Press, 2002). [HT: Rick Floyd]