In Gospel, Poems

Years ago, when I was pastoring a church in Collie, a town in the south-west of Western Australia, I received a phone call from an English professor at a university in Perth. He asked me if I would be willing to meet a Chinese poet who was undertaking a writing residency at the university.

The professor went on to explain that the poet* was keen to meet me because he had heard that I was not only a poet, but also a Christian. The poet himself was a Christian and he was pining for some camaraderie with another Christian poet. Learning of his desire, various poets and academics around the country had apparently suggested my name to him, and now the professor and the university were attempting to get us together.

With a mixture of uncertainty and expectancy, I agreed to a meeting. The professor said that someone at the university would drive the poet the 200 kilometres from Perth to Bunbury, leaving me just 60 kilometres to travel from Collie.

We met up the following week in a Bunbury café, where we conversed for several hours. We talked about poetry, of course, and about the literary scene in Australia and China. But most of all we talked about our shared Christian faith.

The Chinese poet had an enthusiasm for the Lord Jesus that did my heart good.

When I asked him why and how he had become a Christian, he explained that several things had come together to lead him to Christ.

While studying at university, he became overwhelmed by a sense of emptiness and futility. There seemed to be no point to existence, and therefore no point to his studies or anything else he was doing. In an effort to discover some meaning in life, he began to study philosophy. But he found that philosophy had no answers. It aggravated rather than alleviated his feelings of futility.

Then one night while he was gazing up at the stars, he became convinced that there is order in the universe. And he reasoned that if there is order in the universe, it must be the product of a great Mind.

After this, he began to read the Bible. Apparently, there was a shelf of Bibles in his university library. Most students were forbidden to read these, but he had access to them because he was doing post-graduate study in European literature, and the Bible was considered to be a necessary and legitimate background text.

So, the poet read the Bible, and there he met Jesus, who introduced him to God.

I was particularly moved by his testimony because only the day before I had preached a message about the meaninglessness of life until we come to realise that the chief end of man, the primary purpose for which human beings exist, is (as the Westminster Shorter Catechism states) “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

Towards the end of our meeting, the poet asked me if I would edit his next poetry collection. A publisher was keen to bring out a book of his English-language poems before he returned to China later in the year, but he needed an editor to help him select and revise the best poems for the collection. And, of course, given that he was writing in a language that was not his native tongue, he was wanting some guidance on his English usage—guidance that can be tricky for an editor to give because sometimes an “incorrect” phrasing or syntax can be the locus of a poem’s charm or power.

Editing is time-consuming work, and I was constantly short of time due to my own pastoral, family and writing commitments, so I was reluctant to take on the task. But in telephone conversations in the following weeks the poet persisted with his request, and I finally agreed. Within days, a bundle of poems arrived in the mail and I began to sort through them.

One of the poems was about the conversion of the poet’s wife. Poetically, it was not the strongest in the collection, but it stood out as a moving and insightful account of how God can take hold of a person’s heart. Titled “Love” it bore the dedication, “for those who are seeking”:**

my wife was not sure
whether she was a Christian or not
for there was much in Scripture
she could not understand
or accept
yet whenever she thought of the cross
she was touched
and love sprang out of her heart
for Jesus Christ

I was not familiar with the Bible either
so just said
was it after you fully understood me
that you decided to become my wife
or just because you loved me

just loved
answered my dearest accountant wife
precisely and economically

then she fell into a pensive silence
I bowed down my head
and prayed earnestly

when I looked up
I saw her eyes
beaming with joyful tears

I knew that [the] Lord had opened her heart
and that she had at last found the treasure

For those who are seeking Jesus, this poem suggests a way to find him. Perhaps you have been putting off a decision to follow him because you do not fully understand him. Yet when you think of the love he demon-strated by dying in your place on the cross, you find your heart strangely touched. If so, consider the poet’s question and his wife’s response. Whatever it is you do not understand, you do understand that Jesus has “just loved” you. Surrender to his love. Entrust yourself to him. Ask him to save you and to take charge of your life. For it is only after you have done this—it is only after you have “just loved” him back—that you can begin to truly understand him.

* For various reasons, I have withheld the poet’s name and will simply (if somewhat awkwardly!) refer to him as “the poet” throughout.

** The poet revised this poem before it was published in his book, dropping the dedication. The revised version has its own strengths, but all in all I rather prefer this original version.

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