For your reflection this Maundy Thursday:

To the Garden of Gethsemane

To the Garden of Gethsemane
Follow now the Lord and his disciples.
See him in the throes of agony
As the cords of death about him tangle.
Think upon this mystery:
The pain he feels, he feels for thee.

Here, as pow’rs of darkness him surround,
Hear his double prayer to God for mercy.
See him on his face fall to the ground,
Crying, “Take this cup of anguish from me!”
Watch his sweat drip down like blood,
First trickle of the coming flood.

Yet, though overwhelmed in his distress,
Still submits he to the purpose divine.
Hear him to his Father acquiesce,
Praying, “Let thy will be done and not mine.”
In response, God’s angel nears
And gives him strength to meet his fears.

Now the traitor springs and love profanes;
Comes by night to do his master’s mission.
This is now the hour when darkness reigns –
Now, when rightful king falls to sedition.
Hear the ancient serpent’s hiss!
Oh, see the strike beneath the kiss.

Maundy Thursday, 2011
Mathew Block


I’ve posted the words to this one online before, but this is the first recording I’ve uploaded.

tolkien-beowulfNews last week that a translation of Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien is forthcoming caught me by surprise. I had presumed that we had reached the end of Tolkien’s major works to be published posthumously by his son (following the 2013 publication of the incomplete Fall of Arthur and the 2009 publication of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún). Clearly I was wrong.

I can think of no better person to translate Beowulf than Tolkien. In fact, it’s thanks to him that most of us have even heard of the Anglo-Saxon poem. While many people think of Tolkien primarily as a fantasist, his day-job was actually as an English professor. And his major focus was in Old English—the language of Beowulf. But in Tolkien’s day, texts like Beowulf were not studied for their literary value. Instead, scholars merely attempted to extricate historical data from them, with philologists using them primarily as source material for the study of the evolution of the English language. The idea that Beowulf was literature was not a question even entertained.

This all changed in 1936 when Tolkien gave a lecture entitled“On the Monsters and the Critics.” “Beowulf has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy,” he argues in the opening of the essay, “far more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art.” So what Tolkien did in his own lecture came as a surprise: he “took for granted the poem’s integrity and distinction as a work of art and proceeded to show in what this integrity and distinction inhered,” as Seamus Heaney puts it in the introduction to his own translation of Beowulf. Tolkien’s lecture sounded as a clarion call to something new. Heaney again: “Tolkien’s brilliant literary treatment changed the way the poem was valued and initiated a new era—and new terms—of appreciation.”

Today scholars debate numerous things about Beowulf. They debate the date of authorship, whether the Christian elements are original (or tacked on later), and many more things besides. But they do not really question whether the poem is a work of art. That seems obvious now. But the fact that it seems obvious is thanks to Tolkien.

How fitting that the man who resurrected Beowulf in the imagination of our generation should at last have his own translation of the poem likewise resurrected. I for one couldn’t be more eager to read it.


Donne's death shroudLast week a post of mine on the poets John Donne and George Herbert went up at First Things (entitled “In Praise of Dead Poets”). It begins by referencing a fascinating article by Miranda Threlfall-Holmes in The Guardian, where she attributes her conversion to Christianity to the poetry of Herbert. I use her experience as a launching pad for a discussion of my own university encounters with Donne—with a particular focus on one class in which we read his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.

The book was interesting, to be sure, but I wondered what my classmates would make of it. This was not poetry, even if it was poetic. Would they even consider it literature? I confess that as I went to class that day, I did not expect much. I had convinced myself that discussion of the book would be, at best, limited.

I was shocked to discover the opposite. My classmates were engaged—extremely engaged—by this centuries-old reflection on sickness and death. And this wasn’t merely academic reflection on the book; students were sharing their own griefs and fears about death. This was personal confrontation with Donne’s subject, deeply felt.

This is truly the point of poetry like Donne’s and Herbert’s—not merely to appreciate it, but to converse with it. To be changed by it. Indeed, as I go on to explain, this was Herbert’s own hope for his poetry.

Though it is but a “poore paper,” in Herbert’s own assessment, he nevertheless hopes that God might work through it to transform its readers. “How happie were my part,” he writes, “If some kinde man would thrust his heart / Into these lines.” Herbert wants them to make the words their own, and to likewise offer their lives and wills to God—recognizing that he has already purchased them by his “death and bloud.”

I wind up as follows:

Threlfall-Holmes’ article in the Guardian suggests that Herbert’s poetry continues to do just that: introduce others to faith. And such writing serves not only as an introduction; it further offers life-long encouragement and comfort to the faithful. The lesson we learn from Herbert and Donne and countless others then is that the voices of the dead are not silent. No, they are powerful and effective even now.

May God continue so to use dead poets.

Check out the whole thing at First Things. And thanks to Gene Veith for sharing the article with his readers.


George_HerbertOn this day—February 27—our Anglican friends remember the George Herbert. Let us join with them in doing so.

Prayer: O Lord, we remember with thanks this day your servant George Herbert, priest and poet. May his writings, which speak beautifully and deeply of Your grace, be for us a source of comfort, and a strengthening of faith also for all who believe the Gospel. In the name of Jesus Christ—Herbert’s Lord and our Lord—we pray. Amen.


     Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, of kings,
Walk’d with a staffe to heav’n, and traced fountains:
     But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove,
Yet few there are that found them; Sinne and Love.

     Who would know Sinne, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
     His skinne, his garments bloudie be.
Sinne is that presse and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruell food through ev’ry vein.

     Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the crosse a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
     If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.

– George Herbert


Tonight is St. Agnes’ eve—the evening before St. Agnes’ day. “St. Agnes’ Eve” is also the name of a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson that I particularly enjoy, and which I set to music a few years back. Check out the song below:

St. Agnes’ Eve

Deep on the convent-roof the snows
Are sparkling to the moon:
My breath to heaven like vapour goes:
May my soul follow soon!
The shadows of the convent-towers
Slant down the snowy sward,
Still creeping with the creeping hours
That lead me to my Lord:
Make Thou my spirit pure and clear
As are the frosty skies,
Or this first snowdrop of the year
That in my bosom lies.

As these white robes are soil’d and dark,
To yonder shining ground;
As this pale taper’s earthly spark,
To yonder argent round;
So shows my soul before the Lamb,
My spirit before Thee;
So in mine earthly house I am,
To that I hope to be.
Break up the heavens, O Lord! and far,
Thro’ all yon starlight keen,
Draw me, thy bride, a glittering star,
In raiment white and clean.

He lifts me to the golden doors;
The flashes come and go;
All heaven bursts her starry floors,
And strows her lights below,
And deepens on and up! the gates
Roll back, and far within
For me the Heavenly Bridegroom waits,
To make me pure of sin.
The sabbaths of Eternity,
One sabbath deep and wide–
A light upon the shining sea–
The bridegroom with his bride!


Today was “Take Your Poet to Work Day,” so decided by Tweetspeak Poetry. What exactly is “Take Your Poet to Work Day? I’ll let Tweetspeak explain:

On Wednesday, July 17, we invite you to pick a poet to pack in your lunchbox for Take Your Poet to Work Day. You can browse our collection of ready-for-work poets. Then just cut out, color and secure your chosen poet to a stick and you’re ready to go. Impress your boss. Delight your coworkers. Amuse your fellow subway passengers. Our new Take Your Poet to Work Day infographic has everything you need to celebrate the day.

While Tweetspeak provides a number of ready-to-print poets, none of the options were really “my poet.” Sure Eliot’s great and all, but my poet is John Donne. Thankfully, John was willing to join me for the day. He even put on his best hat.

But today was no ordinary work day. No, today I was flying from Winnipeg, Manitoba to St. Louis, Missouri in preparation for meetings tomorrow. And that meant just one thing: the dear divine doctor would have to keep me company on the trip.

The day began in my office, getting ready for the afternoon flight. I told John our travel plans, but he took some convincing before coming along.


“Shall I leave all this office company,
And follow headlong, wild uncertaine thee?”

From there we got our tickets, passed through security, and waited awhile for our flight to board. John took the opportunity to reread one or two of his published works:


“For God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me read.”

The first flight passed quickly. A few hours and sonnets later (as well as a brief lay-over in St. Paul, Minnesota), we were approaching St. Louis, Missouri. As you can imagine, John was pleased we were nearly there.


“This is my flight’s last leg; here heavens appoint my pilgrimage’s last mile.”

We arrived safe and sound in St. Louis and made our way to the hotel where we’re staying.  But first we needed to stop for a haircut (for me; John politely refused), and to pick up something to eat (courtesy of Raising Cane’s Chicken). As the day ended, we settled down in the hotel room and enjoyed our supper. John wanted More but I told him he was Donne.


“What if this chicken were the world’s last bite?”

 Thus ended our great adventure on “Take Your Poet to Work Day.” And now it’s time we got some sleep.


“Enough, thou clock, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now it is bed-time.”

Good night.


Over the past month, a fair number of new books have entered my home, and I’m not entirely certain when I’ll have time to read all of them. But just to give you a bit of an idea of my eclectic theological reading habits, here they are. There’s a little bit of fiction:

The Complete Father Brown Stories – G.K. Chesterton
The Hammer of God (revised ed.) – Bo Giertz 

A few books that have been on my to-read list for years:

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind – Mark A. Noll
Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther – Roland H. Bainton
On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation – Gerhard O. Forde

 A few books of which I’ve only recently become aware but which sound fascinating:

Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do – Phillip Cary
Pietists: Selected Writings – ed. Peter C. Erb
The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think – Harry Blamires

And a few books that were either give-aways or otherwise cheap in store:

The Scope of our Art: The Vocation of the Theological Teacher – ed. L. Gregory Jones & Stephanie Paulsell
The Book that James Wrote – Earl F. Palmer
Reading the Bible in Faith: Theological Voices from the Pastorate – ed. William H. Lazareth

But perhaps the best book of all was one some friends of mine brought back for me from their recent trip to England. It’s a collection of all the nonsense writings of Edward Lear. May your summer reading be less dangerous than that of Lear’s character, the dear “Old Person of Cromer.”

For your edification, or bewilderment, or both:

There was an Old Person of Cromer,
Who stood on one leg to read Homer;
When he found he grew stiff,
He jumped over the cliff,
Which concluded that Person of Cromer.


Feel free to let me know what you’ve thought of any of the above books if you’ve read them, or your suggestions for future reading when I’ve got these ones out of the way.

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