June 14, 2014

Work of Grace

Posted in Cleansing Fire, Grace, Hope, Moses, Pentecost, Spiritual Warfare, The Church tagged , at 5:52 pm by Teresa Roberts Johnson

Surrounded by the swirling sea, the Upper Room
Held those who rested, waiting for the promised Gift.
Their enemy lurked near to orchestrate their doom,
To shake their confidence and set their hearts adrift.
But they were not in danger from his frail design.
This room, the ark of safety for the Lord’s elect,
Was hallowed ground where Love and Law would intertwine.
The Captain of salvation would their souls perfect
By unconsuming Flame in this high, holy place.
Isaiah’s coal fell on the branches of the Vine,
And Breath of Life ignited cleansing fire of grace,
The sea around them parted, as they saw the sign
Of Word made comprehensible to every ear
And Heaven’s Kingdom bursting into now and here.

Copyright © 2014 by Teresa Roberts Johnson (All rights reserved)

The primary inspiration for this poem is the account of Pentecost in Acts 1 and 2, and the concept began with meditation on how Pentecost relates to other Scriptural events. I first had the notion of comparing the events of the Upper Room with the escape of the children of Israel through the parted waters of the sea. In Scripture, the sea is often used to represent the masses of the ungodly on this earth, and it seemed reasonable that the few faithful who went to Jerusalem to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit might have felt themselves completely surrounded by a sea of unbelievers. Their opposition, of course, finds its focus in Satan the Opposer, who is constantly seeking whom he may devour. But I used the term “rest” to refer to the disciples because our Lord had called them into the rest that He provides, even though the stormy seas rage about us (Matthew 11:29).

Other passages that inform the poem are these:

Exodus 3, where Moses is commissioned at the burning bush
Isaiah 6:5-8, where the natural response to the cleansing power of the Lord is an offer of service to God.

All of these connections show why the key to the poem’s message is found in the title. Quite simply, there is no truly good work that we can do unless God’s Holy Spirit is working in and through us.

This is not exactly a sonnet, other than rhyme scheme and number of lines, because the meter is one foot too long for each line. My usual method of expression is iambic pentameter (sometimes even my grocery lists), but I couldn’t get all the required ideas into five feet per line.

I am not satisfied with the final line because the wording seems a bit trite, but it does accomplish one thing: it turns a cliché upside down. That the Kingdom of Heaven is upon us in the presence of the Church was made very tangible to me this week as I saw friends from around the world who are serving Christ faithfully, and as I saw the investiture of a new presiding bishop for the REC. The peaceful and orderly succession of leadership is one of the greatest gifts Christianity has given to this world.

I began writing this poem during a break at the REC General Council this past week, and I completed it today after arriving home, twelve hours later than planned due to storms.

May 23, 2012

Holy Fire

Posted in Bridegroom, Holy Spirit, Moses, Obedience, Pentecost, Sanctification tagged , , at 11:01 pm by Teresa Roberts Johnson

In fire the LORD came down, and awe
Engulfed the people, flesh and blood and bone.
And then His prophet waited for the Law
To be inscribed upon the brittle stone.
And they, though called His kingdom and His priests,
Could not ascend to Sinai’s lofty peak.
And so they stayed and danced among the feasts,
Forsaking covenant, a new god they did seek.
But Moses interceded for their crimes,
And they were spared from death in ancient times.

In latter days in one accord they prayed,
Christ’s faithful servants, gathered at His will.
So waiting for His promised gift, they stayed.
By now they knew His Word He would fulfill.
Though He was gone, His bride was not alone,
He sent God’s mighty breath for comfort kind,
Gave hearts of flesh in place of brittle stone,
Inscribed the Law upon their heart and mind.
With fire the Spirit of the LORD made them
A living sacrifice, and holy unto Him.

Copyright © 2012 by Teresa Roberts Johnson (All rights reserved)

Finished on the Wednesday of Ascensiontide, May 23, 2012

January 14, 2012

The Spirit Nigh

Posted in Holy Spirit, Pentecost, The Eucharist, Worship at 9:23 pm by Teresa Roberts Johnson

We hear the Word, yet search for Thee,
O Holy Dove, Inspiring One,
In spectacle and pageantry,
And fail to see what Thou hast done.

Our meager prayers would have no wings,
Save through Thine utterance divine,
Yet we desire baser things
And seek Thee where we will not find.

We sing to God with cheerful heart
And think our voice is all our own.
We do not hear Thy robust part
In rounding out the pleasant tone.

We take the Bread, but fail to see
How Thou didst sanctify the grain.
We drink the wine on bended knee,
And rise to look for Thee again.

Thou dost not come in howling wind;
Thy presence overcomes the bedlam.
We find Thee, not among the din,
But in kinship of the kingdom.

Thou wouldst not have us lift our gaze
To Thee, but to the Son, our Savior
Whose love deserves our joyful praise
And adoration now and ever.

O, Spirit of consuming fire,
Burn off our dross and come to heal
Our deadness; then in us inspire
Devotion that is rich and real.

Copyright © 2012, 2017 by Teresa Roberts Johnson (All rights reserved)

I have never understood how anyone can reject liturgy—even and especially the 1662 Book of Common Prayer—as “dead orthodoxy.” Any service of worship, liturgical or not, can be infected by the deadness of the worshipers’ hearts, but Anglican liturgy is grounded in Scripture, and by association, is filled with the Spirit who inspired the Scriptures. I was once seated at a table with several people who were strongly (STRONGLY) in favor of ditching the traditional prayer book for a “more accessible” version. I was not looking for an argument, but someone scathingly noted that the Anglican body to which I belong doesn’t use an updated liturgy. My response was, “But we do use the updated liturgy. We follow the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, not the 1549.” For some reason, I wasn’t included in the conversation after that.

Of course, if the language used in worship is not comprehensible to most of the worshipers, then by Cranmer’s own principles, there is a problem, and the Church is obligated to do resolve it. But the problem is perhaps not with the liturgy but with a culture that does not know its own history and that has purposely traded majesty for mediocrity. The cadences and meaning-charged words (what, pray tell, is the modern equivalent of “vouchsafe”?) that grace the older liturgies are simply not to be compared with the flat, stale language of most modern-language versions. Besides, there are phrases in the 1979 BCP that I find incomprehensible. What on earth is “our anger at our own frustration”?

But that is not the only problem. Extreme charismatics would say that the Holy Spirit has not “shown up” unless something spectacular happens in worship. The One who brings order out of chaos is expected to cause worship to devolve into something that draws attention to Himself and to the worshipers. But this attitude belies the purpose for which Jesus said the Spirit would empower the Church:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:12-14)

We need to turn away from sensationalism and toward orderly, majestic, beautiful worship that glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ and Him alone. Any so-called “worship experience” that emphasizes feelings and frenzy is sadly out of line with the whole purpose for which we are called to the house of God.

I completed this poem on 20 October 2007, probably while I was supposed to be writing a paper for Anglicanism. I didn’t like the original last verse, or the final line of the previous verse, so I edited them tonight.

Note: On 14 January 2017, I read this poem again and didn’t like the meter in some of the lines, so I edited it again.

January 9, 2012

Body of Christ

Posted in Holy Spirit, Lent, Pentecost, Sanctification, The Eucharist, Trinity at 9:41 pm by Teresa Roberts Johnson

Through God’s holy mysteries,
Living water flows into these
Imperfect vessels, dull and bleak,
Chipped and tarnished, frail and weak.
But, filled with grace and not regret,
Such jars can honor Heaven yet.
For Christ converts them into gold
And bids them His pure treasure hold.
The change is not just bread and wine
But souls transformed to health divine.
No longer banished, child of Eve,
A place of honor now receive,
And to the Master taking heed,
Prepared for every holy deed.

Copyright © 2012 by Teresa Roberts Johnson (All rights reserved)

Satan loves to trick us with sleight of hand. Much ink has been spilled over exactly what happens to the bread and wine when the priest consecrates them. The much more important question is, What happens to us when we are consecrated to God’s purpose? The bread, the body of Christ, is not the goal. The Church, the body of Christ, is the goal, sanctified by baptism and the Spirit, and fed by the very life and presence of our Lord Himself.

The imagery of potter and clay surfaces multiple times in Scripture. Perhaps the most intriguing of these passages is 2 Timothy 2:19-21, where two things are at work. What is necessarily first is that “the Lord knows those who are His.” Being made alive by the calling of God through the Holy Spirit, we are His. But that does not relieve us of the responsibility to seek after holiness, for the very next words in this passage are a solemn injunction: “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” Yes, He calls, and if He didn’t we would never rise up out of the pigsty of our sins. But when He calls, we must turn, depart from iniquity, and run home to our Father.

There is also an element of Romans 12, in that we present these cleansed vessels to God as our “reasonable service.” This is another passage in which the theme of sanctification is prominent. It is not enough for us to be hidden away somewhere, set apart in holiness. No, wee are to be counter-cultural. Transformed by Christ, we are to transform the world, rather than being conformed to the world around us.

The original version of this poem is dated September 19, 2002, and it was revised 25 June 2007. Tonight, the main change has been in the final four lines, which I realized didn’t really follow from the preceding lines. In addition, the final two lines were terribly trite, and that will never do. The revision more closely follows the thoughts in the passage from 2 Timothy than did the previous version.

August 28, 2011


Posted in Creation, Epiphany, Holy Spirit, Incarnation, Pentecost, Resurrection, The Eucharist tagged , at 6:21 am by Teresa Roberts Johnson

Breath of God, swoop down to hover
O’er frail elements as once Thou did
To birth the earth, and then again to cover
Blessed Mary, Ark whom Gabriel bid
To bear the perfect Son and Lamb of God:
The Uncreated on His creation trod.

Bright Spirit, now alight as on that day
The Son of Man cleansed Jordan’s stream;
As when, transfiguring Him, Thou showed the Way
And brought bright heaven down to beam
On humankind, who could not quench the Light:
The rising Star has overcome sin’s night.

Holy Dove, brood now between the seraphim;
Open the Ark, and break the heavenly Manna free,
And once again frail earth convert to honor Him.
Make wine His Blood, make bread His Body be.
Then, as at Pentecost, transform Christ’s own:
His Body, His Bride whose sins He did atone.

Copyright © 2011 by Teresa Roberts Johnson (All rights reserved)

So I’ve already broken my own rule about limiting Greek and Hebrew words, but in this case there is little choice. There is no adequate English word for epiclesis, the point in the Eucharistic service in which the priest, Christ’s representative to the Church, calls down the Holy Spirit to turn mere bread and wine into Sacrament. I suppose blessing or invocation would come close, but they still do not capture the full concept. In my studies for a paper about the prayer of epiclesis in various liturgies, I came to realize that this work of the Holy Spirit is just one in a long line of creative-redemptive-sanctifying moments throughout the history of the world, so the poem is another sweeping panorama that catalogs many of the key points in Scripture where the Holy Spirit is at work in this earth. The point at the end of the poem is that the Church (including me!) is part of that creative-redemptive-sanctifying purpose accomplished by the Holy Spirit.

In scouring all my resources for a poem to post this Lord’s Day that would also be appropriate for the Feast of St. Augustine, I found this one in an email I sent to a fellow seminary student on the Feast of Epiphany in 2008. I remember quite distinctly that the poem grew out of a paper I had written for Bishop Sutton’s Liturgics class. As I read my dialog with Jonathan (now Fr. Jonathan) I had to shake my head because I had sent him an early draft of the poem and then made the poor man read several paragraphs of pure angst spent in revising a few words to make sure the meter and sense were both correct. At the conclusion of the process, I wrote, “So now you’ve briefly been inside the head of a poet. Most of the time it’s a dreadful place, really. And when I obsess with these details, it’s a crashing bore.”

But he was gracious, and in his analysis he added this quotation from St. Augustine of Hippo via Garry Wills:

“If you want to know what is the body of Christ, hear what the Apostle Paul tells believers: ‘You are Christ’s body and his members’ (1 Cor. 12:27). If, then, you are Christ’s body and his members, it is your symbol that lies on the Lord’s altar—what you receive is a symbol of yourself.  When you say ‘Amen’ to what you are, your saying it affirms it. You hear the priest say ‘The body of Christ,’ and you answer ‘Amen,’ and you must be the body of Christ to make that ‘Amen’ take effect. And why are you a bread? Hear the Apostle again, speaking of this very symbol: ‘We though many are one bread, one body (1 Cor. 10:17).'”

“This then is the ‘bread that comes down from heaven, so that the one eating it shall not die (Jn. 6:50).’  But these words apply only to the validity of the mystery, not to its visibility—to an inner eating, not an external one; to what the heart consumes, not what the teeth chew.”

[From Papal Sins: Structures of Deceit by Garry Wills—p. 141—quotes are from Augustine’s Interpreting John’s Gospel 30.2, 28.2 and 26.12]

To become a part of God’s eternal purpose through participation in the Church, the Body of Christ, is the grandest calling the human heart can ever hear.

August 26, 2011


Posted in Ascensiontide, Christmastide, Creation, Eastertide, Incarnation, Original Sin, Pentecost, Son of God at 9:12 pm by Teresa Roberts Johnson

Once noble, earth’s dust heard the Lord’s command
To burst forth with abundant sustenance.
Thus grass and trees and all food-bearing plants
Were ready for the lively creature band.

Then, hallowed even more, the lowly dust
Was touched by God to make in His likeness
Mankind to take dominion and to bless
The earth, to be obedient and just.

Had Adam trusted Providence, then Eden’s sod
Would ever have produced enough for all.
Yet reaching up too high, he then did fall
And brought upon mankind the wrath of God.

The serpent, for his part, received the blight
Of eating dust and making violent war
With those in whom God’s image he did mar
By tempting them to turn from God’s pure light.

Then He who breathed His life into the earth
Condemned it to grow thistles with the wheat,
Compelled the man to labor in the heat,
And cursed the woman with great pain in birth.

Now dust we are and go to it again,
And dust and ashes mark our deep regret.
But the Covenant God would not forget dust yet,
For as the dust will number Abraham’s kin.

Awake, and sing, O you who dwell in dust,
For earth has given back the Holy Dead,
And through the One who took away our dread,
We rise again from deadly sin and lust.

For God’s own Son took dust to be His frame
And sanctified the earth by treading here.
He breathed again on those that He held dear
And cleansed them from their deepest dusty shame.

Now blessed are we whose hope was dead and gone.
All who receive the Word as fruitful soil
Are noble through the God Incarnate’s toil,
For in Him earth’s dust sits on heaven’s throne.

Copyright © 2011 by Teresa Roberts Johnson (All rights reserved)

This poem has a sweeping Scriptural scope, beginning joyfully as it does in Genesis 1 with Creation and ending triumphantly with re-creation in the risen, ascended Lord Jesus on the throne of Heaven. Between those happy bookends, it deals with the dusty death proclaimed in the curses of Genesis 3 and announces the hope that is offered in Genesis 13 when the Covenant God promises Abraham to make his descendants as numerous as the dust particles on earth. Interestingly enough, in Genesis 15, when God repeats His promise to give Abraham many descendents, He says they will be as numerous as the stars in the heaven. This theme of raising dust to heaven is completed in the sanctification of dust that was accomplished in the Incarnation. Our salvation is secured by the holy life, bloody death, glorious resurrection, and triumphant ascension of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man.

The Fall of man is a fact of life (actually a fact of death, I suppose), yet an even greater fact of life is that our hope is found in the ascension made possible through the work of Jesus Christ. Through Him, we die to sin and rise to newness of life. We ascend every time we are raised to commune with Him, and we will eventually be raised to see Him face to face in our glorified bodies. And with St. John, we hear Him say, “Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.” (Revelation 1:17b-18)

I suppose if I had to choose a favorite of my poems, it would have to be “Ascension.” The last line is purposely difficult, with lots of consonants banging against each other to slow down the rhythm and make the reader think about the concept of earth’s dust (almost a tongue twister!) dwelling not just in the heavenly places, which would be amazing enough, but on heaven’s very throne. This poem began with my reflection on an Ascension day sermon preached by Father Stuart Smith in 2007. He is now a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Fort Worth, and I am quite certain he is still preaching the Truth.

On a personal note, while I was finishing this poem on September 7, 2007, I was at the bedside of my son James who was enduring a two-day medical procedure in a futile attempt to discover the cause of his seizures. Once I finally had all the words the way I wanted them, I handed James the laptop so that he could read it, and he broke out into that handsome smile that would light up a room and put everyone at ease. Less than five months later he died from complications of a seizure. In my grief, I have found it a great blessing to know that God is not limited by the fragility of these earthen vessels; He chose to work through the Son of Man’s earthen vessel to accomplish our redemption. That is a great comfort to me today of all days. James would have been 33 today.

To God be the glory.

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