This weekend is the American Thanksgiving. Our friends to the south are experiencing one of the most challenging Thanksgivings in years, with social, economic, and political upheaval, coupled with a global pandemic and restrictions on personal liberties like travel and family gatherings. My brother and his family live in North Carolina, so it has been impossible for them to cross the border and visit loved ones in Canada.
This reminded me of the earliest American settlers, the Pilgrims, who faced extreme hardship for many of their first autumns and winters. One particular Pilgrim that I have been reflecting on is the Puritan poet, Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672). She is on my mind because I am currently working on an annotated collection of her poems.
Anne Bradstreet was a remarkable pioneer in two ways—she was a pioneering settler in 17th-century New England, helping to establish a new community in the New World. She was also a pioneering poet.
Anne Bradstreet is known as America’s first published poet and she is also one of the first professional female poets in English literature. Despite these incredible “firsts,” she is not as well-known as some of her American contemporaries like William Bradford, John Winthrop, or Cotton Mather. Nor is she as well-known as her female poetic successors, such as Aphra Behn, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Brontë sisters, or Emily Dickinson. Although Bradstreet was born in England, the reason she holds the unique title of the first “published American poet” is because she was among the original English settlers during the early colonial period in America. She participated in the historic pilgrimage to build a “City upon a Hill,” having left her home in England and travelled to America with her husband, parents, and siblings in 1630. Sailing with John Winthrop’s fleet across the Atlantic Ocean, Anne Bradstreet helped to establish a settlement in the rough and wild country of the newly formed Massachusetts Bay Colony. The famed “Plymouth Rock” Pilgrims had already made landfall in the New World ten years before Anne arrived on the east coast of North America. However, the continent was far from “settled,” and in spite of a decade of European presence, the area of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was still a relatively hostile and undeveloped wilderness.
As an aspiring poet, Anne did not write a great deal during those early days in Massachusetts. No doubt this is due to the amount of work required to establish a new colony in a seemingly inhospitable and foreboding land. Anne and her family, along with the other Puritan settlers, faced several debilitating challenges upon their arrival. There were limited supplies of food, textiles, tools, building materials, and other necessities for survival. The previous settlers had suffered significant losses, including illnesses and death, and they were unable to plant sufficient crops or build enough houses for themselves, much less the newly arrived Winthrop pilgrims. The Bradstreet’s first winter in Massachusetts (1630–1631) is known as “the great starving time” when two hundred settlers ended up fleeing back to England and tragically two hundred more perished. Early life in the New World was not only difficult but deadly.
During her years in the New World, Anne often experienced serious sicknesses. In a time when death was common both in the Old World and the New, Anne often assumed her illnesses would result in her death. She also experienced the loss of friends and loved ones, including her parents, grandchildren, and a daughter-in-law. Such frequent brushes with mortality gave Anne a sense of sober contemplation on the priorities of life, which she frequently reflects on in her poems. The theme of her life and her poetry can be summed up with the words of the Apostle Paul, who writes in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Over the course of her life she also embodied the truth espoused by the Apostle Paul who asserts in 1 Timothy 6:6, “godliness with contentment is great gain” (KJV). Like the Apostle Paul, Bradstreet learned contentment in all circumstances: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12–13). Because of her Puritan theology grounded in the Sovereignty of God, she believed wholeheartedly in the goodness of her heavenly father both in this life and the next. This is why Anne and her fellow Puritans could make the best of this world, working hard to establish a new community—content with setbacks and grateful for successes—but they knew that this fallen earth was not their final home. Ultimately her greatest joys lie ahead beyond the grave. This is why Anne’s priorities—as her poems clearly show—were with delighting in God and living her life in a God-glorifying way. She knew how she must answer the rhetorical question posed by Jesus: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36, KJV). Rather than fearing death and cowering from the wrath of God, Bradstreet’s contentment—whether in life or in death—is amplified by her absolute trust in the grace and goodness of God through Jesus Christ. This does not mean that she never struggled with doubts or fears—which she also reflects in her poetry—but it does mean that she lived with a grounded hope in God’s care both in this life and the next.
A Poem of Thanksgiving by Anne Bradstreet
Anne Bradstreet wrote this poem in 1661 after her husband recovered from a serious illness. At a time when so many people perished due to illness, Anne is so thankful that her Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ not only carried her through her time of uncertainty, but also healed her husband.
 This famous phrase is from John Winthrop’s sermon written on board the Arbella in 1630. He and his company of English Puritans were seeking to establish a new, model community (“City upon a Hill”) as a beacon of hope for the world and a fulfilment of Jesus’ call to Christians to be “the light of the world. A city set on a hill, cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14).
 The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Edited by Jeannine Henley (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard UP, 2010), xlvi.
 Anne Bradstreet, “To My Dear Children” in Poems of Mrs. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672): Together with Her Prose Remains (London, UK: FORGOTTEN Books, 2012), 315.
 Anne Bradstreet, “To My Dear Children” in Poems of Mrs. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672): Together with Her Prose Remains (London, UK: FORGOTTEN Books, 2012), 315.
In this short chat, I discuss the poet George Herbert and a couple of his concrete poems. Concrete poetry is a form of poetry where the words on the page are shaped to align with the meaning of the poem. We also take a close look at my own concrete poem, "A Cruciform King," as we consider this interplay between the arrangement of words and the meaning conveyed by the poem. "A Cruciform King" and other poems are published in my book Undiminished Returns: Poems of a Christian Life released by H&E Publishers (2020). Here's the link to order!
In this short chat, I discuss the history and importance of words, particularly the Word of God. I also show a few old copies of the Scriptures that I have in my study and I read a 14-line poem about Christ, the Incarnated Word. This poem (and others) are published in my book Undiminished Returns: Poems of a Christian Life released by H&E Publishers in the Autumn 2020. Here's the link to order!
A big shout out to Malcolm Guite, the true master of these sorts of delightful library chats. His poetry and his video chats are the inspiration for the work that I am attempting to do here. Check out his series called "A Spell in the Library". They're truly brilliant!
One of the most published and widely recognized books of all time is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Since its first appearance in 1678, the impact of Bunyan’s masterpiece on the Church of Jesus Christ is incalculable. The famous 19th century poet preacher C. H. Spurgeon read The Pilgrim’s Progress over one hundred times during his lifetime, and he regularly encouraged saints to read and re-read it. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, called The Pilgrim’s Progress “a book that has astonished the whole world.” Even the famous twentieth century agnostic playwright, George Bernard Shaw, stated that Bunyan’s novel greatly influenced him (he had portions of it read at his funeral), and Shaw believed it surpassed the works of William Shakespeare in quality, form and style.
John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory, meaning that the characters, settings and events in the book hold symbolic significance beyond the story itself. The story represents a Christian’s journey of faith by following the adventures of a redeemed pilgrim, who was once named “Graceless” but who now bears the name “Christian.” Like all who call on the name of the Lord, Christian is fleeing his hometown (named “The City of Destruction”) and he is heading toward the wonderful City of God. Along the “narrow” way, he encounters many temptations, many foes of his faith, and many faithful friends, each symbolizing the real challenges all Christians face and the real help God gives his people as they seek to live according to the Way.
Although it is a work of marvellous fiction, The Pilgrim’s Progress is biblically saturated: there are over two hundred direct quotations from the Bible, as well as countless paraphrases, references and allusions. About Bunyan’s biblical richness, Spurgeon states, “Why, this man [Bunyan] is a living Bible! Prick him anywhere, and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows through him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God.”
One of the great strengths of Bunyan’s book is its ability to convey complicated theological truths in a clear and simple way. C.S. Lewis praises Bunyan’s unencumbered style of writing: “the light is sharp; it never comes through stained glass.” In other words, Bunyan preaches without being “preachy;” he exposes human sin and foolishness without a “holier-than-thou” disposition. Nevertheless, there is no “tickling of ears” here: sin is squarely addressed as loathsome to God, and Bunyan’s characters—who bear names reflecting their wickedness and folly—are clearly condemned. The difference is that Bunyan gives us warnings in a sincere, compassionate and humble manner. He writes with the heart of a pastor who lovingly cares for his flock.
Beyond its richness in theological truths and spiritual applications, The Pilgrim’s Progress is a superb story—that is, entertaining, engaging and exciting. Leland Ryken, Professor Emeritus of Literature at Wheaton College, notes that “the book is like Homer’s Odyssey or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—a continuous series of narrow escapes and threatening ordeals.”
Similar to life itself, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress contains moments of electrifying adventure, deep despair, great delight, gripping sadness and enjoyable humour. Woven into the fabric of his story, Bunyan beautifully entwines the spiritual, psychological and physical aspects of the human and Christian experience; with biblical insight into the heart of humanity, Bunyan portrays an admonishing, encouraging and instructive narrative of what it means to be a real Christian in this world. Pick it up, read it, enjoy it and learn from it!
See below for a poem I wrote about reading The Pilgrim's Progress, as well as a and video chat about various editions of the book.
Video notes: Readers who are less familiar with the King James Version of the Bible may have difficulty with the original seventeenth-century English edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress. There are, however, many updated and revised versions of The Pilgrim’s Progress available today. My recommended edition is The Pilgrim’s Progress in Modern English revised by L. Edward Hazelbaker—“sensitively revised for the 21st century reader”—which includes explanatory notes, a timeline and a study guide.
 Thomas Spurgeon, introduction to C.H. Spurgeon, Pictures from The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Commentary on Portions of John Bunyan’s Immortal Allegory (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1992), 5.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: Comprising the Case for Christianity, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 75.
 E.E. Stokes, “Bernard Shaw's Debt to John Bunyan,” The Shaw Review 8, no. 2 (1965), 42–51, www.jstor.org/stable/40682054.
 Thomas Spurgeon, introduction to C.H. Spurgeon, Pictures from The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Commentary on Portions of John Bunyan’s Immortal Allegory (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1992), 6.
 C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 148.
 Leland Ryken, Christian Guides to the Classics: Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 13.
The Apostle Paul is known for his elongated prose and brilliant rhetoric. He also is known for quoting poetry and surprisingly embedding his own poetry in a few of his letters. Some great examples are Colossians 1:15-20, 1 Timothy 1:17, 3:16, 6:15-16 and 2 Timothy 2:11-13.
This morning my pastor, Hagop Tchobanian, preached an excellent message on the first part of Phillippians 2. In this portion of Scripture, Paul includes a creedal-like poem in Philippians 2:6-11. Below is a sonnet I wrote that aims to convey the paradox presented in this Pauline poem, that Jesus Christ is both God and Man. It is called, “Divine Paradox: After Philippians 2:6–11.”
Last week, Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias (1946-2020) passed away. We rejoice in the fact that Ravi is with his saviour in glory, yet we still grieve our loss. Death hurts even though death is common to us all. The writer of Ecclesiastes bluntly states, “For the living know that they will die,” and there’s “a time to be born, and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2; 9:5).
Death is a major theme in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Some scholars argue that he wrote this play shortly after the death of his own son Hamnet at age 11. It is no surprise that the play Hamlet wrestles with the bewildering and unsettling reality of death and the loss of loved ones. One of the earliest scenes in the play has Hamlet speaking with his mother and uncle about the death of his father. Hamlet’s mother questions Hamlet’s persistent mourning for his father, telling him not to “seek for thy father in the dust. Thou knowest ’tis common. All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity” (I.ii.72-74). Hamlet’s uncle chastises him for his “stubbornness” and “obstinate condolement,” stating that “you must know, your father lost a father. That father lost, lost his…” (I.ii.91-92, 95-96). The argument is simple: death happens to all of us. It is normal, and it is natural. Get over it.
As common as death is, however, it never seems natural or normal for death to be in the world. As human beings, we feel as though we were meant to live forever and never to experience the death of loved ones. If it were natural, then death would feel the same as thirst or hunger, merely natural bodily functions. Yet death is abnormal. The Bible is clear that we were made to live forever; death entered the world as a consequence of turning away from our Creator (Genesis 3:19). Paul writes in Romans, “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Sin and death are our biggest problems in life. We were meant to be holy, alive, and in fellowship with our God.
C.S. Lewis observes in his classic book, Mere Christianity, that “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” We have a desire to live forever, to be good, to be known, and to be loved. Sin and death stand as obstacles to our fundamental desire as human beings. This is because we were made for another world.
Our culture seems to be diminishing death as an enemy. Celebrations of life have replaced funerals. Assisted suicide is considered medical treatment for terminal illnesses and ageing. Abortion is celebrated as a hallmark of freedom. Death is part of the natural “circle of life,” the answer for death given by Elton John and Disney. Treating death as a normal step in life may offer a superficial anesthetic to the pain of loss, but it isn’t helpful in the long run. The Bible says that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). The Christian knows that death isn't right, and the Christian knows that only God can deal with death.
The poem I wrote, “not natural, not normal,” is about death and what Jesus does about it. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Amen!
There are times when our prayers seem to go off course, like a ship drifting towards rocky shoals. How do we "right the ship"? One powerful way is to look to the Scriptures and speak God's Word back to Him. Here is a new poem I wrote that addresses this; it's called "Righting prayer's ship" (3 min 29 sec)
Although good poetry is often complex and enigmatic, there is a value in verse that is both lucid and lyrical. The poetry of the Psalms, for example, is beautiful yet understandable at first glance. Worship songs and hymns are other examples of lyrical yet easy to understand poetry. In his poem “Jordan (1),” the 17th century English poet George Herbert challenges his fellow poets’ penchant for convoluted verse. Instead, he argues for clarity: “is all good structure a winding stair? […] Must all be veil’d, while he that reads, divines, catching the sense at two removes?” Reading poetry doesn’t have to resemble ascending (or descending?) a staircase designed by M. C. Escher. Like Herbert, I believe there is room for good poetry that clearly speaks to the reader. Here is a pair of sonnets I wrote that are intended to be clear (I hope!) but also meaningful. The pair of poems is called "Symposium," and the sonnets represent a glipmse into a discussion between a preacher and a lost soul.
 George Herbert, “Jordan (1)” The Temple (UK: Penguin Classics, 2017), 76.
Before Christ awakens our soul to a new life in him, we may be quite content with our lives. We feel as though we are kings of our circumstances, and we believe that we are free to live and do as we please. In truth, we are bound by the world, our flesh, and the evil one. Although we “rule” a space no bigger than a nutshell, we count ourselves a “king of infinite space.” This line (and the title of this sonnet) comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Hamlet states that, like us, he would be content to be king of a trouble-free kingdom, even if it’s as small as a nutshell.
Yet, thankfully, Christ doesn’t leave us to our false comforts and our delusions of kingship… he unravels a person’s life, shatters our crowns, and breaks our scepters. In her book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria Butterfield calls her conversion to Christianity a “train-wreck” as she describes how Christ dramatically upended her life, her career, and her relationships. The metaphor is apt—Christ literally breaks into our lives, shattering our old ways of doing things and our old ways of thinking about things. Although an incalculable blessing, being “born again” is as dramatic as physical birth. When we encounter God, we meet the true King of Infinite Space. This poem is meant to capture this conversion experience.
 Rosaria Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant, 2012), 25.
I travelled to Great Britain a few years ago with my wife. On our first day exploring the sprawling city of London, we came upon St. Paul’s Cathedral. The early 18th century cathedral is an architectural masterpiece designed by Christopher Wren; however, what we found when we went inside was no mere monument to a man’s creative and engineering genius. We found a place to worship God. I wrote this poem describing our experience attending an evensong service at St. Paul’s.
Evensong at St. Paul’s
Jeremy W. Johnston
In a city of beautiful buildings, here is another,
yet unlike any other: St. Paul’s.
We walk, we gaze, we wonder
is there time?--
The evening is here. Day is closing for the day.
But then a sign
calls us—a literal sign—invites us to
We climb up stone steps, enter in.
Even the small doors seem massive doors,
weighty tomes hanging on brass hinges
that shut out distractions, shut in the distracted.
The walking and talking and busyness and bustle all
become strangely dim. Silence becomes our song.
We are submerged into the stunning stillness.
So much larger on the inside.
Look up, can’t help but look up—in life we need to look up more.
A twilight, sky-like ceiling and world-like walls, so vast yet still too small.
Even here is too finite for the infinite to
This man-made place for the maker of man:
the best we can do—this! is barely a droplet of dew.
Outside, we’re wanderers in this city, tourists in town, set apart, outsiders.
We’re aliens in—but not of—this urban place.
But in here, inside,
We’re now in and a part of this sacred space.
The ancientness. The art. The Faith. I belong here.
Still I feel painfully exposed and alone.
It’s humbling to be so small for this brief hour.
God seems so distant here because he is echoed everywhere.
Indeed, we are separated by an infinite divide
but we begin to chant, and recite, and sing, and hear of the One
who fills the boundless chasm, who spans the ever-expanding space.
Holy words for Holy God; carefully prepared words,
some ancient, some old, some uttered soft, some spoken bold.
Haunting voices rising up to darkness and mystery--
my ears, my neck, my mind, my skin—I feel the sound of truth
immersing me, gently washing over me like the very breath of God.
Words so right and real; this place, so here and now.
God’s beauty is seen, the goodness of the Good News is heard--
every note, every utterance, every square inch alludes
to his wonder, his transcendence, his descent, his ascent, his nearness,
This is Evensong. This evening service of prayers, Psalms, and singing
a symbol of unity, harmony
a paradox of the near farness of God.
Liturgy, ritual, words recited, words sung--
We’re reminded that this is a religion as well as a relationship.
He is Creator, we are created. We are together, we are alone.
This is not yet heaven, though it is heaven that this hour harkens us to see.
So, despite the wonder, so much to look at, too much to take in,
I still find myself on this earth. My feet still feel the floor.
My body is still a body, pulled down by gravity of the world
So the tide begins to rise, the tide of blood, muscle, and bone rises
over my mind, my soul.
My weary traveller’s bones—the night of flying, the day of walking,
the hunger for seeing, the desire for doing, and the peace
of this place--
overtake me. My lids slip down beneath the surface,
over my eyes,
like the not-so-watchful three in the Garden of Gethsemane.
This edifice, this service, my effort to worship
One who exceeds imagination.
We’re always reaching up, but you, O God,
must always lift us up.
And you do.
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
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