Tag Archives: words

“How Do You Know Me?” — Words and Self-Identity

I dedicate this poem to all who have gathered courage to climb a mountain, look out over the world, and speak—and then, startled by strange echoes, wondered who the speaker really was.

John 1:47-49; 2:24-25; 21:17

The more I post my words abroad
For hearers near and far,
In true attempt to share with other souls,
Athirst or not,
The meager growth in understanding I have felt
And feel we want still more;
The more my words, as arrows blown beyond my sight,
Are heard by those who know me not
And cannot weigh with knowing minds
The heart and mind from whence those words took flight.

From distant minds more words return,
Words launched in echo to my own,
Each bearing freight of praise unmerited
Or censure crisply drawn.
My words are weighed on varied scales.
And not my words alone:
Hearts that I cannot measure well, or fairly,
Do not wait to weigh my own,
Assigning mental skill,
Or motive liberally.

How shall I weigh these words?
They rightly rouse me to appraise my heart, and yet
Unequal weights abominations are,
And mock the truest scales.

For even love paints me with double tongue:
Its words of thanks and warning fall
In overlapping strokes upon my ear
Until a muddled portrait now appears.
Unless I am two men at once, or more,
I cannot be the man of whom all speak.

By Judge, not jury, we’ll at last be tried
(Though judged as mutual jurors, side by side)

And so:
One word alone I long to hear,
The word of Him who spoke this spinning sphere in space—
Whose words I must proclaim, no more, no less—
Who needs no witness, knowing what’s in man
(And knowing all, you know I love you, too),
Who underneath the fig tree saw my soul
Before I knew his name—
May He, the King, proclaim:
“An Israelite indeed, in whom there’s no deceit!”

—Dwight Gingrich, December 2015

For most people, self-identity is largely rooted in community. When our community offers a coherent and consistent reading of our souls, our confidence is bolstered. We know who we are, and we speak who we are. (This is a very biblical reality. For only one example, see Romans 12:3-8.)

But when our community expands, multiplies, or otherwise changes, divergent readings of our soul may be offered, and our self-identity can be shaken. At worst, such inconsistent echoes threaten to unhinge us mentally, destroying all confidence in our own ability to hear, to assess, to know anything at all for sure. Who am I, really? And dare I continue to speak, when speaking only increases the echoes that lay claim to my ears?

We are not competent to weigh our own hearts. But One is. He will weigh both our hearts and our words. In him we rest, and for his sake we speak—and will continue to speak, God willing, in 2016.

Writers, speakers, teachers—anyone: Have you ever experienced what I express in this poem? How do you process the diverse feedback that your words awaken? How do you discern when and how to let this feedback change your future words? How do you write and speak for an Audience of One without disregarding the needs and perspectives of your audience of many? And how do you learn from your audience of many without letting your Audience of One lose command of your words? Send me more echoes in the comments below.

PS: It was a lot of fun for both Mom and I to exchange normal roles and have her give me feedback as I made final decisions about this poem. I thank her for her help, yet any remaining flaws are entirely my own. One line in particular gave me no end of grief. My wife couldn’t make sense of it, Mom wasn’t sure about it, and I tried well over a dozen variants before I finally settled half contentedly on one, only since it was time to publish. So I’ll leave you with the explanation I gave my wife: Sometimes it’s good to have a line or two that leaves the reader completely stymied, with no sure way of knowing exactly what the author intended. This forces the reader to consider multiple possible readings, each with its own moral implications. Thus the reader enjoys multiple opportunities for moral improvement. 🙂 So puzzle and reflect—and let me know if you think you know which line robbed so much of my time.

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By Every Word [Poem by Mom]

When Mom “submits” a poem to me for publication, a dialogue begins. Since every word in a poem is important, we evaluate what Mom has written. What exactly does she mean by line X? How does the use of word Y shape the message of the poem? What would happen if we changed a semi-colon here, an image there, or a few punctuation marks? Does the title prepare the reader for the poem or capture something of its essence?

We don’t have any checklist for proofreading. Rather, I simply act as another set of eyes and ears, telling Mom my experience of reading her words and raising questions for her to consider. Sometimes she has her own questions about her writing efforts, wondering how she might best communicate her thoughts, or if her thoughts need improvement. Mom welcomes and values this interchange, because she knows that every word is important. And because every word is important, it is not uncommon for a few words to change before we publish Mom’s poem.

Not so with God’s words. Because every word of God is important, yes, we ask tough questions about these words and, yes, we dialogue with the Author. But when all is read and done, not a word is changed.

So here is Mom’s poem for June, with her own reflections. And here are the rest of the poems in this monthly series. Blessings as you read!

While preparing this poem post I received a newsletter from the Canadian branch of Christian Aid Ministries. Their article on the need for Bibles in Liberia put a new face on the message of this poem. In Liberia not even all pastors have Bibles, so some preach only what they have been told, opening the door to serious error in their teaching. The humid climate causes books to tear easily so it is not unusual for Bibles to have pages or even entire books missing.

After a teaching workshop, pastors were distressed to learn that they had been living immoral lives, unknowingly disobedient to God’s Word. What a vivid illustration of the need to feed on and live out all of God’s Word! It is also a call for us to do what we can to make the whole Bible available to the whole of humanity.


By every word your Heavenly Father spoke—
By every word—your soul is made alive,
And by each word alone shall it survive:
The words of law that by your deeds you broke,
Those words that to a sense of guilt awoke;
The words of grace that in your heart revive
A hope of pardon; doctrine to derive
A base for faith; exhortings that provoke
To deeds of charity and righteousness.
By every word–just as by every star
The vaulted sky in darkness can be known.
Just as the varied foods God gave to bless
And nourish bodies, so all God’s words are.
Man was not meant to live by bread alone.

—Elaine Gingrich, November 2, 1999

“Man shall not live by bread alone” (Matt. 4:4). It was this line that was the poetic impulse for the poem. I am a mother with menu planning on my list. Is that why I read a double meaning into those words?

Jesus continues his quote from Deuteronomy: “but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (italics added).

In Deuteronomy 8:1-3 God teaches us that we are not kept alive only by the bread we bake. The Israelites were living inside an object lesson that taught them that their very existence depended on the words God spoke to keep them alive. But they were also being reminded that we humans are more than physical beings.

Israel lived in the wilderness on manna, angels’ food, bread from heaven, uncultivated by man, something foreign to them and difficult to label. So they called it manna–“What is it? a whatness.” It was not a diet of their own choosing. By God’s word it was given and according to His commandment it was gathered.

Was God not saying to them: “By my word I have fed your bodies from heaven, and even so I will keep your spirits alive as you eat my spiritual food. And not just the food that you choose to eat. When you obey all my commandments you will learn that your souls, too, live ‘by every word of God.’”? “The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do…” (Deut. 8:1).

In 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul wrote to Timothy that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable…” We need “all Scripture” if we want to be competently equipped for serving God. Not just our favourite passages or pet topics or preferred doctrines.

God humbles us with manna, unfamilar food that is difficult for us to comprehend, in order to test us and prove our faith and our willingness to believe and obey all that God has spoken. We don’t have the luxury of being picky eaters, of being children that refuse to eat our vegetables, or never progress from milk to meat (I Cor. 3:1-2; Heb. 5:11-14). Our Heavenly Father knows what we need. Man does not live by bread and milk alone.

Did you enjoy this sonnet? What words do you have to add to this discussion? Leave a comment here for Mom, or send her an email at MomsEmailAddressImage.php.  Thanks!

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Two Trees [Poem By Mom]

Today I’m pleased to begin a new blog series in which I plan to share one poem or article from my mother, Elaine Gingrich, each month.

My parents, Ken and Elaine Gingrich.

Mom has been a life-long amateur wordsmith. She loves literature, especially poetry, and has spent many more hours enjoying literary arts than this English Literature graduate ever has or is likely to. I have a fond memory of Mom joining me in class for a day, meeting my Victorian literature professor, and then writing a poem based on the experience in amazing imitation of Gerard Manley Hopkins, to the delight of student and professor alike.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I hope to share that poem another day. For today I’d like to share a more ordinary poem, one neither too complex nor too simple, one that most of you should enjoy.

Why else have I chosen this poem? I think “Two Trees” hints at Mom’s way of drawing spiritual analogies from the world of nature–although in this case she is following analogies prepared in Scripture. Sometimes she draws more directly from the world of nature outside her door in Parry Sound, Ontario. I also thought I’d share this poem now because its themes overlap with some posts I’ve been sharing recently on original sin.

Before I scare you with visions of abstract theological unknowables, here is Mom’s poem. Enjoy!


In the center of a garden stood a tree to make one wise,
Dripping fruit ripe-sweet for eating and most pleasing to the eyes.
Eve reached out to pluck the knowledge in the fruit, twice bittersweet.
She would know both good and evil. She would take the risk and eat.
“You shall be as gods,” the promise of the serpent taunted her
As she hid from God with Adam, His displeasure to defer.
Plagued by thoughts of guilt and evil, savouring things of Satan’s sphere,
Less a god and more a devil, trading innocence for fear.
This can be no godly wisdom, this confusion, grief and strife.
Earthly, sensual and devilish–bringing death instead of life.
Sorry wisdom that she tasted, sorry reaping to live by.
For this tree of bitter knowledge was a tree to make one die.

Near a garden on a hillside stood a tree to make one good.
Here the apple of God’s eye was nailed and Calvary’s tree dripped blood.
From this wine rough-crushed and scarlet came the only antidote
For the ancient cursed enlightenment Eve’s awful morsel wrote
On each cell of mind and body. This rare blood God sacrificed
Gives the damaged human seeker the transcendent mind of Christ!
Free to know the pure and lovely, yet untainted by the sin,
All our world becomes God’s garden, Satan banished in chagrin.
Truly this is godly wisdom–hating evil, loving good.
Fellowship with God restored and peaceful living understood.
Sweetest fruit man ever tasted, gladdest wisdom time could give.
For this tree of sacred suffering was a tree to make one live.

— Elaine Gingrich,  December 4, 1998

“Poetry writing has been one of the avenues God has given me to learn to know Him better. My deepest desire is to honour Him with everything I write, and to live what I have learned from Him.” — Elaine Gingrich

A Three-Part Postscript

First, some technical details.

  1. Please don’t republish or repost Mom’s writings without asking permission. Links to this page are always most welcome, as is printing off a copy for a friend.
  2. If you want to thank Mom for her poem, you can leave a comment here, message her via Facebook (if you are her friend) or email her at MomsEmailAddressImage.php.
  3. I’ve retained Mom’s Canadian spelling. So “savouring ” is not a spelling error.

Second, some reflections on “Two Trees.”

I like the way this poem builds on nature imagery found in the Bible, and how the second stanza builds on the imagery of the first stanza. For example, compare the opening lines of each stanza: “In the center of a garden stood a tree to make one wise” becomes “Near a garden on a hillside stood a tree to make one good.” Here we have Eden versus the garden of Gethsemane; a tree in the middle of the garden versus one near a garden (but banished outside); a tree to make one wise versus a tree to make one good. This garden imagery reappears later in the second stanza, in one of my favorite lines of the poem: “All our world becomes God’s garden.” This is Eden turned into New Earth via Gethsemane. Only God!

Two themes central to this poem are the themes of goodness/evil and of wisdom. As I trace these themes through the poem, beginning with the opening lines of each stanza (“a tree to make one wise/good”), this paradoxical thought arises: If you make wisdom your primary goal (“a tree to make one wise”), you probably won’t end up either wise or good. But if you hunger and thirst above all to be made good (“a tree to make one good”), then you will gain both goodness and wisdom. And as the final lines of each stanza show, lusting for wisdom leads to death, while hungering for goodness leads to life. Ponder that for moral formation.

My only theological complaint about this poem is that I think Adam gets off too easily! 🙂 But perhaps that’s a gracious result of the fact that the author is female.

There is much more happening in this poem, both theologically and literarily. What do you see? Enjoy the craft and worship the Christ!

Third, a question: Why share poetry on a blog about biblical interpretation?

Here are several answers:

  1. This blog features biblical interpretation, but is also interested in other kinds of exploration. Remember my three-part website vision (see here): “Exegesis, Ecclesiology, and Exploration.”
  2. Poetry underlines the necessity of the interpretive task. Some of us like to think that we can just read the Bible without worrying about interpretation. But almost no one thinks this of a poem. Rather, some of us rather dislike poetry for this very reason: it demands interpretation. Poems are often rather cryptic. The formal constraints of poetry (such as meter and rhyming patterns) tend to leave little room for superfluous, explanatory sentences or footnotes. These formal constraints force poets to choose words consciously and purposefully. Readers, in turn, are forced to slow down their reading in order to trace or produce meaning.
  3. Poetry trains readers in the interpretive task. Slow reading helps readers ask “Why this word and not some other?” In bad poetry the answer too often is merely “Because it rhymes!” In good poetry–poetry where the author masters the form rather than the form mastering the author–or, better, poetry where the author has learned to sing in the key of her chosen form–the answers to “Why this word and not another?” are more profound. But, quite apart from the question of how profound the answers will be, the mere asking of the question trains readers to ponder authorial intent. What did the poet mean by this sentence? The more cryptic the sentence, the more we wish the author were at our side to explain it. But the author is not present. So, in the absence of the author, we are forced to try to discover authorial intent through the words on the page. Now, with biblical interpretation there is a crucial difference: For the Spirit-filled believer, the divine Author is present. But (a) the human author is not, and we must not overlook the significance of human participation in the writing of Scripture, (b) words are still a primary–I would argue the primary–way in which God speaks to us, and (c) even with the Spirit’s presence to guide biblical interpretation and speak fresh words, many Christians seem to be in dire need of reminders to actively seek Authorial intent.

So, to underscore an important point and bring this to a close: Reading poetry (wrestling it, riding it, meditating on it, singing it) can help us become better readers. And, all else being even, better readers are usually better Bible readers, too.

What do you think? Share your comments below!

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