In his poetry, John Terpstra embraces personal and macro themes that are intellectually provocative while also plumbing emotional and spiritual depths in all of his lyrical writing.
In this volume he offers 37 poems that he has been composing as congregational prayers for St. Cuthbert’s Presbyterian Church in Hamilton, Ont. Once called the “long prayer,” these are anything but. Still, they reverently cover the waterfront of the congregation’s thanks, praise, blessings, and petitions, often including local and national events. Terpstra clearly believes that God has agreed mysteriously to embrace all those things, along with our doubts about how God handles them.
These prayers are classic examples of Gedichte, the German noun deriving from gedichtet, or “thickened.” Thick poems, these are crafted with care, devotion, and heart—but they aren’t dense. They are accessible to congregation members and readers, provided they are, as Terpstra notes, “read at half-speed.” I found myself reading silently, soon mouthing words and then whispering those words—or more loudly if others nearby wished to savor the cadences and themes.
Terpstra has organized the prayers chronologically, spanning several liturgical years. Engagingly, jarringly honest, these prayers echo our own bewildered doubts, though with consolation: “we are shy and somewhat fearful/and a little disbelieving/of what we know to be true about you.”
He offers this gut-wrenching cry about cancer: “[We] pray/for the surprise, uncertainty and grief/that comes [sic] with finding/our body/has an enemy within/Must we love this enemy, too?”
Terpstra gives honest words to our own horror about God ordering Abraham to sacrifice Isaac: “This does not sound/like the God we know/to make this request/or requirement/or think we know/but what/do we know, really?”
In a Good Friday prayer Terpstra nudges the mystery of Incarnation: “Can God be put to death/by humans?/He was vulnerable from the start/from the day he was born, his first steps/the son of man cannot walk the earth/openly/without becoming a threat to every injustice, to the unjust/without becoming a friend/to losers/and leaving the winners feeling left out/vulnerable.”
Throughout, Terpstra’s tone is awe-filled, generous, and sometimes laced with sly humor: “You have put a song in our mouths/you have multiplied, O Earth-maker/your surprising deeds/your kind thoughts toward us/if we were to count them all/we’d be late for lunch.”
Read and re-pray these lovingly produced and beautifully bound prayers. John Terpstra keeps deepening and widening what it means to worship every day and at least once on Sunday. (The Coach House Press)