John Terpstra’s poems have appeared occasionally in Christian Courier. Yet readers may not be familiar with the uniqueness of Terpstra’s wider work. In writing that is justifiably called lyrical poetic prose, Terpstra has embraced deeply personal and broad macro themes that are intellectually provocative, while also plumbing emotional and spiritual depths.
Earlier lyrical prose
For example, in his heart-rooted The Boys, or, Waiting for the Electrician’s Daughter, Terpstra painted the lives of his three brothers-in-law who all suffered from muscular dystrophy, dying within months of each other in their early twenties. Humour, tragedy, reverence, ambivalence and hope all intertwine in the touching vignettes of Neil, Paul and Eric, whose illness defines family life with uncountable stresses and astonishing, complementary blessings.
Yet Terpstra also probes social themes that dig deeply into our natural and civic life. Falling into Place is his historical and geological tour (de force!) of the Iroquois Bar, the glacial sandbar on which Hamilton lies. Here Terpstra leads readers to Hamilton’s pre-human history, its human inhabitants with their conflicts and interactions among each other.
On last May’s Hamilton “Jane’s Walk,” Terpstra reprised the book in an eloquent visual historical yarn. Most people (I’m guilty!) blast through Hamilton without noticing geological and natural gems as Dundas Valley and Coote’s Paradise. Terpstra fittingly highlighted them, but when he steered our eyes to the steel mills on Hamilton Harbour, I got a lump in my throat. “Mills are what most people think is Hamilton. Now look all around. The mills – a necessary part of the city for decades – occupy only five degrees of the 360 degree panorama.” Never thought of that before; won’t ever forget it.
Thick, accessible, reverent prayers
Now In the Company of All, Terpstra dares to offer – a bit apprehensively, as he averred in an email – 37 prayers. Though new to Terpstra’s publications, he has been composing these prayers – with quirky punctuation – for years as his turn came to offer the congregational prayer in St. Cuthbert’s Presbyterian Church. As he notes in the Introduction, these used to be called “Long Prayer,” though his are anything but. Still, they reverently cover the congregation’s waterfront of thanks, praise, blessings and petitions, often also 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 strike me as classic examples of a Gedicht, the German noun deriving from gedichtet,or “thickened.” Thick poems indeed – condensed, crafted with care, devotion and much heart, but not dense. These are strikingly accessible for congregation members and readers, provided they are, as Terpstra notes, “read at half-speed.” It’s easy to find oneself reading silently, soon mouthing the words and then whispering those words – or more loudly if others nearby wish to savour the cadences and themes.
Liturgical rhythms year after year
As prayers, Terpstra organized the poems chronologically to follow the liturgical church year, spanning several years. Thus Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Pentecost themes resonate one after another. 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” (17).
And who could ever forget being prayed for when they hear the gut-wrenching query of 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?” (18).
Not surprisingly, 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 think we know
do we know, really?” (74).
In a Good Friday prayer Terpstra nudges the mystery of the 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
without becoming a threat to every injustice, to the unjust
without becoming a friend
and leaving the winners feeling left out
losers like us
whom he won over” (28).
Throughout Terpstra’s tone is awe-filled, generous, not infrequently laced with sly humour:
“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 prayers; absorb again Terpstra’s earlier books – all lovingly produced and beautifully bound. And give thanks to God for John Terpstra who keeps deepening and widening what it means to worship every day and at least once on Sunday.
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