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On not speaking for God

By September 13, 2017 No Comments
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Of late, the Denise Levertov’s poem, “The Tide,” has been coming to me as I try to process the most recent bombardment of the bad. I’m a Calvinist with a degree in history, so I understand that such has it ever been. And yet….

I’ve included the poem below for your own meditation. But a few comments: I particularly appreciate Levertov’s open searching for the Giver–and the utterly convicting lines of the second stanza, which reminds us of being too quick to assign anything to God. To be honest, stanza 2 echoes in my mind whenever I start hearing blithe talk about God’s will. How confidently indeed.

In the succeeding stanzas, Levertov begins to search for images of faith–but these are too facile. Abstract and disconnected. And their pretty vacuousness (they remind me a little of Thomas Kinkade paintings) doesn’t help her find the One to whom she wishes to give her gratitude. Even more, she realizes that she hasn’t even begun the search in earnest.

The poem’s final stanza provides at least a provisional suggestion: faith requires action, not abstraction. The “ebb and flow” of trying to live out our faith, instead of becoming paralyzed.  And the good news is that the action needn’t be grand; it’s all the quotidian stuff: clean the beach, write a poem, let the ocean do its work. Thus, the “emptiness” that begins the poem turns out to be not God’s absence, but the space of something too great to be contained. In witnessing the magnitude of this power, Levertov suggests, we are restored to our proper position on the beach–not speaking for God, but responding with gratitude for the God who is beyond all sound bites and cliches.

The Tide

Where is the Giver to whom my gratitude

rose? In this emptiness

there seems no Presence.


How confidently the desires

of God are spoken of!

Perhaps God wants

something quite different.

Or nothing, nothing at all.


Blue smoke from small

peaceable hearths ascending

without resistance in luminous

evening air.

Or eager mornings—waking

as if to a song’s call.

Easily I can conjure

a myriad images

of faith.

Remote. They pass

as I turn a page.


Outlying houses, and the train’s rhythm

slows, there’s a signal box,

people are taking their luggage

down from the racks.

Then you wake and discover

you have not left

to begin the journey.


Faith’s a tide, it seems, ebbs and flows responsive

to action and inaction.

Remain in stasis, blown sand

stings your face, anemones

shrivel in rock pools no wave renews.

Clean the littered beach, clear

the lines of a forming poem,

the waters flood inward.

Dull stones again fulfill

their glowing destinies, and emptiness

is a cup, and holds

the ocean.


Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

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