April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
"The Waste Land" by T.S.Eliot, in The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber) 1969. (p.61. lines 1-4).
Why would anyone describe April as a "cruel" month? After a long, cold, dark winter, surely the warmth of April is anything but cruel. Human nature, however, is such that we consider anyone who wakes us out of a sound sleep to be cruel. Anyone who disturbs our complacent, routine ways of living might also be considered cruel. No better metaphor exists for spiritual revival than spring: a time of renewal and rebirth.
T.S. Eliot is widely acknowledged as a great poet. Some of his poems are easily understood, such as "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," and some are not. The casual reader may find poems such as "The Waste Land" and "The Hollow Men" to be utterly bewildering in their complex mixtures of image and allusion. Nevertheless, the poetry of T.S. Eliot matters to Christians because he was one of us.
For proof of this, we need look no further than "Choruses from the Rock." Eliot, rooted in his own time and place-London, twentieth century-cries out to the people like a prophet:
Thus your fathers were made
Fellow citizens of the saints, of the household of God, being built upon the foundation
Of apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself the chief cornerstone.
But you, have you built well, that you now sit helpless in a ruined house? (p.151, II, 1-4).
Eliot points out that the Church constantly needs to be rebuilt and renewed:
Of all that was done in the past, you eat the fruit, either rotten or ripe.
And the Church must be forever building, and always decaying, and always being restored.
(p.152, II, lines 25-26).
Who would expect this principle, so well understood by church leaders and missionaries, to be embedded in lines of poetry?
Eliot does not merely criticize the current state of the Church, he encourages and indeed prays:
Yet nothing is impossible, nothing
To men of faith and conviction.
Let us therefore make perfect our will.
O God, help us. (p.163, VIII, lines 46-49).
What does an articulate, brilliant, literary giant say when he prays? "O God, help us." Sometimes the shortest prayers are the best.
Eliot makes reference to Nehemiah, naturally enough, to acknowledge the perils of rebuilding and the courage required:
Jerusalem lay waste, consumed with fire;
No place for a beast to pass.
There were enemies without to destroy him,
And spies and self-seekers within,
When he and his men laid their hands to rebuilding the wall.
(p.157, IV, 13-17).
At this point, nothing will do but that we should re-read the book of Nehemiah in its entirety and be inspired by the adventure and excitement contained in that story. Nehemiah leads his people through great physical and moral challenges as they rebuild the wall and the city of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah makes an interesting prayer at one point:
But now, O God, strengthen my hands. (Nehemiah 6:9, ESV.)
"Strong hands" are not things that we would normally consider to be miracles. (Although they are, of course.) "Strong hands" are not normally considered to be proof of divine intervention. This is the prayer of a practical man of God who expects to do hard work. Moreover, when we understand that Nehemiah is facing a conspiracy, we see that it is a prayer for courage.
We know that church builders have great challenges to face. And with the help of Almighty God, they can and will face them. Just as surely as the return of spring, so shall present-day church-builders rejoice in the rebirth of the love of God in the hearts of people.
"And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength."
In faith and fellowship,