Category Archives: Book Recommendations

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8 Devotional Poets You Must Know About

Historically, poetry has always had an important role in the Christian spiritual life. The longest book in the Bible is a book of verse; many of the Bible’s prophetic books, though they are not translated as poetry, are poetry in their original language. In addition, the New Testament’s writers quoted from the wisdom of secular poets and from early hymns.

Although I am a lover of music, it is sad when music overshadows the truths about which we are singing. If you start reading these works, you will find that the best musicians of today are those that draw from the vast treasures of Christian verse in English.

  1. John Donne (1572-1631)
    A Spiritual Romantic
    Literature students will read a few of Donne’s angsty poems that can be read alongside Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson. But Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Divine Poems have a depth of work that set the foundation for English devotional poetry. His poems deal with suffering, the cross, and longing for God. Donne was a flighty and romantic soul, but in his lifetime ws better known as a pastor than a poet.
    Samuel Johnson classes Donne as a “metaphysical poet,” because of his flare for difficult metaphors (with no relation to the present trend of “metaphysics” as a religious study). Today critics class with him George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and Richard Crashaw—all seventeenth-century poets who wrote on devotional themes, all inspired in part by Donne.

    ‘Twas much, that man was made like God before,
    But, that God should be made like man, much more.

    Selection of Divine Poems: vox

  2. George Herbert (1593-1633)
    Lyricist of the Cross
    Herbert follows very much along the line of Donne, but that does not mean his work is not valuable. He frequently contemplates scenes or passages from Scripture, and like Donne, he was a priest. He was also a lute-player, and many of his poems were set to his own music. Herbert died at 39.

    He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself; for every man has need to be forgiven.

    Selected Poems (free): pdf

  3. John Milton (1608-1674)
    Poet of Eden
    Author of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Although he is most well known for these two poems, he has many other poems, especially on the Nativity of Christ, that are worth a second look.
    Milton also wrote a number of polemical tracts, one of which—the Areopagitica—is regarded as foundational to the Western concept of censorship and freedom of press.
    Milton was blind in his later life. His biographer records that he had his daughter read the Scriptures to him in the original languages for hours every day. While he was writing Paradise Lost, he took comfort in what he considered his most significant literary work, a recent political tract, now all but forgotten in comparison to his poetry.

    Peace hath her victories
    No less renowned than war.

    Paradise Lost (free): amzpdfvox
    Paradise Regained (free): amzpdfvox

  4. Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
    Pioneer of English Hymnwriting
    In his lifetime, Watts was known as a logician more than his verse. In the early 18th century, he published  The Psalms of David Imitated and several others books that set the foundation for English hymnody. Little known to most Christians, there was a time in Reformation England when there was a controversy over whether congregations should sing psalms or hymns. Authors and theologians like Benjamin Keach and Isaac Watts were instrumental—pun intended—in bringing freedom to Christian expression in music and worship, similar to many 20th-century musicians who challenged the Christians music industry to expand its art forms.

    He rules the world with truth and grace,
    And makes the nations prove
    The glories of His righteousness,
    And wonders of His love.

    Psalms of David: amz ($0.99) – pdfvox

  5. Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
    Singer of the Methodist Revolution
    Today John Wesley is known as the “founder of the Methodist movement,” and his brother as the songwriter of the movement. But are the brothers so different? Both brothers were in Oxford’s Holy Club, which Charles founded in 1729; both brothers went to Georgia in 1735; both brothers experienced conversion in 1738; both brothers began open-air preaching in 1739 after the style of George Whitefield; both brothers wrote thousands of hymns, and both preached evangelistically for decades.

    Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees,
    And looks to God alone;
    Laughs at impossibilities,
    And cries it shall be done.

    Hymns and Sacred Poems: pdf

  6. William Cowper (1731-1800)
    Minstrel of Abolition
    Cowper and Newton arranged Olney Hymns for Newton’s congregation in Olney, England; this was the first work to include “Amazing Grace” (by Newton) and many other now famous hymns.
    Cowper’s The Task is often called the best of his poetry, probably because of its defense of a Reformed theology. But his other long poems like “Charity” have equal merit and are loaded with theological content.

    God moves in a mysterious way,
    His wonders to perform;
    He plants his footsteps in the sea,
    And rides upon the storm

    The Task: pdfamz
    Olney Hymns: pdfamz ($6.99)

  7. F. W. Faber (1814-1863)
    The Muse of God’s Character
    Faber was a prolific Catholic writer of both poetry and prose. Although his theology works are strongly flavored by his Catholicism, today many Protestants know and love his verse through the writings of A. W. Tozer. Tozer was so greatly moved by Faber’s poetry, that in his compilation, The Christian Book of Mystical Verse, Faber figures more prominently than any other poet. Tozer also quotes Faber multiple times in his devotional books like The Knowledge of the Holy.
    Faber’s hymns deal preeminently with the nature and character of God, which is why Tozer liked them so much. Faber also deals with themes of death, the prayer life, and spiritual dryness. Protestant readers can also get our edition of Faber’s Hymns which has been culled down from his best works.

    Shoreless Ocean! who shall sound Thee?
    Thine own eternity is round Thee,
    Majesty Divine.

    Faber’s Hymns: amz ($2.99) – pdf

  8. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)
    She was often quoted simply as Mrs. Browning, and her husband Robert was, of course, a famous poet in his own right. In some books of the period, she is introduced as “Mr. Browning’s wife,” but, ironically, I see her quoted more often in devotional readings.
    Though she shies from comparing her Drama in Exile to Milton’s Paradise Lost, she follows a similar line by starting where Milton left off.

    Earth’s crammed with heaven,
    And every common bush afire with God:
    But only he who sees takes off his shoes.

    Drama in Exile (free): amzpdfvox

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New Biographies!

We have published two new paperbacks about pioneer missionaries!

Samuel Zwemer’s Biography

Apostle to Islam: A Biography of Samuel Zwemer by J. Christy Wilson is the authorized biography of Samuel Marinus Zwemer. J. Christy Wilson not only was a missionary in the Muslim world for 22 years, but he succeeded Zwemer as chair of Princeton’s Institute of Theology.

If you are interested in reading about pioneer missions in the Middle East, I would look no further than this book. Zwemer was connected everywhere. He started in pioneer missions in Iraq, Bahrain, and Egypt; he set up missions conferences specifically for reaching Muslims in India, China, and Indonesia; he taught theology and missions at Princeton, and wrote nearly fifty books while doing all this. No wonder Zwemer’s close colleague called him “a steam engine in breeches!”

Zwemer’s Lucknow conference in 1911 is considered a major turning point in missions to the Muslim world.

Ludwig Krapf’s Biography

The Life of Ludwig Krapf: The Missionary Explorer of East Africa by Paul E. Kretzmann

(Johann) Ludwig Krapf was trained for missions in Basel, Switerland. He was first-class linguist, studying Semitic languages like Hebrew, Arabic, and Ethiopic in addition to European languages. When he went to East Africa in 1827, he found these skills to be in no small demand. He published research, dictionaries, and Bible portions in no less than seven East African languages with his colleagues, including a Bible translation in Swahili. Although he tragically suffered the loss of his family on the mission field, he did not lose his indomitable and courageous spirit. It was then that he famously wrote that, since the church conquers over the graves of its workers, then the evangelization of Africa was at hand.

Paul E. Kretzmann, author of the Popular Commentary of the Bible, honed this biography from hundreds of pages of Krapf’s journals and his past biographers to create an accessible and page-turning story with a broad appeal.

What to Read for Lent 2017

As Lent approaches, here are three recommendations for getting into the spirit of the season:

  1. When God Died by Herbert Lockyer
    Herbert Lockyer wrote these 12 meditative sermons specifically for the Lent season, which culminates in the commemoration of the Holy Week and the death and resurrection of Jesus. The sermons focus, though, on the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus. These classic sermons by Herbert Lockyer were out of print for more than 75 years, and have been republished by Pioneer Library.
  2. The Loneliness of Christ by Robert Keable
    This Catholic author wrote a stirring devotional about a seldom-explored side of Jesus’ life: loneliness. Lent is typically focused towards the cross and resurrection of Christ, but it also commemorates his temptation in the desert. Jesus’ loneliness is part and parcel of his work as our Forerunner, our Captain, and our Savior.
  3. Concerning Christ’s Temptations by Thomas Fuller
    If you love Puritan literature, you should definitely check out Thomas Fuller. He is a 17th-century Chesterton, combining unexpected insight with a witty turn of phrase. Puritan writers love to turn Scripture over and over, drawing all that they can from it. These twelve sermons were originally published more than 350 years ago, but they have been edited and footnoted to make them a little easier for modern readers.
  4. Sign up for Lent devotions from Pioneer Library
    This Lent, Pioneer Library will be publishing short Lent devotionals to encourage meditation on the temptations of Jesus. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb. 4:15) This is the key verse to this devotional, which takes an inward look at the experience of Jesus in each of the three temptations. If the Holy Spirit led him to and through temptation in victory, he can do the same for us.

If you want to receive devotionals on the desert temptations of Jesus, you can sign up your email address by typing it in the sidebar to this page.

Soul Espresso

It was 5:00 a.m. on one of the coldest days of winter. I was a freshman in college. My friend Mitch Mitchell had told me that the first ten people to a local coffee shop got a free drink. I didn’t know what coffee tasted like, but free sounded good.

I ordered a mocha latte. Mitch proceeded to chug four shots of espresso before falling asleep on the opposite side of a chess set.

I have never liked ‘drip’ coffee, and still don’t drink it often—but since that morning I have loved espresso drinks.

Espresso is unique. Invented in Italy, it requires high temperature and high pressure to saturate the water with coffee. Once it is exposed to oxygen, the composition of espresso begins to change, which is why it is usually either combined with water or milk, or drank immediately. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the high-pressure concentration of truth: spiritual espresso. I discovered that potent and concentrated spiritual truth can come in a very small package. Here are three examples:

My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers

“Beware of posing as a profound person; God became a Baby.”
Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, November 22

This classic devotional has been in print since 1924 in 39 languages. An old friend gave me My Utmost for His Highest as a high school graduation present, and I came to know Christ about two months later. The gift, at first unwanted, was not a waste. I was recently carrying one of Chambers’ books at a conference, and a friend told me “that’s a four-pages-at-a-time book.” I told him, “yeah, I can barely read one subsection before I have to stop and think and pray.” That’s what I mean when I call these writings spiritual espresso.

Oswald Chambers died at 43, but his wife Biddy had transcribed hundreds of his talks verbatim and spent the rest of her life publishing them. He was a YMCA chaplain to British soldiers during World War I in Egypt. He believed in a concept he called “seed thoughts”: simple but true statements about God and life could change your entire way of thinking. He had a bulletin board on which he posted a thought daily. (When the camp flooded, he posted, “Closed during submarine maneuvers.”) While My Utmost shows this tendency, his wife compiled an even briefer devotional called Run Today’s Race which better illustrates Chambers’ tendency for potent, concentrated thought.

George MacDonald: An Anthology by C. S. Lewis (compiler)

“The Lord cared neither for isolated truth nor for orphaned deed.”
C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald: An Anthology, Entry 54

Oswald Chambers said about George MacDonald that it was “a striking indication of the trend and shallowness of the modern reading public that [his] books have been so neglected” (Christian Discipline, vol. 1, pp. 44-45). C. S. Lewis compiled MacDonald’s best “seed thoughts” into an anthology, which I facetiously call “C. S. Lewis’ best book.”

Systematic statements take you to a conclusion; once you arrive at that conclusion, you find your thought finished for you. Seed thoughts are different. They live and grow over time, and are not conclusions in themselves. This is one thing Chambers and MacDonald had in common; they asked questions as well as they answered them. The goal here is not to produce in you a thought, but to get you to think.

Knowledge of the Holy by A. W. Tozer

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
A. W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy, p. 1

A third book that packs a lot of depth in a few words is Knowledge of the Holy. But then, Tozer has an unfair advantage here: if you want to go deep, there is nothing deeper to write about than God Himself. All of these authors are at their best when they take you to the Source of our faith without speculating, arguing or equivocating. “The knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10).

But there is another connection that I have omitted. Chambers was an avid reader and quoter of poetry. MacDonald wrote volumes of poetry himself, as did C. S Lewis. Tozer compiled his Christian Book of Mystical Verse, stating that his best devotional times were alone with a Bible and a hymnbook. What is there about poetry that relates to the spiritual life?

Distilled Language

One American poet laureate said that “poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” Bad poetry, like bad stories, have a lot of words with little meaning. The best poetry has few words with great meaning. Even Bible expositors often quote hymns or Christian poetry to add something that an exposition can’t. The apostle Paul quotes Greek poetry at least three times in the New Testament. He encouraged the use of song as part of Christian teaching in Colossians 3:16: “…teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Songs often communicate our deepest thoughts the most simply. They can contain the gospel in a concentrated form, capable of being understood by children.

Embedded in a few of Paul’s letters are extremely concise statements of Gospel which some people think were actually early Christian hymns. Two examples include Philippians 2:5-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16, quoted below in verse:

God was manifest in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.

Most amazing of all, Jesus quotes the ancient hymnbook of his people from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) As today, Jewish hymns were often titled after their first line. (If I shout “amazing grace” in a room full of Christians, a few might erupt, “how sweet the sound!”) So some scholars think Jesus could as well have shouted “Psalm 22” from the cross, pointing the Jews to a song that prophesied nearly a dozen circumstances pertaining to his crucifixion and resurrection. In just four Aramaic words, Jesus communicated great truth about who he is, his own death, his victory over it—and the prophetic power of one ancient worship song written in a heart of affliction.

The People’s Bible

I recently finished publishing a sermon set called The People’s Bible by Joseph Parker, also published in 1970s as Preaching Through the Bible. Joseph Parker was a contemporary of Spurgeon and, like Spurgeon, gathered thousands of Londoners in the late 19th century. His published sermons number well over 1000. The People’s Bible is a homiletic journey through the entire Bible, comprising about 1200 sermons, preached over the course of seven years.

What is unique about Joseph Parker’s sermons are their dynamic nature, their ability to surprise. He meditated on Scripture during the week, and his preaching was the outflow of that meditation. He gave his messages with few notes, and the man who copied them down said that Parker was at his best when he strayed farthest from his notes.

Alexander Whyte—himself among the most famous British preachers—after hearing Spurgeon and Dean Stanley in London, later heard Joseph Parker on another visit. After hearing him twice he wrote:

“He is by far the ablest man now standing in the English-speaking pulpit. He stands in the pulpit of Thomas Goodwin, the pulpit genius of all the Puritans, and a theologian to whom I owe more than I can ever acknowledge of spiritual light and life. And Dr. Parker is a true and worthy successor to this great Apostolic Puritan.”

Another prominent preacher and writer, Ian MacLaren, wrote the following:

“Dr. Parker occupies a lonely place among the preachers of our day. His position among preachers is the same as that of a poet among ordinary men of letters. … The power of his preaching lies in the contact of a mind of perpetual and amazing originality with the sublime truths of the Gospel, and the faculty which Dr. Parker possesses with all men of intellectual genius of discovering the principles which lie behind what seems the poorest detail, and which resolve all things into a unity.”

His biographer, Margaret Bywater, called him “the most outstanding preacher of his time.”

Below are the links for the new Kindle editions of The People’s Bible. These include active table of contents and linked footnotes.

Genesis
Exodus – sample
Leviticus
Numbers
Deuteronomy
Joshua
Judges & Ruth
1 & 2 Samuel
1 & 2 Kings
1 & 2 Chronicles
Ezra, Nehemiah & Esther
Job
Psalms
Proverbs
Ecclesiastes
Song of Songs
Isaiah
Jeremiah & Lamentations
Ezekiel & Daniel
The Minor Prophets – sample
Matthew (3 vol.)
Mark & Luke
John
Acts (3 vol.)
Romans to Galatians
Ephesians to Revelation

4 1/2 Book Recommendations for Christmas

A few seasonal reading ideas, focusing on what’s freely (or cheaply) available online

As Western culture shifts, Protestants and Pentecostals have become more and more concerned with the liturgical year. Partially assisted by the advent of social media, America is getting whiplash as we return from individualistic culture to a more communal culture. The liturgical year is a way of remembering the Bible’s great stories together as a community, and in that way it has always had value for the church.

How can we remember the birth of Christ best? There are many Christmas “devotionals” out there, but I recommend first that we return to the great hymns of Christmas past. If you have not sat down and read a hymnbook as part of your worship, I would say you are missing out on some of the inexpressible truths entrusted to the church. Poetry (and hymns!) have a way of expressing what prose can’t.

A Book of Christmas Verse – ed. H. C. Beeching

This book is just what I had been looking for: a mix of classic Christmas hymns that I had heard almost every year, and other traditional hymns and poems that are lost to modern times. Of course the classics like Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley are there, but there are older English hymnwriters that you may not have read, like John Donne and George Herbert. Most of the poetry here explores the deepest truths of Christmas: the Incarnation, the humility of the Son of God, and the cross and resurrection that awaited him at the end of his life. (If you don’t read Latin you will have to skip a few, but don’t let it put you off—it is a great collection.)

A Book of Christmas Verse (Kindle edition)

My Christmas Book – F. W. Boreham

Boreham’s books are not “devotional,” strictly speaking. His Christmas book is more of a ramble through the park with an old friend. He mixes storytelling with preaching in a way that cannot be imitated. This book is newly available in a digital edition, and if you can get a hands on a copy you will be glad you did. If you can’t get your hands on a copy, you can read a sample at the following link:

A Clouded Christmas (sample chapter)

How Christmas Came to Roaring Camp (sample chapter)

My Christmas Book (Kindle edition)

All About God in Christ (or The Christ of Christmas) – Herbert Lockyer

Herbert Lockyer is one of the most prolific writers of Bible studies of modern times, but he is best known for the All series. In the 1930s, Lockyer was involved with Zondervan made the smart choice of publishing dozens his topical sermons:Sorrows and Stars, Roses in December, The Fairest of All, The Mystery of Godliness and several others. He published _The Christ of Christmas _in 1942. Later, when they were creating the _All _series, much of this older material was cleaned up and put into the 1995 volume All About God in Christ, so that book is primarily a study of the Incarnation, as was The Christ of Christmas.

The Christ of Christmas (Kindle edition)

All About God in Christ

The Glory of the Manger – Samuel Zwemer

Zwemer has many books, and even the most mundane titles that I have come across have been exhilarating and convicting. Like the others, this book is a mix of doctrinal and devotional, with a focus on Christ’s divinity. If my timeline is correct, Zwemer was teaching comparative religion courses at Princeton when he wrote this, and it shows in his wide variety of sources, stories, and poetry about the Christmas story. This book has been out of print for many decades, and was recently published for Kindle by Pioneer Library.

The Glory of the Manger (Kindle edition)

Conclusion

Leonard Ravenhill used to be invited to Christian book fairs, but he would decry the shallowness of the writings he found there. Biblical Christian truth is glorious, convicting, and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword, and we dull the edge when we obsess over the earthly aspects of Jesus’ advent: who were the wise men, what is a manger, what was the star, etc. My final suggestion is that we look for books dealing especially with the glorious truth of the Incarnation of Christ, what Paul called “the mystery of godliness”—and if we meditate on that, we will not feel that we have missed the spirit of Christmas or the purpose of the season.

4 Book Recommendations for Christians in Grief

The Christian After Death (Hough)

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My friend Daniel kept this book by his bedside for years while his parents were struggling with illness. Daniel had become so accustomed to nursing his parents, that he would only sleep for a few hours at a time.

This book is my first recommendation any time I get questions about the afterlife and what the Bible says about it. It is a book of sermons; they are not creative or breathtaking, but they are scriptural. Rarely do I read something so straightforward and biblical—especially on such a difficult topic.

The book itself is organized around twelve common questions about the afterlife. The book was so good, I’ve scanned it and made it publicly available.

The Hero in Thy Soul (A. J. Gossip)

amzbookfinder

Along with several others who are out of print and nearly unknown today, A. J. Gossip was selected for inclusion in the set 20 Centuries of Great Preaching, and this is one of only two sources I have on his life—the other being his obituary. He held a number of pastorates in the Free Church of Scotland, but he was not a very famous preacher until his wife died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1927. Within days of her death, he was in his pulpit preaching Christ’s triumph over the grave. That single sermon—titled “But When Life Tumbles In, What Then?”—brought him worldwide fame.

The sermon was printed in a volume of sermons called The Hero in Thy Soul: Being an Attempt to Face Life Gallantly. Gossip wrote in the foreword:

“But When Life Tumbles In, What Then?” was the first sermon preached after my wife’s bewilderingly sudden and undreamed-of death. The office-bearers of Beechgrove Church, Aberdeen, included it in a memorial booklet issued for private circulation. It has wandered so far over the world, I have received so pathetically many requests for copies from people in sorrow, that I have included the sermon here… I have not had the heart to work over it; and it is set down as it was delivered.

His biographer in the 20 Centuries series writes that Gossip lived through tough economic times in Scotland, and had been a chaplain during World War I. Years before his wife’s death, he had buried a unit of a hundred soldiers, whom he had known personally. In The Hero in Thy Soul he has a wealth of encouraging words for Christians struggling through grief and hardship.

The tone of the book is not somber; the sermons swell with chivalry and courage. Gossip was a modest preacher and did not preach in the greatest pulpits of the time. But his sermons are among the best devotional books you will ever find. They show, like F. W. Boreham or James S. Stewart, the power of a preacher who draws the best material from the wells of past literature.

Poems on Various Subjects (Wheatley)

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Phillis Wheatley was the first African-American female to gain publication in the United States. She was sold into slavery at age 7, but the Wheatley family encouraged her in her education, so that by the age of 12 she could read Classics in Greek and Latin. She had a custom of writing consolation poems for families that lived through tragedy, including the families of some high-profile preachers such as George Whitefield. These elegies compose about one-third of her published poetry.

Her work is not hymns, but poetry. Some of these poems take on more Classical or academic themes, lost to a modern reader, but many of them are filled with worship. Worship songwriter David Crowder loved to draw from the great worship songs of the past, and he quoted from one of Wheatley’s most famous poems:

To him, whose works array’d with mercy shine,
What songs should rise, how constant, how divine!

Wheatley was paraded around London society and even visited George Washington in 1776. She died at only 31, having proven the dignity and capability of her race that was so long oppressed. Wheatley’s gift for helping others see through their grief still bears fruit to this day.

Faber’s Hymns (1894) (F. W. Faber)

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Frequently quoted by devotional authors of every creed and color, F. W. Faber was a prolific author of devotional books in his own right. Faber’s first publication was a defense of the Reformation—after which he became Catholic, and he wrote many books on strictly Catholic topics that would bore or agitate a Protestant reader.

His poems and hymns, though, were highly influential among Catholic and Protestant audiences. A. W  Tozer has been the greatest reviver of Faber’s works in recent times.  In his classic book on the attributes of God, The Knowledge of the Holy, Tozer quotes F. W. Faber a dozen times. And when Tozer selected poetry for his Christian Book of Mystical Verse, he included many of Faber’s most famous hymns about the character of God. Ravenhill was fond of quoting this verse from “Jesus, My God and My All”:

O Jesus, Jesus, dearest Lord!
Forgive me if I say,
For very love, Thy sacred name
A thousand times a day.

Among Faber’s other favorite themes are death, grief and eternity. Other poems like “Dryness in Prayer” and “Distractions in Prayer” are easily relatable for Christians dealing with grief. He writes long and often on the desert experience of Christianity.

The best edition I have found of his poetry was published in 1894. I honed this edition down, deleting some of the material that is less appropriate for devotional reading. The result is the Kindle edition published in the Amazon store. I hope that it encourages many who need a new vision of God’s goodness in the midst of grief.