An Exhilarating Call to Self-Sacrifice

February 1, 2018 by

A poem can mean different things at different times. One of my favorite poems just surprised me this way.

“The Chief Thing” by Philip Britts is an arresting poem – an exhilarating call to self-sacrifice, with no regard for the wisdom or foolishness of the sacrificial act. The description of such fearless daring coupled with the excruciating beauty of Philip’s startling imagery stirs me.

The Chief Thing
That my white lamb is being carried off
In steel-like talons to the unknown hills
And is a lost speck only, in the sky –
That is not the chief thing;
Or that I did not have the strength or skill
To drive off the attacker, to defeat
Merciless claw and swift unerring beak
Or shattering wing;
But my fist is smashed and bloody
And my arm is a scarlet rag,
Showing I struck at the eagle . . .
And that is the chief thing.

Man looking out over a pasture with sheep

The poem at its electrifying face value has always been enough for me. However, since I decided to share the poem with you and since I am an inveterate English teacher, I looked into its context as well as the poet’s life in order to deepen my appreciation of it. If you are a perceptive poetry reader who effortlessly absorbs symbolism, you’ve probably figured all this out already. But for the rest of us . . .

Philip Britts, who joined the Bruderhof in 1939 in England, was a sensitive person, tuned in to people and to nature. He wrote numerous poems, this one on December 13, 1941, just seven days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

As he wrote the poem, Philip knew that Pearl Harbor had catapulted the United States into the Second World War, escalating the world’s already unimaginable suffering – an anguish far away from the Paraguayan wilderness that the Bruderhof members, forced to leave England, now called home. But Philip nonetheless sensed keenly the heavy burden of world war.

Closer to home, within Philip’s own community, one of the pastors was ill, and fighting for his life, stretched between heaven and earth. This situation demanded inner focus for those who lived in that community. It was a difficult time.

When I thought more deeply about what Philip was concerned with in his daily life – distant but pervasive war, and near and painful death – the poem unarguably grew in credibility and power, beyond a generic albeit thrilling call to courage.

Philip uses the striking symbolism of predator and innocent victim to achieve this. The image of an innocent lamb suggests Christ, whom the poet recognizes as “lost” and stolen. This harrowing description moves the poem to a cosmic level. At this point we cease to be readers only and, sensing what is at stake, balance on the brink of uncomfortable but necessary involvement.

Join us for the launch of a new book by Philip Britts.

Philip makes it clear it is not enough to recognize a situation where Christ has been removed: “That is not the chief thing.” It is ludicrous to calculate the cost of getting Jesus back, which will always weigh up as an impossibility: “I did not have the strength or skill.”

What does matter is our actual response, which begs the question: Where is the threatened or stolen Christ in our lives? What “eagle” do we live with that has the power to carry off the lamb? The bird of prey could be as small and mean as negative feelings that divide us; or gossip and mistrust that build walls; or coldness between us and members of our own family, our neighbors, or people we work with. Or as insidious as pornography in a friend’s life, or as heart-breaking as neglect toward a child.

And what then will our response be? Dare we become “smashed and bloody” in our desire to keep and to protect the stolen lamb, Christ, whether we succeed or not? It is a given that involvement in a messy situation will hurt, but may we stay our hearts on the lost or threatened Christ, and dare anything to have him in all situations. That is the chief thing.

If you want to read more by (and about) Philip Britts, you can pre-order a new book from Plough here.


About the author

Ann Morrissey photograph

Ann Morrissey

Ann Morrissey lives in Beech Grove, a Bruderhof in England, with her husband, Dave. They delight in the English countryside...

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  • Thank you for sharing.

  • Involvement expects demands it. Anything less means simply observing from the sidelines. Thank you for sharing this poem, as well as the, at first, surface reactions, and then...the deeper contemplations. In Christ, Jon

    Jon Swart
  • Interesting Food for Thought !!!

    Robert Moeller