Happy Birthday, Clyde Kilby

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

106 years ago today Clyde Kilby was born near Johnson City, Tennessee. He was one of the most formative teachers of my college days at Wheaton. He taught English literature. What made the difference was his extraordinarily awake, God-oriented palate for wonder in poetry and nature.

Dr. Kilby stood in front of us and exulted in beauty and wonder. He did not say: This poem is amazing. He was amazed. He didn’t just say the last chapters of the book of Job are mind-boggling glimpses of God’s power and wisdom. His mind was boggled. It was irresistibly contagious—at least for me.

We sat there and for the first time we saw things. We felt. We were drawn into the bright day of wakefulness out of our self-preoccupied, adolescent slumbers.

I remember him starting class with readings from Job to help us feel the wonder of the natural world—

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”
“Who shut in the sea with doors?”
“Have you commanded the dawn to know its place?”
“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?”
“Can you send forth lightnings?”
“Who provides for the raven its prey?”
“Who has let the wild donkey go free?”

He went on, day after day, beaming with the exultation of God over his workmanship in the created world. Then one day he came to the ostrich. This is the one I remember best. O how he laughed that God made the Ostrich “stupid.” That’s what his translation said. “God has made her forget wisdom and given her no share in understanding” (Job 39:17).

What I remember was his laughter. Here is God confronting Job with his breathtaking wonders. And he says, “I made the Ostrich stupid! Match that, Job.” This was not a theological problem for Kilby. God was God. This was simply amazing. He gave us one of the greatest gifts—amazement at what we see.

He opened my eyes to the mental health of enjoying life through poetry. I recall one day he read to us John Keats’ ode To Autumn.

            Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
                    Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun . . .

When he was done, he looked at us with all seriousness and said, “If you memorize this, in years to come it will bring you deep pleasure.” For some reason, I never forgot that advice—a man’s turning his experience of Autumn into words could give me deep pleasure. He was right.

He said, with no sense of exaggeration, what America needs is a great poet. That was the late sixties! I think what he meant was: A prophet-poet who could capture the heart of the nation and lift it out of itself to a transforming vision of the ultimately Beautiful. For Clyde Kilby that was God.

For those who want to taste more of his wisdom, here are the ten resolutions for mental health he gave near the end of his life.

Happy Birthday Clyde Kilby. I love you.