There once was a Cleveland Heights preacher
Who doubled as Sunday School teacher
He preached and he prayed
And not a soul strayed
‘cause they were all asleep on the bleacher!
All right, that wasn’t very good but I wanted to do my part in this enhanced worship as we celebrate the gospel power of the poetic spirit!
But all silliness aside, what we are doing today has tremendous power to transform who you are, how we look at the world, and frankly how we engage the world and each other.
Poetry has the power to liberate, agitate, communicate deep things.
I dwell in Possibility–
A fairer House than Prose–
More numerous of Windows–
Of Chambers as the Cedars–
Impregnable of Eye–
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky–
Of Visitors–the fairest–
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise
Emily Dickenson wrote that. Our faith has to open things up, create possibilities – help us to open our minds, and hearts and hands to be and do. I think that for too many, Christianity just limits, oppresses, narrows, judges, defines… what a horrible tragedy.
Poetic faith saves us from the hell of literalism. I was with a very bright man, a very conservative, Christian bright man. He had advanced degrees and he makes a whole lot of money – very successful. He and I went on a tour of the petroleum museum in Texas. It really was quite interesting.
We walked through one diorama of the age before the age when the Permian Basin was being formed and all this carbon was being compressed into oil – science tells us that it took billions of years for this to form – Billions!
And as we were walking through my guide said — knowing I was a pastor so he said – either assuming I would agree or provoking me since I think he knew that I was one of the “liberal” pastors – “But of course the length of time is not right because the Bible teaches otherwise.”
I was stunned. He was reading Genesis 1 as a science text. How can you read Genesis 1:1 as anything but a poem of praise to a Creator God who is in the midst of all the stuff (your stuff), hovering, waiting, moving, breathing – all these poetic images that speak to a much deeper truth then some literalist materialistic rendering.
Most of us, simply can’t abide a literalist, limiting, narrowing, proscriptive kind of reading… but most don’t have any other way of engaging with the text … if it didn’t happen that way… then I don’t believe any of it… the baby is thrown out with the bathwater and the Bible isn’t even picked up. This is the reason we put so much emphasis on turning you all into “bible nerds” as Clover likes to say.
The way out of narrow literalism is to engage the Bible poetically, metaphorically, truthfully – we are invited to be interpreters and meaning makers not just robotic followers. The biblical stories free us from the shackles of judgmentalist inerrancy for a creative engagement with the living word of grace and hope and joy!
The truths of life and love and faith are so deep that precise language fails.
Jesus knew this: he opened most of his parables (which are poetic in intent) with the words: “what shall I compare this generation to? The Kingdom of God is like an old woman, a mustard seed, a soppy old, wasteful, over sentimental father who throws a party for a wasteful son, like folks who won’t dress for a wedding party…” Consider the “lilies of the field.” This is poetry people…
POETRY calls us to dig deep for truth by another way – away from literalism. You have to engage passionately with life and then interpret it humbly – knowing that your interpretation may not be someone else’ interpretation – but it calls us into relationship, you see, with the word and with each other. And this is the grace of God, this is the incarnation of God, this is how we live the life of Jesus.
The religious scene, and especially the political scene is so damned boring – so black and white, so constrictive, so judgmental – I don’t want anything to do with it. There is a better way!
I looked at the Bible this past week and noticed how many verses of poetry there are between Genesis and Revelation. From Job to Song of Solomon is almost all verse – poetic verse.
Most of the prophets are organized according to verse – poetic verse.
Just scan the New Testament and whole portions of Jesus’ teaching is in poetic language.
The Bible ends with a superb poetic image of the kingdom descending and God dwelling in the midst.
We are talking about GOD – and none of us have adequate language – but God has given us imagination, and words, and passion to seek after the Divine.
I love the German poet Rilke: this short poem describes my faith location:
I live my life in widening circles
That reach out across the world.
I many not complete this last one
But I give my heart to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
And I still don’t know if I am a falcon, A storm or a great song?
This image of being grounded in God, circling the mystery of God, giving my heart to God – finding my changing identity in God – soaring like a falcon, raging like a storm, singing the great song.
This may not move you – so choose your own poem! But this isn’t just academic, intellectual work. NO!
We have to take the poetic muse into our relationships. We have to take our poetic heart into the world, into our mission to preach good news to the poor and liberate the captive… And the first thing we may need to liberate is our own narrowness, our own cynicism, our own lack of imagination. Liberals can be just as unimaginative as Conservatives.
Langston Hughes, the great African American poet – knows well the agitating power of a poem expressing the frustration of waiting for justice, waiting for dreams. The poetry of social justice.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
When we engage with another – we should be asking ourselves the questions: what poem is that person trying to express…
Have compassion on everyone you meet
Even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
Bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign
Of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
Down there where the spirit meets the bone.
This is a great poem by Miller Williams – your spouse, your child, your lover, your friend, your enemy (where the spirit meets the bone) – what poem are they writing – a lament (“How long, O Lord, How long, will you forget me forever?” Psalm 13), a joyful couplet, a sonnet of broken hopes and dreams, and epic of heroic proportions, a love poem? (“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant…draw me after you, let us make haste!” Song of Sol. 1:1-3) That is smokin’ HOT and it is in the Bible!
Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, “Kingfishers catch fire” teach us to have the eyes of Christ as we engage with others:
For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces….
We enter into the world in all its complexities and we have to learn to see the world not as a series of problems to be solved – but as series of possibilities to be engaged with and that is a poetic endeavor. Social Justice – is about catching the poetic vision of the prophets.
We have to been engaged in helping write poetry – engaged in meaning making, shaped by the awesomeness of the love of God and the saving message of Jesus Christ and the creative urges of the Holy Spirit.
What poem is this congregation expressing this day of our annual meeting? How is our budget for 2012 a poem – opening up possibilities? How is it a hymn of praise, calling us to think bigger and be bigger?
What if we saw the election of our Elders and Deacons and Trustees as the appointment of so many poet laureates who together will fashion a song of epic proportion reaching out into the world in hope, and joy? See how transformative this can be?
What poem are we writing together – how are we interpreting the signs? What language are we using?
What is the poem of your life, the song you are trying to sing, the verse you are trying to write, even if you are not a poet?
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That is by Leonard Cohen – a poet and songwriter.
We are all trying to express things – get it out, in verse and song and “dwelling in possibility”- trust your voice, your interpretation, your belovedness in Christ, your gift (cracks and all) offer it humbly – and out of many voices we will give thanks and praise to God.
The power of the poetry of the GOSPEL – is changing the world!