I just retired after 35 years of serving parishes in the Bronx, Philadelphia. I am also a poet, with one book published and another one coming later this year. I have taught creative writing with seniors, youth and immigrants. The church I just retired from (St. Paul’s Lutheran in south Minneapolis) has a related non-profit, which publishes a literary journal that I edit titled The Phoenix of Phillips.
I’m in love with poetry. I could say, in one sense, that poetry saved my life. I started writing poems in college, after my first real girlfriend dumped me. That’s not a required pathway for aspiring writers, by the way! But there is something about confronting one’s pain with the power and beauty of art that is transforming. Two-time U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Threthewey has written extensively from the pain of growing up the daughter of a mixed-race couple whose marriage was considered illegal. Her mother was murdered by her stepfather. She was interested in poetry from a young age, but has said that “It was the deeper wound of losing my mother that really made me a poet.”
Again, that level of pain is not necessary to be a poet. But doesn’t the biblical narrative reach into the deepest wounds of being human and express it in beautiful ways? Read Job 38-41. Out loud. In an empty sanctuary. Granted, God has had more time than us to work on her poetic voice, but maybe this time of the pandemic is a time for us to see how far our poetic voice can grow.
Writing poetry throughout my ministry has saved my life in two other ways: First, it has taken my mind and spirit (and even my body) away from the challenging grind of ministry. Second, it has helped me see the stories of the people I minister with as sacred, beautiful, even mythical.
If you do an internet search for “Christian Poetry” or even “Spiritual Poetry” you are likely to be bombarded with terrible poetry. Most poetry I read that is religious pulls off the double play of being essayistic and overly sentimental. Plus many of these poets think that poetry must rhyme, and that writing about the Spirit means restating the most general religious truths they’ve heard over and over, and trying to rhyme them to death. I mean, what rhymes with the line “Jesus took away my sins”? Fins? Bins? Pins? (Although, I confess, I’d love to see a poem that successfully rhymed “sins’ with “djinns”—wouldn’t you?)
This doesn’t mean that poetry, whatever the form it takes, doesn’t have to take seriously the sound of its words. Poetry, along with music, arose as a primordial way for human beings to explain what they see and live and to imagine a different world.
Our faith has been communicated down the ages by images and stories; and yet, most of us have been trained to communicate theology by using concepts like faith, grace, forgiveness, and justification. Nothing is wrong with those concepts, but they often don’t travel far enough in human flesh to reach the searing center of our soul, where pain and joy seek redemption.
Not sure where to start?
Read, read, read a lot of poetry. Better yet, listen to it as well (listening is the skill most of us have deficits in). Listen to this sonnet of thanksgiving by e e cummings.
For more examples, here are some of my favorite poems, that I’ve used in ministry:
- Catechism Class
Preacher, The: Ruminates behind the Sermon by Gwendolyn Brooks
The Waking by Theodore Roethke
- Youth Poetry Class
I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman
Sometimes in these poems, God gets directly mentioned; sometimes God is hovering over the creation.
Here’s one of mine, about the Annunciation:
THE EGYPT OF MARY’S WOMB *
* Title from a poem by Robert Bly
A small town. A back door.
A young woman at her work
chopping, searing, holding.
A flash, not so much of light, as
the chorus of sight that light trails
as it passes by. A strange
word, an aspiration,
a slight bow of the head,
a warm wrapping of wings.
There will be lions, later.
There will be swords.
But tonight, your flesh
is reed and pitch,
bitumen and straw,
floating on the great river,
eyes open, naming,
one by one, all the stars
of the vast, quaking world.
(To read more of my poems, see my artist page.)
Ask your people to read poetry. Even out loud! Do you think that parishioners who haven’t read much poetry or haven’t been to college, can’t handle poetry? Watch this video about Tom Moran, a custodian at a middle school reading one of my favorite poems, “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke. Moran has been unemployed and gone through struggles, but as he says, “you can always go back to poetry”.
Write poetry. You can’t? You probably did as a child. Maybe even thinking about writing poetry makes you feel inadequate or ashamed. Great! That’s a good place to start from. Write a letter-form poem to that part of yourself. Don’t worry about rhyming, rhythm or even spelling. As one of my teachers said, “all writing is re-writing anyway”. Just get it on the page, stand up, walk around the block or the house, come back and run your mind like a Geiger counter over the words. What is hot? What jumps? Write some more from that place.
If you’re really adventurous, write poetry in a group. It can be fun and revealing. And take it easy! Sometimes we think we have to understand or explain a poem, and when we don’t, we don’t know what to do with it.
Don’t shy away from “tough” poems. Some of the best poems tackle war, disease, racism and so on. Your people can handle this.
Don’t be afraid of silence! Silence is the womb of poetry. The next time you read Job, out loud, in an empty sanctuary, pause between every couple of verses, and listen to what isn’t there.
Dwell in ambiguity and doubt. Finally, poetry, like life, often dwells in ambiguity and doubt, which may frighten us if we think that faith means certainty. But if we walk by faith and not sight, we can be in the ambiguity and doubt, even explore it, and discover new strength.
I would be amiss if I didn’t mention probably the best “spiritual” poet of all, Rumi, a 13th century poet who has taught me more about Jesus than anyone. Here’s a few of his lines to ponder:
We sleep in God’s unconsciousness.
We wake in God’s open hand.
We weep God’s rain.
We laugh God’s lightning.
Blessed Poetry to you!