In Praise of (Religious) Poetry

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, June 4, 2017

Joel 2:28-29 ESV; Mary Oliver, “I Want to Write Something So Simply”

How many of you like poetry?  It takes a special inclination, I guess, to be an avid poetry enthusiast.  It certainly is not everyone’s cup of tea.  One of the United Church’s past resident poets, Mona Raridon, often said something to the effect that you can hardly give away your published books of poetry, much less sell them!  Such is a truth I have come to realize as well, having self-published some of my own poems about a year ago.  Poetry collections are not in high demand, unless you happen to be someone like Mary Oliver, who is “unmatched in terms of poetry sales in the American market.”1

But let me ask another question: How many of you like to sing hymns?  More of us do, perhaps.  But the truth is many of our beloved hymns were born as poems that were later set to music.  For instance, that familiar Christmas hymn that many of us here at the United Church love, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was first a poem before it was later set to music.  Likewise Katherine Lee Bates’ poem, “Pike’s Peak,” was later set to music and the title changed to “America the Beautiful.”  Finally, poems by Christian poet Christina Rossetti were later set to music, as in the case of the hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Well, allow me to ask one more question: How many of you like the Psalms?  Perhaps more of us would answer in the affirmative of liking the psalms than enjoying reading poetry.  But for the most part, the Psalms are poetry, many of which were set to music for Temple worship much like a number of our hymns were originally poems that were set to music for church worship.  “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1); “I lift up my eyes to the hills.  From where does my help come?” (Psalm 121:1); “Where shall I go from your Spirit?  Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7).  All three of these beloved verses are Hebrew poetry.

Much of the material in the Bible, in fact, that we have all come to love and embrace was in its original form poetry, pure and simple.  Debra Dean Murphy, writing in a recent issue of Christian Century magazine, notes that “For theology and liturgy, poetry has always mattered.  Scripture begins and ends with poetry and contains swaths and snatches of it throughout its vast remainder.  The rites of Christian worship across the centuries have endured in part because they are poetry in the mouth, poetry in the ear, poetry to live by.”1  It may surprise some to learn that today’s scripture text from the prophet Joel which speaks of God’s Spirit being poured out upon all flesh in its original form was Hebrew poetry.  The early Church would embrace and reinterpret this ancient Hebrew poem to describe the event that gave birth to the Christian Church on the day of Pentecost.

And though Jesus himself didn’t write anything personally as far as we know, some of the words attributed to Jesus, as quoted by Matthew and Luke anyway, border on the poetic.  I am thinking of the Beatitudes – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:3); and “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin” (Luke 12:27).  So, the point to be taken thus far is that poetry (especially religious poetry) is a vital and rich part of our lives.

But what is it about poetry that makes it so appealing and vital to our lives?  Well, good poetry – poetry that withstands the test of time, anyway – tends to be universal in its message.  Good poetry often touches on themes with which most people can identify; it may touch on human emotions that are common to everyone.  Such is pointed out by Mary Oliver in her poem, “I Want to Write Something So Simple.”  Her aim, she says, is to write something

that even

as you are reading

you feel it

and as you read

you keep feeling it

and though it be my story

it will be common,

. . .

so that by the end

you will think—

no, you will realize—

that it was all the while

yourself arranging the words,

that it was all the time

words that you yourself,

out of your own heart

had been saying.”2

In other words, often good poetry does resonate; it does make us feel like the poet’s experience is our experience.  Such, I think, is why the poetry of the Psalms is so meaningful – the Psalms touch on every human emotion and experience.

This leads to another point: Good poetry invites us into an experience.  In an economy of words, a good poem thrusts us into a life experience that we can visualize and almost feel with our senses.  Take, for instance, Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  Immediately we feel ourselves being transported to a patch of woods being covered by a December’s snow:

“Whose woods these are, I think I know;

His house is in the village though

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.”

As far as classic American poets are concerned, Robert Frost is by far my favorite.  But as for contemporary American poets, my favorite is Mary Oliver, as most of you should know by now.  In her book titled A Poetry Handbook, Oliver notes, “The poem is an attitude, and a prayer . . . .  poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”3  Indeed, here we get to the kernel of the issue: good poems are bread for the soul!  Good poems feed the spirit – they affirm the feelings, longings, joys, sorrows, and so many other emotions that are common to the human soul.  Poems validate our emotions, fill us with joy, and give us comfort when we are troubled.

And of all the poets today, Mary Oliver serves as a voice for many as she is a mystic of the natural world, brings theology to bear upon everyday life in the world, invites us “into wonder,” and reminds us to be present in the moment and “To pay attention . . . our endless and proper work.”4

As Debra Dean Murphy points out in her Christian Century article, “the best orators and authors throughout history have won over their audiences with poetic speech.”1  The Hebrew prophet Amos: “let justice roll down like waters,/and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” – poetry.  The Hebrew prophet Micah: “what does the Lord require of you/ but to do justice, and to love kindness,’ and to walk humbly with your God?” – poetry.  Abraham Lincoln ‘s Gettysburg Address: “Fourscore and seven years ago . . .” – not a poem, but poetic language, certainly.

And so, the conclusion of the matter is that poetry – and for many of us religious poetry – is so much more a part of our lives than any of us may have previously realized.  Poetry as presented in the Psalms and the Hebrew prophets; poetry by folks like Robert Frost and Mary Oliver; and poetic language by great orators like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr, and certainly Jesus himself – such words are part of who we are as individuals, Christians, Americans, and even residents of planet Earth.

Good poetry affirms us, comforts us, challenges us, and at times even changes us.  So how can we not stand in praise of the poetic?  May it be so.  Amen.

 

1Debra Dean Murphy, “Why we need Mary Oliver’s poems,” Christian Century, April 25, 2017.

2Mary Oliver, “I Want to Write Something So Simply,” Evidence.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2009.

3Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook.  Orlando, FL: Harcourt Books, 1994.  Pp. 114, 122.

4Mary Oliver, “Yes! No”

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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