Poetry and Soul

Good morning!  I’m Gill Robertson, Associate Pastor at New Crossing Church.

Last Christmas, my husband gave me a book of poems, written by one of my favorite authors, Eugene Peterson.  He’s the guy who wrote The Message translation of the Bible, using everyday 21st Century language.  If you have a copy or have heard it read, you know he has a way of bringing out the reality and relevance of God’s truth in the words he uses.  So I was pretty excited to read some of his poems.

The thing about poems is that they are made up of words, but they communicate far more than the simple factual meanings of the words.  I’m kind of a thinker – it’s easy for me to live inside my head, but I’m discovering there’s more to life than just facts.  God was pretty smart when he told us to love him with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul, and with all our strength.  (Jesus said that in Mark 12:30 and he was quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5 if you’re wondering where that comes from.)  I find it relatively straightforward to love God with my mind by listening to sermons, reading and studying my Bible and other books, and thinking about how God’s truth applies to my life.  Notice I said straightforward, not necessarily easy!  And I guess that’s where loving him with all my strength comes in – I know I need to put in some effort to understand Him and to live out what I learn by loving and serving others.  And I know that if that’s all I do, I’ll become a burned out, overworked robot, so I need to love him with my heart, my emotions, so I’m motivated to want to love and serve people out of compassion and desire for them to know God too.  But recently I’ve been trying to “get” what it means to love him with all my soul – that seems a bit more ethereal and nebulous, more difficult to get my brain around.  And I’m beginning to realize that’s the point.  This isn’t about connecting with God using my brain, it’s about my soul, the very essence of my being, the part I can’t explain intellectually, see physically, or feel emotionally.

And that’s where poetry comes in – and things like music, and dance, and art, and a beautiful landscape, and light filtering through trees, and a sunset over a lake, or a crackling fire.  There’s something about these things that stirs our souls.  We can’t necessarily explain it, see it, or even attach a particular emotion to it.  But we feel our souls being stirred by, and hopefully connecting with our creator.

You could probably add your own soul-stirrers to the list – perhaps the hum of a well-tuned motorbike, the first bite of a really good meal, a hug from a long-lost friend, the view from your tree stand.  In fact, I encourage you this week to think about what stirs your soul, what helps you experience God in the depth of your being in ways you can’t even explain or comprehend.  I really believe this is important in our scientific no-time-for-non-essentials world.  Because we really need to have a love for God that goes deeper than what our minds can understand, what our emotions can feel, and what our strength can accomplish.  Those things may be enough when life is good, but when we face illness, injury, death, financial struggles, family issues, or simply our own fears and failures we need something more.  When we are exhausted and have no strength left, when our emotions are fried and worn out, and when life just doesn’t make sense, we need that soul connection with our God who loves us faithfully even in the midst of pain and turmoil and confusion.

I’m going to read one of Eugene Peterson’ poems.  Listen to the words with your ears.  But listen with your soul too.  What is God saying to your soul beyond the literal meaning of the words themselves?  How does he want you to experience him and be certain of his love for you in the depth of your being?

This poem is called “Pain” and it’s based on Luke 2:35 when Simeon blessed the infant Jesus in the temple and included these words to his mother Mary: “…and a sword will pierce through your own soul also that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”

The bawling of babies, always in a way
Inappropriate – why should the loved and innocent
Greet existence with wails? – is proof that not all
Is well.  Dreams and deliveries never quite mesh.
Deep hungers go unsatisfied, deep hurts
Unhealed.  The natural and gay are torn
By ugly grimace and curse.  A wound appears
In the place of ecstasy.  Birth is bloody.
All pain’s a prelude: to symphony, to sweetness.
“The pearl began as a pain in the oyster’s stomach.”
Dogwood, recycled from cradle to cross, enters
The market again as a yoke for easing burdens.
Each sword-opened side is the matrix for God
To come again through travail for joy.

May God stir your soul in ways beyond your understanding and secure your soul in love for him as you experience his deep love for you.  Amen.

This week I’m reading you some poems from a collection called “Holy Luck” by Eugene Peterson, who wrote The Message translation of the Bible.  Poems are a form of communication – they use words.  But they don’t so much inform or educate us, they don’t use words to convey vital facts or reminders or to persuade us that something is true.  Instead, poems create an experience, using different sounds and combinations of sound, rhythm and repetition and sometimes rhyme.

In high school literature classes, I thoroughly enjoyed reading poems, until we started analyzing them, trying to figure out what the author meant and was REALLY saying.  I’m not against this kind of analysis as a literary exercise, but I remember thinking that by the time we were done we had killed the poetry.  Our microscopic examination of the various literal and metaphorical connotations had sucked the life and the beauty right out of the original poems and pretty much beaten them to death.

One of my favorites was by e e cummings:

“anyone lived in a pretty how town
with up so floating many bells down
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t and he danced his did”
and that’s as much as I can remember.

My experience of the poem was fun and playful.  E e cummings doesn’t use normal capital letters and punctuation, which makes the poem even look kind of child-like on the page.  I have to admit I felt pretty exasperated by all the deeper meanings our teacher extracted from the poem.  To me it was pretty obvious that the poem was making a point about how we live and die and don’t necessarily always notice each other’s joys and pains, births and deaths.  We didn’t need to dissect it to see that.  And when we did dissect it, we stripped it of its beauty, of its connection to our souls.  It became a political or social agenda railing at us to be better human beings rather than an attractive and compelling invitation to notice and live in community with our fellow man. 

God often speaks to us in poetry in the Bible.  The Psalms and much of Proverbs and Song of Songs are poems; lots of Bible stories are punctuated with the main characters composing poems or songs that tell a story or express who God is; and lots of the Old Testament prophets and New Testament letter-writers used poems to engage their hearers in the truth they were communicating.  It can be helpful to meditate and think about what these various poems mean, but we have to be careful not to pull them apart to the point where they no longer stir our souls.  Given the choice, we all prefer to be captivated by God’s truth, rather than having it forcefully drilled into our skulls.

This may be helpful if you’re someone who tends to think that God is probably disappointed or angry with you, that you’ve tried his patience enough times by living your own way rather than his and he’s probably pretty much given up on you.  If God’s truth starts to sound like a rule book, a have to more than a want to, drudgery rather than freedom, life-sucking rather than life-giving, may I suggest you start reading God’s poetry?  Pick up the Psalms and discover how God relates to the most basic realities of human problems and emotions, joys and struggles.  Read creative expressions of who God is, far beyond rule-maker and judge.  Read the first few chapters of Proverbs and enjoy God’s enticing invitation to pursue his wisdom.  Get lost in Song of Songs (you won’t want to put it down) – it’s a vivid picture of God’s love for his people using newlyweds as an allegory – be surprised by how passionately God loves us.

Today I want to read you Eugene Peterson’s poem “Shalom,” which means peace.  It sounds very much like the psalms and poetry of the Bible.  Let it stir your soul to experience God in new ways.

Strong God of Jacob, dear Lord of hosts,
God of the fathers, Lord of the lost,
Dissolve our terrors, quiet our fears:
Whisper your kind Shalom.
All laws are broken, all peace disturbed,
Rumors of wars unsettle our hearts,
Our loves are ruined, our hopes decayed:
Love us and speak Shalom.
Rough ocean waters drown us in doubt,
Volcanic thunders shake our response,
Sinai is shattered, Galilee churned:
Firm our faith with Shalom.
Plunge us in Jordan’s baptismal stream,
Dig us a deep Samaritan well,
Waters to wash the guilt from our land:
Cleanse us and sing Shalom.
Great God of refuge, near God of help,
Wreck the armadas of sin and death,
Be quick in mercy, be swift in love,
Save us and make Shalom.

May God’s shalom, God’s peace, fill your soul today.  Amen.

This week we’re talking about poems, which may not seem very spiritual, except that the Bible is full of them.  Some books are all poetry, like Psalms and Song of Songs.  Some books have poems or songs in the middle of the stories – sometimes it seems the main characters are just so full or joy or pain or praise that simple prose just can’t express what they want to say so they have to use words more creatively and the end result is a poem.

One of the things I love about poetry is that you get the sense that the author is drawing on every shred of creativity that they possess to help us experience what they are experiencing, to see what they see, hear what they hear, and feel what they feel.  In a sense poetry puts us in someone else’s shoes, it shows us the view from their window.  And when we have that experience our world gets a little bigger.  I no longer only see with my own eyes, I am no longer limited by my own experience – I get to draw on and be inspired by someone else’s view of the world.

Poetry is great therapy in a busy, time-stressed world.  You can speed read a text book and you can skim an instruction manual, but if you do that with poetry you miss it entirely.  You have to read it slowly, preferably out loud, with attention to the sounds of the words as well as their meanings, and the cadence of the phrases as well as their content.  You have to read it attentively to let it sink in beyond the ears and mind and emotions into the soul, which we talked about a bit on Monday.  Eugene Peterson, whose poems I’m reading to you this week, said he started writing poems because it “seemed like a good way to pay attention.”  Poets pay attention to details – in nature, in relationships, in stories – and they capture those details using imaginative words so that we get to notice the details too.

It’s one thing for me to sit on our back deck and enjoy the hummingbirds.  They’re so delicate, but so competitive with each other (they don’t like to share the feeders!).  Their movements are a contrast of still hovering and rapid darting.  They never fail to distract me from my meal or my book or my conversation.  But if I wanted to write a poem about hummingbirds, I’d start paying attention to them in a whole new way – I’d observe them carefully and make sure I noticed as many details as possible.  I’d think about words that would help you see through my eyes and feel what I feel when I’m watching the hummingbirds.

Here’s Eugene Peterson’s poem called “Quiet.”  It’s about loons – you can hear how he must have watched them intently many times before writing it, and I’m pretty sure you’ll experience the presence of the loon as I read it.

Our latest guest, a common loon,
Arrived this winter unannounced
And bringing gifts – guests do that,
Bring gifts – filling heart and home
With beauty: wild, elusive, sleek,
Low in the water, this contemplative
Loon is an icon for living present
But detached.  I rarely see him fly
But he can fly.  This loon dives, dives
Long and deep.  No mere surface
Bird, he goes for the depths.  When he dives
I think he prays, searching deep waters
For what keeps him and us alive,
Grace and quiet, buoyant with Presence.

Poets pay attention to the details – they have to to write well.  So when we read poetry, it helps us pay attention too.  It slows us down to enjoy the details that others have experienced.  When I read the perhaps very familiar poetry of say Psalm 23, I feel the peace and security that David felt.

Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

When I read the Psalm slowly and carefully, I notice the details that David noticed about God, that he’s a good, caring shepherd, that he wants to restore my soul, that he leads me along righteous paths where I’ll be safe, that he protects me and comforts me in the midst of my worst fears, that he provides for me and gives me purpose, and that he has an eternal home waiting for me. 

I encourage you to read some of God’s poetry, perhaps some of the other Psalms, and notice the details that the poet noticed when he put pen to paper (or quill to parchment).  Let the beauty of the poetry draw your imagination, heart, and soul into the details of who God is and experience his real presence.

May God bless you with the reality of his presence with you today.  Amen.

This week we’re reading some poetry by Eugene Peterson, the writer of The Message Bible, and talking about poetry in general and how God connects to our souls through poetry in far deeper ways than he could through more factual prose.

One of the things I love about poetry is that it changes our perspective.  It helps us see the extraordinary instead of the ordinary.

Eugene Peterson wrote this poem while he was putting stamps on Christmas letters to send to friends and family around the country and globe.  Instead of simply seeing the duplicated letters as a way to inform those closest to him of the calendar highlights from the past year, he sees the stamp as an agent bearing his God-given love to each of these people, expressing the glory of these precious relationships.

I tear along the perforated edge,
Tongue the mucilage, then press the image
Across the enveloped message: it flies by magic
Carpet across the mountains and over the seas
Into all the world, a postmarked
Prophecy validating love
Come down from heaven, delivered posthaste
To every waiting mailbox.
Be a stamp collector: notice, gather,
Post the thin paper angels streaming
Glory into Ezekiel’s book of life.
Philatelic witnesses display
Caesar at piece-work, stamping the Nature into
Amnesiac lives, canceling our wordless waiting.

Suddenly a simple postage stamp becomes a holy reminder and reconnection with each precious person and relationship.

In another poem Eugene describes a passing storm in a way that reminds us of God’s steadfast love to us.

“The Lucky Peacemakers”
Huge cloud fists assault
The blue exposed bare midriff of sky.
The firmament doubles up in pain,
Lightnings rip and thunders shout;
Mother nature’s children quarrel.
And then, as suddenly as it began,
It’s over. Noah’s heirs, perceptions
Cleansed, look out on a disarmed world
At ease and ozone fragrant. Still waters.
What barometric shift
Rearranged these ferocities
Into a peace-pulsating rainbow
Sign? My enemy turns his other
Cheek; I drop my guard. A mirror
Lake reflects the filtered colors;
Breeze-stirred pine trees quietly sing.

A simple poem reminds us of God’s covenant promise to Noah, sealed with a rainbow, that he would never flood the earth again. And it reminds us that as quickly as the barometric pressure changed and the storm gave way to a light breeze, we can drop our defenses and restore peace in broken relationships. 

Poems stir our souls and change our perspective, but they also stir our memories.  They remind us of important truths, but their beauty disarms us, so that we can remember without any guilt that we had forgotten. 

Often when I read Psalms, which are all poems, I feel like the writer is reminding himself of the things he knows about God. One of my favorites is Psalm 63.  David isn’t really feeling like God is with him and his soul feels parched and dry – desperate for even a sip of the presence of God’s Spirit.  So he reminds himself of what he knows about God and how God has helped him in the past.  And this gives him hope that God will do the same now and in the future.

Psalm 63:1-8
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is not water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

If you need a fresh perspective, if you need to remember who God is and a gentle prompt to help you experience the reality of his love for you, read a psalm (they are easy to find in the Bible – they are right in the middle).

Today, may the beauty of God’s poetry recorded in the Psalms renew your perspective, remind you of God’s truth, and restore your soul.  Amen.

Sadly this is our last morning together this week talking about poetry and how God uses poetry to connect with and restore our souls.

Actually today, I want to look at a different sort of poetry – you!  There’s a beautiful verse that Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Ephesus only a few decades after Jesus died, to help the new Christians understand what it meant to love and follow Jesus.  This is Ephesians 2:10.  “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  In other words, Jesus made each of us with specific purposes in mind.  Our lives aren’t just random and meaningless – God has good plans for each of us.  You may be wondering what this has to do with poetry.  Well the word “workmanship” at the beginning of the verse (“For we are God’s workmanship”) is the Greek word “poiema.”  In other words we are God’s poems.

Now I don’t know about you, but for me that changes everything.  If I think about myself as being made by God with a purpose in mind, I could start to think God has an agenda for my life and I could start to feel like I’m just a cog in his machine.  But if I’m God’s poem, that puts a different spin on whatever purpose he has for me.  A poem takes simple words and creates beauty, it takes simple facts and creates an invitation into truth.  I’m left believing that God has beautiful and good plans for my life and I want to be part of them!

Perhaps at some point you either wrote a poem for someone you love or received a poem written just for you.  When we write poetry to people we love, we are usually so overwhelmed by their qualities that we feel we need more than mere prose to express them.  These poems usually don’t mention any faults, if the writer is even aware of them.  And when we receive these poems, we are encouraged and motivated to be more of the amazing people the poems describe and to abandon the flaws and sins they failed to mention.  And I believe that when Jesus, the lover of our souls, made each of us as his workmanship, his poems, he “wrote” into each of us beautiful things that reflect various parts of his character.  He’s aware of our faults, but he died to forgive us and save us from those.  As his poetry, he’s focusing on the good parts of us that are equipped to live the good life and fulfill the good plans he has for us.  He’s inviting us to live in the beauty of his creative poetry, not in the ugly prose of our sin and faults. 

Eugene Peterson, whose poems I’ve been reading this week, wrote a special poem, when his grandson Trygve was born (I had to look up the pronounciation of that one – it’s a Scandinavian name).  His poem speaks a blessing over his infant grandson, and highlights some of the poetry he believes God has “written” into him.

“A Prayer of Blessing for Trygve the New”
Bless, God, Trygve the New with metaphors
Accurate and adequate:
An arrow in his father’s quiver,
An olive shoot round his mother’s table,
Firstborn, first fruits of his parents’ vigor,
A haven for ships, a lion’s whelp,
A fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring,
His branches run over the wall,
His name engraved on the palms of Gods hands,
His feet beautiful upon the mountains.

How are you God’s poem – what beauty has he written into your character, what rhythm or rhyme has he placed in your nature?  What is there in who you are that reflects who God is?   Think about the things people have told you over the years about who you are – that you are caring, or generous, or helpful, or patient, or faithful, or smart, or able to fix things or solve problems.  So often we brush these off and focus on our faults and failings.  But then we miss God’s poetic workmanship in our lives and often don’t have the courage to live out his good purposes for each of us.

And how are the people around you God’s poem – your family, friends, and coworkers?  What aspects of God’s beauty, rhyme, and rhythm do you see in each of them?  You could write them a poem, or depending on the relationship it might be less weird to simply tell them about the good things you see in them, things that reflect who God is that affect the lives of people around them like beautiful poetry.  Perhaps you can encourage someone else to live beyond their faults and fears and instead live the poetic purposeful life God intended for them.

May you see the poetry God has written in you and be encouraged to live the good life and good works God intended for you.  Amen.