Back to (Bible) School: Poetry
Do you like poetry? Have you ever read or written poetry? I think we can feel both daunted and bored by poetry. Daunted if we have to try to figure out what it means. One of my favorite movies is In Her Shoes, based on the book by the same name from Jennifer Weiner. In the movie, one of the characters, Maggie, is dyslexic. She ends up working at a nursing home, where one of the residents is a retired English professor. He encourages her to read to him, and not just read, but he helps her understand what she is reading. The first time she reads to him, she reads a poem. When she’s done, having struggled through word by word, he asks what she thinks. She says, “Good.” He says, “Unacceptable,” and then proceeds to ask her question after question until she realizes that she can figure out what the poem might mean to her, how it applies to her life right now. It’s a beautiful scene that captures how disinterested we can be in poetry, how much it overwhelms us, how afraid we are of getting the meaning “wrong,” and yet, how beautiful is can be when these artful words of others can speak deeply to our spirits.
Do you like poetry?
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
You may write me down in history / With your bitter, twisted lies, / You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still water.” (Psalm 23)
Have you ever written any poetry? I went through a phase of writing poetry when I was in late elementary school and junior high. I was inspired, believe it or not, by an episode of Roseanne, the soon-to-return sitcom from the 80s. The character Darlene, who I loved, wrote a poem on the show, a poem that revealed her deep, unspoken emotions, and I was enthralled and inspired. I thought Darlene was very cool, and I set about to write my own deep, insightful poetry. It was not the greatest stuff. I’ve had pity on all of you by not digging some out of my old journals to share with you today. But truthfully, writing poetry, even bad poetry, helped me process all the myriad and overpowering feelings one has in the tumultuous tween and teen years. Writing poetry gave me a place to creatively process all the stuff that was in my heart at a time in my life when I felt pretty misunderstood.
Do you like poetry? Do you like music? Consider all the lyrics to songs that you have stored away in your brain. Consider the songs that shaped you as a child, as a young person, as an adult. Sometimes hearing a particular song can transport us back to a time, a place, an experience, help us recall things so vividly. The lyrics to all our favorite songs are poetry set to music, a kind of poetry that most of us are more familiar with today.
The Bible is full of poetry. We find it in both the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and in the New Testament, though less frequently. In the Hebrew Bible, the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs are considered books of poetry. These books are sometimes also referred to as books of wisdom. As I said a couple of weeks ago, the books of poetry in the Bible are not primarily about communicating facts, even though many of the passages of poetry refer to and respond to historical events. Instead, in the poetry of the Bible, we see the authors pouring out their hearts, sharing their deepest feelings in words they’ve written. To me, that makes the words of poetry in the Bible very meaningful and contemporary, because although our world has changed, I don’t think the range of emotions that we experience has changed. The authors of biblical poetry bring to us the feelings, the spirits, the souls of people of faith who lived thousands of years ago, and we discover that we experience the same intense emotions, and struggle with the same searching questions of faith.
Today we’re looking together at Psalm 136. There are 150 psalms, songs, in our Bible, and they fall into several categories. Some are called “royal psalms” – they have to do with the business of the kings of Israel and Judah – psalms about a royal coronation, a blessing on a new rule, a royal marriage, or accounts of a king’s military leadership. Some psalms are laments – individual laments and communal laments – mournful psalms written in times of despair. Others are psalms of thanksgiving. They’re meant to praise God, give thanks for God’s actions. More than a third of the psalms are addressed to the Director of Music. They were meant to be sung as a part of worship. Our psalm for today is like that, meant to be shared musically in the call and response way we read it together today. A key feature of Hebrew poetry is a style called parallelism. Parallelism is a repeated pattern where we find one verse stating an idea, and the very next verse restating the same or a very similar idea in a slightly different way. For example, our Psalm today starts with lines about giving thanks first to “the God of gods” and then to the “Lord of lords” in the very next verse.
In Psalm 136, the focus is on praising God, particularly because of God’s steadfast love. The psalmist praises God’s faithfulness, driving the point home by repeating these words as every other stanza of the poem. God’s love is forever, God’s love is forever, God’s love is forever. The psalmist writes in a way that will have the congregation repeating these words again and again, etching them into their memory, helping the congregation feel the truth of them. “God’s love is forever” is like the refrain, the chorus of the song, sung over and over.
Psalm 136 also shows us an example of Israel telling its story. Over and over in the scriptures, we hear reference to the Exodus, God leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. It’s their defining story. Remember, when we talked about the law, the commandments, the Exodus, God’s saving the people is the reason given behind many of the laws for the new nation. So too, in the poetry of Israel, the story of the Exodus is told again and again. It is the story that shapes Israel, that provides the example of God’s faithfulness, that provides their sense of future and purpose, and binds them together as a nation. This psalm, like many others, reminds the people of their core identity. As Christians, we do this with Holy Communion. We tell ourselves the story of Jesus sharing a meal with his disciples, and sharing his life with us again and again, until we know it deep in our bones.
I wonder, what’s our defining story as a congregation? What’s the story we tell ourselves again and again about our relationship with God? As a church, what story do we need to remind ourselves of again and again? What’s your defining story with God? What’s the message of your life, the way that God is showing up all through your days, again and again? How are you reminding yourself of God’s faithful presence in your life? And I wonder, what’s our refrain? What’s our chorus? What are the words that we need to etch onto our hearts about who God is? God is forgiving. God’s love is unconditional. God’s grace is for you. With God, everything is possible. What refrain do you need to hear over and over again?
I want to challenge you, as I challenged the children this week, to try to write your own poetry, your own praise song, your own words that help you share your heart, your feelings, your emotions with God. You don’t have to share your words unless you want to – they can be just for you. And if writing really isn’t your thing, I want you to think about how you might best express your praise for God, your love for God. Is it through art? Painting or drawing? Through music? Dance? How can you open your heart to praise God in a creative way this week? Try something.
“O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.” Amen.
 Frost, Robert, “The Road Note Taken,” http://classicalpoets.org/10-greatest-poems-ever-written/
 Angelou, Maya, “Still I Rise,” http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/world-poetry-day-28-of-poetrys-most-powerful-lines-ever-written-a6944301.html
 Shakespeare, William, “Sonnet 18,” http://classicalpoets.org/10-greatest-poems-ever-written/
 “Psalms,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psalms