The Psalms: Reclaiming PoetryRead Now
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
A couple of days ago, a new friend told me why she loves Lent, and it was her insight which inspired the sermon I’m about to preach. “I love the Season of Lent,” she said, “because it is the time of the year when I reset, and I learn to pay attention again.” Lent is the Art of Paying Attention. Lent is reclaiming the power of the detail. Today, I would like to share a word on reclaiming Poetry in our busy modern lives as a way (one way) to, again, learn to pay attention to meaning, to detail, to ourselves, to others, and to God. It is time for us to reclaim poetry as Christians both for ourselves and for our world which is desperate for new language and new vocabularies for love.
Let us pray together. May the words of my mouth, O God of All Creation, and the intimate thoughts of our hearts, help us to renew our ability to truly pay attention to our world. You are our reminder of the details we treasure—our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
“O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” The Psalms have a way of speaking to us in ways that no other Scripture can. This is because, unlike the narrative or legalistic parts of the Bible, the Psalms have a way of being chameleons, changing color, metamorphosing, and somehow meeting us wherever we are in life. As we grow older, I’ve noticed now at 30, the Psalms grow with us, new details emerge, new hearing develops.
“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; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.” Can you imagine how beautiful this poem is in the original Hebrew where it actually retains the stanzas and repetitions of the original poetry? Last week, Hal also preached on a Psalm, and he encouraged us to go deeper with them to pray the Psalms for lent. I love that! For that reason, I have chosen to also preach on a Psalm this week to help us with that going deeper together. I, like Hal, believe that the Psalms become part of us—they are able to become our own prayers in unexpected ways. When we don’t know how to pray or don’t know how to go deeper, a Psalm is usually in order.
“My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.”
Two pictures of the mad-libs “Time with Children”
and the Psalms they helped us write in worship at 9:00 AM and 11:00 AM.
Today, I want to go deeper with a focus on the poetry of the Psalms and how they can help us rediscover the need for details in our lives. The Psalms reawaken in us an attention to detail. To claim the Psalms as our own is to reclaim the power of language from the powers now choosing to wield words as weapons. We shall not accept this abuse of the power of language. By looking for poetry in the Psalms and in our world, we may reclaim poetry and the power of words for good in our lives and culture. If ever there were a time for poetry, it is now.
Friends, a world that doesn’t appreciate poetry is a world at risk of losing its very sense of the meaning of existence. A world without the Poets and the Psalmists is a world without love, or dreams, or visions, or hope. Humans need poetry as the food for our souls. Extending this metaphor, I would say the Psalms are like a tapas bar with something for everyone and every time.
Academics tell us that, “Psalms or The Psalter, as it is often called, is a collection of prayers and songs composed throughout Israel’s history. Its title, Psalms, is derived from a Greek term meaning ‘song.’ The Hebrew title of the book, Tehillim, means more specifically ‘hymns’ or ‘songs of praise.’ The poetic character of the Psalms is manifest in the balance or symmetry of each line.” [Patrick D. Miller, “Psalms,” The Harper Collins Study Bible (San Francisco, CA: Harper One, 1989), 732.] The Psalms are the part of the Bible where the details, and how they make us see our own existence, matters most of all.
In Seminary, I was your classic fish out of water. I came right from an undergraduate degree in French Literature analyzing Rimbaud and Baudelaire into Divinity School where I found myself surrounded by Religious Studies majors…analyzing Paul. They knew all the facts, could recite the books of the Bible backwards and forwards without error. They enjoyed, as a leisure sport, reciting quotes from long dead theologians with funny names to one another.
It was when I discovered the Psalms that I found my place in Seminary and subsequently in ministry. Here is a part of the Bible where literary analysis, poetry, a love for language and words matters as much or more than facts about dead theologians and historic hypothesis theories. A “Psalmist Christian,” as I identify, is a Christian who is most interested in the details of how religion makes us feel connected with God and community. It isn’t about the facts of faith, but Psalms are about the feeling and connections of faith. With the Psalms, we are free to dream, wonder, and feel—even as Mainline Protestants. The Psalms help us to pay attention to the Spirit at work and at play.
It is time to be Psalmist Christians…poets all.
Friends, we are drowning in facts—both accurate and deceptive. We are floundering in a sea of useless language. Wikipedia, news alerts on our smartphones, press secretary pronouncements, publicity, advertisements, from dawn to dusk drunk on factoids. The over-abundance of trivia has made finding meaningful words difficult. It has made the Lenten art of really paying attention to detail all but impossible. There are more words in our lives than ever, yet there is less and less meaning that gets in here to our hearts!
“O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water, [meaning, purpose, substance].” Like our Psalmist today, we are all thirsty for meaning beyond what we can memorize or google search. We are thirsty for lives grounded in meaning and purpose. Our purpose as humans must be greater than that of the news we aggregate or the revenue we generate. That is what the Psalms offer us for such a time as this. The Psalms offer us poetry and a chance to reclaim purpose and to see the beauty in the small details of life.
Rose Marie Berger is a poet, a writer and staffer for Sojourners Magazine and a Christian who writes in what she calls “holy poetry.” She was recently asked in an interview, “As a Catholic, do you see poetry as a spiritual practice?”
She replied by saying, “Because of my Catholic-ness, I see the world liturgically and sacramentally. The world is a holy place. Time moves in liturgical seasons. Poetry is an ancient form of speech for speaking about God and beauty, for witnessing and praising, for calling to account, for reanimating mystery. So yes, while not all poets write from a spiritual lens and not all poetry, even my own, needs to reflect spirituality, I do see poetry as part of my spiritual practice… Prose writing can convey lots of things–emotions, information, historical continuity. It can prompt intellectual insights and shifts. But long before prose was invented, birds sang poetry to small human communities and those communities learned to sing it back [Palms]. Poetry is what makes us human animals in the creation. It’s the language God uses to speak worlds into existence — and out of existence. Poetry is elemental, like earth, fire, water, and air.” ["Bending the Arch"]
“I love Lent,” she said, “because it is the time every year when I learn to pay attention again.” Poetry and the Psalms, then, are essential to Lent—they help us reclaim the mystery and the detail of the basic elements of life: earth, fire, water, and air…poetry.
Which Psalms or Poetry are speaking to you this season? I would invite you to pick a favorite poem (secular or Sacred), read it daily through the rest of this season and see how it reawakens deep meaning of language beyond the artificial divide between fact or fiction. What new details emerge and make meaning every day?
This Lent, I invite you to pay attention with me again to the words and their meaning as a method to saving our souls from the cold and unforgiving facts of life we are dying to every day. Only Poetry can save us now. We need the Psalms in Christianity in 2019 (and certainly in 2020 with the certain vitriol of an election year coming) more than we need any other part of the Bible. We need to get back to the basics of reanimating mystery and discovering purpose in the details.
Words matter and have power to destroy or heal. Tweets are not William Carlos Williams poems any more than every speech made from a little wooden box three feet in the air is a sermon. Poetry like preaching requires sacred intention.
Those of you who have been at Plymouth for at least four and a half years had the joy of hearing my predecessor preach. The Rev. Sharon Benton, if you ever looked at her sermons, didn’t write sermons as speeches. No, she wrote them in the form of poems. Every single one of Sharon’s sermons over her ten years at Plymouth was a poem written for you in love and care. While some of my colleagues find it odd that I am serving my home church, I find a great beauty in the fact that I too was ministered to and formed by the one who held my job before me. Many days, I too really miss Sharon, her poetry, and her poetic attention to detail.
This Lent, the poem I am reading every day is one of Sharon’s published Psalms. I am going to close by reading that poem, and I hope that in Lent and in the seasons beyond Lent, we all may rediscover the details in our lives—especially our great meaning and purpose that comes through Poetry.
Thanksgiving by The Rev. Sharon Benton
Some gratitude comes hard, O Spirit:
hard as a brick thrown through a strained-glass Jesus feeding his flock;
hard as teeth grinding their own enamel night after anxious night;
hard as fighting through Black Friday shopping crowds.
Sometimes gratitude comes hard, O Spirit:
when there is loss of relationship,
loss of abilities,
loss of life,
loss of hope.
But when a wet nose nuzzles us awake in the morning,
or a stranger captures our wind-stolen scarf,
or a single star stretched out in so much space reminds us--
we are not alone in this life:
we are one with each creature,
and with each other,
and with each part of your creation.
Spirit, our individual griefs are not small,
nor are the world’s pains.
But grant us gratitude amidst them
so we may also overcome
addiction, depression, disease, or accident;
poverty and war and all that depletes life rather than sustains it.
Even when gratitude is hard, O Spirit,
soften us to see your love poured out upon all the universe,
and help us give thanks.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
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