Why the Church Should Pay Attention to Poetry

You’re probably, scratching your heads thinking, “huh?” Where is she going with this?? To which I reply: Where are the safe places to rage and grieve in the church? Where’s the room for the full spectrum of the musical scale instead of the victorious same set of chords? God created all of the notes in the universe, so why are we satisfied singing songs that are marketed to us as “safe” for Christian audiences? The arts are the real safe sanctuary for human emotions.

Rap artists are not afraid to address great suffering and problems of oppression through carefully written lyrics. Many of them I would consider poets, especially for this generation. Obviously a lot of the words in rap music are a little too depraved for a Sunday service — but why are the emotions of sadness, grief, righteous anger, and hard times excluded from the worship set and the sermon series? Why do you have to be considered “secular” if you express the full range of emotions in a healthy way?

I remember when a friend of mine at my church in Bellingham got up and sang a song she’d performed at her brother’s funeral, with lyrics of grief and sadness. And I just lost it, sitting in my chair. Big tears all over my face and I had nowhere to escape, everybody could see it. And I felt ashamed. Initially I was angry at “my” church for opening up such a vulnerable wound. How dare they?? What right did they have to deviate from the formula of only talking about sad things on Good Friday right before Easter. Where was my shame coming from?

With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.

Romans 8:1-2 The Message

The Bible has five books in it that are classified as books of poetry: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. Which all cover things our culture are squeamish and uncomfortable dealing with in healthy ways: grief, hard times, wisdom, and sex. Our culture wants to divide you into two camps on these issues. Either your wrong or right, against or for, stupid or smart. These books of the Bible are also called the books of wisdom. Who wouldn’t want more wisdom?

Poetry is Universal and Relevant

Enter poetry. Poetry dances ambiguity out in a soft pirouette. Poetry says hear and feel the moment. Enter into the story — and feel something beyond what’s in front of you. God created the arts and everything he makes is good. We look to sermons and songs for clear cut answers. We are uneasy with David’s words. He’d get a lot of weird looks and judgement today for his poems, songs, and dancing. David was incredibly flawed, but he was a man after God’s own heart. Which means poetry must also be important to God.

Psalm 42

Deep calls to deep

in the roar of your waterfalls

all your waves and breakers

have swept oer me.

By day the Lord directs his love,

at night his song is with me —

a prayer to the God of my life

I say to God my Rock,

“Why have you forgotten me?

Why must I go about mourning,

oppressed by the enemy?

I get it, not everyone loves poetry. That’s totally ok. It may not be your cup of tea. But the Church operates as a whole body with many different parts — just like the Bible is made up of many different books. And if we ignore the feet for long enough we’re going to trip up. But the words of a song or a poem or a rap may be the cup of cold water your neighbor needs to hear — just like the theological study or a 5-point sermon might feed your soul. The arts are very potent and powerful and there’s great need to be pastoral and thoughtful about incorporating them. They are a very rich brew.

And yes, I’m very biased towards poetry because I like to write poetry. But almost all of our song lyrics are poems and almost everyone likes music. So I think it’s more universally accepted than we realize. A lot of it has to do with poetry having a snooty history of people saying that poetry wasn’t fit for the “masses” and then that trickled down into students being intimidated by it  in classrooms while consuming A LOT  of poetry via music. So what if you can’t scan a poem for Iambic Pentameter? I still can’t and I hid it pretty well during my English courses (though kudos to you if you enjoy that!).

Three Ways We (The Church) Can Integrate Poetry:

  1. Create and celebrate spaces for artists to share and perform original work. It doesn’t have to be a Sunday sermon, it could start with a small group, a breakfast, or a prayer night, or showing up for your friend at an open mic night. Support their pieces, albums, books and shows.
  2. Be more comfortable sharing songs, psalms, and poems with each other on an individual level. If you already do this, take it a step further and be ok with sharing ones that talk about sadness or don’t tie everything up nicely at the end. It may give your friend freedom in the space they’re in. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a happy ending — but there’s something wrong with a rushed happy ending. We all know that sh*t stinks.
  3. Tackle the hard topics without settling for the easy answers. That’s poetry, man. Remember when people asked Jesus the hard questions, he almost never responded in the way they expected him to. He flipped the script many times over. He spoke in stories, riddles, and parables. Because they wanted to put him in the “for us or against us” camp so many times. They tried to kill him on the altar of ideological rightness many times before it was time for him to die. The religious struggled the most with the answers Jesus gave — it often made them uncomfortable, but it was always true.

“Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’ But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.”

Mark 10: 21-22 NASB

What Now?

Poems are the wildflowers of the spiritual world. Effusive, elusive, and poignant. It’s no mistake that the Psalms (almost entirely poetry) is smack-dab in the middle of the Bible. It’s central to the larger narrative. For the first few years after my Mom died I only read Psalms. One at a time. The darker the better. Rich, strong, coffee that burned your soul. David, who wrote a lot of the psalms, was a person after God’s heart. A person after God’s own heart has gone into the furnace with Jesus and comes out still alive, when the flames should’ve consumed you. Made pure and whole by the redeeming power of Christ’s sacrifice. It’s not the furnace that defines you. Or the products of that experience — It’s recognizing the form of Jesus beside you in those moments because you already knew his face during the OK times. It leads this know-it-all heart who wants to achieve status and earn a spot at the table to remember that even in the darkest hour, even in the blackest political storms, God is there. He’s here now.

My child, don’t lose sight of common sense and discernment.
    Hang on to them,
 for they will refresh your soul.
    They are like jewels on a necklace.

Proverbs 3:21-22 NLT

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