By Chris Maxwell
Poetry is, at least for me, like life. Life isn’t a three-point sermon. Life isn’t a doctrinal debate. Life isn’t a lecture series. Life isn’t a new platform for the coolest and newest and tightest and loudest performance. Life, to me, is poetry.
I know. Many poems aren’t smooth. They aren’t always simple. They don’t offer swift, straight, and brief steps toward victory. But, in my view, life is precisely like that—not always precise.
While recently boarding a flight, two words reminded me of poetry, of God, of prayer, of myself, of life. Scanning my ticket and hearing my name mentioned in a thank-you-for-flying-with-us smile, I walked toward the plane. But the sign got my attention: “Uneven Surfaces.”
The enclosed connector is like a bridge, supplying passengers a means to exit the airport and enter the plane. The surface isn’t smooth. The portal isn’t straight. Like poetry, the surfaces turn, they feel undependable, but they provide a guide to desired destination. Like poetry, long lines suddenly stop, then speed up again; a drift leans left then right, up then down; a pace surprises; everything ends.
We sing with poetry. We pray with poetry. It is part of history and a large portion of Scripture, as Leland Ryken reminds us:
One-third of the Bible is not too high an estimate. Whole books of the Bible are poetic: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon. A majority of Old Testament prophecy is poetic in form.
Academic studies of biblical poetry reveal examples of grief in lines beside joy, questions to God in rhythm near hope in God, confessions released beside promises remembered. Various moods and material, but all poetic. A comparative study of Psalm 54 and 1 Samuel 53 offers a wonderful example of enduring a crisis while crying prayers to the Listener—the story and prayer merge historical context into David’s honest, poetic response.
Eugene Peterson, in Subversive Spirituality, makes a strong case for how each of us needs poetry:
The first thing that a poet does is to slow us down …. In prose we are after something, getting information, acquiring knowledge. We read as fast as we can to get what we want so that we can put it to good use.… But in poetry we take a different stance. We are prepared to be puzzled, to go back, to wait, to ponder, to listen. This attending, this waiting, this reverential posture, is at the core of the life of faith, the life of prayer, the life of worship, the life of witness…. Poets slow us down, poets make us stop. Read it again, read it again, read it again.
Therapeutic, prayerful poetry has been, and is, my method of surviving and enduring the uneven surfaces called life. And recently, my friend who felt he couldn’t be honest with God and didn’t like poetry, sent me a poem. His words provide the therapy of journaling prayer in our poetic life adventures: “Aging, I learn. Becoming weak, I weep. Confessing, I release. Amid this season, I finally experience what I’ve claimed I believe. God. This God. Now and forever. He is mine. I am His. Amen.”
I smiled and cried while reading his words. The poem reminded me again that God isn’t here to just be our mechanic—to fix us or tune us up. God isn’t just our professor—scoring and grading our efforts. God is our Poet, continually writing our poetic stories on the uneven surfaces of life.
Rachel Welcher is the editor at Fathom Magazine and author of two collections of poetry, Blue Tarp and Two Funerals, Then Easter. I asked her, “Why do so few Christian magazines include poetry?”
She said, “I think poetry has a reputation for being a bit subversive. It can seem like a wild card to Christian publishers, because it rarely fits into a tidy box or wraps everything up with a bow. But there is also the issue of people assuming poetry is too difficult—that they won’t ‘get it.’ There are plenty of poems out there that I read and don’t understand, but I believe a good poet invites their reader in. The goal of poetry isn’t to confuse or obscure, but to touch on universals that give us that moment of pause where we sigh and say, ‘so someone else does understand.’ Poetry often gives us the words we felt but couldn’t articulate. It creates space for reflection and honesty. Sometimes it teaches us or challenges us. It is about digging deeper.”
At EPA we are to know our audience. We are to provide material to inform and inspire our readers. As a counselor, pastor, a director of spiritual formation, I loved Rachel’s answer when I asked, “What do you see as value of poetry for today’s market?” She said, “With all the click-bait headlines, there is such a need for depth. For substance. I think we are starving for it. And the value of poetry has always been that it slows us down and teaches us to notice.”
In our modern world of quick information, conflict-obsessions, and rapid news cycles, can’t we include a pause, a slowing of our pace, a rest, a moment to notice? Can’t we offer poetic medicine our clients are not even aware they need?
Psychology Today reminds us that “writing and reading poetry can be a springboard for growth, healing, and transformation….(poetry) can help us feel as if we’re part of a larger picture and not just living in our isolated little world.”
Don’t those goals fit with EPA’s purpose? Growth, healing, transformation, part of the larger picture? I believe those phrases describe who we hope to be.
Author and EPA member Stephen R. Clark said, “Like a good sermon, a good poem brings forward the meaning intended by the writer, but also leaves room for the Spirit to activate deeper and personally unique meanings in the minds of the recipients. A good poem, like a good sermon, embeds truth deep into the heart.
“God is a creative being and expresses His creativity in mysterious and wonderful ways. Just look in the mirror! Poetry is His voice singing to us, His best Creation. And when we write poetry, we are exhibiting and expressing His Spirit-enlivened image in us.”
To me, that is needed. On our sites, on our pages. In our minds, in our hearts. Let us join David, the poetic psalmist, and let the prayerful therapy cause us to never forget this form of biblical literature and personal growth.
EPA member Chris Maxwell served as lead pastor for 19 years and, for the last 13 years, worked as Director of Spiritual Life at Emmanuel College. He speaks around the world in churches, conventions, and epilepsy events. He has written nine books, including Underwater—his story about epilepsy—and his most recent book, a book of poetry, a slow and sudden God: 40 years of wonder. Learn more at chrismaxwell.me.
Posted Dec. 30, 2019