The following paper was written for a study group of 30 Unitarian ministers. I’ve been a member of the group since 1973 and often use poetry at our twice-a-year retreats, both during discussion of our topics and at our regular chapel services. The group decided to dig into the theme of poetry as it relates to our approach to religion and worship. The paper included below was assigned to me as part of our overall theme.
On Sunday morning, June 9, I attempted to summarize the paper as a sermon. The time restriction in that Sunday service did not allow even the summary I’d planned, so I decided to include the entire paper exactly as it was presented to my colleagues in Unitarian ministry. I introduced the Sunday sermon with the well-known Ithaka reading from Cavafy because I wanted to emphasize the odyssey theme–the life journey each of us is traveling.
Reading: ‘Ithaka,’ C. P. Cavafy
When you set out for Ithaka pray that your road’s a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops, angry Poseidon-don’t be scared of them: you won’t find things like that on your way as long as your thoughts are exalted.
As long as a rare excitement stirs your spirit and your body Laistrygonians, Cyclops, wild Poseidon-you won’t encounter them, unless you bring them along inside you,
Unless your soul raises them up in front of you.
Pray that your road’s a long one. May there be many a summer morning when, full of gratitude, full of joy, you come into harbors for the first time;
May you stop at Phoenician trading centers and buy fine things,
Mother of pearl and coral and ebony, sensual perfumes of every kind- as many sensual perfumes as you can.
May you visit numerous Egyptian cities to fill yourself with learning from the wise.
Keep Ithaka always in mind. Arriving there is what you’re destined for. But don’t hurry the journey at all. Better if it goes on for years. So you’re old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way, not expecting Ithaka to make you rich. Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out. She hasn’t anything else to give.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you’ll have become, and so experienced, you’ll have understood by then what an Ithaka means.
We begin with a personal odyssey-like statement. It is intended to provide brief background to lead to that portion of my story having to do with poetry and the increasing uses to which I’ve been putting it during my 31 years in our ministry. You may see yourself in the story. Listen carefully.
Each of us in the Greenfield Group has been called to ministry. The notion that we are called to ministry is an example of our common use of metaphor-poetry.
By whom, or what, are we called? The old metaphor has recently been re-inserted into our common parlance. Like all metaphors this one runs the risk of being taken literally rather than figuratively. Poetry suggests the connotative, not the denotative, and that is the underlying point of this paper. Poetry provides opportunity for those of us who are committed to a rational approach to life-to religion-to talk about the mystical, the mystery of Being. Western religion, especially Christianity and Islam, use the denotative-they talk about myths and metaphors as if they were literal truth.
Poetry suggests the connotative, providing space for the myths and mystery, and by so doing it builds an important barrier between the connotative and the denotative. Religions that have used mythological-poetic language in a denotative way led to the Crusades, the Inquisitions and the World Trade Center attack.
Our use of poetry in ministry, then, is not merely a frivolous frolic into the playground of words. For me, at least, it is a conscious attempt to arouse in the minds of my parishioners-as well as my own mind-a sense of awe, a religious experience.
In his essay Metaphor and Religious Mystery Joseph Campbell put it this way: “A new mythology is rapidly becoming a necessity both socially and spiritually as the metaphors of the past, such as the Virgin Birth and the Promised Land, misread consequently as facts, lose their vitality and become concretized. But that new mythology is already implicit among us, native to the mind waiting as the sleeping prince does for the kiss of his beloved, to be awakened by new metaphoric symbolization.”
The purpose of poetry in ministry is to reinvigorate the mythological aspect of life and thus to fulfill our calling without leading lemmings over the cliff. This must be kept in mind or nothing useful can come from my personal story.
Now a brief sketch of the route which led me to the Unitarian Universalist ministry. I hope it will shed a little light on the importance that poetry has assumed for me in my work, the seriousness which I give it, and to reinforce and encourage it in your life–your work…
“IN THE BEGINNING.”
I grew up in three Congregational churches in the Boston area: West Medford, Woburn and Wilmington. Ministers in each of those churches encouraged me to consider the ministry.
In the middle of my senior year in college I was ready to put my ear to that ground, to listen carefully, to detect distant hoof beats. The silence was deafening. I found myself smack up against a hard, impenetrable, sound-proof barrier between me and ministry-the wall of theology. I simply didn’t believe the things that Bob Sanders, my minister in the Congregational church in Wilmington, said I needed to believe if I was to become a minister. To this day it stretches my credulity to allow the possibility that anyone actually believes those things.
In a pivotal, private meeting with Bob I told him what I believed, which is to say, what I did not believe. I asked him if it was necessary for me to believe in the Apostle’s Creed literally. I told him I thought it was a string of metaphors, mentioning a few. Suddenly he seemed like he was in a hurry. He didn’t want to listen. He accused me of being a Unitarian.
With a nervously shaking finger pointing at me across the big desk which separated us, he said, “You sound like a Unitarian.” He wasn’t angry. He was clearly disappointed. In retrospect I’m sure the ground of his own faith was threatened. So he grabbed me by the scruff of my neck with one hand and the seat of my pants with the other and unceremoniously kicked my Unitarian butt out the door of my beloved Congregational church-home of my childhood innocence.
He aimed me in the right direction-the entrance to the Unitarian church. Bless him for that.
I didn’t jump into Unitarian waters right away. I put a toe in, gingerly following the direction toward which I’d been kicked. I visited the Unitarian church in Winchester the Sunday following Bob’s accusation. I felt like a interloper, sitting alone, self-consciously, hoping not to be noticed. Then the door opened: on the wall to the right of the pulpit was James Freeman Clark’s 19th century statement of faith that provided perfect confirmation to Sander’s accusation:
We believe in the Fatherhood of God,
the brotherhood of man,
the leadership of Jesus
salvation by character,
and the progress of Mankind,
onward and upward forever.
I remember reading salvation by character over and over. At first I didn’t get it. Then it began to sink in slowly. As it’s meaning became clear to me all the energy I had spent pushing my doubts down came flowing out in my tears and I felt an incredible sense of relief. Jesus isn’t God, and salvation isn’t a reward in some far-off fairy-tale land ‘lit by doves and rays.’ That old problematic word salvation was clearly a metaphor: your salvation is realized here and now. It’s the way you live your life. It’s your character. It’s about morality and ethics, and that’s what it means to ‘sit at the right hand of the father,’ as I had attempted to say to Sanders, but failed.
I attended the Winchester church two or three times, chatting briefly with Rev. Bob Storer, and slowly, cautiously stepped toward the liberation I so desperately craved.
A few years later I put another toe in the water, attending the Arlington Street Church to hear Jack Mendelsohn, greeting him at the door, but keeping a safe distance. As the war in Vietnman heated up I had become increasingly cynical about institutional religion-all of it.
During those years, from 1962 to 1969, I taught business subjects at Wellesley High School, and more importantly, I became father to Susan and Jonathan, experiencing a love which was as much miracle as I could stand. When Susan was four years old she asked, “Dad, what am I?” I asked what she meant and she said, “Katherine is Catholic, what am I?”
I decided that it was time to formalize our involvement with the Unitarian church in Wellesley Hills. I volunteered to teach in the church school-a trimester high school Sunday school class with the ironic title, “Love, Death and Something to Follow.” I became advisor to the Jr. LRY group, and later the high school LRY group-my first paid job in the church at an annual salary of $750.
During the winter of 1969 Bill Rice, minister of the Wellesley Hills Church, asked if I had ever thought of the ministry. He said he wanted to encourage me to think about it, and I cut to the chase. “Bill,” I said, “I’m an atheist.”
His response was memorable. It was perfect. He said, almost casually, “Do you want to talk about that?”
I said, “Well, it is rather important, isn’t it?”
“Frank,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder as we stood in the corridor outside the youth room, “you are going to spend the rest of your life with that one. That’s one of the questions that lasts a lifetime.”
That was a powerful, pivotal moment. I remember it with penetrating clarity and a sense of appreciation that sits at the seat of my soul. Bill’s response was a blessing–it stopped the slippery slide doen that dead-end track, turned me around, gently but firmly, and in a flash I was right back in the place I had been seven years earlier when I told Bob Sanders that I thought the Apostle’s Creed was poetry.
The old wound started to heal, and I could start over, giving serious consideration to a path down which I had peeked but dared not take.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
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.
I had taken another road, but it circled back to the place where I had started. Eliot’s words ring true: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.”
I had taken an exploratory route, and without realizing it, had ‘saved the first for another day.’ Suddenly I was looking down that road ‘to where it bent in the undergrowth.’ I couldn’t see beyond the bend, but I was ready to risk it. I’m glad to be ‘telling this with a sigh, ages and ages hence-right here.’ After the Great Companions!
Now I can be one traveler-restored to wholeness, a renewed sense of integrity. I discovered that as a Unitarian I can and must be an honest, searching, changing, growing traveler. To say that it has made all the difference in my life is a considerable understatement.
Whitman expresses it for me:
Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the
holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and west are mine, the north and south are mine.
I am larger, better than I thought, I did not know I held so much goodness.
I can repeat over to men and women You have done such good to me
I would do the same to you.
Allons! after the great companions, and to belong to them!
They too are on the road-they are the swift and majestic men-
they are the greatest women.
That Spring, with considerable anxiety, I set out on this great adventure. I looked into a few seminary programs, including an experimental independent study program, and decided on Boston University School of Theology. They offered a three-quarter scholarship, for one thing. Also, I knew that B.U. would challenge me to dig up the Christian baggage I buried seven years earlier, but which continued to haunt me. It was a good choice.
We sold our house in Wellesley Hills and bought a mobile home, which we parked in back of my parent’s house in Wilmington, and I started commuting to B.U. in September of 1969.
On a December night of that first year Bill Rice phoned and said, “It’s time for you to cut your teeth.” We set a date in February, when I would conduct the service on my own, and for the next two months I worked on my first sermon which I titled: ‘What Are the Questions?’ It felt like a huge task-to stand in Bill Rice’s pulpit and preach to the Wellesley Hills congregation. The sermon, I realize now, came out of the conversations I had with Bob Sanders and Bill Rice; it came out of the life-long struggle that Bill had named when I told him I was an atheist: “That’s one of the questions that lasts a lifetime.”
The big day in February came quickly. Bill sat in the pew. I can picture him sitting with his wife Betty, as I conducted the service and delivered that huge sermon, which was over in eight minutes flat. The next day Bill went into the hospital for minor surgery, had a heart attack and died. Suddenly my mentor was snatched away with cruel timing appropriate to a story from the Old Testament.
I was devastated, to say the least. And frightened. Bill had not only encouraged me and walked me through the process thus far, including financial support, but there was an implicit promise that he would be there for the duration. Suddenly he was gone and I felt terribly alone.
A week or so after Bill’s untimely death, the Wellesley Hills Board president asked if I would be willing to ‘fill in,’ on a part time basis, working with Phil Silk, Minister of Religious Education, until they called a new minister.
The next day I attended the Mass Bay District annual dinner meeting at the Winchester church. Before supper was served we were asked to observe a moment of silence for Bill Rice. Herb Adams, whom I had never seen before that night, sat across from me and saw tears flowing down my face. He initiated a conversation, saying, “I guess you knew Bill Rice.” I nodded. I wasn’t in the mood to chat, and the question somehow seemed intrusive. I was annoyed.
Little did I know that this was another fork in the road. Before dessert was served Herb was asking me to think about working with him at Follen Church. I told him about the offer at Wellesley and he told me he had something better to offer. I thought to myself, “Yea, right.” Then he served up an incredibly sweet dessert, making an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Herb offered me a job as his assistant at Follen Church. “I’ve heard about you,” he said, though at that moment I didn’t believe him. He said, “I’m working on a degree at Harvard School of Education which I expect to complete in June of 1972, when you will graduate from seminary. For the first half year you will be Assistant to the Minister; then in September you will be Assistant Minister, and for the last year you will be Associate Minister. You can live in the parsonage, since I’m living in Cambridge. The salary is $500 a month.” We met with the Board at Follen and they confirmed Herb’s offer.
It was another pivotal moment. ‘If this keeps happening,’ I thought, ‘I’ll have to give up being an atheist!’ Again, the Big Hand came down and spun me around. On April 1, 1970, still in the first year of seminary, I started my ministry at Follen Church, picking up where Ralph Waldo Emerson had left off! Well, sort of.
MINISTRY AS METAPHOR
It was there that I met Ruth Codier, who I’ve come to realize was my first parishioner, in a symbolic sense. She was certainly my first real challenge, and it was from her that I learned the primary lesson: every person in a congregation we serve is a challenge, and a potential teacher.
Ruth was the kind of person that people euphemistically called difficult. She was about to turn 70. I was about to turn 30. As editor of the church newsletter, I had condensed, ever so slightly (I thought) an article she had written. The day the newsletter came out she stormed into the office and demanded to know ‘who did it!’ I confessed.
“There wasn’t enough room for the entire article,” I explained, holding my ground.
“Don’t you ever dare to touch another thing that I write! Do you understand?”
“I guess what you’re saying is that you don’t want me to edit.” I tried using the active listening techniques I was learning in Pastoral Counseling 101. Forget about it!
To be sure I understood exactly what she meant Ruth said, emphatically, “I don’t like ministers. Don’t try to be my minister!” Ah, yes, primer lesson. Ruth is the first challenge, and by extension she represents every other person to whom I would, in fact, try to be minister.
A year later, after being arrested with 400 others at an anti-war demonstration on the Lexington Green, Ruth and I sat on the cement floor of the Department of Public Works, a make-shift jail where we were to spend an uncomfortable night. After singing all the usual folks songs things got quiet. People were talking in hushed tones, one on one, or in small groups. Then, in the wee hours of the morning Ruth recalled our first conversation. She told me that she still felt the same way about ministers. Then she added, with a twinkle I would come to know and cherish, “But you could be my friend.”
We developed a friendship which outlasted my tenure at Follen. Ruth came to Attleboro to share a Thanksgiving meal with us during my first there. As she was leaving the house that day, with some of the leftover turkey, Ruth handed me an envelope that contained a poem she wrote to me:
couldn’t stand me.
It may be
because you stood me,
I’m more standable.
I had become her minister–which she called friend; a Great Companion. The poem is stunning in its simplicity, worthy of Thoreau’s injunction to ‘simplify, simplify.’ That poem, more than anything I experienced before or since in my ministry, summarizes precisely the potential in parish ministry and it serves as my basic metaphor.
For me, Ruth represents each one of the thousands of people to whom I’ve tried to be minister. She is Everyone, and as such she is my metaphor for ministry, helping me to see below the surface of things, into the deeper meaning, which is what metaphors do, helping us to discover the deeper dimensions of this calling.
I clearly recall seeing Ruth for the first time, sitting in the same pew she always sat in, the first time I stood in the pulpit at Follen. Boy was I nervous! I can smile at the anxiety I felt when I looked at that stern face with a frown that was like an upside down smiley face-here was my first, or primary challenge.
It took many years for me to understand what that means–to see Ruth as Everyone. Every person sitting in the pew has wants, needs and expectations from those of us who stand on the other side of the pulpit. So does every person in the Board room, the counseling seat, the wedding, memorial service, and all the places where we meet Everyone.
Ruth’s poem was a wonderful way of bridging the huge chasm that separates us as human beings. Her poem helped me to see the power of poetry, to feel it in my bones, my soul.
Miller Williams put it in a poem this way: “Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What appears conceit, cynicism or bad manners is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
Ruth’s poem touches that place where the ‘spirit meets the bone,’ hers and yours and mine.
I’ve made good use of Ruth’s poem during my 18-years in Westport, known before my tenure there for its difficult people. They were just wounded people, like you and I. Her poem says more than I first realized She helped me to understand the need for boundaries in ministry, and the professional responsibility we have to set them and to tend them But we can ‘t do that by ourselves. We have to meet, walk the line, and set the wall between us.
Frost explains this process in MENDING WALL:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen groundswell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned.”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Ruth set a clear boundary at the start, though it felt more like a barrier than a boundary. She made it easier for me to learn ministry’s most important, if difficult, lesson: ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ It was the neighbor’s father’s saying, and our fathers’ saying, too. Sometimes there is a fine line, and sometimes the line is bold and obvious, but there needs to be a line-a boundary, and the boundary needs tending.
Ruth was an enigmatic gift, which I’m still unwrapping. She helped me to acknowledge to myself and others that I can be difficult, too. I appreciate those who were able and willing to hang in there-those who ‘stood me.’ I hope I’ve become more standable.
USING POETRY IN PARISH MINISTRY
During the past 30-plus years, I’ve developed an increasingly deeper appreciation for the many uses of poetry in parish ministry. I’m reminded of a quote from Theodore Parker: “As a Master the Bible is a tyrant. As a servant I don’t have time in one life to find its many uses.”
Poetry is my Bible. I keep finding, creating and developing its uses I’m sure there is not time in this one brief life to discover all of the uses to which poetry in ministry might be put-but no one will fault me for not trying!
Poems provide messages from me to the people in the pews-like the Mending Wall message about the need to respect boundaries, and to keep them clear.
A Board meeting is often a time for boundary-setting: ‘on a night we meet to walk the line and set the wall between us once again.we keep the wall between us as we go, to each the boulders that have fallen to each.’
How often have I tried to lift boulders that belong to the Board! I’ve created some of the most painful problems for myself by trying to grab hold of their boulders!
How many times do we hear colleagues complain about the lack of a clear boundary between work and home, or between being a minister and being a person with needs of one’s own.
The first responsibility of our ministry is to convey to the people we are called to serve that we can take care of ourselves, and that we are taking care of ourselves, and they don’t have to worry that our lives will be invaded. What a relief it is for them to know that they don’t have to protect us from the problematic people in the congregation!
Some poems provide an opportunity to serve up a theological message that may not otherwise be heard or appreciated by many of the folks who fill the pews. Theology, however, is pure poetry, plain and simple. One of my favorite poems in this regard is the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
God is, at best, a metaphor for the nameless-the Great Mystery ‘in which we live and breathe and have our being,’ as the good book says. To suggest that the word god is God’s name is to make an idol; God becomes a thing, one of the things among the ten thousand things. A noun. Buckminster Fuller exclaimed, “I think I’m a verb!” I think God is a verb.
God is a metaphor used in the Biblical poems, those marvelous mythologies where we need to locate ourselves, and, by so doing, we can better understand ourselves and one another-that’s liberation, that’s the function of liberal religion. “I call that mind free.which recognizes its own reality and greatness.which jealousy guards its intellectual rights and powers, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith.” Channing said it poetically.
Harrell Beck, my Old Testament professor at B.U., said, “When you understand the concept of the Messiah you’ll know that it’s the person next to you.” What a wonderful, liberating metaphor! Pure poetry.
Our colleague John Haynes Holmes put it this way, “But when I say God it is poetry, and not theology. Nothing the theologians ever said about God has helped me much. But everything that the poets have written about the flowers and trees, and saviors of the race, and God, whoever he may be, has at one time or another touched my soul. The theologians gather dust on the shelves of my library, but the poets are stained with my fingers and blotted with my tears.”
In his signature poem, Song of Myself, Whitman put it this way:
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? Have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand,
Nor look through the eyes of the dead,
Nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.
The invitation offered by liberal (liberating) religion is to look and listen ‘to all sides and filter them from yourself.’ Poetry, when used effectively from the pulpit, is an invitation to enter that personal place-the origin of all poems, all religions, all ideas, all insights-epiphanies: the soul.
The other road which we’re enticed to take is the literal, the denotative. It tries to trick us into thinking we can know enough about God to say what God wants. Jerry Falwell knows. The terrorists who flew the planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon knew. That dangerous, primitive thinking is a bigger threat to the world today than ever. That’s why we Unitarian Universalists need to offer something nourishing to the religious palate without crossing the line between the connotative to the denotative.
Listening to Falwell or Osama bin Laden we are tempted to throw the proverbial baby out with toxic bathwater. If we deny validity to the spiritual life we are abandoning the most important task we face, not only as clergy, but as members of this battered, bruised and beleaguered race.
A poem provides a way for us to present a palatable theology. One of my favorites is John Ciardi’s Taoist-like poem White Heron:
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky-then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please
But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
it’s heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.
In pastoral counseling sessions I often insert a poem, or lines from a poem, to help make that all-important connection between the other person and me, and, more importantly, to help the other to pull the pieces of his or her life back together. That’s the point of pastoral counseling, is it not? First we need to create a climate of trust, then make a connection with the other, and finally stand aside when we see them pulling the pieces of their own life together. A poem, or line drawn from a poem, often becomes the bridge to understanding.
Scottee provides a powerful example. A woman in her early 60’s, Scottee came to me for counseling when she was in the final stages of terminal cancer. She wanted to talk about her imminent death. She maintained a strict conspiracy of silence with her husband and three grown children. She wanted to talk with me in private, not only about her death, but about her life, “So you’ll know what you’re talking about when you do my memorial service,” she quipped.
She told me about her life, recalling her career on the stage, and the years she spent singing with the big bands-Benny Goodman and others. I remember the long pauses during our sessions as she traveled back to those days-the good old days, as she called them. And I remember her saying, “It seems like another person, but I was that person. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it.”
One day, early in the process, I decided to take what felt like a significant risk. I said, “What you’re saying reminds me of a poem by e e cummings.” Then I recited the poem:
Death if Death
when(instead of stopping to think)you
begin to feel of it,dying
cause dying is
it mildly lively(but
& artificial &
evil & legal)
we thank thee
almighty for dying
(forgive us,o life!the sin of Death
Scottee’s eyes lit up, then they filled with tears and finally she said, “Yes, yes! That’s it, that’s it exactly!” We sat together in that sacred silence for a long time, the she said, “Please say it again.” I did.
Two months later I got a late-night call from the hospital. It was one of Scottee’s daughters who said, “We don’t think she’ll last the night. She said she’d like to see you.”
When I went into her room Scottee looked at me with a gentle smile, motioned me to lean down to her so she could whisper her request: “Please say the poem,” she said, and I held her hand and recited, ‘dying is fine.’ An hour later she died, which was fine with her.
The Cummings’ poem provided a way of helping Scottee to come to terms with her life and to accept her dying. That’s what we’re always trying to do-to connect; from the pulpit, in the counseling session, the wedding ceremony or memorial service, or during a conversation at a social event when we have to pretend we’re not working. “Only connect,” E.M. Forster said. It’s the definition of ministry. When it happens, as it did with Scottee, ministry becomes humanizing and life becomes sacred.
Robert Frost’s poem, REVELATION speaks enough to fill a volume on pastoral counseling:
We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone really find us out.
‘Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
POETRY IN THE PULPIT
Poetry is always, and very simply, an invitation. It is not a demand. It is an invitation to stimulate the imagination, to reference one’s own experience, activated by the images in the words of the poem, the interpretation, cadence and vocal gestures of the reader.
Frost’s poem, The Pasture, is a simple, perfect example of the invitation implied in all poems:
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may)
I shan’t be gone long. – You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I shan’t be gone long. – You come too.
That’s a call to worship-an invitation to join in the spirit of meditation and prayer as well as the singing, sermon.and announcements. The worship leader is saying, “I’m going out to clean the pasture spring; I shan’t be gone long, you come too.” That’s why we’re here together-that’s why you came here today, and it’s what I have been called to do-called by an inner voice that wants to clean that pasture spring, the Source of Life-sustaining inspiration.
A poem is always an invitation. If it is to be effective-inviting–it must be served up like a fine wine, in the delicate stemware of nuance, interpreted and filtered from the self. It doesn’t matter, for those moments, who wrote it-the one reciting it takes ownership.
The poem must be appreciated, admired and loved by the one offering it, the way one would offer a delicious morsel to a dinner companion: here, taste this, I think you’ll love it. Then it becomes Holy Communion!
A poem has the potential to offer something more than the words themselves, and if it offers words only-and somebody else’s words at that-it falls flat, and the person in the pew feels defrauded. Not only is his/her time wasted, but the potential of language to make a sacred connection is diminished and cynicism sets in. Whitman says it this way:
Logic and sermons never convince,
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.
(Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so,
Only what nobody denies is so).
Do you see O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death-it is form, union, plan-
It is eternal life-it is Happiness.
–Song of Myself 30 & 50
A poem is a vehicle to transport the listener from the pew to the pasture. No one can be forced to come. It’s not meant to convince-it’s not argumentative. It’s an invitation that comes from conviction-the conviction and enthusiasm of the one offering the poem.
Of course the invitation is more likely to be accepted if the poem is recited from memory-by heart, as we say. Then the connection between pulpit and pew is clean-palpable.
Of course a poem can be read effectively, but only if the one reading it has taken it down into the heart, practiced it out loud again and again, the way Yo-Yo Ma practices every piece before playing it for an audience. The appreciation of the reader must leave no doubt in the listener that this is Something Sacred. It always shows-that’s the attraction, that’s the invitation.
A poem has the potential to provide a sense of hope. We are separate persons, and often feel isolated, competitive and alienated. The reason for common worship is to bridge that gap; it’s the reason for all relationships; it’s the reason for community-the hope that we can bridge the big gap between me and you, that we can make a connection and move toward authenticity.
A poem that is effective is transformative. Transubstantiation happens! The spoken word becomes sacred–the Holy Spirit speaks through us, and our ego disolves, the barrier is broken and we know, for a fleeting moment, that we are One.
In the Divinity School Address Emerson said it this way: “The divine bards are the friends of my virtue, of my intellect, of my strength. They admonish me that the gleams which flash across my mind are not mine, but God ‘s. Noble provocations go out from them, inviting me to resist evil; to subdue the world; and to Be.To aim to convert a man by miracles is a profanation of the soul. A true conversion, a true Christ, is now, as always, to be made by the reception of beautiful sentiments.”
The reception of beautiful sentiments happens only when the invitation we’ve offered has been accepted, and we can see the RSVP written on a face here and there.
Emerson explains that it is only when the listeners, “.come again to themselves, or to God in themselves, can they grow forevermore. The time is coming when all will see that the gift of God to the soul is not a vaunting, overpowering, excluding sanctity, but a sweet, natural goodness, a goodness like thine and mine, and that so invites thine and mine to be and to grow.”
Poetry provides that kind of invitation. It is not a vaunting over, suggesting that I know the truth and you’d better listen to me, or the truth is here in this book or that verse, and I’m going to deliver it to you. It is an invitation to Holy, human communion; it makes it clear that all the religions came from that same place-from the experience of being human, of struggling through long nights the way Jacob struggled until he got the blessing when the dawn came up and his name was changed to Israel. It comes with a feeling of reconciliation–unearned love–Grace.
Poetry has that potential. Not the words, the interpretation, the presentation, delivered with a genuine sense of enthusiasm in the quivering voice of the one who stands in the pulpit or podium hoping to offer the Bread of Life.
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.
–Whitman, Song of Myself, 5
A poem is like a painting, a symphony, a statue, a building or a simple song. It was created by the poet, but must be brought to life creatively by the one elucidating. Whitman say it this way:
The sum of all known reverence I add up in you, whoever you are;
Those who govern are there for you, it is not you who are there for them;
All architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it;
All music is what awakes from you when you are reminded by the instruments.
We consider bibles and religions divine-I do not say they are not divine
I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still;
It is not they who give the life-it is you who give the life.
Will you seek afar off? You surely come back at last, in things best known to you,
Finding the best, or as good as the best-
Happiness, knowledge, not in another place, but this place-
Not another hour, but this hour.
Our task, as the ones interpreting, elucidating, is to breath life into the lines. Delivery is as creative as writing.
A poem, Frost says “…begins in delight, and ends in wisdom…it is a momentary stay against confusion. It has denouement. It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood-and indeed from the very mood. It is but a trick poem and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last.” Then he adds, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
He says that a poem “…must be a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader…like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. A poem may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being. Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it. Read it a hundred times: it will forever keep its freshness as a metal keeps it fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.” (Introduction to Selected Poems of Robert Frost with Introduction by Robert Graves, Rinehart Press, San Francisco, 1963)
A poem punctuates a sermon and can be that ‘momentary stay against its confusion.’ I’ve heard preachers break out in song, bringing an otherwise flat presentation to life, bringing spirit to the thoughts, ideas and quotations. “Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.”
If the reader’s voice conveys delight with the poem, it will result in wisdom, or something better than wisdom-a surprise for the soul. Then the poem becomes a prayer sending signals of hope and signs of salvation.
A poem has potential to sprinkle spirituality into the lives of those who otherwise resist religion. They silently say, “Don’t try to be my minister…but you might be my friend.”
Some Saturday nights I sink into an instant depression, thinking I have nothing to offer in the morning. I am comforted and assured by Emerson’s assertion: “I am not ignorant that when we preach unworthily, it is not always quite in vain. There is a good ear, in some…that draws supplies to virtue out of very indifferent nutriment. There is poetic truth concealed in all the commonplaces of prayer and of sermons, and though foolishly spoken, they may be wisely heard.”
I’ve made extensive use of that quote.
From time to time, in the midst of delivering a polished gem, I hear the thunderous silence of those who have accepted the invitation–and we are there in that place together. I read it on their faces, see it in their tears, hear it in their laughter, and I know we’ve connected. In those sacred moment I know ‘the gleams which flash across my mind are not mine, but God’s.’ Holy Communion has happened. And it’s enough. It’s enough.
“From moment to moment, from day to day, we search the eyes of others for that certain yes.”
I like the way Buber put it. Sometimes after a service I acknowledge the yes I felt with a certain person-often someone I’ve never seen before, someone whose eyes have said yes, and thank you; someone who reminds me of the day I sat reading James Freeman Clark’s affirmation on the wall of the Winchester church. I say, “I appreciated your response.” They understand and they’re glad to know that I saw what was happening.
I know what it’s like-it’s like liberation. It’s like healing. It’s a lot like love–a sacred connection. In those moments I know I’ve answered the call.
This has been a personal statement, an intimate confession and an affirmation of the uses to which I’ve put poetry, and the uses to which poetry has put me.
Each of us finds and develops ways of doing our work. Frost concludes his poem, Two Tramps in Mud Time, with this sentiment:
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
I want to include a few poems for other occasions. First, one from Sandburg, which I recite to myself just before Board meetings-it seems especially appropriate for those in the first year or so of a new ministry. Sandburg’s title says it clearly: Primer Lesson
Look out how you use proud words.
When you let proud words go, it is
not easy to call them back.
They wear long boots, hard boots; they
walk off proud; they can’t hear you
Look out how you use proud words.
Another Sandburg poem is just right for the Social Responsibility sermon, or the Social Action Committee meeting:
Lay me on an anvil, O God.
Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar.
Let me pry loose old walls.
Let me lift and loosen old foundations.
Lay me on an anvil, O God.
Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike.
Drive me into the girders that hold a skyscraper together.
Take red-hot rivets and fasten me into the central girders.
Let me be the great nail holding a skyscraper through blue
nights into white stars.
And a poem that summarizes all the uses of poetry in our public ministry-an opportunity to make the connection between religion and Nature:
The Duck, by Donald Babcock
Now we’re ready to look at something pretty special.
It’s a duck, riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf.
No it isn’t a gull. A gull always has a raucous touch about him.
This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.
He isn’t cold, and he is thinking things over.
There is a big heaving in the Atlantic, and he is a part of it.
He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree.
But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher.
He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.
Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is. And neither do you. But he realizes it.
And what does he do, I ask you? He sits down in it!
He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity – which it is.
He has made himself a part of the boundless by easing himself into just where it touches him.
I like the little duck. He doesn’t know much, but he’s got religion.