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I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Simply Poetry?



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I was caught up short by the title of Bishop John Bryson Chane’s column in the latest Washington Window: “Prayer without Action is Simply Poetry.” It raised the ire you might expect from a poet. “Simply poetry?” The phrase was clearly dismissive. It seemed as if the title meant something like “faith without works is dead” – and actually, in reading the article, I didn’t find much I disagreed with – of course we are called, as Christians, to address injustice in the world, to examine and refashion ways of life that are draining resources from the poor, to keep in mind the mandate of Matthew 25. The statistics the Bishop offers are horrifying, numbing, about the level of human suffering in the world. And of course addressing these things is part of how we are called as Christians.

But I think we need poetry as we respond to the gospel’s call to action in the world. Talking with college students about vocation over the past year or so, I have been struck by the way that many young adult Christians are intimidated, overwhelmed, by the whole notion of the call of Christians to heal a clearly broken world. The task seems too great for them and they don’t know where to begin, and how they can contribute. It seems like a lot of pressure, trying to identify a vocation that will save the world. In these conversations it seemed to me that some imagination, some poetry, needs to be brought into our preaching and teaching about the call of Christ to a ministry of healing and reconciliation amid the world’s brokenness. Poetry can help us imagine our way to the particular ways we are called to heal a broken world, “wherever we may be”

It seems to me that there is a great deal of “poetry” in our faith tradition and story – the act of imagination that story and poetry invites is a powerful source of the energy and spirit that propels us to love and serve the world. And the practice of prayer, of receptivity to God, requires imagination – is a kind of poetry. Modern prophets Bishop Desmond Tutu and Verna Dozier both invite believers to an act of imagination as we attend to the brokenness of the world. They speak of the “dream” of God – a poetic expression of our common awareness that the world is not what it is meant to be – and that we are called by our faith to participate in its transformation. Tutu writes, in lively, imaginative mode, drawing on the poetic language of our tradition:

"I have a dream," God says. "Please help Me to realize it. It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts, when there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing. I have a dream that swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, that my children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God’s family, my family.” ( God Has a Dream, pp.19-20)

Verna Dozier
makes a similar point when she points to the poetry of the Biblical story, with it’s account of a God who loves us and calls us to return, and a Saviour who gives himself to that work and calls us to new life. It begins, as Bishop Chane implies out, with the ability to look squarely at the world’s brokenness and to see the huge chasm between the world as God desires it to be and the world as it is. But to address this without being overwhelmed, we need imagination, poetry and faith.

Dreaming with God requires ongoing discernment: we need to learn to look at the story God is telling about the world, known through Scripture and tradition, and also at the world as it is. Then we need to ask, “Where is my heart breaking; what is calling me here: what is my small piece of this great work of redemption and reconciliation that God is calling me to?” We need to be imaginative enough to “dream with God ” and to give ourselves to that dream.

No one of us can do it all. We can and should participate in large programs through our institutions; but each of us, as individuals and as congregations, need to look at the relationships, needs and communities around us and say “what is the dream of God for this situation, even if I can’t figure out how to realize it all by myself? What might be my piece of the work of reconciliation here?”

My point is, of course, it’s “both/and.” Prayer without action is passivity; Action without prayer can wind up being about more narrowly political and social agendas – it can lead us to miss the dream of God in the work we are called to do. Genuine prayer will lead us to action. But it is folly to dismiss either of these as “simply poetry.”

Walter Brueggemann
has named the poets as the “prophets” of our time. We are required, in reaching out to the world, to learn compassion through imagination, to name suffering and to speak truth to a corrupt social order. And activist poet Denise Levertov described imagination as “the perceptive organ by which it is possible. . . . to experience God.” We need poetry, the expression of imagination, to name the brokenness and imagine the healing, to help us to dream with God, and to ourselves keep humbly open to possibilities we may not have imagined. True poetry, like true prayer, will call us to action, powered by the energy of the imagination, which enables us to touch the heart of God. It teaches us, within whatever sphere of life we are called to encounter and name, to live into the dream of God.

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