Book Bite: Lectionary Poetry
By Cheryl Arnold
God is the perfect poet. ~ Robert Browning
The Bible is filled with poems; as much as one fourth to one third of the Bible contains poetry and poetic language. Theologian and pastor John Piper defines poetry as “an effort to share a moving experience by using language that is chosen and structured differently from ordinary prose. Sometimes it rhymes. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it has a regular cadence. Sometimes it doesn’t. But almost always the poet has experienced something—something horrible or wonderful or ordinary—and feels that he must share it. Using words differently from ordinary prose is the poet’s way of trying to awaken something of his experience (and perhaps even more) in the reader.”
Poetry gives voice to the breadth and depth of human experience in a way that prose cannot, and devotional poetry gives voice to the breadth and depth of our spiritual experience. These poems express truths about God and our faith, and Leland Ryken, who compiled an anthology of classic devotional poems called The Soul in Paraphrase, explains the significance for us. “Devotional poets are our representatives, giving expression to our own spiritual experiences and feelings. The unexpressed life is an incomplete life, and poets are our allies in making sure this doesn’t happen.”
If poetry is so significant, why don’t more of us read poetry? One reason is that there are so many other voices calling for our time and attention at home— TV shows to watch, apps open on our electronic devices, a stack of books waiting to be read, work and chores that need to be done and, of course, the people in our lives. Reading poetry requires time, silence, imagination, and reflection. One cannot read through a poem quickly like a chapter in a fast-paced book. Poems must be read slowly and then reread several times in order to take in their meaning. Ryken explains, “A poem offers the possibility of slowing down and letting the quality of experience exceed the quantity of experience. A poem keeps unfolding meanings and nuances and beauties the longer we contemplate it.” An annotated volume of poetry or even an internet search can be helpful in uncovering meanings and discovering nuances, especially in the case of classic poems with some language that may be unfamiliar to our modern ears.
One way to begin exploring poetry is by reading the lectionary poetry compiled by The Englewood Review of Books, a free weekly online book review published by Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis. Each Monday they publish a classic and contemporary poem for each lectionary reading for the coming Sunday. The poems are written by diverse poets, not all Christians, but they are intended to “stir our imaginations with how the biblical text speaks to us in the twenty-first century,” according to The Englewood Review. Reading them during the week can help us prepare our minds for encountering the biblical texts on Sunday. You can have the weekly review sent to your email or visit the website using this link:
They have already published a full three-year cycle of lectionary poetry, and all of it can be accessed on their website.
Next week, Part 2 of this two-part poetry series will feature some Christian poets from the past and present.