It’s All Poetry

Rev. Josh Pawelek

In May I heard a report on the news of a suicide bombing somewhere, maybe Iraq, an enormous number of bystanders killed and wounded, a witness explaining to a reporter through a translator that the bomber had screamed Allahu akbar! (God is Great!”) just before detonation. Muslims use this phrase, the takbir, for many reasons. I suspect the fact that militant Islamists say or scream it before committing acts of violence—and that saying or screaming gets reported in the western media—could potentially lead us to hear it as a war cry and not, as it is most commonly used, as the beginning of prayer, or an expression of surprise, or of sympathy for one who is suffering, or of praise for a wonderful performance. Allahu akbar is used for all these reasons and many more.

Takbir

I’ve heard this story of the takbir shouted as prelude to violence many times. I’m sure many of you have as well. It makes me angry—and sad—when people commit murder with God’s name on their tongues. If I’m being honest, it makes me fearful. And if I’m being more honest, it engenders in me a reaction that feels—I’m not quite sure how to name it—self-righteous, superior, haughty, smug, arrogant. It’s a reaction that says clearly these killers misunderstand their religion. They’ve been mis-educated, manipulated, brainwashed. No decent religion teaches killing. It’s a reaction that says “I, an educated, western white man, know better.” And although I’ve learned to check myself whenever I feel that way, here I believe I really do know better (though I also realize I can’t possibly know what has brought the bomber to this point in their life). I don’t believe there is anything I can learn about them that would lead me to say, “Oh, now I get it. That was a good idea.” These fanatical crimes—intended to harm innocents, spread mayhem and invite more violence—will never be OK. I am right about this, and in saying that, I can’t quite escape feeling a tinge of self-righteousness, or whatever it is.

God is GreatBut in that moment back in May a different feeling came over me, a different idea occurred to me. I remembered, as a child, saying “God is great” before dinner. It was that popular children’s prayer: “God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for this food.” As I remembered this prayer a wave of recognition rolled over me: the words “God is great,” more than anything else, are a poem—a very short, simple poem; which led me to the further recognition that all prayer, at its heart, is poetry; and that when people are praying, chanting, reciting or singing in virtually any religious context, the words on their tongues are poems. The Biblical Psalms, those enduring cries of praise, thanksgiving, lamentation and awe—“You cradle me in green pastures / You lead me beside the still waters. / You restore my soul”[1]—at their heart these songs of David are poems. And when Jesus, on the first day of his ministry entered the Nazarene synagogue, read from the scroll and upset those in attendance, he was reading a poem: “The Spirit of God is upon me / because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. / He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives / and recovery of sight to the blind, /to let the oppressed go free, / to proclaim the year of God’s favor.”[2]

When the ancient Vedic sages crafted the Upanishads, articulating the core concepts of what would eventually become Hinduism,Ilumination Buddhism and Janism, they wrote poetry. The Bhagavad-Gita, the central text of Hindu spirituality—“I am the Self that dwells in the heart of every mortal creature: / I am the beginning, the life span, and the end of all,”[3]—is a poem. The Tao Te Ching—“The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name”[4]—is poetry. The Analects of Confucius—“What does Heaven ever say? Yet there are the four seasons going round and there are the hundred things coming into being”[5]—beautiful, concise poems. If you’ve ever heard a recitation of the Koran, or if you’ve seen its words laid out on a painstakingly illuminated manuscript, you cannot doubt that what God put in the heart of Muhammad (blessings be upon him) was poetry—a recognition which led me on that day in May to the idea that all religion is, at its heart, poetry. And with that the wave crashed and I knew something I hadn’t known before: when a fanatical Islamist shouts “God is great” and blows him or herself up in a crowded market square, it’s not a case of them misunderstanding their religion. They understand it perfectly. For whatever reason, their religion has taught them to do this. What has happened is that they and their religion have misunderstood poetry.

Of course this begs the question, what is poetry? I am not a poet. I’ve never studied poetry in a systematic way. I’ve never memorized a poem. I might be able to name 20 poets off the top of my head. However, if we accept this idea that all religion at its heart is poetry, then I can name hundreds of poets: Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Rumi, Hafez, Hillel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Ruth (“Where you dwell, I shall dwell”), David, Solomon, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Paul, John Paul, Bonhoeffer, Neimoller (“First they came for the Socialists / and I did not speak out / Because I was not a Socialist”),King (“I have a dream”), Thurman, Thandeka, Tinker, Tagore, Tutu, Theresa of Avila, Theresa of Calcutta, de las Casas, Handsome Lake, Black Elk, Wovoka, Francis (“Who am I to judge?”), St. Francis, Swedenborg, Mary Moody Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Spirit primarily means wind, transgression, the crossing of a line”), Thoreau, Parker (Theodore), Parker (Rebecca), Lyon Fahs, Fosdick, Fuller, Freeman Clarke, Peabody, Stanton, Alcott, Child, Brown, Brown Blackwell, Blackenbery Crook, Nancy Schaffer (“I have been looking for the words that come before words”), Tarbox, Valentin, Herrera, Southern, Peacebang, McTigue, Pescan, Wellemeyer, Ungar, Walsh, Belletini, Mary (Gospel of), Thomas (Gospel of), Q (Gospel of, though theoretical, of course), Thich Nhat Han, Pema Chodron, Sharon Salzberg, Solle, Tillich (“Religion asks for the ultimate source of the power which heals by accepting the unacceptable, it asks for God”), Wright (“God damn America!”), Johnson (Alvan), Cone, Coelho, Kwok Pui Lan, Fox, West, Weston, Davies, Eaton, Eckhart, Murfin (“We build temples in the heart), Bray McNatt, Morrison-Reed, Simons, Niebuhr—all the Neibuhrs—Buber, Barth, Boff, Berrigan, Garrison, Guzman, Starhawk, Spretnak, Adams (Margot), Adams (Jane), Adams (James), Jerzy Popieluszko, Oscar Romero, Hus, Luther, Cervides, Rush, Jefferson, Priestley, Jones (Rufus), Jones (Jenkin Lloyd), Vivekananda, Dharmapala, Krishnamurti, Khalil Gibran, Parker Palmer, Basho, Berry, Bellah, Whitman, Wentworth Higginson, Jesus (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). That’s about 120 “poets” off the top of my head—all people whose words I’ve lifted up in worship over the years. No Google search necessary.

I asked my kids and a friend what poetry is. They said: “Poetry is writing what you think is fun.” “Poetry is freedom in writing.” “Poetry is writing things that rhyme.” “Poetry is writing what you feel.” “Poetry is descriptive.” “Poetry is writing until you have nothing else to write about.” “Poetry is using fewer words.” Good answers. I was hoping they’d mention “fewer words.” In his essay “The Poet,” Emerson said, “It does not need that a poem should be long. Every word was once a poem.”[6] When I asked the kids why poetry uses fewer words, they couldn’t say. They seemed to sense a reason, but couldn’t put it into speech, into whole sentences with beginnings, middles and ends. And that’s the point. There are truths—great truths we humans long to discern. We sometimes call this longing the religious impulse. Yet the same longing that drives poetry. We long to understand the essences of things, the spirit of things, the endless relationships among all things, the forces connecting all to all, the animating power, the constant flow, the eternal, spiraling motion, particles that are waves building and crashing, the rhythm of life, first breaths, finals breaths, breathing in, out, beating lub dub, blood coursing, cycles of life and death, growth and decay, cycles of seconds, hours, days, months, seasons, years, thousands of years, millions of years, movements of suns, moons, planets, galaxies, pulls of tides, the instinct to survive, the will to live, the creative drive, a parent’s boundless love for their child, and “the lone, wild bird in lofty flight.” [7]

Lone Wild Bird

Poetry points to these truths; but only points, because inherent in poetry is the recognition that words alone are insufficient to name them fully. So poetry uses fewer words, and in so doing creates space for other ways of knowing—feeling, sensing, intuiting, dreaming, imagining—ways of entering the place beyond words. Or, as the late poet who was also a spiritual leader, Nancy Shaffer, said in a stanza forever dog-eared, highlighted and triple underlined in my copy of her book, “I have been looking for the words that come before words, the ones older than silence, the ones not mine, that can’t be found by thought—the ones that hold the beginning of the world and are never used up, which arrive loaned, and make me weep.”[8] Was she a poet who was also a spiritual leader, or a spiritual leader who was also a poet? Nevermind, this question no longer matters to me. From this day forward I acknowledge no distinction between poetry and the heart of religion. Poetry uses fewer words to point to the truth and create spaces for all forms of human discernment of the truth. At its best, so does religion. Through its scriptures, prayers, meditations, songs, hymns, chants, sayings, aphorisms, parables, sutras, suras, chapters, verses, liturgies, rituals, worship and witness it points to the truth and creates spaces for all forms of human discernment of the truth. Poetry lives at the heart of religion.

I remember in the early years of my ministry I participated in some of the Boston-area Soulful Sundowns—evening worship services designed for young adults. I would bring my rock band along. The song lyrics became texts for my sermons. The idea was that sacred scripture wasn’t the only source of spiritual insight or ultimate truth—you could find it in the ordinary, the mundane, the everyday. You could find it in rock lyrics, literature, poetry, film. This was not a new idea for Unitarian Universalists. I was just getting used to my own version of it. At the end of the services I would ask people to share their favorite lyrics from their favorite songs and to name the spiritual message they took from those lyrics. I might have mentioned the Tracey Bonham song we heard earlier. “Whether you fall / means nothing at all / it’s whether you get up”[9]—an ode to courage, resilience, second chances, finding inner strength. I’ve always loved bringing the so-called “secular” into church and making it available for spiritual contemplation. And as long as we could cross back and forth, I was content with the line between secular and sacred. But for me, now, that line doesn’t exist. Poetry doesn’t recognize that line, can’t fathom it, won’t sanction it. And when religion draws that line, it fails to understand its own poetic heart.

How do you know a religion has misunderstood poetry? It has started using too many words (which, I suppose, is a commentary hardening hearton most sermons). Paradoxically, the more words we use to describe our truths, the further we get from the feeling of them, the intuiting of them, the dreaming of them, the loving of them. The more words we use to describe our truths, the further we get from the raw experience of them. The more words we use to describe our truths, the more we limit them, the more we drain the life from them, the more we imprison, entomb, harden, calcify, fossilize them. Emerson said “Language is fossil poetry.”[10] How do you know a religion has misunderstood its poetic heart? It has stopped pointing toward the truth and has started acting as if it alone has the truth. It has stopped offering its people opportunities for discernment, for entering into mystery, for searching the vast expanses, for making their own meaning of their own experience. It has stopped trusting its people to make their own way. Instead it has started demanding allegiance to a single, sweeping truth expressed in jagged, unassailable, terminal words; it has started shaping its original sense of awe, its original beauty into strict and hard-sounding doctrines; it has started drawing lines, categorizing, putting everything and everyone into boxes, binding belief, banishing dissent, setting boundaries—who is in and who is out. It has started making threats with eternal consequences; started discriminating; started accepting the unjust status quo; started hearing “God is great” as a call to murder. Indeed, religion misunderstands its poetic heart at the world’s peril.

Contrast this with Molly Vigeant’s poem, “oh, the places our journeys will go,” which she wrote as a credo, a personal belief statement. She says “I wish I could say / I know of / This perfect way / But to be honest / I love / Just looking / No commitment / To just one thing / Listening / To how the birds sing / And finding joy in that / Comfort / Without a resort.” Religion damages the human spirit when it says “Repeat after me. Do not stray from my words.” Molly says there is no perfect way. She’s right. Religion saves us when it opens pathways, sends us searching, urges us on, opens us up, invites us to ponder, creates space, points us toward  truth. Religion is at its best—life-giving, liberating, empowering—when it speaks poetry, uses fewer words, and invites us into the wonderful, creative spaces between them. “You cradle me in green pastures / You lead me beside the still waters. / You restore my soul.”

still waters

When we finally arrive at the spaces between the words, at the words before words, at whatever faint glimmer of truth we humans can grasp, it is a blessing. It can be for us a source of courage, strength and resilience, a source of comfort and solace, a boon to our creativity, and perhaps, most importantly a call to bring love back into the world. Molly says it well: “We are a people / And people are love / Let that be enough.” When the poetic heart of our religion brings us back from our searching with messages of love on out tongues, surely it has done its saving work.

Amen and blessed be.
 

[1] Excerpt from Psalm 23, Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #642.

[2] Luke 4: 18-19.

[3] Excerpt from the Bhagavad-Gita, chapter 10, Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #611.

[4] Lao Tzu, Tao-te Ching, in Wing-Tsit Chan, tr., The Way of Lao Tzu (New York: Macmillan Publishing co., 1963) p.97.

[5] Confucius, The Analects, Book 17: 19 in D.C. Lau, tr., Confucius: The Analects (New York: Penguin Books, 1979) p. 146.

[6] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “The Poet,” in Whicher, Stephen, ed, Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin co., 1957) p. 229. Or read the full text at http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/poet. There is a helpful analysis of “The Poet” in Richardson, Robert D., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkely: University of California Press, 1995) pp. 371-5.

[7] MacFayden, H.R., The Lone, Wild Bird, Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #15.

[8] Shaffer, Nancy, “In Stillness,” Instructions in Joy (Boston: Skinner House, 2002) p. 5.

[9] Tracey Bonham, “Whether You Fall” is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ADHC80–sY&list=RD_ADHC80–sY#t=31.

[10] Emerson, “The Poet,” in Whicher, ed, Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, p. 231.