July 15, 2016

Scripture and Poetic Imagination

My daughter turned six recently, and one of the gifts my husband and I gave her was a Bible. As I inscribed it, I had a moment of doubt: “What am I doing giving a child an ancient book that frequently features polygamy, patriarchy, and violence? And, at best, metaphors beyond our context! The Bible is really hard to understand! I’m still working through that! She’s only seen sheep once. And shepherds . . . never!” What I inscribed, however, was different and was an exercise in preaching to myself:

The Bible is one of the ways God talks to us. Sometimes it is hard to understand because it was written a long time ago. But we believe that the Holy Spirit gave these stories, poems, and letters to us, and the same Spirit can help us understand it today, personally and in community, through the work of many gifted men and women.

One of the challenges of worship in a society that is no longer biblically literate is the chasm that separates us from the Ancient Near East. North American Christians have the short end of the stick when it comes to understanding the culture, customs, and even landscape of our biblical faith ancestors. This is a significant consideration for preaching. It is also a consideration for how we may use scripture in worship.

Consider Psalm 133:
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore. (NRSV)

The only part of this Psalm that may be immediately resonant with many North Americans may be the first sentence! All that oil, just pouring out . . . it sounds messy! Even within traditions that practice anointing, it’s with a little oil, not enough to pour down the collar of someone’s shirt! Whose job is it to wash Aaron’s robe? I feel sorry for her. And dew of Hermon? Zion . . . maybe folks know that. It’s some place that is a God-place, a holy place, right?

Do you see the challenge?

One way I have tried to provide meaning, outside the context of preaching or teaching, is to introduce poetic augmentations of Psalms within worship. One reader will read the biblical text, another a poetic contextualization of the dynamic meaning. For instance, when the scripture is introduced, a reader may say: “We’re going to hear God’s Word from Psalm 133. I (One) will read the biblical text, and Susan (Two) will speak a parallel poem in contemporary metaphors.”

How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!

How wonderful, how beautiful, when brothers and sisters get along!

It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe.

It’s like aged balsamic vinegar, sixty dollars an ounce,
poured on strawberries, fresh-picked this morning.

It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.

It is like the perfect summer day at Lake Michigan, the hot, hot air, and the cold, cold water.

One & Two
For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore. (NIV)

Two’s part may be different according to context (or season). Some people have never tasted expensive balsamic vinegar, or don’t even know where Lake Michigan is. But the sensation of blessedness, of healing, of refreshment within the community of believers, can be translated into any context. This is our blessed challenge!

I thought, as I wrote in my daughter’s Bible, about the gifted men and women God’s Spirit has used to help me understand the Bible. I thought of my Bible teachers at Regent College: Gordon Fee, Iain Provan, Rikk Watts. I thought of pastors who have taught me: Rob Peterson, Mary Hulst. I thought of authors who have inspired me to love and learn scripture: Kenneth Bailey, N.T. Wright, Madeline L’Engle.

Then I realized: I’m on that list, too. Just writing in my daughter’s Bible, I’m there. And I’m there, too, telling my children stories, preparing scripture for worship. And not just me, or folks on the list above: we are all the gifted men and woman God’s Spirit is using to help people understand and experience God through the Bible. How might the Spirit be calling us to communicate in ways that engage the church’s imagination?

(Another augmented Psalm Joy has adapted is Psalm 19, you can find it here on the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship website.)

Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence lives with her husband and two children in the western suburbs of Chicago. She serves as the associate pastor for spiritual formation at the Evangelical Covenant Church of Hinsdale, Illinois, where she preaches and leads formation and discipleship programming for children and adults. Joy holds a M.Div. from Calvin Theological Seminary and MCS from Regent College (Vancouver). She’s always on the lookout for new and old ways to tell God’s story as well as wild foods she can feed her family and friends. She has written for many organizations, including Christianity Today International.