1 Advent: Poetry…the Bible

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At great risk of an empty table
for TheoEd today, the topic is “The Bible as Poetry.”
I say that because poetry – like Jazz and classical music –
has an infinitesimal audience of about 3% of adults.
Beyond that little pool of devotees
is 95% who simply say,
“I hate poetry…or jazz or Bach.”

That leaves 2% undecided.

I am making up those numbers,
because poetry actually had an uptick
from 7% to 12% of the public who read a poem
the last year.
But it is still 3% for jazz and classical music.

Why do I know such arcane fun facts?
Because I have a book of poems coming out in July
and I fear not even my friends will buy it.

But I am bringing three great poems to TheoEd to share today,
and the unit will tell you something about the Bible
you probably never thought about before –
but that’s just a teaser, or maybe begging.

Here is the thing: Advent is nothing but poetry.
Advent is not a story –
not a coherent narrative
with a conclusion that takes us someplace.
It is a poem,
a four-week poem.

Gwendolyn Brooks,
the Pulitzer Prize winning former US Poet Laureate,
defined poetry as “life distilled.”
Think about distilling.
Some of you will want to think about whiskey
but I would prefer a more Wendell Berry
or Mary Oliver image.
Take a mudpuddle for example:
the color of coffee with cream
filling a gloppy depression
that your grandchild wants to splash through
and you want to avoid at all cost.
That water –
invisibly, miraculously, in front
of our very eyes –
disappears but is not obliterated.
It evaporates with heat,
becomes vaporous
and rises into the air.

Then, as the sun is tucked into
the clouds for the night and goes to sleep,
the cool vapor
made of molecules from that yucky
alights upon leaves
and blades of grass
as sweet poetic droplets
of dew.

The same is true for making whiskey,
by the way.
But the question is, what does Advent distill –
you probably are anxiously waiting to know?

It begins in a liquidy,
windswept deep
called Genesis 1.
“In the beginning when God created
the heavens and the earth, 
the earth was a formless void
and darkness covered the face of the deep,
while a wind from God
swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, ‘Let there be light’;
and there was light. 
And God saw that the light was good;
and God separated the light from the darkness.”

Those words – that poem –
then rises as vapor to something less visible,
something more abstract that we cannot
quite see or touch or comprehend,
called John – as in the gospel of – John 1.
“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God. 
He was in the beginning with God. 
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people. 
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.”

In between the cosmos
arriving with a big bang
and it disappearing into stardust
and water molecules
that reappeared billions of years later
on a blue-green planet
incarnate in something called human beings,
Distillation takes time
between visible liquid and invisible vapor,
and visible liquid again.
There is nothing to be done
during the waiting – other than waiting.
So, between Advent 1
and December 25th
which is the amount of time
is takes to age Christmas –
the distilling requires

And the way we wait
during Advent,
at least the way the Lectionary
and liturgy invites us
to wait,
is with poetry.

Isaiah, if
the very idea of a prophet
is to be believed,
is God’s poet.
Each Gospel from Matthew,
whether about John the Baptist, Jesus,
or Mary,
harkens back to Isaiah-the-poet.
Every week is poetry.
Every week is life distilled,
not into a mood-altering substance
but into life-giving droplets.

Forget what your middle school teacher
inflicted upon you about poetry –
it is not a fixed form
with a fixed meaning
derived at by literal interpretation
agreed upon by scholars.
Poetry is life distilled.
The poem wants to grab you
by your ears
and pull you into an experience
that you have had before
but had differently,
and it wants you to experience it again
and then arise.
It does it
with your participation,
or more hopefully,
it does it because you fall into the puddle
and say, “Oh yeah, I remember this
but I never saw it from down here before.”

The liturgy wants us to come in here
on a Sunday morning
with mental fog
and mind-numbing shopping lists,
and grumpiness with the people we live with
or the driver who took our parking space,
and leave with:
“Today God gives milk
and we have the pail.” (From Anne Sexton’s poem, “Snow.”)
Life distilled.

The liturgy
and the poetic readings
want us to fall into Advent
and get distilled with it.

The liturgy wants us to be vaporized
and then somewhere between now
and the new year,
alight as new life
among all the lives around us.
That’s not too much to ask, is it?

So, Isaiah.

I am what they call in Vermont,
a flatlander.
And in fact, most of Indiana
is flat-on-flat.

So, it is no surprise to me
that ancient peoples
thought the house of God
was on a mountaintop.

When you live in flat farm country,
wherever there is a slight rise in the land
there will be a house
or a small cemetery.
It is all relative: in Vermont you climb or ski
the highest mountain
and in Indiana, you find and occupy
the highest hill, even if it is only a pimple of dirt.

What do we see from up there,
however high or low up thereis?
Well, perched on a hill above Seneca Lake
or on a mound above Prairie Creek Reservoir
in Muncie, Indiana,
or on Jay Peak or Bald Mountain in
the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont,
you see the same thing
astronauts see from their perch
way up in space.

No borders.
No political parties.
No divisions other than the contours of the land.
That is the perspective
from which swords can be beat into ploughshares.
“Today God gives milk
and we have the pail.”

We can read Isaiah
as if it were by-laws or a resolution
and think he is proclaiming something
that does not exist
and never has.
Or, we can allow him to be a poet
and find ourselves distilled
within its verses.

We have been to the mountaintop
and we have seen the blue-green earth
without borders and division
and “we may not get there with you,”
but we know that beginning with Noah,
God planted an arc of history that bends across the universe
toward justice.

See how that works?

Now the alternative to poetry
is to take the bible literally,
and that is becoming more and more difficult
for 21stcentury, secularized people
like most, if not all, of us.
I know that we were taught bible stories
as children, the same way
we were taught history.

But then again, given our ages here,
most of us were taught with a straight face
that George Washington never told a lie
and Christopher Columbus was the first American hero.

So, if we do not read the bible as poetry
then we are left to embrace
the Christmas story as a creche scene –
with cattle lowing
and shepherds mumbling
and poor, exhausted, and in pain Mary
smiling serenely with an infant that does not cry.

If we do not enter Isaiah as poetry
then we are left to wonder about a God
that promises peace
when we murder and are murdered
in Afghanistan, Iraq, Hong Kong, Rochester,
Sandy Hook, and just about everywhere else.

If we do not enter poetry as poetry,
and lick it for literal meaning like a lollypop,
then Anne Sexton
is eating snow
rather than stuttering over the goodness of life
she has awoken to
one fresh morning.

I know there are millions and millions of Christians
who read the bible as history
or as a how-to book of moral mastery,
and that most of us here
were raised that same way –
even if the adults around us
winked at it
like they did Santa Claus on the roof.

But personally, and it may only be me,
I cannot ignore what I know
about distillation,
the big bang,
the biology of conception,
the physiology of birthing,
the history of the first century,
or the archeology and literary construction of the bible.
I cannot close my eyes to what I know,
and more importantly,
to what I experience
as we enter into Advent
and Christmas.

So poetry, for me anyway,
is a gift.
It is a new pair of glasses
with which to enter the liturgy,
and the season, and eventually the holiday.
In the same way that jazz is music,
and Bach is music,
and Reggae is music,
so poetry is a lens for reading the bible
every bit as much
as the ways in which it has been read in the past.
And poetry is a form of theology
as much as the way theology was voiced in the past.
And poetry is a form of liturgy
and sharing faith, every bit as much
as the ways we have come to think of liturgical expression
brought to us from other centuries.

So today, with the first Sunday of Advent,
we are about to be distilled –
vaporized over the next four weeks,
only to reappear fresher than before
to give new life to the world around us.

That’s poetry by the way.