POLICY AND POETRY:
a word to my former students
who became friends,
now attending Annual Council
as union presidents and secretaries
A word in your ear…
If I could speak a word in your ear as you attend Annual Council 2018 it would be this: before and during proceedings, read some poetry.
This probably sounds like a strange thing to say. Poetry seems to have little to do with policy-making, and policy-makers little time for reading, let alone poetry. And that is pretty much the point. Obviously, I need to do some explaining.
Most of you there will be male, inevitably. Just as worryingly, I would guess that many are males with similar thinking styles. Maybe that’s how you got where you are? Such similarity should worry you as a group. ‘Poetry and prayer make us think about lives that have never been ours.’ So says Mark Oakley (see my final note). Poetry will give some breadth to your thinking, some access to a world beyond your huddle in Battle Creek.
My suggestion is not only to you Silver Spring (how poetic!) policy-makers but also to armchair critics who argue various cases. Some may be helpful but none is sufficient. Most do not realize just how difficult it is to be a church administrator. I was one, in a small way, and have some regrets about errors of judgment which affected lives.
So try to ignore any cyber bombast.
Not so strange
Maybe my suggestion is not quite so strange. Christians have always valued poetry, most obviously in the Psalms. There’s the penetrating plea for integrity: ‘You desire truth in the inward being / therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart’; permission to complain bitterly to God: ‘Why are you so far from helping me, / from the words of my groaning?...all my bones are out of joint; / my heart is like wax, / …my tongue sticks to my jaws’; despair too: ‘The darkness is my closest friend’; devastating honesty of a kind not so easy in the councils of the church. The call is for honesty and integrity. Just so, ‘The poet’s task is to wage a war against cliché.’
But do not forget there’s joy too: the call to exult: ‘Let the high praises of God be in their throats…’; the call to prosper: like ‘trees planted by streams of water, / which yield their fruit in its season, / and their leaves do not wither.’
God challenges our pretensions with his questions to Job: ‘Has the rain a father, … / From whose womb did the ice come forth…?’ The prophets and the Wisdom literature are full of poetic textures. You need an ear for metaphor and simile or you may misunderstand. A call for some humility.
So many places in the New Testament exhibit a great lyrical quality. You know them well. You remember them just because they are so poetic. ‘Blessed are the merciful / for they will receive mercy…’. ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock…’, ‘The light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not’. ‘Neither height nor depth…can separate us from the love of God…’ ‘Therefore God / …gave him the name / that is above every name / so that at the name of Jesus / every knee should bow…’
Our Scriptures have a deep poetic core. If you neglect it, you become merely prosaic.
Should you be looking for some poetry in the middle of a policy session, then reach for a hymnal. It contains wonderful verse, much of it never sung. It has deeply influenced me over the years.
I often mouth the words of Edwin Hatch’s poem: ‘Breathe on me breath of God, / Fill me with life anew, / That I may love what Thou dost love, / And do what Thou wouldst do.’ It is enough for me. In retirement I often recite that verse by Wesley: ‘Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire / To work, and speak, and think for Thee; / Still let me guard the holy fire, / And still stir up Thy gift in me.’ And the haunting fragment from a hymn I cannot place: ‘content not to be used at all,’ reminds me that there is a time to step back.
Policy books and poetry books
Church policy books are thick. The type is closely crammed together — not much left of the pure white page. Poetry however leaves a lot of white space which invites thought. You have serious work to do to fill in the gaps following the poet’s hints. Policy confines; poetry expands.
Policy is important in running any organization but is not enough to create a healthy, unified church community. Unity is organic. It cannot be created by the mechanical means of policy. Poetry often challenges us with the truth about our humanity: ‘Are you true?’ Policy books rarely confront you with such spiritual questions. In fact, policy can become a place for administrators to hide — worst of all, from yourselves.
It would be very easy for you to lose your joy in the midst of such difficult negotiations. I confess I sometimes did. It’s easy to become a mere politician. Read some poetry. ‘A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.’ ‘Poetry…is an invitation to fall in love with life again but a little deeper.’
‘All a poet can do today is warn. / That is why true Poets must be truthful’ — written by the British soldier-poet, Wilfred Owen, trying to make sense of the atrocities in World War I. You must seek to be truthful. Oakley says: ‘The church often talks about the truth but is less good at honesty…[T]he poem…is an ambiguous but prophetic warning against an impoverished imagination and colorless universe.’ ‘A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep’ (S. Rushdie).
A few poetic fragments…
You’re probably too busy now to seek out any poetry even on the internet. So here’s a few fragments as you face hours of prose. Each has given me a light to steer by.
Lord ‘eavesdrop my heart’ (R. S. Thomas)
‘No person is your friend who demands your silence’ (A. Walker)
‘The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.’ (W. Blake)
‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God’ (J. Donne)
‘Nothing true about God can be said from a position of defence.’ (M. Robinson)
‘Christ is a captive of the church and they use him…for absolutely everything.’ (M. Oakley)
And remember, after all the policy-making:
‘You must sit down, says love, and taste my meat: / So I did sit and eat’ (G. Herbert)
I hope a fragment of poetry may not only help you through the rigors of Annual Council but also be part of its healing.
Footnotes are inappropriate in a note such as this. Everything cited is well-known and an internet search will quickly reveal sources. Any unattributed quotations are from Mark Oakley’s The Splash of Words: Believing in Poetry, London: Canterbury Press, 2016, which you should read from cover to cover.
Michael Pearson is a retired ethicist living in the UK. He and his wife, Helen, run the website Pearsons’ Perspectives.
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