Poetry helps us see things in a new light. Whether the subject of a poem is a thing, an experience, an emotion, or something else, the care with which the poet chooses her words helps us to see that subject in a completely different way. Poetry cannot be read fast; a poem challenges us to sit with its words, to pay attention, to contemplate what the poet has offered us in these words carefully woven together. Of course, none of these tasks come easily in our technological world, where speed and efficiency reign supreme.
Several years ago, I started challenging myself to find poems that resonate with a particular passage of Scripture. Approaching scripture in this way illuminated the text by opening up a whole new conversation that included not only myself, scripture, and the interpretations of that particular passage that I had accumulated over the years, but also the voice of the poet channeled through the words of that particular poem.
Scripture is not a static text. While it is of utmost importance to those of us who follow in the way of Jesus, the work of reading and understanding scripture is not just a matter of learning what it meant for those faithful ones who have gone before us. The text of scripture and the interpretations we have received are very important, but God also desires to speak to us, through the Spirit, in the present moment. The work of understanding scripture, in its most robust sense, is that of holding together the word of God that we have received in scripture as we have been taught to understand it, with the word of God that is spoken to us in the present, inviting us to live faithfully within all the particular facets of our present situation (our time, our place, and the manifold dynamics that give shape to our lives).
“What does a new word [from the Spirit] look like?” asks theologian Willie Jennings. “We will know it by its fruit. That which builds life together, life abundant, and deepening life in God is truly a new word from God. That which speaks the community of Christ and echoes a desire for shared life, shared hope, and redemption from death and all its agents is always a new word from God.” (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, 2017, p. 120)
Almost three years ago, I started selecting a classic (i.e., public domain) poem and a contemporary poem to accompany each weekly scripture reading in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), which many larger denominations use in their worship and preaching. When I began this Lectionary Poetry project (published weekly on The Englewood Review of Books website – a sample of a week’s poems can be found here), I thought that the selected poems would be helpful for preachers working from the lectionary, and maybe a few worship leaders who wanted to incorporate poetry into services on occasion.
The work of understanding scripture, in its most robust sense, is that of holding together the word of God that we have received in scripture as we have been taught to understand it, with the word of God that is spoken to us in the present...C. Christopher Smith
The RCL follows a three-year cycle (Years A, B, and C, and then circles back to the texts of Year A in the fourth year), and as I am near completion of the cycle, I’ve found that it’s not just preachers and worship leaders who appreciate the poetry selections. Laypeople in churches that use the RCL appreciate having the poems to help them process the scriptural passages that they hear in their worship services. I’ve also added poetry selections that accompany the readings for the Narrative Lectionary, which is fairly popular among churches that don’t use the RCL. Others, both clergy and laity, in churches that don’t use the RCL or the Narrative Lectionary, often appreciate the connection of poetry with scripture passages, even if the timing doesn’t coincide with their church’s worship.
Curating these Lectionary Poems each week has become a sort of Sabbath practice for me, a perfect excuse to spend a couple of hours reading poetry. Without this project, I most likely wouldn’t ever find this much time to sit and enjoy poems. Generally, I do this reading and selection on Sunday afternoons or evenings. I try to select poems from a diverse array of poets—women and men; of various eras, ethnicities, and nationalities; Christian writers, poets of other faiths, and of no faith at all—and I’ve tried not to repeat any poem in the three-year cycle. I try to stay away from poems that merely re-narrate or illustrate the scriptural text. Rather, I often find a key word or phrase that stands out in biblical text and seek out poems that explore this word or phrase.
Certain poets recur frequently in the three-year cycle of Lectionary Poetry: Malcolm Guite, Nikki Grimes, and Madeleine L’Engle, because each poet has written prolifically in reflection on biblical texts; Emily Dickinson, because she has simply written such a vast body of poetry; Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Black female poet of the nineteenth century, whose work I stumbled upon as a result of this project, and who, although she didn’t publish vast numbers of poems, wrote frequently on biblical themes that are strikingly relevant today. I also tried to include a substantial number of poems from some of my favorite poets, including Thomas Merton, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Ross Gay, Lucille Clifton, Denise Levertov, Tania Runyan, and George MacDonald.
I’m currently in the process of going back through the cycle of Lectionary Poetry and preparing it to be published as a book—or at least an e-book, in the short term. (Poetry is subject to stricter copyright rules than prose, which makes the publication process full of logistical and legal challenges). Some poems have inadvertently been repeated over the course of the cycle, so I’m fixing those by finding alternates so that no poem will be used twice.
The e-book edition will not include the full text of contemporary poems that are under copyright (unless I have permission to use the full text) but rather will link to sites that have legitimately published the poem online with permission. That parameter requires confirming that all contemporary poems have legitimately been published online. Another part of the editing process is surveying the diversity of the poets included in this collection, both diversity across the poems for a given week, and diversity across the three-year cycle as a whole.
One perk of the e-book edition is that it will have a scriptural index that will allow readers to find poems connected with a particular biblical passage. This index will hopefully make the e-book a more helpful resource for those who aren’t familiar with the RCL, and for those who are preaching in churches that don’t use the RCL. A few books exist that connect modern poems with passages of scripture (e.g., David Curzon’s excellent 1994 book, Modern Poems on the Bible), but I’m not aware of any that cover as broad a swath of scripture as the Lectionary Poetry Project does.
You can get the Lectionary Poems in your inbox every week, by signing up for The Englewood Review’s free weekly e-newsletter (and a get free ebook in the process!) Or, watch for the Lectionary Project ebook for Year A, which will be available in November.
C. Christopher Smith is founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and the author of several books including Slow Church (co-authored with John Pattison) and How the Body of Christ Talks. He also is on the leadership team for Cultivating Communities, a project which helps local churches deepen relationships within their congregation and with their neighbors.