Listening Unfolding: Faith and Poetry

A poet/pastor discovers the remarkable similarities between his two vocations.


| Fall 2016



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I entered my late 20s aware of my callings to poetry and ministry, determined to make them both work, and intent on building a sacred boundary between them.

Photo courtesy Fotolia

The carpeting in the living room is indeed wall to wall, and smells as musty as I remembered. But since my interview visit, someone has spread a tablecloth over the wing table in the living room and planted a sofa by the window, so that when I arrive for my first morning of office hours as the interim pastor, the parsonage resembles a place people actually might visit. For I have assured my new congregation, both in the printed bulletin and during my first Sunday’s announcements, that “I am interested in where God is moving in their lives,” which is true, and that “as they go about their days, they are most welcome to stop in for a conversation”—which might be true as well.

As I sit and wait, I remember that I’ve brought my study Bible along. Flipping to next Sunday’s text, I plop it in front of me like an oversized prop, proof against a charge of idleness, in case anyone might be watching through the window. Despite my new surroundings, and the eerie quiet of Main Street in this small Iowa town that I’ll call Ramoth (next door to Gilead), something about the morning’s combination of anxiety and excitement feels familiar. I realize that when I’m at home during the middle of the week, working on my own poetry instead of ministry, I assume the same posture, staring out the window with the words of others nearby, my mind clouded with witnesses—or often just cloudy.

Poetry and ministry: the need to construct a boundary between these two callings was burned into my brain years ago. First and foremost, it’s a matter of time. I’ve known too many people in the helping professions who intended to “write on the weekends” and ended up sacrificing artistic energy to the demands of their paying jobs. But there is a psychological component to the need for a division, too. The work of ministry can afford an immediate gratification, a sense of social connection and real privilege in sharing what Father Zossima calls the “secrets, sorrows, and avowals” of others, which poetry rarely yields. Small-town pastors often receive calls asking them to fill in and officiate funerals for those without a church membership. A half-decent performance wins you a sanctuary full of friends, maybe even draws some new faces to your own congregation. The recompenses of writing poetry—the rare big publication, a fan letter out of the blue—are infrequent and thin by comparison. Ah, but then there is the physical thrill of working on something new, tracing the sounds and lines as they link, a thrill so rare it makes up for all the vacant hours spent flipping through books, maybe scribbling a note. In order to make room for the chance of a new poem, to say yes to its remote possibility, poets have to say no to all sorts of more acceptable activities. For me this has meant, on a few occasions, turning down a family of grieving strangers over the phone in order to sit at home on a Wednesday afternoon by myself, my dog staring up at me quizzically, as if even she wondered about my priorities.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s always been a theological tension between poetry and ministry in my mind. To put it plainly, I’m not certain that the two practices serve the same deity. The charge of writing poetry, when I’m in it, proves so powerful that I can only nod in assent to Matisse’s outrageous claim that he only believed in God when he was able to paint. Though I love church worship, there are few Sunday mornings when I feel so powerfully seized. “At the very bottom of devoutness,” Kierkegaard says, “there lurks the capricious arbitrariness that knows itself has produced the god.” So strong is the artistic impulse that, in its sway, faith and idolatry can feel indistinct, which is a scary thing for a minister to admit.

I entered my late 20s aware of my callings to poetry and ministry, determined to make them both work, and intent on building a sacred boundary between them. Here in Ramoth, my bulletin notes and announcements will help establish the division, letting people know what to expect from their three-quarter-time interim. When I am back home in Des Moines, barring emergencies of course, I am a writer. I’ll print my cell phone number in the bulletin, followed by “in case of pastoral emergencies”—with “emergencies” in bold, if our rickety church printer can handle it. Better to explain my odd schedule right off the bat than to let my delinquency slowly seep its way, like farm smell, into the talk of the townspeople.

That’s the plan, at least. But on this first morning in the parsonage, I can’t shake the similarities in affect and atmosphere that accompany my two kinds of work. Perhaps experience hammers us over the head with a truth that doctrine is reluctant to admit. Or perhaps we create certain distinctions, certain frictions, to foster creative energy. As I glance out the window, waiting for my ministry in Ramoth to begin, realizing that it has begun, I can’t help but wonder: What does it mean that my pastoral posture looks so suspiciously like my poet’s? What does it mean that poetry and ministry require such uncertainty, an openness that might easily be mistaken for indolence? What does it mean, for both practices, that the waiting feels the same?