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The poet’s habit of living should be set on a key so low that the common influences should delight him.  His cheerfulness should be the gift of the sunlight; the air should suffice for his inspiration, and he should be tipsy with water. Emerson

I have rarely enjoyed the ideal posture of “the poet,” as Emerson describes him; however, their have been moments of sublimity when I have experienced the grace of the cheering sunshine and the gift of inspiring air.  Any honest and decent poet can tell you that writing poetry often involves dark clouds and brooding air.  These dark mines of devils come unexpectedly and one either explores them or puts down the poet’s pen forever.

The oft-troubled poet and novelist James Dickey writes of the pains of writing poetry in our self-destructive culture: “This is what is driving our whole civilization into suicide; the feeling that we are living existences in which nothing matters very much…for the poet everything matters and it matters a lot—that is the realm where we work.”  To write serious poetry, one must believe that life matters, that people matter and that words matter and have the power to bring healing and hope.

Good poetry confronts readers with reality.  The fact that, as T.S. Eliot states, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality” means that good poetry can disturb and even hurt readers.  I think we all enjoy a nice rhyme now and then that offers refreshing frivolity.  And that is the thing with poetry; it comes uncontrollable to the reader.  When we begin the first line of a poem, if we are willing, we invite reality to artfully expose our delusions and woundedness.  We want the guarantee of frivolity and affirmation; while, a good poem guarantees truth and confrontation.

Reading poetry resembles listening to a sermon; reactions are as varied and uncertain.  A penetrating Christian sermon may uplift one’s spirit; it may encourage listeners and affirm them in their Christian endeavors.  A realistic Christian sermon also echoes the rebukes of the Lord and Scripture.  Jesus tells us that “Those whom I love, I rebuke and discipline.” (Rev 3.19)  If you, as an adult, have not been rebuked and disciplined lately, then you haven’t heard a good sermon or read a good poem.

The general reaction of people to truth that rebukes our delusions or challenges our sins is to point a finger of accusation and utter sarcastic words of dismissal toward the messenger.  Such a reaction inspired Jesus’ words of indictment against Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.”  (Matt 23.37)  Conversely, the one to whom God looks is, “he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at [God’s] word.” (Isaiah 66:2)

We may think we are judging rightly when in fact we are protecting our fragile self-image and view of the world that cradles our depraved self.  Our culture does collectively, and we do it individually, what Dan Berrigan describes as setting up a “court in the kingdom of the blind and condemning those who see.”   If we are not spiritual and morally blind completely, we all have blind spots.  We need the poets and the preachers to point them out and give us sight.

So, writing meaningful poetry or preaching meaningful sermons…how does it happen?  Does it require what Emerson prescribes as being “tipsy with water” while soaking in the sunshine of cheer?  I think that is part of it, but that is not the whole story anymore than enjoying gallons of miraculous wine at a wedding is the whole story of Christ’s ministry.  Certainly, the joys of life and creation contribute a necessary ingredient to poetry and preaching.  Without the grace of sunshine and life-giving air both fall flat upon the backs of those already bent down with the weights of the world.   The poet and the preacher must be willing and courageous in diving into the waters of baptism and exploring the darkness of death and Hades.

Poetry and preaching comes only at a costly price.  Wordsworth got to this point in his “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads where he describes the manufacturing process of poetry.  It may sound flowery here, but try doing it and you will see the grueling effort of it:

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility:  Poetry of value comes from a person possessed of more than usual organic sensibility who has thought long and deeply.  The poet is a person endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, a person who rejoices more than others in the spirit of life that is in him; emphatically may it be said of the Poet, as Shakespeare said of man, ‘that he looks before and after.’”

Time, space, quiet, deep reflection, sacrifice and an invitation to the Creator to invade our souls—that is what is behind true words of life; along with those requirements being fulfilled, one must gather up the courage to proclaim what has been given.  Facing the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” in private is one thing; unshielding our hearts and souls to the crowd is no act for cowards.

Again I look to Emerson for elaboration.  He writes, “The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”  That sweetness must be hard-won following the prescription of Wordsworth – for the poet and the preacher.  Thomas A’Kempis’ exhortation must be followed consistently, “Enter into thy secret chamber, and shut out the tumults of the world.”  Pascal warns us that the pleasure of solitude is a thing incomprehensible to humans because there we face our feeble, mortal and miserable conditions.

The poet and preacher learn that in this sacred place of solitude is where we find our deep depravity and inadequacy overwhelmed by God’s infinite grace and whirling redemption. Thomas Merton was both warned and encouraged by God to enter into this solitude.  In a message that he ascribes as being from God included in his autobiography, he hears God tell him, “You shall taste the true solitude of my anguish and my poverty and I shall lead you into the high places of my joy and you shall die in me and find all things in my mercy which has created you for this end…that you may become the brother of God.”  In this vision, Merton sees the joys and anguish of solitude required to bring forth the truthful word.

The courage to deliver the words in print or person assumes a learned skill and art that enhance rather than hinder the message.  The privilege for the poet or preacher to speak into your life assumes an accountable authority that has been earned and proven.  The value of the message assumes a quality of life congruent with the substance of the words delivered.

In light of the above, the challenge turns to the audience.  Sure, when you are uplifted, entertained, encouraged or affirmed by the message, you will applaud.  When the words are arrows and the shafts drive deep into your flesh, heart and soul, what then?  Will you turn back and walk away? (John 6.66) Will you take offense and excuse yourself?  Will you leave sorrowful, angry, hurt, condemning, confused, untransformed? Or will you stay courageously and be conformed to the image of Christ—crucified, risen and ascended to heaven?

If you value the expression of the poet or preacher in your life, pray for him or her diligently and earnestly.  Pray for the audience.  None of this happens in a peaceful vacuum but in a constant vortex of the battle between good and evil.  “No neutral ground,” as Lewis has said, exists in the world.

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Last night I should have been thrilled as my ten-year old daughter Madeline dropped everything and sat down beside me and talked with me passionately. As she shared with me the various name changes our family was undergoing to conform to the Fellowship of Ring character names, I found myself getting frustrated, tense and nonplussed. Madeline caught one of my sighs and questioned me, “What?!” I responded with something like “Oh nothing, just the stupid Penguins.”

You see I was also watching the Penguins, down 2 games to 0 in the series with the Bruins. Game 3 was in overtime. They had just gone 0/5 on power plays, and had been playing the worst hockey I have seen the talented team play. They got blown out the previous two games played at home in Pittsburgh.  Since living in the Pittsburgh area when the Pens won the Stanley Cup, I had become a fan.

Then I had the nightmare vision of Madeline as a teenager rebelling against her old stodgy pastor Dad who was two busy watching the stupid Penguins to listen to her when she was younger. Uh-oh…I need help. What value do the Penguins have to me versus my relationship to my daughter? I have hit “Bottom.”

Thus began my self-confrontation and self-intervention to save me from my self-destructive affinity, oh alright, addiction to watching sports.

How did this happen? How did I come to the point of getting in a bad mood and neglecting my daughter, sleep, study, prayer, family, etc? Why do the Penguins, the Packers, the Steelers, whatever soccer game happens to be on, any sports on TV matter to me?

I remember being in the 5th grade and watching the USA Hockey Team triumph over the Soviets in the 1980 Miracle on Ice event. I was at home alone that Saturday morning. When the USA team won the game I ran around the house shouting. I shouted at our collie Katie that the USA team had won. During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, I yelled so loudly when Landon Donovan scored a goal in the waning seconds of the USA’s game against Algeria that I scared everyone in the house (click the link and watch this video and you will understand). These are two highlights of a pattern of behavior throughout my life. I almost consider it like a job, a responsibility that I have to watch certain sporting events. It’s a job a love. But, is it a problem? Last night it was, and not just because the stupid Penguins were blowing it; rather, it was a problem because it was interfering with what is really valuable.

Watching sports provides leisure, sometimes exhilaration, sometimes anger or frustration. Sports Fanaticism can create camaraderie like among Steeler fans in Pittsburgh or a whole nation cheering their National Team.

This phenomenon is illustrated in the British version of the movie Fever Pitch. The main character played by Colin Firth is a soccer fanatic whose life ebbs and flows based on the performance of the Arsenal Gunners, a team that has not won the English Premier League in 17 years.  Here is a clip that shows his passion for the team, as his girlfriend confronts him (beware includes one F-bomb).

Arsenal only has to tie the final game to win the league, and they go down two goals to nil with few minutes remaining. They miraculously score two goals in the final game and win the league. (Here is the entire game scene with the last 90 seconds showing the goal and celebration.) The character who has been apoplectic with anxiety and rage during the game now joins in the celebration at the stadium dancing in the streets and singing with the crowd. He is reunited with his girlfriend and is truly lifted into a sort of “newness of life” in his context. He narrates the final scene and says of that day and victory:

I do know this. Something happened between me and Arsenal that night. It was as if I jumped on to the shoulders of the team and they carried me into the light that had suddenly shown down on all of us

That is a great feeling—almost nothing like it. The problem is that same team will drop you on your head the next thing you know.

This reminds me of how I kept playing soccer as an adult, even though it hurt and was frustrating as I lost my skills and athleticism. I continued to yearn for the exhilaration of seeing the ball go into the back of the net after leaving my foot. It is a great feeling…that “Yes!” that seems to consummate our yearning in satisfaction.

Taken to the extreme, the yearning is summed up in the line by Harold Abrams, the Jewish sprinter in Chariots of Fire, “I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my existence. But will I?” Ahhh, when it all comes together what justification it seems! Even when the team wins the game at home in the second overtime like the Bruins did last night at about 12:30 a.m. EST, the exhilaration comes and goes. We then must continue seeking it, looking for it…for thrill, justification, escape, entertainment, camaraderie, whatever it is we get out of watching sports.

Jesus takes me back to the story of Martha and Mary. Jesus commends Mary for choosing what is best and what will not be taken from her. She chose intimacy and relationship with Jesus. She chose it over all else. What she chose is eternal.  Jesus has the only shoulders that can lift us up and never let us down.  His light never wanes; no darkness can overcome it.  All of our exhileration in this life points to his abundant life–intiamcy with him.

Graham Cooke writes, “God is highly relational, and so intimacy must be the highest priority of life in the Spirit…The biggest battle in the church at this time is the battle for intimacy with God.” In my case, the battle at this point might be with watching sports.

Now don’t get me wrong…I’m not going radical, crazy, cold-turkey or anything. I mean I can control this! But I have to admit watching sports can be a problem…alright it might be a problem. I need to give this to Jesus and turn to him to satisfy that yearning for exhilaration. I can promise you this…I am not watching Game 4! But if the Penguins make it to game 7 in this series…well, that would be a miracle – something God would surely want me to see!

In his essay, “Beginning Afresh with Christ in the Search for Abundant Life in Africa,”  The Rev. Dr. Stan Chu Ilo writes,

Christ is that true home that Africans seek, night and day, as an answer to the deepest needs of their souls and the strongest concerns of their temporal reality…I am convinced that if the Church speaks more of Christ and not of herself, and that if the Church speaks convincingly of Christ as he is and presents him as he is through the life of the Church and that of Christians, she will have more appeal not only to Africans but to the whole world. It will demand that the way of being Church in Africa should be the way that shows the face of Christ and leads to Christ.

Father Ilo’s assertion struck me as the core answer to the question I often pray as a pastor, “How do I best serve God as pastor?” I am called as a Pastor, and we are called as Christians to speak more of Christ, to present him through our church and lives and to lead people to him. Jesus Christ has come, is present and will come again to give us super-abundant life. This eternal life comes through him alone.

Christians in the West have learned to measure abundant life in various ways other than intimacy with Jesus. We measure the abundance of our lives by our wealth, luxuries, status, power, influence, clothes, cars, networks, technology, travel, self-actualization, skills at leisure, etc. Yet these items indicate our secular success more than anything else and reveal nothing of our union with Christ. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, teaches that abundant life comes from him and especially from hearing his voice. Hearing and knowing his voice and following him determine the identity of his sheep. Sitting at his feet and listening to him and falling deeper in love with him indicate being his disciple.

I think American churches often reflect the disconnect between the Scriptural revelation of abundant life and our culture’s definition of abundant life. Our churches have been inculturated to the extent that we point Biblical promises to the goals of secularism and make church subservient to our self-referential lives. Jesus becomes insufficient to answer our culturally defined “needs” we bring to church. Christians come to church with the consumerist mindset that demands catering, comfort and entertaining stimulation. Church leaders have too often responded by presenting the face of secular success rather than the face of Christ as the solution to the concerns of the temporal reality of our lives. Because people are not satisfied with Jesus, churches give them something along with Jesus to bring them in and keep them coming. Jesus fades…”After all, he is everywhere,” we think, “What is so special about him?”  We buy into the lie that Jesus is not enough.

It happens in Western missions too. In his book, Roots & Remedies, Dr. Robert Reese describes how missionary zeal has presented Christianity wrapped in the accoutrements of the prosperous West, as if Jesus alone is not enough the save the souls and transform the lives of the natives of the Third World. We enshrine the message of salvation in the economic gospel that will make it palatable and appealing. Of course, we are only exporting what we manufacture. The African Church has begun to respond that Jesus is enough. I wonder if the Western Christians will learn the same lesson.

I think the problem most presents itself in our American churches in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Christians have celebrated Holy Communion since the apostolic era in response to Jesus’ command during the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Paul makes this of first importance in his instruction to the church at Corinth,

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

The church has since practiced Holy Communion in celebration of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension and coming return. Holy Communion celebrates the historical and universal church’s unity in Christ with the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I believe that when we celebrate Holy Communion today Jesus wants us to experience the intimacy that was present with him and his disciples during their supper. Jesus approached the meal by saying to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” Jesus sat at the table with them, looked into their eyes and hearts, and knew each of them intimately as only God can know someone.

Do our churches earnestly desire to come to the Lord’s Table each Sunday and know him and be known by him? Do we become intimate with him during our worship? Do we come to the Table beside our brothers and sisters in Christ of all ages and partner with them in their joys and trials? Are we communally coming to our true home in Christ as a family of faith at our churches?

I think we have allowed ourselves to forsake our true home, our true lover and our place as the beloved. We have taken Jesus for granted and presumed upon his gracious welcome and earnest desire for intimacy with us.

Last month, my hometown of Elizabeth City, NC celebrated the annual Potato Festival. Several thousand visitors came to the city and many vendors, bands, restaurants and games are showcased along Main Street and the waterfront. During the festival, there is a stand that gives away free French fries to anyone who will stand in line. Thousands partake of the free fries and go about their way enjoying truly excellent fries. While waiting in line, people may engage their family or friends or those about them, but no intimacy develops and no lives are transformed in the common table of the Potato Festival French Fries.  I think our Western practices of Holy Communion have too often taken on the convenience and friendliness of the free French fries and lost the face of Christ and imminence of the Holy Trinity of the Lord’s Supper, as revealed in Scripture.

In our relationships with others we can consistently behave like riders of a merry-go-round who stake our position and have only seconds to look in the faces of those we whiz by in each rotation, as we hold onto our place. Whether it is Jesus, the Father, the Holy Spirit or our family of faith, we merely pass them by here and there. “Give me mine quickly; I’m on a ride!” we say. Holy Communion welcomes us to Jesus and to each other…it doesn’t work when we are all looking and going our own ways, even if we are in the same room – however large or small.

The Apostle Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (11:28) Pastors today face concerns for the church, too. The challenge is to reject the culturally-inspired demands and to adhere to the gospel-inspired pressure to proclaim Jesus Christ. This pressure demands that we deny ourselves in order to present the face of Christ—his word, his presence. God lovingly disciplines his pastors to set forth Jesus in word and in lives.

I am reminded of the “Mission Statement” from Jerry Maguire in the movie Jerry Maguire that leads to the sports agent losing his job but finding his life perhaps. The character played by Tom Cruise narrates,

I was remembering even the words of the original sports agent, my mentor, the late great Dickie Fox who said: ‘The key to this business is personal relationships.’ Suddenly, it was all pretty clear. The answer was fewer clients. Less money. More attention. Caring for them, caring for ourselves.

Maybe something needs to change; maybe the message needs to revert; maybe the light needs to shine again fully on Jesus—his gospel, his demands. Church, Communion, Worship and the Sunday gathering of God’s people are all about relationship with Jesus and relationships in Jesus. May we as Christian resolve to give more attention to Jesus and to each other through Jesus and in Jesus. May we demand of our churches: “Show us the face of Christ and lead us to him.”

In doing this, we are not neglecting those lost in our culture; rather, we are calling them home to Christ.