The Poetics of Worship: From Beginning to End

By Travis Edward Turner Poling

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. 2011

Note: This essay is the first chapter of my Master of Arts, Poetic Worship: The Renewal of Liturgical Language. If you would like to read the entire thesis, email me at

Thesis Abstract This thesis offers a theological grounding for liturgists to explore the poetic dimensions of public worship. As congregations call on many names of God, encounter God in dialogue, and name the world anew for the sake of God's reign, poetic worship offers a practical theology of liturgical language formulated primarily through theological understandings of liturgical language, literary theories of poetics, and biblical accounts of creation, language, and worship. The composition and selection of poems and poetic texts for public worship raise not only aesthetic concerns but point to a belief in the radical presence of the divine in and for the world. In poetic worship, human and divine language engage one another anew as the church is awakened to God's transforming reign among us and throughout the world.

The Poetics of Worship: From Beginning to End Worship is the church's response to God's action within our daily lives. Through the divine gift of language, the congregation calls on the many names of the One who comes into this world for the sake of this world. In the act of public worship the entire church speaks and sings our thanks and praise, yearnings and confessions, commitments and celebrations to our Creating, Redeeming, and Sustaining God. It is this same God who continually speaks to us through Scripture, the life of Jesus Christ, and the still small voice. In this exchange of human word and the Word of God, we encounter the presence of the divine and are empowered to name the world anew in the transformative image of God's reign on earth. Since worship relies on language to communicate with God of the realities of our world and the fullness of God's presence among us, it is worthwhile to consider the ways in which poetic language cannot only enhance but renew worship for the sake of the world that God creates, loves, and redeems. Words that do not engage the imagination, be they archaic, misunderstood, or misused, have led the church's worship astray, away from our awareness of God's presence, and therefore away from our participation in God's renewing and resurrecting reign on earth. Poetic language that contains metaphors, images, and sounds that create new meaning for the hearer can awaken the worshiping church to see and enter into God's transforming power. The language of public worship is directly related to the church's call to serve the world in Christ's name. When the words of our liturgies fall flat, we find no grounding in the world in which Jesus Christ has sent us, and our attempts to be the body of Christ in and for the world ultimately fail. When the words of our liturgies rise up, carrying the realities of our


Poling 4 world into our sanctuaries, then we can be empowered to take part in God's transformative reign. Poetic worship is a theology of liturgical language for all artists who craft and lead the worship life of the church, empowering all who follow Jesus Christ to worship with words that bring the reality of our daily lives into the sanctuary so powerfully that we would have no choice but to participate in God's ongoing transformation of the world. Starting Points I have personally seen and heard the significance of liturgical language, its failures and successes, most powerfully in my own worship tradition, the Church of the Brethren. In comparison to churches in the Episcopal or Catholic, or even Presbyterian or Methodist traditions, our worship style is what many would consider “low church” or “free church,” that is, very little of our worship structure and language is received from ecclesiastic authorities. While I appreciate very much the richness of worship in the high church traditions, my own preference is toward congregations with flexibility in style and language, where the ideas of my thesis find their roots. At the same time, I write this for liturgists both within and beyond my own tradition and invite the adoption of poetic worship wherever appropriate and possible within any community. At various points in this thesis I will depart from what liturgical scholars before me have written, partly because I approach the theological task as an artist and poet first and foremost, but largely because of my worship experiences within a small and liturgically unique tradition that few scholars are aware of. For this reason, a brief synopsis of the evolution of worship in my own tradition follows. I offer it here so that we might begin to establish some common starting point in the exploration of worship language.

Poling 5 The Church of the Brethren emerged in Germany from Anabaptist and Radical Pietist movements of the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries. The early Brethren1 concerned themselves, in part, with the relevance of public worship in the daily life of Jesus' followers. They found the highly formal liturgies and didactic preaching in their Lutheran and Reformed congregations to be spiritually stagnant and too entwined with the political status quo, and so set out to form a new community of faith without the constraints of required worship words, styles, or behaviors. Brethren worship “was born of small groups of people meeting for Bible study, discussion, singing, and prayer"2 in Germany in the early years of the eighteenth century. Of primary interest was reviving worship practices of the first century church. Obedience to the calls of Christ and his disciples to perform these acts was more important than the theological arguments and political arrangements that sustained the traditional Protestant practices of their day. The first generation of Brethren developed rituals of baptism of convinced believers by immersion, anointing with oil and the laying on of hands in prayer for healing, and eucharist at the end of a longer “Love Feast” that includes a time of examination, feetwashing, and a simple meal. These three rituals continue to comprise Brethren worship life outside of Sunday mornings and have remained largely unchanged in structure for three centuries. Sunday gatherings for Brethren, however, have seen greater change. Until the mid-twentieth century, Brethren would gather on Sundays in homes or simple meeting houses for services that followed this basic structure: hymns sung a capella,
The term “Brethren" refers to a movement that began in western Germany in 1708. Following a number of schisms in the nineteenth century, the name "Brethren" now spans a number of small denominations that trace their origins to the 1708 Brethren. In 1908, the largest of these groups took the name "Church of the Brethren." When referring to periods before the schisms, I will use “Brethren” alone. When referring to the denomination that formed in 1908, which has been my primary faith community, I will use "Church of the Brethren." 2 For All Who Minister (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1993), 3.

Poling 6 several pastoral prayers, unison recitation of the Lord's Prayer, a Scripture reading, two or three sermons by a few preachers, and a final hymn.3 More recently, the style of Sunday morning worship has come to mirror mainline Protestant churches much more closely. Many elements that had not been in use in the first two hundred years of Brethren practice are now commonplace in the Church of the Brethren: written responsive prayers, offertories, benedictions, musical accompaniment, Scripture selections from the lectionary, and eucharist on Sunday mornings.4 Our current hymnal and worship manual (Hymnal: A Worship Book and For All Who Minister respectively, both published in the 1990s) reflect strong influence from the Liturgical Renewal movement,5 and it is not uncommon for Brethren liturgists to draw on worship resources from other Anabaptist and Protestant writers. While liturgists in the Church of the Brethren remain free to shape public worship according to local custom and need, we have at the same time retained the basic forms of baptism, anointing, and Love Feast. The words spoken in these rituals often change, and our worship manual even provides multiple versions for each of these, but there remains a general sense that we are taking part in something distinctive to our tradition that binds worshipers together through Jesus Christ, who is our primary focus and example in worship and daily life. What is perhaps most distinctive about worship in the Brethren tradition is an emphasis on participating in transformation of the world through the kingdom, or reign, of
“The Brethren Encyclopedia (Philadelphia, PA: Brethren Encyclopedia, Inc, 1983), s.v. "Worship, public." 4 Brethren worship hardly ever contains a formal confession of faith. This comes from the earliest Brethren who “shared a concern that formal creeds might: (a.) supplant the authority of scripture, and (b.) shut the door on their expectation of increased understanding through the work of the Holy Spirit as the community continued to faithfully study and live.” Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, “The New Testament as Our Rule of Faith and Practice,” 98NewTestament.htm (accessed March 16, 2011). 5 Hymnal: A Worship Book (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1992) and For All Who Minister (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1993). For All Who Minister was complied by denominational leadership, but its use is not enforced.

Poling 7 God on earth, with the life of Jesus Christ as our example and spiritual center. Baptism of convinced believers rather than infants emphasizes spiritual conversion into new people as we enter into covenant with a congregation of other people made new. Anointing reminds us that God holds the ultimate power to remove the barriers against spiritual and physical healing in this lifetime, and empowers us to receive and proclaim God's reconciliation even in our weakest moments. The Love Feast reenacts Jesus' final meal with his disciples before his crucifixion and resurrection on behalf of a suffering world. As we wash one another's feet, we participate in Christ's humility and grace with which we are to serve the needs of the world. As we gather around tables for dinner, we rehearse the many feasts of Jesus with Pharisees, tax collectors, prodigals and prostitutes, and the heavenly feast at which all nations and tribes will be welcomed. In the partaking of Christ's bread and cup, we share “the covenant of the body broken” and renew our pledge to participate in the Spirit's transformative work among us.6 In these rituals and during Sunday mornings, the entirety of Scripture is interpreted in preaching, song, and prayer through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. In public worship, the Church of the Brethren is called to gather in communities committed to nonviolence, simplicity, and discipleship for the sake of our neighbors—be they beloved friends, unknown strangers, or hostile enemies. Along with the rest of Christian tradition, our worship is concerned with praising God, confessing our sins, hearing and responding to the Word of God in Scripture interpreted by the gathered faith community with the aid of the Holy Spirit. Our ultimate purpose in gathering for worship is to receive personal and collective transformation from God and empowerment to enter into the world beyond the church doors, so that we may take part in the always-arriving reign of God that is

Vernad Eller, In Place of Sacraments: A Study of Baptism and the Lord's Supper (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972).


Poling 8 at the center of Jesus Christ's ministry. Such transformation is also the purpose and goal of poetic worship as I envision it, for the language of our liturgies informs the role of worship as we seek to love and serve the world. I am blessed with the opportunity to craft and perform liturgies with flexibility of worship language accompanied by a deep appreciation for tradition. I see how certain words enhance or detract from the meaning and impact of our worship and rituals. Sometimes our liturgies are vibrant and liberating; at other times our best attempts fall flat on the ground. As a regular worshiper most of my life, and more recently a liturgist, I have found myself wondering how best to compose texts for worship that resonate deeply with the congregation, while inspiring worshipers to consider the consequences of their shared prayers and ritual enactments. A visit in 2008 to the Iona Abbey in Scotland deepened my appreciation for the high church traditions of worship, and I have found the Iona Community's liturgies a helpful source and inspiration for my own composition of poetic prayers and rituals for public worship. Both Brethren and Iona worship traditions bring together our language of faith with our life of faith in powerful ways. Along with the ancient dictum “lex orandi, lex credendi” (“As we worship, so we believe”), one could say “lex orandi, lex vivere” (“As we worship, so we live”). Upon reflection on my own formative experiences of worship, I have found that worship language that is poetic in structure and voice often touches the hearers more profoundly and leads them to consider anew what it is to live as a follower of Christ in and for the world.

Poling 9 Method & Definitions This thesis will construct an intertextual theology of worship language from disparate but related sources. I will look at what has been said by scholars in the study of worship language, particularly Paul Brown because of his concern for connecting worship with the world in which we live, Debra and Ron Reinstra for their consideration of theological and practical concerns for liturgists, and Gail Ramshaw for her reflection on metaphor in worship. The work of Sallie McFague will provide a theological grounding for the exploration of metaphor. Robert Webber's liturgical theology will provide a place to start in exploring the structure and movement of worship. Literary scholars of writing and poetics, namely William Stafford, Dana Gioia, Mary Oliver, and Luci Shaw will show how poetry can relate to the work of the liturgist. Along the way I will provide illustrations from Scripture, liturgical texts, and modern and contemporary poetry to suggest relationships between human language, theological themes, and the act of public worship. My focus in examining the relationships between these scriptural, theological, theoretical, liturgical, and creative texts will be on the function of poetic language in worship, often elaborating where the connections between worship and poetry are not clearly considered by the authors. This process can be considered a theopoetic approach, bringing imaginative and creative aspects of poetry and narrative into conversation with analytical studies of God and faith in order to create and shape new understandings of our place in the world on behalf of God's reign. Callid Keefe-Perry, a scholar and artist in the field of theopoetics, summarizes the theopoet's task: “Thus, the theopoet operates on a continuum: as a theologian working in a poetically interpretive way, and as a poet defining or demarcating the idea of God, maintaining beauty and the knowledge of language’s tenuous nature.”7 As a contribution to the theopoetic genre

Callid Keefe-Perry, “Quotes,” THEOPOETICS(dot)NET, (accessed

Poling 10 of religious reflection and theological construction, this thesis will aim to poetically interpret the language of public worship while exploring the beauty and mystery of our relationship to the ever-present God. While worship can certainly take place—and be poetic as well—in the private moments of personal devotion, worship for the purposes of this thesis refers to public worship by a congregation, in a designated space at a designated time, in which people are invited to come together before God in word and action, that has implications in the world beyond the church doors. As for the content of worship, I will speak mostly about the prepared words spoken by worship leaders and congregations, particularly prayers and readings. While I may touch on hymns, sermons, and other elements of worship, my interest for this thesis is the words spoken by and with the congregation in public worship, texts that I refer to as liturgy. To explore the ways in which liturgy can be poetic, I will be following a definition of poetry and poetic language inspired by William Stafford's theories of poetics: A poem is anything said in such a way or put on the page in such a way as to invite from the hearer or reader a certain kind of is some kind of signal to the reader that what is going on will be a performance that merits an alertness about life right at the time of living it. You can even make something not a poem become a poem by looking at it a certain way, or listening to it in a certain way.8 From my study of Stafford, I have come to believe that poetry is any spoken or written use of language that shakes and reshapes the vision and perspective of the hearer or reader. In the end, this thesis will provide a coherent and practical theology for artists engaged in the composition and performance of worship in the church for the sake of God's reign in the world. It is these artists I refer to as liturgists throughout this thesis, and it is
March 19, 2011). 8 William Stafford, Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writers Vocation (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1978), 61.

Poling 11 with them in my prayers that I write these words. Outline of Chapters In what remains of this chapter, I will begin to connect the worlds of poetry and worship in ways that liturgical scholars have largely overlooked, for I believe that worship can only truly make a difference in and for the world when its language reflects the poetic voice. In Chapter Two, I will explore biblical and poetic connections between human language and divine language. Chapter Three will examine the four classical movements of worship (gathering, proclaiming, responding, and sending) and fashion a more poetic understanding of what occurs in worship through liturgical texts, including those from the Iona Community, the Anglican tradition, and my own composition. Theological considerations will come from Paul Brown, Debra and Ron Reinstra, and Scott Hahn, as well as the theories of William Stafford. Attention will be given to ways in which the poetic voice can revitalize and renew public worship. Finally, since the poetic renewal of liturgical language comes most clearly through the words of poetry itself, Chapter Four will provide guidance to the liturgist in selecting and presenting poems for worship. Poetry and Worship The content and movement of worship is aesthetically pleasing and life-enriching when its words are, by artistic definition, poetic. Very few liturgical scholars, however, have approached the worship experience as holistically poetic, or worship as a composition, even a genre of poetry. Gail Ramshaw comes close when she writes in her essay Liturgical Language: Keeping it Metaphoric, Making it Inclusive that “metaphor is the method of liturgical language.”9 Addressing biblical imagery in liturgical prayers, Ramshaw argues that

Gail Ramshaw, Liturgical Language: Keeping it Metaphoric, Making it Inclusive (Collegeville, MN:

Poling 12 metaphor is necessary “to say the unknowable God and to describe mercy.”10 To illustrate the importance of metaphor Ramshaw mentions Wallace Stevens' poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” She notes that in the poem, “each successive statement layers up meaning until the reader feels that all of the world has been seen” and she adds, “Like Stevens' blackbird, the 'face' of God means more than we first thought.”11 Ramshaw's comparison of a religious metaphor to a contemporary poem stands out among writings on liturgical language. Secular poems are not often held up as a lens through which the liturgy can be viewed as rich in meaning, so a reader of Ramshaw might expect her to draw the relationship even tighter. Surprisingly, the comparison is cut short. She continues, Here's the wrinkle: liturgy is not poetry. Liturgy includes the communal recitation of the central metaphors of the faith, but liturgy is grounded in the assembly in a way that most poetry is not. The liturgy is the expression of all the people of God, and all those people need to have their voices heard.12 Ramshaw's claim that poetry is not as “grounded in the assembly” as liturgy may surprise some readers who know of the great public voices of poets like Walt Whitman, Maya Angelou, Martín Espada, or hip hop poets, all of whose work is a direct outcome of their community's experiences and whose personal voices speak out of a collective urge toward spiritual and political liberation. Don Sailiers, who examines the theology of worship through reflection on the arts, calls liturgy “the poetic fusion of word and act,”13 but claims, “Christian public worship is an art, but not a work of art.”14 To any liturgist who approaches the composition of Christian public worship as a poetic art, Saliers' suggestion comes close to saying that photography is an art, but a portrait by an artful photographer would not be
The Liturgical Press, 1996), 10. Emphasis added. 10 Ibid. 11 Ibid. 12 Ibid. 13 Don Saliers, “The Travail of Christian Worship,” in Arts, Theology & the Church: New Intersections, ed. Kimberly Vrundy and Wilson Yates (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2005), 187. 14 Ibid., 186.

Poling 13 considered a work of art in itself. It is significant that these two major voices in liturgical studies can make connections to the poetic voice in worship but do not fully recognize worship and the language of worship as works of poetry, or through literary theories of poetics. Their investigations are mainly theological in perspective, while viewing poetry and art as concerned with the secular studies of literature and aesthetics. Because of this limited view among liturgical scholars, the field has yet to reflect meaningfully on the relationship between theology, liturgy, and poetry. In my view, poetry carries great significance for theological exploration of worship. Anywhere that language is used to communicate our conceptualizations of the world we inhabit, the very same world in which God's presence fully dwells, poetry and poetics can find a natural home. Even more analytical and logical approaches may be enhanced and deepened through the creative use of metaphor, sound, and imagery as integral parts of theological reflection, as in the artful discipline of theopoetics. This thesis, while analytical, will follow poetic perspectives and impulses in constructing a theology, or rather a theopoetics, of worship language, for language without attention to the poetic voice will view only the surface of inquiry and truth. To see deeper into the mystery of God's word in and for the world, a more creative, metaphoric, and poetic stance must be taken. Fortunately, there are poets who see clearly the natural home of poetry within religious discourse, and notably within worship itself. One such poet is William Stafford, who will provide a major voice in later chapters of this thesis. In an interview on poetry and religious faith, the interviewer asked Stafford, “Should poetry be used in church services?” The poet's response goes beyond inserting a poem into worship. Stafford says, This one is easy: church services are poetry from beginning to end; they just are poetry. A strange thing to me is that someone can come out of [a] church service and

Poling 14 ask about whether poetry is flourishing today. They have been inside singing, praying, repeating uplifting words. They are helplessly enthralled by poetry without knowing it —that is, many of them do not know it. Religion is serious poetry—which is not to say religion cannot be lighthearted. But at its highest it turns important; and important involvement with language, use of language for significant human experiences, merges inevitably into poetry.15 Along with Stafford I believe worship to be inherently poetic, or that poetry is what worship should strive to become if it is to be the “serious poetry” that all religion is called to live into. Poetry may be comprised of broken or unbroken lines, heightened or plain rhyme, rhythm or meter, but these raise questions of form and structure, which are of less concern for the purposes of this thesis. Most important for this conversation are the profound ways in which poetry impacts the way we live in and envision the world, for poetry itself is, as Stafford says, “an experience, a venturing into new encounters.”16 Poetry draws us out of our internalized, sanctioned, routine view of the world and toward lives that are engaged and invested in the world in meaningful ways. Poetry is never an individual act, for it effects all who encounter it with consequences in the wider world. Poetry is an engagement with language in creative ways that carry ethical, political, religious, technological, sexual, and many other cultural implications. The language of public worship, if it is to become poetic, must have these same attributes. Our words for worship must pull us out of our individualized views of the world, bring us into relationship with the congregants around us and the wider church, and show us the meaning of our actions in the world on behalf of the reign of God. All worship, if it is to move the gathered body beyond the limitations of individualism, routine and habit, brokenness and sin, and into the world in which we dwell as the community of Christ's

William Stafford, You Must Revise Your Life (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1986), 69-70. 16 Ibid., 68.


Poling 15 reconciliation, liturgical language, and indeed all of worship, must be poetic from beginning to end. In 1991 poetry critic Dana Gioia published an essay entitled “Can Poetry Matter?” that caused a fierce debate among poets in America about their perceived role in the public sphere. In the essay, Gioia recounts the development of what he calls the “poetry subculture,”17 that is, poets isolated mostly into college English departments since the Second World War. Once American poets left the worlds of the urban and rural working class, poetry became “the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group.”18 Not only were poets cut off from the public beyond the campus, they were cut off from artists and scholars in other disciplines. Due to this isolation, American poets are “without a role in the broader culture,” meaning “talented poets lack the confidence to create public speech.”19 As a result, “most contemporary poets, knowing they are virtually invisible in the larger culture, focus on the more intimate forms of lyric and meditative verse... [that] has not found a public beyond the poetry subculture.”20 Poets, in other words, no longer speak for any public. Certainly poetry has increased in popularity in the past few decades through the emergence of social media and electronic publication, hip hop and poetry slams, and the hard work of a handful of poets and literary organizations. Consequently, Gioia revised his view of the poetry subculture's unique hold on poetry in America in a 2004 essay entitled, “Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture.”21 However, these new forms and venues of poetry are looked upon with suspicion by many in the worlds of academia and
Dana Gioia, Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture, 2nd ed. (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2004), 2. 18 Ibid., 1. 19 Ibid., 10. 20 Ibid. 21 See the book by Dana Gioia, Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2004).

Poling 16 ministry. Those who reflect upon and craft worship in the church seem to have little interest in or knowledge about conversations in poetics. It is not surprising in this climate that scholars of liturgical language who write of the necessity of metaphor often deny that worship is poetry. I believe that they are not so much averse to poetry as they are unaware of what goes on in contemporary poetry and poetics due to the poetry subculture's isolation from popular and academic culture, and even more profoundly, from the church. For liturgists and worship scholars, it seems, poetry does not matter. Worship since the twentieth century has suffered isolation from public view similar to that of poetry, but to a much greater detriment. Attendance at worship in the United States continues to decline, and those who attend often understand little of what takes place. If the church is to be relevant to the world and to understand and fulfill the deepest needs and desires of God, then our work begins when we gather to worship. All that the church is and does flows out of worship. Our relationship to God's world is informed through the hearing of Scripture and its interpretation for our time and place. We gain strength through love to survive crises and celebrate joys through the voicing of our collective intercessions. The strangers we encounter, the broken who need to be made whole, the sick who yearn for healing: All sit together in the presence of God on Sunday mornings. If public worship makes no difference in our lives, then the church will make no difference in the lives of our neighbors: Ultimately, worship must matter to the church. It must connect more deeply to who we are than any other part of life. For that to happen, poetry must matter to the church as well. Liturgical renewal with poetic language at its center can provide worship that matters not only to those who gather, but to God and the world.