3 Poets That Have Enriched My Worship

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The amount of poetry in the Bible is staggering. Clearly, God believes that poetry is one of the best ways to reveal himself to us. Why is that? While I don’t claim to have the full answer, I suppose one thing poetry excels at is presenting the truth about God in a beautiful way. Poetry can capture and elevate the meaning and beauty of a moment or event when ordinary language doesn’t suffice. When it does this, poetry awakens desire for God within us. We long to know and experience him, and to be known and accepted by him. This is why, throughout the Bible, poetry is often the language of worship. 

Adam, Miriam, David, Solomon and Mary are just a few of the characters in the biblical narrative who use poetic language to express their worship. It is no wonder that a rich tradition of devotional poetry exists in the history of Christianity. I’d like to share just a few of  the poets who have influenced me and enriched my worship. 

George Herbert

One of the first devotional poets I fell in love with was George Herbert. His devotional poetry is full of theological truth, compelling imagery, and heartfelt prayer. He showed me poetry could be an expression of my own faith and relationship with Jesus. One of his most well known poems (and probably my favorite) is The Agony. In this poem Herbert explores the meeting of sin and love in the suffering and crucifixion of Christ, symbolized for us in the Lord’s Supper. He ends with these profound lines which I have often found myself meditating on: 

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine

Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine. 

One of the paradoxes of the cross is that Jesus’ agony is the foundation of the joy we experience as his followers. Herbert captures this paradox in a way that has deepened my worship while celebrating the Lord’s Supper. 

Another favorite is Church Monuments. This is a poem that comes to mind frequently when I reflect on sanctification. The imagery in these lines has always captured my imagination: 

Dear flesh, while I do pray, learn here thy stem

And true descent: that when thou shalt grow fat,

And wanton in thy cravings, thou mayst know,

That flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust

That measures all our time; which also shall

Be crumbled into dust. Mark, here below,

How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,

That thou mayst fit thyself against thy fall.

How poignant, compelling, and true is the picture of our bodies as fragile glass? We are an hourglass filled with, filled with naught but dust to measure our short time on earth, destined to become dust ourselves. Reflecting on this reality puts the temporary passions of the flesh in perspective. 

If you’d like to read more of Herbert’s poems you can find many for free online. Otherwise, I’d recommend getting a copy of the Penguin Classics collection of his poems

John Donne  

Donne’s Holy Sonnets have been a helpful aid to my worship. He wrote 19 of these sonnets. I’ll briefly share two that have resonated with me. The first, one of Donne’s most famous poems, is Death, be not proud. This poem, in a style reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s declarations in 1 Corinthians 15:54-56, confronts the impotency of death in the face of our resurrection hope. Donne opens with a rebuke:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so

Death has no right to be prideful, according to Donne, it has no power over Christians. In fact, Donne goes on to argue that death is not to be feared because is pleasurable like rest; something to be desired; a salvation: 

And soonest our best men with thee do go, 

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Death, as the New Testament describes it, is to fall asleep in this world and awaken in the next. Death is delivery of the soul from this mortal and sin-twisted existence, to a state of righteousness in the presence of God. From here, Donne goes on the attack against death: 

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, 

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

In short: death is nothing special. Death has no real, meaningful power. Thus death has no right to swell, that is, to puff up in pride. This leads into the closing couplet, the punchline of the poem, if you will: 

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

I challenge you to read this poem aloud in its entirety and see if this final line does not send shivers down your spine. This is the core hope of the Christian, because Christ has conquered death we will have eternal life! 

The second Holy Sonnet that has had an impact on my faith and worship is Batter my heart, three-person’d God. While Death, be not proud speaks with confidence, Batter my heart speaks to the struggles of faith. It is a poem which wrestles with doubt and uncertainty. Donne prays fervently that God would radically enter into his life and make his loving presence known. 

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend 

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Donne recognizes that his heart is hardened to God and to break the hardness will require strength and firmness. His heart cannot be gently molded, it must be battered. No amount of reason or logic will assuage Donne’s distress, he needs an encounter with the God who is love. More than that, to love God in return he needs to be delivered from the power of Satan: 

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

We need Christ to free us from the power of sin and the Devil. This is the only path to true freedom. Paradoxically, true freedom can only exist if we are imprisoned by God. This imprisonment is not by sheer force of will, rather, it is a wooing which imprisons the believer. This is why the Bible describes the church as Christ’s bride. A bride may be so loved by the groom that they are enthralled by him. A bride may be so  taken by the love of the groom that they desire to serve him. Thus something that could look like slavish duty from the outside, is true delight and pure bliss from within. 

If you’d like to read more of Donne’s poems you can find many for free online. Otherwise, I’d recommend getting a copy of the Penguin Classics collection of his poems

Malcolm Guite 

A couple of years ago I came across Malcolm Guite, a pipe-smoking, tweed-wearing, priest and poet. More than his persona, his poems grabbed my attention and imagination. Guite’s poetry combines rich biblical and theological truth with beautiful imagery, meter, and rhyme. I’ll share just two of his many beautiful poems. The first, I AM the Vine, is a reflection on John 15:5, found in his collection Parable and Paradox. I find myself re-reading this poem frequently, and I have taken to sharing it with my Systematic Theology students as we study union with Christ. Guite responds to Jesus’ claim, “I am the vine, ye are the branches” with two questions. These questions frame the entire sonnet. The first line asks: 

How might it feel to be part of the vine? 

With this question Guite asks us to contemplate the experience of union with Christ. He opens by asking what it feels like to be one with Jesus. Guite invites us into Jesus’ metaphor, suggesting we imagine we are a branch. As a branch is not distant from the vine, a believer is not distant from Christ: 

Not just to see the vineyard from afar

Or even pluck the clusters, press the wine, 

But to be grafted in… 

Just as a branch becomes a part of the plant when it is grafted in, we become a part of Christ when we place our faith in him. We do not become Christ when we are one with him, rather, we find in him the source of life: 

But to be grafted in, to feel the stir 

Of inward sap that rises from our root

Just as a branch receives the nutrients it needs when sap rises from the roots, we receive all spiritual blessings from God when we are united with Christ. With these realities and images floating through our minds, Guite asks one more question in the final couplet:

What might it mean to bide and to abide

In such rich love as makes the poor heart glad? 

This question, to me, seems to move us from asking about our internal, personal experience, to asking how we ought to live as those united to Christ. What would it look like to truly live as one grafted into Christ? What does abiding in Jesus mean for me today? How should and could and would the love of God transform me and my poor heart, if I truly grasped hold of Jesus’ teaching? 

The second poem I’ll mention comes from David’s Crown: Sounding the Psalms. In this book, Guite offers us 150 poems, one for each Psalm. In the preface he writes that the poems are “a contemporary prayer journal, an account of what it is like to read and pray through these ancient words [the Psalter] now and let them speak into our own condition.” Guite goes on to explain that he has, “woven these poems together into a corona, a crown or coronet of poems, the last line of each linking to the first line of the next, and the last line of the whole sequence linking to the first… completing the crown.” Thus the entire book of poems coheres into one beautiful offering of praise to Christ. Each poem, on its own, leads to deeper understanding of the Psalm and Lord-willing, a richer, truer worship of God. The poem I’ve chosen to mention here is Psalm 89: LXXXIX Misericordias Domini. This poem presents a beautiful theology of cross and of suffering. It opens with a question and answer: 

Who knows this agony unless they feel it too?

You answer me in darkness from your cross,

It is your pain that draws my heart to you

In our suffering and pain, we have a savior who understands. When we cry out, he answers from Calvary. He knows the uttermost depths of evil, and sorrow, and loss. So we are met by a God who is compassionate when we cry out in agony. He is not aloof, judgmental, or annoyed at us. Christ welcomes us: 

As deep calls unto deep and loss to loss.

A couple of lines later Guite begins to meditate on the theology of the cross, arguing that when he meets Christ on the cross, 

Not on the heights, but in the pit of hell. 

Then I can sing the triumph of the good

Then I can truly know all will be well.

In his seeming defeat, Christ was conquering Satan, the power of sin, and death itself. The crucifixion is the great eucatastrophe. The wisdom and power of God is displayed through the cross. Though a crucified God may seem like folly and weakness to the world, it is the way through which God redeems untold numbers of sinners. There is more to the poem, but I will encourage you to read it for yourself and consider Guite’s closing lines as you reflect on the ways you view God. 

I’ve mentioned two of Guite’s books, but he has many more. Some poetry, others prose. I’ll put a link to all his books on Amazon here.



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