Poetry in Mission 18 Guidelines Bible Study Notes
by Graham Kings
Date added: 04/06/2020
Poetry in Mission: Guidelines Bible Study Notes
18-24 December 2000
During the next two weeks we shall be participating in the celebrations of the birth of Jesus Christ and, for mathematical pedants, in the ‘real’ turn of the millennium. Our readings shall focus on the theme of mission and its consequence - the ‘world wide web’ of the Church. The extraordinary fact that the Church exists in every country of the world (albeit in different forms and strengths) is due to God’s own pioneering mission which draws us into following in his wake. This mission of God and of his world-wide Church is from everywhere to everywhere. In it evangelism, compassion and justice are inter-whirled for God’s world. It is focused on Christ, often begins at home, wherever that may be for us, and is full of surprises as it moves outwards in the power of the Holy Spirit – from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Most people who responded in writing to my earlier themes in Guidelines (Mission in 1991 and Sharing the Good News in 1994) commented on the poetry included. So this year each passage will be expounded more in poetry than prose. I wrote these ‘expository poems’ in various contexts and countries over the last fifteen years. Their titles are given in the title for each day. I have used the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
1 The Church and The Nations Read Luke 24:44-53
Luke, the Gentile, ends his Gospel with the theme of proclaiming the good news to all nations (v. 47). Jesus emphases the fulfilment and understanding of the Scriptures, focused in the sufferings of the Messiah, the witness of his own disciples and the promise of the Spirit. The following poem, written in Johannesburg in 1995, may be used as a congregational litany on this theme. It draws on the whole sweep of Scripture, begins and ends with the Trinity and thus underlines the significance of God’s own mission.
God the Father forms his people
from out of the nations to bless the nations;
Jesus the Christ saves his people
from out of the nations to bless the nations;
The Holy Spirit draws his people
from out of the nations to bless the nations.
from out of the nations, the people are blessed;
from out of a nation, a people oppressed;
against the nations, the people assured;
to lighten the nations, the people restored.
betrayed by the people, for the people;
pierced by the nations, for the nations.
the people remade, the nations reproached;
the people reshaped, the nations rejoice;
the people redeemed, regathered from every
tribe, tongue, people and nation.
Source of the Church,
Desire of the nations;
Head of the Church,
Judge of the nations;
Breath of the Church,
Light of the nations;
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Renew your Church to bless your nations.
2 Profit and Loss Read Luke 3:3-17
John the Baptist, the prophet in the wilderness, introduces the summary phrase ‘repentance’ and ‘the forgiveness of sins’ that we saw Jesus using yesterday at the end of Luke’s gospel. I wrote the following exposition in 1987 while on the staff of St Andrew’s Theological and Development College, Kabare in the foothills of Mount Kenya. The founder of the college, Dr David Gitari (now Archbishop), was at the forefront of challenging issues of injustice at local and national levels.
John is just the right man for the job,
which is, after all,
one of justice and righteousness.
Savile Row clothes aren’t suitable,
nor is after-shave;
the dust and smell of the desert hang about him;
so do the people.
The word of the Lord, silent for so long,
At last is heard again: “It’s time to change!”
Not a polite call, in this waste land,
of “Time, gentlemen, please”;
Not “Time to leave for tomorrow is another day”
- for it probably isn’t!
But “The crisis has come. This is it.
Here is he who comes after me.”
Not “You can’t change the world,
that’s just the way it is.”
But the specific question “Is it just, the way it is?”
The health of the poor in Britain rots
improve housing and benefits;
The hunger and debt of the world mounts
trade fairly and justly;
The inside of the stock market collapses
deal honestly and openly;
Stars wars astronomically cost the earth
be content with present defence.
His shout demands, “Time to change,
turn around, you can’t go on.”
Not a casual “Take it or leave it”
But a crucial “Take it or be left - like the chaff.
And don’t you try the old school tie;
Trees are judged by fruits, not roots.”
3 Revolutionary Love Read Luke 6:20-36
In Luke’s Gospel Jesus’ ‘blessings’ are echoed by his ‘woes’ and thus help to define his sayings more clearly than in Matthew’s Gospel (eg the meaning of ‘the poor’). His sermon on the plain (v. 17) continues with an uncompromising missionary challenge to all cultures. I have yet to discover a culture in the world in which it is natural to ‘love your enemy’. Perhaps this is the most revolutionary saying of Jesus. Most of Jesus’ hearers would have understood the enemy as referring to Roman soldiers. Today’s poem, written in Kenya during Holy Week in 1987, begins with a reference to Acts 17:6 concerning Silas and Paul in Thessalonica.
Turning the world upside down,
is the charge against Silas and Paul:
Turning its values the right way up,
is the Kingdom’s promise and call.
Invitations to a glorious feast
mean more to the hungry and poor,
and to others who have the least,
than to the rich, well known and well fed,
who prefer their own company instead.
Love for those who like you is ordinary;
Love for those who are like you, narcissistic;
Love for those who are unlike you, extraordinary;
Love for those who dislike you, revolutionary.
Revenge surrenders to evil by reflecting violence:
But, like a bad coin kept and not passed on,
like lightning conducted safely to earth,
Love neutralises evil, by absorbing violence.
Pray for the rival who threatens you;
Pray for the adversary blocking you;
Pray for the opponent who slanders you;
Pray for the antagonist provoking you.
You only love the Father
as much as you love your worst enemy.
For your love is to be merciful and free,
When all is said and done -
like Father, like Son.
4 Coracle Prayer Read Luke 5:1-11
Jesus’ call to the first disciples, to join him in his mission, is overwhelming in terms of demand, result and response. He meets them where they are, at work, asks for some help and issues a surprising command. Simon Peter is astounded at the miraculous catch of fish, recognises his need of partners to help him and then leaves everything (a typical emphasis in Luke’s Gospel) to follow in wake of the Messiah. Think through how these various aspects of the story can be applied to cross-cultural mission today. Tracing further this theme of the sea, there are also other stories in the gospels which may illuminate our own missionary calling.
A bicentenary conference of the Church Mission Society in 1999 near Derby was entitled the Coracle Event. The aim was to discover new directions for the CMS. The conference theme centred around Saint Columba (521-597) setting out in his coracle from Ireland, not knowing exactly where he was going, but trusting the wind of the Spirit. Columba ended up in his little boat at Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. He founded a monastery there, which formed the launching point of many missionary journeys amongst the Picts. Some people were uneasy with this ‘drift of the Spirit’ concept, so I wrote the following prayer-poem about Christ and the sea. Christ sends us from one shore, is with us in the boat on our journey and is already ahead of us to welcome us. As well as beginning with today’s text the poem expounds the following passages concerning the sea: Mark 4:35-41; Mark 6:45-52; John 21:1-14.
Lord Jesus Christ,
Teacher on the shore
who calls and overwhelms us,
Friend in the boat
who sleeps and saves us,
Mystery on the water
who prays and surprises us,
Stranger on the other shore
who rises to welcome us,
Guide our coracle across. Amen.
5 First Written Gospel Read John 19:17-22
The themes of testimony and trial are woven throughout the fourth gospel. Who is on trial in this passage? Is it Jesus, the Holy One, or Pilate who is afraid that if he sets Jesus free he himself will be brought to trial before the Emperor? The leaders of the Jews have already condemned themselves for blasphemy out of their own mouths “We have no King but Caesar”.
Most modern scholars consider that Mark was the first written Gospel. However, maybe we can see a supreme irony in Pilate’s order concerning the ‘title’ written above the cross of Christ. Perhaps he who condemned Jesus wrote the first ‘gospel’ – to the Jews first, but also to the Gentiles, since it was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek for all to see. This poem was written on Good Friday in 1999 in Cambridge.
Jesus the Sacred, tried before Pilate;
Pilate the scared – trial before Caesar:
Jesus, entitled to justice from Rome,
Entitled by Pilate “The King of the Jews.”
First written Gospel, translated for all,
Title deeds of the Kingdom of God;
Proclaimed to the city, unchanging Word,
“What is written is written”, bequeathed to the world.
6 The Point of the Nails Read Luke 23:32 – 47; 24:36-43
The inscription above the cross is again mentioned in today’s reading, from Luke’s gospel (v.37). Here it provokes mocking and scoffing: the message of the cross across the whole world has also often met with similar responses. God’s way of eradicating ruthless sin once and for all, is no easy matter: it is rooted in the body of his innocent Son. Three times in Luke’s story of the cross Jesus is declared innocent (vv. 4, 41 and 47).
As their King, Jesus represents and sums up his people, even to the point of being his people, suffering as they had done historically under various pagan empires. Jesus fulfills his own command that we saw earlier in the week about loving enemies (v 34).
Luke stresses the physicality of Jesus’ transformed body (v 42): this, however, is no mere resuscitation, but glorious resurrection. New life for old, which also relates to his people. This was written on Good Friday in 1987 at Kabare, in Kenya.
Sins aren’t erased by a finger pushing the cancel button:
They’re absorbed by a body pushed around and broken.
Surrounded by mocking curiosity,
Vindictive invective, derisive frivolity,
Jesus dies - declared innocent
By Governor, guerrilla and soldier.
As bread is his body and wine is his blood,
He, King of the Jews, is his people.
His death crowns their pain under pagan regimes:
He is smashed for their sins and the nations’ gain.
He is raised with a transformed body,
Not as a flimsy ghost;
Not like a thin carbon-copy,
Nor even the original returned in the post.
He is raised to glorious new life,
Not back into the same,
Not like Lazarus his friend,
Who has to die again.
As the Jews were his crucified flesh,
So the Church is his glorified body.
As we look back over this week’s readings it may be helpful to respond by offering ourselves to the adventure of God’s mission. There is an intriguing question: “How do you make God smile?” The answer may be “You tell him your plans”.
I wrote the following three prayers as a focus for our response to the kingdom of God, the strangeness of God and the foolishness of God (1 Cor 1:18-25).
You are for turning;
turning us round
help us to give ourselves
to your revolution of
challenge and love,
through him who called for
turning and trust,
Jesus Christ our Lord,
you are a wild God,
yet we try to tame you;
you exiled your people,
gave up your Son,
raised up a convict,
for our welcome home:
you are a free God,
yet we try to cage you. Amen.
you are great and glorious;
but to this twisted world
your wisdom and power
seem stupid and feeble:
grant us your insight,
your subtlety and love,
to show you to people
as you really are,
focused in your Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord,
25-31 December 2000 Poetry in Mission
1 The Gospel of The Song Read John 1:1-14
Mission often involves crossing boundaries and God’s world-wide, multicoloured Church is made up on many cultures. The traditional Christmas Day gospel reading is not usually seen as a daring attempt at cross-cultural communication but that is what it is, by both God and the author. When the Word became flesh God crossed the widest cultural gap in the universe. As the author of the fourth gospel tries to interpret the good news to both Jews and Greeks he chooses a metaphor that is full of meaning for both – the Word. In the Hebrew Scriptures God said ‘Let there be light’ (Genesis 1) and the heavens were made by the word of the Lord (Psalm 33). In popular Greek philosophical thought the Word (Logos) was the meaning of the universe, the reason, the mind, the first principle behind everything. The author uses and infuses these ideas with his own focus – the Word is personal and, astonishingly, became flesh. In many ways this is a crude term that implies something low and frail. Thus God shows us that ‘matter’ does in fact matter.
While in Kenya in 1985 I remember teaching on the doctrine of Christ – that Jesus was fully divine and fully human; not half and half, but fully both and fully integrated. I hit on the metaphor of ‘the song’ to illustrate this. A song is made up of words (divinity) and music (humanity) and when sung these two interweave together inextricably.
In the beginning were the Words,
And the Words were the Poet’s,
And they were part of Him:
Lively and brilliant.
And the Words became music,
and were sung,
full of beauty and freedom.
We have heard the Song,
and been utterly moved,
again and again.
We had read poetry before,
but beauty and freedom
came through this Song.
No-one has ever seen the Poet:
this one Song, which is in His heart,
has shown Him to us.
2 Mandela Beyond Imagining Read Galatians 3: 23-29
Paul, in an early letter, is writing to the church he founded in Galatia. He has stressed the crucial importance of Jewish and Gentile Christians both being accepted by God on account of their faith in Jesus alone (v. 26). Keeping the Jewish law (focused in the issue of circumcision) does not contribute to their acceptance and salvation. Therefore, in Christ and before God, there is profound unity across racial barriers - which Paul also extends to issues of gender and slavery (v. 28).
Racial unity and justice are fundamental concerns in God’s mission across the world. In 1986 the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa repudiated its previous theological backing for apartheid. After pressure from within the country and from around the world, in February 1990 I heard on the radio in Kenya the joy of Nelson Mandela’s release. The next day I wrote the following poem which is based on this text in Galatians and on two photo images. The one of the young lawyer, with the angled parting in his hair, famous on student posters and T shirts; the other of the released prisoner, which proclaimed good news on the front covers of newspapers throughout the world.
Before nineteen eighty six,
Theology in the Reformed Church
Was mistakenly myth-taken
Double Dutch and in a State.
People on whom God had set His stamp
Were stamped upon;
That which God had joined together,
People put asunder.
Then came pressure from the Spirit
Through the Word,
Through the people,
Through the nations.
Abusing the image
Insults the Original;
That which had been kept apart,
Tied together now by God.
February nineteen ninety. Behold the man,
Whose image froze a generation ago.
Has he changed? Will we know him?
President elect, but for election!
Here they come! Which one is he?
The one with Winnie’s hand in his left,
Saluting the crowd with the fist of his right.
The image and likeness of the Creator
Oppressed in black, distorted in white;
The image of a captured lawyer
Stamped on T-shirts for the fight;
Now the release of a camera shutter,
Captures the image of a regal elder -
Reproduced in black and white.
3 Jesus Goes Underground Read 1 Peter 3:13-22
This letter was written to the churches of the Roman provinces that were situated in the northern half of Asia Minor. It encouraged those churches to holiness of living and patience in suffering, following the example of Jesus Christ. Verses 18-19 and 22 contain fragments of a poem or hymn, comparable to other poems about Christ found elsewhere in the New Testament (eg Phil. 2:6-11, Col. 1:15-20, Ephes. 2:14-16).
Verse 15 has a powerful message for mission throughout the ages. It is an exhortation to authentic witness in the face of challenge, with the emphasis on ‘gentleness and reverence’.
What is unique in this passage is the strange concept of Christ preaching to the spirits of those in prison, who had died before having an opportunity to hear the good news. The question of the unevangelized is as sensitive now as it was then. The text is reflected in the phrase of the Apostles Creed ‘He descended to the dead’ and is sometimes referred to as the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ (a doctrine of particular importance in the Eastern Orthodox churches). Too much may have been built on these verses but the following poem, written in 1993, is a modern mythical reinterpretation. After observing various people on a London Underground train, who seemed to be imprisoned in various ways, I imagined Jesus bringing the good news to them.
She listens to her Walkman
living in another world,
ignoring her neighbour as herself.
He reads the Sun
immersed in actors’ lives,
washing his mind with soap.
They do not touch,
marriage withdrawal symptoms.
She scrunches monster munches,
bags of tasty emptiness.
He’s stuck in sniffing glue,
addicted to cheap death;
nobody knows the trouble he’s in.
To bring them to their senses and together,
Jesus goes Underground.
He grabs the tube of glue
and breathes the breath of God.
He throws the packet away
and gives her bread.
He joins their hands in his
and brings them warmth.
He folds the sun in half
and beams a smile.
He slips the headphones from her ears
and shares his news.
4 The Image of her Father Read Acts 2: 1-17
Pentecost is the New Testament word for the Feast of Weeks, when the wheat harvest was celebrated by a one day festival, during which specific sacrifices were made. This festival was fifty days after the Passover. Luke stretches language to describe this empowering baptism with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5) and pioneering preaching.
The disciples spoke in tongues praising God and Peter proclaimed the word to interpret this amazing event, showing how it related to Jewish prophecy (Joel 2:28-32). A crowd had gathered made up of Jews from all parts of the Empire who were in Jerusalem for the festival. Luke is typically specific in his bubbling, tumbling, rushing, list of nations (vv. 9-11), which is a foretaste of the world-wide Church (v. 41).
The following poem, called the Image of her Father, took shape as I prepared a sermon on this passage under the title the ‘Birth of the Church’. This was after the birth of Miriam our second daughter, in inner city London in 1984. I wondered who the Church’s mother was, how the disciples following Jesus on the road to Jerusalem related to the Church, and how the birth involved Good Friday and Easter as well as Pentecost.
For many years in Israel’s womb
The embryo grows, the Church of Christ:
First the Head, then the Body,
The Son of Man includes the many.
For hours upon a Roman cross
The Church’s birth begins in blood:
Crucified with Christ her Head,
Constricted by the love of God.
The third day, from a gaping tomb,
The Church emerges urgently:
Risen again with Christ her life,
Released, relieved, the joy of God.
The fiftieth day, with tongues of flame,
She breathes the Spirit, cries the word:
Conceived, inspired with Christ, she grows,
The heir of all, the child of God.
5 Facing The Image Read 2 Cor 3:12-18 and 4:1-6
We continue with the concept of reflecting the image of God. In this letter Paul is writing to the church in Corinth and contrasts his missionary ministry with the style of his detractors who have questioned his apostleship. In this passage he also daringly makes the contrast with Moses, who was afraid that his followers would see that the shining glory was fading from his face (Exodus 34 reinterpreted). Under the new covenant there is continual gazing and transformation into the Lord’s likeness (3:18).
He then goes on to defend the integrity and openness of his and Timothy’s ministry (cp. 2 Cor 1:1), insisting that they are not proclaiming themselves but Jesus as Lord. Using a powerful word, they are in fact the ‘slaves’ of their Corinthian brothers and sisters (vv 2-3, 5). If only Paul’s example had been followed throughout the expansion of the Church! Verse 6 picks up again the concept of ‘the face’. It focuses the essence of mission and of Christ’s intimate relationship with God the creator and redeemer (Genesis 1:3 and Isa 60:1-2). There is a double reflective shining from God - in the missionaries and in the face of Christ.
The following litany, Facing the Image, was written in 1997 in Kingston, Jamaica. This was during a consultation which was looking at one of the themes of the Lambeth Conference 1998, Called to Full Humanity.
Formed in the image and likeness of God,
Fired by violence and facing away,
Defaced, despairing, curved in on ourselves,
Remaking, repairing, curved into the world,
You come, the Image of God.
With compassion, forgiveness, restoring the image,
With powerfully piercing, incisive insight,
With passion and proverb and practical story,
Facing Jerusalem, challenging temple,
Surfacing from the depths of death,
Infusing, renewing, the image refacing,
You pour out the fiery Spirit of God.
Being transfigured into your likeness,
From glory to glory;
With unveiled face, we face God’s Image,
Reflecting the light of the knowledge of God
Seen in your face,
Jesus our Lord.
6 Turning Point Read Romans 13:11-14
Our last passage for 2000 (the real turn of the Millennium?) concerns an appeal to turn from the old life to the new. Paul is writing to the Romans from Corinth. He has not yet visited Rome but knows many of the members of the church there and in this letter sets out the heart of gospel of God, which unites Jews and Gentiles together through faith in Christ. He now gives an urgent ethical appeal in the light of the approaching judgement of God. He contrasts the life of quarrelling and sexual license with new life in Christ.
It was through reading this passage that St Augustine (354-430), was converted. In his autobiography, Confessions, he records his famous prayer “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”! He describes his agony of decision concerning conversion and baptism and how the singing of a child nearby “pick it up and read” prompts him to open the Scriptures. Having been a playboy earlier in his life, he is now a Professor of Rhetoric in Milan, living with his partner of 14 years. The following poem was written at Yale University in 1996, sparked off by the first chapter of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Divine Discourse, which begins with Augustine in the garden.
Stalking in the garden in the heat of the moment,
Reflecting on complexity of voluntary movement,
Slunk in listless and leaden despair,
Tangled, contorted and tearing his hair,
Rapping his head and wrapping his knees,
Rabidly ravaging under the trees,
Wanting to wait and waiting to want,
Weighing the longing of laying and font,
Augustine hears the Word of the Lord
Drifting, insisting the voice of a child:
“Tolle, lege: take it and read.
Tolle, lege: take it and read.”
Vocative discourse spoken by God,
Evocative sing-song challenge of a child.
Turning and turning he opens to read
The Word of the Lord in the words of St Paul:
“Lust and debauchery, revelry, rivalry,
Now is the time to wake from your sleep.”
Eloquent professor professes his call.
Now, no procrastination, delay;
Later is now, tomorrow today.
We conclude this theme of God’s mission and his world-wide Church with a focus on the Bible. I wrote this final litany at a conference in Canterbury in 1993 on the theme of the Anglican Communion and Scripture.
In the beginning was the Word
God spoke his Word through
Abraham and Moses,
Deborah and Hannah,
Samuel and David,
It is written it is written.
And the Word became flesh.
God spoke his Word through
Mary and Elizabeth,
Simeon and Anna,
Peter and Paul,
Matthew and Johanna.
It is written it is written.
God speaks his Word in
Urdu and Tamil,
Xhosa and Hausa,
Spanish and English,
Mandarin and Maori.
It is read it is read.
In the beginning was the Word
And the Word became flesh.
It is written it is read,
It is old it is new,
It is God’s it is true.
David Bosch, Transforming Mission (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991).
John Stott and others, The Anglican Communion and Scripture (Oxford: Regnum, 1996).
Kwame Bediako, Christianity in Africa: the Renewal of a Non-Western Religion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press and Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1995).