/ John Flavel / Barry York

The Poetic Life of the Christian - Part 1

A few days ago I spoke to a group of college students about a subject in which I am ill-trained.  I gave a talk on poetry.  I even spent most of the time reading poetry to them.  To be honest, I felt as awkward as if I were at my first dance. The talk, and even the posts I am doing on it, will be fairly amateurish to those knowledgeable in this field. So why put myself through this?

Because the Christian life is a poetic one by nature and, as I have been seeing this more and more, I want others to see it as well. Though I read the poetry like I dance - with two left feet - I still enjoyed the exercise.  So how exactly is the Christian life a poetic one?

Christians are to be people of the Bible, and by its nature the Bible is poetical.  We see that primarily in the Wisdom literature of the Scriptures, the books Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon (which are often also referred to as the "poetic books").  In these books, God uses poetry extensively to call us to seek wisdom.  Not only does He command us to seek it, but He poetically allures us to do so.  An example of this is seen through God personifying Wisdom as a beautiful woman in Proverbs 9:1-6:

Wisdom has built her house,
She has hewn out her seven pillars;
She has prepared her food, she has mixed her wine;
She has also set her table;
She has sent out her maidens,
She calls from the tops of the heights of the city:
“Whoever is naive, let him turn in here!”
To him who lacks understanding she says,
“Come, eat of my food and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Forsake your folly and live,
And proceed in the way of understanding.”

Yet the Bible's metaphors and sonnets are not limited to these five books.  Poetical passages and attributes are found throughout the Scriptures.  As those who are people of this Book, our lives should be poetic as well.

We also are people who through Christ are recreated in the image of God.  Since God is the giver of verse, our lives should reflect His nature in being poetical.

Yet what does it mean to live poetical lives?

Poetry can be defined as "the art of rhythmical composition for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts."  As God's witnesses to this dying world, we are to represent Him by elevating the thoughts of those around us to contemplate the eternal God, heaven, and everlasting life or death.  Others are to look at us, and due to our testimony, be called to prepare for eternity.  To be symbols of Jesus Christ is to be poetical.

So as we live out these poetic lives, in particular we would do well to remember that poetry has at least three qualities that are to be reflected in the believer’s life.  This post offers the first of these qualities.

The Christian Life is Poetic Because It is to be One of Thinking & Contemplation

Poetry makes us stop and ponder.  That fits with our calling as Christians, for we are to be people who meditate.  Psalm 1 says that the blessed man is the one who meditates on God's law day and night, then describes him as being like a growing, fruit-bearing tree by streams of water that never fail.  As those who are to be "transformed through the renewing of our minds" (Romans 12:2), we should learn to appreciate how the Lord seeks to help us do that very thing by communicating to us in metrical ways.

Recently in my reading of Puritan devotional literature, it dawned on me just how many of the writers I enjoy the most punctuate their rich theological writings with poetry.  One example is that of John Flavel, where in his work _Navigation Spiritualized _he uses a poem at the end of each lesson to conclude his teaching with warming thoughts.  The other day as I read the first two lines of one of his works, the way poetry aids in meditation was impressed upon me with the simple fact that I did not initially understand even what he was saying:

When once the dog-star rises, many say,
Corn ripens then apace, both night and day.
"What is the dog-star?" I pondered.  A little research revealed that this is the name for the star Sirius, the brightest star in the summer sky.  It is called such because it belongs to the constellation "Canis Major" (Greater Dog).  Since it first becomes visible above the eastern horizon for a brief moment just before sunrise in late summer, the dog-star marks the height of the growing season. Indeed, it was the Greeks who first referred to this time as the "dog days" of summer.  I never knew that saying was because of this star!  In this chapter, Flavel had been stressing that God rules over trials and hardships in such a way that they eventually result in blessedness for His people.  In pointing to the heat of summer making the corn to grow both in the day and even through the night, he was emphasizing the Lord's use of dark providences as a means of bringing blessings to His people. Here now is the whole of the poem:
When once the dog-star rises, many say,
Corn ripens then apace, both night and day.
Souls once in Christ, that morning-star lets fall
Such influences on them, that all
God's dispensations to them, sweet or sour,
Ripen their souls for glory ev'ry hour.
All their afflictions, rightly understood,
Are blessings; ev'ry wind will blow some good.
Sure at their troubles saints would never grudge,
Were sense deposed, and faith made the judge.
Falls make them warier, amend their pace;
When gifts puff up their hearts, and weaken grace.
Could Satan see the issue, and th' event
Of his temptations, he would scarcely tempt.
Could saints but see what fruits their trouble bring,
Amidst those troubles they would shout and sing.
O sacred wisdom! who can but admire
To see how thou dost save from fire, by fire!
No doubt but saints in glory wond'ring stand
At those strange methods few now understand.[i]
Indeed, "few now understand" them for, in part at least, few of us meditate on them and their Sender as we ought.

One thing even an amateur such as myself can see is that poetry uses the created order to communicate truth.  Flavel used such objects as stars, corn, day, night, wind, and fire to capture attention and imagination.  So one way we can live out our poetic calling is by meditating on the ways of the God of all creation. As the average American is spending less and less time outside per day (children are only averaging a few minutes outside but hours in front of electronic screens), it would do us well to pull away from the technology that is letting us communicate right now and go outside to contemplate and be restored by our God.  I told the young people at Purdue that when I was a student there, I spent hours walking through the woods on the edge of campus during that time of life - reading, thinking, praying.  In His grace, God met with me there.  During those times He transformed my theology and life, taught me more about loving my new wife, heard my cries and prayers, called me into ministry, etc. I encouraged them to leave their computers, smartphones, and I-Pads behind for a while, and be outside all alone with the creation and their God to think, reflect, and even wax poetical a bit.

For we will miss the beauty and laughter our lives are to have without contemplation and meditation, which will be the subject of my next post.

[i] John Flavel, “Navigation Spiritualized: A New Compass for Seamen,” _The Works of John Flavel, _Vol. 5 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1968), p. 281.

Barry York

Barry York

Sinner by Nature - Saved by Grace. Husband of Miriam - Grateful for Privilege. Father of Six - Blessed by God. President of RPTS - Serve with Thankfulness. Author - Hitting the Marks.

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