Discipleship: poetry and politics
Spoken word poet, Shayne Koyczan, whose poem “Remember How We Forgot” I’m including from Youtube at the end of the blog, is one of my heroes. It’s on my bucket list to one day go and hear him present his writing in person. The little I know about him is that he’s from Canada, so if that’s where I have to go, I’m willing! Maybe I’ll get to see a Grizzly or two and take a ride through Banff. And yes, my knowledge and research of Canada has a long way to go before I take any trips.
I one time told a fairly large group of colleagues and layfolk from around the Conference that I am more poet than politician. That’s starkly true in my heart and spirit, and also true is that if one is going to seek to preach the gospel and follow the Jesus living within the words, politics is much a part of it. We church folk don’t always like to hear that. We’d rather claim it best to leave politics at the door. Problem is, Jesus didn’t, you know, leave it at the door. He walked right into the midst of it.
Politics is complex even to define – in essence there are as many definitions as there are people interested in defining it. In relation to my understanding of Jesus and his work, the two definitions or descriptions that seem most clearly relevant are from Merriam -Webster Dictionary, (5) “the total complex of relations between people living in a society. The other is from Joyce Mitchell in the book “Political Analysis and Public Policy”: “Politics is collective decision-making or policy-making common to the whole society.”
We don’t have to read too far into the gospel to see Jesus’ interest in the relationship of people to people and people to systems of power that were governing the environment and forming the infrastructure affecting the everyday life of every person. What we hear Jesus stating and then witness him doing was reaching toward those considered unreachable, untouchable, and undesirable, i.e., those not in positions or even with voices in the religious or governing systems of the day. So yes, Jesus was quite political in his preaching and teaching and living, and yes, it offended people in his day as well.
When I was quite young in ministry I said quite clearly to an older colleague that I had no interest in any political ladders, no interest in particular positions or import of voice or influence. He simply smiled and said that if I didn’t want to be used as a pawn in someone else’s political game, I had to know the ins and outs of the political system better than those who enjoyed engaging in it. He was right, and freedom comes from the awareness and embrace of the position in which you find yourself and then choosing how to use it in service of the gospel and our collective faith. It’s complex and messy and filled with a murkiness around rights and wrongs and goods and bads and intentions and motivations that are sometimes transparent and sometimes not so much. And in the process of it all, I believe beyond the shadow of a doubt that more often than not, the grace of God saves us from ourselves and our own senses of entitlement.
For me being more poet than politician means that the art of ministry and life has always been more important than the science of empirical understanding. Make no mistake, we need both and we need them in balance, I’m simply more drawn to the art. I’ll never forget being in a theology class in seminary and we were to choose from different options for a final project. I chose research and writing on the history and current state of Religious Art and chose to focus on poetry. After our presentations, as a class we were to both support and critique each other’s work. I’ll never forget one of my classmates stating how disappointed she was in my content and presentation, that she had been so looking forward to viewing and hearing about religious art, and all I did was just research and read some old poetry from some old poets that didn’t even rhyme, and there were NO pictures which was the most disappointing of all. I smiled and tried a cursory explanation of how I understand art and the spirit of the artist as singer, or painter, or sculptor, or indeed, poet. She didn’t get it and was quite put out with me and with our Professor who was quite supportive of the project. He told me later that I needed to remember that interaction – that both the art and science of religious life and faith is the calling of the pastor, because there would be people from every perspective at every church I would serve. And that the “politics” of discipleship in Jesus, is the art of finding a way to reach folk from whatever perspective they come. What I came to understand, sometimes better than others, is that there is beauty in the art of mathematical equation, beauty in the art of written and spoken word, beauty in the art of healing in science-tested medicine, and beauty in art of the healing power of presence and a tender-heart.
What hasn’t changed is my love of poetry, and in the last few years, of spoken word poetry. From Sarah Kay’s, “If I Should Have a Daughter” to Shane Koyczan’s “To This Day” to “Somewhere in America,” presented by the Los Angeles Team of youth in 2014 at the Brave New Voices poetry slam event. The words from these poets are not always polite, but the power of the word and presentation is unquestionable.
My intermittent frustration and sorrow with the ugliness of hate and division and polarization balanced with my wonder and humility in the beauty of people building relationship and caring for their own and other people’s children and walking with each other through struggle keeps me invested in a future we all have a stake in – and that’s political. I am quite truly more poet than politician, and I am quite aware that my faith calls me to awareness of the body politic and the need for effective strategies to build for the common good.
Shayne Koyczan’s voice in the spoken word poem attached today, “Remember How We Forgot” speaks to me of the balance and the beauty of our life together. I pray it may bring you a minute or maybe two of grace!