“I’d like to begin today by reading you a poem…”
I then proceeded to read from Lamentations 3:1-20 from the NLT, but I was sure not to tell them that I was reading from the Bible (I used my iPad).
It’s a depressing poem. Here are some of the things Jeremiah writes:
- “[The Lord] has led me into darkness, shutting out all light.” (vs.2)
- “Though I cry and shout, He has shut out my prayers.” (vs.8)
- “He has drawn his bow and made me his target.” (vs.12)
- “Everything I had hoped for from the Lord is lost!” (vs.18)
- “The thought of my suffering and homelessness is bitter beyond words.” (vs.19)
- “I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss.” (vs.20)
I asked the congregation if they have ever been there. That dark and bitter place where “the man who wrote this poem was,” a place where you wag your fist toward heaven and ask why He allowed ____________ to happen?
I wanted people to relate with Jeremiah as a person. I had my suspicion that if they knew that I was quoting scripture it would somehow add distance to the experience and diminish the impact.
Later in my sermon I explained to them that the poem I read was from Lamentations 3. Continuing now on to verse 24 I wanted to show that Jeremiah had made a conscious decision to place his hope in the covenant faithfulness of God, God’s promises, in spite of how he felt in his circumstances.
After the sermon a man named Al approached me and said, “I liked your sermon after you got going, but I didn’t like that poem you read at the beginning. It got me real angry, you know, as you read it.”
“But Al,” I said, “I was just reading the Bible. That poem was taken right out of Lamentations 3.” The shock on his face was my first clue that he missed when I made that point. He then chastised me for not just saying that in the first place.
“Why didn’t you say you were reading the Bible? Why did you say you were reading a poem?” He was clearly frustrated with me.
“Well, Al, it was a poem.” I said.
“No! It’s different.” he replied with ernest as he held up a giant leather book. “It’s the Bible!”
I think I put him in guilty place. He didn’t like the poem before he knew I was just reading scripture. Now that he knows “it’s the Bible,” what’s he to do? He just confessed that he didn’t like what the Bible had to say, and so he was frustrated and angry with me.
It was an interesting exercise. I wasn’t trying to deceive anybody or pull the wool over anybodies eyes. I wanted them to connect with Jeremiah as a real person so that they may find hope in the same place Jeremiah found it: the covenant promises of God. For many evangelicals the Bible is like a magical book that dropped out of heaven at some point in the distant past. It’s too easy for us to treat it like an abstract object to be revered.
Over and over again I have said from the pulpit how the scriptures were written by real people in real times. That it addresses first and foremost an original context. That it is incarnational in that it was inspired by God but written by man and that it contains various types of genres from historical narrative, to fictional narrative, to prophecy, to apocalyptic, to poetry and more.
And every time, I receive nods of affirmation.
But then when I quote the scriptures in a “conversational” translation like the NLT without saying I’m quoting “the Bible,” and when I call it “poetry” rather than “scripture,” I discover quickly how hollow a nod of affirmation can be.
Just when you think they’ve gotten it, you realize they’ve missed it.
“Yes Al, it was the Bible. But the Bible was written in various literary genres, and today I quoted a bit of poetry. I wanted people to connect with Jeremiah’s struggles so that they could connect with his hope. Did that happen to you today.”
“Yes,” says Al. “We should get together sometime outside of church.”
“Sounds good Al, let’s make it happen.”
Al’s one step closer to getting it.
1. Al is a pseudonym. The parishioners real name has been protected.