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Good Letters

Last spring I promised my congregation a sermon about “words and the Word.” That was my clever title for a sermon that was a long time coming. My sermons tend to take a long time to marinate. I can pinpoint precisely when I started working on that one.

I was nineteen, and deeply committed to the project of figuring out my place in the world. Instead of spending Friday nights at frat parties, I divided my time between open poetry readings and church. The readings were at Brady’s Cafe, a smoke-filled coffeehouse on Main Street. Poets scrawled their names on a piece of college-ruled paper to claim five minutes or so at the microphone, reading their words to the gathered crowd. Only the hardiest of poets made it to the bitter end; it was often nearly midnight by the time the last poet cleared her throat.

We were deep into the list when I moved from my favorite spot in the upstairs loft to the table where Maj Ragain sat. Maj was the center of the poetry community. He was everyone’s teacher, friend, and mentor; he was the one reader who could hush all chatter. Everyone wanted to hear his words: wise and funny and heartbroken, rough around the edges. He wrote about the places he loved: Olney, Illinois; Kent, Ohio. He wrote about the people he loved–his children, his wife, his friends. He wrote about Buddhism, bars, horse racing, and he wrote at least one poem about Hubbard squash.

I’m going on too long about this figure at the head of the table, but even as I try to tell you this story, it’s impossible not to pause and pay homage to Maj. I sat there at his table, half listening to the poetry and fully pondering the bakery case full of homemade bread. After a few stanzas I traded a five dollar bill for a big loaf of whole wheat. It hadn’t been sliced, so as the words crackled through the speakers, I took the bread and broke it, and passed it to the person beside me.

As I watched the poets pass the bread around the circle, crumbs scattering into cups of lukewarm coffee, I realized I was witnessing and partaking in a sacrament. Word and sacrament. It was the moment the pieces of my identity shifted into place, the moment I realized that the part of me that was a poet and the part of me that would be a pastor were in fact one and the same.

And yet, I’ve only rarely read poetry in worship. Somewhere along the way I heard someone say you shouldn’t. Poetry isn’t accessible; poetry doesn’t play by the same rules as liturgy. I am fairly sure there have been poems hidden in some of my prayers, much as I used to tuck prayers into some of my poetry. But last spring I taught a workshop about poetry and prayer. As I reflected on the experience, I was struck by the impulse to invite some poems to church, to share them with my congregation on a Sunday morning.

So eager was I to do this thing that I asked my Senior Pastor to swap preaching dates with me; for reasons I couldn’t name, it felt urgent. Poetry isn’t really something typically associated with urgency; one of the reasons I’ve been more drawn to it than ever is that it forces me to slow down. In this world of war crimes and car commercials, poems quietly but firmly insist on drawing our attention to matters of ordinary beauty and ultimate importance.

Sacred scriptures testify that the world was created by a Word. That this Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Christians are people of the book, inheritors of a rich library of stories and psalms, epistles and apocalypse. We of all people should know the potency of language. We of all people should tune our ears to the poets.

So I stepped into the pulpit equipped not with a sermon manuscript but a stack of poems. I did so with a soul freshly riven by grief, for just days before, my beloved Maj died, his body long compromised by the effects of childhood polio. It turns out it was urgent. I read poems in his honor, and on the weekend I was originally supposed to preach, I gathered with friends to mourn–a memorial liturgy in the form of an open poetry reading.

I spent money I didn’t have last summer to commission an original painting, based on a photograph. Maj is seated in the center, reading a poem. I can almost hear his voice, strong and gravelly and full of such beauty:

To those of you whose faces I cannot see,
out at the edge of the light,
it is you I long for.
Find a way to give me
what is inadmissible to you,
what you can’t swallow.
I have been working on a poem for us,
a two seater, a double winged hack,
a kitty hawk dune jumper,
a star stabber
to carry us into the borealis noise.

Aurora Borealis by Frederic Edwin Church, source: wikimedia commons

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Written by: Katherine Willis Pershey

Katherine Willis Pershey serves as one of the pastors at First Congregational Church of Western Springs, Illinois, a Chicago-area congregation affiliated with the United Church of Christ. She is a regular contributor to The Christian Century and the author of the books Very Married and Any Day a Beautiful Change.

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