20 He brought me out into an open place; *
he rescued me because he delighted in me.
I have often reflected upon this verse from Psalm 18 because it is one – of many in the psalter – that totally speaks to me. The ‘open place’ – that is God’s territory – be it land, circumstance, family, heart or breath – the open place, the broad place, the house with many rooms, the body with breathing room. You get the idea.
Years ago when I began in earnest to dig deeper – to get below the surface of scripture – I found myself pausing most often in the psalter. It was accessible – an open space, if you will – for getting to know our very very big God and for knowing how to see and hear God in my very little life. I didn’t understand at first what I know now – that the poetry of the psalms functioned as a hinge opening the door to my comprehending God’s revelation in the Word and the Word made flesh.
This hinge functions throughout scripture – in the compressed figurative language of the psalter, in the Old Testament prophets use of alliteration, in Jesus’ simile packed parables, Pauls’ metaphors and John’s imagery. Poetry releases God’s Word from the bondage of law and literalism into the open place, accessible to God’s people. Poetry, is the language of our God. He is the Poet Laureate of all, from the beginning, world without end. Amen.
I think I always read scripture through the poet’s lens. I was raised in a Christian tradition that taught ‘both and’ and not either-or, allowing for breathing room and space, juxtaposition and context, in God’s Word.
It has been more than a blessing to dig deeper, to mine the poem, the psalm, parable or metaphor to hear what God is saying through space and time. Indeed, this blog is my response to the awareness I came to late in life to get below the surface of the open place. I have discovered a breath and depth to God’s revelation and will for his creation I had never had the capacity to imagine and cannot ignore.
The scriptural surface and lens through which to read the Bible was entirely different for one of my favorite theologians, Eugene Peterson. Peterson, author of The Message, was raised in a tradition that valued biblical literalism. The meaning of this parable or that was exactly what was reported with little consideration for context, translation, allegory or metaphor.
He speaks of his Montana childhood home and church lovingly. But the broad place – the open place – the place that called him to wonder, was outside the confines of either. As a lonely and friendless 10-year old boy and inspired by the natural beauty of the world outside his lakeside home, Peterson sought company with God. Regularly, Peterson would pack provision for a day’s adventure to the base of the mountains, searching for Indians, arrowheads, and a quiet space to read his bible. He started with the psalter.
And he couldn’t make sense of any of it – it was literally too confusing and at odds with what he had thus far learned of God. The big picture – God and God’s intent – obscured by the literal, technical lens he brought to bear upon the words (and as illustrated here in Dan Piraro’s Bizarro strip). Here’s what Peterson himself says of this time:
And I couldn’t understand them. “God is a rock?” What does that mean? “My tears are in your bottle?” What is going on here? And I just kind of struggled with that, but people had told me it was important to read the Psalms. And about a month into that, I realized what they were. And I didn’t know the term “metaphor,” but I realized what metaphors were. And so then I was off. And the Psalms were my introduction to poetry.
No Sunday school teacher could have taught this – he had to experience the open place for himself in order to have access to our very big God. And it was by locating poetry within the psalms and later all of scripture. The door was opened as it had been blocked by a literal or journalistic lens. Later Peterson would write:
All the prophets were poets. And if you don’t know that, you try to literalize everything and make shambles out of it. (again illustrated to my mind’s eye by Dan Piraro in this Bizarro strip).
A metaphor is really remarkable kind of formation, because it both means what it says and what it doesn’t say. And so those two things come together, and it creates an imagination which is active. You’re not trying to figure things out; you’re trying to enter into what’s there.
Not trying to figure things out – making a mess of God’s word – but entering into what is already there. Brilliant. Yes. Amen.
So all of this is background to my pause at the New Testament reading today from the Book of Revelation. I have avoided this book like the plague – avoided studying it or entering it for reflection even when it pops up in the lectionary cycle, though I have always appreciated how much of Revelation is incorporated into the liturgy of The Episcopal Church.
So, here it is today, and my first instinct was to skip over. But, paused as I was at the psalm and recalling the hinge of poetry to the open place, which then prompted me to think of Eugene Peterson and his wisdom about entering into what is already there as opposed to trying to make sense of scripture through literalism or rationality, I went to the passage. But first, I stopped in at Peterson’s The Message. Ah – breathing room. Read here how the poet reads Revelation – this from the introduction to the Book of Revelation:
The Bible ends with a flourish: vision and song, doom and deliverance, terror and triumph. The rush of color and sound, image and energy, leaves us reeling. But if we persist through the initial confusion and read on, we begin to pick up the rhythms, realize the connections, and find ourselves enlisted as participants in a multidimensional act of Christian worship.
John of Patmos, a pastor of the late first century, has worship on his mind, is preeminently concerned with worship. The vision, which is The Revelation, comes to him while he is at worship on a certain Sunday on the Mediterranean island of Patmos. He is responsible for a circuit of churches on the mainland whose primary task is worship. Worship shapes the human community in response to the living God. If worship is neglected or perverted, our communities fall into chaos or under tyranny.
Our times are not propitious for worship. The times never are. The world is hostile to worship. The Devil hates worship. As The Revelation makes clear, worship must be carried out under conditions decidedly uncongenial to it. Some Christians even get killed because they worship.
John’s Revelation is not easy reading. Besides being a pastor, John is a poet, fond of metaphor and symbol, image and allusion, passionate in his desire to bring us into the presence of Jesus believing and adoring. But the demands he makes on our intelligence and imagination are well rewarded, for in keeping company with John, our worship of God will almost certainly deepen in urgency and joy.
This introduction alone is enough to invite me into what God placed here in John’s Revelation. That’s the application for me today of the readings – recognizing poetry as the hinge that opens the door to all of God’s Word, up to and including Revelation.
Praise God, the Poet Laureate of all from the beginning, world without end. Amen.