I always have believed in a widespread and eclectic use of poetry in sermons. There are very few rules that should be heeded in deciding which poems should be used. There are a few guidelines, though, and I would like to provide my convictions on the matter. Let me say at the outset that you should use poetry if only for the sake of trying to bridge the gender gap. Women who are forced to endure ESPN all week should not be forced to listen to ESPN from the preacher on Sunday—at least not every Sunday. After all, women are Christians, too, and with a more generous and romantic mystique; so they should get to hear a little sermonic poetry now and then.
Now, back to the guidelines of using poetry in the sermon. First, pass up any kind of poetry that has an antiquarian feel about it. This is the right-now generation, a time for all things contemporary. This means that anything written in Elizabethan English should be weighed carefully before being inserted into a homily. A single thee, thou or wouldst may frighten the average church-attending man deep into the pages of Sports Illustrated for a long time.
I always have felt this way about any poem that begins with ’twas. In fact, ’tis my habit never to use ’twas. “‘Twas the Night before Christmas.” “‘Twas many and many a year ago in a kingdom by the sea.” “‘Twas the Schooner Hesperus…”Above all, never use “‘Twas battered and scarred and the auctioneer thought it scarcely worth his while.” (Actually, “The Touch of the Master’s Hand” ‘twas always a bad poem and ‘twill be forevermore.)
‘Twills, in my opinion, are as bad as ‘Tisses and ‘Tweres. The problem is they sound like the start of something long, and people generally turn from something that sounds as if it is going to be long. ‘Tisses and ‘Tweres put contemporary audiences on edge.
Generally it is important to quote Shakespeare without mentioning his name. If you use the word Shakespeare and you are not speaking about a rod and reel, you almost certainly will scare the church softball team into a coma. You shouldn’t quote Will, even if you tell them it’s Vince Lombardi. They will know right off it isn’t. Here are five more guides to help you in the selection of pulpit poems:
#1: Hymns are always a safe kind of poetry to use. The more familiar they are, the better. Hymns always engender empathy and warmth, but be careful about framing them in kitsch or nostalgia. Don’t say, “I’ll never forget my godly old mother, sitting in her godly old maple rocker, singing ‘Abide with Me.'” If she really sat in her godly old rocker, I suppose it’s all right, just be sure not to get too schmaltzy. Why? Because nostalgia can be tricky, and in getting too sentimental you easily can misplace your modifiers. Remember the preacher who said of his godly old mother, “With one foot she rocked the cradle and with the other she wiped a tear out of her eye”?
#2: Classic poetry is often very good, but remember to quote only a few lines at a time. A Barrett-Browning sonnet only has 14 lines, but it can seem longer because its depth surpasses modern tastes. I know several Shakespearean sonnets by heart, but I have learned that my delight in them is not universally shared. Once when I quoted an entire sonnet, I was greeted after the invitation by an irate congregant, who said with a sneer, “That was a great sermon, Pastor. I almost came forward and accepted Shakespeare as my Savior.”
#3: Children’s poetry is wonderful. I have written and published much of it, but before it ever got in a book, I used it in a sermon. Everybody gets it. Children love it, and deacons tolerate it. It communicates. This I tell you Deacon Sam, people love green eggs and ham. So serve it frequently.
#4: Song lyrics are wonderful, but be careful about quoting them in printed material. It is hard to get permission to publish such poetry, but within the context of the spoken sermon it sometimes can work well. There are songs that tell it all and the stories behind them are often very effective in making the songs work. Robert Sherman’s little boy, in taking his oral Salk vaccine on a sugar cube, furnished the movie Mary Poppins with the song “Just a Spoonful of Sugar Makes the Medicine Go Down.” Marty Robbins wrote “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife” right after his heart surgery when he testified the first person he saw after emerging from the anesthetic was his wife. It is a tender testimony of his love for his beloved wife, and I have used it for a while in a sermon on marital commitment. On the other hand, Kenny Chesney’s “My Girlfriend Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” would have a more limited use. Be careful with too much country-western poetry. They often seem melodramatic. (They say when you play these records backward, the singer gets back his third wife, his rodeo belt and his pick-up truck.)
#5: The greatest poetry is always in the Bible. Learn those emotive passages from the Psalms, Isaiah and Lamentations. Memorize these inclusions so you can interpret them with the dramatic style they deserve. I have been brought to tears by expositors who do this well. I have been brought to stomach spasms by those who don’t. Those who hack their way through great passages poorly read really are saying the Bible doesn’t mean all that much to them. For those who feel the pain of ruined kingdoms and desperate exile…I used to listen to Alexander Scourby read the King James Bible and be stopped at his tenderness about the martyrs in Hebrews and Revelation.
All in all, poetry is heightened English. When God’s mercy and love eludes the best prose, it rises in verse and we meet the Son in the powerful words of simple lovers who call us to praise with a well-placed couplet.
We shall worship with all loyalty,
Him who woke us unto life.
At the edge of emptiness we raise His name,
And celebrate the clay from which we came.
(from “A Requiem for Love,” Calvin Miller)