Preaching professor: Poets and preachers both believe that words can change the world

Dr. Anna Carter Florence leads a stimulating webinar for the Synod of the Covenant

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Anna Carter Florence

LOUISVILLE — Dr. Anna Carter Florence, the celebrated preaching professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, said Wednesday that talking to pastors about preaching — especially during such a challenging time as the last 18 months have been — “is like sitting in an armchair talking to the people playing on the field. The ground you are breaking and the space you are holding is incredibly important. I am in awe of all of you.”

Since 1998, the year she started teaching at Columbia Seminary, Florence has taught a class called “The Preacher and the Poet.” On Wednesday, she brought her teaching gifts to the Synod of the Covenant, which is offering monthly webinars on equipping preachers. Florence called her talk “What Poets Can Teach Preachers About Surviving, Thriving and Talking About What We Do.” Read Presbyterian News Service reports on the synod’s previous preaching webinars  here, here and here.

Poets “might be horrified to hear it, but they are the preacher’s closest cousins,” Florence said. Both have similar tasks: “The job is not to use grand or ethereal language to get people’s attention,” she said. “Their job is to look at things no one else wants to look at … We both tell the truth with reverence.”

While “peeking over the fence” at poets, Florence has learned at least five lessons that apply to preachers as well:

  • Poetry gives preachers new ways to talk about what they do. Florence suggested substituting “preaching” or “sermon” for some pronouncements on poetry, including W.H. Auden’s “A good poem is the clear expression of mixed feelings,” David Bottoms’ “Poetry doesn’t belong to those who write it but to those who need it” and Adrian Mitchell’s “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores people.” Swap “preaching” for “poetry” in this Bill Knott poem, she said: “Poetry/can be/the magic carpet/which you say/you want,/but only if/you stand willing/to pull the rug out/from under/your own feet/daily.” “It’s difficult,” Florence said, “pulling the rug out from under your own feet rather than the congregation’s feet.”
  • Poetry gives preachers new ways to talk about how they do what they do. “Preachers are obsessed with biblical texts,” Florence said. They love it, honor it, argue and wrestle with it, embrace it, push it to the limit, are spellbound, irritated and surprised by it, raise it up and are laid low by it, are wounded and healed by it, and are committed to reading and rereading it every day. “Learning to preach involves sets of interpretive practices, the rhythms of reading and the interpretive muscles we stretch every day to keep us supple and strong,” Florence said. “The text isn’t barbed wire we need to crawl under … We read Scripture first and foremost to fall in love with it … and so our people will fall in love with it. Poetry gives us new ways to talk about how we do this.”
  • Poetry gives preachers new ways to talk about where they do what they do. “Where we stand as preachers is important,” Florence said, citing the example of the great Russian lyric poet Anna Akhmatova, who unlike many poets refused to leave her country after the Russian Revolution. When it became too dangerous for her to keep publishing, her loyal friends memorized her poems for her. Like Akhmatova, preachers “choose to remain with our people, standing in line with them day after day, and we do more. We describe what we see. Our people ask, ‘Can you describe this? Can you describe how angry and hopeless some of us feel? Can you describe the hope?’ A preacher is rooted in a particular place with a particular people and is asked to tell the truth about it.”
  • Poetry gives preachers new ways to talk about what they bring along and when they bring it along. Scripture is loaded with beautiful metaphors, such as “the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” “We speak of God in ancient and contemporary metaphors. Some totally miss the mark and others rile up the faithful,” Florence said. Sometimes preachers “are met at the door with anger after the service.” Metaphors, taught the late poet Tony Hoagland, are “little engines of equivalence.” Some people might think of viewing God as father as “a ladder to the sky. It takes us somewhere beautiful,” Florence said. “For others, it throws us off the horse. The image rears up and threatens to stomp us.”
  • Poetry gives preachers new ways to think about why they are preaching in the first place. “Poems aren’t something you have to take off a Sunday to hear,” Florence said. “It’s ready and waiting. You can pick it up and read it as often as you want to. You can try it on and decide it’s yours or it’s definitely not yours — and you don’t have to shake the poet’s hand at the door. A poem can be the word if you have lost your faith in the power of proclamation. A poem reminds you it is real, this power of proclamation, that you matter — and that just may save a preacher’s life.”

The Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick, the synod’s interim executive, thanked Florence for her efforts putting on the 90-minute webinar. “I feel like you have reintroduced the miracle of the Holy Spirit into preaching,” Hardwick told Florence.

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