A place for the poet in church and evangelism

A few years ago now, I happened across a church blog entry entitled “poetry is not a luxury.” I recognised its title, borrowed from an essay by Caribbean-American writer, poet and activist Audre Lorde, and was immediately struck by a magazine article extract it contained entitled “How one justice-seeker was redeemed by beauty.” 1 As one who is equally passionate about working for social justice and the importance of art in culture and society, it was one of those serendipitous discoveries that gave voice to what I had been, until that point, unable to articulate. It read,“We can be so harsh and ascetic as we fling ourselves against the needs of the world. Art is accused of being bourgeois because much of the creation of art takes time and solitude and staring out the window. And how can we give ourselves permission to do that when people are starving and there is work to be done? I think of Judas bemoaning the fragrant ointment that could have been sold to feed hundreds of hungry people but instead is poured in that single lavish, revolutionary gesture onto the head of Jesus. He views the profligate gesture as sin, and feeding the poor as the only good. I know that voice. It comes from my own lips. But if we always see only those who are starving, we will continually wander the desert of the frantically working and overwhelmed. What we need – desperately – is to not be overwhelmed. And the single thing that keeps us from being overwhelmed is imagination.” 2

While we might not claim to be poets or “arty” in some other obvious fashion, there are few people who could say that they had never been touched or moved by art of some description – a film, a piece of music, a psalm – and probably fewer who could say that they have never been overwhelmed by the task of bringing God’s light to the world’s dark places.

Enter the poet. More specifically, for the purposes of this article, enter Melbourne-based performance poet Cameron Semmens. I have seen Cameron perform a number of times in varied contexts, most recently at last year’s Micah Challenge Voices for Justice Event in Canberra. Each time, I have been struck by his ability to take the situations, questions, and ponderings that are familiar to us all and reveal a new perspective and insight, along with the encouragement of fellowship in life’s journey. It is the gift of the artist and the power of art that gives voice and form to our universal experiences.

Love Is The New Black 3 is one of a number of books Cameron has published and contains a wonderful collection of poems and prayers based on and inspired by various Bible passages, including twenty-three versions of Psalm 23 and Christmas stories with a twist. The title poem is based on Colossians 3:12-14 and other inclusions include fresh explorations of familiar passages such as 1 Corinthians 12 and 13. I’m still trying to decide if my favourite is his succinct summary of “The Life and Death and Life of Christ” or his tongue-in-cheek ode to modern media, “A Current-er Prayer.”

Whether it’s used alongside the church service Bible reading, during a small group study, sharing with a friend, or in personal reflection, poetry such as this both wrestles with and illuminates the mystery our faith with humanity, wonder and humour. This is a fresh, articulate and insightful take on Scripture and matters of faith that will touch the hearts of people who have heard it all before as well as those who have never heard of it before. As we work hard amidst endless need and things to be done, we do well to allow a place for the poet to restore our vision and awaken our imagination.

1. Geez: Holy Mischief In An Age Of Fast Faith, Issue 9, Spring 2008, pp 94 – 95 www.geezmagazine.org.
2. Geez: Holy Mischief In An Age Of Fast Faith, Issue 9, Spring 2008, pp94 – 95www.geezmagazine.org.
3. Love Is The New Black by Cameron Semmens, www.webcameron.com.

“A place for the poet in church and evangelism”  by Emma Wyndham Chalmers, previous project manager for the production of PRAC. She lives in Melbourne with her husband James and Gilbert, their labradoodle. prac11.