To prefix a sermon on 'Patient and Penitent Prayer' at Church a few weeks ago I wrote a spoken word poem, called 'The Places We'll Pray'.
If you've found this post I imagine you've already seen it, but just in case, here it is:
Seeing as more people have been interested than I anticipated, I thought I'd take the opportunity to explain a little bit of the thinking that went into it. I can't really say much about, or take a great deal of credit for the film. That was mostly from the creative mind of Crystal, aided by Hannah and Seymour who, with very little input from me, created something fantastic. I can, however, say a little bit on the words.
Hopefully it won't seem arrogant if I explain a little bit of my understanding of spoken word poetry.
I have almost no experience of having seen it live. Mostly my experience has been gleaned from spending a few hours watching the likes of Harry Baker, Sarah Kay, Phil Kaye (who aren't related - they have a joint poem about that, called 'An Origin Story') and Anis Mojgani. I am no expert. I have only an inkling as to what the differences between 'Slam' poetry and 'Spoken Word' poetry are. I even have a couple of each that I've written, although I don't really have that much of an idea as to a definition of either of them. But, I do know what a good poem feels like. I can't remember the words to many of my own poems, never mind anyone else's, but I can remember how they made me feel.
In that way I think that poetry is like drama, and especially like a Shakespearean play. One where you can barely understand the words, much less remember what the last line was. But in watching the play, it will still make some sense, you'll still catch the thrust of the story, and still know whether it makes you feel sad or happy, frustrated or relieved, or whatever other combination of emotions. By accident I ended up including a Shakespeare line in most of my poems (I always have to look one up - I don't know them off by heart!), and it acts as a reminder to me when writing that it's ok for the words to wash over people a little, but the pull of the tide should be tangible.
So secondly - what about 'The Places We'll Pray'? What is the pull of the tide of that poem?
The title is shamelessly taken from Dr Seuss' 'Oh, The Places You'll Go!', which is a very poignant and inspiring little book. It talks about how easily and naturally a successful life will come to the protagonist, except... that it has a recurring line which brings us back to the ground with a bump: 'Except when you/they don't, because sometimes you/they won't'. It ends with the question and promise 'Will you succeed? Yes indeed! 99 and 3/4% guaranteed'.
My appreciation of it was made all the greater when I learnt that it was the last book published in the lifetime of Dr Seuss (the pen name of Theodor Seuss Geisel), who died in 1991 aged 87. He'd written 46 children's books over nearly 60 years, and had lived through both World Wars and the great changes in life that the 20th Century brought - and yet, this book has a universal appeal and relevance. It felt to me like the sum of almost 90 years of wisdom, final words of advice drawn from seeing several generations born and grown. And I like it very much (it even has a place in my bookcase of books I love).
It is fundamentally a children's book though. It has helped to offer a wry smile at some of the unanswered prayers and seeming injustices of life, but little more than that.
There are somethings that even a wise, pithy saying or a weary sigh can't help with. For me one of those things is feeling like my walk of faith is an uphill battle, whilst others breeze by on their walks as though they were free-wheeling. Many of these are lovely, kind, dear friends of mine. And they present me with a challenge. Should faith be hard or easy? It seems the answer is both - it is both an easy yoke and a weighty cross. I know this. But I don't often feel it.
The challenge is not dismissing those who find the walk hard when I find it easy as lacking in their understanding of grace and salvation. And, conversely not scoffing at those who find joy and worship easy as being naïve and without experience of the harshness of life.
On a separate shelf on the same bookcase is a book written by my (now) good friend Andrew Byers. It's called 'Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint', and it introduced to me a concept which I believe is deeply Biblical, full of spiritual wisdom, and makes the practical, day-to-day walk of a Christian possible as a whole-hearted surrender to Christ and a brave step into the battle of life. The concept is 'Hopeful Realism'. You should check out Andy's website, as well as his books.
But for now, let me share with you a paragraph which has a lot of influence over the writing of 'TPWP':
I am contending for "hopeful realism". This is a perspective that embraces the dual realities of contemporary evil and forthcoming redemption. It lives in the tension of creation's groaning and its imminent restoration. Idealists claim that we are in the suburbs of Eden. Cynics claim that Eden is a farce. Hopeful Realists claim with joy that a new Eden is just around the corner and that fresh green sprouts are faintly pushing up through the cracks and crevices even now. Hopeful realists are still groaning with all of creation, but they can detect in the air the sweet fragrance of renewal released by the opening of Christ's tomb. The Fall in Genesis 3 nullifies idealism. New creations nullifies cynicism. (Faith Without Illusions, Byers, 2011, p202).
With 'TPWP', I also am contending for 'hopeful realism'. Primarily with myself. I think everyone is prone to lean towards either idealistic hopefulness or cynical realism. The battle I'm fighting with myself is to allow hope and realism to co-exist, more than that, to co-depend.
To be honest, I am far more likely to be cynical than idealistic. I can be idealistic for an hour or two, but I soon remember that training to do something, that fighting a battle of endurance, that faithfully serving someone or something, takes longer than a montage in a film. I am quick to become cynical when I find life doesn't come with a rousing soundtrack, or that the glory of being a faithful servant tarnishes quickly unless polished. Such a view isn't without reason - the lament listed in 'TPWP' are things that I have experienced in one way or another:
When all my work is lost and I am left to rust,
When I can’t find the food to feed mouths that yearn and plead,
When someone’s son leaves behind a widow and a baby child,
When we have prayed for years for healing to arrive and yet she dies.
When always seems like never, delay seems like for always, and prospered feels accursed.
When we were talking about filming the poem, we contemplated me playing 'Realism'. But I said I didn't want to. Partly that was because I could imagine Seymour doing it so well. Mostly though, it was because I didn't want to see me play that half of my character, and therefore appear to give it more weight. Because, there is hope. All the victories in 'TPWP' I have experience or believe to be true too:
When patient prayer and waiting, precede a joyful trusting in salvation,
When provided is provision from a source we know not of,
When a child thought dead and gone, awakes with nothing at all wrong,
When God becomes a foetus to bring to pass all death's defeating,
When He takes nails through His palms to end sin's reign of pow’r.
Then, Hope you are not slain but brought to life and strength again.
It is not easy to live balancing Hope and Realism. Even when you think you've struck the balance there are always challenges to it. Only a few weeks ago Andy and I had breakfast and added a number of items to our individual lists of laments. There will never be a time this side of The Day when being a hopeful realist is easy.
But we must persist in it.
Another of my favourite quotations comes from Harper Lee's 'To Kill A Mockingbird'. When Jem complains that his father Atticus sent him to read to a lady Jem hates, Atticus responds:
I wanted you to see something about her - I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway, and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.
'TPWP' came out of my fighting that battle - no one comes out of prayer feeling courageous. In prayer we're bruised when we see that we're tiny in comparison to God, and we can be broken by not seeing answers we expect. But we pray anyway, because sometimes we're built up again, sometimes we see amazing answers to prayer. On our own we don't win, but we push on through our loosing. Picking each other up and dusting each other down, because the hope we have is based on more than just us, it is on the defeater of death, the subjugator of sin, and the saviour of sinners.
And it's in His name that we pray, whatever places we find ourselves in.