Of Hymns and Poetry-ing

Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash

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For all my flirtation with being prodigal, I have never quite managed to untether myself from the Pentecostal faith tradition, especially the hand-clapping, foot-stomping, tongue-blasting, frenzied version that is your typical Nigerian church. There have been times I have felt right at home in a subset of it – my Eket days, and latterly, my sojourn in the ‘Deen come to mind – but for the most part, it has always felt designed for the loud and the intense, to the detriment (and inadvertent?) exclusion of those of us who live on the more introspective side of the spectrum. Not being blessed with the gift of nimble footwork, or being particularly willing to apply myself to acquire the skills involved if I’m being honest, Thanksgiving Sundays in that tradition were a veritable minefield, partaken in with the threat of being stuck behind an overly expressive dancer an ever-present danger.

When I have had the choice, I have gravitated to less exuberant – even orthodox – expressions of worship, thanks to an ongoing fascination with hymns. It is yet another one of the ways H’s long reach continues to colour the present. Many moons ago, she threw herself with great gusto into beating a ragtag group of non-professional singers into a semblance of a choir at the University Chapel we attended growing up. as I recall, whilst there were more than a few hairy moments, their enthusiasm was never in doubt. For all the stirring a clappy, happy, dancy song can bring, I think there is a certain gravitas a hymn can bring to a worship experience that is inherently different, and dare I say useful. The often arcane language surely helps, in the same way the King James’ Version still has its attraction amidst the plethora of more modern translations and paraphrases.

Choice in worship has been one of the boons of the lockdown for me, as it has for quite a few people if the numbers of people trying Alpha Online are anything to go by. I fear that for all the runction about churches and physical meetings particularly in America, not a lot has been said about the opportunities decoupling worship from place presents. Of course, there is the argument that too much choice perpetuates the idea of worship as something to be consumed rather than participated in, with the ability to hop around online enabling a search for an experience which soothes rather than one which challenges. I am grateful for the choice though, given the restrictions first of disease, and now distance.

It is a similar way I feel about poetry, for which I am thankful for the return of the second season of my favourite poetry podcast, Poetry Unbound. I suspect Pádraig Ó Tuama’s Irish lilt contributes to the sense of serious contemplation each episode brings, as does the care and thought clearly given to the selection of each poem. It helps that he is a theologian too.

In the introduction to the first episode of this second season which features Ada Limon’s Wonder Woman, Pádraig opines that poetry is “interested in stopping in small moments and telling the story of that moment”. It is the same way a hymn can hold a present reality and a future expectation in tension without breaking us. In my own pretend poetry practice, I find that the structure of a rigid form can often be what forces some semblance of sanity to arise from the depths of a chaotic emotional experience. Many of the Psalms sound like this, this conflation of poetry and prayer.

The other thing which triggered the journey down this path was listening to Steven Furtick’s message from last Sunday, another one of the gifts the lockdown brought. It includes a segment, from about 12:47 in, in which he goes back down memory lane and riffs on a few good oldies, capped off by two of my favourite hymns, including one I haven’t heard in a very long time (Come Ye Disconsolate).

In that same introduction to Season 2 of the Poetry Unbound pod, Pádraig says that poetry helps you “to cast your eye on small moments that can give you some fortitude [and] that can help you through”. That is a real-world definition of faith, isn’t it?

* Originally posted in A Prodigal Abroad, my (usually) Friday evening letter from the edge of the world… You can subscribe here.