A Pastor and His Poetry

Bethlehem Baptist Church | Minneapolis


The following is a lightly edited transcript

When I went to Bethel in 1974, I was twenty-eight years old, and I had just finished graduate school and was a teacher of Bible in Greek and loved it. I loved all six years of it and wanted to write and began to write and got my dissertation published. That felt real good. I got a couple of articles accepted, and there came a time about a year or two into that passion that I began to really worry about pride. “Why am I doing this? Why do I want to publish? Why do I want to write so bad? Is it all just to see my name on a book or in a journal article?” I was so exercised about it because the Lord hates pride.

Now, you understand that pride is a complex thing. Pride in the form of the weak is usually in terms of cravings for what they don’t have, craving for attention. Pride in the strong is in the form of boasting for what they do have and what they’ve done. Don’t think that you’re free from pride if you’re a weak nobody who doesn’t have anything to brag about. You’re just as victimized by pride as a weak nobody as a big somebody. They’re just different forms of what the ego longs for.

If you have something to brag about, then get the strokes that way, or you don’t have something to brag about, but you crave it like crazy. Sometimes, you become a second hander, and you begin to adapt your personality to get people like what you do, and you can become a really lowly servant or whatever. I know the Lord hates that. It’s all over the Bible. I’m reading the prophets right now, the minor prophets. I read Obadiah this morning. I’m behind, and I just circled pride on page one and drew the lines to all the other sins in Obadiah.

I came to a point where I said, “Okay, I think I should just stop. Just moratorium, no writing.” I tried that, and here’s what I learned. I’m just a teacher ¬¬— just a college teacher — just teaching students, and guess what? The dean wants student evaluation forms. Do I want good ones or bad ones? I want good ones. I want good ones really bad. I realized, so now what’ve I accomplished? I’ve shifted the battle; that’s all. I haven’t solved anything. I haven’t done anything at all. I just shifted the battle from writing onto teaching. And now, I got the same issues in my heart.

Then you read enough in history, and you realize the movement of ascetic guys. They disappear, and they live out there alone. They have the same issues. They want to be the best ascetic. They want someone to write a biography about their ascetic sacrifices, out there not caring about anybody’s praise. There is no escape. Housewife, mom, lawyer, doctor, carpenter, we are wired to crave to be somebody. Therefore, I returned to writing because I thought I might as well fight the battle here as anywhere else because I love it. I just have to get my loves purified.

Why write poetry?

So when it comes to writing poems, why in the world do you do those? Why do you write these advent poems? Why do you write poems for your family on birthdays and anniversaries and things? Why did you write a poem at the bridge collapse? What are you doing? Isn’t this all just to kind of get strokes, and all I know to say is, “I try to crucify it.” I try.

I just look it in the face. I acknowledge my pleasure at being complimented. Who doesn’t like to be liked? Then I just say, “You’re dead. You’re not what’s driving me, and God kill me if it is.” I say, “Lord, if I’m doing this ministry at Bethlehem where there’s preaching, poetry, visiting Areopagus. If I’m doing this because my ego is the driving force, kill me.” If I drop dead one of these Sundays, then you know my ego was getting out of whack, and the Lord was delivering you from a whacky, proud, arrogant, deceived pastor. Just know that the battle is there, and if you have ever wanted to write a poem or write an essay or write a novel or write anything, you’re going to face it. Just face it. Just look it right up there and kill it and then write your novel. Write your poem or whatever and labor to do it for the glory of Christ and the good of people. That’s the story.

Now, I have a plan for where to go, but I don’t know if it’s Jason’s plan, but I’m afraid I’ll just talk too much if I don’t stop. Here’s where we’re going.

  1. What is poetry, and why read it?
  2. Why write it?
  3. How do I write it?

That’s my outline. Anywhere along the way please raise your hand or shout at me if I’m not looking, because this would be probably more interesting if I respond to some of your questions rather than just saying what I thought you were going to ask.

But. this is what I thought you would ask me. If I stood up here and say, “I’m supposed to talk about poetry,” I thought you’d say “What is it?” I thought you’d say, “Do you read it? And why?” I thought you’d say, “Why do you write it?” I thought you’d say, “How do you write it?” That’s what I’ll address, and along the way, you can jump in anywhere.

What is poetry?

I just thought up this definition today. I didn’t write it down from anybody. I don’t think anybody knows what poetry is, but I think we should try to say something. “An effort to share a moving experience by using language that is chosen and structured differently from ordinary prose.” I think that’s what it is. Ordinary prose would be the way you talk all the time, and poetry is when you stop and think about the way you talk, and you fiddle with it. You might do some meter. You might do some rhyme. You might put in lines. And then the words are chosen that are not boring, not trite. They’re different. They’re image-laden usually. They kind of surprise, strike.

“Poetry is an effort to share a moving experience by using language that is chosen and structured differently from ordinary prose.”

The content is chosen differently, and the structure is different. That’s about all we can say because poetry is so diverse. I mean, my son’s quite an accomplished poet, Karsten, and he doesn’t write anything like I write. My writing is just, “Roses are red, violets are blue, whatever.” That’s the way I sound when I’m around Karsten. It feels like that to me because he’s just so amazingly gifted in non-traditional ways of doing it. Now, different world views understand this word “experience” differently. I think I’ve given a definition here that unbelievers can embrace, and believers; however, once you start getting at the words here, the word “experience”, a moving experience differently, objective reality lies behind the biblical worldview. Poetry will try to tell the truth and move people with renderings of experience that are good to be shared or good to be avoided.

In other words, a Christian poet is burdened by truth. He’s burdened by reality. He cannot do what Wallace Stevens, twentieth century poet, said,

“After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.” Thousands of people think about poetry that way. If you ask them what it means, they get mad at you because it creates meaning in you. It doesn’t conform to objective reality and try to impart that to anything. It just is. Now, there’s a worldview behind that, and I don’t think it’s a Christian one. I get into arguments about that with some Christians.

It’s not simple. I’m not making it simple here. It’s not preaching. I preach with my poems. I’m a preacher, an unashamed preacher, when I write poems, but you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to do it that way, but if you tell me this poem is no effort to reflect reality either bad, good, or whatever, then I’d say, “I probably not going to waste my time here.”

Abstract poetry

I’m just looking around for a person to see if she’s here. There’s a woman who draws my sermons each Sunday. She’s come to me often to show them to me and explain them to me, and it’s very abstract, totally abstract. I could not see my sermon unless she told me what was there. She’ll point to many of the parts of this abstract drawing, and she’ll say, “I don’t know what this is. I just received this.” Finally, last Sunday, I said to her, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” She said, “You don’t think I should draw your sermons?” I said, “No, no, no. Perfectly fine with you turning my sermons into this art form. I sometimes turn sermons into poems. You can turn them into visual art if you want to. That’s fine. That’s not a problem. However, if you are letting your brain go and just doodling and saying it corresponds somehow to the sermon, and you don’t know what’s on the paper there. You don’t have any idea what you just did. You’re opening yourself up to some very ugly stuff,” and I do believe that. I see it frankly coming out.

She told me she does this, and she says, “Funny how I get really strange people attracted to me when I do this, other religions and so on.” I said, “Well, that’s because the Bible has a worldview. Here’s what you should do. You should listen carefully to my sermon, and when you get an insight, draw that insight. I don’t care how abstract it is. Draw that insight, that insight. Make an effort to get that insight in another form. Try. Just try. I’m not saying we’re very good at it, or that it’s even possible. I’m saying don’t draw what you don’t know, what you’re trying to draw. Just drawing and saying, ‘I don’t know what that means. You have to fill that in.’ I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

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I’m going to illustrate all that with this. This is the introduction to “The Innkeeper.” It’s a poem that I wrote way back at the beginning of the Advent poems, and it was published in a little booklet form. This is what I wrote. This is the most complete thing I’ve ever written on poetry. It’s only two pages, so I thought I would read it through, and then maybe you can throw out some questions about this part.

Good poetry speaks truth. Not that each line is a naked fact, but lines when taken all together, tell what really is in spite of what may seem to be. There’s no doubt that now we see through a glass darkly. Finite, fallen as we are, we need much help to see the light.

To us, there are dark places in the truth, but who can say in this brief vapor’s breath of life what light might break upon the soul that looks unwaveringly and long enough at some dark spot with prayer, and pondering, and hope, that it may turn into a portal for the sun.

So quickly do we pass over the words, “Then Herod sent forth and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, from two years old and under.” The poet lingers, and looks, and looks, and looks at this dark spot until he weeps and rages and then perhaps sees.

And then all too imperfectly, he tries with words to make the needle prick of light more visible for others. To bore the point more wide, to press the doubting face against the tiny perforation in the wall of pain, he writes a poem. Like Jeremiah, staring at the ruins of Jerusalem, where dying mothers boiled their children for a meal. When all the beard is plucked, and the clothes are ripped, and the voices hoarse from screaming, then what? A poem. The Bible called it Lamentations, a long, long, labor, first to see, and then to say that even here, God’s mercies are new every morning.

That’s where that text comes from, Lamentations 3. In the middle of the most horrible book in the Old Testament, “His mercies are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.” That’s where that favorite text come. We hate the rest of the book, hate it, but we like that verse, and it comes smack in the middle of five chapters, in chapter three, the middle, “God’s mercies are new every morning, and his faithfulness is great.”

The first, the second, and the fourth, divided into twenty-two stanzas, each beginning with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Three agonizing acrostics. Then chapter three, the most personally intense of all, is still more tightly structured. Again twenty-two stanzas, but now each stanza has exactly three lines, and all three lines in each stanza begin with the same letter. One stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. And finally, chapter five, not an acrostic, but again twenty-two lines long.

Why? He’s writing about women boiling their children. Why? Why this form? Why do poets do these things to themselves? Surely, if there is any place for authentic, unencumbered spontaneity, it’s here in the overflow of agony. Why bind the heart with such a severe discipline of poetic form? Why labor weeks to give such shape to suffering? It is a testimony, written on the heart, that reality has contours. Being is one way, and not another. Reality is one way, and not another.

There are hard unbending facts. God said, “I AM who I AM,” not what we feel him to be or wish him to be or make him to be. He simply is. We must write the verse of our lives within the constraints of unbending ultimate fact. Therefore, laboring to look and look and look at what is really there until we feel what we are meant to feel, and then say what we have seen and felt in some exacting poetic form, is a testimony to the truth that we are not God.

Christ is the great granite objective fact. He is the anchor that keeps poetry from floating away on the waves of emotion into the “Never Land” of saying anything we please, any way we please. He is the lens which lets us see if the modern creative king really has any clothes on. Let’s talk to those people who say, “I don’t know what I just wrote – it’s meaning is whatever you think.” Should we admire that or be like little children who say, “Excuse me, I don’t think the king has any clothes on?”

In other words, a chicken can write that. Just give him enough letters, and he’ll dance on them. He is hard, immovable, un-shapable, intractable, reality that banks the sea of emotion into a river that has to flow this way and not that, deep and not shallow.

Lasting Glory

When he died for our sins, it became evident once and for all that our fallen spontaneity needs the fine, sharp, painful sieve of a severe Calvary-like discipline before going public in poetry or even prose. He is the difference between artsy gamesmanship and lasting glory. In this Christ-dominated vision of the world, “The Innkeeper” is one imperfect effort to see and feel and speak the light of truth behind the darkness of one brutal moment in history of the world, the slaughter of the babes of Bethlehem. One test of its success will be this. That is one test of the poemsic success will be this. Does the pinprick of light in the canvass of pain shed any light of hope on the path of your suffering? If so, I will be glad.

God Has form

The book of Lamentations is a worldview shaping book for me. It’s a series of acrostics, each letter, the Hebrew alphabet beginning a different verse in three of the chapters beginning every line of the three line stanzas in chapter three and then determining the number of the lines. Just think of that.

When you read Lamentations, think of that, that he did it that way. One third of the Old Testament is poetry. One third of the Old Testament is poetry, and interestingly, it has no rhyme and no meter because that’s hard to bring across languages. The structure it has is transferable. Is that an accident? It’s parallelism. “He has blocked my ways with blocks of stone. He has made my paths crooked.” That’s what we call parallelism. Say it once. Say it again. “He is a bear lying in wait for me. Say it again, “a lion in hiding. He turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces.” Say it again, “he has made me desolate. He bent his bow and set me as a target for his arrow. He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver. I have become the laughing stock of all people. The object of their taunts all day. He has filled me with bitterness; he has sated me with wormwood.” Hear the boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom.

“He has made my teeth grind on gravel and made me cowering ashes. My soul is bereft of peace. I have forgotten what happiness is. So I say my endurance has perished, so has my hope from the Lord.”

Now, that’s agony, and he sat at a piece of paper and said, “I will make a different verse start with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet.” [25:30ish in audio – I AM HERE]

When he came to the apex of his emotion in chapter three, he narrowed the banks of the river in motion down to an almost impossible form. Twenty-two different stanzas, three each, same letter beginning every single line in each stanza in order to express the deepest emotion. Locking himself into the greatest discipline at the moment when you would expect the greatest spontaneity. What’s that? That’s a worldview comment. God is God. God has form. God has structure. God has limits. God has bounds. I am not free to be anything I want to be with my emotion or anything I want to be with my mind. I am locked down to reality, and I will symbolize it with form.


Question and Answer

That’s my answer to the question what is poetry? You can ask a question there. Make a comment about any of that. It’s heavy, go ahead David.

1) Christian poetry mingles freedom with sructure

Question 1: [Audio is indisginuisable]

Piper: The fact that I’m saying the structure is a commentary on his worldview does not mean that if you write it another way, you’re non-Christian, because the worldview also encompasses other things beside structure. Free verse is not a sin. Blank verse is not a little less sinful, because there are other things. When you look at a cloud, do you think structure? Probably not, when you look at the solar system, you do. Nature, interestingly as the way God has set it up mingles freedom and structure in ways that, from our vantage point anyway, are blended. Some will see one, and some will see the other. Some people see a camel in the clouds and not just chaos.

Yes, I am saying the fact that Jeremiah disciplined himself to do this with his emotion says something about his view of the world, and his view of God, and I just think it’s rooted in who we are. I don’t think you have to even be a Christian to feel like this ought to be done, and it has to do with the fact that God is a fact. He has contours. This is very non-postmodern that God has contours. He is this and not that. Therefore, there will be a this and not that. There will be a black and white, a yes and no, a beautiful and ugly, a right and wrong, a good and bad in all of our lives, and it’ll come out in our art. We will not be fudging on this all the time because that’s God. Just somebody who believes in God is burdened by reality and limits and structure, and there’s a great liberty in it. The greater poems, novels, any form of art, the greater ones will come out of that worldview. Another comment? Yeah.

Christian poets know grey areas

Speaker 2: I have a question of when you talk of conflicts and black and white, what do you mean by that? Arts can encompass such a gray area.

John Piper: Yeah, absolutely.

Speaker 2: What do you do with all the gray area?

John Piper: I was listening to Alan Jacobs being interviewed today. He’s professor of literature at Wheaton. I was listening to his Mars Hill interview about the new film and the movie, The Golden Compass. Philip Pullman is anti-Christian to the core and says so out loud in interviews. He wants to bring down Lewis, bring down Tolkien, bring down the church. He hates Christianity. He’s anti-God, and he was interviewing. He said his main gripe about Pullman’s trilogy is it’s naïve, or that it is, he said, “Manichean in its simplistic-ness,” meaning everything’s just black-and-white. If you believe in God, you’re evil. If you don’t believe in God, you’re good. Straight through all three books, there are no bad unbelievers in God. If you don’t believe in God, you’re good. If you do believe in God, you’re bad. That’s the way he set up his universe, and his comment is, “This is naïve. Nobody is all bad and all good. We’re all ambiguous.”

Only a person who has a view of an ultimate right and wrong can make sense out of gray. Gray doesn’t even mean gray. You won’t recognize it as gray unless you know black and white, so yes, poets should be the people who are going at the ambiguities of life, but doing it doesn’t mean they just throw up their hands and say, “I guess life is just one big chaotic, unknowable phenomenon.” That’s not a Christian response to ambiguity. It roots it down into alternate reality. Thank you, that’s a very good clarification asking about ambiguity and the gray areas.

Christian poets should read to write

Why read it? Writing is one thing. If you don’t read poetry, you’ll never write any, you won’t write anything good at least, if you’re never reading poetry. Here’s why I read poetry, and when I say read, there’s a couple things here, just get this book. If you don’t have a book on poetry, just try this one, A Sacrifice of Praise: An Anthology of Christian Poetry in English from Caedmon to the Mid-Twentieth Century.

Why do you read? More often than prose, poetry expresses a glimpse of reality that takes us beyond the ordinary. Interesting that the word prosaic usually means ordinary. Prose, the ordinary, the way you talk when you’re not thinking about how you talk. The ordinary observation of the surface of things into the meanings and affections that we otherwise miss. Poets help us see what is really there but most miss, and they help us feel the fullness of what life can be.

Very simply, I’m greedy for deep feelings, and seeing what’s there, that I miss. I want to see more! I don’t want to walk through the world, and not see and have somebody come along, and ten minutes later, say, “Did you see this, see this, this? Amazing!” And I say, “No! I didn’t see the bird. I didn’t see the tree. I didn’t see the cloud. I didn’t see the rose. I didn’t see anything. I’m just wrapped up in my ego and worried about how I’m coming across.”

I just don’t want to be sick. I want to be alive. I want to see, and most prose does not help you with that. Some does, but poetry is by its nature. A poet just looks at something and feels something. A week, two or thirty years later, as Wordsworth said, “Poetry is something remembered in tranquillity.” He remembers it, and he then tries to say it, so that he feels it, and others can share the feeling. I think the Bible’s real big on feeling, real big.

Lawrence: You know, I think there’s kind of a redemptive aspect to poetry, in that I think, because of our sin, it’s so hard to reflect and to see who we are. Through others that are suffering and are working through rehab. Poetry takes the truth, channels that emotion, so that it’s more expressive of what we’re feeling, and what we’re doing in our eyes. So, we can say, “I’m selfish, just like this other person.”

John Piper: Yeah. Yeah.

Lawrence: Or, “You know what? I did all the sins that Jerusalem did – that is, that the poet is explainng.” I think there’s a redemptive motif in this precedent that makes us feel better about ourselves, so we can do and say, as we come along this art.

John Piper: That’s good, Lawrence. Thank you. I think that’s absolutely right and the best use of poetry. I was going to read you “The Pulley” by George Herbert, but I’m looking at the clock, and thinking, “Nope, don’t do that”.

Why write poetry?

Just a word about, why write it? The joy of seeing and feeling more of God and his creation. That’s what Jason was talking about and of sharing the sight and the feeling with others. Poetry is an act of love. At first, it’s the love of contemplation, that is, not love that you love contemplation, but contemplating something because you love seeing what’s there. Then, a love of benevolence, meaning sharing it with somebody else.

I think poetry, at its best, is a way of loving God, seeing him and his work, for what it really is, and then loving people by writing it down in a way that will help them see it and feel it better. Here’s just a word about the Advent poems. This is the conclusion of tonight’s poem.

This took about two hours to write this part right here. Those Advent poems cost me roughly between fifteen and twenty hours each week. I just blitzed for two days and stayed up as late as I needed to. I was up until 4:00 AM last week, just because I have to write a sermon, as well. I just told Noël last week, I said, “I’m glad Advent week comes once a year, because this is horrible. And I love it.”

Is that straight? Ain’t it crazy? I just hate writing these poems, and I love having written these poems. I know they’re just like what my dad used to read to us. He used to read to us Edgar Allen Guest. Edgar Allen Guest writes poems like, “It takes a heap of living to make a house a home.” That’s who I grew up on, so I’m just an average guy. I’m writing poems for my family and my church. I’m not a big, classy, cutting edge, avant-garde poet. My poems rhyme. I wanted you to see the river that I built. The banks that I build for myself in these Advent poems are really narrow.

This is iambic tetrameter and rhyming couplets, without any exception at all! Now, iambic tetrameter simply means you accent the second syllable of every word, with four I just don’t read them that way. I’ll just show you. In fact, if I make a mistake, you can hear it because the rhythm breaks. It’s ruined, if I blow it, and I blow it about six times tonight. I hate blowing it, especially when they’re filming this for six services, four services tomorrow.

Bethlehem, with candle three, are you afraid, or are you free? Do Christian killers in the news, make you a slave, or do you choose with Christ, that they will make you brave? What do you fear the most, the grave?

Did Jesus die and rise for this or that, the certain hope of bliss? Beyond the bullets and the blood, we’d bless this planet with a flood, or fear the sacrifice, what gun can cut us off from Jesus? None.

Nor tribulation or distress, nor danger, sword, or nakedness. Though we were killed like sheep all day, the Shepherd of our souls holds sway,

and when he comes, it will be plain that none of us has died in vain. The body that was pierced and torn, never forget, will be reborn.

That is severe. That is very severe. They have to rhyme every couplet, and they have to have alternating four beats, or I will take it. Why do I do that? I will get on one line, and it’ll cost me three hours to figure it out, and then I’ll have a good flow for about ten lines, and then I’ll get stuck again, and I sit there thinking, “Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Just relax, nobody will even know.” I don’t read it like I just read it, so what difference does it make? People don’t even hear the rhymes the way they’re written. They don’t hear the rhythm. Most of your lines don’t end at the end, they go into the next one, which is why it doesn’t sound like ta-da-ta-da-ta-da-ta-da-ta-da-ta-da-ta-da.

I just have this really deep conviction that this discipline forces me to see and feel what I otherwise would not see and feel. I mean, you get stuck at a place. You start writing this right here. All I knew is that I wanted to apply to Bethlehem the Colorado shootings, and the Nicodemus point, I wanted to connect the two. That’s all I knew when I started this. How? I don’t know, and as you choose a word, “Do Christian killers in the news?” Now, I’ve have to come up with a word that rhymes with news. That shapes the meaning of the next line. I don’t know what I’m going to write in the next line yet, and I have to limit myself within these boundaries. I have a rhymer, a little computerized rhymer, so I click on news and get forty options to use, and then I just work, and work, and work to try to not make it sound stupid. You know, trite and silly, because that’s the danger with rhyme. Rhyming poetry is rejected today because it just feels so old-fashion, and it just sounds trite. Do you want to ask a question about that?

Speaker 6: Yeah. So, you’ve agonized over this, and you’ve said you love it and you hate it, and you get done, and you say, “Yes, this is excellent.”

John Piper: No, I don’t.

Speaker 6: Oh. That’s what I wanted to get to.

John Piper: No, no, no. It’s like my sermons. I limit my sermon preparation to Friday. I don’t start preparing until Friday morning. Because if I started on Monday, I’d work on it every day because of excellence, and I wouldn’t do anything else with my life. Therefore, I settle for C+, B-, B+ in everything I do, just because I put constraints on me. I’ve got a deadline for these poems. I’m announcing, “They’re coming folks.” That’s incredible. Very few poets would say, “I’m going to write a sixteen-minute poem, and I’ll have it for you for Sunday.” I don’t have a clue what I’m going to say yet, but it’ll come, and I’ll read it in front of 4,000 people. That’s pretty risky, and I settle. I’m really unhappy with a lot of these lines. They sound kind of hokey, but I can read them well enough, so you don’t spot that.

I think my reading is what saved these. You’d never read these poems. That’s why only a few of these are published, because if you tried to read these from scratch, you’d make it sound awful, because it really isn’t that good. It’s just a neat story, right? So, no, I don’t put excellent on this. I put this poem, if I were grading this, depends on the class, what level we’re working with here, but C+, good effort, interesting story. It’s not excellent. I think I accomplish my purpose. I can tell partly when I’m reading by the quietness of the people by whether I’m connecting, but over here and then here. Yeah. What do you think?

Speaker 7: That’s what I was going to say. It works. Obviously, it’s working so that your poetry comes out so poignantly and so powerful and good. I feel that when I hear these poems, I look forward to them every week, because I know I’m going be moved.

John Piper: Yeah. That’s what I want to happen beause I’m moved when I read them. I mean my emotion is not artificial, because father/son things, they run all through my poetry, right? I’m a dad with four sons. When I do a father/son thing, and you have a dying son in your lap, this is emotional for me. I won’t be as emotional tomorrow morning because I’ve read it once, and you get the real deal on Saturday night, and they get the burnt over in Sunday morning. But yes, I feel deep emotion when I’m writing about fathers and sons. What were you going to say?

Speaker 8: Do you ever take the time to write an excellent poem? That’s not an average?

John Piper: Do you ever take the time to write an excellent poem? I’ve just answered that on a scale from slapping it down quick, and I can read you one of those to working real hard. I very seldom do, just because I’m a preacher and a pastor, and I don’t have time, towards the excellent end. I would like to some time. Here’s one. Oh, don’t have the overhead for it. Written on finding Noël’s cell phone that’s been left at home too many times. She’s in the back so. “I’m just a little phone beside the toaster here. Don’t leave me all alone. It’s hot and seems severe. Please, take me in your purse or any way you can, then I won’t feel the curse, and you can call your man.” More serious, yeah, go ahead Jan?

Jan: I have a question about why you write poetry. You had your reasons, and I had my reasons. I wanted hear if you wanted to write and then you stopped, but you wouldn’t stay stopped. I want to hear that part of this why.

John Piper: Well, I’ll read it again ‘cause maybe I went over it too fast. I write for the joy of seeing and feeling more of God and his creation and of sharing the sight and the feeling with others. In other words, go ahead.

Jan: But why don’t you paint, or why don’t you pursue other forms of art? That’s my question.

John Piper: Oh, I wasn’t thinking from it that angle. Why don’t I paint? I can’t paint. I colored with Talitha last night, and I tried to stay inside the lines. I really believe in lines, so I like to color inside the lines. So, you’re trying to get me to say there is something in me, and this is true. I don’t mind being this way. I said to Sam the other day, “Everybody should try to find in their life what they cannot not do, and then dedicate it to Jesus.” I cannot not write. Publish or not, I’ll be in my journal. Why? I don’t know. I’m wired that way. It began in the eleventh grade with Mrs. Canton. Don’t know what she did or what she said, but something exploded in the eleventh grade with essays and poetry, with that English teacher.

I declared an English major at Wheaton just because of that. I read painfully slowly, so I skipped all the novel classes and took only poetry. Novels are long. You had to read about six novels, and I looked at it and said, “Impossible. I can’t read six novels in a semester.” So I skipped all the novels classes. Still to this day, I hardly ever read a novel. But poetry is short, and I’m an analytical person, so I can analyze, and I can write and think, and I can manage that. And why? It’s there. It’s in my dad and two of my sons. Karsten does it for a living. Abraham does it when his baby dies. It just comes out. Benjamin does it with his hands. Get him to build a kitchen for you, and you’ll see poetry. Yeah, Jessie?

Jessie: You take pride in doing this, and I’m just wondering if you’ve ever been impacted or influenced by secular poets that have helped you see things about God?

John Piper: The question is, have you been impacted by any secular poets that have helped you see things about God. I got on a Ted Kooser binge two years ago. Ted Kooser was the poet laureate for America for two years until he was just replaced with the present one. I got three of his books, and I read them all. They’re little short 100-page books. They have about eighty poems in each one, and I found him. I mean the reason I read them is because I just was riveted by this man’s sight of reality. Now, he’s not a believer. He says so, and he’s got one poem—I wish I’d brought it—in which he comes right up to the edge of faith and stops.

The answer is yes. Unbelievers because of common grace see things in the world believers don’t see. Okay? So I’ll say that. Then, they won’t put it in a biblical context, so they’ll generally misinterpret the big picture, but you can take that raw material of what they’ve seen, a bird in flight, and they say it in a way. You say, “I’ve never seen the way the wing on an osprey is cocked like this in the middle.” Why do they sit on light-posts? You didn’t notice if they sit on light-posts. You drive down the freeway, the light-posts that come up like this. If you see a bird sitting on a light-post, it just might be a hawk or an osprey. There is something about that that makes them want to sit up there. Okay, thank you. Another hand, go ahead, David.

David: I had two things I wanted to ask you. The first thing is the reality of excellence and doing everything we do with all our minds. What are your thoughts on this in poetry, as well as the C+, I wondered if you can talk about that. The other thing is that a lot of guys have been talking. This is the saying about perspiration and inspiration? You know, hard work is mostly perspiration, but within inspiration, how do you look at that as a Christian? What is it? Where does it come from?

John Piper: Yep okay, the first one. We have a saying at Bethlehem that our goal in all we do here is undistracting excellence. That means, don’t do it so well that people are attracted to the finesse and don’t do it so poorly that they’re distracted by the bad grammar. In real life, you cannot live at an A+ level. You will go insane, and you’ll do very little. Cooking has to be B+. Baby care has to be B+. Everything has to be C to B quality, because there’s so many things in life that we’re called to do.

However, some are called to strive towards a remarkable excellence. We should read them and benefit from them. When you ask them, “Now, what standard do you set for yourself?” I would say, “Undistracting excellence. I don’t want to make a fool out of myself, or the gospel, or the pulpit, by reading a stupid poem that people would say, ‘I wish he wouldn’t embarrass us so much.’” I would fail if most of our people were saying, “He’s really got to stop writing those poems, because he’s so embarrassing.”

If that’s the message I have, in just one season, I’d be done. That’ll come some day, probably. I hope I spot it before it comes. I have a standard, and I’m pushing. I mean, I could write these a lot quicker if I ignored the meter and the rhyme and didn’t care if they sounded like, ta-da-ta-da-ta-da-ta-da. I have a standard of excellence, but my, oh my, there are so many of these lines it could be better. It could be better. I could think of more creative words and more creative language.

Different people are called to different things. Let’s all, when we’re doing public ministry for the Lord, strive toward undistracting excellence. Some of you should strive toward remarkable, remarkable excellence, something extraordinary like A Paradise Lost, blank verse for 300 pages. That’s incredible, and he was blind. The poem on his blindness is one of the most moving things I’ve ever read: “When this darkness with my life hath spent,” and it ends with that famous line, “They also serve, who only stand and wait.” I don’t know if I even copied that out, but John Milton was blind.

The second half of your question is about inspiration and perspiration. The analogy, I’m sure it’s not original with me. Everybody wants the burst of spontaneous inspiration that’s beautiful. So what do you do? Sit and wait for it? No, but a farmer who wants the burst of spontaneous corn and cabbage and beans ploughs his field. If it doesn’t water, he’ll build a watering system, and he’ll plant his seed, and he’ll pull the weeds, and God gives the growth.

There’s an analogy. And the analogy is that I’m sitting at this desk. Talitha came home from school the other day, and she said, “What have you been doing all day, Daddy?” I said, “Staring at my computer.” Because that’s what it feels like, most of the time. Lines come. I mean, it takes five seconds to write a line and the rest of the time you’re staring. Thinking, hoping, and now, here’s where the inspiration piece comes: Being a Christian, I pray. I pray all the time. I get stuck. I say, “God, I’m stuck, and I don’t think this is going to be Scripture when you help me. I won’t make that mistake. Help me, please, anyway. This won’t be Scripture, but I can take some help here.”

And lo and behold, I’ll wake up in half an hour, and five lines later, it happened. Sometimes, like I said, a line could cost me three hours, sometimes, ten lines come just like that. Phsoo! Just like that. And you wonder, “Whoa!” There was one line in here where I said, “It’s Friday morning, and they were waiting for the trial to run its certain course.” And that word “Run” came at the end of a line. I needed a word to rhyme with “Run.” Bang! It was just, the next line was there. It took no effort at all. Why? I don’t know.

Creativity is a mysterious thing. Something comes into your mind that wasn’t there before, and that you are writing lines that have never been written before, in the history of the world, on the face of the planet. This is amazing that things are coming into being now, that didn’t exist before.

Speaker 13: Is there any poetry that you would recommend us that’s especially good? I love Paradise.

John Piper: Any poetry I’d recommend is especially good? George Herbert is one I lean on. John Milton, Shakespeare, I mean, he’s the classic. Just get an anthology of seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth century, and get the Oxford verse. Oxford doesn’t print bad verse. If it’s religious, it’s almost all Christian for the last 500 years, but you don’t have to limit yourself to that. Joey?

Joey: It’s a different question. There are two common sentiments that people have that’s a part of the general, and it has to do with poetry. “Don’t put God in a box,” which is what you were talking about earlier. I was wondering if you’d respond to that one and later, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Maybe that’s the other one that I want you to comment on. Is beauty in the eye of the beholder, or is it objective?

John Piper: Beauty is objective, and God is not in a box. To believe that God is the way he says he is, is not to put him in a box. We need to enlarge our minds. He is mind-boggling, not in vain that the Bible says, “How inscrutable are his ways, and how unsearchable are his judgements!” Only, it says that after three chapters of the most rigorous analysis of the providence of God. In other words, it’s like C. S. Lewis said, “The person who caves into temptation hasn’t known the fullness of temptation. It’s the person who doesn’t submit to the temptation that knows the full force of the temptation.” So it is with the knowledge of God. If you quit studying God, and then just say, “He’s bigger than you could ever imagine,” you’ll just talk gibberish the rest of your life about mystery. But, if you labor like John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards to see more and see more and see more and know more, the more you’re going to be like the guy who, in eternity, climbs up over the first mountain range after 10,000 years of discovery and says, “I made it!” Then, he sees another mountain range stretching out, that takes another 10,000 years of climbing into the knowledge of God, and he pulls himself over to the edge 20,000 years into eternity, and he sees another mountain range, and so, it goes forever. The person who stays behind says, “That’s a big range.” Well, what kind of praise is that?

About the God in a box thing, I say, “Go and push on in and say what you see, and you will write more profound things than those who just stand back here and talk generally about mystery.” Here’s another way to say it, “God is not honored by being worshipped for what we don’t know about him. God is not honored for being worshipped for what we don’t know about him.” In other words, the people who just say, “Mystery, mystery, mystery!” You get over that in a big hurry. That’s a short praise song. But if you read your Bible, and you go deep, you’ll say 1,000 things about him that are true and glorious, and there’ll be 10,000 more just over the next horizon.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Well, yes, different people regard different things as beautiful. That does not mean there’s no such thing as beautiful. Jesus Christ is glorious, whether you see him that way or not. He is beautiful. His ways are beautiful. His cross was beautiful. His resurrection was beautiful. His character is beautiful, and some don’t see it that way, and that doesn’t make it not that way. C. S. Lewis talks about the insane man banging his head against the wall in an insane asylum, saying, “There is no sun. There is no sun. There is no sun,” doesn’t have the slightest effect on whether the sun is shining outside. Our subjective responses to reality do not determine reality. We should strive towards some measure of objectivity, recognizing there’s a lot of subjectivity out there.

Speaker 15: I’m wondering if there are any particular disciplines that you have in your life that you feel really help your creativity that are really sacrificial so that your inspiration is holy?

John Piper: Yup, I would say the main discipline that is in my life that helps my creativity is meditation on the Scripture. In other words, one of the reasons I get behind in my Bible reading, is that I read very slowly. I was reading Jonah after Obadiah this morning. Let me see if I can find Jonah. Isaiah, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah. Was Micah in there? Nope, there he is. Jonah, he is in the belly of the fish, and he’s writing poetry. I mean, the poetry is here in the belly of the fish, and he wrote it later. Then I came to this line, if I can find it. “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake the hope of steadfast love.” My reading was over. It was over. That’s all I did for the rest of my fifteen minutes or so is try to figure that out. I’m looking at it, so I got my Hebrew out. It’s hard to translate poetry, so I got my Hebrew out. Literally, it’s, “Those who keep or watch or regard vain idols, abandon or forsake their hasid, their love, God’s love.”

Not they’re own. It’s abandoned God’s love for them. That is worthy of a poem. If you embrace a vain idol, you forsake being loved. This is not rocket science. They can’t love you back. They just would. Poet areas I read real slow because I think a lot about what I read. I ask questions; I ask hard questions; I ask practical questions, and so here’s a little thing here about application and interpretation. Hermeneutical scholars will get you to distinguish those. Here’s interpretation. Find out what it really says, then application to your life. Guess what? Applicatory questions are more illumining of meaning than most questions, because they force you not to play games with the text. What am I going to do with this this afternoon. It forces me to interpret it more faithfully, more zealously, more deeply than if I just said, “What’s the historical background for such and such a word?” Now, they’re not either/or. I’m just pointing out practical applicatory questions of meaning force meaning issues not just application issues. That’s one discipline. Another discipline is writing. I write all the time. I’m writing all day every day, writing star articles, writing sermons, writing blogs, writing articles, writing in my journal, trying to process my experience.

Just write. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. I forget what famous poet or author said that some young person came inside wanting to be a writer. First thing he says, “What have you written in the last week?” “Nothing”. “Well, forget that. You won’t ever be a writer.” If you’re going to be a writer, you write. To be a writer, you just write better later. But if you’re not writing, you’re not going to be a writer. Don’t dream about being a writer if you’re not writing. What are you doing, that’s what you cannot not do? Then turn that for Jesus. Dedicate that to Jesus. Okay, I think our time is up. Let me just glance through what I have here.

Speaker 16: I have one question.

John Piper: Yeah, okay, go ahead.

Speaker 16: Ecclesiastes 2:24 and 25 says, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink to find enjoyment in his toil. This also I thought is from the hand of God, for apart from God, who can give or who can have enjoyment.” Since God has wired you in a way that you can’t not write poetry, is there a particular enjoyment? To find enjoyment in his toil. Can you expound a little bit more on some of that enjoyment with the Lord, in the Lord. How do you know joy in that, because you said it’s joy, but what are some of those joys?

John Piper: Yeah. First, let’s end where we began namely with confession that I have to constantly cleanse the joy of the joy of praise for man. It feels good to be praised. I don’t think it’s wrong when you’re praised to be glad that you’re being praised. It is odd if you say, “Oh, I don’t think that should be happening right now. You should not like what I just did. If you like what I just did, I am failing.” That’s just ridiculous, so it cannot be wrong to hear people echo in their mouths that they like what you did. The wrong is the overweening craving of what it does for your ego and that if it vanished, you would feel that the reason for writing vanished. They’re only disapproving because if that were the case, you would be a slave to your audience, instead of to the truth. That’s the confession, and that must be resisted. Discovery is pleasurable to me. Discovering things about a reality that I didn’t know before. Discovery is pleasurable. I could analyze why, but I’ll just leave it. Saying things in a fresh way is pleasurable to me. Finding a new and effective way to say something feels delightful, creating feels right.

Dorothy Sayers wrote a book called The Mind of the Maker. Everybody should read that if you’re into art at all. In The Mind of the Maker, she simply tries to draw out how the human soul in its tripartite form is like the Trinity, and to be a maker is what we are in the image of God. We make things. You might make a carpenter. You might make a meal. You might make a song. You might make a snow man. We are makers. To make is really pleasurable. “I feel God’s pleasure when I run,” Eric Liddell says. Some people are just runners. They are just wired to run, and they feel that they are coming into their own as they run.

Thirdly, I get tremendous pleasure when somebody is helped to see God better. Really, I think that’s what I exist for. Whether it’s a sermon, or a poem, or anything, if somebody experiences God, knows God, loves God more because I exist or did what I did, that really feels good. I think that’s really pure joy. That’s the joy of love that somebody is delighting in God because your delight in God or what you’ve done. Those are three things that come to mind, and we’re way over time. I’ll save for another time all these examples of poems that I’ve done.