An Invitation to Think about God and Poetry

Exploring God through Poetry – Glebe St. James United Church. Wednesday, May 30, 7-9.

What, exactly, does a poet do? Does she do anything, or is it rather that something happens to her? In what sense is she in control?

One of the very few arguments that I had with my roommate in first year university revolved around this question. He was a poet. I was not. He insisted that the best poetry could not be controlled or thought out – it was something that happened to you. That made me uncomfortable. I like to analyze things. I liked the definition of poetry as “the right word in the right place”. The perfect poem is a triumph of order – an extraordinary piece of thinking on the part of a master word-smith.

The wonderful thing about poetry is that both of us are right. For every great poem that has been edited 800 times, there is an equally great poem that was written in a drug-induced blur of feeling. For every sonnet that conforms perfectly to a complex and rational pattern, there is a post-modern poem that conforms to no pattern at all. Sometimes, the poet really is a word-smith, tinkering and toiling until the poem is exactly right. Other times, she is a medium, barely even touching the ideas as they flow off of her pen.

Neither of these experiences is limited to poetry. For me, the most obvious metaphor is sports. Sometimes I’m barely even involved. Instead, I’m “in the zone,” reacting to the game before I have time to even think about it. Other times, I’m practicing – trying to train my un-thinking body how to shoot a basket-ball in the smartest way possible. Sometimes I control my body. Sometimes my body controls me.

There is a lot to be said about this dichotomy – about the way that words sometimes enclose meaning, and you like a writer because it makes you feel like you understand exactly what he is saying. And sometimes meaning explodes out of words, and you like it because it makes you feel like you’ll never know what he means. About how sometimes music makes you think about your life, and sometimes it makes you forget about it. Living life is an exercise in being pulled into and out of things. There is the feeling of control, of knowing and succeeding and resting; and there is the feeling of a lack of control, of failing and trying and learning.

God, it seems to me, is in both of these feelings. God made a world that we could understand, a world that we could succeed in. But he also made a world in which we fail, in which we never get to stop trying. The first poem that I want to look at on Wednesday, “Christus Paradox,” makes this point beautifully. It’s not that God is a warrior, nor that he is a peacemaker, but that he is both. Activity and rest. Everlasting instant.

I’m not sure where we will go from there. Rilke’s “Autumn” focuses on an image of God as a stabilizer in the midst of a tumultuous and disordered modern world. The poem “God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box” by the Sufi mystic Rumi shows how God is in all the little things – and beyond them. Wordsworth’s Prelude focuses on the paradox I have tried to bring out here, and (I would, somewhat controversially, argue) presents a vision of God as precisely that miraculous thing which holds both sides together.

Below I’ve linked to those four poems. I invite all of you to attend the event “Exploring God through Poetry” which I am leading at this Wednesday, May 30 at Glebe St. James United Church from 7 pm until 9 pm. My hope is that the event will be casual – I will briefly present my thoughts on each of the poems, and then moderate a free-flowing discussion. We might cover all four of the poems I list here, or only two or three, or maybe one or two that I haven’t mentioned. We might develop the themes I’ve outlined in this post, or we might go in entirely different directions.

I encourage you all to use this blog as a forum for discussing both the poems and the issues they raise. Please feel free to post your thoughts both before the event, to get the juices flowing, and especially after the event. It is almost impossible for everyone to share every insight they have in the course of a two-hour workshop. Rather than letting those insights go unexpressed, I encourage you to continue the conversation by posting them here.

Daniel Sherwin (Son of David)

Christus Paradox

You, Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd.
You, Lord, are both prince and slave.
You, peacemaker and swordbringer
Of the way you took and gave.
You the everlasting instant;
You, whom we both scorn and crave.

Clothed in light upon the mountain,
Stripped of might upon the cross,
Shining in eternal glory,
Beggar’d by a soldier’s toss,
You, the everlasting instant;
You, who are both gift and cost.

You, who walk each day beside us,
Sit in power at God’s side.
You, who preach a way that’s narrow,
Have a love that reaches wide.
You, the everlasting instant;
You, who are our pilgrim guide.

Worthy is our earthly Jesus!
Worthy is our cosmic Christ!
Worthy your defeat and vict’ry.
Worthy still your peace and strife.
You, the everlasting instant;
You, who are our death and life.
Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.
You, who are our death and our life.

Sylvia Dunstan (1955-1993) graduated from Emmanuel College, University of Toronto, in 1980. She served as a United Church minister and women’s prison chaplain. She was working an a metrical Psalter when she died at age 38 of cancer.

Autumn by Rilke:

Unmarked Boxes by Rumi

God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box,
from cell to cell. As rainwater, down into flower bed.
As roses, up from ground.
Now it looks like a plate of rice and fish,
now a cliff covered with vines,
now a horse being saddled.
It hides within these,
till one day it cracks them open

Poetry Workshop – May 30, 2012

Exploring God through Poetry

Wednesday, May 30th, 7:00 – 8:30 p.m

Glebe-St. James United Church

650 Lyon Street, Ottawa

This workshop is about the ways in which our relationship to God can be enhanced by reading and reflecting upon poetry. Daniel Sherwin will lead us in a careful reading of three or four poems which present distinct ideas about God’s relationship to humanity. Specifically intended for people who do not usually read poetry, but expert poets are very much welcome!

For more information, contact Faith and Arts Ottawa at, or (613) 883-4757.


In November, 2010 I was in Kingston, Ontario attending a course on transformational leadership. The workshop leader engaged us in an imaginative exercise using just pencils, paper, straight lines and curves. Out of these simple elements came some surprising new insights into my own attitudes and beliefs. It was an “aha” moment for me: I realized that the simplest exercise of my imagination could lead to deep, even profound, new self-understanding.

I don’t call myself an artist, but, like every other human being, I have an active imagination and I enjoy being creative. It’s fun. I wondered, is there a way to connect the joy of imagining and creating to the deep spiritual questions that most of us have? And, of course, there is.

I am a Christian minister. For more than 20 years an important part of my work has been listening to people’s deep questions about life and faith, and helping them to find the answers they are looking for. And for most of those years I have felt an aching, incoherent dissatisfaction with all the ways that I have tried to do that. Even when things went well, I felt that there was ‘something more’ that might be possible.

That “aha” moment in Kingston opened up a new and unexpected direction for me. I began to ask around and I discovered that there are all sorts of creative, arts-based approaches to spirituality. Many people, in all sorts of settings, are finding answers to their questions and growing in their relationships through the exercise of their imagination in the creative arts. So why not here in Ottawa, and why not through my church, the United Church of Canada?

The vision for Faith and Arts Ottawa has grown out of these questions, and others like them:

  • Where can people who have a personal faith open up about their questions and doubts without feeling judged?
  • Where can people who are not part of any religious organization open up and ask their spiritual questions?
  • Can older adults with a life-time of spiritual experiences find common ground with young adults who have no experience of faith or faith communities at all?
  • And so on, and so on.

I think that we need to ask these questions and then set out to find the answers. I don’t know where we’re going, but I do know it’ll be a fun ride.


What is Faith and Arts Ottawa?

Faith and Arts Ottawa is, most of all, an experiment, so our focus is less on what it is and more on what it will become, and that is still a mystery.

But, there are a few things we can say:

  • It is an experiment in exploring faith and spirituality through the use of the imagination and the creative arts.
  • It is an experiment in creating a new community of people who are drawn to the vision of what it might become.
  • It is an organization dedicated to creating arts-based events and programs that will help people ask and answer the important questions of their lives.
  • It is a way to connect people who are asking spiritual questions, regardless of their religious or spiritual beliefs.
  • It is a place for hospitality, questing, learning and friendship, and,
  • It is a new ministry of the United Church of Canada (founded in February, 2012).

We hope that our programs will connect with people of all ages and all walks of life: men and women, young and old, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, or none of the above. In particular, we hope that young adults looking for purpose and meaning in their lives will find help and encouragement in what we offer.

We hope that our programs will connect with poets, musicians, song-writers, actors, dancers, play-wrights, potters, photographers, videographers, painters, sculptors and carvers, and more.

Faith and Arts Ottawa is about creativity and imagination, about creatively making and shaping our lives, and our programs will be for anyone who is interested in exploring life through the creative arts and the creative process.

Faith and Arts Ottawa is grounded in the Christian faith and the teachings of Jesus:

  • Love for our neighbours
  • Hospitality for the stranger
  • Care for those in need, and …

Faith and Arts Ottawa is also grounded in the diverse, multi-religious, secular society that is Ottawa today. To become fully the people we can be, we need to talk with and listen to ALL our neighbours, especially those whose beliefs are different than our own. A core piece of the vision of Faith and Arts Ottawa is that every human being is creative and has something important to add to the community.