Example poetry

How to pray with poetry

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Have you already prayed a poem? I often have. It’s one of my favorite ways to pray.

It started a long time ago. As a teenage disciple of Jesus, I felt unable to articulate the things that were in my heart. My prayer vocabulary was poor. Then one day (at church, probably) I realized that hymns could not only be sung but also spoken. So I started using the poetry of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, Fanny Crosby, and others as a kind of prayer diary. My well-worn hymnal has since bracketed and buttressed my prayers like no other book except the Bible (strangely, it was years later that I started praying to the Bible – and the poetry of the Psalms in particular – much the same way I would use the hymn).

Not all hymns are prayers, of course. Some teach, some testify, some inspire. But many are prayers written in poetry: “Have your own way”, “Great is your faithfulness”, “O love that will not let me go”, “Take my life and let it be”, and many others. I also pray poetically while speaking or singing many of today’s worship songs – and even verses or lines from popular music, like Bruce Cockburn’s “Lord of the Starfields” and “Love is the Answer” by Todd Rundgren.

Many of my favorite poets have given me beautiful words to pray for, in rhyme, blank verse, and free verse.

For example, I found many lines of by William Shakespeare for my own prayers over the years, like Prospero’s epilogue to Storm, which I sometimes pray at the start of a new project: “Sweet breath from you my sails / Must fill, otherwise my project fails.” Or Henry V’s prayer, “As you please, God, arrange the day!” Or the opening lines of Sonnet 39 (adapted by me to address God, of course):

O how thy worth with manners can I sing,
When you’re the best part of me?
What can my own praise bring to myself?
And what is mine alone when I praise you?

Other poets inspire and infuse my times of prayer. Lines of The Poems of Mary Oliver “Look and see”, “The trees” and “Mysteries, yes” are some of my favorite prayers. I revisit Robert Frost’s “Oh, do us a favor with the flowers today” every spring, as well as his delicious lines from “Cluster of Faith”:

Forgive, Lord, my little jokes about you,
And I will forgive Your great great over me.

Many of my favorite poets are favorites because their poems are often prayers: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christina Rossetti, Walter Brueggemann, Malcolm Guite (especially his The crown of David: ringing out the psalms), and Wendell Berry.

And, although I cannot claim to be a poet myself, I have sometimes recited my own verses, writing and praying new words to a well known hymn tune in or riff on new lines inspired by someone else’s, like this:

Honeysuckle Lord,
Lord of melons,
Lord of sweetness,
Starfire Lord,
Lord of the wheat fields,
lord of the desert,
Lord of plenty,
Lord of need,
Lord of mystery,
Lord of me,
Have mercy,
The Lord has mercy.

(Suggested by Mary Oliver. The first two lines are phrases used in separate poems in her collection, The thirst.)

Why not try ? Pray a poem. Yours, or someone else’s. Speak it or sing it, whichever suits you best.

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