How Devotional Poetry Unlocks the Bible’s Surprises

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A new anthology helps us see the “saints and stumblers” of Scripture with fresh eyes.

During Sunday worship at my Anglican church, a lector reads aloud from the Old Testament, the Psalms, and the Epistles. The climactic moment occurs when a priest carries the Bible above his head from the altar to the nave, where he reads the Gospel. This liturgical gesture communicates two things: first, that the enfleshed Word of God came into the world and dwelt among us (John 1:14); second, that the inscribed Word of God places the church under its authority (John 12:47–50). Before the Gospel is read, parishioners make the sign of the cross on their foreheads, lips, and hearts, signifying that we should live “on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). The bread of the Word precedes the bread of the Table; together, they form the meal to nourish faith.

As I watch the procession for the Gospel reading, I am gently chastened. For a lifelong creature of the church, there is always a danger of rising above the Bible through familiarity and study instead of responding under the Bible through awe and obedience. Nodding to a line of verse from the poet George Herbert, let me ask: With “Bibles laid open,” how can God’s people encounter its “millions of surprises?” Devotional poetry is a vital way to become surprised by the Word again because it awakens the mind’s attention from what Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge calls “the lethargy of custom,” directing it “to the loveliness and the wonders” of God’s self-revelation. All poetry has the potential to freshen the eyes, alert the ears, and prick the heart, but devotional poetry is set apart for its ability to inspire reverence toward the miracle of divine speech that confronts …

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