Canticles: Introduction

I care about how we worship, in the many and various beautiful ways that we do so. Some Christ followers gather around tightly structured services with specific patterns and pre-written prayers. Others meet in warehouses, singing lyrics off of large screens and sipping coffee. Still others meet in small groups around a meal that they’ve made with their own hands. I once worshipped with a group that sang ska music, took off their shoes and socks because they were standing on holy ground, and encountered scripture through the medium of puppetry. Regardless of how we meet, I believe that it is still important that Christ followers gather together to pray, sing, eat a meal, laugh, cry, rage, and sit in silence together.

In my worship planning, I have been drawn to something called the “lectionary.” The lectionary is a plan for reading through a good portion of the Bible in a three year cycle. Think of it as a giant, globe-spanning Bible Study, in which four kinds of scripture passages are chosen to be read, prayed and preached each Sunday. All across the world, Christians can be found paying attention to the same four texts. The four scripture passages are generally pulled from a) an Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) narrative, law or prophesy; b) a poetic canticle or song from the book of Psalms or another poetic passage; c) a New Testament text from one of the letters or Revelation; d) a selection from one of the four gospels.

…most blogs and most preachers end up neglecting the poetic passages of scripture in some way… I think these choices do a disservice to the beautiful poetry of the Bible and to the lyrical side of all of us. Wrestling with poetry may be difficult, but I think it is ultimately rewarding.

I love using the lectionary because it puts me in solidarity with Christians across the globe and spanning different denominations. It also forces me to pay attention to passages of scripture I might normally overlook. Of course, it doesn’t cover all of scripture, and it sometimes swerves away from passages that I think are important, but others consider controversial in some way. But it’s still a pretty useful tool.

I have a particular love for the second chosen reading, the Psalm or Canticle. Perhaps it’s because I love poetry. Or maybe it’s because I’m a musician. Or it’s possible that I just love rooting for the underdog. Because the truth is that most blogs and most preachers end up neglecting the poetic passages of scripture in some way. Normally, people preach on either an Old Testament narrative or a passage from the gospels—it’s easier to preach narratives. Some people may venture into the theological thicket of the epistles. But many are cautious about poetry. Or they think of it only as a supportive text to one of the other three. Or they only use it to select music for the day or to craft a prayer, without making it a highlight of service. I think these choices do a disservice to the beautiful poetry of the Bible and to the lyrical side of all of us. Wrestling with poetry may be difficult, but I think it is ultimately rewarding.

So, my mission in these posts is to lift up the poetic underdog. I want to draw attention to these poetic passages and to encourage us to utilize them across the full spectrum of our worship and devotion. You might be surprised how much you know from these poetic books, because phrases from them crop up elsewhere in the Bible and are littered throughout our prayers, worship songs, theological texts and popular devotions. But that’s just the point. Often we lift out phrases from these poems, instead of considering them as full, distinct units of meaning.

I am also convinced that reading poetry is both a lost art for our young people and an important part of their lives. This may seem contradictory. But consider how much music our young people listen to. Notice how often they post snippets of lyrics on their Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Snapchat, etc. Observe how they love rap and hip-hop and listen to spoken word. These are all forms of poetry. But ask them to attend to Walt Whitman, e.e. cummings or Audre Lorde and most seem a little lost. Encourage them to read a psalm and they feel completely out of their depth or alienated from the psalmist. Our young people are both inundated by lyric poetry and alienated from it.

I hope that these posts will be helpful in multiple ways, including as prompts for sermon and worship planning, seeds for small group discussion (with youth or adults), or catalysts for personal devotion. At the end of each post, I’ll offer a sort of “playlist” for worship, with song recommendations or creative artistic suggestions for how these texts might be engaged. In doing so, I acknowledge that I have a very particular perspective on worship and what is good for communal singing. It’s also true that I have not listened to all the music in the world. So, there are limitations to what I suggest. With that in mind, take these musical and artistic suggestions with a mountain-sized grain of salt, or at least a spoonful of sugar. If you have suggestions of your own, please add them in the comments.

Thanks for reading. And Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be the glory).



Marcus A. Hong is a child of God, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. A lover of movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, Marcus and his wife Sarah have their hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.

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