Disclaimer: Due to the honest representation of loneliness, brokenness, pain, and suffering through the medium of poetry, videos linked in this article contain explicit material that may be considered offensive. Links are placed for the reader to do further research if desired. The OJCCC and the author of this article are not to be held responsible for any material rendered offensive as readers engage the media of their own volition.
Part I: An Introduction
Loneliness, pain, addiction, and struggle are nothing new in the world, definitely nothing new to evangelicals. There has been a constant struggle with such issues since the beginning of the church, and now, single missionaries struggle with them more than ever. Kevin, a missionary from Manila (Philippines), addresses loneliness with the following statements, “Loneliness is, in my opinion, the greatest challenge faced by single missionaries. There’s a certain level of isolation that is unavoidable when you live away from your home. This is especially true when you first move. Unless you already know the language, you won’t understand any of the conversations going on around you—it is a bizarre feeling. Some find this overwhelming to the point of having to go home” (click here for entire article).
While married missionaries, evangelicals, and the rest of the world struggle with such issues, single missionaries face unique struggles, seemingly unknown by the rest of the human population. Single missionaries have described loneliness as a “demanding pain” with resolution sought through a sense of “being known and belonging.” It is with this knowledge that I propose literature, specifically poetry, as a means to combat loneliness among single missionaries. Poetry, to me, is a manifestation of literature conveyed in both written verse and oral expression, emphasizing a relationship with one’s vocabulary in an attempt to create an understanding of the underlying issues in society while remaining faithful to the subject matter. In essence, it is presenting a deep seeded emotional, social, political, or spiritual issue in a creative light while continuing to accurately represent the conditions of life—loneliness, depression, fear, anxiety, etc.
So now that we have this thing called poetry, what good is it? Literature, simply put, unites the broken and provides a shot of truth into a truth-less society. Geoff Trenchard once declared in a poem entitled “Ode to My Bathroom,” “Poetry exists to give the socially awkward a way to finally be applauded by their peers.” If the socially awkward are applauded by their peers, they are on the same playing field along with everyone else. Each individual, none greater than the rest, is provided with ample time to bare his soul and present reality to the world.
Literature also provides declarative statements of truth, statements of black and white in an otherwise ambiguous culture. Brand & Chaplin state in their book, Art & Soul, “In an age when bald statements of capital-T Truth are discounted, society turns to its poets and artists for the most truthful accounts of the human condition.” Therefore, poets and artists alike are the only individuals who are charged with both declaring the truth and providing a pure look at truth to the masses. Literature, especially poetry, is a necessary means to unifying the broken and conveying unadulterated truth to a lost world and to a struggling saint.
Part II: Poetry and A Changing World
For centuries, poetry has been proven an integral literary device, used for both entertainment and physical healing. Poetry, like any other medium, has changed throughout its many generations. Styles of poetry include: Narrative, Epic, and Lyric. Each phase in the life of poetry had its own unique impact on society.
I know it is at this point that evangelicals will wonder the purpose of this essay in relation to single missionaries. Where is the Christianity in all this? A case for the purpose of poetry is not hard to discuss from a Biblical perspective, as the Bible is littered with poetry, both sacred and secular. R. S. Thomas declared, “I always replied that Christ was a poet, that the New Testament was poetry, and that I had no difficulty preaching the New Testament in its poetic context.” Francis Schaeffer affirms this in his book, Art and the Bible, “When we think of poetry in the Bible, we automatically think of the psalms…[but] one of the most striking secular poems in the Bible is the Song of Solomon…this type of poem, can also represent something wonderful.”
I personally do not like these distinctions [sacred & secular], yet what I believe Schaeffer is getting at is this: sacred poetry is that which is obviously understood as providing a Biblical message and secular being a piece that can be understood merely as a story about a subject, despite the redemptive analogy that can be drawn by the illumination of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.
As mentioned before, poetry has a direct affect on the health of a participant. An intriguing example of this is shown through a study conducted by German researchers in 2004. Their study concluded that poetry, when read aloud, lowers blood pressure and increases cardiac synchronization—when heart and breathing rates align.
Today, I see, the most influential form of poetry as being spoken word or slam poetry. Poets from around the world perform in poetry slams where they present their works before a live audience and panel of judges. More prominent figures of the spoken word scene include: The Suicide Kings, Buddy Wakefield, and Sage Francis. These poets provide poetry that cascade anthems, as a voice of truth, heard among the chatter of an ever changing society. Dr. Norman Finkelstein, of Xavier University, addresses modern poetry/poets in the following light, “Modernism, then, may be synonymous with change, and even though American poets were often exponents of change, they take on this role with greater or less misgivings…[poets] recognize the need to articulate a vision of the new social, political, economic, and technological conditions of the 20th century.”
Poetry, along with society, has transformed throughout history, resulting in the spoken word that we have today. It is clearly presented through Scripture, has provided an aid to living a healthy lifestyle, and declares truth to lost generations.
Part III: Literature and Ministry
There are two major aspects of literature in ministry that need to be addressed for one to fully engage in the use of it. These two aspects are the problems associated with illiteracy among the evangelical community and the purpose of literacy among evangelicals. Many pastors have made definitive statements about the limitation of literature in their sermons and gospel presentation. “It was an offhand remark in a casual conversation. I mentioned to a pastor acquaintance that I was reading Middlemarch again. ‘Again,’ he said, ‘why would you bother reading it even once?’ I detected condescension in his tone went on, ‘I’m too busy to read such stuff–when I read I read seriously,’” records Eugene Peterson in an article entitled, “Pastors and Novels.” Peterson continues to address that this sort of thinking develops a lapse in understanding culture between the pastor and his congregation. “One of the verbal effects of sin is either the destruction or obfuscation of story, the fragmentation of story into disconnected anecdotes, the reduction of story to gossip, the dismemberment of story into lists or formulae or rules…there is nothing that connects to the past, reaches into the future, plumbs the depths, or soars to the heights. Instead of connecting with more reality, the words disconnect us, leaving us in a litter of incident and commitment.”
This can be seen through the argument that Steve Corbett and Brian Finkkert allude to in their book, When Helping Hurts, in means of addressing racial reconciliation during the reign of the Klu Klux Klan, “’…There is no justification for what we did to the Negro. It was an evil thing and we were wrong…’ …While Reverend Marsh preached personal piety and the hope of heaven, African Americans were being lynched in Mississippi through the plotting of Sam Bowers…” (Corbett & Finkertt 37). Marsh admitted that there was a problem with society, but had no connection with it; therefore, he let it be, hoping it would go away on its own. This kind of thinking is naïve and is a luxury that cannot be afforded by those in ministry, especially missionaries.
Secondly, the purpose for literacy needs to be addressed. The need is simply this: literature changes lives. Jamie DeWolf and Rupert Estanislao address this in their poem, “Suicide Notes:” “…This kid with his ripped wrists wrapped in gauze. This kid ignoring the teacher’s speech about poetry and applause. This kid who comes up to me and shows me his first broken smile of the month, and says, ‘Art must be anything you can get away with!’ He said now he feels poetry in the marrow of his bones and now he’s going to write his own when he gets home.”
Dr. de Rosset, in The Moody Handbook of Preaching, also comments to the power of literature to invoke change, “The imaginative approach with which this professor taught, his use of literature along with theology to illustrate the old, old story was like a hand grenade thrown into my heart, explosively invading the numbness, even the coldness that comes from too much unillustrated, unintegrated, or droned-on propositional information, from too much cliche, happy talk, and predictability. I have never been the same. That professor was the fragrance, the aroma of Christ in my life, pungent, moving, and compelling.”
Part IV: Loneliness to Partnership
Poetry, as shown through Geoff Trenchard’s statement earlier, creates unity among the masses. Unity through a medium such as spoken word creates an immense sense of vulnerability. This is evident through the raw, unapologetic presentations of real life stories involving pain, addiction, loneliness, depression, rape, incest, abuse, and suicide. The inescapable emotion displayed by poets such as The Suicide Kings, Sierra DeMulder, Jared Singer, Buddy Wakefield, Rachel McKibbens, Sarah Kay, and countless others takes one’s breath away.
DeMulder discusses her struggles with suicide and masochistic tendencies in “Werewolf,” and her broken family situation and the loneliness felt at the hands of her mother’s neglect in “Garden.” The Suicide Kings address their broken romantic relationships in “Fun Times,” and the struggles of teens with violence in “The Question.” Buddy Wakefield struggles with belief in God in “Information Man,” declares his struggles with society due to the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his step father in his piece “Disclaimer,” yet praises his mother for her ability to be a single mother in “Guitar Repair Woman.” Rachel McKibbens rants about stereotypes in “After School Special”; and finally, Sarah Kay understands the differences in mankind through their “Hands.”
Their honesty and vulnerability is a form of love that is rarely shown within the evangelical community, let alone as an outward expression of the love of Christ towards non-believers. Vulnerability is one of the greatest examples of love one can express, as A. H. Almaas writes, “…vulnerability is vulnerability to love, and extremely deep vulnerability is love. If you really are vulnerable, you’re loving. You can’t help but be loving. And if you’re very loving, you can’t help but feel vulnerable. If you allow yourself to feel, your heart is completely open…”
Therefore, if evangelicals are to truly express the love of God to a lost generation, we too must be vulnerable; since vulnerability births the honesty that is needed to present the unhindered truths of pain, loss, loneliness, and redemption. Who better to declare the redemption through brokenness than those who know true restoration? Evangelicals need to become unhindered witnesses to the honesty of the redemption found for brokenness through Christ.
Part V: A Lesson in Vulnerability – A Creation
I was young once. Though the appearance of my now “adult” frame may not be what one would consider old, believe me, it is weathered and worn like the bark of a sequoia tree that has held its ground, year after year, through the raging flames of summer, the piercing winter winds that cut so deep, they puncture the soul. Whose bark has been assaulted time and time again by the machine gun clatter of the spring precipitation cascading down upon its face, and all the while tourists leave their marks…permanently engraving their memoirs of loves, now lost, in its out stretched arms. I too am weathered.
The life that is made manifest in this frame of an adolescent young man has crashed against the rocks and reefs of this proverbial sea known as life because the safety and security of the lighthouse never shined their warning light, their hope of home, and promise of harborage in the direction of this vessel by which I traverse these waves. Oh NO. The nights on this sea are not ones that have found rest. No eye has shut in peace knowing that the morning sun, with its golden rays glistening off the water as its first peeks over the horizon would bring the promise of glorious day. But rather each passing morning brought another thought of why this voyage should be continued to completion.
I was 12 years old the first time I held a razor to my still growing thighs and pretended to be a concert violinist. The razor dripped ruby red and became my quill, while my body became a never-ending canvas for the hatred bottled up within me. Like the leader of a small but grand orchestra, I conducted each move of the blade with precision and determination. For seven years this orchestra conducted more sonnets of sorrow, hatred, depression, and fear than any Bach, Beethoven, or Sousa could ever imagine. But there was one night, different than the rest. Different, not in the fact that sleep or rest came, but because the bow wouldn’t glide across the strings that had seen so many other performances; there was no momentous finish, no blood stains, only pin pricks and tears. The flood gates were opened, and rivers raged from blood shot, dark ringed, apertures in my face that one calls eyes. These rivers became tributaries that led to waterfalls, crashing down upon my legs as they said their last goodbyes to my feeble yet defined jaw line. As these waterfalls of teardrops gathered upon my scared thighs, they mixed with the blood that came from scabs ripping open in the night’s previous attempts to conduct my nightly masochistic masterpiece. Through my now distorted vision all I could picture was that one day, cast across the seemingly endless canvas, would be hope.
These razor scarred pieces of flesh have been called “brutally beautiful,” and believe whoever penned those words, is right. When the end comes, and you can’t pull the trigger. When all you can see is forgiveness strewn across the tattered parchment where every other day you’d see “die” and “not worth the sorrow” encompassed by an elaborate framework, you realize there is something bigger, and that is when the lighthouse appears on the horizon and is calling you in for the night. And even if you can’t reach it soon, it’s calling, and your course is directed to its promise of rest and renewal. That is when it hits you, the light has been there the whole time, and the youthful ambitions and aspirations for independence, acceptance, and popularity had pointed your perspective to the depths, and not the horizon for answers and direction. Oh yes, I was young once, but I’m past those days of chasing reflections and cowering in the shadows. I’m well on my way to the harbor.
Part VI: A Conclusion
In conclusion, literature is an integral piece to the puzzle of ministry. It provides unity among all participants, which develops an engagement and mutual understanding necessary for building relationships. It has established itself as a means of truth, despite its label—“sacred” or “secular”—as an effective means to distribute the redemption that is found through all circumstances, and has provided insight into situations that one could typically be ignorant about. It has shown the seriousness of the person engaging in ministry through their involvement with personal and interpersonal struggles.
Literature provides a means for the loneliness of a single missionary to be abolished through the purging of pride from an individual rendering them prostrate before the Lord, willing to accept His divine work in their lives. It provides a unique tool for effectively ministering the gospel by providing keen insights into the human condition and struggles.
Unfortunately, literature has been removed from both the pulpit and the lives of evangelicals due to an apparent lack of time and concern. In his article, Peterson, continues to recount the remarks made by his pastor, “…I’m too busy to read such stuff–when I read I read seriously.” The evangelical community has lost touch with this amazing medium by embracing a belief that they are too busy and literature is merely for entertainment. Single missionaries, the pastorate, and evangelicals alike need to reconsider their priorities and budget time to MAKE room for literature and poetry in their lives. As Buddy Wakefield states in “The Information Man”, “Return to your mediocrity, plug it into an amplifier and re-think yourself, because some of us are on fire for the answer.” We need to be on fire for the answer.
At the end of the Hollywood production, Notorious, Violetta Wallace (Angela Bassett) declares, “My son, Christopher Wallace, told stories. Some of them were funny, some of them were sad, some of them were violent, but people listened…as I looked out at all those faces, something happened. Someone in the crowd turned on their radio and I could hear my son’s voice.” Christopher “Biggie” Wallace may not have been the greatest role model the world has ever seen, but he made his story known and people listened. How much more-so should missionaries be recounting their stories to the world? If one young man from Brooklyn can express the realities of his life through his rhymes, why can’t we as evangelicals change the world through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit harnessed through poetry and literature?
With an appropriate understanding of literature in ministry and how it can bring about change in the lives of the broken, there is one thing the evangelical community must fear: not utilizing the gift of literature in ministry. In his poem, “In the Cannibus Club,” Geoff Trenchard resounds the statement, “But for me, the thought of these shoes never being scuffed, because they’ll never hit the ground has me shook as a shrinking violet in my seat.” This is a fear we should all have. Literature and literacy are a gift from God, and the use of them is integral for ministry!
Works Cited And A Short Research List
Brand, Hilary, and Adrienne Chaplin. Art & Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts. 2nd. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001. Print.
Bruce, Dr. Will. “Why and How to Pray for Missionaries.” Prayer Resources (1998): n. pag. Web. 25 Apr 2010.
Carter, Michele A.. “Abiding Loneliness: An Existential Perspective on Loneliness.” Second Opinion. 3rd Ed. Martin E. Marty. Chicago, IL: Park Ridge Center, 2000. Print.
Corbett, Steve, and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009. Print.
Hardin, Joyce. “Women in Missions.” Guidelines for World Evangelism. Ohio Valley College, July 20, 2004. Web. 1 May 2010.
Horst, Fern. “It’s Never to Late to Have a Life!.” Purposeful Singleness: Christian Singles Living Purposefully for Christ (2003): n. pag. Web. 24 Apr 2010.
“How do Singles Deal with Loneliness and Isolation Overseas.” Ask A Missionary n. pag. Web. 28 Apr 2010.
Kindrachuk, Melanie. “The Physiological Impact of Poetry.” Savvy Verse and Wit (2010): n. pag. Web. 25 Apr 2010.
Koteskey, Ronald L. “What Missionaries Ought to Know about Sexual Stress.” Missionary Care: Resources for Missions and Mental Health n. pag. Web. 25 Apr 2010.
Lombardi, Ester. “Goblin Market.” Classic Literature (2010): n. pag. Web. 1 May 2010.
“Loneliness Quotes.” Loneliness Quotes (2007): n. pag. Web. 24 Apr 2010.
“Loneliness: Social Isolation.” Handbook of Disabilities (2001): n. pag. Web. 24 Nov 2009.
McCullough, Donald W. “What Does Literature Have to Do With Ministry?.” Theology, News and Notes December 1991: 3. Print.
Owens, Virginia Stem. “Telling the Truth in Lies”. Theology, News and Notes December 1991: 6. Print.
Piper, John. “For Single Men and Women (And the Rest of Us).” Pure Intimacy (2010): n. pag. Web. 1 May 2010.
Peterson, Eugene H. “Pastors and Novels”. Theology, News and Notes December 1991: 8. Print.
Rice, Anne, Perf. Anne Rice. Dir. I Am Second.” www.iamsecond.com: 2010, Web. 10 Apr 2010.
Schaeffer, Francis A. Art and the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973. Print.
“Singleness and the Mission Field: One Man’s Perspective.” SingleChristian.org. Salesforce.com, Web. 3 May 2010.
Steffen, Tom, and Lois Douglas. Encountering Missionary Life and Work: Preparing for Intercultural Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008. Print.
Warren, Lee. “Loneliness.” Little Nuances (2005): n. pag. Web. 24 Nov 2009.
Wynn, Stephen. “Plight of Single Missionary.” Scribd. scribd.com, 2009. Web. 1 May 2010.