The need for a structured life
Do you know what an acrostic poem is? It is poetry where there is a very clever use of letters to form structure. We often use acrostics as aids to the memory (GRACE = God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense). In Hebrew poetry, an acrostic form is sometimes employed, for example in Psalm 119, where the verses of each stanza begin with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The amazing thing about Psalm 119 is that the Psalm divides into sections, and subsequent sections use the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet in this way. Look it up in the NIV and you will see that these sections are actually given the headings of this Hebrew letters – Aleph, Beth, Gimel etc.
I have often wondered how long it would have taken for someone to laboriously construct such poetry, given the constraints of operating within such a strict form and exacting structure. It must have been a puzzle in itself, finding not only the right words to convey the intended message, but for them to begin with the right letter, and yet the resulting poetry is masterful, as an expression of devotion on the word of God.
Another complex acrostic work is found in the book of Lamentations. It is a poetic book containing five laments. Each of these laments contains 22 verses (except the third which has 66, which for the arithmetically astute is 3 times 22). The number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet is 22, and four of these laments are alphabetic acrostics, meaning that the verses of each lament begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. So the first verse begins with a word which starts with the letter aleph, the next verse begins with a word beginning with the letter Beth and so on.
Can you imagine the author struggling to produce poetry within the confines of such a structure and at the same time say the things he wanted to say?
The other notable feature of the book of Lamentations is its emotional content. This is a book which is high on emotion. If written by Jeremiah, then the prophet was in desperate agony over the destruction of Jerusalem. Here is a man writing of weeping and wailing and pain and agony and the most appalling suffering. The pain being expressed is searing. Read it and see!
Now here is the thought: perhaps the most emotional book in the Bible is crafted with supreme care and with the most exquisite attention to detail. The emotion is ‘off the scale’, and yet the prophet must have devoted hours of intense concentration to express that emotion within the chosen structure. Our prejudice often leads us to conclude that something is either ‘emotional’ or ‘heavily structured’ (formal). However the Bible gives us an example of something being both. Indeed, it is the most complicated structure that is deployed to express the deepest emotion.
I have a suspicion that this tells us something about the need for structure in our lives, and for structure in worship, for that matter.
I know a woman who, after the death of her unborn child, spent countless hours working on a cross-stitch in memory of both that child, and another she lost earlier. Having carried the child for over four months, the pain of learning that the child was dead was crushingly painful. This, on top of the earlier loss at a similarly late stage in pregnancy, fuelled a deep and sharp grief. Undoubtedly there were spontaneous moments of heaving sobs and desperate weeping. Yet when that emotion takes form and structure, it often strikes deeper into reality. The production of that cross-stitch, the endless hours of careful, painstaking work, was an expression of deepest emotion.
Is this not why carefully-crafted poetry is so often the form in which the deepest human experiences and emotions are articulated? John Piper, the American minister and writer, writes about the struggle he experienced in writing poetry and using the narrow form of the poem to express deep emotion.
“Why this struggle? Why does the poet bind his heart with such a severe discipline of form? Why strain to give shape to suffering? Because Reality has contours. God is who He is, not what we wish or try to make Him be. His Son, Jesus Christ, is the great granite Fact. His hard sacrifice makes it evident that our spontaneity needs Calvary-like discipline.”
In the same way, we must be careful not to despise structure and form in worship. Clearly there are dangers. I have attended very formal services of worship which were stiff and artificial and lifeless. Equally, there are dangers with spontaneity. I have attended services of worship which were without genuine passion and were superficial and jargon-laden.
John Piper also writes
“Emotions are like a river flowing out of one’s heart. Form is like the riverbanks. Without them the river runs shallow and dissipates on the plain. But banks make the river run deep. Why else have humans for centuries reached for poetry when we have deep affections to express? The creation of a form happens because someone feels a passion. How ironic, then, that we often fault form when the real evil is a dry spring.”
Having structure to our lives – regular worship punctuating our lives, for example, is not an alternative to deep emotion, but rather the way to channel that emotion and express it more effectively. In the same way, having structure to our worship services is not necessarily a hindrance to our religious affections, but the necessary vehicle to allow them healthy expression.
How else might this apply to our lives?