When the soul finds expression
Shortly after the start of the current decade, the Rev. Jerry O’Neill made a discovery that has made all the difference for him personally and in his ministry at Cross of Glory Lutheran Church in Brooklyn Center. He discovered the new world which can open up for a person through reading and writing poetry.
O’Neill had accepted a call to the north suburban ELCA parish in 2000, following 15 years at Advent Lutheran in Anoka and successful completion of a doctor of ministry degree at Luther Seminary. But he soon found himself in the grip of clinical depression, which required professional help.
When it was suggested that he keep a journal and do reflective writing as part of his recovery, O’Neill began reading and writing poetry. In the process he reaquainted himself with a form of expression he had once enjoyed but had allowed to fall into disuse.
In this new exposure to poetry, the pastor discovered a love for words and the power of words and word pictures. He also discovered that the thinking involved in poetry emphasizes a different part of the brain — the creative, imaginative right side — compared with the left side and its stress on structure and order.
In addition, O’Neill said he found that the right side of the brain is very much tied to the care of the soul.
The challenge to the poet, the pastor said, is to bring the functions of the two sides of the brain together. And he or she does it using words, spaces, and rhythm and such devices as images, metaphors, and similes.
Observing the coming together of the creative and structured impulses of his brain as he wrote poetry was fun, O’Neill said. “But then to see that it can be helpful in facilitating life-giving conversation and introspection is marvelous,” he added.
The “soulful experience” of reading and writing poetry didn’t only aid in his own recovery, O’Neill said. He also found it “extremely useful” in small group discussions he was involved in as a pastor, and it has become very evident in his preaching.
He now disciplines himself to concentrate on the meaning of words and phrases, to see concepts in their depth, and to draw meaning from an object on different levels.
“By my concentrating on reading and writing poetry, I’ve come to realize I not only have a love and passion for it but a need for it in my line of work as a pastor,” O’Neill declared.
The first activity O’Neill started at Cross of Glory using the arts, poetry, and story-telling was the Poetry Circle. That group meets once a month and attracts an intergenerational audience that ranges from high school students to elderly persons. Participants read from their own work or share something they’ve come across.
The next addition to the monthly schedule was Poetic Worship, an evening service designed “to stir the soul and offer hope,” O’Neill said. Held in a coffeehouse-type setting at the church, the service features poetry, story-telling, and music with an “open microphone” for participation by members of the audience.
The pastor is currently working with the staff at the Brookdale Library to develop a monthly gathering for members of the community called Poetry for Life. Each session would focus on a theme, such as healthy relationships, and feature poetry that deals with that theme.
O’Neill will help facilitate the sessions, and he hopes they would be cross-cultural, attracting members of the immigrant groups that have settled in the community and including poetry from their native cultures.
Another initiative O’Neill expects to launch is a support group for persons recovering from codependency — the condition the pastor says was at the root of his depression. Persons dealing with this malady are addicted to approval from others, requiring outside affirmation to feel good about themselves rather than a sense of their own intrinsic worth. Poetry will play a big part in that project, the pastor said.
O’Neill has not hidden his new-found skills as a poet under a bushel basket. In May 2007 a collection of 118 of his poems titled Out from the Shadows: Poetic Portraits of Faith was published.
That was followed by an audio CD featuring the pastor reading 40 of his favorite poems from the book and a music CD that offers 12 songs composed by O’Neill. The lyrics of six of the songs are poems from Out of the Shadows while the other six have entirely new words. The music is performed by Eyeful Ear and Friends, a light-rock group that features O’Neill as vocalist and guitar player.
O’Neill describes the poetry book as a collection of memories, present-day observations and a look into the future “with an eye for God sightings.” It’s intended mainly for persons coming out of some sort of adversity in their own lives, he said.
While some of the poems deal with factors that led to his depression, including the impact of growing up in a family headed by a mentally ill, alcoholic father, the pastor said that in the poems and songs he’s “not just spilling my guts out.”
There are memories revisited, he said, but it’s with the underlying questions, “Where Is God in That?,” “Where Is God Now?,” and “Where Does Hope Lie?”
The book has received many favorable comments. Richard Jensen, emeritus professor of homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago and former speaker on the Lutheran Vespers radio program, described it as “a deeply human book which trumpets the wonders of God’s grace in stunningly creative ways. Hope is writ large on almost every page.”
In spite of such praise, O’Neill said he has no thought of leaving the ministry for a full-time career as a poet. If he ever considered such a change, he was brought back to reality at a book signing last fall at a Borders bookshop in Maple Grove, Minnesota, he said.
Only three persons came up to his table during the entire period he was there, and none bought a book, O’Neill recalled. “That was humbling, really humbling,” he said with a smile.