George Herbert loved Jesus. He devoted his craft to poems of praise and gratitude. He did not reach his 40th birthday before dying of consumption, but life was a more fragile undertaking in the 17th century.
The country-born Welshman had the advantages of wealth and education. He could have pursued a political career and lived among the elites of London. Instead, be chose the life and work of a country pastor, where he was noted for unfailing care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill, and providing food and clothing for those in need.
He was respected among the metaphysical poets of his day, and in confining his poetry to songs of devotion left us the example of an artist wholly devoted to God while at the same time a creative leader in his society. Would that Christian artists today could lead as well as George Herbert did in his time.
LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.
'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:'
Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.'
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
'Who made the eyes but I?'
'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?'
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.
Once there was an abusive husband. He was a rage-aholic, given to fits of rage and, horribly, those moments sometimes overflowed into violence. Like the time he slammed his wife up against the kitchen cabinets. Or the time he slapped her across the face and then, in horror and shame, he ran off to find a quiet place to tremble and cry.
The wife—a Christian—forgave her husband each time he came home. He said (quite accurately), “I don’t know what comes over me.” The wife loved her husband deeply and saw the many good sides of this flawed man, but she lived in fear that the next rage-riot might bring a harm that would not heal. She stayed with her husband because each time he was sincere each time he begged for forgiveness. She knew her duty as Christian was to extend grace.
The only thing she knew of God’s grace was forgiveness. She had been told all her life that she herself was powerless over sin, and God’s grace came to forgive and restore her relationship with God. She was enough of a Christian to understand that if God had forgiven her, she should extend the same grace to others, especially her husband.
She knew something of God’s grace, but only enough to put her in danger.
It’s God’s grace that forgives and restores. Sweet forgiveness. Sweet—and filled with torment unless there is something more.
If we look at the wife in this story we want to scream, “Get out! It’s not safe!” Any sane Christian understands the woman has no duty to remain at home and risk injury or death because of some notion of grace, expressed as constant forgiveness.
If we look at the husband in this story we see a man trapped in thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that will mean his ruin and the harm of everyone he loves. A sympathetic view of the husband understands he, too, is a tormented soul in desperate need of help—help beyond merely wiping clean his sinful slate. The most gracious thing his wife could do would be to move out and demand that he get the help he needs to overcome his deep anger and pain.
And what of Jesus, the third member of the marriage? We could no more imagine Jesus leaving this husband in his condition than we could imagine Jesus telling a homeless man, “Go your way, be warm and filled” without giving him food and clothing.
Beyond the characters in this simple story lay a larger question: what about us? Would a grace-filled God leave us in the condition he finds us? Would he spend his days reminding us of our shortcomings, demanding again and again prayers of repentance and sorrow? Would the loving Creator wave his hand and say, “you are forgiven, now—go and sin no more” with lifting even one finger to empower us over our sin?
Sometimes an extreme example is necessary to grab our hearts and free our minds. Does God’s grace mean only forgiveness, or is there something more to his antidote for sin? Would God leave us alone in our rage, our addictions, or our isolation? A cold and comfortless God he would be if it were so.
The problem is not with the Father, nor his grace: it is our understanding of grace--his on-going work in our lives. Jesus will not leave us to ourselves any more than he would leave a beggar in the street. Anyone who suggests so misrepresents the true grace of God.
Who could need more than the grace of God? It’s not that we need something more than God’s grace, it’s that we need all of his grace, even the parts we would prefer to ignore. Take a moment and give it some thought: how might God’s grace be available in greater measure than we have known before? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
There was a woman who was healed of a continual flow of blood for twelve years, and everything we know about her came to us because Jesus stopped to hear her story.
Here it is in full, but I’m only interested in eight words.
A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”
“You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”
But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5:24-34)
Here are the eight words: “trembling with fear, told him the whole truth.” If Jesus had not stopped and discovered this woman, she would have gone home healed—and we would be none the wiser. But he stopped. He looked for her, and kept on looking, and he drew the woman to our attention. And we heard her story.
The gospel narrative gives us the details of her life up front, but in fact it happened the other way around. No one knew her story until he asked. The woman made a bold reach for Jesus. The healing happened. Then he stopped and listened, and we learned. Have you ever wondered why Jesus—on his way to help a dying girl—stopped in his tracks and demanded to know her story?
He healed more than her body. This woman lived at the margins of society until Jesus drew her away from shame and isolation. He pulled her to the center of the crowd, and in so doing made us listen as well. It would have been easier for us if we heard about the healing in passing (“That’s nice: some lady got healed.”). We needed the back story because we are so often unaware of the suffering: 12 years of chronic bleeding, bouncing from doctor to doctor, spending all her money, and living with the shame. We didn’t know—nor would we have cared unless Jesus made us listen. We needed healing as well, an empathy transplant.
In his final gesture Jesus turned the attention away from himself to the woman. The healing virtue flowed from Jesus, but he reframed the healing from his power to her faith. “Daughter, your faith has healed you.” Really? Most of us only saw a desperate woman. He called her Daughter, which connected her again with God’s great family. He sent her away in peace, freed from suffering—a suffering none of us would have seen if he had not stopped. And we all went away healed in one way or another.
One of the un-looked for pleasures of this Saturday Song series is the quiet space and time it takes to become re-acquainted with an old friend. W.H. Auden is that friend today. Auden's is a distinctly 20th century voice; he was born in 1907 and died in 1973.
Christians are not entirely at ease with Auden. Some of us may be surprised to see him in heaven's mansion, seated comfortably, cigarette in hand, greeting us with a wry smile. But should we be surprised? That Great Hall is filled with examples of God's daring and creative grace. Auden credits Søren Kierkegaard, Charles Williams, and C.S. Lewis for guiding him back to belief. That's pedigree enough for me.
Today's selection is an excerpt from a larger work. As such I've chosen to give it a name: Mary at the Manger. It imagines the young mother of Jesus holding her baby, pondering the great mystery and plan of incarnation.
Mary At The Manger
Oh shut your bright eyes that mine must endanger
With their watchfulness: protected by its shade
Escape from my care: what can you discover
From my tender look but how to be afraid?
Love can but confirm the more it would deny.
Close your bright eye.
Sleep. What have you learned from the womb that bore you
But an anxiety your Father cannot feel?
Sleep. What will the flesh that I gave do for you,
Or my mother love, but tempt you from His will?
Why was I chosen to teach His son to weep?
Little one, sleep.
Dream. In human dreams earth ascends to Heaven
Where no one need pray nor ever feel alone.
In your first hours of life here, O have you
Chosen already what death must be your own?
How soon will you start on the Sorrowful Way?
Dream while you may.
What a powerful urge it is to figure things out, to master a concept, to place an idea firmly within our grasp.
If only Jesus would cooperate.
Today I sing a cautious song against systematic theology: that holy grail of the academy, driven by the conviction that we can stuff the God of the universe into 1,264 pages.
I know: I’m already being unfair. I’ve already built the strong man. I’ve already insulted half my friends. So in advance I offer an apology to my educated brothers and sisters, half-hearted though it is. I’m sorry for such judgment; I haven’t done the work you have done: years of study and hard thinking. Any team with Dallas Willard in the starting line-up deserves respect. And yet . . .
I once listened to a seminarian speak for an hour on the subject of penal substitutionary atonement. He reviewed the meaning of Greek words and blazed a trail through what felt like the entire New Testament. He was passionate, and beneath his words anyone could see his love for Jesus. At the end of his presentation he asked for questions. There were none. How could there be—who knew as much as this guy? But then I jumped into the pool: “Dr. FireHeart,” I started. “If you can forgive me bringing up the so-what factor, I’d like to ask you why—why do we need to know this?”
Dr. FireHeart shuffled his papers a moment and gathered his thoughts. He looked back at me and stammered, “I, uh . . . Well, I just think it’s good to know.” The room was awkwardly quiet until the moderator thanked Dr. FireHeart for his excellent presentation and dismissed the room. Other academicians filed past me with cold stares.
Today’s post is not an argument in favor of ignorance. Everything I’ve learned I’ve received from generous and wise men and women, people much more learned than I. They have run the race and done the work. In most cases their passion for Jesus sustained them in that work. But if I’m honest, I would rather be left stammering and befuddled by the tension in Jesus' words than reduce him to a comprehensible theology. The root meaning of “comprehend” comes from ancient verb “to grasp.” I smile at the thought of Jacob trying to grasp the angel of the Lord and wrestle him to the ground. I smile at the thought of the human mind trying to grasp the lightning that flashes from the east to the west, or trying to grasp the wind, which blows where it wills. If any part of me is able to grasp the fullness of God, it’s my heart, not my mind.
Instead, I’m asking what is necessary to become a student of Jesus. I’m asking what it means—in practical terms—to take his yoke and learn from him. I’m asking why “discipleship” is so often characterized as study, and so rarely characterized as apprenticeship. I’m asking if the smartest people in the room always make the best disciples. I’m asking why, after writing his 13-volume Church Dogmatics (nearly 8,000 pages in the English Translation), Karl Barth chose to summarize his work by reciting the children’s song, Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
I’m asking for the grace of God to be rooted and established in in me, and that I may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that we all may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.