Are You With Henley or Herbert?

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A few summers ago I hosted a summer poetry class for interested Central Asian students. Poetry is notorious as the hardest expression of any language to understand, but a brave crew of students made it through the summer. Together we surveyed some of the most famous and impactful poems of the English language. In each session we first worked through the basic meaning of the lines, then we would spend some time debating the message of the poem, and finally whether or not the students agreed or disagreed with that message. I finished the summer with these two poems, whose moral posture couldn’t be more contradictory. When asked whether my Muslim Central Asian students resonated with Henley or with Herbert, a fascinating discussion ensued, one which gave hints about which students might be experiencing initial conviction of sin.

What about you? Do you resonate with Henley or with Herbert? To allude to yet another famous poem, Henly and Herbert could be represented as two roads that diverge in a yellow wood. And you can’t take them both.

Invictus, William Earnest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.
Love III, George Herbert

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 lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, 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 marred 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.

Props to poetryfoundation.org for the access to these poems

Like A Salty Sailor Loves the Sea

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Meditations on the fear of the Lord from Psalm 128:

“Blessed are all who fear the Lord…” What does this phrase mean, to fear the Lord? Does it mean that we are to live in terror of God, that if we step out of line at any point he may decide to squash us? Does it mean that he is some kind of tyrant king who demands allegiance without deserving it? Can we fear God and still love him since 1st John 4:18 says that “there is no fear in love?” Here we are at a disadvantage because of our culture and our language. We have a very limited understanding of the term “fear” and we use it mainly with negative connotations. Yet in the Bible, to fear the Lord is a very good thing. It means to honor him, to reverence him, to even have friendship with him. Ps 25:14 says that the friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him. To fear the Lord then means to know him as he truly is, a perfect, holy God who is all powerful and a righteous judge, yet instead of running in terror from him, we draw near in worship and affection and obedience to his word. Here Psalm 128 fleshes out the fear of the Lord a little more for us in the second line, blessed is everyone “who walks in his ways.” To fear the Lord is to know him as he is, and to live according to his desires and character, to live in a way that lines up with who God is and what his laws are. 

In years past I read a history of the Atlantic ocean. I was struck as I read it by the many descriptions of men who had made their living from the ocean. I was struck in particular by their relationship to the ocean. Picture a salty New England fisherman who makes his living from the sea. His very livelihood and life are dependent on the ocean. And so he studies it and he knows it. Over the years he comes to know its character and its moods, its patterns and its warnings. He knows that the ocean is incredibly more powerful than he is and so he respects it, he does not treat it lightly or carelessly. He has lost friends and neighbors to storms over the years. He knows that life on the sea is dangerous, and yet given the chance for a life on land he would not take it. The ocean has his heart. Yes, it is powerful and dangerous, but it is also beautiful, captivating, and life-giving. This fisherman and countless men throughout the centuries have had a relationship with the sea of both fear and love, right respect and affection. These things can go hand in hand, and I find this a helpful picture of our relationship with God. The sea is massive and powerful. God is infinitely more massive, powerful, and unchanging. He is the way that He is. We disregard God and his character at our own peril. There is a way to safely approach the ocean. There is a way to safely approach the God of the universe and even to find our very life in him, to love him. Most think that we can approach God based on our own record of good deeds. But this is like trusting in your doggy-paddling skills deep out in the ocean when a hurricane is coming. We cannot approach God’s holiness standing on our own self-righteousness, saturated as it is with our sin. His holiness is not compatible with sin, it will destroy us. We must have an ark, a covering of righteousness that will enable us to walk with him in holiness, with the fear of respect and love, but without the fear of punishment. To fear the Lord means to approach him clothed in his righteousness, the righteousness that comes through faith in his promises. This is how the Old Testament saints approached him.

Logicians Go Mad Before Poets Do

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess players do… Perhaps the strongest case of all is this: that only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine… He was damned by John Calvin… Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion… The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits… The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason… Materialists and madmen never have doubts… Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have the mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity.

G.K. Chesteron, Orthodoxy

This is a fascinating quote on so many levels. Eat around the bones when it comes to the anti-Calvin bit. The overall point holds true. And agreeing with that point, I wouldn’t say it was Calvin that damned Cowper, but that there is danger in approaching a revealed mystery such as predestination too much like a logician and not enough like a poet. Perhaps this is why so much of scripture is poetry. We are given truths about God that are too great to be fully understood by the human mind. But they can be truly understood in part, as through a mirror dimly. And metaphor, simile, analogy, poetry – these are wonderful tools we have been given by which to better understand God and his creation… without going insane in the process.

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A Hundred-Fold Homes

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We have lived with rich and poor

In places some will not or can’t.

And found there joy, and doors

To life, and friends, and won’t 

Forget the promise, one hundred-fold.

We need it dearly every time 

We move again and say goodbye

And home becomes a house – again.

We do it all for Him.

And yet we know the cost is real,

That mingled joy of rootlessness.

But I have heard the king has rooms 

And rooms and rooms and worlds.

Perhaps a place where mountains meet 

The sea, a house with orchards on a hill.

Where there’s porch and pen and table 

And paper and books, maybe some tea.

A pipe! And fire.   

Yes, room to host and reminisce 

(With friends and of course the King himself)

The glory that we saw 

In our hundred fleeting homes. 

Children born and born again,

The needy fed, the lost redeemed, 

The straying won, the faithful trained.

A hundred tents of light

Soon dismantled yet again.

For the world was ours, but not quite yet. 

We don’t yet know the fullness of

The joy, although we know the taste.

For each new place a portion sings

And each new move the old refrain:

The promises are coming true

Before our eyes – a hundred-fold!

And new creation, forever home.

Is coming, coming, like the dawn. 

So let us drink and to the full

The joy of each new set of walls.

For it is fleeting like the fall 

And shines unique, eternal.

Remember the talk of camels and tents? 

And Shelby Park, and Kingston’s rooms 

And Sarkenar or St James Court? 

Yes, more to come, if grace allows

And we shall thank the king for each,

With faith and joy await to see 

The next of our one hundred homes

That really are not ours at all.

The glory – they are forever ours, 

Yet really are not ours at all.