Trembling at The Door

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One of the common stereotypes of preaching is that a sermon must have “Three points, a poem and a prayer.” Another is that a sermon should always begin with a joke—I guess that is to disarm people and make them think the dreaded message may not be so bad after all.

My sermons rarely include jokes or poems. Once in a while, however, there’s a poem that is, itself, a sermon. George Herbert’s poem, Love (III), is such a poem. When I heard it presented as an anthem by our wonderful choir recently, I felt compelled to spend time reflecting on it.

Herbert (1593-1633) served as a tutor at Cambridge University and as a parish minister in the Church of England at Bremerton St. Andrew, near Salisbury. He died from tuberculosis at age 39. The poem Love (III) is part of his anthology The Temple. While I’d love to share more about this fascinating pastor-poet and his superb compilation of devotional poetry (highly acclaimed by the likes of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden), let’s move right into this poem.

Just a few preparatory comments, then I’ll let the poem speak for itself. It helps me to picture the human narrator (listen also for the Lord speaking) as one overwhelmed by unworthiness. The unworthiness of having failed in faith and faithfulness. Shame in simply being all-too-human is mixed with regret and fear and the (un)belief that the Lord could or would never really want anything to do with her or him.

Love (III)
By 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.

It’s sound corny, but there is a sweetness here, a gracious kindness, that melts all resistance. This is a portrait of love expressed not because of the worthiness of the person, but because of the greatness of the Lover.

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12: 32 NIV).

Read this poem a few times.  Soak in it. Marinate. See it “play out” at the front door of a glorious mansion: You’ve just walked a very long, stately, tree-shaded driveway through magnificent grounds. The drive ends with a mansion that cannot be seen in its entirety without turning your head from side to side (Louis XIV’s Versailles palace comes to mind). With great hesitation you approach the door—and it opens while you are still debating whether or not to knock. It’s the Owner of the mansion (not the butler) who greets you. You stare in awe and then look down on your filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Every fiber of your being wants to run back down the long driveway…

Then the Owner grips you with a word. Welcome. As you are. Welcome. For Love’s greatest joy is showing love.

Dusty People

Dry Earth_Dusty People

People outside the faith have no idea that we who want to follow Jesus live in constant tension. It’s the tension between the ideal of trying to live the way Jesus calls us to live and the reality that we are, most often, just like everybody else. We struggle and fail and refuse to do what we know God wants us to do. It can be a life of constant frustration and deep discouragement as we experience the reality of the traditional prayer of confession:

…We have done those things we ought not to have done

And left undone those we ought to have done

And there is no health in us.

The disillusion and failure have taken many people away from faith. Facing this reality, however, can actually deepen our understanding of grace and our gratitude to God. It can also reshape our unbiblical expectations.

The starting point is learning, in humility, to accept the fact that we are works in progress. We are not “struck perfect” simply by expressing faith in Christ. Faith is a both an act and a process:

It is an act of commitment—like a wedding,

and a process of becoming—like a marriage.

It is like the birth of a child

and the process of that child growing to mature adulthood.

Second, it helps to realize God is not surprised by our failures. That doesn’t excuse them, but it does give us hope. As I wrote in a recent blog, “Our sin spoils our fellowship with God, but it does not make God love us less.”

My “trigger phrase” to awaken humility and gratitude at the same time is that we are “dusty people.” I take this concept from Psalm 103…

As a father has compassion on his children,

    so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;

for he knows how we are formed,

    he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:13-14 NIV).

God knows our limitations. God knows our personality faults and the deep scars of our experience. God knows we don’t have– and cannot get— it all together. God knows we are dust. Mortal, wounded… and redeemed by grace to be resurrected in glory.

In his book, Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly frequently recognizes our imperfection and provides guidance for those who are likely to be overwhelmed by failure.

“The first days and weeks and months of offering total self to God are awkward and painful, but enormously rewarding. Awkward, because it takes constant vigilance and effort and reassertions of the will, at the first level. Painful, because our lapses are so frequent, the intervals when we forget Him so long. Rewarding, because we have begun to live. But these weeks and months and perhaps even years must be passed through before He gives us greater and easier stayedness upon Himself.

“Lapses and forgettings are so frequent. Our surroundings grow so exciting. Our occupations are so exacting. But when you catch yourself again, lose no time in self-recriminations, but breathe a silent prayer for forgiveness and begin again, just where you are. Offer this broken worship up to Him and say: ‘This is what I am except Thou aid me.’ Admit no discouragement, but ever return quietly to Him and wait in His Presence.” (p. 39)

The First Letter of John reminds us,

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. 2 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 1:8-2:1 NIV).

Realistically, we will fail God daily– and often fail to recognize most of our sins. (And that’s a mercy, in and of itself!). God does not want us to punish ourselves with guilt and shame as the way of “self-atonement.” Instead, we cast ourselves on God’s mercy. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about faith embracing God’s grace.

 

 

Advice for a really bad day OR New Year’s Day Every Day

What do you do when you’ve had a really bad day? I’m not talking about a bad day when you’ve  experience all kinds of hassles and problems that are not necessarily of your own making. I’m talking about those bad days when you’ve really messed up:

When you’ve said or done something that you really regret;

When you’ve fallen into that thing that makes you ashamed;

Or when you’ve missed an opportunity because you lacked the courage or wisdom to act.

Bad days are part of life. The question is: what do we do about them– especially when we’ve created our own problems??

New Year’s Day is when the world gets a powerful hint of grace. It’s one of the most vivid experiences of God’s “common grace.” Common grace is a theological term for God’s continuing mercy extending to all creatures, as described by Jesus in Matthew 5:45-46:

…For [the Father] gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.

In this case, on the first day of a new year, those who have minimal belief in God get a sense of what Jesus promises in faith, hope, grace and love. It’s a fresh start. New Year’s Day is typically the season when we try to put frustrations and failures behind us so we can move forward in positive, constructive—and dare I say redemptive—directions. We have hope that we can make the coming days different. There’s a sense of wiping the slate clean. What a great celebration! The problem is January 2 and 3 and 4…

Resolutions are rarely sustainable unless something happens in the heart.

Our hearts are changed when we accept by faith God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Jesus took our sin upon himself as the ultimate expression of grace. He gives us that fresh start of being right with God, being released from regret and shame, and entering into the freedom God intends for us.

Take heart in this: Our sin spoils our fellowship with God, but it does not make God love us less.

The wonder of God’s grace is that it lasts, and it lasts, and it lasts. One of the most encouraging passages of Scripture that testifies to God’s continuing mercy and forgiveness is Lamentations 3:22-23,

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness (New International Version NIV).

The Book of Lamentations, attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, is a compilation of five prayers in the form of “dirge poetry” or “funeral songs” written during Judah’s judgment and exile. Even in the midst of God’s people experiencing the consequences of their sin and rebellion, Jeremiah proclaimed and celebrated the blessings of God’s mercy and faithfulness. The time of consequences will not last. God’s mercy triumphs.

This verse inspired the well-known hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” written by Thomas Obadiah Chisholm (1866-1960). Chisholm was born in Franklin, Kentucky in a log cabin and became a teacher at age sixteen. He had a powerful to conversion to Christ at age twenty-seven during a revival. He served as a Methodist minister for one year before resigning due to poor health. In 1909 Chisholm began his career as a life insurance agent. In 1923, at age fifty-seven, Chisholm wrote this popular hymn.

This hymn describes God’s faithfulness being demonstrated in God’s character, (“There is no shadow of turning (or change) with thee…), in God’s creation, seen in the consistency of nature (“Summer and winter…”), and, ultimately, in God’s redemption, described in the third stanza which says,

Pardon for Sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide,
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!

We cling to God’s faithfulness when it appears God has let us down– and especially when we have let God down.

If God’s mercies are present at times of our unfaithfulness, how much more will they be present when we recognize our failure and truly seek the Lord in humility and brokenness?!

My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise (Psalm 51:17 NIV).

When you’ve had a really bad day—do what we are called to do every other day: Trust God’s faithfulness not your own performance.