About Mercy

One time I was getting a root canal and the endodontist took one look at me, found out my majors were English and Music, and flat out told my mother “Oh this one’ll never get a job, I can tell.” That root canal was a painful experience for a number of reasons, and after that comment the tears in my eyes weren’t really caused by the whine of the dentist drill.

However, you know what they say: sticks and stones may break my bones, but comments made by complete strangers over a dentistry chair will never hurt me. Or something like that.

It seems pretty clear that people have a hard time seeing any practical value in the majors I chose. The assumption is something along the lines of “Oh, so you want to teach?” Welllllll. No, not exactly. I promise I do have ambitions for my life other than to sit in my parents’ basement and read all day and all night, but in college, I’ve loved studying what I enjoy. And I guess that’s why I picked English, and why I actually stuck it out with Music.

I’m thinking maybe those people who assume I’ll be a teacher someday are right–because if you love something enough, you’re likely going to tell people about it. People are evangelistic about their passions. Maybe I will become a teacher of sorts; maybe I will become a nerd.

I don’t know that much, but I can tell you about what I’ve been learning lately. Usually I reserve this sort of raving about English Literature to one (or sometimes two) friends, but tonight there’s several things I’ve thought about. There are three authors, mainly: a guy named William Shakespeare, his contemporary Christopher Marlowe, and a poet named Edward Rowland Sill, who was not only decidedly not a contemporary of the previous two, but was also not their countryman. He was born in Connecticut in 1841 and I don’t know much else about him. I’m not sure anyone does.

In Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, one of the characters makes a lovely speech about the ‘quality of mercy.’ It’s a well-known section, so you may recognize it:

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown.

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty, 

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway,

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself:

And earthly power doth then show likst God’s 

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That in the course of justice, none of us 

Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy (MOV IV. i. 184-203)

Perhaps it’s more beautiful in the context of the play, but I can’t get over it. I can’t get over the concept of mercy, which is odd because I often go about my day more-or-less unconcerned that I trust in a just and merciful God. The Sill poem I’ll include further down talks more about this lack of mercy in the world–it proposes that, while good men may be just, anyone who recognizes his own foolishness must plead to God for mercy, because God is the only one who grants grace.

I think there must be a balance there that’s hard to grasp: understanding both the bad news of the Gospel–that we’re all sinners deserving of death–and the wildly good news that Christ offers grace. Sometimes we downplay the bad news and say that we’re not really that bad–or, as Dorothy Sayers says, we consciously or unconsciously think God’s standards too picky or unrealistic to be worth striving for. From The Mind of the Maker: “The God of the Christians is too often looked upon as an old gentleman of irritable nerves who beats people for whistling.”

Other times perhaps we think of grace as something God owes us. To be fair, we think, God has to offer grace to everyone. But that’s starting to sound more like justice, which God does extend to everyone. God is just. And that justice would lead to one sentence for everyone, were God not also merciful…

Anyway,

In Marlowe’s play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, the title character is thinking through all the things he’s learned in his study of various disciplines. One of these is divinity, which he rejects on the basis that man’s nature compels him to sin, and since sin’s wages are everlasting death, there is no hope or recourse to be found. That seems logical, and it might be true except that Faustus leaves off the second part of the verse he quotes. In the verse Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,” Faustus stops after the word “death.” He doesn’t consider the “gospell-y” part of the verse. Nor does he accept that he does have sin; rather, he’s so proud of all his learning that ultimately he desires to be as God.

If you haven’t read Faustus, I’ll just tell you now–it all kind of goes downhill from there.

So here’s my favorite of the three things that’ve been going through my head:

The Fool’s Prayer, by Edward Roland Sill

It’s pretty long, so if you’re interested, there’s an external site you can find it on. It’s beautiful, and I think it speaks for itself pretty well, so I won’t ramble on about it, except to say it always reminds me how precious God’s mercy is–and how undeserved.

I just finished a book called Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, by a man named Nabeel Qureshi. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. Near the end, when contemplating the incredible pain his conversion to Christianity will cause himself and his family, he reads Jesus’s words in Matthew 5, verse 6, and writes the following:

“I hunger and thirst for righteousness, I do, but I can never attain it. God will bless me anyway? Who is this God who loves me so much, even in my failures?” (Qureshi, 276)

Having grown up with the concept of grace, I take it for granted. That’s crazy. These are things I’ve been thinking through, and if you want to chime in, comment away:)

Have a lovely day, and thanks for reading.

<><Jo

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About Joy and Melancholy

For an English class I’m taking, I’ve been reviewing the papers I’ve written for my English classes. And I got to this one, and it turns out I wrote it exactly a year ago. So of course I read it:) I guess it’s a terribly nerdy thing to publish one’s own (required) English papers. It’s an even nerdier thing to want to read someone’s required English papers. But if you want to, please do, and let me know your thoughts.

It turns out I only ever write the same paper with small variances each time. Thanks for reading me:)

Samuel Coleridge: A Return to Joy

Recently, my pastor spoke on certain gifts God has given those who follow Him; one of them, to my surprise, was grief. Grief and accompanying disappointment, he said, are gifts in that they remind us of what we truly value. Disappointment teaches us to value the right things, and grief, when it comes, brings us back to reliance on God. My pastor’s inclusion of grief on a list of God’s blessings surprised me, but I more-or-less accepted it and thought about other things. In writing this response, however, the sermon I heard a few weeks ago has come back into my mind, especially in considering the following passage:

…and sometimes

‘Tis well to be bereft of promised good,

That we may lift the Soul, and contemplate

With lively joy the joys we cannot share. (Coleridge 64-7)

When I read Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” the above lines stood out to me as being especially worth remembering.  He wrote the poem under circumstances of loneliness, and, likely, pain, and yet he realized that his surroundings—his so-called prison—were lovely and full of comfort.

What I like about Coleridge, especially in this poem, is that, when he begins his meditation, he is despondent, but by the time he is finished, his soul is more peaceful than before. It seems as if his poetry is therapy for himself—if such was the case, I can certainly identify in that way with Coleridge. Although I do not struggle with an addiction as he did, I often become despondent or discouraged, and it is at those times that I find writing to be a gift. Writing, especially writing poetry or meditative prose, helps purge me of my despair and often leads me back to the hope I have in Christ. I write alone, which, similar to Coleridge’s situation, might seem sad to some people. However, if there is anything I have responded to with the Romantic tradition, it is the idea that melancholy is not always negative. Being alone and a little pensive is a means of developing thought and character, and is often precisely what I need. In a world where I have access to knowledge of what any number of friends is doing—of what I could be doing at any given moment—I value the ability to sit and simply be, without feeling as if I’m continually left out.

“That we may lift the Soul, and contemplate / With lively joys the joys we cannot share” (66-7). At first, Coleridge expresses disappointment that he cannot share his friend’s first experience of the sights that so delight him. He does not necessarily blame his wife for injuring his foot and thus confining him to his garden,[1] but he regrets losing “beauties and feelings, such as would have been / Most sweet to my remembrance even when age / Had dimmed mine eyes to blindness!” (2-5). He tends toward exaggeration: his garden-bower is therefore a prison, and he idealizes the “beauties and feelings” from which he is excluded. This is perhaps the more natural reaction: having been prevented from taking part in a long-awaited visit, Coleridge might be excused some jealousy. However, as he reviews them in his imagination, he begins to anticipate Charles’s joy, and that, in turn, gives him joy.

This seems like such a healthier, such a better, way of thinking, and, reading the turn in Coleridge’s thought, I wished I could have the same view of disappointing situations. I have stayed back from many events, either because I don’t feel I belong or because I have other obligations, and, in those situations, I tend toward a morose jealousy. Whether I admit it to myself or not, my gut reaction to deferred good is bitterness. Sometimes, though, I force myself to stop thinking of my feelings or misfortune, and consider the good in the situation. It may be that, because I was unable to go to the lake with a group of friends, for example, I had the time to read or think, or talk quietly with a friend who may have needed company.

Choosing to rejoice in the good fortune of others seems to be the happier, healthier attitude—as at Christmas, when, rather than compare my gifts with my siblings’, I choose to be glad for their sakes. Then again, I receive joy from anticipating peoples’ reactions to the gifts I have chosen for them; if I have put thought and feeling into finding what I think they will truly value, I would be disappointed not to see the expression on their faces when they unwrap their present. Perhaps this is a little of the disappointed feeling Coleridge has at the onset of the poem: having spent so much time anticipating Charles and Mary Lamb’s visit, only to miss seeing Charles’s reaction to, say, the purple flowers shining in the sunset, or “isles of purple shadow.”

How does he make up for the loss of such “beauties and feelings” as watching the sun set on a “kindled” ocean under a “wide, wide Heaven?” He imagines his friend experiencing such beauty for the first time, and the joy he imagines coming to Charles comes to him as well: “a delight / Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad / As if I myself were there!” (43-5). Now he begins noticing the beauty of his lime-tree bower, once a prison. He notices little things like a leaf’s stem making shadows on the transparent leaf, and the sights and sounds of twilight. “Henceforth I shall know,” he says, “That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure; / No plot so narrow, be but Nature there, / No waste so vacant, but may well employ / Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart / Awake to Love and Beauty!” (59-64)

I identify with this view of Nature as a healing force. Whenever I am truly discouraged, I seek the outdoors—specifically a place where I can sit and notice little things of beauty. In college, I have found two spots on campus that have filled the role of Coleridge’s lime-tree bower: both are benches, one down near Speer Pavilion, the other just outside Berry Bible Building. From the bench at Speer, I can see the river, and, more importantly, the river’s bend, which I connect with hope and the anticipation of the unknown. I often hear birdsong, and on one occasion, I listened to a chorus of owls from across the river. It’s there that I have written the compositions that have shaped my thinking most clearly, because it’s there that I have the time and space to think clearly and process my thoughts. I notice things more there, and outside Berry, whether it’s the birdsong or the sunlight making the roses glow bright pink, dappled with sun and shade like Coleridge’s lime leaves. It is at times when I am at my leisure to notice well my surroundings that I realize how remarkable nature is. I wonder things like, “Why did God make flowers such a ruddy-pink?” God did not have to make the world so beautiful, yet He did. I wish I noticed it more.

These thoughts, thoughts that focus less on my circumstances than on truths I can be thankful for—these are what change my mindset from discouraged to content. If I can “employ each faculty of sense—” whether through looking or listening—under Coleridge’s view of Nature, my heart will keep awake to Love and Beauty. Joy will remain. Not just joy, but the “deep joy” Coleridge describes is highly attractive to me. He imagines Charles looking out over the wide landscape, and being overwhelmed with an inexplicable feeling of something more. Coleridge tries to describe it for the reader, speaking of a “swimming sense” that things are “less gross than bodily,” but this description seems vague and unsatisfying. Directly after, he compares the feeling of deep joy to the effect of the Holy Spirit on one’s soul, and that, to me, is a little clearer, though I still feel that Coleridge must have struggled to evoke the emotion he intended. I think I know what he meant, although I doubt I could express it any better than he did.

The feeling I am thinking of is one of reveling in the way the world is—and yet, it might not be particularly happy. It is seeing your surroundings with an eye of intense delight, as if you are seeing more to them than what is normally apparent. As Coleridge says, it is as when the “Almighty Spirit…yet [he] makes / Spirits perceive his presence.” I have felt a little of this enigmatic sensation, most often when surrounded by natural beauty, and I have encountered it in books. L.M. Montgomery, who wrote the “Anne of Green Gables” series, had a fondness for crafting highly-poetical, romantic heroines, such as Anne or the title character of the “Emily” series, both of whom were subject to what Emily called “the Flash.” The Flash, according to Emily, was a trance-like state that might come over her and make her extraordinarily sensitive to beauty or, in a broader sense, truth—especially truth that might not be apparent under ordinary circumstances. For Anne, the feeling manifested itself in her ability to notice the ethereal beauty of her environment. Perhaps the feeling comes with a tendency to poeticize one’s surroundings, a tendency Coleridge decidedly possesses.

And yet, this same sort of feeling shows up in C.S. Lewis’ autobiography, “Surprised by Joy.” As I recall, Lewis experienced a sense of longing, an “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Such a sensation he devotes an entire book to describing, or trying to describe—that of a depth of intense feeling that attracts him again and again. He calls it Joy, and differentiates the feeling from happiness or pleasure. Coleridge does not explicitly make such a distinction, so perhaps the two feelings are not the same. Regardless, in reading Coleridge’s words, I was reminded of Lewis’s, and further reminded of instances where I think I have had similar, if not identical, flashes of joy.

I think it happens most often when I am very content or very distraught, and less often when I am routinely going about my days, intent on getting things done. If I am feeling well and particularly happy to be alive, I might look up at the sky and feel a glad shudder go through me, simply because I can hardly believe this is real life. If I am sad, however, or discouraged, or only feeling a little lonely, everything around me, though beautiful, seems not enough. There ought to be more, I think—and the thought is never completed. I don’t know what it is that I long for more of, exactly, and even if I knew, perhaps I could not express it. Chesterton, in his Orthodoxy, speaks of a Christian being out-of-place in the world, and thus feeling “homesick at home.” Even in the middle of standing, like Coleridge, with a wide, wide view of an incredibly lovely world, I feel that something is missing—and I long for its completion.

 

[1] Just previous to the visit of his friends, Coleridge’s wife, Sara, accidentally spilled scalding milk on his foot, preventing Coleridge from walking with his friends during their visit.

I’m Recommending a Band

Tenth Avenue North. There you go. You don’t actually have to read any more of this blog post, cause mostly I’ll just be talking about how I’ve enjoyed their music lately, and maybe I’ll quote parts of the songs that have been most helpful to me. I’m not telling you to go listen to them. I’m inviting you to listen, because maybe you’ll enjoy it. That’s all.

If you are still reading, and you aren’t really sure what band I’m trying to recommend, I’ll be clearer. The band is Tenth Avenue North, and if you listen to Christian radio, chances are you’ve heard them already, especially their songs “Love is Here” and “By Your Side.” So I’m not being hipster at all, I guess, because they’re kinda semi-popular, maybe? I don’t know.

Friends know I tend to go through phases of really really enjoying a band for a short period of time, before moving on to something new (looking at you, Jukebox the Ghost). So it could be I’ll read this in a few years and shudder at what horrible judgment I had to recommend this horrible band Tenth Avenue North.

I don’t think that’ll happen, but maybe.

The main reason I’ve enjoyed this particular band lately is because their songs seem to be very much based in Scripture. If they aren’t quoting Scripture directly, the themes of their songs line up quite well with what I believe. Distinction: they line up with what I believe, and with what I know, which isn’t always the same thing as what I happen to be feeling at any given time. I can assent intellectually to any number of truthful things, but it doesn’t mean I wholeheartedly live every day in light of the truth.

My heart has this infuriating tendency to rebel against my head.

So on their album called “The Light Meets the Dark,” for example, when I hear the following words, I connect in a way that’s rare with a lot of modern Christian music:

I’ve got voices in my head and they are so strong // And I’m getting sick of this, oh Lord, how long // will I be haunted by the fear that I believe // My hands like locks on cages // of these dreams I can’t set free // …please Lord how long // Will I be held captive by the lies that I believe // My hear’ts in constant chaos and it keeps me so deceived // …My mind is like a building burning down // I need your grace to keep me…from the ground // And my heart is just a prisoner of war // A slave to what it wants and to what I’m fighting for // Empty my Hands

“…My hands like locks on cages of these dreams I can’t set free.” Man. I am frustrated to no end by this, my apparent inability to stop fretting about what I wanted or how I thought it should be. We can only pray that God will empty our hands for us, changing our hearts to desire what He desires for us.

Or how about this one:

…We’re caught in the in between // Of who we already are and who we are yet to be // And we’re looking for love but finding we’re still in need // It’s only what we have lost will we be allowed to keep // And we’re waiting but our eyes are wandering // To all this earth holds dear //

Yeah–there’s a pretty good picture of being a new creation in Christ, and having a new spirit, a recreated heart, but a very human body which still gets easily distracted. The song continues,

Look at all the pretty things that steal my heart away // …Lord I love so many things that keep me from Your face // Come and save me // …We run to finally be set free // But we’re fighting for what we already have received //

I need that reminder, that Christ has already redeemed me, but that, day to day, His righteousness does not come naturally or easily for me. In fact, I tend to fail miserably. If I’m attempting this on my own, I will get distracted every time, maybe even by “pretty things,” things that aren’t necessarily bad, but that keep me from seeking Christ first.

So, anyway, those’re some of the songs on this one particular album. It would be ridiculous of me to go quote all of the songs, as much as I think they’re worth the while. The other album I have is called “Over and Underneath,” and while I may not quote much from it, I’ll describe it. It’s a little like reading the Psalms: full of honest crying out to God for comfort and satisfaction.

The last track on the album is called “Hallelujah.”

Aaaaaaaaah. It’s just good.

Their other two albums I don’t own, but I listen on youtube/spotify (which is what I guess I’m recommending you do–after that, if you want to, then you can buy all their albums so they can keep doing what they’re doing:). One’s called “The Struggle;” the other is “Cathedrals.” I’ll be briefer with these:

Cathedrals

We were built by the hands of love
Redeemed in spite of what we’ve done
We are the spirit’s dwelling place
And now, children of the light
Fight back darkness with delight
Lift your eyes up to His face
Let joy take temptation’s place

Open up our souls to feel Your glory
Lord, we are a desperate people
Your cathedrals
God, fill this space
Let joy take temptation’s place
We will taste and see You as You are

Father, let Your kingdom come
Keep us from our lesser loves
Nothing else can satisfy
Like the joy found in Your eyes

May we see You as You are.

Forgive Me

I hear you calling out my name, Lord
But I can’t look you in the eye
So I, I just stay away
I tried and tasted what’s forbidden
And it filled me with delight
But now I’m still hungry inside

Forgive me, forgive me Lord, for living, like I’m not yours
I forget, how kind you are
You are light for my foolish heart

Oh God, I let intruders into
The garden of my soul
Foxes are running wild
I thought you were holding on me now
To keep me from being free
How could I have been so wrong

What You Want

Everyday, I’ve been feeling the pressure
I always gotta know the plan
It’s a weight that I’ve tried to shoulder
I thought I could, but I can’t
And I’m so tired of chasing dreams
When I am wired to let you lead
You’re changing my heart
To want what You want
To love how You love
And that is enough
There’s no greater plan
That I need to know
You only ask me to follow

Okay, Jo. You’ve now written practically a treatise on this one band. [By the way, it is okay that I reprinted some lyrics here, isn’t it? I’m not by any means trying to rip off anyone’s creative work–on the contrary, I hope to get people listening. Hey reader, if you know the answer to that question, let me know, please, if I’ve inadvertently done something horrible by publishing this post.]

So what? Why are you praising this one Christian band so much?

There are two answers to that question.

  1. I’m a nerd.
  2. It’s not really the band that’s the point. It’s what they’re singing about. A short little blurb on the cover of one of their albums goes, in part, like this: “…we wanted those who heard our songs to hear the gospel, that is, that we don’t earn grace, grace was earned for us.”

And that’s an incredibly hopeful thing to remember.

Thanks for reading (if you made it this far!),

<><Jo

Hymns and Knitting and Fanny Crosby

Here’s a simile that has almost nothing to do with the actual content of this post: I think like I knit. Very Slowly. I connect things that maybe shouldn’t be connected yet, and sometimes skip a couple of steps out of carelessness, until my mind is just a little bit gnarled up in knots. At that point, just like in knitting, I slowly unravel what’s been accomplished, to see where I went wrong. And boy, is it painful to take out all that work I did. It’s worth it, though, because, often, going back is the only way I can move forward.

So this is me, unraveling the knots my brain is currently in, all because I read some article by a guy named Russell Moore about social media and hymns and envy. If you have the time, please read it—it’s good, and it probably won’t do bad things to your mind:

Why Social Media (and the Church) is Making You Sad

It references things that’ve been on my mind anyway, and those things made me think of other things, which made me think of other things, and, well, this is shaping up to be quite rambly. Sorry about that.

For those of you who didn’t read the article, it’s about social media envy; how, with everyone posting the cleverest, beautifullest, loveliest bits of their lives on Facebook and such things, all of the normal people (which turns out to be all of us) are feeling kinda blue. Even if we recognize that Instagram isn’t the whole story, people are still prone to envy. Lots of people have studied this, and lots of people see it without having to study it scientifically. Why is this worth getting your proverbial knickers in a twist, Jo?

The author claims that we in the church are guilty of the same, white-washing tactics within our worship services:

“Our worship songs are typically celebrative, in both lyrical content and musical expression. In the last generation, a mournful song about crucifixion was pepped up with a jingly-sounding chorus, “It was there by faith I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day!” This isn’t just a Greatest Generation revivalist problem either. Even those ubiquitous contemporary worship songs that come straight out of the Psalms tend to focus on psalms of ascent or psalms of joyful exuberance, not psalms of lament (and certainly not imprecatory psalms!).”

[I looked up “imprecatory,” to see if it means what I thought it might mean. It’s an adjective derived from the verb ‘imprecate,’ which means “to invoke or call down (evil or curses,) as upon a person.” Ohhhhhh.]

That makes sense. This seems true. I’ve wondered myself what to do with those psalms asking God to curse the speaker’s enemies through those colorful and vengeful means. I mean, do I pray this? Or is it in here in case I ever become king and have enemies plotting to kill me all the time? Generally, I go Frank Perretti and classify my enemies as the sins I struggle with; as the aspects of my human nature that truly are wretched. I don’t want those parts of the old Jo anymore.

I don’t know what else to do with those psalms, except to appreciate that, if I were in that extreme situation, there would be plenty in the Bible that would apply and be able to comfort me. It’s that idea that there’s something in God’s Word to speak to anyone; it’s relevant in all situations.

So why, the author asks, why do we ignore all that range of emotions and hard situations the Psalmists, and Job, and other writers decidedly confront head-on? Everything has to be happy, and the author isn’t a fan of what he calls “this sense of forced cheeriness…seen in the ad hoc “liturgy” of most evangelical churches in the greeting and the dismissal. As the service begins a grinning pastor or worship leader chirps, “It’s great to see you today!” or “We’re glad you’re here!” As the service closes the same toothy visage says, “See you next Sunday! Have a great week!”

Well, ouch. What do you want us to do, mister? Frown at each other and say “have a wretched week”—the author does consider it—? [Honestly, you should just go back up and read the article—it’s worth your time.] No, but rather than try to rephrase what he says, I’m just going to quote the article for you.

 I suspect many people in our pews look around them and think the others have the kind of happiness we keep promising, and wonder why it’s passed them by.

By not speaking, where the Bible speaks, to the full range of human emotion—including loneliness, guilt, desolation, anger, fear, desperation—we only leave our people there, wondering why they just can’t be “Christian” enough to smile through it all.

The gospel speaks a different word though. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). In the kingdom, we receive comfort in a very different way than we’re taught to in American culture. We receive comfort not by, on the one hand, whining in our sense of entitlement or, on the other hand, pretending as though we’re happy. We are comforted when we see our sin, our brokenness, our desperate circumstances, and we grieve, we weep, we cry out for deliverance.

Yes.

The knitting was going along splendidly, and I was nodding along and slowly but surely making good connections with my thoughts, when suddenly something I had read jerked me forward, and then I was skipping steps all over the place and getting really, really confused.

The Gospel is glad, Good news, isn’t it? So why shouldn’t we rejoice when we gather? I thought of the biography of Fanny Crosby I’d started reading, in which her differing experiences with worship services are contrasted:

In the first, “there were no organ and no hymns, as such, in the ‘Southeast Church.’ Like the early Puritans, the theologians of the era did not believe in hymns of human composition; they would use only the Psalms, which were “dictated” to David directly from God. Most of the music consisted of Psalms chanted in plainsong with, now and then, their metrical paraphrase by Isaac Watts, who lived and wrote a century earlier.”

In the second, “North Salem, as in Southeast, a great emphasis was placed on an emotional conversion experience, without which one should dread to die. There was a great emphasis on mortality and the certainty of hell for the unrepentant. Numerous hymns told of careless sinners, who were overtaken by sudden death and were lost.”

I’m somehow doubtful that this is what the article is advocating. At any rate, Fanny Crosby wasn’t impressed, preferring “the Methodists’ warm and lively services and their fervent and comparatively cheerful hymn singing.” She was shaped by her later experiences within charismatic revivals, which the biographer describes as being full of “frenzied worshipers” and “frenzied elders…laying hands upon her hand and roaring prayers for her conversion…”

Now, if Fanny Crosby and I were having tea, I don’t know how much we would have agreed on, in discussions about Christian denominations—I imagine we’d probably avoid the subject. But I love her hymns, and I love hymns written by Isaac Watts. But both extremes—the purely somber, sober services and the “frenzied” services centered around the experience of “getting happy,” both of those sound remarkably unattractive to me. They sound, well, like extremes.

Ok, so maybe there’s a balance. Maybe the confessional times of repentance are more for private devotion, while the joyful encouragement is for times of fellowship.

Maybe not. Maybe I just said that without believing it. I need confession, and I think maybe there’s not enough of it in the church. Like the author of the initial article says,

“Maybe what we need in our churches is more tears, more failure, more confession of sin, more prayers of desperation that are too deep for words.Maybe then the lonely and the guilty and the desperate among us will see that the gospel has come not for the happy, but for the brokenhearted; not for the well, but for the sick; not for the found, but for the lost.”

I’m rapidly getting to the point where I’ve forgotten what I was going to say, and I’m only talking until I can remember it. Maybe I better close it out for now. I’m thinking of my tendency to separate things out into extremes and go to one or the other. I’m thinking that a certain kind of sorrow doesn’t really conflict with a certain kind of joy; that maybe sobriety is inextricably bound to the deep gladness that comes with remembering who we are and who God is. If you made it through this headache of a post, I’d love to hear your thoughts—they may be as rambly as you like. I won’t mind:)

Thoughts on Herbert and Lewis

Sometimes, you can tell when I have a paper to write because it’s then that I have most of my ideas for the blog. This is partly the inconvenience of inspiration; but mostly the delicate art of procrastination. It’s not that I actively delay writing required essays. It’s just that they do have a tendency of being written eventually…at ungodly hours of the morning. I don’t always remember, on the other hand, what it was I wanted to blog about. So blogging usually wins.

I finished C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves just now. Holy smokes. His were such good, good thoughts, and I am sorry it took me this long to read them. Most of this post will likely consist of me quoting Lewis, and, later, a sixteenth century poet named George Herbert. Less Jo, more Clive Staples. It should be good:)

First, though, here’s an introduction for why this particular section resonated so much. I’ve been trying to understand why everybody hates Calvinism/Calvinists. And while that sentence is probably too much (and too vague) to tackle right now–besides being off-topic–I will say that I think a big part of it is that big, fat “T” in their whole TULIP acronym. Total Depravity.

Um, guys. You need to work on your marketing. That is kind of heavy stuff for being the first letter in the acronym. It’s not very pleasant, or attractive, to contemplate unless you understand more of the grace side of things. So it makes sense, that, if you just know just a little bit about Calvinism, you might not like it. No one wants to think they’re completely depraved. Maybe? I apologize because I am rapidly getting in over my head here, and I’m talking more than I said I would. Let’s get back to Lewis as fast as we can.

Anyway, every so often something comes on my Facebook newsfeed from this group called “Depraved Wretch,” and, especially early on, my reaction wasn’t exactly charitable. My reaction was usually something along the lines of “Whoa. What is wrong with you guys, guilt-tripping everybody and ruining my day? A Day on which I felt perfectly fine and comfortable and…conveniently forgetting all the ways in which I didn’t measure up. Until now, when I remember them all. Thanks for that.”

[Note to the reader: Every now and then on this blog, the sarcasm setting gets turned on, and it’s hard to turn it back off. Please know that I am genuinely interested in both sides of most things, and I try not to make fun of ideas just for kicks. I’m not a huge fan of cynicism, in fact. Also, while I’m explaining in this parenthetical, I apologize to people I’m probably offending. I don’t always know what I’m talking about–in fact, it’s rare that I do. Helpful comments are both welcomed and filtered.]

What it seemed like to me (past tense, yo) was that those people on the Depraved Wretch page were focusing too much on their sin, almost wallowing in their unworthiness and glorifying that over their new identity in Christ. So my question was this: as a Christian, what’s the balance between a). continually recognizing your unworthiness of God’s grace and b). having hope in God’s grace, not dwelling on your past before Christ. Can you go to either extreme (I think yes) and if so, what’s the difference between remembering your own unworthiness yet rejoicing in Christ’s worthiness on your behalf and being crippled by the temptation to despair in who you once were?

Maybe this is too simplistic, but I think it has to do with the difference between guilt and conviction.

So this is where I’ve been lately. And then I read Lewis, and it made a little more sense. Let’s read some Lewis, shall we?

From his chapter on Charity,

All those expressions of unworthiness which Christian practice puts into the believer’s mouth seem to the outer world like the degraded and insincere grovellings of a sycophant before a tyrant, or at best a facon de parler like the self-depreciation of a Chinese gentleman when he calls himself “this coarse and illiterate person.” in reality, however, they express the continually renewed, because continually necessary, attempt to negate that misconception of ourselves and of our relation to God which nature, even while we pray, is always recommending to us. No sooner do we believe that God loves us than there is an impulse to believe that He does so, not because He is Love, but because we are intrinsically lovable. The Pagans obeyed this impulse unabashed; a good man was “dear to the gods” because he was good. We, being better taught, resort to subterfuge. Far be it from us to think that we have virtues for which God could love us. But then, how magnificently we have repented! As Bunyan says, describing his first and illusory conversion, “I thought there was no man in England that pleased God better than I.” Beaten out of this, we next offer our own humility to God’s admiration. Surely He’ll like that? Or if not that, our clear-sighted and humble recognition that we still lack humility. Thus, depth beneath depth and subtlety within subtlety, there remains some lingering idea of our own, our very own, attractiveness. It is easy to acknowledge, but almost impossible to realize for long, that we are mirrors whose brightness, if we are bright, is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us. Surely we must have a little–however little–native luminosity? Surely we can’t be quite creatures?

In Jo’s words, surely not quite totally depraved wretches?

Lewis goes on to explain why those strange individuals who embrace their identity as wretches do so:

…Grace substitutes a full, childlike and delighted acceptance of our Need, a joy in total dependence. We become “jolly beggars.” The good man is sorry for the sins which have increased his Need. He is not entirely sorry for the fresh Need they have produced. And he is not sorry at all for the innocent Need that is inherent in his creaturely condition. For all the time this illusion to which nature clings as her last treasure, this pretence that we have anything of our own or could for one hour retain by our own strength any goodness that God may pour into us, has kept us from being happy. We have been like bathers who want to keep their feet–or one foot–or one toe–on the bottom, when to lose that foothold would be to surrender themselves to a glorious tumble in the surf. The consequences of parting with our last claim to intrinsic freedom, power, or worth, are real freedom, power, and worth, really ours just because God gives them and because them to be (in another sense) not “ours.” 

Here is where the connections were made, and Jo got quite happy. There’s this poem, which I love, written in the sixteenth century by a fellow named George Herbert. It’s called “The Holdfast,” and I’m going to put it right here for you to read:

The Holdfast

I threatened to observe the strict decree

Of my deare God with all my power and might.

But I was told by one, it could not be;

Yet I might trust in God to be my light.

Then will I trust, said I, in him alone.

Nay, ev’n to trust in him, was also his:

We must confesse that nothing is our own.

Then I confess that he my succour is:

But to have nought is ours, not to confesse

That we have nought. I stood amaz’d at this,

Much troubled, till I heard a friend expresse,

That all things were more ours by being his.

What Adam had, and forfeited for all,

Christ keepeth now, who cannot fail or fall.

If you think about it, it is sort of a comical picture, how we try to get this relation between ourselves and God exactly right. It’s this ridiculous cycle of humility and unconscious pride, and I guess I understand my initial frustration. Sometimes it seems like it would be better simply to rest in the finished work of Christ. But then I go back and read what Lewis said, and I waver again. After being clear as mud, and probably offending all seven people who read this, I better conclude with the thing I really wanted to say all along, quoting Herbert:

All things are more ours by being his.

Isaac Watts and Psalm 23

Today I was out taking pictures of pretty things that I could use for the blog, and I found a butterfly and some shadows and the Ouachita river. I liked it so much that I sat there for a while; not pictured is the birdsong, or the river’s rippling, or the too-friendly mosquitos. For some reason I started thinking of a hymn that I and my family have always loved–My Shepherd Will Supply My Need, by Isaac Watts. It doesn’t get sung too often in my church, because it’s one of those hymns that not as many people know, I guess. Which is a shame, cause it’s really good.

I thought I’d reprint it here, in case you’ve never heard it, or in case you have heard it and want to be reminded of the words. They’re worth remembering.

My shepherd will supply my need:
Jehovah is His name;
In pastures fresh He makes me feed,
Beside the living stream.
He brings my wandering spirit back
When I forsake His ways,
And leads me, for His mercy’s sake,
In paths of truth and grace.

When I walk through the shades of death
Thy presence is my stay;
One word of Thy supporting breath
Drives all my fears away.
Thy hand, in sight of all my foes,
Doth still my table spread;
My cup with blessings overflows,
Thine oil anoints my head.

The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may Thy house be my abode,
And all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
But like a child at home.

And, then, because I think it somehow makes it better,

Amen.

Read it again, slowly. Actually, read it as many times as you want–I’ll wait.

I guess one reason I love Psalm 23 so much is that it reminds me that I may rest in God–that not everything is one hard struggle after another. I’m all too prone to perfectionism; I want to get things right, and be correct, and perfect. I also tend to see certain things in black and white, while at the same time playing the “believing game” like the good little English major I am.

In other words, every time I hear a different viewpoint, my world shakes a little, as I try to reconcile it with what I thought before. Oh the angst of trying to believe as many as five competing ideas simultaneously.

Currently the angst is in the theological realm. There are a lot of opinions about how to know God, what He’s like, and what He’s not like. And I want to seek the truth and know God, I think, but sometimes it’s all I can do to not go around all day with my forehead crinkled up and frowning because there is so much I don’t understand.

Now, I get frustrated, myself, with all the Christian literature out there that tries to pinpoint what the “most important” aspects of the Christian faith are–what’s the critical thing to focus on, I mean. I don’t understand how you can condense it like that, into three easy steps, or five main tenets of whatever. I guess it helps people, to focus on certain things at certain times, and so I guess I understand why there are books about worry, and doubt, and conviction, and, well, everything.

Is it the same reason there are Psalms in the Bible about pretty much anything?

What I mean is, it’s weird to me that we separate out life into different seasons, but at the same time I get why we do that. Life is too big and too messy for us to process it all at once, so we face problems as they come. We don’t profess to know the answers for every situation

We know where the answers come from, though.

I have no idea where I was going with this. I apologize. I think maybe I was going to encourage you, if, like me, you happen to be having an angst-y time of trying to know God, that you can rest in what we do know of Him. We know that He is great, that He is good.

But since this post was so disorganized, I think you’d better go back and just read the hymn again. Thanks for reading:)