Reading George Herbert

Photo by Jonathan Singer on Unsplash

Lord, who hast formed me out of mud,
And hast redeemed me through thy blood,
And sanctified me to do good;

Purge all my sins done heretofore:
For I confess my heavy score,
And I will strive to sin no more.

Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,
With faith, with hope, with charity;
That I may run, rise, rest with thee

– George Herbert, “Trinity Sunday”

“Trinity Sunday” was published in Herbert’s The Temple in 1633. Each morning I read the Bible, a psalm, the daily entry from Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, and a few pages from one (or more) books that I’m slowly, presently working my way through. Herbert’s poetry is a recent selection. I read at least three of his poems each morning.

“Trinity Sunday” is a very short poem, but contains a vast survey of Christian doctrine, beginning with creation and concluding with eschatological, ultimate hope. Herbert brings to memory that the story of the Bible begins with God bringing order from chaos. In Genesis 2, God forms the first human being from the dust of the ground. In the final line of the poem, Herbert asks for the blessing of union with God. What began as mud now runs and rises and then finally rests with God. Humble origins, and a heavenly hope.

Between Herbert’s mention of first and last things, we encounter the doctrine of salvation. God is the redeemer, having justified Herbert through the blood of Jesus Christ. God is also the sanctifier, the one who sets the priest and poet apart, making him holy for a purpose: “to do good.”

God is then petitioned: first to purge, then to enrich. Herbert repents, asking God to do the cleansing work. He considers his sin a “heavy” thing. Sin, transgression, wrongdoing before a Holy God most certainly is. Yet God removes the weight. Herbert vows to “sin no more.” There is a turning. Only then does he asks God’s blessing, that his “heart, mouth, hands” (his whole person) be strengthened for God’s purposes and in accordance with the classical Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (charity is the traditional rendering; we’re more familiar today with love being mentioned here).

The poem begins and ends addressing the same subject: “Lord” and “thee.” “I” and “my” appear three times; “me” is used four. There is an interplay between Herbert’s “I” and God’s “Thou.” Formed from mud, burdened by sin, Herbert looks to God as Creator, Redeemer, Justifier, Sanctifier, and Sustainer. Herbert looks upon himself, confesses his insufficiencies and inadequacies and faults, and yet he offers himself as a servant, knowing that is the reason God has redeemed and now sanctifies him. He has been caught up and brought into God’s eternal story. He can only play his part with God’s grace, God’s help. The same is true for any who would call upon God today.

I have seen the last three lines of this poem quoted. But those lines become so much richer when they appear alongside and after the first six. To ask God’s help is all the more profound when considered under the full scope of God’s person and work, and to state one’s one weakness, burden, and sin simultaneously serves to humble and uplift. Apart from God, we are quite small and frail, very lost and exposed.

But with God we are united to the source of an unsurpassed and unequaled strength, a strength that works through frailty and weakness and woundedness to make manifest the beautiful gifts of faith, hope, and charity. We are known, and found, and protected, and sent. We are lifted and carried, welcomed and restored.

2019: The Year Ahead

One week ago today I visited Barnes & Noble and bought a Moleskine 2018-2019 daily planner. It was fifty percent off retail and my first major victory of the year, so I added it to my goals ex post facto: “Buy planner at discount.” That’s one way to keep your New Year’s Resolutions. Do, then record. Shoot, then aim.

I didn’t stop there, and I changed my methodology. I made forty goals. Some are very specific with measurable outcomes. Others are a trajectory. A few goals are continuations of a previous beginning; others are repeats of previous failures. As Bruce Lee said, “A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.”  Bruce Lee also said, “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.”

After aiming, action.

Family Goals

I divide my goals up into categories. The first is family. Most are simple. I plan to go on a date with Molly once per month. We have set financial goals for savings this year (and strategies to reduce expenses), as well as ways to spend time together as a family, including trips to the local zoo, using gift cards for our meals out when we have them, and going camping. I have a big organizational goal to catalogue my library, systematize my paper and digital files, and make accessible the thousands of photographs dispersed across multiple hard drives. I am fairly organized, but there is more I can do.

We know we are getting things right when we have peace at home. Our relationships to one another, to money, to our possessions, to our community, and to the natural world all require attention, each in their own way. Each relationship has bearing on the others. Peace is not only the absence of conflict, but the presence of harmony, wholeness. That’s what we want at home.

Faith Goals

I am a Christian. As a follower of Jesus, I am called to grow, and growth involves change. There is a sense in which I will never fully arrive. The maturation process will be ongoing. But it is possible to mature. There is a process, and there is progress. It may not always be a straight line, but God brings about growth. Spiritual growth often involves three elements that I try to remember: Vision, Intention, and Means. See, decide, and do.

Philippians 2:12-13 is a helpful guide. Paul writes, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” God works in us, and we work our salvation out.

The inward changes God manifests in us take shape in our lives, and thus in the world, through obedience. Obedience isn’t such a nasty word when the one who commands is good, and the one who obeys freely wills to act, trust, and follow.

When we have a vision of who has God called us to be in Christ, we respond with an intention to follow (meaning, it is our sincere desire to become and do the things Jesus himself did and taught), and then we take up the means, or ways, God has made available to us, the same means Jesus himself utilized during his life, such as prayer, service, Bible study, solitude, silence, worship, fellowship, and others.

This year, our family has a specific target for financial stewardship as part of First Methodist Waco. Molly and I will make it a habit to read the Psalms together and pray daily. I’m reading through the Bible this year, learning to fast, teaching Sunday school, empowering others for leadership, and revisiting New Testament Greek (eek!).

I’ve shared with friends that I want to become wise, and I want to become a saint, and while I know I am a saint by virtue of my status in Christ, I want to reflect that reality more than I presently do, especially since I am cognizant there are times, moments, and maybe even prolonged interactions where I do not fulfill the calling I have as a disciple of Jesus. I want to be all God intends for me to be.

Fitness Goals

In our family we value strong, healthy bodies. In recent years we have learned about proper nutrition, wise food choices, and appropriate supplements, such as a daily multi-vitamin and Omega-3s. We’ve used Advocare products for a few years (and if you’d like to learn which ones and what we think, contact me). Have we always gotten it right? No! But have we learned? Yes.

I have set a target weight, an exercise routine, a specific number of race events I’d like to compete in this year, state parks I’d like to hike, and a way to approach playing basketball each week. My big goal in this area is fairly simple: have a healthy heart, working limbs, and the ability to enjoy time with my kids. I don’t have to be a bodybuilder, just sound and capable of fun.

Creative Goals

Every person is creative. Some of us are just more aware of it than others. I write, take photographs, and draw. Those activities require creativity. In order to be creative in those endeavors, I need to read, learn, and grow. I plan to read sixty five books this year, take courses at the local community college in art, blog routinely, participate in a photo challenge, and be more disciplined in how I structure my work hours.

I also plan to spend more time in the kitchen and learn how to cook a few (more) things, which means Molly will be my teacher. I’m looking ahead to 2020, when I’ll attend a writers conference. That’s a sentence I never imagined myself writing.

Community Goals

Lastly, I have community goals. I want to be a good neighbor and grow my friendships, so I’ll put together a few poker games, work with others around me to organize a few block parties, and continue coaching youth sports. I also plan to give blood (I do not enjoy needles), but it is something I want to do, partly to honor one of my grandparents, and partly because I can and because it is right. Molly and I also plan to routinely invite friends over for dinner, to open our home and practice hospitality.

What’s Success?

I review my goals daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually in various ways and to different degrees. If I accomplish all of my goals it will be borderline miraculous.

My greater hope is to become a better person. If I move marginally in that direction, that will be a win, and all praise, glory, and honor will be to God.

I’ve taken aim. It’s time for action.

An Ethos of Commitment

I recently heard David Brooks, author and op-ed columnist for The New York Times, say “we need to move from an ethos of individualism to an ethos of commitment making.” He then said that the four big commitments, to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community, have been minimized by our overwhelming focus on the self. He suggested a correction to this trend would be a tremendous boon to our public life.

A shift from individualism to commitment making would, I think, also result in a necessary and corresponding movement toward an other-centered ethic over and against a self-centered ethic (Tim Keller makes this distinction here). Individualism is not altogether evil; its virtues should be remembered and certainly not abandoned. For a person to have a sense of uniqueness, to form convictions, to assert independence, to value freedom, to champion liberty, and to become self reliant are good things.

However, an understanding of self largely framed by the pursuit of self-determination and self-gratification can lead to narcissism. An ethos of commitment making, conversely, continues to hold fast to the value of the individual, but the higher  commitment is defined by service to others. An ethos of commitment making retains individuality but leads to a healthy form of self-renunciation, not self-abnegation. This is a form of collectivism, not sheer tribalism.

To start a family, to pursue a vocation (which differs from a career or job), to live deeply into a philosophical or religious tradition, and to participate in a community for the sake of the public good requires sacrifice. It requires putting aside the self and thinking first of those around us. The self remains. But it is the commitment to others, to something outside of ourselves, that guides us.

There must also be the creation and cultivation of liminal or transitional spaces, times and places when one passes through a defined middle stage, a moment of leaving behind one way of experiencing life and moving on to another, newfound state of being. What would that look like? What does it look like now?

Between spouses, there is often the middle stage of engagement, a preparation for the commitment of marriage. For prospective parents, there is the waiting involved in pregnancy. Vocation is more challenging. It is most definitely not the moment one declares a college major. It is also not always the case that one’s job or career is identical with one’s calling. But the moment one sees their role as an educator, businessperson, bricklayer, or architect, this not only has value for the self, but for the community. Vocation, in whatever field, has implications for more than just the person who has determined their calling.

A commitment to a philosophy or faith is clarified when it is distinguished by a public profession or identification with the particular convictions or beliefs of a system. A person may also choose to blend together a unique confluence of ideas. Whatever the  commitment, there is then the next step, which is the challenging work of further developing and working out ideas in both theory and practice. Many of these kinds of decisions occurred, for me, during my college and graduate school programs, places where I was exposed to different ideas and became cognizant of distinctions between traditions. I made choices, at times with intention, while at other times I was drawn.

Grounding oneself in a broader tradition is a lifelong work that involves the embodiment of the best of that tradition, as well as using the internal resources of that tradition to critique, improve, and refine the contribution said tradition makes, broadly speaking, to humanity as a whole. It involves thinking, feeling, and action. It also involves failure and growth.

And as for a commitment to a community, there is a need for stability, active neighboring, and time. Communities are built on shared resources, trust, and history. Communities depend on a “we.” They are not just a collection of individuals.

I resonate with Brooks because I have received, by virtue of my heritage, an ethic that is other-centered. I have been formed and raised as a Christian. While the gospel message preached in the United States, particularly in revivalist traditions like I experienced in Baptist life, has been highly focused on personal, individual decisions to place faith and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord, that is not all there is to the Christian gospel.

A historically well-rounded and theologically robust account of the Christian faith easily leads to both self-renunciation and service to the world, a way of life that is not only about me and God, but me, God, and my life. This is the calling of the disciple. Jesus told his followers to take up their cross, lose their life in order to find it, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

The Christian tradition, as time has passed, has become my own. First, it came to me by way of a profession of faith, a public declaration that I did have faith in Christ, testified to publicly through the act of baptism. I was converted. Once I was not a Christian, then, by faith, I was. From that one commitment, others have followed. I became a Christian, but then I continued the process of becoming more like Christ. That commitment has influenced and shaped every other commitment. My commitment to Jesus, and my broader commitment to Christianity, has informed and enriched my commitment to my spouse, family, and community, and has been a source of strength and direction for my vocation as a Christian educator, pastor, and writer.

Consider again the four areas of commitment named by Brooks: marriage and family, vocation, philosophy or faith, and community. In which of these areas have you set down firm anchor points, ties that bind you to others? What are your commitments? In what ways do these commitments require you to put your self aside and sacrifice for those around you? What resources are you drawing upon to ensure that you remain faithful to your commitments?

How, in other words, are you being spiritually formed?

Remaining true to our commitments is contingent, in part, on how the narratives, practices, and communities we participate in contribute to the formation of our character. Make commitments. Then, situate your life within an environment that will feed, fuel, and foster those commitments not only for the good of yourself, but for the good of the world and to the glory of God.