In one of my classes at Boyce College, Great Books II, we read through western literature and discuss it with a theological bent in class. I have found this class (mainly Great Books I, since Great Books II just started) is profoundly helpful in thinking through issues. I have also discovered a passion of mine of reading classic literature, whether it is allegorical fiction, poetry, or treatises. I encourage you: read, read, read some old books. Read some Puritan books, read some reformation books, read some Christian poetry (like the one pictured above). A Year with George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-Two of His Best Loved Poems, by Dr. Jim Scott Orrick (my Great Books professor), is so far a wonderful read. Herbert was a 17th century Puritan writer, and his poems capture into few sentences great theological ideas that men having written voluminously on.
I wish to share with you the first poem, entitled “The Altar”, and then I want to seek to answer the “Ponder” section, which is Dr. Orrick’s encouragement to the reader to think more deeply on the poem which was just read. Here is “The Altar”, by George Herbert, in it’s entirety (// = beginning of the next line. To really see the picture, buy a copy of the book for yourself.):
1A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,// Made of a heart, and cemented with tears:// Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;// No workman’s tool hath touch’d the same// A HEART alone// Is such a stone,// as nothing but// Thy pow’r doth cut.// Wherefore each part// Of my hard heart// Meets in this frame,// To praise thy name.// That if I chance to hold my peace,// These stones to praise thee may not cease.// O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,// And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.
A few notes, which are given also by Dr. Orrick, must be allowed for. First, God’s law required that altars for Him be made of stones which were natural and not cut by human hands. Second, Herbert, in his poems, writes of the devastating effects of sin. He references in this poem that natural stones may be cut other ways, but that the stone which is the human heart may only be cut by the power of God. Third, Herbert says that even if he himself quits writing in praise and worship of God, that even the stones of the altars will continue to cry out and worship God. He no doubt references Luke 19:40, which says “(Jesus) answered, ‘I tell you, if these (disciples of mine) were silent, the very stones would cry out’ (ESV).”2
The Ponder section, which is written for the reflection and deep thinking of the reader of the poem, is Dr. Orrick’s. For this poem, Dr. Orrick asks the following questions:
3Does true repentance include sorrow for sin? Herbert writes this poem not as someone coming to God for the first time, but as someone who has long loved and worshiped God. Ongoing sorrow for sin is an integral element of the spiritual lives of many historic Christians we admire, but it is an element that is conspicuously absent in much modern worship, both private and public. Why?
As the title of this post reflects, I want to hone in on a specific aspect of the last part of the Ponder section, namely, why sorrow for sin is absent in both private and public worship settings. As the title also reflects, I think the answer is not so much that we are not sorrowful period. I think the answer is that we are sorrowful for the wrong thing. Growing up in church, and even still in my current ministry position, I hear complaint after complaint, whether explicit or implicit, of how this upcoming generation of children and students has no respect. One specific thing I have heard a lot of is the lack of respect for the church building. Now, I absolutely believe one area of improvement that has happened over the course of my life, being a mischievous, adventurous, curious boy, is that I have grown to respect property. I think I am currently still going through this transformation, and I think being a husband, dad, and pastor to young people has helped reveal that weakness in which I am in need of much growth. So, I am not saying that this specific complaint is inherently wrong. I believe I have a responsibility to train our young people and my own children to have respect for persons and property. I believe this is a universal truth which God has written on the hearts of men and women.
But, my rebuttal complaint is one of a different nature. I am not in disagreement with the idea of tradition and preference. I have my own preferences and traditions which I hold dear. My disagreement lies in the same balance of what is true and factual as opposed to what is opinion and preferential based on tradition. What I mean is this: we often give off the idea that it is far worse to have our own preferences transgressed than it is to transgress the holiness and righteousness of God. We get more bent out of shape over something that has no eternal bearing or consequence, but has only hurt me because I was raised to do something in a different way. I have very thin patience for this sort of attitude. To add to the reason for being disagreeable, I see such a lack of sorrow for sin in our own lives and in our church. We have become professionals at training and teaching our members to be traditional (I use this word in place of religious, because I think the main beef people have with the church, especially when they say Christianity isn’t a religion, is that they mean to say Christianity isn’t based upon personal preferences which are based on generational traditions).
We have become modern Pharisees when we would much rather deal with conforming the non-conforming to our traditions. Instead, Jesus wants us to be passionate about sin in the body of Christ. Matthew 7:1-5 is perhaps the most misquoted passage of this age. Most of the time, I hear this verse in reference to the secularist cultural idea of tolerance – meaning – “don’t judge me bro”. However, Jesus is dealing with a much different attitude. He is making sure that we are dealing with sin, including our own! Jesus wants us to deal with our own sin, and in our dealing with our own sin, we ought not to ignore the sins of others. Instead, He wants us to restore with gentleness those who are in sinful lifestyles to the life that is free from sin!
So, as a response to Dr. Orrick’s question of the reason for the disappearance of the sorrow of sin in modern worship, I believe it is because we have misplaced our sorrow. We are more broken hearted when personal preference and tradition is broken than we are broken hearted over rampant sin in our own lives and in the lives of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I absolutely agree that we have a responsibility to help teach the upcoming generation values such as respect, honor, service, stewardship, and so-on. But let’s do it in the spiritual sense – let’s deal with sin, come to repentance and call others to repent and turn to the life-giver, Jesus Christ. Then, we can teach and train better on values. Why should I respect and honor people? Because it is a sin not to, not because you have done something differently and broken the pattern of a certain tradition.
Have thoughts or comments? I’d love to have some discussion.
Resources I Have Read in Great Books:
The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius (Perhaps the most influential book I’ve read in terms of philosophy)
The Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther (Reformer)
Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Dante’s Inferno, Dante
Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
Paradise Lost, John Milton
1 A Year with George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-Two of His Best Loved Poems. Dr. Jim Scott Orrick, Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2011. Page 2
2 A Year with George Herbert. Dr. Orrick, Page 2
3 A Year with George Herbert. Dr. Orrick, Page 3