27 February 2015


This week (February 27), the Episcopal Church will observe the feast of George Herbert, surely one of the finer poets in our tradition. Here is but one example of his work:

        Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staffe to heav’n, and traced fountains:
        But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sinne and Love.

        Who would know Sinne, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
        His skinne, his garments bloudie be.
Sinne is that presse and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruell food through ev’ry vein.

        Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the crosse a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
        If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquour sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.

However, the figure of George Herbert, country parson, has also assumed a legendary and misleading image. In a little treatise called “The Country Parson,” Herbert laid out a set of admirable criteria for what makes a successful parish priest. Those attributes of soft and genteel politeness have often been lambasted and critiqued, recently by Justin Lewis-Anthony in his delightful book, “If you Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him.” Lewis-Anthony noted that Herbert, in reality, was not really such a removed country parson. His little parish church was actually within walking distance of the high culture of Salisbury, and –even then—Herbert served there less than three years. He didn’t really pay his dues!

Here is what Justin Lewis-Anthony wrote in The Guardian, June 2, 2009: “Close your eyes and picture a vicar of the Church of England. Whether you are a regular churchgoer or someone who once watched an episode of The Vicar of Dibley, your mental image will more than likely be this: a smiling, benign, inoffensive and unworldly cleric. This image has its origins in the life and ministry of one man, George Herbert (1594-1633).  … …. Too often Herbertism gets in the way of Christianity. The solution must begin with ridding the false memory of Herbert, who he wasn't and what he didn't do. Much of our reverence for "George Herbert" is the worshipping of a fantasy pastor, an impossible and inaccurate role model, a cause of guilt and anxiety. Like the Zen Master, if we meet George Herbert on the road, we must kill him.” (The Guardian, June 2, 2009).

George Herbert was actually born in Wales, and there is another Welsh-born poet and priest, a more contemporary one, whom I highly recommend for a fine model of country clergy. He is R. S. Thomas, a great giant of a poet. I can print here only a portion of his poem, “The Country Clergy,” but look it up. It is an excellent and rugged juxtaposition to Herbert’s fantasy country parson. From Thomas’s “The Country Clergy:” 

I see them working in old rectories  
…They left no books, 

Memorial to their lonely thought 
In grey parishes; rather they wrote 
On men’s hearts and in the minds 
Of young children sublime words 
Too soon forgotten. God in his time 
Or out of time will correct this.

10 February 2015


Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

I used to sing a little song set to that verse, and the song ended, “Teach me Lord, Teach me Lord, to wait.” But waiting is one of the hardest things we do! If given a choice, we would rather not wait at all. Over history, western civilization has progressed ever so deliberately towards practices and inventions that free us from having to wait. From the printing press, to the industrial age, to the internet, we have shortened our waiting times.

In today’s information age, we no longer have to wait for the evening news shows, or the morning newspapers, to inform us of what has happened in the last twenty-four hours. The 24/7 news cycle means we have it now. In fact, the internet puts almost any information at all into our eyes in almost an instant.

Finally, of course, Amazon has us able to shop right now, with only a few key strokes, without waiting for our consumer urge to abate. The ability to download entire books has us reading that book we were slightly interested in, within two minutes of our urge. We don’t need to wait for much at all. We have learned to fly like eagles – quickly and instantly!

In the midst of the satisfaction that the world offers us in almost an instant, the Bible steadily admonishes us to wait. Whatever for?

Because life – real life—does not happen instantly. It takes time. Because flying itself takes time.

When Isaiah wrote the verses of chapter 40, Jerusalem had been captured; and the inhabitants of Judah had been forced into exile in Babylon. They had no idea when, or if,  they might be set free to return home. Other parts of the Bible describe their desperation (Psalm 137:4 asks, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”).

In that time of desperation and tears, Isaiah counsels waiting. Things will not be as they are now, he says. “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.” It is God who will provide, says Isaiah, not our human strength or urgencies.

Last year, when I was down in Coweta County, on the farmland where I grew up, in the pastures where I learned to run, I would always see two bald eagles circling on clear days. They had built a beautiful nest, a home, in a towering old pine tree next to the lake. My entire family took joy in noticing their activities.

But this past Fall, we were crushed when we noticed one day that the old pine tree had collapsed. The entire nest, the eagles’ home, had been devastated; and the eagles were nowhere to be seen. They were gone. We counted the incident as another example of the hard life of nature.

But last week, when I was down there again, at the lake, I noticed an amazing thing. There they were, two bald eagles, soaring over the pastures where I used to run as a child. Yes, said my family, they had started a new nest, over on the other side of the lake. It was probably not complete yet, but it was being built, because only now is the time that eagles build a nest for their young.

Yes, it is only now that the new home for the eagles could be built, when the season is right, when the rhythm of life is returned to birth and new life. The eagles had to wait. The eagles could not build their new nest immediately. They had to wait for the seasons to change. But they waited; and the Lord provided another tree and another nest.

When we are crying, of course we want to return to joy. When we are desperate, of course we want hope. When we are in exile, of course we want to return home. When we are weak, of course we want to regain our strength. But God brings us home over time, when the seasons change, when the rhythm of life returns.

“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” Teach me Lord, teach me Lord, to wait.