Saying Well as a Way of Seeing Wonder

Grace Agenda Conference | Moscow, Idaho

You can feel how, along with Doug, I am wrestling with these things. It seems like the last couple of days have been focused on this, namely, the whole issue of mediation — how we know God, how we speak of him, and how his work happens in our people’s lives through our language, and whether our language makes a difference in that.

So, that’s a cluster of issues that we’re dealing with, and this is an adaptation of a message I gave a year or so ago on George Herbert and his poetry as an example of what a pastor does with language, because Herbert was a pastor for the last four years of his life. So, some of this will clearly overlap and parallel what Doug has talked about already this morning. Then, I’m going to make my main point almost a converse of what he said, not only that our language choices in preaching affects what people see of God and experience of God, but that our effort to make those choices is a way of seeing and knowing God.

That’s been a surprising discovery for me in the last several years. As I have labored to find language that I think will help my people go deeper with God, I have gone deeper with God. So, that’s what I’ve been thinking about mainly in this particular message. So, I hope saying that, giving illustrations, using Herbert as the model will help you be heartened that you don’t just labor on a Friday or a Thursday or a Saturday for the sake of your people’s souls. When you try to find the right word, you labor for your own soul. That’s where we’re going.

Workers with Words

We, pastors, are people who do our work by words. I can probably deal with this quickly because it has already been said. Surgeons, carpenters, and truck drivers could do very good work without talking. You can take the cancer out and have total healing and never say a word. You can drive a truck from here to there under the speed limit on time and bring fresh food into the store and be silent all the way. You can build a house and never open your mouth. We can’t. Our life is our language. This is what we do. We talk. We talk in counseling, and we talk in pulpits, and that’s our life. If we shut our mouths, we’re done. So, it’s just huge. You can’t overestimate the essential nature of language for the preacher-pastor because if language goes away, we go away. Our work goes away.

The Bible makes it really clear this is God’s idea, right? All the important things you want to happen in your people’s lives happen because of words. I’ll give you an illustration. What about the new birth? First Peter 1:23 says:

You have been born again . . . through the living and abiding word of God . . .

People don’t get born again without words. Or what about saving faith? Romans 10:17 says:

Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

Nobody has faith if they haven’t heard words. What about edification? Ephesians 4:29, as we heard this morning:

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Nobody is edified without words. Love, purity of heart, and good conscience, they all come from words.

Words of Freedom, Words of Life

First Timothy 1:5 says:

The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.

What about joy in Christ? John 15:11 says:

These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

Isn’t that amazing? Joy is such an other kind of thing than words, and yet no joy without them. That’s the way Jesus was going to get it done. He is saying, “I speak for my joy to go from me into you with words.” We saw that with wisdom — lips, ears, and heart. We saw that so clearly. Here it is again.

Or what about freedom from sin? John 8:32 says:

You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

Or what about sanctification? John 17:17 says:

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.

Or what about salvation? First Timothy 4:16 says:

Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

I mean, these are just staggering sentences, aren’t they? Everything we want to happen in the hearts of our people happens through words. It’s just mind-boggling. It’s why I presume Doug is onto this in this seminar, and why I’ve been onto it. No doubt you have given lots of thought to that.

God’s Decisive Work

Now, here’s the catch. All those things I just listed that only happen through words won’t happen through words, except if God comes down. Now, I’ll give you a text for that. This is just remarkable how the Bible does this. God made people alive who were dead, and were saved and raised up through words. So, the new birth, according to Ephesians 2:5, is that God made people alive. They’re born again through the living and abiding word, but God makes people alive. So, do you do it, or does God do it? Well, God does it decisively, and he won’t do it without words.

Or consider the grace of God in having faith. This faith is not your own doing; it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8). So, faith comes through words, but it only comes through God. Or consider holiness, God is working in you that which is pleasing in his sight (Hebrews 13:21). I’m not going to keep going. You know this. So, here we are. There are all those glorious, eternal, spiritual things that we exist to bring about, we must be agents in bringing about through words. And none of them happen if God almighty doesn’t reach down and do that decisive work.

I have found that word decisive utterly crucial theologically, as I pick adjectives to describe the causality of God. The difference between my agency and God’s agency, I find very helpfully described by saying that I am not decisive, but God is. The absolute, final, make-it-happen, flashpoint issue on my piling wood on the fire is God’s decisive flame. So, that’s been absolutely crucial for me, and that word has been very, very useful over these past years as I’ve been working on this.

We are about a supernatural work that only God can do, and we are called upon to do it, and be crucial, essential agents. Doug’s phrase necessary, not sufficient. We could say essential, not sufficient. That’s what we are.

The Words We Use

The way I use words does make a difference it seems, or does it? So, which words I choose, does that make a difference in whether those spiritual things happen, or would any words do?

Evidently, if you look at the Bible, content makes a difference in your words, clarity makes a difference in your words, and the spirit and attitude makes a difference. For example, Paul says:

But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Corinthians 4:2)

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord (2 Corinthians 4:5)

[We [proclaim] the unsearchable riches of Christ . . .

I conclude from those three texts that the content of your words makes a difference in whether God’s decisive word is going to happen. If you leave out things that ought to be in the words, he’s staying back. He’s not going to bless and prosper a set of words that leave out essential truths. So, I know content makes a difference.

Here’s another thing that makes a difference: clarity. This is Colossians 4:3–4:

Pray also for us . . . that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.

So evidently, Paul asks that they pray so that he’s not muddled when he talks about the gospel, and people get all confused. They wouldn’t really know what he’s talking about, and God wouldn’t move because they don’t have a clear picture of what they’re supposed to believe, because he has muddled it.

Forsaking Squishy Affirmations

Here’s a little parenthesis. I read a tweet the other day that somebody quoted such and such an article by a person whose name I won’t even mention here. It was about how a review of NT Wright’s new book was so helpful. I said, “Oh, I want to read a helpful review of the new giant 1,100-page book. So, I went over there, and I read it, and I thought, “Why does he think this is helpful? It’s confusing. It’s hazy. It’s squishy. I don’t even know what he’s saying.” My heart sinks when I read pastors and scholars who call helpful what’s mushy and unclear and dodgy, and you don’t know what they’re saying. I just think that Paul is just so against that, and he prayed, “Oh God, make me clear, just crystal clear.”

I just love to be around people who are clear. They know denials and affirmations, not just squishy affirmations. You wonder, “What do they really believe after they make those three squishy affirmations? Because they never use any denials over here.” So, content and clarity make a difference.

The third one is the spirit and the attitude of your delivery. Paul pleads for prayer that “words may be given me in the opening of my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery” (Ephesians 6:19). Why would he pray for that? Evidently, it matters. Evidently, a bold, clear truth-laden word is blessed. It’s blessed by God. And a wimpy, cautious, hesitant, unclear, mushy word, it’ll attract a lot of certain personality types, but it won’t do the job.

Selecting Our Words

So now, here’s where we are so far. Our word is essential. God is decisive in bringing about those glorious things we want. If you ask, “Do our words really count? Does one kind of word over another kind of word help or not help for the divine agency to take place?” I’ve answered that content, clarity, and certain attitudes, like boldness, seem to make a difference. My question is, “Anything else? Does anything else make a difference? Are short sentences better than long sentences to help God show up? Should you use metaphors?” That’s what I’ve been thinking about. George Herbert is a poet, and why would he do that? Why would a pastor, George Herbert, be a poet?

I’m going to use Herbert as an illustration of investigating whether poetic effort, that’s my term, makes a difference in spiritual and eternal effectiveness, not just clever impact with no eternal effect, but real spiritual effect. Does poetic effort make a difference?

By poetic effort, I don’t mean writing poetry. I don’t think God calls every pastor to write poetry. You might, but I think he does call every pastor, I’m going to argue, to make poetic effort, which means an effort to find the right word. You know what Twain said. The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. I mean, is there a word fitly spoken that God is more likely to move through than a poorly chosen word?

That’s a scary question to me. I know if I answer yes to that question, I’m about to make aesthetes out of you. People who are just in it for the language game. Wordsmithy is your trade, and you want to be good at it, and God and the Holy Spirit just start to drift away. So, I’m very cautious in my own heart. Frankly, I don’t think I have all the answers to this. I’ve taught preaching to a band of about 12 guys a year for the last 11 or 12 years, and I never feel complete satisfaction with the way I’ve tried to help them. A couple of them are sitting over here, and I want them to make an effort to say it well, and I want them to believe it doesn’t really matter because God can make Balaam’s ass very effective.

I don’t want the unschooled, non-poetic, mainly blue collar folks to walk away from a message and say, “I guess you have to be an artsy, poetic, college-educated, George-Herbert-loving kind of guy in order to have an effective ministry.” You just know that’s not what Doug thinks. That’s not what I think, so I should sit down right now and finish the message. That’s a little caution.

I Have Spoken in Similitudes

Hosea 12:10 goes like this:

I spoke to the prophets;
     it was I who multiplied visions,
     and through the prophets gave parables.

In other words, God himself claims to use metaphor, simile, symbol, and parable to have inspired writers to search out words that point to reality in indirect ways. I have in my iPad a software program set up, just a little simple Bible reading program, and you can tell it to make highlights in different colors. You can use strikethrough or underline. I set one up to be a green underline for every place that metaphor or simile is used, anything where the Bible is talking about one thing in terms of another thing, a like or an as, or her love is a rose, that kind of thing. There’s a lot of them. There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them in the prophets and the Proverbs and the Psalms. Why is that? If you ask how much of the Old Testament is poetry, Leland Ryken has an article called “I Have Used Similitudes”, which is based on Hosea 12:10. He says this:

Given the combined presence of parallelism and heavy reliance on figurative language, how much of the Bible ranks as poetry? One third of the Bible is not too high an estimate. Whole books of the Bible are poetic — Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Solomon. A majority of the Old Testament prophecy is poetic in form. Jesus is one of the most famous poets of the world. Beyond these predominantly poetic parts of the Bible, figurative language appears throughout the Bible, and whenever it does, it requires the same type of analysis given to poetry.

So, pastors are people who do their work with words, and if we don’t use words, we don’t do our ministry, and God uses words that seem to be chosen with some effort.

God-Breathed Structure

Here’s what struck me. I wrote an article for our denominational magazine 25 years ago. The point was to make it known that making an effort to say something in a form — which takes away a lot of your freedom, like a rhyming form or a metrical form or an acrostic form — limits you. My argument was that like the banks of a river that squishes in so that the water doesn’t spread all over the plane, it pushes it in and makes it go deep. So, as banks become defined and narrow, the water that was spreading all over the place an inch deep is now driving its way down into the ravine, and the river is running deep. Then I use the Book of Lamentations. You’re aware that Lamentations in every chapter, except one, is an acrostic with the different paragraphs beginning with different letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

It has five chapters, and the middle one is the most severe acrostic where not only the paragraphs, but every unit in the paragraph, has a different letter. Here’s the striking thing, Lamentations is the most emotional book in the Bible, right? Isn’t it? It’s horrible. Women are eating their children in Lamentations, and this writer chooses to speak about this massive horror of Jerusalem’s destruction and the emotional torment of it in acrostic form. I just realized that and I shook my head and said, “That’s the opposite of our impulse it seems like.” The more emotional we want to be and express, the fewer restraints we want on our emotions. I want to just be free and let it out and talk. People think, “I’m crying, don’t tell me to cry within limits.”

What is that? I mean, that’s really worth thinking about. What is Lamentations doing? It’s the most formal book in the Bible, without doubt, and it’s the most emotional? So, how God chose to inspire the Bible has a big effect on how I think about my use of language. I’m supposed to plant and water, and God gives the growth. So, there’s the essential and decisive, but how I plant and how I water makes a difference. Doug said that God is ordinarily pleased to give the greatest harvest to the most industrious farmer. If part of that industry is how he cuts the rows of his language, then it’d be good to think about that, which is what I want to do with George Herbert.

The Life of George Herbert

I’m not going to give his biography here. That’s the part I’m just going to leave out of this message from a year ago. I didn’t come here mainly to introduce you to George Herbert, but to talk about this issue with Herbert as being illustrative. But it would be good to just say a word because not everybody knows George Herbert.

By the way, a brand new book is just published this year by a British publisher called Music at Midnight: The Life and A Poetry of George Herbert by John Drury. I have the book. I’ve read about 40 pages of it, but that’s probably going to be a go-to book for a long time. It’s a thick book, a brand new serious study of George Herbert’s life and poetry. It’s called Music at Midnight. You can find it.

Herbert was born in 1593, and he died just short of his 40th birthday. He was married but had no kids. He adopted three nieces, and he was the public orator of Cambridge University, which meant anytime anybody important showed up, he was assigned to give a speech and be the appropriate word guy. So clearly, he had a word orientation all his life. As a teenager, he wrote poems for his mother. His mother was a good friend of John Donne, a very famous poet. He’s clearly influenced by Donne in his structural language. But Donne had a ribald period in his life; Herbert never did.

One of the most remarkable things about Herbert’s poetry is that he said to his mother as a young student at Cambridge that he intended to devote all of his poetic effort to God. He never, to our knowledge, wrote a poem in English to anyone but God.

Herbert’s Poetic Legacy

The only reason anybody has ever heard of George Herbert is because of something that happened in the last two or three weeks of his life as he was dying. He had a good friend named Nicholas Ferrar, whom he trusted deeply. Nicholas Ferrar couldn’t go when Herbert asked him to come, so he sent a friend named Edmund Duncan to attend to the dying Herbert. George Herbert went to his cabinet, and he pulled out a packet. In the packet were 167 poems never, ever having been published. They were written for himself and no doubt, often read to friends and his church.

Here’s what he said to Duncan as he said:

Sir, I pray deliver this little book to my dear brother Ferrar, and tell him he shall find in it a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul. Before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus, my master, in whose service I have now found perfect freedom, I desire him to read it, and then if he can think it may turn to the advantage of any poor dejected soul, let it be made public. If not, let him burn it, for I and it are less than the least of God’s mercies.

These are 167 poems that have established George Herbert as one of the greatest poetic craftsmen in English language, ranking there with Donne and the other metaphysical poets, never having been published in the English language, and him handing them over saying, “If they could be of use to some poor dejected soul who might’ve walked through some of the same things I’ve walked through, then go ahead and publish them. But if not, burn them.”

Those 167 poems were published under the title The Temple. The poems, they think, were arranged in a certain way by Herbert. You can’t prove entirely whether Nicholas Ferrar arranged them, or whether Herbert had already arranged them, but I think the arrangement of those 167 poems in The Temple of this unit probably was the work of George Herbert himself.

Herbert’s Influence

Many people, very famous people, have attributed powerful impacts in their life to George Herbert, one of them being Samuel Coleridge, the famous poet, who was an opium addict and found tremendous power in his own deliverance through Herbert’s poetry. Here’s just an interesting thing. You can’t get this book by Gene Edward Veith. It’s not available. I had to write to him.

A lot of you know who that is, Gene Edward Veith, but most of you don’t know that Veith did his doctoral work, I think, at University of Kansas. His doctoral dissertation in English was on the poetry of George Herbert. The title of his dissertation, which he published, but which is out of print — though he sent me a PDF of it so I could use it — is called Reformed Spirituality in the Work of George Herbert. His thesis is that one of the reasons Herbert’s craft had the effect it had on the likes of Simone Weil and Coleridge is because of the depth of its Reformed theology over against John Donne who never found assurance because of his different theological commitments. It’s a really remarkable study if you can get a hold of it.

But just to give you a flavor of how Herbert expressed his deep commitments to the sovereignty of God, here’s a four-line excerpt:

We all acknowledge both thy power and love To be exact, transcendent, and divine Who dust so strongly and so sweetly move While all things have their will, yet none but thine.

All things have their will, yet none but thine. Here’s a poet writing at the beginning of the 17th century with deep commitments to the sovereignty of God. He was an Anglican, he was a high churchman, and he was Reformed in his soteriology and his thinking through and through. Part of the problem of the early protestants, CS Lewis said, was that they were all too happy, and that’s why they got booted out of the church. It was not that they were all too stodgy.

Considering the Craftsmanship of Words

Herbert was the consummate craftsman, which is why he’s relevant for this particular talk. From his Anglican, Reformed spiritual heritage, Herbert has nurtured wounded souls with extraordinary craft, I would say probably unparalleled. One of the marks of that is that of the 167 poems in The Temple, I think there are 116 that are unique in structure, meaning he has poems that by their rhyme scheme, their metrical order, their indentation design, are never repeated. There are 116 of them. This is what I mean by poetic effort. The kind of effort that was going into the structuring of these poems was extraordinary, and it puts him up there in the top rank of poetic craft.

There’s a lot of deep and profound poets who use traditional forms. There are not many who create 116 new forms to fit what they’re saying at that particular moment. So, he loved crafting language in new and powerful ways. My point here is that it was for him a way of seeing and savoring and showing. Three S’s — seeing what he’s talking about, savoring it, and showing it. I’m arguing his effort to find those perfect words in that perfect form with that perfect cadence opened his eyes to glory. That’s my point. One can only imagine that his sermons were like that, though we don’t have any sermons extant of George Herbert, not one. We have his little book called The Country Parson, where he wrote about being a pastor, but we don’t have any of his sermons and we can only imagine that they would’ve been rich, because we do have John Donne’s sermons, and they are rich.

However, I think Herbert’s would’ve been different. You read the sermons of John Donne, and you feel like, “These are pieces of art like his poetry.” I wonder if Herbert preached like that in his little country church of Bemerton.

One of the interesting things you can do nowadays is go to Google Earth, and put in the old Church Bemerton in England, and it will land you beside the church on the road. You can walk around the church. You can walk into the garden. You see the very church in which he spoke. The impression you get when you do that is, “That’s small.” It didn’t seat more than 100 people ever. This is a man who’s known around the world now as a poet, and he preached faithfully for four years to less than 100 people. He loved them, and he cared for them. He writes about what it is to minister to them.

Never a Formless Poem

He could not conceive of a formless poem. He wouldn’t have known what to make of free verse in our day. The poet’s duty was to perceive and communicate the beauty of God, and in the process, he would construct, out of the chaos of experience and the mass of language, an object which would reflect the beauty of the subject that he was talking about. So he writes:

True beauty dwells on high. Ours is the flame, but borrowed thence to light us thither. Beauty and beauteous words should go together.

He felt like if you saw something about God, about Christ, about the world that was glorious, there should be some correspondence between the words you choose and the way you say them to that, which virtually, it seems to me, very few young pastors — at least of the hip variety — believe. Herbert used poetry and chose to make a poetic effort because he was aiming at the glory of God. It was not technique for technique’s sake.

When he was 17, he wrote two sonnets for his mother, and then he sent them to her with a vow. The vow was that all of his poetry would be devoted to the glory of God. He said that he lamented the vanity of those many who love poems that are daily written and consecrated to Venus. He’s talking about love poetry for others than God. And he lamented that “So few are written that look toward God and heaven.” Then came his vow: “That my poor abilities in poetry shall be all and ever consecrated to God’s glory.” He kept that vow because not a single lyric in The Temple of these 167 poems is addressed to a human being, or written in honor of one.

All of them are written to God and about God, and they’re written with consummate skill to correspond to what he was seeing about God. Helen Wilcox has a book that is a collection of his works. That’s the second book I’d recommend very highly. There are difficult places in his poetry. Helen Wilcox is highly sympathetic both to his theology and his style, and in her thick book, she explains everything.

You have the poems, and you have all her footnotes that explain all the historical, contextual, grammatical, illusional aspects of the poetry. So if you want a solid thing to just go back to again and again, it’ll help you with the difficult places. Her name is Helen Wilcox, and the book is called The English Poems of George Herbert.

Truth Engraved in Steel

How should I praise thee, Lord! How should my rhymes Gladly engrave thy love in steel, If what my soul doth feel sometimes, My soul might ever feel!

He wants to take the glory of God and engrave it with his language. He wants to engrave it in steel with what he feels. He wants to capture it and engrave in steel what he was feeling inside. That’s what poetry was for him as an effort to find words that would be solid as steel, and capture what he felt in his soul. That just rings so right to me for what preaching is. It didn’t have to rhyme, didn’t have to have metrical perfection to it, but it was about steel truth graven with the pen of your mind, and capturing what affections there are that are appropriate to that truth.

Secretary of Thy Praise

Teach me, my God and King,
     In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
     To do it as for Thee.

This is the famous stone
     That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
     Cannot for less be told.

So, Herbert believed that God ruled all things by his sacred providence, and that everything spoke of God. Before I finish the sentence, I have my monitor, my Mac thunderbolt, or whatever it’s called, sitting on my desk, and a little typed piece of paper taped to the top with this phrase on it, because it was the one probably that moved me as much as any as I’ve been reading his poetry of the last couple of years — namely, “Secretary of Thy Praise.”

It goes like this:

O Sacred Providence, who from end to end Strongly and sweetly movest! Shall I write, And not of thee, through whom my fingers bend To hold my quill? Shall they not do thee right?

Of all the creatures both in sea and land Onely to Man thou hast made known thy ways, And put the pen alone into his hand, And made him Secretary of thy praise.

Only to man has he given this, not to monkeys, not dolphins who praise the Lord all indirectly. He has not put a pen in their hand. He has put the pen into our hand, and made us the secretary of his praise. I put that right at the top. I am a secretary of the praise of God. That’s my job on the planet.

I want to write every tweet, every blog, every book, every sermon, and every message as a secretary of the praise of God. I want what I write to awaken praise of God. That’s what I want my life to count for. I think that’s what he was saying language is for. It’s what you should do with your language.

Praising as One Drooping and Dull

He mourns the diminishing ability that he had to praise brim-full.

Why do I languish thus, drooping and dull,
     As if I were all earth?
O give me quickness, that I may with mirth
     Praise thee brim-full!

His poems were these struggles where he was expressing his own fading power. He died of tuberculosis, and it came on him in waves in the last four years of his life. He would lose his ability to think clearly, and he wrote poems about moaning: “I’m losing it. I’m losing it. I can’t think as clearly. I can’t feel. I can’t find the words anymore.” It was such a grief to him. Then it would return, and it would rise up again, and he’d celebrate with life as he wrote again, what a good thing. So, he writes this in the poem called The Flower. Keep in mind he died when he was 39. He said:

And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
     I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing. Oh, my only light,
     It cannot be
     That I am he
     On whom thy tempests fell all night.

So, the recovery after all this tempest all night long of the weeks and months that he had been languishing, it returned again, and he loved again to be a verser as he called it.

I live to shew his power, who once did bring My joys to weep, and now my griefs to sing.

So for Herbert, making the poetic effort was not merely recording his experiences so that others then could share in his experiences. That is what preaching is, authentic preaching. You’ve met God. You see God. You know God. And now you’re going to find some words and you’re going to speak that sight of God in the text, that experience of God in the text, and speak it so that it can land and go down. I’m saying that’s not all that’s going on here. The writing, I’m arguing, is part of the experience of God for anybody else who hears it. These 167 poems were not published in his lifetime. He is not like me. If I write a poem and I like it, I put it on my blog.

Herbert didn’t do that. Why don’t I save them up in a bag? I don’t think the bag would survive. So, I’ve got a blog and I put it out there. He found that writing in itself was awesome.

Spiritual Experience Through Verse

Here’s a key verse from Herbert:

A verse is not a crown,
     No point of honour, or gay suit,
No hawk, or banquet, or renown,
     Nor a good sword, nor yet a lute.

It cannot vault, or dance, or play;
     It never was in France or Spain;
Nor can it entertain the day
     With a great stable or domain.

It is no office, art, or news;
     Nor the Exchange, or busy Hall:
But it is that which, while I use,
     I am with Thee . . .

Now when I saw that — “my verses are that which while I use, I am with thee — I understood something about Herbert. Joseph Summers, one of the commentators on his poetry, said:

The writing of a verse gave to Herbert the quiddity (that’s the name of the poem in which that’s found, the essence) of the spiritual experience he was writing about.

Now, how widespread is that? Should I commend that to you? Not with poems, as if to say, “Let’s all go home and become a Herbert-like poet.” Nope, I’m not going to do that. That would be clearly over the top. But is there a principle here about laboring to find fitting language for darkness on Good Friday? How are you going to say that again? What about the glories of the resurrection, the appearance to Mary, the ascension through clouds, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? You are men who are called to speak those glories. Is it not true that sitting for a half an hour with a pen in hand over a blank half sheet of paper would take you into that experience? You ask, “God, I need to see this fresh. I need to feel these glories fresh. Would you help me find language?”

My point is, the effort to find the words takes you into the experience. That’s what I’m arguing for. Herbert’s poems are “that which while I use I am with thee”.

Wherefore with my utmost art
     I will sing thee,
And the cream of all my heart
     I will bring thee.

Delight Turned into a Sacrifice

Now, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t writing for the good of the church. When I argue he was writing because while he wrote he was with God — writing was an experience with God, writing was a revelation of God, writing was taking him deeper into the thing he was writing about — I don’t mean he was indifferent to being edifying to the church. He wasn’t. You remember what he said: “If these could be of use to any poor, dejected soul, Nicholas, then make them known. If not, burn them up.” He is saying, “I didn’t write them just for me. If they can be used for others, then let them be used.”

Hearken unto a Verser, who may chance Rhyme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure: A verse may find him who a sermon flies And turn delight into a sacrifice.

He says, “I may rhyme thee to good.” Now, can I just stretch that into a principle, and say, if he says it might be that I could make a bait out of verbal pleasure — that is, something pleasing to the ear, and that pleasure is a bait for the truth — could it be that your devoting 15 minutes to a sentence, a closing sentence or a beginning sentence or a middle sentence, that might happen?

That sentence would be so good that it wouldn’t sound like it was artifice. Great musicians sound effortless because they weren’t. Fifteen minutes over a sentence might move you from five minutes of carelessness to 10 minutes of artificial artivism to 15 minutes of clarity. It’s coming out naturally. It’s coming out deep. It’s coming out strong. It’s coming out pleasing, and people are going to be affected in a holy way, because you’ve given holy attention to it.

Maybe. I think that would be implicit here in him saying:

Hearken unto a Verser, who may chance Rhyme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure: A verse may find him who a sermon flies And turn delight into a sacrifice.

That is in fact what has happened over the years. Simone Weil, the French philosopher, was totally agnostic toward God until he read Herbert’s poem Love Number Three, and said, “After confessing Christ, this poem is the most beautiful poem in the world.”

So, he had deep Reformed spirituality, a proven theology of grace, centered on the cross and redemption, deep conflicts of soul that were being put into words, striving to find the utmost art for the cream of all of his art, and thus saying beautifully what he saw, and seeing what he said.

Growling Over the Bible

So in closing, I’m asking the question mainly for myself and for you, I hope. How do you meditate on the glories of God in the Bible? How do you growl over them? What’s that mean? What is that? I’m trying to put something onto growl, because I like that. Luther said, “I hammered on the text. I beat on it. I beat on Romans 1:16 until it opened to me, and I walked through paradise into justification by faith alone.”

What was that? What does he mean by “beat on it”? He growled over it. I’m simply saying one meaning of that is look until you find language appropriate to it, language you’ve never used before in this way. It’s just a little tip. It’s just a little tip of how you meditate on God, because I think a lot of guys say, “Meditate on the word of God. Meditate on the word of God.” They don’t know what to do. They open a commentary, which, there is nothing more deadening to your own imaginative soul than to quickly run to an academic commentary. It’s just deadening. But if you will pray, “O God, please now, for the next half hour, as I try to figure out this word hallow in “hallowed be the name”, please come. I just want to understand hallow. Please come.”

Then you know it’s agiazō, and that means “sanctify”. Don’t think, “Okay, that’s enough. I don’t need any more of that stuff.” No, what does it mean? What does it mean to hallow God’s name? You start writing down ideas. You plead. You think, “Not that. Yeah, that maybe, maybe that, and it starts to come.” Words come, and you find yourself thinking thoughts you never had before, because you’re looking for something to write down here that for your people just might awaken them from that old crusty “hallowed be thy name” into a vibrant, “Oh, that’s it!” It’s a penetration into the reality of what it means to hallow the name of God.

For Herbert, the poetic effort was a form of meditation on the glories of Christ mediated through the Scriptures. Conceiving and writing poems was his way of holding the glimpse of Christ in his mind and turning it around and around and around like the diamond, until it yielded and opened some of its essence to him.

Like the Pen of a Ready Scribe

Now, let me give you a closing, concrete illustration. My daughter’s 18th birthday was on the 11th. So, it was a week ago. I’ve always written my kids’ poems for their birthday. They don’t care much. They’re not the most appreciative audience in the world. But I know what happens to me when I write them, and so maybe someday they’ll like them.

She turned 18, and I thought, “Lord, what could I do that would express to her some of my affections for her?” Now, that question right there is the standard question for poetry. Here’s the next one. I thought, “In writing it, I would see her like I’ve never seen her, feel her like I’ve never felt her, enjoy her like I’ve never enjoyed her because of making the effort to say to her what I feel about her.” See what I’m saying? That’s the difference. So, I tried to imitate Herbert. Now, you can feel this. It’s like a little kid trying to imitate Babe Ruth or something as a ball player. I tried to imitate Herbert’s poem Prayer. I may read it to you. I’m supposed to be done here now, I think. So, let me wrap this up quickly, but I’m going to read you this poem that I wrote to show you.

This took me about an hour and a half or two hours to write, which is pretty quick. I mean, I have to live my life, right? Do what you can. It’s called My Daughter Singing in Her Room. I just decided I would pick one little sliver of something I love, namely, that I can overhear my daughter sometimes singing worship songs in her bedroom, and I could just die and go to heaven — an 18-year-old daughter singing worship songs by herself in her bedroom. I just wanted to massage that for an hour and a half. This is what I call meditation. I am meditating on that fact. My daughter is singing in her bedroom. What do you have to say about that, Piper?

My Daughter Singing in Her Room

I could put that in a birthday card in five minutes. I could say, “Love to hear your singing. You mean a lot to me. Thanks, sweetie, for being my daughter. Love, daddy. Happy birthday.” That’s 30 seconds. Or I could do this:

My daughter singing in her Room, heaven’s soft resonance and lure, hell’s sulking forfeiture, faith’s fruit long-tended, sweet hopes’ hazarded-leap complete, Heart’s pleasant, aching fullness, love’s food, love’s palates, yes, Ears’ leaning, pleasuring, eyes’ glistening, moistening, Lips’ artless smile restored, hands’ stillness in reward, Skin’s shiver, audible caressing, soul’s soft possessing, Burden’s calm, serenity’s friend, poor father’s fears end, God’s echo, heaven’s verses, Calvary’s purchase, Time’s ripening swift; eighteen years’ gift.

It took me about an hour and a half to do that. All they are is phrases that rhyme. They rhyme in couplets. I paid no attention to meter. I didn’t have time. So I sacrificed that one and threw it away, and I just wanted to rhyme the couplets. I chose to do that, which was an arbitrary choice, and then I found 18 or 20 words. Now, I read it to her at Applebee’s over the loud music that was roaring in the background.

Let me state the main point again. This is about the poetic effort. I don’t mean writing poetry, but finding sermonic words. The effort to say beautifully is a way of seeing beauty. The effort to find worthy words for Christ opens us more fully to the worth of Christ and the experience of the worth of Christ. As Herbert says, it is “that which while I use, I am with thee.”