Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Things That Matter

By George Herbert

Could not that wisdom, which first broacht[1] the wine,
        Have thicken’d it with definitions?
And jagg’d[2] his seamless coat, had that been fine,
        With curious questions and divisions?

But all the doctrine, which he taught and gave,
        Was clear as heav’n, from whence it came.
At least those beams of truth, which only save,
        Surpass in brightness any flame.

Love God, and love your neighbor. Watch and pray.
        Do as ye would be done unto.
O dark instructions; ev’n as dark as day!
        Who can these Gordion knots undo?

Could not the wisdom that "broacht" (opened) the wine at Cana have supplied an explanation for the miracle and “thickened it with definitions”? Jesus could have explained the miracle to the guests at Cana, but chose not to, nor has he explained everything else that puzzles us. The universe is shrouded in paradox, contradiction and mystery— things beyond our ken. There are limitations to the human intellect that cannot be overcome.

The longer I live, my list of certainties grows correspondingly shorter. There are absolutes for which I would go to the wall—most of which are contained in the Apostles Creed—but much is mystery to me. I ponder these puzzles periodically, but they don’t bother me anymore. Some things are very clear; some things are not.

This is the sentiment echoed by George MacDonald’s father in a letter to his son about the long-standing, divisive debate over God’s sovereignty and our free will: “[I cannot] bear to see that which is evidently gospel mystery torn to pieces by those who believe that there is no mystery in the Scriptures and therefore attempt to explain away what it is evidently for the honor of God to conceal. I see so much of mystery in nature, and so much of it in myself, that it would be proof to my mind that the Scriptures were not from God were there nothing in them beyond the grasp of my own mind.” [3]

That being said, our Lord did not leave us in the dark with regard to things that matter, but has given instruction that is “clear as heav’n from whence it came.” He has revealed “beams of truth, which only save (sanctify).” These he enumerates: “To love God, and love your neighbor. Watch and pray. Do as ye would be done unto”simple directives Herbert describes, with subtle irony, as Gordion knots,[4] and “dark instructions; ev’n as dark as day!” To love God and my neighbor, to watch and to pray—things I know I should do. This is the more excellent way.

Mark Twain said, “It’s not the things I don’t understand in the Bible that concern me, but the things I do understand.” Exactly. It is my prayer that I, at last, may do the things that matter.[5]


[1] broacht: opened
[2] jagg’d: torn
[3] In a letter to his son, May 31, 1850
[4] The Gordian Knot is a legend associated with Alexander the Great and is a metaphor for an intractable problem. The irony lies in the fact that this “knot” can be untied by anyone and the darkness of these instructions is “as dark as day(light).”
[5] Cf., Philippians 1:10. Paul’s verb, diaphero, here translated “matter,” means, to make a difference.”

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