One of the more frustrating feelings we experience is the occasional sense that we do not belong somewhere. Sometimes, we feel this way for superficial reasons: we go to a restaurant where we feel underdressed or we attend a party where we feel like we probably should have worn something a little more casual. Other times, we might feel out of place for more intellectual reasons: perhaps we are participating in a conversation about a topic we know nothing about or attending a seminar about a book we haven’t read. And every once and a while, we occasionally have a profound feeling that we do not belong, a gnawing sense that we may not be worthy to be in a particular place.
A few days ago, we commemorated the life of George Herbert. Herbert was an English priest in the 17th century who has become known for his devotional poetry. All of his poetry, however, was published posthumously. During his life, Herbert was known as a country parson, a man who did his job: he visited the sick, comforted the dying, and did the sometimes menial chores required of someone who is in charge of a parish church. The gospel appointed for George Herbert’s commemoration celebrates those people who might think that their lives are menial. In the Beatitudes of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus begins by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are those who imagine that they are not holy, who think that the tasks set before them are not godly, for to them belongs the kingdom of God. I think that all of us fall into the trap of thinking that other people are holy, that other people deserve God’s grace, while we are are miserable sinners unworthy of God’s grace and love.
George Herbert understood this tendency, and wrote an extraordinary poem about our reluctance to accept God’s grace. The poem is a conversation between Jesus (whom Herbert calls “Love”) and the hesitant believer:
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.
The poem beautifully describes how we accept the grace of God. We begin by refusing God’s offer of love, claiming our fundamental unworthiness, when God almost teasingly reminds us that it was God who created us and God who redeemed us; God has made us worthy. Our response to this is not joy, but obligation: we feel that we must pay our debt to God. God, however, gently corrects us as he invites us to sit down and embrace the grace he has offered.
As you travel through this Lenten journey, try not to think of your Lenten discipline as an obligation, but as an opportunity to open yourself to the grace and love of God. Use this time of renewal as a way to accept the gracious invitation God has extended to you, to sit down and taste love.