Monday, March 03, 2008

for all gentle thoughts and mild

There’s so much to find in William Cowper’s poetry, that I’m going to quote from “The Task” again tonight:
I would not enter on my list of friends
(Though graced with polished manners and fine sense,
Yet wanting sensibility) the man
Who needlessly sets foot upon a worm.
An inadvertent step may crush the snail
That crawls at evening in the public path;
But he that has humanity, forewarned,
Will tread aside, and let the reptile live.
The creeping vermin, loathsome to the sight,
And charged perhaps with venom, that intrudes
A visitor unwelcome into scenes
Sacred to neatness and repose, the alcove,
The chamber, or refectory, may die.
A necessary act incurs no blame.
Not so when, held within their proper bounds
And guiltless of offence, they range the air,
Or take their pastime in the spacious field.
There they are privileged; and he that hunts
Or harms them there is guilty of a wrong,
Disturbs the economy of Nature's realm,
Who, when she formed, designed them an abode.
The sum is this: if man's convenience, health,
Or safety interfere, his rights and claims
Are paramount, and must extinguish theirs.
Else they are all—the meanest things that are—
As free to live and to enjoy that life,
As God was free to form them at the first,
Who in His sovereign wisdom made them all.
Ye, therefore, who love mercy, teach your sons
To love it too. The spring-time of our years
Is soon dishonoured and defiled in most
By budding ills, that ask a prudent hand
To check them. But, alas! none sooner shoots,
If unrestrained, into luxuriant growth,
Than cruelty, most devilish of them all.
Mercy to him that shows it, is the rule
And righteous limitation of its act,
By which Heaven moves in pardoning guilty man;
And he that shows none, being ripe in years,
And conscious of the outrage he commits,
Shall seek it and not find it in his turn.

I’ve often felt that “gentleness” is one of the virtues I’m “good” at. At least, in reading these lines of poetry I’m reminded of a time, when I had just taken a spider outside and placed it on a bush instead of squashing it, that a friend of mine said, “Josh, you’re so gentle.” And I think I can and do treat people with gentleness as much as possible, though I may be becoming sour in my old age.

Gentleness is way down on the list of the fruits of the spirit. It doesn’t show up often in hymns, except to describe Jesus or Mary; the only reference different from these I know of that occurs in a familiar hymn is in the title of this entry, from “For the Beauty of the Earth”. It just doesn’t get the “air time” that, say, love or patience does. So self-assessment on this attribute doesn’t occur all that often. It may have to come, as it recently did for me, at a time when the word itself isn’t mentioned.

Just a few weeks ago, the Chesterton House in Ithaca held their annual Institute of Biblical Studies program. The theme was “Gospel Freedom: Ancient Words, Modern Wisdom”, and each session focused on one of the Ten Commandments. I went to the morning sessions on Saturday. The first session dealt with the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder.” The speaker said he had once been invited to speak to an audience of clergy and seminary students. One of the attendees had joked beforehand that there shouldn’t be too much to say on that topic to this particular crowd. And it’s easy for most people, Christian or not, to think that they’ve got this commandment under control. (Incidentally, the ESV’s footnote says, “The Hebrew word also covers causing human death through carelessness or negligence.”)

The story continued with the speaker pointing out that Jesus’ take on this commandment is much fuller than a cursory read would lead to:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
As many church leaders, including Luther and Calvin, have pointed out, the proscriptive commandments come with (perhaps implicit, but Jesus is drawing them out in the Sermon on the Mount) prescriptive commandments—in the case of “do not kill”, the converse “love your neighbor” is implied. Even more, as the speaker told his clerical audience, Jesus’ words above show us that we must recognize we are all at times murderers in our hearts. Hatred and indifference are ways we denigrate and dehumanize others; he spoke at length about how the phrase “says to his brother, ‘Raca’”(above translated by the ESV as “insults his brother”) means calling someone worthless and beneath contempt. If we do not acknowledge the dehumanizing tendencies we harbor, we will not be able to take hold of the gospel of grace.

I think gentleness is part of the solution to indifference. A proverb says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” I can certainly discount people, either secretly or blatantly, intentionally or carelessly, and so I ask God to guide me to recognize, acknowledge, and respect the humanity of everyone I meet.

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