Psalm 23 is one of the most popular texts in the Old Testament. Charles Spurgeon called it “the pearl of Psalms.” James Montgomery Boice called it “the most beloved of the 150 Psalms in the Psalter.” And J. P. McBeth called it “the greatest poem ever written.” It’s often read at funerals, or during times of profound grief and sadness. That’s appropriate, but King David’s composition is a psalm for life, not just death. Indeed, we likely need this psalm now more than ever.
Stress is a prominent reality of modern life. Never before in history have people been more anxious and overloaded than they are today. Life has always been hard on a fallen planet, but it seems to be getting harder. We live in an age of exploding technology that’s hard to keep up with; information overload that threatens to overwhelm us; political polarization that breeds cynicism and disillusionment; media manipulation that makes it hard to trust anything we see on our screens; a cancel culture that keeps people captive to the fear of other people’s judgments; a global pandemic with widespread disagreement over how best to navigate it. And, as many people have discovered, stress takes its toll physically and emotionally. As one book title says, The Body Keeps the Score.
What is stress? It’s the pressure, strain, and tension we feel whenever a situation or event demands more from us than we think we can give. The tell-tale sign we’re stressed out is when we find ourselves saying, “I just can’t handle this right now!” A well-mannered, kind-hearted young woman can turn into a screeching bridezilla in the run-up to her wedding. A tender, warm-hearted young man can turn into a cauldron of bitterness when there are more deadlines than time to meet them. People routinely suffer chronic stress as a result of financial woes, work pressure, bullying, relationship troubles, or the challenges of parenting. All of it can cause anxiety, irritability, depression, headaches, insomnia, and other serious physical or psychological symptoms.
How do we cope? How do we survive? How do we overcome the taxing stresses of life? How did King David do it? How did he cope? How did he overcome? After all, the “sweet singer of Israel” spent several years of his life being pursued by his enemies. On more than one occasion did a spear whizz by his ear and twang into the boards where he was lodging. Most people have never been on the receiving end of that kind of incoming enemy fire (police and military personnel excepted). And most of us have never spent a great deal of time living as a fugitive, running for our lives. David did. And yet he had a way of rising above the stresses of life.
Psalm 23 gives us a clue as to how he did it. The composition is a declaration of trust and confidence in God despite all that was going on around him. Two main metaphors drive the poem: (1) God as David’s Shepherd (vv. 1-4); and (2) God as David’s Gracious Host (vv. 5-6). Together these metaphors paint a stunning portrait for us: God is the ultimate Shepherd-King to his people. People are the sheep of God’s flock and the guests of God’s kingdom. Now, sheep are essentially helpless and not particularly bright. That’s not a good combination, as the following video clip indicates:
People and sheep have a lot in common! They both desperately need a good shepherd! Thankfully, believers have one in Yahweh, the God of Israel. If David were here today, he might say to us, “Rest in the Lord who is with you and good to you.” Specifically, he might tell us to rest in the PROVISIONS of the Lord (vv. 1-3), the PRESENCE of the Lord (vv. 4-5), and PROMISES of the Lord (6). God is the caretaker and protector of his people, and he will ensure that they do not lack in basic needs as they navigate the stresses of this life. Rather, he pursues them with goodness and covenant love all the days of their lives (v. 6).
Genuine hospitality is one of the tools in our gospel neighboring toolbox. Unfortunately, when we hear the word “hospitality” today, we often think of Martha Stewart, the Cake Boss, or Better Homes & Garden. But those things are a distortion of what the New Testament means by hospitality. The command to show hospitality to strangers (Hebrews 13:2) literally means to show love to people who are different from us.Sadly in our culture, many people sit around mocking people who are different from them. But that is not to be the case with the followers of Christ. Quite the opposite.
Henri Nouwen once said, “There is a sacramental quality to true hospitality.” What is a sacrament? A sacrament is “common stuff” (e.g., the water of baptism, the bread and wine of Holy Communion, the oil of anointing, etc.)—common stuff that, when dedicated to Christ, becomes a vehicle of God’s grace and power to the receiver. So hospitality is common stuff. It’s not “entertaining with perfection.” It’s not a 7-course meal with five-star flourishes. We’re talking about simple soup and salad. Maybe peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Or perhaps a cup of coffee while listening to someone else’s struggles and aspirations—providing hope and encouragement within an atmosphere of cordiality and respect. God works powerfully through conversations like that.
In other words, your gracious hospitality to others is a conduit of God’s grace and power to others. You want the grace of God to come to people who don’t know Christ? Then beat them over the head with the Bible, right? No! Practice authentic hospitality. You want the grace of God to come to people who are destroying the culture? Then get louder and more strident in the culture war, right? No! Try a little authentic hospitality. When we share a common table, we stop—at least for a time—contending against each other. We turn our attention toward rejuvenating our bodies. We lay aside our differences and join together in one of the most basic of human activities. And as we share some common food and drink, we discover the common humanity of the person across the table from us—a person likewise made in the image of God, not a political combatant or a theological sparring partner.
A sinner? Definitely. A heretic? Possibly. An unbeliever? Maybe. An immoral person? Perhaps.
In other words, the kinds of people Jesus ate with! He was friend of tax collectors and sinners. That’s why they called him a drunkard and a glutton. But hospitality breeds friendship and understanding. And disagreements between friends are of an entirely different nature than disagreements between sworn enemies. In the end, hospitality seeks to turn strangers into guests, guests into friends, and friends into brothers and sisters. Hospitality welcomes people that the world excludes. So, let us practice hospitality!
“Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays.” – Al Stillman
No doubt you’ve heard this line from the 1954 Christmas song by Al Stillman and Robert Allen: “Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays.” It was covered most famously by Perry Como and later the Carpenters, and has remained a holiday favorite for nearly seven decades. But did you realize there’s good theology in its message?
In the birth of Jesus, God made this fractured world his own home. Indeed,the incarnation of Christ was the ultimate display of divine hospitality. On that first Christmas, God set a table for broken people everywhere, inviting them to come feast at Bethlehem’s manger. And it’s an all you can eat buffet!
After all, as noted previously, this is the God of “immeasurably more” than we can ask or imagine. Jesus, the Living Bread, came down from heaven to nourish everyone starving for the love of God. (Quite significantly, Bethlehem means “house of bread.”) When Christ was here in the flesh…
His life showed us how to live.
His death made us ready to die.
His resurrection gave us new life—and the confidence that, in him, all will be well in the end.
At the end of God’s cosmic story is a new heaven and new earth. Eden, our original home, will be restored—only better than before. All God’s people will finally be made whole (and holy) forever. No more tears. No more sorrow. No more pain. No more shattered dreams and broken relationships. No more deadly diseases and debilitating disappointments. No more night. God’s immeasurable love in Christ heals beyond our imagining and invites us to come home to stay. With him. Forever.
Through his Spirit living in us, Jesus is still at home with us today. That’s why believers are called to extend his hospitality to others in our day. We’re his hands and feet on planet earth. The Christian faith is an embodied faith; we seek to live what we proclaim, even though we fall short many times. We seek to live as “earthen vessels” containing the divine “treasure” (2 Cor 4:7).
That’s exactly what Mary was. She was the original host of God’s Christmas hospitality. For nine months she literally was the first earthly home that Jesus had. But how could she possibly host that which cannot be contained? Solomon had a similar question. “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (1 Kgs 8:27). And yet, the God of “immeasurably more” became “measurably less” at Christmas. He did dwell on earth—as a baby!
It’s hard to get our minds around such a mystery. Deity in diapers? Elohim with elbows and eyebrows? How can this be? T. S. Eliot described the newborn Christ as “the word within a word, unable to speak a word.” In Disney’s Aladdin, Genie (Robin Williams) described his own spatial paradox like this: “Cosmic, phenomenal power, itty bitty living space!” That was even more true of Jesus. He left the splendors of heaven to be with us in our distress—at great cost to himself. Christmas, then, was theultimate transition—divine to human, heaven to earth, riches to rags, power to powerlessness—all of it to invite us to our true home with God.
As we celebrate God’s hospitality at Christmas, we can rightly sing, “For the holidays, you can’t beat home, sweet home.” That very impulse comes from the God who made us, and then became one of us in Christ.
George Herbert (1593-1633) was a highly regarded poet and priest in the Church of England. His “metaphysical” poetry is top-tier reading in my world—always passionate, poignant, and elegant in its devotion to Christ. His composition “Love (III)” is a gem of image and inspiration, written as a dialogue between a host (divine Love) and a guest, who is the speaker.
The poem comprises three stanzas with six lines each and an ABABCC rhyme scheme. The meter alternates between a loose form of iambic pentameter and iambic trimeter. It can be read as a prompt and response piece. Below is the text of the poem, my brief analysis of it, and a short reflection on why it speaks to me. Additional biographic information on Herbert can be found here.
1 Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
2 A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
3 Truth Lord, but I have marred 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.
In the preceding poems, “Love (I)” and “Love (II),” Herbert labored to rescue the word “love” from its inferior meanings in secular usage. God, he claims, is the “Immortal Love,” and his “Immortal Heat” is totally other than human love, which is often selfishly expressed. Here in “Love (III),” Herbert now shows the selfless nature of divine love, portraying not only that God is “Love,” but how God is “Love”—he is a gracious and welcoming host to broken people.
Lines 1-2 Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back / Guilty of dust and sin.
In the presence of pure Love (i.e., God), the poet instinctively shrinks back. The next line explains why, but the opening words communicate Love’s disposition by echoing the sentiment of Song of Solomon 5:6, “I opened for my lover, but my lover had left; he was gone. My heart sank at his departure.” The reason for the poet’s hesitancy is then revealed; he feels “guilty” in the presence of Love. Indeed, he is guilty—on two counts in Herbert’s theology: he is sinful by birth (“dust”) and sinful by action (“sin”).
Lines 3-4 But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack / From my first entrance in,
Love is portrayed here as an attentive host, noticing immediately the poet’s hesitancy (“slack”) to be in his presence. The adversative “but” indicates a strong disposition on the part of Love to overcome the poet’s hesitation. Who will win the battle of wills—the poet or Love?
Lines 5-6 Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, / If I lacked any thing.
Love steps toward the reluctant poet, not in aggression but in gentleness. He comes “sweetly questioning” him, harkening back to God’s gracious pursuit of the disobedient Adam in Genesis 3, an encounter that arguably features more grace than judgment. Moreover, Love acts here as both a selfless and other-centered host, asking if the poet “lacked any thing.” Clearly Love wants to overcome the poet’s fear and shame of being in his presence, speaking and acting in such a way as to put him at ease.
Lines 7-8 A guest, I answered, worthy to be here: / Love said, You shall be he.
The poet responds that he lacks a person worthy to be in Love’s presence. In other words, it’s not so much that the poet has a lack; he is the lack. He feels that he does not deserve to be there. Love disagrees, resolutely stating that the poet himself will be deemed worthy.
Lines 9-10 I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear, /I cannot look on thee.
The poet refutes Love’s contention that he could be considered worthy. After all, his defining attributes include being “unkind” and “ungrateful”—the very opposite of Love’s defining attributes. Such a disparity in moral character renders the poet incapable of looking directly into the eyes of Love (“I cannot look on thee”).
Lines 11-12 Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, /Who made the eyes but I?
Love initiates a gentle touch, employing a smile to indicate acceptance of the poet and delight that he’s there despite his feelings of guilt and shame. Love poses another question, forcing the poet to consider a new, more hopeful perspective: “Who made the eyes but I?” The implication is that Love is the poet’s Creator, and he did not create those eyes to look away from him in guiltbut toward him in fellowship. Love is pressing the poet here to find his identity in Love’s original design for him, not his sullied record.
Lines 13-14 Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame /Go where it doth deserve.
The poet protests again, resisting Love’s continued kindness because he has “marred” (i.e., stained or compromised) his eyes through un-love, possibly referring back to the deficient expressions of human love portrayed in the previous sections of the poem. The moral crimes producing his sense of shame render him worthy of condemnation and, thus, unworthy of Love.
Lines 15-16 And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame? My dear, then I will serve.
Love reminds the poet that Someone “bore the blame” for his moral crimes, a reference to Christ and his atoning work on the cross. Captivated by the reminder that no blame remains, the poet now feels compelled to serve Love (“My dear, then I will serve”). His attitude is reminiscent of the prodigal son’s intention to return to his father as a hired hand, not as a son (Luke 15:18-20).
But as the next couplet indicates, such an economic arrangement is not Love’s intention. The poet is made worthy by Love, so Love will serve him, not vice versa. The image is taken from Luke 12:37, where, quite shockingly, cultural norms are stood on their head when the master starts serving the servants: “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.” The biblical scene is almost scandalous, but this is what Love looks like, and this is what Love does.
Lines 17-18 You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: / So I did sit and eat.
In the end, Love wins (“So I did sit and eat”). But he wins by overcoming the poet’s reluctance with kindness, not coercion. And “winning” here takes the form of Love serving the poet a meal made by his own hands (“my meat”). Love doesn’t win by punishing the poet for his moral crimes; the claims of justice for those crimes have long since been satisfied. Consequently, all that remains now is for the poet to allow his guilt and shame to melt away in the presence of Love. When that happens, a delightful meal of peace is shared at the table of brotherhood. That was Love’s aim all along.
Why This Poem Speaks to Me
I could well be the broken poet. I have plenty of moral crimes to my name, and they render me “unworthy” in the presence of Love. But God’s deepest desire has never been to play the part of my vindictive Judge; his desire has always been to be my gracious host and share a meal with me at his table (cf. Rev 3:20). He can do so without compromising his holiness because Someone “bore the blame.” My blame.
Consequently, my own guilt and shame can melt away in the presence of Love, and I can look at God again—in the face of Jesus Christ.
So can you.
Feel free to contact me if you’d like to know more about how to begin a journey with Jesus.
Are we as a nation less civil than we used to be? Maybe to a point, but three factors make it seem a lot worse than it probably is. First, today’s instant media puts the national invective “in our face” quicker and more frequently than in days gone by. Technology gives us hate at the speed of light. And lots of it. The sheer amount of vituperation we see on a daily basis can be disconcerting to one’s sense of personal peace; hence, the recent calls in our society for more civility. Unfortunately, outrage is good for business. The merchants of wrath on social media generate both clicks and cash for their cause, so, don’t expect the fireworks to fizzle any time soon.
Second, our crisis in education has rendered ideological retorts far less effective (not to mention fun) than they used to be in previous generations. Verbal pushbacks today are crafted as little more than ad hominem attacks—personal insults that are unseemly, unsophisticated, and ultimately unpersuasive. But one need only recall the kinds of political discourse our nation witnessed just a century and a half ago. In the 1858 debates, for example, Lincoln called the logic behind a proposed Douglas policy “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.” Somehow the nation endured such brutal zingers. I do concede, though, it was the policy being attacked, not the person. That distinction seems to have been lost in our day.
Third, gone are the days when the mainstream media were (mostly) honest and evenhanded. Indeed, there was a time when our “straight news” outlets sought to be dispassionate in the delivery of their product. They were content to be our eyes and ears on the events of the day, but now they try to be our brains, too, telling us what to think. No thank you; we can do that ourselves. Moreover, professional pundits have done more to polarize our country than any politician. And now they’re playing censorship games to aid and abet certain candidates, being selective and prejudicial in what they cover and don’t cover. Along with Big Tech’s manipulation of search results and feed content, it’s rank advocacy masquerading as real journalism—a flagrant corruption of a once noble industry. I’d rather chew glass than consume that kind of “news” on a regular basis. Of all the trends in motion right now, this one might be the most dangerous.
How Bad Will It Get Out There?
It remains to be seen if we can long endure the kind of verbal explosions we see online each day. On the other hand, it may be helpful to remember that in the 1960s, bomb-throwers actually threw bombs. To the snowflake generation (a somewhat inflammatory but largely warranted moniker) verbal shrapnel apparently is worse. Students are easily “triggered” these days, sometimes needing professional escorts to help them get to “safe spaces” on campus when they hear something they don’t like. We used to call such an attitude unmistakable evidence that a young person was “spoiled.”
Important debates get shut down now simply by someone claiming his feelings got hurt in the marketplace of ideas. Ironically, such fragile folks have little hesitation in pulling their own verbal triggers against those considered not yet “woke.” In their minds, the uglier the response, the better. “Be cruel or be cast out,” sang Rush in the 1980s. Their musical prophecy has come to fruition in today’s cancel culture. It’s “free speech for me but not for thee.”
Alas, the summer of arson and violence we just endured (labeled “mostly peaceful protests” by the spinmeisters in the media) makes me wonder if we’re heading back to the 1960s. Will we revert to throwing real bombs again? Oh, and rumor has it there’s an election next week. Is it that time again? Already? Lots of folks are on edge about what will happen to our cities if some people don’t get their own way at the ballot box. Hurt feelings can justify all kinds of malevolence these days. But if a civil war is needed to quiet things down again, let’s find a way to make it bloodless. Preserving people’s freedoms may be worth life and limb, but preserving their feelings—not so much.
One aspect of our current lunacy is rooted in the fact that those who are so easily outraged seldom see people on their side of a particular issue as less-than-perfect specimens of moral goodness themselves. Their cause is right, so they must be right. Not so (cf. Luke 13:1-5). It’s a secular form of self-righteousness, and the dogmatic assertions they preach get enscripturated in the doctrines of political correctness. It’s a new form of fundamentalism—without any fun, of course. Butself-assertion without self-reflection becomes self-destruction. In time, society itself collapses under its own weight. Cancel culture winds up canceling itself.
If civilization can be defined as “social order promoting cultural creation,” one might define civility as “verbal order promoting respectful communication.” But it takes character to be civil—and even more character to endure incivility. Apart from an elevation of character, neither can be realized to any extent in contemporary society. For believers, character is a function of our relationship with God. Therefore, we must lead the way in society by modeling a proper stewardship of words. I cannot accuse the secularists of failing to be self-reflective if I myself am not self-reflective when it comes to my own particular speech patterns—both in discourse and in scholarship. That’s what this series has been all about. I need to own up to my own lapses.
Civility in Scholarship
As noted previously, the esteemed clergyman, scholar, and author Eugene Peterson has said, “We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and they end up using us.” His call is for believers to cultivate the practice of integrity and winsomeness in speech, which involves a genuine respect for others as well as humility within ourselves. These attitudes are especially important for the Christian scholar. As Nancy Jean Vyhmeister notes, “The research mindset is characterized by objectivity, focus, clearly set-forth presuppositions, and logical organization. In a more biblical frame, it is adorned by humility.”
In her doctoral dissertation, Laurie Mellinger likewise highlights the need for humility by advocating a posture of hospitality among readers, writers, and teachers of theology. “Engaged theological readers respond in ways that bring their Christian faith to bear on what they read,” she writes. “For instance, they endeavor to respond with love and compassion. Whether they read secular literature or biblical narrative, they attempt at first to withhold judgment, offering a thorough and fair hearing to authors, characters, and ideas before responding.” The idea is provocative, as the word “hospitality” in the New Testament (φιλοξενία) means to love people of a different country or culture. Practicing hospitality, then, means to demonstrate a high regard for individuals who are different than we are—even in their thoughts, words, and ideologies.
By extension, hospitable scholarship would involve treating the author we’re engaging as valuable and worthy of respect even if we vigorously disagree with their conclusions. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matt 5:46-47). In other words, being kind to others who are just like us is no big deal; anybody can do that. Unbelievers can do that, says Jesus. But φιλοξενία costs something; it’s a virtue that may not come naturally to us. Indeed, it may even require something of us, but it adorns the gospel.
In the end, common grace allows people outside our faith to be right about many things, even if their view of Christ and Christianity is askew. That means I can always come to an author outside my faith tradition and say, “I can learn from this person. I may not always agree with her, but I can always ‘chew up the meat and spit out the bones.’ Christ is not exalted when others are diminished, so I will not seek to skewer this writer. Instead, I will be fair, dispassionate, and even-keeled in my interaction, reserving my harshest critiques only for the most heinous of ideas.” Celebrate before you cerebrate, Tim.
Modeled by a Mentor
No one modeled this approach for me better than Professor David A. Dorsey, the late Distinguished Professor of Old Testament Studies at Evangelical Seminary who mentored me through my first doctoral program. Dr. Dorsey was a master at responding to the ridiculous things we would say in class. Looking back, I marvel at the grace he displayed. One of us would say something goofy about a passage, or something way off-base theologically, and he would say, “Well, you might be right about that, but here’s what I think is going on in that text.” And he would proceed to school us on the proper handling of the passage, but always with gentleness and respect. We were corrected, but not insulted; re-directed, but not ridiculed.
Dorsey’s approach is still with me today. In a recent article I wrote on the Sabbath for the Evangelical Journal, I politely disagreed with one scholar whose form-critical assumptions caused him to miss the exquisite nature of various passages in Exodus. His harsh assessment of the biblical text was unnecessary, and I said so. However, I also praised other aspects of this scholar’s work, noting how “magisterial” his work was in the field of Sabbath studies. He contributed much to the topic, and that contribution is rightly honored. In other words, I treated him as I myself would want to be treated if my own work were being reviewed by him. Dorsey, along with other professors at Evangelical Seminary, showed their students how to do this during my M.Div. days. My goal now is to do the same for my own students.
Civility in scholarship does not mean that we treat all ideas as equally valid, or that we all need to restrain ourselves from offering honest critiques when we think they’re warranted. After all, when it comes to the field of biblical studies and Christian theology, much is at stake for the parishioner in the pew. For example, can believers really have confidence in Scripture as God’s Word, or must we always take the critical position that the Bible is untrustworthy? To hear some scholars, one would think there is nothing unique about the Christian canon, or that Jesus Christ was no more important to his nation than George Washington was to ours. As Vyhmeister notes, “Researchers start their work from the premise that knowledge is attainable and that finding truth is possible.”
My goal, then, is to argue respectfully and persuasively when it comes to engaging those whose arguments would undermine a high view of Scripture. Indeed, Richard J. Mouw’s concept of “convicted civility” is my target. Mouw is on a mission to clean up society’s speech in our generation. In his book Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, he writes, “As Martin Marty has observed, one of the real problems in modern life is that people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions and people who have strong convictions lack civility. I like that way of stating the issue. We need to find a way of combining a civil outlook with a ‘passionate intensity’ about our convictions. The real challenge is to come up with a convicted civility.”
Mouw continues, “Civility has its own value, quite apart from any evangelistic or political results it might produce. To become a gentler and more reverent person is itself a way of being more like what God intended us to be.” To which I say, “Amen.”
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Psalm 19:14