Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Wretch Like Me - Reynolds

See Genesis 25-35 for the story of Jacob
Poor Jacob!  You can't help feeling sorry for him.  Oh, he was a cad.  Getting Esau to sell the inheritance for a pot of stew, it was clever but it was pretty callous. 
Then, that whole business of tricking the old man, his father, into giving him the blessing -- pretending to be Esau and going into the father dressed up in Esau's clothes, his hands covered with the hairy skin of the animal so that the old man in his blindness would think it was Esau, the first born.  That's about as dishonest as you can get.
Now, here he is on this hilltop, fleeing from home for his life -- a barren place, no shelter, lots of rocks, and night coming on cold and dark.  A stone for his pillow as he lay down for what would be a very restless sleep.
Strange the people God loves.  You and me too.  Oh we like to think we're pretty "loveable," and work hard to make it appear that we are.  And we don't do too badly at it and make a pretty good appearance of things.
But we all have our fears and our shames, I guess.  And we live for such a short, if glorious, time. 
Even now, after this marvellous dream and the assurance that God would honour his covenant with Abraham and that God would make of him a great nation and would be with him and would never leave him.  No conditions there.  That's just the way God was.
But Jacob?  He said, "If God will be with me, if God will look after me, if God will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God."
At that point I see Jacob plainly -- the conniving s.o.b.  What a wretch of a man he was!
Our title, “A Wretch Like Me,” comes from John Newton's hymn, "Amazing Grace."
            Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
            That saved a wretch like me.

We love to sing the hymn, and I suppose most of the time we don't even think of the words.  When we do, we sing this part with some discomfort and distaste. 
We don't like to think of ourselves as "wretches."  Horrible sounding word.  Our image of a "wretch" is not ourselves but  those we sometimes call "less fortunate than ourselves" -- someone in far worse state, in some miserable condition.  "Poor wretch" we say, seeing some human derelict huddling in a dark corner on a cold, wet night, or a poor vagrant, gaunt and diseased, digging through garbage in some back alley.
"A wretch like me?"  No, I'm not like that at all.
John Newton, who wrote the hymn, meant it quite literally, no doubt.  At nineteen, he was pressed into the British navy, deserted, was caught, whipped, and sent to serve on slave boats.  For a time, he existed in a condition almost worse than the slaves as he was made the servant of a white slaver's black wife! He became captain of a slaving ship for a while, and was known as a cruel man who made a thing of his unbelief and blasphemy.
Eventually he "was found" (as he put it), and became the well-loved vicar of the English village of Olney and writer, with Wm. Cowper, of some of the best-loved hymns of the Christian church, including "Amazing Grace."
His tombstone reads,

                                                                JOHN NEWTON
                                            ONCE AN INFIDEL AND LIBERTINE
                                             A SERVANT OF SLAVES IN AFRICA
                             BY THE RICH MERCY OF OUR LORD AND SAVIOUR
                                                                 JESUS CHRIST
                                          PRESERVED, RESTORED, PARDONED,
                                       AND APPOINTED TO PREACH THE FAITH
                                       HE HAD LONG LABOURED TO DESTROY.

At 82 years of age, he said of himself, "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.”  (From A. E. Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns, p. 127)
"Wretch" -- it meant originally an exile, a fugitive, a homeless person.  We often think of it relative to our moral condition, but in a deeper sense, it referred to our natural condition, to the physical fact of our creatureliness, our mortality, our ultimate hopelessness in the face of death, apart from God's grace.

            Lord, let me know my end,
            and what is the measure of my days.
            Let me know how fleeting life is.
            You have made my days a few handbreadths,
            and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
            Surely every human being is no more than empty breath,
            (From Psalm 39)

We are but a bubble, a bag of gas.  That's what it's saying.
And Romans 8: The creation was subjected to futility, the bondage to decay, groaning in travail. . . .   Just like us.
It's true, no matter how rich we are, or how strong and healthy.

                                                            Just see me
            As I am, me, like a perambulating
            Vegetable, patched with inconsequential
            Hair, looking out of two small jellies for the means
            Of life, balanced on folding bones, my sex
            No beauty but a blemish to be hidden
            Behind judicious rags, driven and scorched
            By boomerang rages and lunacies which never
            Touch the accommodating artichoke
            Or the seraphic strawberry beaming in its bed. . . .
            Half this grotesque life I spend in a state
            Of slow decomposition, using
            The name of unconsidered God as a pedestal
            On which I stand and bray that I'm best
            Of beasts, until under some patient
            Moon or other I fall to pieces, like
            A cake of dung.
            (Christopher Fry, The Lady's Not For Burning, Act II)

In one of his novels, Frederick Buechner depicts a scene in a high-school English class, studying King Lear.  The teacher is the narrator.
It was the third act that was up for grabs that day -- Lear on the heath with Kent and the Fool, the storm coming up -- and nothing could have seemed more remote from our condition. . . .  There they all sat, drowsy and full of lunch.  There was a gym class outside.  You could hear someone calling out calisthenics, one and two, and one and two . . . . 
I sat on the windowsill asking questions written in the margin of my teaching copy, not caring very much whether anyone tried to answer them or not.  "What evidence do you find in Act Three of a significant change in Lear's character?"  And a fat boy named Urquhart surprised me by answering it.  He was sitting all bent over with his head in his arms on the desk, and I'd thought he was asleep.  His voice came out muffled by his arm.  He said, "He's gotten kinder."
I said, "What makes you think so?"
The second question, coming so quick on the heels of the one he'd just answered was more than Urquhart had bargained for, and he shifted his head to the other arm without saying anything.  You could see where his cheek had gotten all moist and red where he'd been lying on it, and there was the imprint of wrinkles from his sleeve. 
The ball was picked up by a boy named Greg Dixon.  He was the least popular member of the class.   He said, "Well, when it starts to rain, he thinks about the Fool keeping dry too. . . .  He says, `Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart that's sorry yet for thee.'  He's getting kinder to people, just like Urquhart said."
It was Laura Fleischman who spoke next.  She always sat in the back row next to a good-looking basketball player named Carl West. . . .  Usually she didn't speak at all.  . . .  "Also, he says a prayer for people," she said. 
Some horselaughed -- not so much at what she said, I thought, as at the fact that is was she who'd said it.   . . .
"Nobody says a prayer in my book," Greg Dixon said. 
 "Line 35," Laura Fleischman said. 
 "That's not prayer," Greg Dixon said, "That's not like any prayer I ever heard of.  It doesn't even say God in it."
I said, "Go ahead and read it aloud will you, Laura."    . . .
In a small, half-apologetic voice, with the callisthenic count going on in the background, she read:
              Poor naked wretches, whereso-er you are,
              That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
              How can your houseless heads and unfed sides,
              Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
              From seasons such as these?
"Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel," she read, "That thou may'st shake the superflux to them, And show the heavens more just."
And one and two, and one and two, the voice floated in through the open window. 
"Who are these poor wretches he's praying for, if she's right that he's praying?" I said.
 Greg Dixon said, "We are!"
            He said it to be funny -- they were the poor wretches to have to sit there . . . when they could be off having fun.  But nobody laughed. . . .  It seemed to me that for a moment or two, in the sleepy classroom, they all felt some unintended truth in Greg Dixon's words.
            Laura Fleischman in the beauty of her youth, Urquhart in his fatness, Greg Dixon with his pimples.  Carl West, handsome and bored.  They were the poor naked wretches, and at least for the moment they knew they were.   All of them.  The "pitiless storm!"  (Open Heart, pp 97-101, quoted in Telling the Truth, pp. 26-30).
And Buechner comments,
            Out of the silences of a high-school classroom, the word of the human condition is spoken.  The poor, naked wretches of the earth are all of us, everyone. 
            They are young and full of lunch and full of hope and clothed in the beauty that it is to be young, and thus of all people they are in a way the least naked, the least wretched.  But the play tells them that life is a pitiless storm and that they are as vulnerable to it as Lear himself, not just in the sense that beauty fades and youth grows old, but in the sense that youth and beauty themselves are vulnerable -- their beauty shelterless, their youth itself a looped and windowed ragged-ness inadequate to the task of sheltering them.  The words of the play, for a moment, strip them naked.
            (Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth, pp. 30-31)
And what of us. I live in the beautiful city of Vancouver, one of the most favoured places on earth.  We have plenty to eat. We are reasonably safe. We have comfortable living accommodations and the best in medical and dental care.
Yet for us too, the wretchedness of the human condition is a plain reality we cannot deny.  There is no shelter, no security -- neither money in the bank, nor the strength of youth, nor the wisdom of age -- that is not threatened by the risks of living, the "bondage to decay."
"Is man no more than this?" cries Lear -- and answers his own question:  "Unaccommodated man is no more than such a poor, bare, forked animal."
Beneath our clothes, our reputations, our pretensions, beneath our religion or lack of it, we are all vulnerable both to the storm without and to the storm within, and if ever we are to find true shelter, it is with the recognition of our tragic nakedness and need for true shelter that we have to start.
            (Buechner, Telling the Truth, p. 33.  Note pp. 26-33)
For we are not just creatures of the dust of the earth, we are the children of eternity -- and we have no permanent home in this life.  Our hearts seek the ultimate, the Absolute, the Eternal.  Apart from God, we have no final hope.  "Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee."
But the other side of the story is that we are the children of eternity.  There is a Spirit by which we strive and sometimes conquer, by which sometimes some of us can be heroes and heroines, and saints and martyrs.
It was a day not that long ago --though when it was doesn't really matter.  It's something which happens everyday, somewhere.  This time I was the one standing beside the bed when death came -- the bare hospital room, the body grey with death and growing cold, mouth open, all the ugliness of death.  The son, big and certainly no weakling, after a time of silence said quietly, "We think we're so strong, so smart!"  And then he put his head in his hands and cried like a baby. 
The day ended for me again in a hospital room -- a woman with that hateful, debilitating disease of the bowels.  She had been in the hospital for unending weeks, and the next day was scheduled for an operation and probably a permanent ileostomy.  But I do not forget her smile, her courage, her optimism.
And I though to myself, "What a wretch!"
Thoreau's words are often quoted -- "Most men (people) live lives of quiet desperation."  But the ending is not often quoted,
Most men live lives of quiet desperation -- but many live in triumph in desperate circumstances!
Remember how the eighth chapter of Romans ends?
For I am absolutely convinced that there is nothing -- neither death nor life, neither spiritual power nor physical violence, in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, nothing in all the universe, in the heights of the sky or the depths of the earth, which can separate us from the love of god which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.
And that makes all the difference!


Peter Black said...

Alan, thoughtful, indepth working through of the human condition apart from the grace of God. But you don't leave us there. Thanks for reminding us of the inseparable union with God in the love of Christ we have through the grace that saves.

Charles Van Gorkom said...

A masterpiece. Well thought, well written, from one widely read. Thank-you for the blessing.

Brian Austin said...

There's more than I can digest in this piece, just hours from a hospital room myself, having spent a night expecting Mom would be gone before morning.

The triumph of Romans 8 doesn't make death less ugly, but it brings hope and beauty into the very midst of the ugliness.


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