I’ve had some half-formed ideas running though my head for a while, and a stanza from a George Herbert poem helped to cement one a little bit. This is stanza 72 in his poem “Perirrhanterium:”
Judge not the preacher; for he is thy Judge:
If thou mislike him, thou conceiv’st him not.
God calleth preaching folly. Do not grudge
To pick out treasures from an earthen pot.
The worst speak something good: if all want sense;
God takes a text, and preacheth patience.
It was the last line or so that caught my eye: “The worst speak something good: if all want sense;/ God takes a text, and preacheth patience.”
I’m still having some difficulty articulating this, so bear with me. It seems that this is an example of the value of means- is that the right way to say it? Typically, we value ends; results; that which we set out to achieve when we set out to achieve something. The means- that which we do in order to get the result we want- is secondary. It may be necessary; it may sometimes even be enjoyable; but it is still secondary.
For example: When I am in my home and I want to eat a sandwich, I first must make a sandwich. This is (I think) common knowledge. The actual making of the sandwich holds no particular pleasures for me; I do not think to myself, Boy, I really could go for making a sandwich right now. I think people would begin to notice if I went around making sandwiches with great delight yet never eating them. The sandwich making is merely a means to an end. And largely, we do not associate the means with value. Perhaps in things we must practice, we think means are valuable- in learning to drive a car, for example. But not generally.
Here the line from Herbert comes in. When I sit in the church pew to hear a truly awful sermon, I’m usually not very happy; after all, I came here for the end of obtaining knowledge, receiving instruction, being stirred up in the faith, and so on, and to sit through the sermon in order for those things to happen is bad enough. Worse still is it when the text is poorly explicated by a passionless minister without a drop of charisma. Yet Herbert hits upon an important point: the event of preaching itself- whether the preaching is good or bad- is an occasion for God to teach a lesson which I could not have anticipated.
Isn’t that just like life? When I was in high school I strenuously objected to being forced to learn algebra and precalculus because I knew, I just knew that I was never going to use those things in real life. I seem to have been right thus far, in that since I graduated from high school six years ago no one has shoved a quadrilateral under my nose and demanded that I solve for x. But the equations themselves, I’ve come to realize, were the least of what I learned in my precalc class under Barney Mitchell those years ago.
Learning math, I am convinced, has helped my theology. After all, where did I learn the importance of caution in my reasoning? Where did I learn to show my work, so others might be able to learn from my method as well as correct my mistakes? Where did I learn to patiently labor at that which I did not understand, yet that which was right in front of me? I have to say, if I remember correctly, that I learned all of these things from good old Mr. Mitchell in math class. And there are a thousand examples of this.
I hope I’ve articulated myself well enough. Lord willing, I will have more to say on this subject.