Dread, joy and Morning Prayer

Standing on the 5th tee at St Michael’s in Sydney’s East, the golfer experiences a mixture of nervousness and dread. Here (with some translational notes for non-golfers) is what it’s like.

The hole is a 170 metre par 3 (translation: a long way for hackers). From the tee, there is a shute of dense scrub on either side for the first 80 metres or so, thus doing the golfer’s head in. (“Whatever you do, don’t go right, I mean left, I mean left or right!”). Directly in front of the tee between the forbidding walls of foliage is 140 metres of low, scrabbly, gorsy stuff and sand, so a short but straight shot is also headed for serious trouble (translation: you hit it in there, and you might as well write 7 on your card and walk directly to the next hole).

And so you stand there, trying not to think of everything that could go wrong, and concentrate on just swinging the club and getting it past all the trouble somewhere in the vicinity of the green. Very occasionally a minor miracle happens: you manage to remain calm enough to make a half-decent swing. There is a snink (translation: the beautiful sound, halfway between ‘snick’ and ‘thunk’, that a golf ball makes when it comes sweetly off the centre of the club face), and the ball soars up and out, and lands gently, like a little white bird, on the distant green.

What is the feeling when that happens? It’s different to elation and more than satisfaction; it’s a warm, relieved joy that the dread judgement has been avoided, and that you are safe and home and right where you ought to be.

If you’ll forgive the irreverence of the comparison, I had a similar feeling this morning as I prayed my way through Morning Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. You start by reading a few verses of Scripture like these:

When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth what which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive. (Ezek 18:27)

Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil. (Joel 2:13)

Then you are exhorted,

Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloak them before the face of Almighty God; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy.

And then you confess, using a series of brief phrases that shine a piercing light into every corner of your disobedient heart:

Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders…

Then come these extraordinary words:

Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live; and hath given power and commandment to his ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins: He pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel…

“[P]ardoneth and absolveth”: this is not a minor, but a major miracle. There is no health in us, but there is pardon and absolution in the gospel promises of God. And a feeling of warm, relieved joy spreads through your soul as you realize that judgement is avoided, and that you are safe and home and right where you ought to be.

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