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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

21 June 2024

Returning home should lead to rest, but how to make this last, asks Malcolm Guite

“IN RETURNING and rest ye shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength. . .”

I was meditating on this 15th verse in Isaiah 30, returning to it, as I suppose I often do, on my own returns to England, turning home again in hope of rest. I’ve even preached on this verse — in the sermon you might expect — about the need to step away from busy-ness, to be still and centred again, to be rooted again in God, to bide and to abide in the true vine, to empty out the clutter, tune out the hubbub, listen for the still, small voice. I reflect upon it more often than I preach on it.

The only trouble is, I hardly ever do it; or, at least, I don’t do it for long enough. Something interrupts, some urgency, some pressing demand, or even, frankly, some distraction. My returning has boomeranged back into activity; the rest has disappeared.

When I returned to the verse this time, I actually opened my Bible to find it, and, of course, I then realised that I was misremembering the verse, or not so much misremembering as only partially remembering it. I had omitted the final and only too telling last four words of verse 15; for it is not a verse about our acceptance of his proffered rest, but a verse about our refusal: the last four words are “but ye would not”! Indeed, the very next verse goes on to say: “But ye said, No; for we will flee upon horses; therefore shall ye flee: and, We will ride upon the swift; therefore shall they that pursue you be swift.”

We’ve no sooner paused for a few minutes than we’re off again; and the faster we run round the hamster wheel, the faster it turns.

How to break the cycle? How to make the returning a real return and a real rest? How to have patience for the return that comes slowly, the quietness and confidence that takes time? Verse 18 comes in with the answer, and, indeed, the great hope, which is, simply, the reminder that God is far more patient than we are. He has all the time in the world to wait for the occasion when we will finally give him even half an hour of our precious time: “And therefore will the Lord wait, that he may be gracious unto you, and therefore will he be exalted, that he may have mercy upon you: for the Lord is a God of judgement: blessed are all they that wait for him.”

I love the subtle transition here from his waiting on us to our waiting on him, the movement from judgement to blessing, and the blessing itself pronounced not on the fulfilment of waiting, but simply on the waiting itself. T. S. Eliot got it so right in “East Coker”:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without
    hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing;
    wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing;
    there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all
    in the waiting.

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