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Did any of you memorize the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley, when you were in school?
It goes like this:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the . . .

For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. - 1 Peter 2:25

Did any of you memorize the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley, when you were in school?
It goes like this:
Out of the night that covers me, 
Black as the Pit from pole to pole, 
I thank whatever gods may be 
For my unconquerable soul. 

In the fell clutch of circumstance 
I have not winced nor cried aloud. 
Under the bludgeonings of chance 
My head is bloody, but unbowed. 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears 
Looms but the horror of the shade, 
And yet the menace of the years 
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid. 

It matters not how strait the gate, 
How charged with punishments the scroll, 
I am the master of my fate; 
I am the captain of my soul.1

What Henley is saying is, "it's my life and I am in charge of it and its direction.", and he goes on to say, "I am not afraid to meet my eternity, no matter what the judgments against me may be", in the words of Frank Sinatra, "I did it my way, and I'm proud of it."

By contrast, Peter says, 
For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.


Anyone who has experience with sheep will tell you that sheep are defenseless against most external threats and are notoriously passive followers. In the slaughter house they use what is known as a "Judas goat", which presumably is a goat that is trained to lead the sheep up into the slaughterhouse and to their death.

I don't know about you, but the sheep analogy kind of bothers me at this point. I think it would be that kind of analogy that would drive someone like Henley around the bend.
There are times in our lives when we may be passive, but one of the great attributes of our character is that we have been given the gift of being able to act, or a free will,  the trait that Henley seems to prize so much. In other words we are not simple pawns on some cosmic chessboard, but are given the gift of being able to direct ourselves and our lives.

The fly in the ointment is that our sinful nature is capable of great self deception. We are great at convincing ourselves

  • that what we want is good,
  • that what we believe is right,
  • that what we do is for the best.
    The part of our nature that Henley prizes, our ability to govern ourselves autonomously, is a gift of God. Knowing what path to follow and having a guide to direct us and help us up when we fall short is what Peter is talking about. And it is our ability to deceive ourselves about what is good and right that leads us into evil.

    And I bet Henley did not chart his course completely from his own stars. At the turn of the last century when he wrote his poem, England had a strong moral Biblical code. He may have thought he was living totally autonomously, but he inherited his values from centuries of good Biblical teaching.

    And by contrast, in a time when Biblical codes are no longer held to be absolute or even self-evident, being the captain of our soul can lead us into monstrous places. Listen to what is currently going on in the philosophy of ethics:. Peter Singer is the leading ethical philosopher at Princeton University. Hear what is being written about what he is saying and teaching:

    The New York Times, explaining how his views trickle down through media and academia to the general populace, noted that "no other living philosopher has had this kind of influence." The New England Journal of Medicine said he has had "more success in effecting changes in acceptable behavior" than any philosopher since Bertrand Russell. The New Yorker called him the "most influential" philosopher alive.

    Don't expect Peter Singer to be quoted heavily on the issue that roiled the November 2, 2004 election, same-sex marriage. That for him is intellectual child's play, already logically decided, and it's time to move on to polyamory. While politicians debate the definition of marriage between two people, Mr. Singer argues that any kind of "fully consensual" sexual behavior involving two people or 200 is ethically fine.

    For example, when I asked him last month about necrophilia (what if two people make an agreement that whoever lives longest can have sexual relations with the corpse of the person who dies first?), he said, "There's no moral problem with that." Concerning bestiality (should people have sex with animals, seen as willing participants?), he responded, "I would ask, 'What's holding you back from a more fulfilling relationship?' [But] it's not wrong inherently in a moral sense."

    If the 21st century becomes a Singer century, we will also see legal infanticide of born children who are ill or who have ill older siblings in need of their body parts. Question: What about parents conceiving and giving birth to a child specifically to kill him, take his organs, and transplant them into their ill older children? Mr. Singer: "It's difficult to warm to parents who can take such a detached view, [but] they're not doing something really wrong in itself." Is there anything wrong with a society in which children are bred for spare parts on a massive scale? "No."

    When we had lunch a month after our initial interview and I read back his answers to him, he said he would be "concerned about a society where the role of some women was to breed children for that purpose," but he stood by his statements. He also reaffirmed that it would be ethically okay to kill 1-year-olds with physical or mental disabilities, although ideally the question of infanticide would be "raised as soon as possible after birth."

    These proposals are biblically and historically monstrous, but Mr. Singer is a soft-spoken Princeton professor. Whittaker Chambers a half-century ago wrote, "Man without God is a beast, and never more beastly than when he is most intelligent about his beastliness," but part of Mr. Singer's effectiveness in teaching "Practical Ethics" to Princeton undergraduates is that he does not come across personally as beastly.

    So in a world where having children for the purpose of harvesting their organs is not in and of itself morally wrong, where are we to turn for a moral compass? How about the shepherd of our souls?

    The shepherd of the flock guides the flock away from danger and into safe pastures.
    Psalm 23 says, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He make me lie down in green pastures, he leads me by still waters. He restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake, and when I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil."

    To understand that we need a higher authority than ourselves is not weakness, it is the beginning of wisdom.
    And as Peter writes, we are prone to wander off according to our own inclinations and the shepherd of our souls gives us a compass.
    Not only does he give us a compass, but he gives us the means to return when we do wander off.
    It is called repentance and restoration.
    We have a way to deal with our real moral guilt before God.
    We do not have to go before God with the scroll charged with our sins; we can live and meet the end of our life in confident trust that there will be no punishments meted out, because we have Jesus as our shepherd and advocate.

    Jesus as the Guardian of our souls
    The King James version calls Jesus the shepherd and bishop of our souls.
    The word episkopos is commonly used for bishop, but in the literature of the time it had quite a different meaning than we think of. In Homer's Iliad, Hector who guarded the city of Troy was called its episkopos. In Greek literature, the episkopoi, were the gods who guarded the treaties made by man. Justice was an episkopos who saw to it that wrongdoers were brought to justice.
    In the writings of Plato, the episkopoi were the guardians of the state.
    The episkopoi were champions and guardians.

    So Peter says we have now returned to the shepherd and champion-guardian of our souls.
    Jesus is our shepherd, he is the one who is the guardian of the treaty made between us and God.
    In another part of Peter's writing, he talks about our adversary, Satan who is like a prowling lion.
    None of us could stand up against him on our own.
    Satan's chief aim is to discredit us before God, but Jesus is our advocate who continually stands between us and our accuser, who defends us to our heavenly father.
    And in the end of the age, he will slay our adversary, as a heroic champion and guardian would.

    Satan our adversary hardly gets much mention except in the movies where he is portrayed as being very powerful, in some ways the rival of God. Not so.
    We are no match for him, but he cannot stand against Jesus who, when the time comes, will slay him with a word.
    In the meantime, knowing we have such an adversary, it is good to know we have a guardian who watches over us and who defends us when we are slandered before God.

    I wonder if William Henley knew about that adversary when he wrote Invictus.
    I am happy to rest my case with Jesus, the guardian and shepherd and I invite you to do the same.
    If you have not committed your life to him, do so.
    If you have not publicly confirmed your commitment, do so.
    If you have not celebrated the fact of that commitment and security, celebrate it with us.
    If not now, when?

    Preached April 17, 2005
    Dr. Harold McNabb
    West Shore Presbyterian Church
    Victoria, British Columbia


    Notes
    1. William Earnest Henley, 1849 - 1903
    2Marvin Olasky, "Blue-State Philosopher," World (12-27-04) pp. 32-33, cited in Preaching Today
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