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Prayer for the week

15 August 2014

Lindsay Llewellyn-MacDuff is inspired by this prayer of John Donne

A Hymn to God the Father

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow'd in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.

John Donne (1572-1631)

SOMEONE once told me that an optimist believes that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears that this is so. I sit firmly in the latter camp, particularly when I survey myself. If I spend a moment in self-reflection, I see a panorama of sin, and fear that it is the best that I can hope for.

In this poem, John Donne (the photo shows his monument in St Paul's Cathedral) sets out the challenge for God, beginning with original sin - that essential brokenness that puts us on our back foot spiritually, and makes us surly when surpassed. It is not our fault, and yet we still carry the brokenness, regardless. Can God sort this out?

Yes: but then, as John Donne and I both know, even with our redemption wrought by Christ, we still have habits of sin that we cannot seem to break. There are sins that we know are wrong; that we know we shouldn't do; we promise we'll never do again - and yet, and yet somehow, time and again, we find ourselves back in the same pit. These are often petty, footling dependencies and cattiness, but they lead us away from God, and we know that they do.

The poet leads us on, however, to the more painful knowledge that we have also led others into fault with us. Our bad example - or provocation, or failure to be the person that we should have been - has caused other people to be less than they could have been.

I hate this most. The double guilt of my sin's opening the door for someone else to travel away from God makes my heart ache. It seems light relief to reflect instead on the knowledge that there are other sins that I had previously resisted, until I thought: "What the hell?" and, as the poet says, wallowed in.

So do these patterns determine me: is this the best of all possible "me"s? No: even here - even here - God makes all things new, if we but ask.

The problem is that this endless slow excavation of ourselves is a kind of death, an inability to live our baptised life. Like the dwarfs in C. S. Lewis's Narnia novel The Last Battle, we find ourselves taking the blessings of God and seeing only muck and straw, because we cannot bring ourselves to hope that there is more. Always, there is more to be repented of, until we fear that our faith is no faith; our conviction has no meaning; it cannot keep us afloat; and we plunge into darkness.

This poem breaks that headlong descent. It takes us in measured steps into the pit of our sin, into the depths of spiritual pessimism, and then shines the Christ-light down into the well, and shows us the door.

"But swear by thyself . . ." God is our constant. In this prayer, we reach out a hand to him who can do immeasurably more than all we can ask or conceive. However faithless we are, he is ever faithful. However broken we are, he is ever ready to heal and heal and heal again.

We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but God does; and with God is, in some sense, the self that we shall become - our best self. Eventually, all of this nonsense will fall away, and we will see Christ face to face. No sin - however petty, however persistent, however frightening - can stop us from seeing him. However much further we have fallen, God has done; his work is complete. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, shall not, cannot overcome it.

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