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Prayer for the week

by
20 June 2014

Catherine Pickford on a puritan's devotion

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While I have a thought to think, let me not forget thee; while I have a tongue to move, let me mention thee with delight; while I have a breath to breathe, let it be after thee and for thee; while I have a knee to bend, let it bow daily at thy footstool; and when by sickness thou confinest me to my couch, do thou make my bed, and number my pains, and put all my tears into thy bottle. Amen.

From The Saints' Everlasting Rest, Richard Baxter (1615 -91)


RICHARD BAXTER was an English Puritan leader in the 17th century. With many interruptions, he continued his ministry throughout the Civil War, and helped to bring about the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

He turned down a bishopric, was imprisoned twice for his faith, and was never far from controversy and persecution. Throughout his life, he valued his integrity over advancement, and even over his own survival.

Baxter's prayer holds within it a prevailing sense of his own mortality. Life - the ability to think and speak and breathe - is a temporary gift, to be used to worship God. Perhaps his view of life as a gift rather than a right helped him to live and work courageously through one of the most turbulent periods in English history.

Baxter's image of God's collecting tears in a bottle is compelling, telling of God's capacity to care minutely about each of us, and to gather the cries of the whole of humanity into his loving care. It is reminiscent of the line from "O little town of Bethlehem": "The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight." God meets us where we are, where we need him, in that single baby, born in a stable.

The bottle comes from Baxter's creative imagination, but the idea of God's collecting tears is, of course, biblical. In Revelation 21.4, we hear that "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more."

We have three small children, and so tear-wiping is something that happens regularly in our house. It can be perilous. Try to do it during a tantrum, and you are liable to get kicked in the face; but if you time it right, wiping away tears can be an effective way of comforting. You have to get down to the child's level, and concentrate carefully. It is a way of saying: "I'm here; I love you; and I'm sorry that you're sad."

As adults, we tend to wipe away our own tears - if we let ourselves shed them at all. Perhaps the image in Baxter's prayer of God's collecting tears can remind us that, no matter how grown-up we try to be, each of us is God's precious child.

We none of us know how long we have on this earth. Baxter is keenly aware of this in his prayer, but he does not see it as a bad thing. It serves to remind us that we are made to praise God, and that we are never far from his endless comfort, as he gathers us into his loving care, and our tears into his bottle.

The Revd Catherine Pickford is Team Rector in the Benwell Team Ministry, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

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