Keep us, O Lord,
while we tarry on this earth,
in a serious seeking after you,
and in an affectionate walking with you,
every day of our lives;
that when you come,
we may be found not hiding our talent,
nor serving the flesh,
nor yet asleep with our lamp unfurnished,
but waiting and longing for our Lord,
our glorious God for ever.
adapted from The Saints’ Everlasting Rest by Richard Baxter (1615-91)
WHEN I moved to Bishop’s Lodge, I inherited a beautiful garden, the harvest of many years’ investment of time, expertise, and expense. We are enjoying the fruits of the dedication and commitment of my predecessor, and we recognise that, for the garden to continue to flourish, it must be continually tended. Our garden deserves the loving care it requires for individual plants to thrive, and for the whole to bring joy and peace.
Prayer, I think, demands the same attention. I often pray for the “forgotten” fruits of the Spirit which are named in St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Galatians 5.22-26). These are the ones that come after the more widely known “love, joy, and peace”. Patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control: these are fruits that are hard to nurture, as they attract less attention.
To grow these fruits, we need first to turn our focus inward to our own limitations, recognising our impatience, selfishness, anger, cruelty, carelessness, and laziness. Accepting our flaws and repenting of them is necessary groundwork for growing the good fruit of the Spirit.
We can then turn outward, allowing the Spirit to grow in us these fruits which are borne for the benefit of others. They are fruits that enable us to live well with others, following the pattern of Jesus. The ripening of these fruits takes a lifetime.
Patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control are the harvest of what are sometimes called old-fashioned values — temperance, constancy, service, and duty. They are fruits that Richard Baxter, the great preacher and writer whose 400th anniversary falls next month, learned to bear. As he wrote: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.”
Through significant trials — public and personal — Baxter learned to be generous, to find security in his relationship with Jesus, and to be open-minded and open-hearted towards others. He did not waver in his commitment to Jesus, but, in an era of hardening entrenchment and theological positioning, of considerable division and dissent, he strove to hold together the body of Christ.
I am challenged and encouraged by much of what Baxter wrote. His prose style is not of our time. This prayer is a modernisation of one that was adapted in the 20th century from a much longer passage in Baxter’s The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, and appeared in Frank Colquhoun’s Parish Prayers (Hodder & Stoughton, 1967). The original refers to “a believing, affectionate walking with thee” and “not serving my flesh, nor asleep, with my lamp unfurnished; but waiting and longing for my Lord’s return”. “A serious seeking” reflects a recurring idea in the book.
It is a prayer to be heard, as well as read silently. Colquhoun, or whoever adapted it, has given it cadence and rhythm. It is beautiful in content as well as form. It is rich in powerful biblical allusion and high expectation, and yet has a patient and gentle tone. It echoes an assertion in Baxter’s A Treatise of Self-Denial: “This life was not intended to be the place of our perfection, but the preparation for it.”
It is a prayer with a sense of continuing purpose. It does not expect a single moment of transformation, and then easy discipleship. Rather, it reflects a continuous journey towards Christ which tenderly recognises and acknowledges our frailty and failings; our tendency to anxiety, self-seeking, and indolence.
Baxter was well aware of these temptations. “It is as hard a thing”, he wrote, “to maintain a sound understanding, a tender conscience, a lively, gracious, heavenly spirit, and an upright life in the midst of contention, as to keep your candle lighted in the greatest storms.”
This prayer, therefore, speaks from the heart of how much we rely on our “gracious God” to equip us for serious seeking and affectionate walking, so that, in the end, we may be found waiting and longing for the Lord when he comes.
The Rt Revd Libby Lane is the Bishop of Stockport, in the diocese of Chester.