Batter my heart three-person’d God

This morning’s sermon on Romans 12:9-16 had some curious  gaps – well, less curious given the current liberalising tendency of too many evangelical churches – but one verse the preacher emphasised chimed well with my own Lenten readings earlier in the morning on this middle Sunday of Lent.

Paul writes to the congregation at Rome

“Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour”  (from v11, NIV)

And, continuing on in Malcolm Guite’s collection of poems (and reflections on them) for Lent and Easter, I read again this poem by John Donne (1572-1631)

batter my heart

All the more powerful when we know of Donne’s own struggles, his compromises, and yet the intense desire, apparent here, for God to be at work in him.  It isn’t some gentle nudging he seeks in this poem/prayer, but an aggressive working of God –  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit –  to shape him, brutally if need be (“break, blow, burn, and make me new”).  This is someone only too well aware of his own weaknesses, his own mixed desires, who knows his need of the overweening grace of his Lord in his life.  Although he ended as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, he was no lifetime closeted cleric: in his younger years Donne had participated in military adventures and sieges and so the imagery he uses come from his own life.

The temptations and distractions of this world –  in the many various forms they take – affect us all to a greater or lesser extent.   And yet, and yet… our most exposed we glimpse afresh our need for the strong hand of God in our lives.   Grace is God’s initiative, and often (and probably rightly) we present it as a gentle thing –  the Saviour who stands at the door knocking, the image from Revelation captured so memorably by Holman Hunt – but Donne’s is a picture of something much more urgent and pressing: the daring, unsettling imagery with which he ends.

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Is it my prayer?  I’m not sure it is, but prompted afresh by that injunction from Paul, I pray that it might be my prayer: that my desire for God, the things of his kingdom, and his transforming and renewing grace might be as sharp and intense as Donne –  a great preacher as well as a great poet –  captures here.

Each of us one day faces the Day of Judgement, and none of us knows either the day or hour of the Lord’s return or of our own death.  Perhaps the prophetic words of Malachi 3 are a good note on which to end.

1Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts. 2But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap: 3And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness. 4Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the LORD, as in the days of old, and as in former years.

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