Sunday, November 22

Thanksgiving In the Midst of Fear

Seriously ill in the days of the Black Plague, poet John Donne still celebrated God's goodness

Updated by Philip Yancey and introduced by Chris Armstrong | posted 8/08/2008 12:33PM Fourteen Thanksgivings ago in the pages of Christianity Today, Philip Yancey shared a powerful meditation on giving thanks in a time of suffering and fear. Its source was one of Christianity's most complex and compelling poets: John Donne.

Born in England in 1571, "Jack" Donne spent his youth in dissoluteness and rebelliousness, expressed in witty erotic poetry. Turning at last to Christ, Donne came to see himself as a prodigal saved only by grace. 

Through a middle age marked by increasing devotion to Christ—but also by poverty and discouragement—he turned his evident poetic skill to the great themes of love, death, and God's mercy. Then in 1615 he became an ordained Anglican priest, whereafter he poured his creative energies more into sermons than poems. 

During a near-fatal illness in the year 1623, however, Donne turned again to poetry, completing his most famous volume, the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. 

Each day, the bedridden clergyman heard from his window the church bells of London announcing that the Black Plague—then scourging Europe—had taken more victims. Donne was convinced he, too, had the plague and would soon die (in his famous phrase, the person "for whom the bell tolled" was himself). 

It turned out that he did not die quite yet; he recovered, living on to the age of 59 or 60. But in the teeth of his suffering and fear, Donne poured out verses reaching towards God. 

These poems speak, as Yancey says, to "the guilt and fear and helpless faith that marked [Donne's] darkest days." They also answer one of the toughest questions we can face, "In the midst of plague times, how can we give thanks?" 

Here are the three poems excerpted by Yancey, with his clarifying revisions of Donne's eighteenth-century language:
O eternal and most gracious God, you have reserved your perfect joy and perfect glory for the future when we will possess, forever, all that can in any way conduce to our happiness. Yet here also in this world, you grant us earnests full of payment, glimpses of that stored treasure. Just as we see you through a glass darkly, so also do we receive your goodness by reflection and by your instruments.
Nature reaches out her hand and offers corn, and wine, and oil, and milk; but it was you who filled the hand of nature with such bounty. Industry reaches out her hand and gives us fruits of labor for ourselves and our prosperity; but you guided the hands that sowed and watered, and you gave the increase. Friends reach out their hands to support us; but your hand supports the hand we lean on.
Through all these, your instruments, have I received your blessing, O God, but I bless your name most for this, that I have has my portion not only in the hearing, but in the preaching of your gospel.
O most gracious God, on this sickbed I feel under your correction, and I taste of humiliation, but let me taste of consolation, too. Once this scourge has persuaded us that we are nothing of ourselves, may it also persuade us that you are all things unto us.    . . .
I see your hand upon me now, O Lord, and I ask not why it comes or what it intends. Whether you will bid my soul to stay in this body for some time, or meet you this day in paradise, I ask not. Curiosity of mind tempts me to know, but my true healing lies in silent and absolute obedience to your will, even before I know it. Preserve that obedience, O my God, and that will preserve me to you; that, when you have catechized me with affliction here, I may take a greater degree, and serve you in a higher place, in your kingdom of joy and glory. Amen.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christian History magazine.


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