He walked alone on Christmas Eve

church snowHe heaved on his boots and opened the door. The air was cold outside and flowed over his face with icy contempt. ‘How many more times?’ he thought. ‘How many times had it been so far? More than he could tell’. And it was always the same. They said, ‘You’ll be there first won’t you? So can you do what is necessary? We’ll be along later. You don’t mind do you?’ Would it matter if I did he would wonder. But he didn’t really mind. It was just what had come to be expected. It was part of his work.

But tonight the air seemed colder, the boots heavier and his bag cut into his shoulder.

He closed the gate and turned down the hill until he came to the High Street. There was no one in sight. This was the part he really liked. The cars were parked, already catching their first sheen of frost. There was light everywhere. The shop lights shone out across the street; the council lights had already been shut down. Austerity bah!. Christmas trees lights still twinkled on the sides of the houses. He could take his time. He would not meet anyone.

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A very influential man

Gerard HughesGerard W Hughes died last week aged 90. I remember seeing him at a Retreat Association conference where he effortlessly guided over 400 people through aspects of the Ignatian Spirituality. He was at the height of his notoriety and his stories were well known. But we forgave him. We forgave him because of what he had become to many people both within and beyond the Christian world. He was a man who exposed his own struggles whilst offering hope for fellow troubled believers.

In 1985 he wrote a ground-breaking book with the title God of Surprises. The title was compelling. It arrived just at the time that many people within the Church were ready to discover more about prayer.

But what he wrote about had been around for centuries. The spiritual exercises of Ignatius offered a way of prayer that took one’s own psychological disposition seriously. Hughes, a Jesuit, had lived with these for all his life and now had made them accessible to people well-beyond his own tradition.

But it was more than a book about prayer for its concluding chapter described his own views about the Arms Race and Nuclear Defence systems. For him prayer should always engage with the violence of the world and make the one who prays active for Peace.

In later years he became a modern-day Jeremiah. A man who told it as it is. As he became more disappointed by the times we live in and the way the Church responds, he retreat into a ghetto of private faith.

His latest book Cry of Wonder was published a week before his death. I will review it here shortly.

Photograph: the Jesuit Society

A series of convictions

landscape-view-bradgateThis is my last post for a while as I relocate to another part of the UK. I’ll start writing again in a few weeks time with the benefit of some time to consider WindingQuest’s purpose and content so far. Any thoughts or reflections on the content so far would be welcome.

I leave you with something I wrote a few years ago. It comes from a book I wrote for the Bible Reading Fellowship in 2007 entitled: Seeking Faith Finding God (extract here).

I concluded it with a series of convictions about what it means to be a Christian:

  • We need to seek God. Rowan Williams, shortly before he took up his post as Archbishop of Canterbury, was asked what he was praying for the Church. He expressed the hope that Christians would be able to set on fire the imagination of our society with a vision of God the Holy Trinity. This will not happen unless, like the psalmist, our deepest desire is to know God (Psalm 63:1-5). We have reduced our idea of believing to having a number of ideas about God. The original meaning of the word is to give our heart to the object of our belief. So to believe in God is to move into a relationship with God. One that will give energy to the task of exploring our faith with others.

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A Library of Life – the 2010s

I have arrived at my fifth decade of ministry and have dismantled most of my library in preparation for retirement. But among the remainders are the books which have meant the IMG_0966most to me. They map of the pattern of my ministry and Christian experience. The book I have chosen for my final post was originally published in 2007. It is:

Surprised by Hope

Over the period of Christmas and New Year of 2012-2013 Manvers Street Baptist Church held numerous funerals, sometimes two a week into mid January. Some were expected, others were a surprise. But at each there were always a gathering of people from the church who met with the families and the friends. Each was a farewell to a unique person.

It was an exhausting experience as I moved between the carol services and festivities and the sombre recollections of people coping with loss and regret. On the face of it the themes of the worship at that of the year would nourish spirits darkened by grief. But that was not always the case. I found it no easy task.

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A Library of Life – the 2000s

IMG_0966As I reflect on the 40 years of my ministry and the books that have made an impact on me I come to the first decade of this millennium. I have chosen two books. One emerges from the most intransigent and notorious conflict in the modern world and the other, by an influential Boston rabbi (here), reflects on the appeal of an Old Testament book Ecclesiastes to our broken western society.

Justice and Only Justice

 “John I am not surprised you were troubled by what you read. You English have never been oppressed but we Scots have; I can see exactly what he means”.

The speaker was a lowland Scot who had just listened to me introduce Ateek’s book about the way a Christian Palestinian reads the Old Testament. Ateek makes two points:

  • When a Palestinian believer living in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank reads the account of Old Testament Israelites taking over the land and cities of others peoples. it is hard to see how this might be deemed the blessing of God and history seems to be repeating itself.
  • Compassion without justice is an incomplete compassion.

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A Library of Life – the 1990s

IMG_0966I have chosen two books for the 1990s. One made me radically re-examine my ideas about Jesus. The other gave me a deeper understanding of what sort of community a church might become.

 

Jesus – the new vision

By the 1990s I had been a minister for just under 20 years. I had moved to my fourth church in Bath. I asked a lecturer from one of our Baptist colleges which Christian writers he thought I might need to read and ‘follow’ during the next couple decades of my ministry. He suggested among others, the New Testament historian Marcus Borg. What Borg wrote then and since has helped me re-address my relationship with Jesus and re-align my own Christian convictions.

Borg argues that we must examine Jesus through two lenses: the pre-Easter Jesus and the Christ of faith. This was not novel. Others have deemed it too simplistic but it captured my attention and became a challenge to my understanding of ‘what Jesus really was like’.

Borg concluded that Jesus was a …

  • Jewish Mystic / Spirit Person: One of those figures in human history who had frequent and vivid experiences of the sacred.
  • Jewish Healer: The historical evidence that Jesus performed paranormal healings is very strong; he must have been a remarkable healer.
  • Jewish Wisdom Teacher: He taught a subversive and alternative wisdom.
  • Jewish Social Prophet: Jesus stands in the tradition of the great social prophets of ancient Israel who challenged social systems.
  • Jewish Movement Founder / Initiator: A movement came into existence around him which embodied his alternative wisdom.

In successive books he has kept to that fundamental analysis. It provides me with a foundation on which to build the content of discipleship and an explanation of why a person might consider becoming a Christian.

Borg has spread his wings into many other areas of Christian belief for at heart he wants to present Christian faith as contemporary and a viable alternative to current destructive Western cultural trends.

Borg took part in an interview for PBS (see here) and in its course gave this summary of his convictions about Jesus:

I have learned that the message of Jesus was not about requirements, was not about here is what you must do or believe in order to go to heaven. It was about entering into a relationship to God now in the present–I see in that–wisdom teacher and a social father. And for me as a Christian what Jesus was like as a figure of history is a powerful testimony to the reality of the sacred or the reality of God.

I agree. The Jesus I believe in is the one who grew up in Nazareth 2000 years ago. I will never know all the detail of his life. I cannot ignore what those of two millennia of faith have made of him. But if my faith leads me to believe that he is the human face of God I cannot ignore what he did in his lifetime.

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The road to Gaza leads beyond wariness

Aside

In a recent post on his Living Wittily blog James Gordon gives a heartfelt response to current events in Gaza. He speaks of feeling both weary and wary. I fear that is an all too common response which I know well.

But wariness cannot be the end of the journey. So I have tried to do more than wring my hands over the current state of affairs in Gaza and throughout Israel/Palestine.

  1. I always take the opportunity to support and speak of Christian Palestinians I know and Israeli organisations that are challenging the policies of their government. Betselem, a human rights organisation is one, Bethlehem Bible College and Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Centre are others.
  2. I always offer intercession for both Israelis and Palestinians when leading worship (see here and here).
  3. I have a chosen a particular area of need to support; in my case Jeel al Amal, a school for Palestinian children in Bethany, Jerusalem.4570773792_413x275

It might not amount to much but it helps me touch the edge of one of the world’s great tragedies.

 

Image: The Children of Jeel al-Amal (http://bit.ly/1oPhSrT)

A Library of Life – the 1980s

IMG_0966The two books I have chosen for the 1980s made a significant contribution to the way I view the nature of the local church and the type of behaviour that could be characteristic of people who belong there.

 

 

Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth

Deep in the woods of West Sussex at the end of long lane are the buildings of the monastery of the Holy Trinity, Crawley Down. I joined the community there for my first sabbatical in 1981. I was initially baffled by the regular times of prayer and overwhelmed by the capacity of the monks to be in silence for so much of the day and night.

At the time I was reading Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard Foster. In it he makes an appeal for Christians to rediscover the traditional disciplines that have supported the integrity of Christian practice over many centenaries. A monastery seemed a good place to read such a book.Reading it helped me make sense of what was going on at the monastery and it became one of the books that were most influential during the 1980s for both my ministry and Christian journey.2014-03-06

Foster suggests that there are three streams that nourish the spiritual journey. The first is an inward journey where our feelings and insights are nurtured by such as prayer and fasting. The second involves simple living and times of solitude which develop the outward journey of how we live and behave. The third involves shared experience like confession and spiritual direction. He has gone on to develop these ideas in further writing and founding the Renovare movement. This has become a network of groups and individuals in many parts of the world who wish to develop a pattern of life suggested by Celebration of Discipline and his subsequent writing.

Celebration of Discipline made a profound impact, not only on me but on many others. For some it was the channelling of their renewal within the Charismatic movement. For others, like me it was a way of grounding our concern for social justice in patterns of discipline which were not included in our church tradition. It has gone on to be re-printed many times and its opening words still ring true:

“The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people”.

At the monastery I met such people.

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A Library of Life – the 1970s

IMG_0966‘The mystery of the future can no longer feed on ignorance’

(John V Taylor, The Go-between God)

As with other recently retired ministers I have had to reduce the size of my library. Its books have mapped the course of both my ministry and my spirituality. In some cases it has been a sad parting.

Following an invitation from Andy Goodliff to reflect on my ministry (see here), I have selected two books from each decade of my ministry which have meant a lot to me (read about my books of the 1960s here).

The two I have chosen for the 1970s, covering my first five years as a minister, started my journey to the discovery that spirituality must be rooted in compassion and justice. Without both it is ‘mere spirituality’. They are:

The Go-Between God

Bob Morgan was the local vicar in Ely, Cardiff. He got the local ministers reading Taylor’s book, published in 1972. It was the time of ‘charismatic renewal’ when many churches experiencing the gifts of the Spirit. It was a period of instability, vitality and new voices demanding to be heard. Taylor offered a measured and re-assuring commentary.

‘I am not looking for a recovery of exotic supernaturalism, but an extension of the range of our empirical enquiry’

For Taylor, the Holy Spirit was the energy in all matter and could not be reduced to certain religious experiences. His calm, thoughtful scrutiny became a model for my own preaching from Scripture. In this early book there was a breadth of reference to science, art and music, which always characterised his style. It introduced me to a way of reading the Bible which went beyond the meaning of its words or understanding its context. The Bible provides a pathway of different landscapes. It is most helpful when we do not get lost in its detail too often. He was not afraid to add his own experiences and those of others to support the ideas that he proposed. The book ends with a story which has become famous. It describes the deep compassion shown by one woman to another in which Taylor sees the true of the Spirit and a profound insight into the nature of God. He also connects it to the importance of prayer for others which he regards as part of the outreach of the Church.

It is the embrace of God, his kiss of life. That is the embrace of his mission and of our intercession. The Holy Spirit is as close, unobtrusive and irresistibly strong’

Taylor died in 2001. But his first book had started me on a path which would be shaped further by my other choice from this decade.

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The Berlin House of One

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There will be no survival of our globe without a global ethic:

There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the nations.

There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue and cooperation

Among religions and civilisations.

Hans Kung, Dissident Roman Catholic Theologian

Willi Gude was a deacon in the Baptist Church in Great Missenden in the 1970s. He didn’t come from Buckinghamshire. He had been a German prisoner of war in England during the Second World War and stayed on to marry a local girl, Evelyn. They never had children and are both buried in the Baptist graveyard in the village.

Their relationship had been a brave step by both of them. They did not have an easy time in their early years together. Willi was a gentle soul and would talk of his regret that he was never allowed to become a bell-ringer at the local parish church because of his nationality. He came eventually to the Baptist church where he spoke up for any chance for Christians to work together.

He used to speak of his home church to which he had never returned because it was in East Germany. It had a special building specially designed so that both Lutherans and Roman Catholics could worship.

I thought of Willi as plans for the Berlin House of One have emerged. I am not sure what he would have made of such place where Jew, Christian and Muslim had their own space in one building but I think he would have approved of the vision. His wartime experience had enlarged his heart and widened his horizons – helped along by a Buckinghamshire girl who was a cook for at the big house up on the hill.

 

There are only two pathways away from conflict. One sows the seeds of the next conflict by half-hearted reconciliation. The other strikes out in an impossibly hopeful new direction and has the courage to not look back. The latter was Willi’s pathway. And may the blessing of Willi Gude be on the efforts of the rabbi, imam and pastor both within and beyond Berlin’s House of One.

Image: Getty Images via BBCOnline