The wisdom of the world-weary preacher

tree-rings-on-weathered-stump-texture1-600x400I’m just back from church having listened to the best sermon I have heard for a very long time.

I suppose the preacher was in his late 70s. He played to the gallery. He had obviously preached the sermon often. He was witty, to the point and entertaining. And yet …

It was a very conventional re-telling of a Christian world-view of the God who let something happen in the Garden of Eden which resulted in a rescue mission. It was a mission that involved a nation, its people, priests and prophets and finally a Saviour whose spirit is still on the move all over the world.

It wasn’t what the preacher said which drew my admiration. It wasn’t even the way he said. It was what emerged between the words. There was a wisdom which was full of pathos and truth. It was a wisdom that seemed to be burdened by its own awareness.

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The Wilderness Experience (2)

Sinai2The experience of a wilderness is often used as a metaphor of spiritual emptiness. In my last post, I described my own experience of staying in the Sinai desert. It taught me not to use the metaphor glibly.

Spiritual emptiness – by which I mean loss of direction and one’s hold on God or your own convictions – may be no more than lack of discipline and persistence. Time spent in a wilderness may be deeply challenging yet at the same time enriching.

Here is another piece I wrote after coming out of the Sinai. It starts with a question Jesus asked of people who went out into wild places around the Jordan valley to meet the prophet John.

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The Wilderness Experience

Sinai 1“Experiencing the wilderness is an expanding and uplifting sensation for the human spirit. It draws us out beyond our selves. An untamed environment, untouched by human beings, whether it is a vast ocean, rain forest, a desert, points to the ultimate mystery at the heart of the world which continually calls human beings to a deeper communion with the Earth and with God”. Sean McDonagh, Irish Columban Missionary and Eco-theologian

I don’t want to argue with Father Sean, but I fear we can be just a little too romantic about the benefits of wilderness spirituality. This is something I wrote after just a few days in the Sinai.

You tell me you are going through a ‘wilderness experience’ in your faith.

So does it mean?

You don’t know whether to sit, stand or walk

Because your backside is so sore?

You long for the sun because it’s so cold at night

And when it comes you are beaten down

By its unrelenting glare?

You’ve seen the tracks of an animal

Walk over you in your sleeping bag

But the maker of the tracks?

You’ve walked into a new place

And left only your footprints?

You’ve walked and walked

And found nowhere to go?

You’ve been confronted by so much honesty

That you feel stripped-bare?

You’ve been seduced?

You’ve felt you’ve lost everything

But been given everything too?

You’ve looked in every direction

And each way forward looks as

Confusing as the other?

And it’s been so quiet

You’ve been afraid to hear

Your heart beat?


Now think!

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A very influential man (3)

index“My object in writing this book is to persuade all readers that the experience they must reflect on is not mine, but their own, because the only place any of us can find God at first hand is within our own experience” Gerard Hughes

I’m continuing to read Cry of Wonder and this quotation sums up its core theme. It is to know and reflect on one’s own experience. He describes his own struggles to recognise this. Whilst he is clearly based within one of the Christian traditions, he does not regard it as a well-guarded sanctuary. Indeed he believes that when the Church seeks to exert her authority in relation to this is when God can be pushed out.

Hughes writes:

“God is to be found in the ordinary, in the earthiness and messiness, the chaos and strife of everyday life”.

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A very influential man (2)

indexIn a recent post I said I would return to ‘Cry of Wonder’ by Jesuit Priest Gerard W Hughes. It was to be his final book. He died two weeks after its publication. I promised a review.

It is a long book. It sounds like its author. Slow, discursive, self-referencing and needed a strong edit (which it has not received). It also captured my attention. It is built around three themes: Unity, Peace and Holiness

Whilst Hughes claims it is not a biography. It is biographical. He thinks back over the story of his life spotting various themes as they emerged and developed.

However, there is a surprise.

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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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