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 most 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.
As 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.
I 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.
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.
- 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.
- I always offer intercession for both Israelis and Palestinians when leading worship (see here and here).
- 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.
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)
The 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.
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.