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 by NT Wright
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.
And as always, the most demanding funerals were the ones where I felt people were just turning up to get it over with … “he’d had a good innings” … “it was a relief”… “hope this doesn’t take too long” was written over the faces of many of those who had gathered.
A funeral is a challenge to the integrity of the Minister. You face people who have many different ideas about faith, God, death and heaven. They have been confronted by the stark matter that someone has left them. There is nothing more that can be said to the departed. There is no correcting what has been done. Funerals cannot solve or sort anything. They are a snapshot of the people at that time.
As a Christian Minister my convictions arise from the resurrection of the dead brought into focus in Jesus.
Tom Wright’s book helped me think through what funerals are about, what Christians believe about death and dying and most importantly the meaning of the Resurrection. He wrote it when he was Bishop of Durham – he is now Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Andrews University in Scotland.
Its theme is that the Resurrection of Jesus started a process of change that is still going on. There are signs of this all around us. We are in the midst of a new creation that has yet to be complete. For him the most serious consequence for Christians is what they think happens when we die. Too often they think they are being asked to believe in personal survival after death in a place or an experience called heaven.
Wright’s argues that the New Testament reflection on the Resurrection and goes further than that and reaches a very different conclusion. This is how the book ends:
With Easter, God’s new creation is launched upon a surprised world, pointing to a renewal of the entire creation…so every act of love, every deed done in Christ and by the Spirit, every work of true creativity, every time justice is done, peace is made, families are healed, temptation is resisted, true freedom is sought and won..these very earthly events take their place within a long history of things which implement Jesus’s own resurrection and anticipate the new creation, pointing back to the first and on to the second.
This is thinking on a large scale. If this is the case then no life is so ordinary or transitory to have no significance in a universe that would appear to notice neither our arrival nor our departure. We are truly a speck of stardust that can illuminate our part of the world and our moment in time, in ways known and to be made known.
Our story does not end in death; it is still being written.