Something Hugh said at that meeting in Sheffield has been etched on my memory every since. I’d only been in ordained ministry perhaps 2 or 3 years and we were having our normal post-Summer catchup and planning session.
We would habitually begin with a short devotional, but that day, Hugh was in reflective mood. Only a few weeks before, he’d celebrated his 50th birthday, and now he openly described how affecting that milestone had been. If memory serves, it was on the lines of “I now realize that I have more years of formal ministry behind me than ahead of me.”
I can’t say exactly why this so arrested me, but it did. Perhaps it was one of those tiny intrusions of mortality that challenge the careless presumption of immortality we all share when young.
Anyway–mirabile dictu–just before Christmas, I too reached the same milestone. So Hugh’s words inevitably jangled around my brain. Rachel, Joshua, and Zanna did an amazing job of making it a special day despite lockdowns and distancing. Still… it’s been chastening. Despite being in the USA at one of the oddest moments of recent years (for the last full teaching modules for my DMin) has actually been timely. It’s offered me the chance to reflect, refresh, and realign.
My strategy allergy (an African legacy)
Friends and Q-regulars (not to be confused with QAnon) alike are bored of me saying this. But our Uganda years (2001-2005) finally inoculated me against what you might call the strategic ministry mindset. This is not quite the same thing as making plans and trying to fulfill them. And it’s profoundly different from having priorities and guiding principles that might lead one to making such plans.
What I’m getting at, I think, is the strategist’s presumption. It’s the idea that one can view life, people, society – and even, ultimately, God’s kingdom – as some vast chessboard upon which we can, and should, plot a successful, impactful, and lasting legacy.
To which all I can say is, ‘good luck with that!’
I mean, just who do we think we are?
History is littered with the committees and drawing boards on which great plans have been forged. Only to find those plans pulverized by reality on the ground. One of my ‘favourites’ (although it’s actually grim at so many levels) is Norway’s wonderfully generous project to build a state-of-the-art fish-processing factory by Kenya’s Lake Turkana. After all, Norwegians understand a lot about fish; why wouldn’t they share their largesse and competence? What’s more, that part of Kenya is very remote, under-‘developed’ and tough. But the project failed utterly and sat empty for decades (apparently some are trying to rehabilitate now but that’s another story).
Many factors contributed to the fiasco. The most telling was the rather incidental issue of the Turkana people themselves. Nobody actually asked them what they thought. But their views were plain and clear. Among the Turkana, a fishing ‘career’ is evidence of failure. Which is obvious when you stop to think about it. If the lives of countless generations have revolved around cattle and other livestock, to the extent that wealth and status are measured by the size of herds, then fish are an irrelevance. And who wants to be involved in that?
Anyway – you get the idea. At a rather absurdly young age of 33 (see left!), I ended up as the acting principal of our little seminary. And I had lots of plans and ideas about what we could and should do. And hardly any came about. Now, perhaps it’s just because I’m really bad at strategizing. After all, I am ludicrously bad at chess – not only do I struggle to think several moves ahead, but I don’t particularly want to!
Doing the absurd right thing
Last weekend, I finally watched Terrence Malick’s recent movie, A Hidden Life, with a few friends. I’d been meaning to for ages, but somehow it never happened. I have to say it was one of the most profoundly affecting works of art that I have ever experienced. It’s probably a sign of where I’m at, but I’ve had to choke back tears even in the split seconds when the mere fact of it crosses my mind. I was a pitiful wreck while we were watching.
The plot is not complex; the script simple and even sparse; the drama rather stretched out. On paper, the film shouldn’t amount to much. But as with Malick’s previous epics, this is cinematic poetry, and theological cinema, of the very highest order.
Franz Jägerstätter, is a peasant farmer in the glories of upper Austria in the 1930s. His father had died in the First World War trenches. After the Anschluss and Greater Germany’s aggressive militarisation under the Nazis, Jägerstätter felt in all Christian conscience he couldn’t swear allegiance to the Führer.
Everybody around him thought he was completely insane. Not to mention treacherous. Well almost everybody. One or two friends understood, like Trakl the miller; and his amazing wife Fani. Most of the time. One could hardly blame her for moments of acute doubt after the agonies she herself endured. But he stuck to his principles. And paid the highest price.
Apparently, Malick took 3 years to edit – and wow, it is a rich experience. I need to recover a bit more before reimmersing. But it is so multi-layered, musically, visually, historically, theologically.
The pertinence to this post, though, is simple. All the voices around him (not to mention guns, truncheons, and fists) were screaming the absurdity of Franz’s stand. Captain Herder interrogates him in several scenes, here taunting him with the pointlessness of it all:
What good do you imagine your defiance is doing anyone?
Do you expect to change the course of things? Do you think the authorities are aware of you? That your protest will come to their attention? That anyone will know of it? Ever hear you? Do you think it will influence some decision? No one knows what goes on here. Behind these walls. What purpose does it serve?
How do you know what is good and bad? Do you know better than I? You seem to think there is a nobility in this. Who is this God that requires you to destroy the life of your own family? You think he wants your blood in order to satisfy him? Will it get you on his good side? Blood- drinker! What have you done to him to make him send you this misfortune?
[Franz nods; he will not deny it]
Knowing that your Jesus suffered shouldn’t make you want to suffer. He never sought it out. There’s a difference between the kind of suffering we can’t avoid and that we choose. You suffer for no reason
I can’t imagine how hard it was for him to persevere. Would I have such moral courage? I can’t bear even to imagine. Would I be prepared to do what was right, even when every single consequence seemed horrendous and even counter-productive…?
Attending to the sowing
The final element in this actually came from our DMin classes in St Louis. We had the joy of 3.5 days of Alan Noble teaching (I think his book Disruptive Witness is SO helpful – we got a heads-up on material for his follow-up book)), followed by 3.5 days of Michael Goheen, as well as various bits and bobs from the in-house team. An incredibly rich few days – intense, but goodly intense.
One reason it was so good to have Noble was the joy of engaging theologically with a literature professor as our guide. I’ve suffered too long at the hands of engineers disguised as theologians for whom the tightness of a system is somehow a sufficient apologetic (that is a grotesque calumny, I realise and far too harsh… perhaps 😉). It was just in passing but these lines from T. S. Eliot just blew me away. I’ve slowly worked through different Eliot works over the years (and of course, you can too, if you visit my bookshop and check out the 1st editions I have available!!). But I didn’t know The Choruses from The Rock at all.
Yet these lines captured EVERYthing I’ve been trying to get at in this post.
So there we have it. I resolve, from this point on:
- To make plans and hone principles; but I seek to sit loose to the former and cling to the latter, all while trusting the Lord of all plans and purposes.
- To figure out how to proceed in any given situation not so much on the basis of any perceived ends but by clinging to whatever means seem most consistent with the character of the one who called me.
- To aim at being faithful in an overwhelmingly (increasingly so?) confusing age, by attending to proper sowing while trusting the Lord of the harvest attend to the proper fruit.