Thinking Anew – Trusting in God in testing times
There are four short seasons known as ember days set apart in the church’s calendar when we are encouraged to pray for those preparing for ordination. One of those seasons has just ended and in recent weeks ordinations have taken place.
There has been comment recently about a shortage of clergy and a decline in vocations. Those who have long years of service behind them will look back with nostalgia at college and seminary photographs with large groups of confident young men. And recently it has been reported that some of those once young men are now finding ministry discouraging and their work undervalued. That is sad.
There has been a major change in the attitudes to religion in general and clergy in particular in recent years. Institutional religion has been found wanting and quite properly criticised. This has had a negative impact on clergy who have served faithfully for many years for little material reward.
Tomorrow’s Old Testament reading reminds us that trusting in God in testing times can be difficult. The Israelites, having fled from Egypt, are in the wilderness and things are not going well. Food is scarce and they question their decision to follow Moses in the break for freedom: “If only we died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
There is another Old Testament wilderness experience with a particular message for clergy. Elijah, one of the great prophets, had known celebrity status in his day. He seemed unstoppable until he finds himself in the wilderness with a mood to match. We call it burnout today. He felt that all his work had been in vain declaring “and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” But God tells him he’s wrong; that there are thousands available to continue the work.
In England the secular media gives the impression that the church is on the run. We were given a different picture from Guildford Cathedral recently where 18 deacons and 18 priests were ordained for service in that diocese alone of the Church of England. One of the newly ordained said: “I grew up in Birmingham . . . Back then I wanted to run my own advertising agency, I was going to be brilliant and that was the plan. At 27 I had a conversation with a friend who suggested ‘I should go into the ministry’. Over the following 20 years I often dwelt on that conversation and I could no longer ignore that inner voice. I started to explore ordained ministry, after many conversations and theological college. I’m here, today.”
God is always calling and equipping people to share the good news of the gospel with a world full of despair but we were never told it would be easy. We see this in the ministry of the distinguished professor of history and priest Owen Chadwick, who served as a curate in Huddersfield during the second World War where he witnessed a factory fire when more than 50 people were burned to death. He later wrote: “That was a long day... The most miserable day of my life. When at last I got home tired, empty and wretched I opened a Bible and found, reluctantly, the lesson for the day. And the words leapt out from the page as though they were illuminated and swept over my being like a metamorphosis with relief and refreshment: ‘The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God; and no torment shall touch them.’”
Chadwick here captures more than one element of ministry. The sense of standing with tragedy and those in trouble is obvious, but the sense of being with God is there too, and that is the key to staying the course. Jesus warned, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”