Into the wilderness with Jesus

When I was a little boy, my Mum and Dad taught me ‘Hands together and eyes closed before we pray’. They explained to me that this was a way of shutting out distractions so that we can concentrate properly on our prayer. Fifty or so years later, there are many distractions in my spiritual life, and I need to practice shutting them out on a regular basis so that I can draw closer to God. These things may not all be wrong in themselves, but from time to time it is beneficial to turn away from them in order to pay closer attention to God and what God is wanting to say to me.

I think that’s what Jesus’ forty day wilderness fast was all about. Away from the noise, away from the distractions, away even from the comfort of ordinary eating and drinking, away to a place where he was utterly and completely dependent on God alone. If God didn’t come through for him, there was nothing and no one else. That’s a scary place to be, but spiritually it’s also a fruitful place to be.

Will you take up the challenge for the next six and a half weeks? Will you do your best to turn away from some of the things that distract you from God’s voice and God’s call? Will you intentionally create some empty space in your life, space that will remain empty if God doesn’t fill it? Will you join the psalmist in his prayer?

As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God? (Psalm 42:1-2)

Have a holy Lent everyone. I’ll talk to you again after Easter.

Into the desert…

(Reblogged from last year).

Two days from now is Ash Wednesday, and Lent will begin – an annual season for going out into the desert, metaphorically speaking, away from distractions, in order to pay attention to what God is saying. It’s a season for silence and self-examination, for prayer and self-discipine, for meditating on the Word of the Lord and for being more intentional about learning the Jesus Way.

‘Giving up things for Lent’ doesn’t mean a lot to me, although I know the value of learning to strengthen one’s self-control muscles by practising saying ‘no’ to self.  What does make sense to me, though, is taking regular breaks from things that threaten to become addictions. Internet use and blogging is high on that list for me, so every year in Lent I just give it up. It’s a sort of forty-day silent retreat for me. Last year I gave up Facebook too, to make the silence even more complete. I may do that again this year; the panic I feel when I think about it tells me that I probably should.

It’s always hard to contemplate giving up the blogosphere as Lent approaches, but I’m always glad I did; I always approach Easter feeling more peaceful, more in tune with what God is saying. Lent always seems to arrive in the nick of time for me spiritually, and I think it’s going to be the same this year. I’m looking forward to it.


Deep down inside, I am an old-fashioned, low-church evangelical Anglican.

That means I like a simple liturgy, a spiritual worship, centred on what Donald Coggan called ‘the Sacrament of the Word’, without excessive ceremonies piled on.

I like good hymns (not mindless drivel), and a service that’s accessibly led by a minister who loves and relates to people rather than slavishly following rubrics. I like intelligent preaching that leads me into the biblical text and helps me apply it to my life; I like to learn something new from the sermon and I like it if it gives me a challenge to take home with me. I like a simple celebration of Holy Communion that’s not so cluttered with extraneous ceremony that there’s no space for me to sense the presence of God.

What I don’t like is ritualism. I find ritualism at times distracting, at times annoying, and at times amusing (i.e. in the ‘what on earth are they getting up to now?’ category). What I never find it is ‘helpful’.

My attitude, in fact, is almost completely in line with that of the author of the preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer (probably Archbishop Thomas Cranmer), who wrote these words in his section on ‘Of Ceremonies, Why Some be Abolished and Some Retained’.

‘This our excessive multitude of Ceremonies was so great, and many of them so dark, that they did more confound and darken, than declare and set forth Christ’s benefits to us. And besides this, Christ’s Gospel is not a Ceremonial Law, (as much of Moses’ Law was) but it is a religion to serve God, not in bondage of the figure or shadow, but in the freedom of the Spirit; being content only with those Ceremonies which do serve to a decent Order and godly Discipline, and such as be apt to stir up the full mind of man to the remembrance of his duty to God, by some notable and special signification, whereby he might be edified’.

Nowadays ritualism (under the general heading of ‘enriching our worship’) is so all-pervasive in the Anglican Church of Canada that people like me are sometimes accused of not being real Anglicans – surely we must really be a sort of species of crypto-Baptist, or Calvinist, or Puritan? So I find it oddly comforting to reflect that in 1549 – and indeed throughout the next three centuries, until the beginning of the Oxford Movement – I would have just been a standard Anglican. I certainly was when I was a child.

If memory serves me correctly, in St. Barnabas’, Leicester (the church where I was baptised on December 28th 1958), we had Holy Communion at our main Sunday service once a month. The rest of the time the service was Morning Prayer. I remember palm crosses on Palm Sunday when I was growing up, but I never saw ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday until I moved to western Canada in 1979. The first time I saw footwashing on Maundy Thursday was in 1985. In my childhood, incense was only used in extreme Anglo-Catholic churches, and I never went to one of those. The minister raised his hand to bless the people, but did not make the sign of the cross (and neither did they, in response).

What we did have, week by week, were good hymns led (not performed) by an enthusiastic choir, a service saturated in scripture (i.e. the Book of Common Prayer), prayers of intercession that connected with the real needs of the worshippers as well as the wider world, and good preaching. My Dad became a minister about the time I started paying attention to the preaching, and my Dad was an excellent preacher, with a way of explaining the text that somehow held your attention. There were many times when I was a teenager (and fairly new at being an intentional Christian) that the Holy Spirit spoke to me through one of Dad’s sermons.

Given the strong role model I had, and given the fact that I was trained in an evangelical institution, I suppose it isn’t surprising that when I became a minister I aimed at the same sort of simple liturgy that had nurtured me as a young man. But it isn’t as ‘simple’ as that. I’ve done a lot of revisiting of theological positions that I imbibed in my youth, and have discarded more than a few things along the way. I’ve tried my hand at ritualism, too, in some of its milder forms. But the older I get, the more unsatisfying I find it. To me, it’s not the way of the simple carpenter rabbi who walked the roads of Galilee calling people to follow him.

And so I find as I get older that I want to simplify things even further. I’m not sure why we Anglican clergy feel we have to dress in these ancient robes to lead worship; after all, originally they were just modelled on the formal robes worn by Roman state officials. How Christian is it to elevate one form of ministry – that of pastors and bishops – and dress it up in albs and stoles, copes and mitres (and even have our bishops sitting on ‘thrones’), while we give no such symbolic recognition to the ministry of the vast majority of our church members?

I heard a minister a few weeks ago say words to this effect: ‘Church is really very simple. We preach the gospel, we pray, and we love people. That’s all. It’s not easy, but it is simple’.

I agree. And the older I get, the more I want to keep it simple.

Bishop Jack Sperry, 1924-2012.

I heard tonight that Bishop Jack Sperry died yesterday in Hay River, Northwest Territories at the age of 87.

Bishop Jack has a lot to answer for in our family. He was born in the same city as me, Leicester in the English midlands. As an Arctic missionary, he would come home on furlough in the 1950s and early 1960s and it was he who got a young couple from St. Barnabas’ Church called Bob and Shirley Chesterton interested in serving in the Arctic. As it happened, Arctic life wasn’t for them – they stayed only one year, from 1967-68 – but my brother and I were with them and it was this that sowed the seeds of Arctic ministry in my own mind.

Years later, Jack invited Marci and me to go north to Aklavik, and we ended up spending seven years in the Northwest Territories, in Aklavik and Holman. I was a Church Army officer at the time, but it was Jack who ordained me as a deacon in October 1990.

Jack Sperry was born in Leicester in 1924. During the Second World War he served in the Royal Navy, first on a destroyer escort vessel in the Battle of the Atlantic and later on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. He once told me that the most important part of his training to be a minister was not his seminary education but the years he spent living in close quarters with fellow crew-members in the navy.

He left the Royal Navy in 1946 and shortly thereafter emigrated to Canada where he did his theological education. He moved to the Diocese of the Arctic in 1950 and became the missionary-in-charge at St. Andrew’s Church, Coppermine (now Kugluktuk), where he spent the next nineteen years. In those days English was only spoken by white people who lived in the settlement, and so missionaries were silent until they could learn to speak Inuktitut. Also, the majority of the people were living out on the land for most of the year, working traplines and hunting and fishing as their ancestors had done. So as a young missionary Jack spent months every year on the trail, visiting people in small family groups in snow house villages. In this way he clocked up thousands of miles of dog-team travel every year, ministering to people not only in the Kugluktuk parish but also in what are now the parishes of Cambridge Bay, Bathurst Inlet, Bay Chimo, and Ulukhaktok (Holman) as far north as the old Walker Bay HBC post some fifty miles north of Holman on Minto Inlet.

Jack had a tremendous gift for languages and became a recognised authority on the Copper Eskimo (Inuinaktun) dialect of Inuktitut. He wrote some excellent grammar notes for the use of young clergy like myself who were just coming into the diocese and trying to get our heads around this amazingly complex language. He translated the Four Gospels and the Book of Acts into Inuinaktun; he revised an existing translation of the Book of Common Prayer and also many hymns. Later in the 1990s he produced a new translation of the Book of Common Prayer which also included some features from the Book of Alternative Services.

Jack married his wife Betty Maclaren, a nurse who had been serving in Aklavik, on April 14th 1952, and they had two children, John and Angela. His wife died some years ago, and their children and grandchildren still live in the north.

The Sperrys left Coppermine in 1969 and moved to Fort Smith where Jack served for a few years. After a brief stint in Yellowknife he was appointed as the Third Bishop of the Arctic in 1973 and served in this role with distinction until his retirement at the end of 1990. He continued to live in Yellowknife until his last years when he moved to Fort Smith to be closer to his family.

As I said a couple of months ago, I remember Jack as a down to earth, ordinary Christian; he loved the Gospel and he loved the people of the Arctic, and he loved most of all bringing the two together. He was an old-fashioned evangelical, but not of the sort who get things out of proportion and major on the minors. He was a man of prayer and a man who knew how to build things with his hands (you had to do that a lot as a missionary in the Arctic). He knew that his first job was to care for his clergy and their families, and when he came to visit us he always made time to play games with our children, draw pictures for them, and talk with them. Episcopal visits in the Arctic always involved staying overnight in the mission house, of course, as there were no roads in and out of most of the communities, and very few had more than one flight in per day. But with Jack, it wasn’t a case of necessity but of vocation; he knew how isolated his clergy were and he did his best to care for us as individuals and as families.

One of the best times I ever spent with him was in the early winter of 1988 after we moved to Holman. I was learning to negotiate a new language, and so Jack came to stay at our mission house for a week which we spent in intensive language study. For eight hours a day we poured over the few written resources available (most of which he had written himself), and it was then that I discovered that I not only enjoyed language, but I had a pretty good ear for it. But we also visited and told stories, and each night the local people would arrive at our door and come in without knocking, as was the custom, to sit and drink tea with the man who had once been their minister (Holman had been part of Jack’s patch in those nineteen years when he used to travel up the western side of Victoria Island by dog team each winter). The respect and affection they felt for him was quite obvious.

Jack Sperry has been known and loved by generations of northern people and hundreds of Arctic clergy. To me he was a true Christian hero and I will always look up to him. God bless you, Jack, and thank you for everything you did for me. Rest in peace, dear older brother in Christ, and rise in glory.


CBC: Arctic bishop John Sperry dies.

Nunatsiaq Online: The Arctic loses a dear old friend.

UPDATE: Some pictures from our family archives:

Above: Confirmation with Bishop Sperry in All Saint’s Church, Aklavik, probably about 1987.

Above: Jack sitting in the living room of the mission house in Holman about 1989-90, visiting with his old friend and trail companion Sam Oliktoak.

Above: Jack baptised our son Nicholas in the Church of the Resurrection, Holman, in January 1989.

Above: Jack at the Holman airport with catechist and old friend Morris Nigiyok.

Above: Jack ordained me as a deacon in the Church of the Resurrection, Holman, October 1990.

Above: The people of Holman give Jack a retirement gift, October 1990.

Retreat Time

I’m off tomorrow for the annual Diocese of Edmonton Clergy Retreat at the Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, just north-west of Edmonton. The retreat starts about 4.00 p.m. Monday and runs until supper time Wednesday. It’s a silent retreat, although participants have been known to go for conversation walks with one another. One thing I always do at least once during the retreat is to walk out to Big Lake and back; it’s about two and a half miles (so a five mile round trip), and the birdwatching is great at Big Lake. Our retreat leader is Brother Jude Hill who is apparently a Franciscan monk. I don’t suppose he has noticed that the retreat takes us away from home on Valentine’s Day…!!!

Clergy Retreat reminds me that Lent is only ten days away. I wonder what you are planning to do to ‘have a miserable Lent’ (as Joe Walker used to say!)?