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!)?

Joe Walker’s birthday

Today would have been Joe’s 48th birthday.

I suspect that many of us who love and miss him will spend a bit of time today reading and reflecting on Felix Hominum. Ideally, this should be combined with a cup of strong coffee – or, perhaps, a pint of good beer or a glass of single malt.

Or, if you want to get really intoxicated in Joe’s memory, how about a draught of St. Augustine or Dante?

God bless you, Joe. Rest in peace and rise in glory. I will especially miss your presence in the back pew of the chapel at clergy retreat next week.

‘Are you one of the 3% who cares?’

This picture was in a friend’s Facebook status update this morning:

Now, colour me skeptical or faithless or backslidden or whatever you like, but this sort of post just rubs me up the wrong way, for three reasons.

The first reason is the content. I say this with the greatest of reverence (I hope), but the truth is that we have very little idea what Jesus was thinking of when he died on the cross. We aren’t privy to the inner thoughts of Jesus. The only thing we know is what he said and did. What he did was to refuse to retaliate or resist; he loved his enemies and prayed for those who hated him. He gave assurance of eternal life to the penitent thief who said ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’. He thought of his grieving mother and asked his friend John to take care of her.

Also, he expressed his sense of desolation and of being abandoned by God. In Gethsemane he had prayed that this cup would pass him by, but his prayer was not answered. Now when he hung there with the weight of the world’s sin on his shoulders, he cried out in the words of the psalmist, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ As that long and painful afternoon wore on, that was the question uppermost in his mind: ‘Why isn’t God here with me in this awful suffering?’. And at the end, at the moment of actual death, his thoughts were of a job completed – ‘It is finished’ – and of committing himself into the Father’s care – ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’.

Was Jesus thinking of me when he died on the cross? I have no idea. Did he, as an incarnate human being who had emptied himself and taken our nature upon him, enjoy supernatural knowledge of all the billions of people who would follow in the upcoming millennia of human history? Personally, I doubt it. I don’t think that idea takes the limitations of incarnation seriously.

What I do know is what he told us he was thinking about. He was thinking about providing for his grieving mother, and so his followers should always place a high priority on the care of widows and orphans, and indeed they still do today, especially in places where governments have no safety net in place to care for folks like that. He was giving assurance of salvation to a penitent sinner who turned to him, and so his followers are called to proclaim the kingdom of God and to announce salvation and eternal life to all who turn to Christ. He was refusing to respond violently to those who murdered him, but rather was loving his enemies and praying for them, and he calls his followers also to renounce violence and be active in loving those who hate us. He was honestly expressing his sense of abandonment by God and crying out desperately for some comfort, and so we who follow him are encouraged to bring our doubts and questions before God, and to make space for others to ask those honest questions.

And this brings me to the second reason I don’t like this post. Does God really care whether or not I repost something like this on Facebook? Is this really the test of whether or not I love God, that I should repost this on my Facebook page? I doubt it.

So why is the person who created this photograph inviting me to feel guilty for not reposting it? Why is this person insinuating that if I don’t repost it, I don’t care and I don’t love God? Maybe I do care – enough to do the things Jesus actually demonstrated for us in his death on the cross, one of which was not ‘repost this message on Facebook’! Maybe I care enough to do what Jesus actually told us to do in response to his death on the cross – that is, to do my best to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow him. I suspect this will be a more effective form of witness than simply hitting ‘share’ on my Facebook page.

And this brings me to the third reason I don’t like this post: is this really an effective form of Christian witness? I say this as a person who is passionately committed to evangelism and to finding effective ways to share the gospel. Here’s what I know: I have many non-Christian friends. They have told me many times that this sort of Facebook message does not impress them. What does impress them is when Christians put their faith into practice by feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, being there for the bereaved, and working for peace and justice in the world. In fact, a non-Christian friend said to me last week, “If I were ever to be persuaded to re-examine my Christian roots, it wouldn’t be because of anyone’s words – it would be because I see people like you making an honest attempt to put your faith into practice”.

Right then. Carry on!

Congratulations, Your Majesty

I have to say that I am not a particularly enthusiastic monarchist. I think the idea that one person born in privilege is somehow entitled by birth to reign over millions of people doesn’t jive particularly well with the belief that all human beings are made in the image of God, and that in Christ there is no distinction between Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. And although I love both the country of my birth and my adopted country, I’m not particularly enamoured of the sort of jingo patriotism that monarchy sometimes inspires.

However, living not far north of the 49th parallel for the last thirty-seven years has given me a slightly different perspective. Every four years I watch our American friends spend billions of dollars to elect a head of state. In order to win, you need to make all sorts of rash and impossible promises, knowing very well that even if you do win, for the next four years half of the population is going to hate your guts and have nothing good to say about you. And although in theory you are working for your country, everyone knows that after about two and a half years your real job description is to get re-elected next time around. How can such a system ever be a focus of unity in a country? I apologise to my American friends if this description seems disrespectful of their political system, but this is truly what it looks like to this outsider.

I know there are many evil things about monarchy, and that monarchs have done many evil things down through the ages. But compared to what I have just described, the monarchy looks to me very much like the lesser of two evils. And of course, in this day and age it has no real power attached to it, so if you were looking to push your weight around, you’d be well advised not to be born in the line of succession.

Of course, the added attraction for citizens of the British Commonwealth at this present time has been the undeniable personal integrity and devotion to duty of the current occupant of the throne. Sixty years ago today, Princess Elizabeth received the heartbreaking news of the death of her father, and she was immediately compelled to take a path through life that no one in her family had thought she would ever have to take until her Uncle David abdicated the throne in favour of his brother, her father Albert (soon to be King George VI), in 1936. No one can deny that since that day she has served her country with distinction and honour.

And so, from a reluctant monarchist who believes at root that all monarchies, and all political power systems, are a far cry from what God had in mind when he first created us, comes nevertheless on this day a heartfelt tribute. Well done, Ma’am! Long may you reign over us, and save us from the equally depressing prospects of either republicanism or any of your currently possible successors!