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Getting by without God?

I am now a few years into the life of an ordained minister, and have been taking some time over the last couple of weeks to reflect on the things that have happened, and to revisit some of what I thought was going to happen. This has been a complicated affair, but helpful. As part of my reflections I have been rereading a book by John Pritchard, now bishop of Oxford, which I read when I was exploring my own sense of vocation to ordained ministry. It is called "The Life and Work of a Priest" (London: SPCK, 2007). I was caught short a bit this week when I read the following description:

I once went on retreat and was met by a little bundle of holy energy who showed me to my room. I thought I better start in prayer but as I knelt before a crucifix in the room I began to feel worse and worse. I realised that I needed to do a lot of soul-searching. I knew that over the years I had accumulated quite a lot of experience of priestly ministry. I knew about pastoral ministry and mission; I served on synods and working parties; I knew quite a bit about church law and how to stay out of trouble. I'd been involved in parish work, youth work, theological education and was now an archdeacon, and I realised with growing horror that I could do all of these things, if I chose, almost entirely without reference to God, except as a code word or cipher. I had the experience and the skills to get by without God. Of course I didn't want to, but it was a stark warning that priesthood is much more than a set of competencies. No accumulation of skills impresses God. God is interested in the heart of the priest, more than in how impressive his or her CV appears to be.

Pritchard is painfully honest here. Many of us who train to be leaders in the church accumulate skills and competencies, and at the end of the curacy period we are assessed on these. But no-one assesses us on our prayer-life, or on our ongoing and growing desire to be friends of God - not least because it can't be done. We are left instead to answer this question for ourselves: what is at the centre of my life and work? It can be a painful task to search one's own soul in this way, But it seems to me after my few short years in this role, living this life, that it is a necessary one if I am to remain a person of faith – and lively faith at that, in relationship with God through Christ by the indwelling Spirit – and not some functionary of an institution.

It is not just for priests and ordained ministers to ask this question, however, but for everyone who calls themselves a disciple of Jesus Christ, and therefore friend of God through faith. God is not impressed by what we do, but by where our heart lies. The hidden danger to which Pritchard alludes is that the proof of the pudding is not always in the eating. There are many of us who walk the walk and talk the talk but for whom too often and too easily there is little substance underneath, not because we have ceased to care – on the contrary, for many of us our lives are taken over by working in and for the church – but because the work has become the end in itself. I feel this most acutely at the end of services on a Sunday morning, when my biggest sigh of relief is given because we have accomplished the service without any major hiccups – regardless of whether or not anyone has actually managed to engage with God, including me. It's not always like this, but it happens often enough for me to find a resonance with Prichard's statement.

So this week I shall be praying differently, and using my time differently. I hope to set new habits, that will help me keep my heart exposed to God and to make sure I can never get by without him.


Unknown said…
Thank you for this post Michael. Very thought provoking and honest. It has made me think, are things that I do in my life, are they for my own gratification or to please other people, and sometimes I do not even think about is this what God really wants of me. It is even to a point that I could write a sermon or a lesson without having God in the equation, and not even ask him, what is the message that you want me to deliver Lord, but to write what I think people need to hear.

But I think it is the same with me that it has been a gradual revelation.

Please do not take this as a criticism, it is something that has struck me and helped me to clarify some things within myself. It is that within your post you speak of God as a friend, I too used to look at God the same way, but something within me said do I really want or need God as a friend. That sounds very negative I know but its not what you might think. When I think of a friend I see someone who can be very familiar and nine times out of ten will stand up for me, or even agree with me, even when I can be in the wrong. Then I spent a lot of time thinking about the term "To fear God", and what it meant to me to fear him. We read in scripture that we are called to Fear the Lord, but also we are told to not be afraid. Then I began to understand what fear means, and it is not the negative word that is used today. Fear is healthy, because as scripture tells us it brings us wisdom. Fear doesn't hold you back but gives you a healthy respect and reverence, and being afraid will hold you back. Thats why I believe God says fear him but not be afraid. I don't think I could fear or have the same reverence for a friend as I do for God, I need that unfamiliarity to be obedient.

I'm sorry I know I have gone off track, but I think I needed to put it down in text to see it afresh.

God bless to you and the family.

Phil Davis
Thanks Phil,

I hear what you're saying and I'm sympathetic to it. I'll give it some more thought and get back to you. Cheers, Mike
Heather Fuller said…
I am both challenged and encouraged by this Michael, having thought the same things myself. After being employed by the church for 9 years, seeing many changes, 'looking after' the place during a two year interregnum, being pastoral co-ordinator along with the many other hats I wore...I stepped down last year for many reasons, but one which was to search God's heart for what He wanted me to do next. I have to say that at the end of my time in working there it sometimes felt that I was 'getting by without God', and still does some days. Yes its true as Christians, we can walk the walk etc and 'do the right things'...but God knows our hearts.

In the last 12 months I have searched and cried out to God for his guidance, his peace, for him to 'restore me to the joy of Your salvation'....for forgiveness, for grace, strength and hope. I have thankfully found and experienced them on numerous occasions in this time,particularly in the darkest of times..... but it is, as you point out, an ongoing challenge.

I still desire to serve my Lord in whatever way He wants me to, whether that is in the busyness of my paid employment or in the quiet encouragement of others to seek His heart. I don't want to just 'get by without God'...I cant even do that, I'm guilty of making such a mess. But I want to be known as a 'woman of faith'(Proverbs 31)to the Glory of God my Father, seeking his heart through Jesus his son, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Amen

ps. I think you do a fab job Mike and I'm so proud to have known you from a young lad. God Bless

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