Favourites

Dear Friends

I love listening to BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Disc programme, in which a guest, herein after called a ‘castaway’ selects 8 recordings which are favourite or significant for them, whilst also sharing insights into their life’s journey. The programme is 79 years old this month, and still gains good ratings. Perhaps, you too, enjoy listening, or have thought about your own favourite discs. Those who zoomed into the induction service will have heard two of my favourites, Vaughan William’s ‘Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis’, and ‘Farewell to Stromness’ by Peter Maxwell Davies.

We each may have favourites in other areas of life. I was recently asked if I had a favourite or significant Biblical text. The answer is yes and no, I have some favourites, with different texts speaking into life in different ways. But I was asked for one, so let me share it with you.

The reading is set against a torrid time in the people of Israel’s life. Their Kingdom which had united under King David, with a focus on Jerusalem, where his son Solomon built the Temple, was in disarray. Successive subsequent kings had turned from the teaching of God as given through Moses, and focused on self-aggrandisement. Corruption grew as did the gap between the richest and the majority of the population. As the kingdom weakened, so its vulnerability increased, not least to hawkish surrounding nations, eyeing the disintegration with avarice.

Against this increasingly desperate situation, a series of prophetic figures called upon Israel and its leaders to turn back to the way of God. Amongst those, who railed against the leadership was Jeremiah, who uttered the following text (Jeremiah chapter 6, verse 16):

Thus says the Lord;
stand at the crossroad, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.

Jeremiah’s words recall ancient paths, not least the more faithful way of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the teaching and law passed to Moses. It is not a return to past times, rather to past faith tenets and ways.

So why has this become a significant text for me? Back in 2018 I was preparing to take the second sabbatical that the URC gifted me. I took one week with a German minister and friend at the Somme, following in the footsteps of our respective grandfathers, who served on opposite sides during WW1. I’ll doubtless share that story in due course. The rest of my time was dedicated to a long-term project exploring pilgrimage to Scottish isles.

Jan and I have spent a significant chunk of our holidays over the past 30+ years on Scottish islands, which was a natural choice for us. Jan’s father was born on Arran so she had many childhood holidays there, and the Outer Hebrides were the first place I went on an independent cycling/camping holiday with a school friend. Whilst we were initially drawn by some stunning beaches (Google ‘Luskentyre’ and you’ll see what I mean!), the natural history including seabird life and a sense of peace, we became increasingly aware of the spiritual dimension of the isles.

George Macleod, the founder of the modern days Iona Community, described the Hebridean Isle of Iona as a “thin place” – ‘only a tissue paper separating the material from the spiritual’. I came to understand that, too.

Over the years I’ve undertaken a locum ministry on Tiree a few times, and on Colonsay too, and became aware of the spiritual heritage of the Hebrides. Whilst Columba and Iona are arguably the best-known saint and holy site, many isles have a significant faith heritage and remaining sacred sites, with some marked by ancient carved stone crosses. Indeed, the Hebrides may be regarded as a cradle of British insular Christianity.

Consequently, when I was offered a first sabbatical in 2007, I chose to explore this heritage, taking my cycle and an economy of kit, and setting off on a pilgrimage. Whilst I started my explorations by shaping a journey, the quest has increasingly re-shaped me. I’ve since had the joy of leading three pilgrimages to the Hebrides, two with my former pastorate of St Andrew’s, and most recently taking the Synod of Scotland’s youth.

In 2018, I had a second sabbatical, and chose to return, visiting some isles in the Outer Hebrides that I hadn’t previously reached, and also some sites on Shetland. During my preparation for the journey, my then spiritual director challenged me to carry with me a text in my heart, as a foundation and guide for my journeying. I chose two, including those words from Jeremiah 6.16.

At one level, they acted as a guide to my route and travels, mindful that I was a solo traveller and some of the locations were remote, so safety and well-being were a consideration. At a deeper level, as I journeyed in the steps or boat’s wake of early saints, I reflected on the nature of the faith that they may have held, which guided their life. I can share some thoughts on another occasion.

On my return, and with a testing ministry with some difficult issues presented (often the lot of a Synod Moderator), I found myself asking, what is the good way according to Biblical precepts, or the teaching of Jesus? And where does the ancient path lie? Where may peace and well-being be found?

And thus for me, this ancient text contains wisdom that continues to speak to me today. It doesn’t mean that I’ll always remember to draw on such wisdom, nor does it mean that I’ll always discern well. But for me, that text is a starting point.

This text may act as a good guide through 2021 as we (hopefully!) emerge from these Covid-times. Since March 2020 the Church, along with other institutions and organisations have had to re-shape the way they function, focusing on their priorities, which for the Church include offering worship, pastoral care and being good news to the world. Many secular organisations are shaping a ‘new normal’ way of working, based on their priorities and mindful of significant societal changes through 2020.

I wonder where ‘the Church’, and specifically ‘our church’ may sense God’s calling going forward? Are we keen to return to the ‘old normal’? Or may we pause to discern God’s calling for the next chapter in our life and mission, and seek ancient paths, the foundation of the faith that we hold?

Thus says the Lord;
stand at the crossroad, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.

As a new year dawns, may we as a fellowship and each one of us know God’s guiding hand.

Travel well, travel in hope, travel in joy,

P.S. I wonder if you have a favourite Biblical text? If so, what it may be and why is it significant or special for you?