Dying in the Wilderness

“From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded.” Exodus 17: 1a

 

The wilderness of Sin – or Zin, as it is sometimes called – is an actual geographical place, somewhere in the Sinai. No-one is sure exactly where it is. After crossing the Red Sea, we are told that God led the Israelites under Moses into a desert area toward Mount Sinai. It was called the wilderness of Sin and was in the region of the Sinai desert through which they had to pass on their way to the Holy Mountain.

 

The wilderness of Sin is a geographical reality; sin itself is a theological reality. And it too is a wilderness.

 

Sin separates us from God. It takes God out of our lives. As sinners, we try to make a go of it alone. Soon we learn one very important thing: when God is absent from our lives, we find ourselves lost, in a place that cannot sustain life. In the wilderness. Thirsty and hungry, we cram our existence full of stuff that can never truly satisfy us, and we remain dry and famished. The wilderness is a place of death.

 

Only God has the life-giving water and food to sustain our passage through the wilderness of human sin. To cut ourselves off from God’s life-supporting supplies means spiritual death. To accept God’s provision for us gives us life that is neither empty nor unfulfilled. – the perfect life with Him that God always intended us to have. But sin makes us crazy with hunger and thirst. We don’t see the truth, and instead we chase a desert mirage of human contentment. We do not turn to God. We want to keep what’s left of our lives to ourselves. It’s Adam and Eve’s basic sin: to live without reference to God. The sad result is something less than full life.

 

Sin has ravaged all of us in some way. We have to deal with its effects on our lives every day. We are all of us on a journey through the wilderness of sin, all of us vulnerable, and some of us dying of spiritual thirst or hunger. If we want to live, we need to turn to God. We do this by gathering together in the Church that is God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ. The Church of God is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.

 

The reading from Exodus refers to Moses’ people as “the congregation of the Israelites”. A congregation is a gathering together of a wide assortment of people. Often they have very little connection with each other except their commitment to their leader and their common enterprise. A church congregation too is a gathering of people very unlike each other. Our Leader is Jesus Christ and our enterprise is the Gospel of God. Christ and the Gospel is what brings us together, holds us together, and undergirds all that we do together. We do not stay together because we like each other, but because we are committed to each other for the sake of Christ and the Gospel on this journey that we are taking with Him. We need Him, and we need each other, if we are going to make it through this wilderness of sin.

 

Exodus tells us that “the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded”.  We are all of us at different stages on this journey. Some of us have been travelling a very long time. Even as we struggle ourselves, we may know what it takes to survive. Some of us have only just started the journey. We may be enthusiastic, but highly vulnerable. We need the help of our companions on this journey if we are going to make it through the wilderness of sin. The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. Some of us are in A & E, some of us on the wards, and others are out patients. Even though we may all be at different stages, we are all on the same journey. And not one of us is invulnerable to the dangers along the way. Sin is dangerous. It is life-denying. We all need to be cared for.

 

God had not promised the congregation of the Israelites – and He does not promise us – an easy passage. What He has promised is true life and freedom with Him. There are many stages that all of us must pass through on this difficult journey. But God is leading us. If we rely on Him and on each other in this hospital for sinners that God has given us, we shall prevail. In the Church we are all in God’s NHS: God’s Numinous Hospital for Sinners.

 

“Numinous” is a word used to describe the feelings of awe, wonder and sense of sin that human beings have in the presence of God. In this hospital for sinners we call “the Church”, God comes to us and we experience the numinous. We see His glory, and by His presence we are given healing, sustenance and life.

 

Sometimes, however, we come unprepared to meet God here. We focus on the non-essentials. At times, we actually misbehave. What we need is more understanding of God and each other and a lot more reverence and mutual respect. Disrespect and thoughtlessness can cause real casualties among us as we journey. Every one of is vulnerable to, and perhaps badly hurt by, the ravages of sin. This is not a museum and none of us is an exhibit of perfect sanctity yet. In God’s NHS we need to be more attentive towards God and the needs of others and less concerned about ourselves. Otherwise, none of us may ever get out of this wilderness of sin fully alive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author Interviews

An Interview with the Author of “The Holy Innocents”

Me: Welcome, Clive.

Cl: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Me: You’re a Priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church?

Cl: That’s right. Before coming to Dundee, where I am now, I served in Aberdeen and the Highlands.

Me: But you’re not Scottish?

Cl: No, afraid not. I’m English by birth, but grew up in Canada. I say that I’m English by birth, Canadian by adoption, and Scotch by absorption.

Me: How long have you been in the ordained ministry?

Cl: Thirty-three years. I served in Canada, the USA, and England before settling in Scotland.

Me: Why did you write “The Holy Innocents”?

Cl: My voices told me to.

Me: How long did it take you to write?

Cl: The idea came to me in a short story I wrote about 15 years ago, but I didn’t develop it until a few months ago when I began writing the book.

Me: What is “The Holy Innocents” about?

Cl: It’s the story of a Priest whose whole world is turned upside down when his sister dies and his bishop wangles his departure from his parish. Suddenly the Priest has to confront a world he doesn’t understand with the only thing he does understand: the loving and saving purpose of God revealed in the only way the Priest knows how.

Me: Isn’t your main character – Fr. Ambrose – unbelievable silly and naive?

Cl: Well, yes. He’s an innocent suddenly thrust into the world as it is, where he seems to be an idiot. But there’s something so loving, well-meaning, and even noble about him that he attracts misfits. Like Don Quixote, perhaps. Fr. Ambrose fits into the long tradition of God’s ‘holy fools’. Somehow, God uses him to change the lives of others.

Me: This sounds like a Christian book.

Cl: It is and it isn’t. There’s nothing Disneyesque about it. I’ve realistically presented the gritty world Fr. Ambrose finds himself in. Some Christian readers might find the vulgarity and bad language in some sections of the book disconcerting. Being careful not to ridicule the Gospel itself, I also lampoon a number of modern Christian attitudes and trends. However, if Christian and other readers persevere they may find (I hope) a message of redemption.

Me: What genre would you say the book best fits into?

Cl: It’s fiction, but not nearly clever or beautiful enough to be literary fiction. It has aspects of a thriller too, but not enough to sit it squarely in that genre either. It’s humorous and satirical, but has some serious underlying messages and themes. Readers will have to make up their own minds.

 

Another Interview with the Author of “The Holy Innocents”

Me: Welcome back, Clive.

Cl: Thank you for asking me back. Not everyone does!

Me: Why’s that?

Cl: I’m not very good with chit chat.

Me: Isn’t that something of a handicap in a clergyman?

Cl: It is these days. We do like to chat.

Me: Why do you think that is?

Cl: I suppose it reflects a certain failure of nerve. Chatting helps us skirt controversy. It avoids dealing with serious issues about which we seem to have less certainty these days. Also, chatting gives us the feeling we’re actually doing something, when we really don’t appear to know what to do.

Me: Fr. Ambrose, your protagonist in “The Holy Innocents”, doesn’t seem to have much time for chat either.

Cl: No, he doesn’t.

Me: How much is he a reflection of you?

Cl: Not that much. He’s alot more benign and holy than I am. He’s the sort of Priest I might like to be, but am not nearly so dedicated, brave or foolish to have become. Besides, I never had Agatha by my side.

Me: In the book, Agatha is Fr. Ambrose’s sister – a very formidable spinster.

Cl: That’s right. She has acted as his housekeeper, secretary and general minder throughout his career.

Me: She seems neither benign nor holy. Agatha has some of the wittiest and most cutting comments in the book.

Cl: Yes, there is something a bit malignant about her, isn’t there? But you have to see it from her point of view. She’s been deeply hurt by changes in the Church to which she’s given her life, a Church that has seemed to steadily devalue everything she believes it stood for. And she’s witnessed her faithful brother becoming increasingly isolated.

Me: Is she bitter?

Cl: To some extent. She hasn’t got much time for all the nonsense and pomposity in Church circles. There are quite a few people like her in the Church these days, muttering darkly on the sidelines.

Me: Would you say that, in the beginning of the story, Agatha overshadows Fr. Ambrose?

Cl: Yes and no. She dominates their household, and this overspills into their congregation’s life. However, without her care and protection, Fr. Ambrose would probably not have developed into the rather “otherworldly” character he is. He relies on her – perhaps too much. One of the themes of the book is how Fr. Ambrose learns to cope in his new surroundings without her.

Me: In a few words, how would you describe Agatha?

Cl: Agatha is both worldly and devout, and has been badly bruised by both the world and the Church. She’s acerbic and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

Me: Other protagonists in “The Holy Innocents” include Dave the Sacristan, who’s a foul-mouthed hard case, Bill the transgendered truck driver, and Bill’s girlfriend Maggie. Can you briefly tell us about them?

Cl: During the course of the story, Dave goes from being a mere thug to a kind of St. Peter character. He’s tough, he’s rough, and he is fiercely loyal to his friends. Dave becomes Fr. Ambrose’s right hand man, and the effects of grace slowly begin to become evident. Bill the transgendered truck driver is based on a very strange encounter I once had with someone seeking to follow God’s call. Maggie is my strongest female character besides Agatha. Maggie is a victim who becomes empowered through Fr. Ambrose’s influence. She’s something of a St. Mary Magdalene figure.

Me: Quite an interesting and odd assortment!

Cl: They reflect the sort of world that I encounter all the time in my parish work – a world totally different from Church life. It is ugly, tragic, profane, violent, and hopeless. I’ve drawn it as accurately as I can. It’s a place Fr. Ambrose would not have found himself in before he was cut loose from his congregation by the Bishop. It’s exactly the place where the Gospel needs to be heard, but often isn’t. “The Holy Innocents” describes what might happen if it were.

 

Yet Another Interview with the Author of “The Holy Innocents”

Me: Clive, I would like to discuss with you today the antagonists in “The Holy Innocents”.

Cl: Oh goody: the baddies!

Me: It sounds like you enjoyed creating them.

Cl: I suppose I did. When one’s life is so wrapped up in niceness, it’s perversely liberating to see the world through wicked eyes.

Me: There are a number of antagonists in the book. Which of them is the most wicked?

Cl: Freddy, the gangster who’s chasing Dave the Sacristan. Freddy is more than just a violent thug – he’s actually an organiser and planner of evil. He delights in being wicked, bullying the weak, and corrupting the innocent. Freddy cares for no-one but himself. Even his girlfriend – basically a good person who cares about him – is someone he just uses.

Me: The Bishop is also an antagonist.

Cl: Yes he is, but he’s not purely evil like Freddy. The Bishop is sincere, wants to do the right thing as he sees it, and in some ways he’s even likeable.

Me: Tell us more about him.

Cl: James Gladstone Butternut III is a high-flying Church careerist, a social climber, and a publicity-seeker. He is clever and gifted, but perhaps not as much as he believes he is. The Bishop thinks very highly of himself and is bored by the trivialities – as he sees it – of his office. He has little time for Church traditionalists – even fairly harmless ones like Fr. Ambrose – and he wants to advance a more “with-it” agenda.

Me: Is he like any Bishops you know?

Cl: This is a work of fiction.

Me: The Bishop contrasts quite sharply with his Archdeacon, even though both of them are on the same side.

Cl: Yes, that’s true. The Archdeacon is a social climber too, but he’s a lazy dunderhead of a man. He’s far less capable and hard-working than the Bishop. The Archdeacon is someone completely given over to his leisure pursuits. He sees his Sunday duties as an opportunity to rest up for a week filled with golf. His archdiaconal duties are a distraction.

Me: Is the Archdeacon like anyone you know?

Cl: Again, this is a work of fiction. However, I can say that I was once given a parish profile to consider that listed among its attractions that it would be a suitable appointment for a Priest with a serious hobby!

Me: You have a number of strong female characters in “The Holy Innocents”, but the two that are clergy are among the antagonists. Would you care to comment?

Cl: There are a number of women in ministry that I trained with and have worked with who are very capable, well-meaning people, labouring often unnoticed. It has been my observation over thirty years that the women clergy who tend to have high profiles at the forefront include a high proportion of strident ideologues. They are impatient for change. Perhaps if I were them, I would be the same – and maybe just as unlikeable as my two women clergy protagonists.

Me: You’ll get letters and comments.

Cl: I bet I will. In “The Holy Innocents” there are no “sacred cows” beyond satire.

 

“The Holy Innocents” is available directly from the publisher (http://tinyurl.com/6uj8v5r) and from Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/7u79jou and http://tinyurl.com/74xwurq

The blog accompanying the book can be accessed at: http://drivenshrive.blogspot.com