This week I have been at Pallotti College for the annual Candidates’ Retreat: a wonderful time at a wonderful place. Pallotti is set overlooking the Yarra Valley, with sweeping views up to Mt Donna Buang also. Once again this week has reminded me of the dynamics of ‘the mountain and the valley’, as defining elements in my own spiritual journey.
So here I am re-posting the text of one of the lost posts on that theme.
For many decades I have been deeply influenced by a reading of Luke’s Gospel, chapter 9, first introduced to me when I was a teenager. In the life of faith, there is both a mountain-top vision and the struggle in a valley: these symbols carry much significance within the whole biblical drama, and in the wider experience of so many individuals and communities.
I have preached and talked about this in many places, and will do so again in the weeks ahead at several university services in Korea.
I wrote about how I first came to see the drama within scripture, in the opening chapter of the little book of stories I put together, Fair Dinkum Ministry. I have reproduced some of that story about stories here:
I was sixteen years old and the question of what I would do with my life was becoming urgent.
At the time it was the custom of our church’s youth group to attend the Belgrave Heights Convention meetings at Christmas and Easter. That Christmas we had arranged a group to stay together in what was called a House Party. I went along with the heightened sense of expectation which was part of the evangelical fervour of our group. Today we might say that I was making a Retreat. I had bought a new Bible, and earnestly engaged in prayer, listening to the messages and Bible studies , and talking with the leaders and other friends. What was God calling me to do with my life?
Early in the New Year, our Young Peoples’ Christian Endeavour Group held a session we used to call ‘Echoes of Belgrave Heights’. I guess this reflected the attitude that in some way the Belgrave Heights Convention meetings gave us a spiritual ‘high’ and we wanted to maintain the experience and share it with others who were not there. Four participants in the House Party were asked to offer their reflections.
I was to speak last. The others spoke appreciatively of the Bible studies and their enjoyment of the activities of the group. When I came to speak, I explained that I had gone to Belgrave Heights seeking ‘a word’ from God, but really I had to say that nothing had been made clear to me. I don’t really know what I had expected, but in that group people often spoke of receiving direct guidance from God and that’s what I had been hoping for. Only one thing had become clear to me. Through reading Psalm 37, I had come to see that I must ‘wait patiently on the Lord’. Apart from that, I had no great insights and no other sense of guidance. I expressed my feeling that perhaps it was not there, at ‘the Heights’, that I would sense God’s leading, but here at home, in the Latrobe Valley, the place where we lived our ordinary lives.
Immediately after the meeting, our Pastor brushed past me and as he went by simply said, ‘Read Luke Nine.’ I scarcely grasped what he said, and called after him, ‘What was that?’ He repeated the simple direction to read Luke’s Gospel, chapter nine. Between that afternoon meeting and our evening service, I read it twice but I simply had no idea why he had asked me to do so, and what I was supposed to gain from it.
After the service I asked him why he’d asked me to read that chapter. With a gentle sigh he said something like: ‘This is the trouble with so many of you who have been brought up in the church. You spend so much time talking about the Bible, but in fact you’ve been inoculated against it. You are blind to what it is saying to you.’ Then he proceeded to show me that Luke Nine has a story of Jesus and three disciples going up a mountain and down to a valley. On the mountain, some disciples say they want to stay there forever, to build houses and live there in the place of heightened spiritual awareness. But Jesus insists on going to the valley. There they encounter a boy the disciples had not been able to heal. Jesus not only heals the boy, he teaches the disciples about the importance of prayer and dependence upon God.
Then the Pastor carefully drew the parallels with what I had been saying in the meeting that afternoon. I too had sensed that I was being led down the mountain, and the Pastor was affirming me in that. He also suggested that the Bible offered many more insights for my quest.
Since that day, I have learned to read the Bible in new ways. I have discovered that it is not a book of ideas or wisdom which is somehow located ‘out there’ or ‘back then’. It is a dynamic, living text which reaches out to me and in so many ways draws me into its drama. It helps me to see new possibilities in the drama of my continuing life.
This sense of the gospel as a living drama into which we are drawn was the beginning of my discovery of a theology of story. What happened to me that Sunday evening was an example of how stories function in the formation and development of our faith.
This is a book of stories about people and about God. It reflects my conviction that the best way to tell people about God is to tell stories and my conviction also that God is a storyteller.
A funny thing happened on the way …
One day, about ten years after reading Luke Nine, I was driving my car on the way to making a pastoral visit. Though I was well ensconced as the Pastor of the local Baptist church, with all the signs of things ‘going well’, I was nonetheless uneasy. I wasn’t really at home with myself in that ministry role. One of the things that I used to think about was the paradox of my emphasis in ministry on family life. Ours was a church of many families with young children, and a lot of effort went into activities for them. But for all this emphasis on family life, I had very little contact with my own family. My mother lives in the country and my sister and brothers in different parts of the state. To see them was a major operation. The church, with all its stress on weekend activities and ‘family life’, seemed to prevent me from having any family life of my own. I was musing over this as I drove to the home of a family where there was some minor crisis or need.
Then, for some reason I cannot imagine, a saying of Jesus came into my mind. ‘Everyone who has left houses or brother or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life’ (Matt. 19.29). Suddenly I recognized that the family to whom I was going was a family given to me, with a sister and brother and children ‘given’ to me as a follower of Jesus. Furthermore, there were ten or a dozen other homes where other sisters and brothers would also welcome me. Though I had, in one sense, ‘left’ my family in order to serve God this saying of Jesus had now opened up before me and I found that I was included in the story of Jesus’ discipleship mission. Even more, though I had taught much about the cost of discipleship I was now discovering that within the community of discipleship there is also strength and encouragement. This small part of the Jesus story not only opened up to include me, but was opening up my life to realities already given to me. Since those days I have found sisters and brothers in many parts of the world.
It’s my conviction that the Gospels and, in various ways, the entire Bible come to us as living stories, in which we find ourselves, and are found: and what they promise and envision draws us into that great drama, the life of the entire creation with the living God.