- Written by Philip Dorling
Where do we go from here?
Every year, I suspect vicars up and down the land secretly look forward to January. Christmas and New Year are safely ‘celebrated’, and the world enters a much more anonymous time once more. It may not be as shiny and exciting, but I think many of us probably hope January might be a little bit less of an upheaval than December – except that it never is – is it?
Everywhere I go in January, people’s phones and ipads are out, and there is the sound of tapping as plans are made, and dates are confirmed. That’s the way we British are! We like a plan...and we long to know where we are going...to chart a way into the future. In an increasingly unsettled world - it makes us feel safe, and in control.
Several years ago, I was asked by a friend of mine to go down South just before Christmas, in order to preach at his wedding in a North London church. In order to avoid the embarrassment of missing the wedding, I decided to book into a lovely retreat house nearby called the Royal Fellowship of St Katherine. Anyone can stay there – it is very reasonably priced and conveniently located....and you can even park! In that place there is a very beautiful chapel. On the floor, set in stone, is a compass rose, surrounded by the words of St Augustine of Hippo. The inscription simply says..... ‘We come to God, not by navigation, but by love.’
I suppose that, in life, the aim of all of our planning is to fill our time with meaningful activity that might have the effect of ‘getting us somewhere’. This is all very well, but St Augustine’s words remind us that, for some people, life is about far more than simply filling their days with plans. What Augustine wrote, tells us that he saw life as being all about ‘coming to God’. But for him, this clearly did not mean being on a carefully planned journey, which involved ‘moving around purposefully’ until you die! No, it was actually about the choice we all face in life – which is whether, or not, we are prepared to risk everything, and allow ourselves to love, and be loved back, in return.
During that stay in London, I remember spending a fair amount of time staring at the chapel floor at the Royal Fellowship of St Katherine’s. I remember wondering what ‘loving’ might mean. I asked myself what loving God meant...and where it might lead. Then I went to preach at that wedding and rushed back home for Christmas and all those services. ‘Loving’ isn’t easy. If we take the risk of loving God faithfully, we have no idea where we will end up, or who we will meet, or how, in the end, we might have to spend our time. ‘Loving’ focuses the mind! It is often easier to do some planning!!
Sometimes, I feel that it would be lovely to be able to buy a map, get a compass, and plot a path that would bring me quickly, and joyfully, to the heart of God; but that is not the way he chooses to be found by people who are interested in him. The experience of people like Augustine, tells us that, in order to find God, we need a spiritual compass - not a magnetic one. Love is the force that draws us in, not planning...and that is why we all know deep down, that Robert Burns was absolutely right when he said.........
‘The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, For promis'd joy!’
(The best laid schemes of Mice and Men oft go awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy!