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The wait-and-listen method

14 May 2012

John Armson reflects on contemplation and hidden blessings


Rhythms of Grace: Finding intimacy with God in a busy life
Tony Horsfall
BRF £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

Simple Gifts: Blessings in disguise
Kevin Scully

BRF £7.99 (978-1-84101-851-5)
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

I CONFESS that I approached Tony Horsfall’s book with a cautious heart, but came away from it with a glad one. The writer comes from an Evangelical background, which is not my own, and my prejudices got in the way. His aim is to widen the spirituality of the “usual” Evan­gel­ical (if there is such a person), and introduce him or her to a kind of spirituality which for many good Christians would be entirely new. He does this with great sensitivity — and possibly a little deliberate cunning.

The first chapters describe issues that will be quite familiar to most Evangelical Christians, and probably form part of their daily devotions. But, slowly and gently, he leads his reader into what is probably, for most British Christians, new ground. He plays no tricks, but opens up radically different ways of prayer and listening to God. None of these is new to Christianity — indeed, many have ancient roots — but most have only relatively re­cently found their way into the daily devo­tions of today’s Anglican (and pro­b-ably Free Church) Christian lives.

With Horsfall, prayer becomes listening and waiting rather than speaking and asking — as (he tells us) he has himself discovered.

Kevin Scully’s book is less satisfy­ing. By his own account, he is a busy man, and perhaps his book had to be written in stolen moments. Per­haps this is why his comments jump about, more like a collection of para­graphs than a fluent story. He writes of ten “simple gifts”: hospital­ity, tears, rest, anger, humour, grief, friendship, imperfection, hope, and ignorance. (I wondered whether “simple” was the right word here.)

He wants to help his readers deepen their awareness of God with­­in each of them in turn. But people are more grown up than he seems to allow. We may, indeed, need help to deepen our use of these “simple gifts”; we may wel­come being shown how to value them, and use them constructively. But I wondered whether Scully had had the time to delve deeply enough into, and to reflect on, his chosen subject to be able to offer this help.

Time and again, he misses a trick, swerving off into an irrelevant anec­dote — some come across as flip­pant, compared with the real im­portance of his subject. Jokes may help retain the interest of his reader, but are unlikely to build a Christian heart and mind for an unbelieving 21st century (surely a critically important need?).

Not all is lost. He raises some excellent questions, and uses some admirable illustrations to back them up — though not all are accurately used or quoted, or followed through or completed, or obviously relevant. It may seem niggly, but to give just three illustrations, plucked at ran­dom: when they meet, clergy do not always talk about funerals; and there is no reason to believe that Sarah’s laughter was always scathing, nor that the tears of Jesus at Lazarus’s tomb are “a clear sign that Jesus is Emmanuel”. Such statements detract from his excellent intentions.

Canon John Armson is a former Precentor of Rochester Cathedral.

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