SUE PICKERING works as a priest and spiritual director in New Zealand. Visiting a rural bird sanctuary there, she saw an endangered blue-wattled kokako that had been orphaned by a predator. Rescued and reared by human beings, the bird had not yet learned the hauntingly beautiful song that the species is known for. It was, however, beginning to sing a few notes. Its carers had been playing its species song, and a male was serenading it from another cage. Together, they were helping this lonely bird to find its own music.
Moved by her visit to the sanctuary, Pickering found herself thinking of Christian witness as a similar singing of “our own God-songs”, but, she believes, we cannot assume anything about those we sing them to. We don’t know what it is like to be someone else, even if something of his or her situation reminds us of our own. This book is her attempt to help us reflect on the song within us as followers of Jesus Christ, but also on how this melody may find its harmony with other people who share the complex, often bruising, experience called life.
The first rule for any pastor is never to add insight to injury. Simply to pronounce your clinical diagnosis to a person’s vulnerability rarely helps. As Paul Tillich reminded us, the first duty of love is to listen. Pickering, therefore, dedicates the first half of the book to the Christian’s spiritual discipline of listening better, which, as it discerns the whispers of grace, “strengthens discipleship and informs witness”.
The second half of the book then explores the ways in which, with both conviction and sensitivity, we can resist the temptation today to be a silent witness. Throughout the book, the tone is invitational, and the questions that Pickering asks of us are a striking mixture of the tentative and the provocative.
At the end of the day, this book wants to support lay people in their vocation as God’s witnesses in the world “by intentionally weaving together the inward journey of formation as disciples and the outward journey of partnering God in God’s world as witnesses to the transformative power of God’s Spirit”.
It is confident but nuanced, thoughtful but accessible. It would be good to take on retreat, either for an individual or for a group, because it is a book for all those who sense, in all their determined independence, that God might be missing them a bit.
Canon Mark Oakley is Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Listening and Spiritual Conversation: Singing God-songs in a noisy world
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