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Diary: Graham James

08 December 2023


Knights of the road

WHAT do you do after a puncture on a dirt road in the Australian outback, especially when there’s no mobile coverage and it’s 35° in a high wind, and there are flies everywhere? I uttered a prayer of desperation. I was praying more for strength for the task in hand than hoping that a celestial version of the AA might suddenly appear, but, within a minute or two, a young couple stopped and asked whether I needed any help. (They were the only people we saw at all in that location.)

They were from northern Israel, and were working their way round Australia on a gap year. He had been a mechanic on a kibbutz, but, even so, it took all his strength to loosen the nuts on the punctured wheel of our Toyota Kluger. Toyota seem to have made changing a tyre as difficult as possible. The instructions in the handbook seemed also to have been eccentrically translated from Japanese.

Well over an hour later, the job was done. A low point on our visit to Australia had become memorable for all the best reasons. That young Jewish couple did not pass by on the other side. Salvation had come from Israel again. All this was five days before the Hamas invasions. That couple have been frequently in our prayers these past weeks, as well as everyone in Gaza, Israel, and the wider region.

Dull life? No chance

I HAVE always been a little sceptical about people who claim that God answers their prayers when they’re in a tight spot. I know that Jesus says, “Ask, and it shall be given you,” but I’m not sure we can expect him to rescue us when it’s our fault we land in trouble. I should have familiarised myself with that Toyota — and especially how to change a tyre — before setting out. I’ve been in the Australian outback enough to know that punctures are commonplace. Somehow, a kindly providence was on our side.

Or was it more than that? When I was a university undergraduate, George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community, came to lead a weekend retreat for our chaplaincy. I don’t think I appreciated at the time just how distinguished he was. He recounted various stories not unlike my own recent adventure to illustrate God’s providence. His repeated catchphrase was “If you think that’s a coincidence, I hope you have a dull life!” Whatever else it’s been, I’d not describe my life as dull.

Seeing is believing

WE WERE deep in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, where the landscape looks as if it was created the day before yesterday. It is a bit like walking into the book of Genesis.

This time, we visited Nilpena, where the hills guard an ancient seafloor from half a billion years ago. Here, about 40 species of very early, soft-bodied animal life have been preserved in fine sandstone. The Ediacaran geological period (635-540 million years ago) is named after these hills. I didn’t think I’d get excited about fossils, but I was fascinated — partly because we were seeing these fossils in situ, and they combine a great simplicity with even greater beauty.

I have never understood why theories of evolution are regarded by some Christians as a challenge to faith. It seems to me a much bigger act of faith to believe that this dazzling creativity is a meaningless accident than to see in it the hand of a divine Creator.

Round the world

AMONG the more traditional religious experiences in our visit to the Antipodes was a weekday choral evensong at the Transitional Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand. While it’s impressive just how much has been done to rebuild the city after the 2011 earthquake, much remains to be completed, including the reconstruction of the Anglican cathedral. It will be at least late 2027 before that reopens.

The so-called Cardboard Cathedral (not a very accurate description) was built within a year, as a temporary replacement. I had not expected such a beautiful, practical, even inspiring, building. Clearly, the choral tradition is still vigorous. And here, as elsewhere, we found connections. The verger to whom we spoke had lived in Padstow for five years; so we were quickly transported back to Cornwall.

Earlier, on our flight from Sydney to Christchurch, a retired Baptist minister I knew from Norfolk was sitting two rows in front of us. Six degrees of separation? Much of the time, it feels more like one and a half.

Sound of Silence

IN THE far south-west of New Zealand’s South Island is Doubtful Sound. It got its name from Captain Cook. In 1770, looking at the inlet and concluding that it was probably not navigable by sail, he named it Doubtful Harbour. Whalers later called it Doubtful Sound, although it’s neither a sound nor a harbour, but a fjord. Looking at vertical cliffs rising more than a kilometre from the water’s surface makes you feel very small. I felt we were back in the book of Genesis again.

While I was pondering the spiritual significance of this experience, all passengers were told to find a place on the open deck. Once there, it was announced that the engines would be turned off, and the generators, too, so that the ship was completely quiet. We were asked to keep quiet as well, and simply listen to the silence, which, apart from a distant waterfall and the occasional tweet from a bird, was complete. There was no distant hum of traffic, or any sign of the modern noisy world.

Everyone was deeply moved by the Sound of Silence; God breaking in again. Perhaps someone will write a song about it.

The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich and now an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Truro.

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