As you may know, I haven’t been around much this week. That’s not because I was swanning off on holiday again. I have been serving on an Advisory Panel in Ely assessing people who want to become priests. I usually do about one of these a year. It’s very hard work, and I’m always exhausted at the end, but it’s a great privilege and joy too.
By the time they come to us on one of these Panels the candidates will have already spent a long time reflecting with others in their own Dioceses. There’s a very rigorous process to go through. You can’t just walk in off the street and ask to be a priest. But this Panel is the bit that will really determine the future. We make recommendations to their Bishops about whether they should go into training for ordained ministry, and usually the Bishops follow those recommendations.
It’s a very thorough process, and we don’t come to our judgements lightly. There are three advisors to each group of eight candidates and over a couple of days we watch them make presentations and lead discussions, and each of the advisors interviews them in depth. One advisor looks particularly at why they feel called to the priesthood, what their experience of the Church of England is and what their spiritual life is like. Another looks at whether they will cope with the intellectual demands of priesthood. You don’t have to be a genius, but you need to be able to do the study, think on your feet, communicate, relate your faith to the real world. The third advisor – and this is my role at these Panels – is the Pastoral Advisor, and in many ways I get to look at the most basic things of all, character and personality, how the ups and downs of life have shaped them ? Are they mature enough, stable enough, resilient enough? Do they know themselves and accept themselves? Can they get along with others, take responsibility, be some use to those who are suffering? We’re not looking for perfect people – in fact we’re always suspicious of those who look too good to be true, because they probably are . We are looking for people who have learned from their lives, come to terms with their losses, accepted their limitations. It’s not to do with age – I’ve seen some wonderful young candidates who have wisdom far beyond their years, and old ones who don’t know themselves at all, whose unhealed wounds would soon poison their ministry.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that those who aren’t recommended for training are bad people, or any less able than others. It may be simply that this isn’t the right role for them, and that they should be using their talents in some other way, but we do have to look very thoroughly at these very personal aspects of their lives to see if they could cope with ordained ministry, for their sake and for the sake of those to whom they will minister.
I’m telling you all this not just to explain why I might be looking a bit tired – though I am – or just because I think you might be interested, but because when I got home and started preparing today’s sermon, I was struck by how well the readings fitted with what I had spent the week doing. In the Gospel Jesus talks about good shepherds and bad ones; and in a way that is exactly what I had been looking for. Were these the kind of people who would stick with those they served when the wolf came and the going got tough or would they panic or, worse still, just decide it was above their pay grade and head for the hills? And in our second reading too there was a lot of talk of what was in our hearts, which was just the question I’d been asking myself about these candidates – what makes them tick, what is at the centre of their being? When you peel back all the layers, who are they really? There was one phrase in the reading which particularly struck home. John says that what is in our hearts is important, but more than that, if we are to be the people God intends us to be – whether we are priests or not – we also need to know that “God is greater than our hearts.”
To understand what that’s about we need to know a bit about what someone living in the first century like John meant when they talked about the heart.
For us, the heart tends to be associated with feelings, emotions. “Does your heart rule your head or the other way round? we ask. The heart is where the mushy stuff happens, the head is where the logical thinking goes on. But ancient people didn’t see it like that. They didn’t know what the brain for – in fact some schools of thought believed it was just a cooling device. And they thought their emotions were located in their guts, which makes sense really, since that’s where we often feel them. The heart was the place where thinking happened, the place where you made decisions, the place where you formed your image of yourself, your idea of who you were. It was the centre of your being, the essence of your Self.
So, when John talks about hearts in that second reading, he’s talking about our sense of ourselves, of who we are. He talks about hearts that need to be reassured, hearts that might condemn us, and most of all, hearts that need to be put in perspective. What we think of ourselves is important, he says, but “God is greater than our hearts.”
Let’s go back to those Advisory Panels I serve on. The people who come to them have been through all sorts of experiences, good and bad, just like all of us. My job is to help find out how those experiences have shaped them, how they have affected the way they think of themselves – their hearts, in John’s terms. Often I ask “What gifts and what scars do you think your life has left you with?” It tells me how self-aware they are, but it also tells me whether they see themselves as victims of their circumstances, or whether they feel they can be more than that. Over the years I’ve seen people who’ve been bullied or abused as children, told they were useless, that they’d never amount to anything. But what I want to know is, do they still think of themselves like that? Is that still what is in their hearts, their image of themselves? It’s hard to shed those messages completely, but have they learned that they are more than that, that God is bigger than their hearts, bigger than that self-image? I’ve seen people who have failed spectacularly, who’ve made a real mess of their lives and been convinced at that point that they were beyond redemption. That’s understandable, but are do they still think that, or do they believe in a God who is greater than their hearts? Have they found forgiveness, and stood up on their feet again. Have they learned from their mistakes? If they haven’t then they will probably come crashing down again, but if they have they will have precious gifts to give to those they meet in their ministry who feel the same.
I’ve also seen people – just a few – whose lives seem to have been plain sailing when they were young – lucky them – and who grew up assuming the world would fall at their feet. That sounds fine, but it often breeds complacency, naivety, and maybe a desire to play it safe, just in case they disturb that apparently life-long lucky streak. I want to know, though, whether they’ve got the courage to beyond that charmed life, and put themselves in places where they might fail or feel out of their depth. Only if they’ve done that will they learn that God is greater than their hearts, and find the resilience that will take them through testing times.
In our Psalm today we met someone who certainly had learned that, who would, I suspect, sail through his Advisory Panel if he came to it. The person who wrote the well-loved words of Psalm 23 was talking of his life. He’s a shepherd – a good shepherd from the sound of it. As he thinks about his life he realises that just as he’s led his sheep through all sorts of landscapes, so he’s been on a journey too, through landscapes of his own. There have been green pastures and still waters – places of rest and refreshment. There have been right pathways to choose, times when the road has been long and tough. There have been dark valleys too, frightening places where he wondered if he’d survive at all. Was he up to the journey on his own? Was his heart, his confidence, his ability great enough for it? No, of course not, no more than his sheep would have survived without him to care for them. The important thing he has realised, though, is that just as he has been there for them, God has been there for him. “The Lord is my shepherd,” he says, and that is why he can also say “I shall not be in want” or “Therefore can I lack nothing,” or “I have everything I need” as other translations put it. Looking back he has realised that God was always with him, and that meant that it wasn’t all down to him, to what was in his heart, to what he thought about himself, what he thought he was capable of. As he looked back he realised that God had given him blessings he hadn’t expected or earned, green pastures and still waters just when he needed them, joys that refreshed him. At other times God had nudged him towards the right path, through the words of others, or some inner sense of where to go – it wasn’t his doing. In the darkest moments, when he was utterly stuck, he could see now that God had just been there, beside him in the darkness, known in the touch of a friend, perhaps, who had no magic wand or clever words, but just stuck around till the morning came. Even in the presence of those who troubled him, in the face of his enemies, there had been food aplenty, the oil of welcome, the cup that overflowed. His own heart might not have felt big enough to meet the demand, but he didn’t have to do it by himself. God’s vision of him was bigger. He had everything he needed.
God is greater than our hearts, says John, and I think that message would be echoed by the lives of many of those I’ve met this week. He is greater than our selves, greater than our abilities. Whoever we think we are, God’s picture of us is greater than that, deeper than that, better than that, and when we know that we have courage to grow into what we can be, not victims of our circumstances, but able to live in the freedom that God wants for his children. You don’t have to be a priest, or someone who wants to be a priest, for this to be true. It is true for all of us. Amen