Monday, 14 January 2013

Holy Fire

I have quoted the poet R.S.Thomas once before on this blog but I want to do so again from his poem simply entitled "The Chapel". R.S. Thomas, as you probably know, was an Anglican clergyman serving in the Church in Wales, my own denomination. He can be a little depressing and sometimes gives the impression that he doubted more than he believed. However here in this wonderful little poem he speaks with a combination of nostalgia and longing for the time when the Christian faith set it's followers on fire for God:

A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness,
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by,
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds, too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass.

But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.

Here is what one commentator wrote (I am afraid I can't remember where or who):

"Am I alone, I wonder, in being moved by the truth about the way in which preachers used to catch fire and burn steadily before their congregations, ‘saved in a way that men are not now? And why is it, I wonder, that neither preachers nor congregations are so readily moved these days? Is it because we have tamed the Gospel and made it too safe, too comfortable, too respectable? Up and down the country in our churches and chapels, passions are inflamed and hearts set on fire not by the Most High God and his infinite mercy and graciousness, but by petty grievances and small complaints, who's sitting in my pew and I don't know that tune and it's not my turn to do this and she shouldn't be allowed to do that."

Ouch! A little near the bone methinks! However although I am sure that many a clergyman can attest to the painful truthfulness of that observation, as a clergyman myself I am more disturbed by the picture of a lukewarm preacher, dull in his unbelief, spouting platitudes and inanities than I am about what happens in the pews. True there is nothing worse than the widespread religious nominalism that masquerades for current day Christianity in the West. True too that church congregations are alarmingly adept at majoring over minors or kicking up a storm over something innocuous or insignificant. But - and it's a large 'but' - dry wood needs a spark and if the preacher isn't on fire then all the complaints in the world are not going to revive the Church again. So my prayer - and I hope yours - is simple. Please Lord send down your fire from heaven again and set our preachers alight with the power of the Holy Spirit. Or, in the wonderful words of Charles Wesley:

O thou who camest from above
the fire celestial to impart,
kindle a flame of sacred love
on the mean altar of my heart.
There let it for thy glory burn
with inextinguishable blaze,
and trembling to its source return
in humble prayer and fervent praise.


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