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Visions Of Hope: An Inspirational Book

The Reverend William Sykes recently retired as Chaplain and Fellow of University College, Oxford. Twenty years ago he lost his faith—and set out to find it again in a very unusual way.

In a preface to William's book, Visions of Hope, American lawyer Steve Sheppard wrote "Bill Sykes has grappled with our demons. The mundane, modern demons that stalk the early hours of doubt and fear.''

Visions Of Hope, which will be serialised on forthcoming Sundays in Open Writing, is a record of Bill's struggles, taken from his remarkable readings across the spectrum of Christian and other writings, from saints and from sinners.

Here is Bill's introduction to his remarkable and inspiring book.

The story behind Visions of Hope - How It Came Into Being, And How To Use It

A Priest Who Lost His Faith

What happens when a priest thinks he has lost his faith? I was thirty years old and, faced with this situation, saw three options: leave the Church; stay put in the Church and go through the motions; or stand my ground and fight. I had one thing on my side in making the choice—fresh memories from being a Gurkha officer. I had to fight.

I started anew in the book of Genesis. In the story of the creation of man God is depicted as fashioning and shaping man in his own image. He breathed into man and man became a living being. I was fascinated by this simple story. I took it to mean that God breathed something of his own nature into man, giving a divine potential for life.

Then I turned to the Gospels and found 'something of God in man' worked out in the man—Jesus Christ. He found the Father in the depths of himself. He tried to explain this to the disciples: 'Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?... the Father who dwells in me does his works' (John 14:10). As I struggled with what these words meant, I began to understand Jesus as the image of the invisible God.

This understanding brought me a new insight. Jesus discovered not only the presence of 'the Father' in himself, but also discovered that this presence is love, not just an abstraction, but for people individually: 'As the Father loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love' (John 15:9)- This is the basis for the two great commandments: 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart... and you shall love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39). He made this simpler.- 'A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you' (John 13:34). Living in love, he lived in hope, and hope prevailed to the end of his life, to his death on the cross: 'Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!' The vision of hope was beginning to take shape.

I went back to the Epistles. Paul discovered that what Christ had experienced in his life, we can all experience in some measure. Some time after his conversion on the Damascus road, Paul wrote: 'It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me...' (Galatians 2:20). 'In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness of life in him' (Colossians 2:9-10). I knew this meant much to me, that the whole power of the Trinity could be found in each of us as well as such attributes as life, light, truth, joy, love—and hope. I found to my delight that Paul had discovered this hope and expressed it concisely in his Epistle to the Romans: 'Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God... and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us' (Romans 5:2, 5). Later in the same letter this hope comes out even more clearly: 'May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope' (Romans 15:13). It was neatly summed up: 'Christ in you, the hope of glory' (Colossians 1:27). But I still felt that I was missing some part of his vision for me.

Then something in Genesis clicked into place: that which was fashioned and shaped in the image and likeness of God was taken from the dust of the earth. I saw then that in addition to being born with a 'divine' potential, we are still earthy and creaturely. This was no news to me, but now I saw that if either side was repressed or allowed too much sway the consequences would be negative and destructive.

But how could I make such a balance? I went back again to the Gospels. What do we find in the life of Christ? An integration of the divine and the earthy, the godly and the creaturely—'very God and very Man'—a perfect combination of the divine and the human. I now began to understand why he was called 'the second Adam'. By his life, death, and resurrection he had pioneered a way of integrating both sides of his nature, and so became the prototype of a new humanity. The vision of hope underlying this anthology finally made sense.

Granted this vision of hope, I thought I might find evidence of it in the experience of men and women in the last two thousand years. I started searching for signs of this vision in the thoughts and words of others. First I sought it in the recorded experience of saints and theologians. Secondly from poets, novelists, playwrights, musicians and artists. Thirdly, of philosophers, scientists, statesmen, historians, politicians, economists and psychologists.

The material found has been set out in seventy-five topics. These contain many aspects of hope, and their opposites—with some related topics.

The aim of the anthology is to provide a means to grow in this vision of hope. This is done primarily through the practice of reflection. Hence the subtitle, An Anthology of Reflections.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines 'reflection' as to 'go back in thought, meditate, or consult with oneself, remind oneself, or consider'. Reflection indicates a way of thinking with the mind, the imagination, intuition and feelings. It includes 'lateral thinking' and 'vertical thinking'—thinking which takes into account the spiritual dimension. A good description comes from the Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent (a prayer for the study of the Scriptures) '... Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them.' Reflection can have a devotional aspect, and merge into meditation and contemplation. I hope Visions of Hope can be used in many ways—as a book to dip into from time to time—as a bedside book—as a guide in time of need—as an aid in keeping a journal—as a personal book of devotion.

As chaplain and fellow of an Oxford college, I have used the material for 'reflection groups'. These have been very popular, and in term-time at least thirty groups of up to five students meet each week.

I have been asked to describe in detail how these groups function. We meet for an hour a week at a mutually convenient time. We begin with a cup of tea, coffee or hot chocolate and briefly catch up on news. A list of topics is circulated and after two or three minutes a topic is chosen by consensus. Each topic consists of an introduction and some twenty quotations, two from the Old Testament, two from the New Testament, and the remaining sixteen from a wide variety of sources. Each person in the group is then given a copy of this material and the reflection group gets under way.

We then have about half an hour of silence. We look through the quotations thinking them through, and working out what they mean to us individually. Some of our participants are not used to being quiet and find silence difficult at first, so I make available a clipboard, pen and paper. We have found that writing down thoughts and insights has eased this period of silence and been a useful way of developing ideas.

As convenor of the group, I use this half-hour period to go through the quotations in the same way as the others, but in addition to formulate some questions. These can be useful for stimulating discussion in the second half of the reflection group.

At the half-way stage, I ask if everyone has completed the material. I then ask, 'Was there any particular reason for choosing this topic?' Someone usually comes forward with a reason. My next question is.- 'Did you find anything helpful?' The person who has chosen the topic responds, and then the other members of the group join in. Having reflected on the same material, conversa¬tion comes fairly easily. As convenor, my role is mainly to listen and make sure everyone has an opportunity to contribute. Sometimes the questions formulated by me earlier are a help; often they are not needed. The group ends promptly on the hour. (Time is precious in an eight-week term.)

I usually start a new group with one person. Before long he or she usually suggests a person to join. Sometimes the addition is actually uninterested in religion but a good thinker. Sometimes it is someone committed to a particular creed, often not that of the first in the group. The two of them then invite a third member and so on. So the groups are based on trust and friendship, not orthodoxy. In the groups we have Roman Catholics, Methodists, members of the Church of England, the United Reformed Church, and the Christian Union, and the occasional Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist and agnostic.

Sometimes a group doesn't grow. Some people are shy, and are not ready for the group experience. Others want to go forward slowly. A few need individual attention. Some function quite happily in twos and threes. I reckon four or five is the best working number. Trust can still be maintained, and everyone can fully participate. Above this number, communication tends to break down.

I see Visions of Hope as a skeleton (or framework) of hope—and I leave it to the individual to put upon it (to clothe it with) his or her own flesh and blood.


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