Mark Broadway is vicar of a seaside parish in Wales, and has just had his first book published: Journeying with God in the Wilderness: A 40 Day Lent Devotional through the book of Numbers. I read the book pre-publication, and found it very engaging—and had a chance to ask Mark about what led him to write it, and the impact it has had on him.
IP: Mark, it’s great to chat to you about your new lent book, Journeying with God in the Wilderness—which I note has a very lovely endorsement from me on the front cover! But, first why don’t you introduce yourself, this isn’t your first time on the blog, is it?
MB: That’s right, I wrote a book review last year—it was a reflection on preaching the gospel at funerals. To introduce myself, I’m Mark Broadway, and I’m a vicar in South Wales in sunny Porthcawl. Its basically Costa Del Cymru here, with great beaches there are loads of water sports that happen and the sea has become something of a unique part of my ministry since I became a member of the RNLI lifeboat crew that is stationed in the parish.
IP: Looking at your book, the burning question for me is simply: “Numbers?! Why Numbers?!” What on earth inspired you to write a daily devotional on the Book of Numbers?
MB: I think that the question hints at the answer. Before writing Journeying with God in the Wilderness, Numbers was probably the book of the Bible that I knew least well. I know that there is something of a trope around Leviticus being the most difficult book of the Bible, or Leviticus being the place where most Bible-in-a-year reading plans grind to a halt; but actually, for me (and I think for others) Numbers is the text that can feel most alien to us.
Not only does it almost never appear in the Sunday Lectionary, with the notable exception of the Brazen Serpent, but it also contains some of the passages which we might lazily caricature as representing a wrathful god who is far removed from the God we find in Jesus—now I hasten to add, I don’t think that is actually true. Once we begin to scratch beneath the surface, and begin to do the work of understanding what the text is trying to convey to us, we find that Numbers is a vital piece of the Bible-Puzzle.
There are already some brilliant commentaries on Numbers. Some are really quite academic in their approach, and there are some that are absolutely superb for those who are looking to preach on Numbers. But, there is very little out there that does the work of opening up the stories in the Numbers to a lay audience, or to readers who might be brand new to the Bible, let alone this foundational text. And so, that’s where I began, a desire to open up Numbers in a way that anyone could see the value of it.
IP: And why Lent? How does Lent connect to the book of Numbers?
MB: Good question. The Lent connection specifically is two-fold. First, the number 40. Forty years of wandering (in numbers) and forty days of fasting (in Lent). Many people know that the forty days of Lent are inspired by Jesus’ forty days fasting and being tested in the wilderness, but the connection to other periods of forty across the Bible are, perhaps, less well ingrained in the popular imagination. Of course, for my purposes, the forty years of the wilderness (as in the book of Numbers), but there are also the forty days of rain for Noah, and the forty days that his ark stood atop Mount Ararat as the waters subsided.
The second connection in my mind is the theme of wilderness. Numbers is set in the wilderness, it’s both a place and a spiritual theme. Not only the geographical space outside of the Promised Land, but also a place of suffering, testing, and a place of drawing near to God in the face of adversity. For many Christians, around the world, across denominations, and throughout time, Lent has been a sort of self-imposed wilderness, or an attempt to understand the way of Jesus better by imitating (in a small way) one aspect of his self-denial in his 40 days in the wilderness.
IP: So, is it a Lent book in that it’s about Lent?
MB: No, not really. Lent features a bit, with regards to content, but really it’s a book that seeks to help us learn from the wilderness experiences of God’s people. The connection to Lent is expressed in that the book takes us on a forty-day journey – one short chapter for each day of Lent – or any period of forty days really, you might want to use the book throughout the year at any time, but it is just especially appropriate during Lent. If you read each day, the chapters are about five minutes or so of reading, and you’ll find a passage from Numbers as you work steadily through its narrative, a related reading from the New Testament that adds a particular perspective or key to unlock the passage, a reflection or commentary on the main themes of that day’s reading. I’ve also included a prayer for each day, and a few discussion questions as well.
IP: A book about wilderness as much as its about lent, what’s your experience of wilderness?
MB: I think we all go through times of wilderness of one description or another, don’t we? And I don’t just mean hard times. I think there is a particular biblical spirituality of wilderness. It’s something distinct. Basically, I think a wilderness time has two aspects. First, it has an element of suffering with all the longings that go with that. Longings for the promised land, if you like. Or, longing for release from burden. That’s the first part, but there is also an element of preparation to take hold of what is to come next. So, there’s hardship with longing for the next step, and a preparation for all that is to come. In a sense, then, life itself is a wilderness journey. Here we long for the here-after, but God does the work of preparing us for that here, by working in us his gift of faith.
But, I think we can be more specific. Take the Covid Lockdowns as an example, remember them! How could we forget—maybe we’d like to forget! For some of us they were awful, well they were awful for most of us, I’m sure. But, for some of us they were not just awful, they were also a time of testing and preparation. For me, during that time, I joined up as a Covid Chaplain. This meant going onto the covid wards in my local hospital to provide support and pastoral care for patients and staff, and so the time I spent enduring the various rules and regs was redeemed in some small way. I was being prepared for new ministries, learning to serve others, reaching out with the gospel, and all of this as my approach to Christian leadership was put to the test.
Perhaps more specifically again, if I can talk more personally now – I’ve written elsewhere about my struggles with mental health. Depression and anxiety have at times in my life being significant problems for me. Causes of real suffering, perhaps they have been my key wilderness experiences in a way that few other things I’ve lived through, or with, have been. As a result of different things coming to a head a few years ago, I ended up needing to take a bit of time off work to recover. I’m not sure that I was quite ready then to learn all that God had for me in those difficult seasons, but I’ve since come to understand that particular aspect of my life-experience through this wilderness lens. It is suffering, yes. And suffering isn’t good. But God is good – he really is good – and he really is working all things for the good of those who love him. And my experience is that so much good has come – it didn’t magically make everything better, but so much fruit was able to grow in those harsh conditions. That’s what my experience of wilderness tells me, and I think that looking at the experiences of God’s people can help give us the keys to unlock our own experiences.
IP: How has writing this book it shaped your own response to wilderness times? And has it had any effect on your ministry?
MB: It certainly has—both personally and in my ministry. A couple of significant ways it’s shaped me, I think. First of all, it’s been a really edifying process. To go back into the struggles of God’s people in the Book of Numbers, and to begin to understand the way in which God can use any and all the circumstances of our lives to his own ends. That’s not just a theme of Numbers, obviously. But to sit patiently with a text like Numbers with so much going wrong for God’s people, and to see the effects of sin and judgement work themselves out, yet finding resolution in intercession and divine mercy. Wow! Its had a profound effect on my own heart. The puritans talk about hearts not only needing to be broken, but also melted – and I think Numbers is a text that can do that for us so powerfully.
Then, more specifically in relation to my ministry, writing this book has really given me courage to engage more, and more profitably, with portions of the Bible which might seem harder to teach or preach from. I don’t know about you, but my experience of the Anglicans around me is that there is a lot of preaching on the Gospel passage on a Sunday Morning. Maybe very occasionally, we will hear something on the Epistle. Writing Journeying with God in the Wilderness has taught me that engaging with some of the more challenging or difficult passages can bear really rich fruit. I think that’s because the tough passages of scripture often touch on the tough aspects of life. Sin and doubt, judgement, holiness, brokenness – dare I even say sex and money?! But, these are the themes that can speak really clearly to those in our congregations who happen to live real lives, and I think as you read the book, you’ll get a sense of how we might speak about these things profitably.
IP: Mark, thank you so much for sharing a little bit of wilderness journeying with us today!
Mark Broadway is vicar of a seaside parish in Wales, where in his spare time he volunteers as a member of the lifeboat crew. He is also assistant chaplain to the Princess of Wales Hospital. His first book, Journeying With God in the Wilderness, is available now.