Scripture: Luke 12:22–31
Let us pause to give thanks for the gift of God’s presence in all Creation:
Gracious God, Holy One of mystery and beauty, in the beating of heart in the pulse of life in the rhythms of earth we know your presence and we give thanks. In language beyond words the wind in the trees the moon behind the clouds the river holding the sky in day’s ending, in dream’s beginning we know your presence and we give thanks and praise to you, O God. Amen (Age to Age, The United Church of Canada, p. 92, adapted)
When I was growing up I learned a lot about Jesus and his life and ministry, in Sunday School and during worship services. As I got older I learned more about the social, economic, political and religious context in which Jesus lived and my understanding and appreciation for his life and ministry broadened and deepened. As an adult, I understood more fully Jesus’ role as a prophet and social justice advocate as well as a gentle healer and guide.
My childhood understanding of Jesus captured the essence of who he was as one who walks among us. He was human. He lived in community. He was loving and compassionate and treated others, no matter who they were, with respect and kindness. He was tangible and accessible to me as a child. I could imagine him as a kind friend and guide. He was one of us and yet he was extraordinary.
God, on the other hand, was a complete mystery to me in my early childhood days. Every Sunday, without exception, we would sing hymn # 1 in The “Blue” Hymnary which was “Holy, Holy, Holy”. I was completely mystified by verse two,
“Holy, holy, holy! all the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea,
Cheribim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be.”
(The Hymnary # 1, The United Church Publishing House, 1930)
I was taught that God was all-knowing and all-seeing and there was nothing that I did or thought that God didn’t know about. Instead of being comforting, at the time it served to alarm an already well behaved child into feeling guilty about every little unkind thought or deed. It wasn’t until I could read and I learned the hymn, “This Is My Father’s World” (The Hymnary # 589) that things began to change for me. I began to have a sense of God as not just mysterious and rather inaccessible but as everywhere – in all life on earth. The words of the hymn that impacted me the most in this impressionable time of my life were,
“This is my Father’s world;
He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear him pass,
He speaks to me everywhere.”
(The Hymnary # 589, The United Church Publishing House, 1930)
Like most children of the time, I spent hours playing outdoors. My family’s holidays were always camping trips and the sounds of nature were well known to me. Connecting these sights and sounds with God enabled me to experience God not as a silent observer but as an active part of my life as near to me as the rustling grass and the gentle wind and sun on my face. I had many experiences where the beauty of the natural world around me inspired feelings of awe, reverence and thanksgiving to God the creator.
As I matured, I was able to integrate my experiences of God’s presence with the teachings of Jesus. Jesus’ use of everyday examples in his stories, like mustard seeds, light, lilies of the field, ravens, and fig trees, combined with references to God’s active presence in the lives of ordinary people helped bring the proactive presence of God to life for me. For instance, in today’s Gospel reading (Luke 12:22-31) where Jesus refers to God’s concern for birds and flowers as well as people, there is a sense that all of God’s creation is interconnected and important. Reverence for God’s presence in all creation naturally leads to gratitude and a deeper appreciation of God and the natural world around us.
Rooted in an agrarian setting, it was natural for Jesus to turn to the natural world for lessons on how to live in the world. This practice, and Jesus’ tendency to periodically withdraw to the wilderness for prayer and spiritual renewal, influenced later Christians. Many people, in the second and third centuries, withdrew to places in the wilderness to study, pray and live in intentional Christian communities. These Desert Fathers and Mothers (abbas and ammas), as they came to be known, influenced later Celtic monastic life. A book that I am currently reading called, A People’s History of Christianity by Diana Butler Bass, says that, “Escaping cities and seeking solitude did not mean abandoning others. Indeed, the desert wise ones found that encountering God and oneself in silence led to a greater understanding of the ‘sacredness of our neighbour and all that has been created.’ Of this principle, Dorotheus of Gaza said, ‘each one according to his means should take care to be at one with everybody else, for the more one is united to his neighbour, the more he is united with God.’ ” Those who went to the desert were not so much going there to escape the world but rather to create, “…an alternative practice of engagement – the first step on the way toward becoming a new people, a universal community of God’s love.” (A People’s History of Christianity, Diana Butler Bass, Harper One, 2009, pgs. 47-48)
One of the most well known of the Desert Fathers was Anthony who lived in the desert in Egypt in the third to fourth centuries. When he was asked by a philosopher what he would do if one day he could no longer read scripture, Anthony simply replied, “My book, sir philosopher, is the nature of created things, and it is always on hand when I wish to read it.” The natural world accompanied by the stories of Jesus passed from generation to generation proved a firm foundation for the continuation of the Christian faith tradition. (Water, Wind, Earth & Fire, by Christine Valters Paintner, Sorin Books, 2010, Introduction, pg. 2)
In the book, Water, Wind, Earth & Fire, author Christine Valters Paintner, points to the correlation of Jesus’ connection with God’s Creation and the nurturing of our own spiritual lives today. Paintner says,
“When we recognize ourselves as part of the earth community, as the scriptures and mystics have encouraged us to do for centuries, then we begin to see the profound mystery at work in the depths of our own souls as the same sacred mystery at work in the natural world. Being present to the gifts of creation helps to give us insight into paths for our own spiritual growth and into the ways in which God is present to us.” (Water, Wind, Earth & Fire, by Christine Valters Paintner, Sorin Books, 2010, pg. 7)
The United Church of Canada has long understood the value of ministers setting time aside for education and spiritual retreat. To insure this happens regularly, the United Church mandates that three weeks every year be designated as Study Leave time for all ministry personnel. This next week I will be on Study Leave and will be dividing my time between reading current literature to enhance my understanding and knowledge of current church practices and time spent at a retreat centre with the Contemplative in the Kootenays group led by Therese Descamps. Whenever I take a week of Study Leave, my hope is always that I will return refreshed and enlivened and that the time away will enrich and inform the ministry that we share together as a community of faith.
I’ll end this time of reflection with a poem, written by Canadian poet Bliss Carmen, that influenced me as a young adult. This poem echoed my experience of searching, and finding, God’s presence in creation.
I took a day to search for God and found God not.
But as I trod by rocky ledge, through woods untamed,
just when one scarlet lily flamed:
I saw God’s footprints in the sod.
Then suddenly, all unaware, far off in the deep shadows where
a solitary Hermit Thrush sang through the holy twilight hush
I heard God’s voice upon the air.
And even as I marvelled how God gives us heaven here and now,
in a stir of wind, that hardly shook
the poplar leaves beside the brook
God’s hand was light upon my brow.
At last with evening as I turned homeward,
and thought what I had learned and all that there was still to probe
I caught the glory of God’s robe where the last fires of sunset burned.
Back to the world with quickening start
I looked and longed for any part
in making saving Beauty be
and from that kindling ecstasy
I knew God dwelt within my heart.
— Vistigia, Bliss Carman (1861-1929), adapted