Exodus 3:1-5; Luke 4:1; 4:42; 5:1; 6:1; 6:12; 9:28
4th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 10.07.2022
Rev Tulo Raistrick
I grew up the youngest of three brothers. My two older brothers were, and still are, exceptional people. They excelled in music and in sport, and academically they were always top of the class in all their subjects. There was a temptation for the teachers when I came along to say “here comes another Raistrick boy”, and for there to be quite a pressure to keep up their standards. However, my parents, as all good parents would, always made me know, that I was a unique individual, loved for who I was, that no comparisons were being made, but that I was free to be whoever I was made to be.
Those who are parents will know that each of our children is unique. That even though they may have grown up in the same family environment with the same genes, each turns out remarkably different, and each relates to us in a slightly different way. Some may express that relationship in tactile ways, others through intellectual conversation, others through simply sitting together in silence, others through doing jobs together. The relationship is unique. There is no blueprint.
We should not be surprised then if the God who is our heavenly Father, the God who helped to form us, and who knows us better than we know ourselves, should choose to relate to us each in unique ways. We are part of the same church family, we share beliefs in common, and yet for each one of us, we experience God in different, unique ways. For knowing God is a relationship, not a formula.
I find it surprising how often I forget that. Maybe you may feel the same. We can feel “unspiritual” because we do not experience things like others seem to do. Maybe we can go on a retreat and struggle with the silence, when others around us seem to be in their perfect element. Maybe we can go to a great gathering of Christians, full of emotion and enthusiasm, and feel disconnected, a wet blanket amidst the joy. Maybe we can listen to others speak of the profound encounters they experienced that morning in reading the Scriptures, and know that we struggled to engage with the very same readings.
When people speak of their experiences of God different from our own, we may feel unspiritual, not quite cutting it; and there are times when we may respond in the opposite way, judging and looking down on people as being a little bit simplistic, other-worldly, superficial, non-emotional, over emotional. Neither is a good response.
Over the next four weeks we are going to be looking at different ways in which people experience God, whether through our minds (studying the Bible, reading books); through our emotions (experiencing God through stirring music, for example); through rhythm and routine (the saying of daily prayers or familiar words of liturgy); through our senses (encountering God in the richness of taste or touch or smell); through sacrifice and self-discipline (through fasting or Lenten disciplines); through acts of love and service of others (encountering and experiencing God in the lives of those we care for); through standing up for justice; through silence and contemplation.
There is not an exhaustive list, for how can we ever exhaust the richness of ways in which our infinite God seeks to make himself known to us, but as we explore just one or two of these ways, I hope you will be affirmed in discovering that sometimes your most profound experiences of God happen in places not necessarily overtly religious, an art gallery, a restaurant, a garden, whilst caring for a unwell friend – that God is always seeking to make himself known. And I hope this series will also help you to discover and experience new ways in which God is trying to catch your attention, draw you closer to himself.
So today, we will briefly look at a way that I know resonates with many – God making himself known to us through the beauty of the natural world.
Our two sets of readings are examples of how experiencing God in the outdoors has always been part of our spiritual heritage. Moses encounters God whilst out in the wilderness, tending his flocks. It is striking just how much of Jesus’ ministry, and also his prayer life, takes place not inside synagogues and homes, though it does there too, but outdoors, in the wilderness, or by the lakeside, or up mountains. Much of Jesus’ teaching drew inspiration from his experiences of nature – seeds growing, sparrows nesting, lilies blooming, harvest fields ripening. One can imagine that it was in those moments of contemplation on the world around him, that those insights and truths came to him, that there was a richness of connection with his father in heaven.
And throughout Christian experience, many have written of the way they have encountered and experienced God in nature. Julian of Norwich, a 14th century nun, wrote of how God “showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand. I marvelled that it could last for I thought it might have crumbled to nothing, it was so small. And the answer came into my mind, “It lasts and ever shall because God loves it.” And all things have their being through the love of God.”
Annie Dillard, a 20th century author, wrote a whole Pullitzer prize winning book about the beauty of a muddy creek in a non-descript valley in Virginia in America. When asked how she wrote, “Its a matter of keeping my eyes open. Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can do is try to be there… so that creation need not play to an empty house.”
Or a father who wrote to his surgeon son shortly before he died: “God means us to delight in his world. It isn’t necessary to know botany or zoology or biology in order to enjoy the manifold life of nature. Just observe. And remember. And be always looking to God with thankfulness and worship for having placed you in such a delightful corner of the universe as planet earth.”
Or in slightly more theological language, the words of Michael Mayne, a priest in Cambridge: “The world is not merely beautiful; it is sacramental, incarnational. Everything in creation can become the sign and means of God’s presence if we have eyes to see.”
And that perhaps is the key. Having our eyes open, looking out for the presence of God, his longing to make himself known, in every aspect of life, and for many of us, those moments in the park, in our garden, with a vase of flowers, or in the great outdoors, may feel places where we are particularly aware, especially attuned to his presence. Let us delight in those moments and seek more of them, that we may grow in our love for him.