I was 18, a medical student at a party in London, glass of wine in hand, and the student pastor Greg sidled up to me and asked, “ How is your theology Ali?”
I was studying medicine, not theology and I suspect what he really wanted to know was how was my relationship with God, in a new place, away from home for the first time,
It was the wrong question on so many counts at the wrong time and in the wrong place, I spluttered something as I choked on my wine and quickly fled to find a safer conversation
Thankfully I do not think anyone has asked me that since. But sometimes it is hardest to talk about the things that matter most to us, I wonder how your relationship with God is just now, are you best friends? Do you talk occasionally? Are you mad with God, disappointed, feel let down or maybe God just feels irrelevant to life? . For many many years I prayed to God calling God Father, a cosy safe relationship, felt like I climbed onto his lap and poured out my heart. In more recent years Pete and I tried to refer to God as She in our prayers, and over time it made a huge difference to how I felt about prayer, I have spoken before about how simply changing the title led to a deepening in my understanding of this sacrament of communion, where Jesus offers us himself, in a way like I did as I breast fed 4 children. In the last couple of years I have moved to calling the divine simply God, leaving for a while the safe intimate relationship of parent to child I feel as if I have become more of an adult in the relationship and am certainly more aware of the mystery, the otherness of God, God is not a tame pet to do my bidding but I am invited into the mystery with less certainty about where that might take me.
I hope you picked up a picture of a tree as you came into church, I want you to look at the picture now for a few minutes and consider whether it can teach you anything about your life and God at the minute, are there ways in which it reflects how you feel, or is perhaps the opposite of where you are just now, what attracted you to this photo instead of all the others? Could this picture be saying anything about who or how you are now?
Nicholas Mermon was born in the Lorraine in France in 1614, into a poor family. Fighting as a soldier, lonely and despairing, in the cold snows of winter he looked at a tree, branches bare, stripped of leaves and fruit, apparently dead . Gazing at the tree and remembering spring and summers of his childhood he began to grasp the extravagance OF God’s grace and , the promise that the turn of the seasons would bring fullness. He writes that ” leafless tree first flashed upon my soul the fact of God”
An injury forced his retirement from the army, he entered a Carmelite monastery, sadly with no education he was assigned to work in the kitchens for the rest of his life, there amidst the tedious chores of cooking and cleaning at the constant bid of his superiors he developed a way of life. He writes about the simplicity of coming to God, finding God in the ordinary, in turning out a cake, in preparing vegetables, he speaks of it being enough to sweep up the floor for love of God. He cooked meals and scrubbed pots and wrote ”the time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayers and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen while several persons are at the same time calling for different things I possess God in as great tranquillity as if I were upon my knees receiving the blessed sacrament. He was no good at set prayers, though he tried for 3 hours a day but resolved to give himself to God moment by moment through his busy day, found that he wanted to maintain an ongoing conversation with God no matter what he was doing. “ I make it my business to rest in his holy presence”…the good brother found God everywhere.
We know this man today as Brother Lawrence, author of Practising the presence of God
I had a meaningful encounter with a tree at my ordination retreat,a chestnut tree , a rather poor photo I took of it. A line of trees had been felled by the storms of the mid nineties, the farmer had cleared most of them away but this one, on the edge of field was stripped of useful branches and wood, the stump left fallen on the ground, but now a few years on new life was sprouting amazingly, now 20 feet tall. I had had to give up the career I had been trained for, I could not cope with the demands, I felt dried up and useless, logs on a wood pile but this tree promised new life , new direction, there were still a few roots deep into the ground, something new could happen
The Ethiopian in our reading from Acts this morning was looking for something, searching scripture and Philip asked if he understood. He replies How can I without someone to guide me. We all need help. If Eli had not been around Samuel might still be sleeping, without Ananias bravely opening his heart to the blind Saul along the road to Damascus we might never have had the wisdom of Paul. If the stranger had walked on by minding his own business or keen to reach his destination then the two people along the Emmaus road might still be wandering, lost in their grief and misunderstanding.. we all need help along the way, Jesus longed for company in Gethsemane but the disciples did not quite get it and fell asleep. WE know little of Mary but in the midst of that confusing pregnancy she chose to go to her cousin Elizabeth to work together toward understanding and acceptance.
In the muddle of 4 children under 6 Pete gave me a life changing present, 48 hours retreat in the convent of ST Mary’s in Wantage. I sat with the delightful fun loving twinkle in her eyes rotund nun, sister Ann Julian and said I don’t think this spiritual life is for me. The only way I had been taught to pray was on my knees, first thing in the morning, for at least half an hour with a list of people and situations that I needed to inform God about. If I set my alarm to wake up it simply woke all 6 of us, made the day longer and everyone more grouchy.
Of course I know that that way of prayer works for some people, my dad prayed on his knees by his bed every night, read his bible notes, BRF ones I know because I watched him when we all slept in a small caravan for holidays. I hate daily bible notes, I feel such a failure when within the first week I am a day or two behind, I feel incredibly judged by those little letters and numbers of a date at the top of each page. But AJ nonplussed asked if there was ever a time when I was aware of God, without hesitation I responded yes, when I walk through the woods…could I go for a walk more regularly she asked. I got home, it still felt very selfish to take myself off for a walk, not too much achieved by a walk in the woods but we had children who regularly asked for a puppy, we got KEs , a golden retriever pup and suddenly I had to take a walk every day. Years later training for ordination we were invited to take in a symbol of our relationship with God, I took in the by then two dogs, my prayer partners. And yes these days I still enjoy walking and talking with God but I have also learned to be still and mostly quiet with God often in the early morning.
It is often a struggle to come to God, it is often a struggle to face myself but the gentle wisdom of that nun encouraged, sometimes challenged me to keep trying. She gave me ideas of new ways of approach, questions lead me to different understanding. She inspired me so much that during a really tough period of my life, off work, in turmoil that I trained in that same ministry of spiritual direction, except that is such a misnomer, the guide does not direct but sits with, offers a safe hospitable space to explore my relationship with God. And that is what is on offer in June this year, here in the parish, for just one week we will have a variety of guides or accompaniers if you would like to give a little attention to how you and God are getting on at the minute. No answers guaranteed but a deep belief that God longs for us to relate to him/her, to ourselves and to one another, to be in community.
There are a few metaphors for this that I enjoy, the first is that I, your guide can be a midwife, a midwife does not make you pregnant but has sat with so many people who are giving birth that they can offer support and suggestions about how you might best live through this that is happening to you. The second is to pan for gold, it is an opportunity to put all the mess and mud of life into a sieve, and allow the Spirit of God to gently wash through then together we will look for the nuggets of gold, the things in our lives that we most value, that we want to hang onto, give space for
If you would like to work with some of these questions, then sign up for the week of accompanied prayer, no qualifications or experience necessary, you will be offered half an hour each day to talk over your life in God with an experienced guide or companion. They will make suggestions for things for you to do, they will listen and together you will seek God in amongst the complexity or your life.
Tomorrow Pete and I are off on the Eurostar to see daughter Jo, she lives in Paris. We will catch the train at St Pancras station so we will see for ourselves the new art installation by Tracey Emin, you might have a copy of it on the front of your service sheet, as we look toward the clock we will see the huge pink fluorescent writing that says I want my time with you. So many of us struggle to use time in a way that is true to our deepest desires, yet that is where God can be found. The monk Thomas Merton captures this well, as Lucy WInkett quoted in thought for the day this week, reflecting on this art work, If you want to know me, ask me not where I live or what I like to eat or how I do my hair but ask me what I am living for and what is keeping me from living fully for the things I want to live for….if I am not spending my time with who I want to spend it with, why aren’t I? what is stopping me?