Where on earth do we find God?
Last week I offered some reflections on the challenging question of how we ‘find’ God in difficult times, when we don’t have some of the usual comforts available to us that might often be ways we feel spiritually connected. It is wonderful to know that the roll-out of vaccinations is going to bring about the opening of church doors sometime in the not-too-distant-future! In the meantime, one practical way we can encourage one another is by connecting online to create space, and quiet our hearts to seek God together. This is what we will be aiming to do in the contemplative approach in the year’s lent course. We will make time to consider how Jesus revealed himself as God in a number of different ways to a number of very different individuals. But we also have much to learn from wrestling a little more with the question of finding God, as we are often stretched to spiritual growth by facing the challenges we find in our personal and collective journey of faith.
As well as seeing God’s goodness reflected in kindness to one another, we also can connect with God through the beauty of his creation, in including sights and sounds we come to regard as familiar, ordinary, and everyday places.
On Sunday we heard James discuss the fascinating – perhaps, we might think, the ‘weird and wonderful’ – story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Perhaps more than any other, this narrative is a powerful reminder of the way This event took place at the top of a mountain, where Jesus stood before three of his disciples as his true glory was revealed before their eyes. Both truly God and truly man, Jesus lived his life with ordinary appearance, his identity as God was usually hidden from sight. But in this moment his clothes became ‘dazzling white.’ The account offered by St Mark (chapter 9:2-13) shows the bewildered response of the disciples. Although they had come to know, deep down, that Jesus was the Holy One from God, it was another matter altogether to see the evidence of this in undeniable, physical terms. We also heard about Peter’s reaction to try to make the moment into something more permanent, offering to build shelters for Jesus and the Patriarch and Prophet, who accompanied the supernatural event. But this was not the plan. Instead, just a glimmer of Jesus’ beauty and majesty was sufficient provision of strength for the next part of the disciples journey, as Jesus returned to his ordinary appearance that concealed his true status as part of the Godhead.
One of the lessons we can take from this is the challenge of really seeing other ways that God’s loving creativity and beauty are evident in our everyday surroundings.
In 2012, photographer Mark Hirsch was in a serious automobile accident that left him with severe injuries. As Christian Storm wrote for the Insider magazine, his condition forced him to rest his body for three months with very little activity. “It was a physically and emotionally challenging experience,” he says. Around the same time, he bought an iPhone, and a friend, raving about the phone’s camera, challenged him to use it for serious photography. After Hirsch posted two beautiful pictures of a tree in a cornfield near his Wisconsin home, his friend suggested he use the iPhone to take a photo a day of the tree for a year.
Hirsch rose to the technological and creative dare, shooting the tree from hundreds of angles in all conditions, calling it “challenging but also quite liberating.” The outcome was an incredible display of the beauty of nature through the changing weather and seasons. Some photos are up close, capturing for example the texture of a carefully formed bird’s nest balancing on a branch, or the Springtime sunlight illuminating the colour of a delicate butterfly wing. Other photos set the majestic tree against a foreground of dandelions or a background of fields in Autumn. (See https://www.thattree.net/)
In order to capture these magnificent images, the photographer had to first open his mind, then his eyes, and it helped him to take time to look from different angles. Throughout Christian history, people have found God ‘speak’ powerfully through the beauty of nature. From the skies and landscapes illuminated by colour that artists never tire of imitating, to the detail of a butterfly wing we are reminded of our Creator God’s ultimate power and also of his tender care for every detail of our own lives. We are reminded, in Matthew 10:29, that not a single sparrow falls to the ground with God seeing. How much more, his eye is on us; he can count every hair on each of our heads. As we seek to ‘find’ God through prayer, through showing his goodness to others, through seeking to recognise his own beauty ‘hidden’ before our eyes in the nature that surrounds us, we might take encouragement from his many promises through Scripture: In whatever ways we are able,‘You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord.’ (Jeremiah 29:13)