You who dwell in the garden with friends in attendance,let me hear your voice.
Song of Songs 8:13
I have been asked why I write so much about the garden. Surely there are other more important things to write about? Well, maybe there are, but there are wiser men out there who can write far more eloquently on deeper subjects. I’m just a simple man so I write on simple matters.
Looking back over my reflections the message that comes across most clearly can be summed up in Isaiah’s prophesy : ‘Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel –which means God is with us’ Isaiah 7:14 NIV. That I take to mean God is with us at all times.
To my mind, God does not live in that elaborate, highly decorated building in the centre of town that we call ‘Church’ though, of course, we are called to join our fellow Christians there in communion with God. Neither does God live in a box that we can keep on the mantelshelf to be opened when we want to ask for something and then swiftly closed before He asks something of us. The simple fact is that God lives in the messiness of our everyday lives; in the small things as well as the large. He is present at the wedding of a daughter, the birth of a child, and the Golden Wedding celebrations of our parents just as much as in the darkness of the chemotherapy unit. And no doubt you remember clearly the time you were woken at 3am by the slamming of the front door to see Dad walking down the street in his pyjamas on his way to work – from which he had retired some 20 years ago but which his fuddled brain has forgotten to tell him. God was with you then as well – what woke you up? We can try to ignore Him, we have the free will to do that – another of God’s gifts to us, by the way, but we cannot escape His loving presence. As the psalmist says: Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. Psalm 139:7-8(NIV)
So where did I find God on Saturday? Unsurprisingly, in the garden. As I collected grass clippings and weeds a young robin flew down and perched on the side of the box less than a foot away from me. He looked at me, put his head on one side as if to ask “Do you mind if I see what you have in your box?” and then when he thought I was not watching him started feeding from the bugs in the litter. God was with us both at that moment.
It is the ability to share times like that with you that I am called to write about the garden. Thanks be to God.
Lent calls us to focus on three things: prayer, fasting and alms-giving. Leaving the other two aside for this week let us concentrate on prayer.
Like many people of my age my hearing has deteriorated over the years so that I now wear hearing aids to assist me. The immediate effect is quite miraculous as everything sounds much clearer. In a one-to–one situation I can hear and communicate just as before. However the difficulty arises in a crowded situation since the microphones dutifully magnify any and every sound they pick up. The result is a wall of sound from which one person’s voice is indistinguishable from another. Sometimes with all the noise around it is tempting to take the hearing aids out and enjoy the silence once again. After all, as Thomas Merton recognized: ‘silence makes us whole if we let it. Silence helps draw together the scattered and dissipated energies of a fragmented existence.’
Everyday life is full of noise; the noise of passing traffic, the commuter train, the office quarrels and politics, children screaming for attention. Sometimes we feel like clamping our hands over our ears and shouting “Just be quiet will you! I can’t think with all this noise!”
Even so as the psalmist reminds us we need to "Be still and acknowledge that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). Sometimes it can be difficult to find that quiet place yet as Henri Nouwens reminds us: ‘It is important to keep a still place in the "marketplace." This still place is where God can dwell and speak to us.’ So often when we find that quiet place we rattle through the well known prayers and think that is enough; but it is not. Prayer entails speaking to God, certainly, ‘real’ speaking, from the heart. But prayer is essentially a conversation and in any meaningful conversation there must be a time of silence; a time to listen to what God has to say to us. Unless we listen, how will we know what comfort He has to offer us in our times of distress, what encouragement in our times of difficulty, what mission He has for us? Ah, is that why we prefer not to listen? Are we afraid of what God will ask of us? If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. Matthew 16:24. We all know where that led! Yet if we do not listen we will not hear Him say “I love you. I will never leave you or forsake you.” How wonderful is that? However hard the journey, whatever task God has for us He will walk with us, we are not alone.
Seven times in the New Testament God says ‘He that hath an ear let him hear.’ To hear what God has to say to us requires that we listen. We do not need hearing aids to listen to the small still voice of God.
“The NHS is at crisis point” screams the media. “We have an aging population; there are 500,000 more people over the age of 75 in the UK now than in 2010 and by 2020 that figure will rise to 2,000,000. These people are blocking beds in our overstretched hospitals, because although fit to be discharged there is no care available from local authorities” they cry. What reaction would Abraham and Sara have received on arrival at their local NHS maternity unit?
It makes anyone over the age of 70 feel unloved, unwanted and an inconvenience to society. Yet are we really ready to be consigned to the scrap heap? After all, the President of the US is 70 and he has enormous power to do good in the world. Just because a person reaches that magical age he should not be cast aside like an old glove, for he still has a part to play. As the prophet Joel said: ‘And afterwards, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions’ Joel 2:28 NIV. Note that ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people’ not just the young. Certainly as we age there is a limit to what we can do physically. Opening a child proof bottle of tablets can be a struggle or we may ask “Why am I standing on the stairs? Am I going up or coming down?” Yet God calls each of us to a unique mission. We are not called to save the world on our own but, as Henri Nouwen says: ‘Faithfulness to a small task is the most healing response to the illnesses of our time.’
So what is the message here? Is it “Honour thy father and thy mother” Ephesians 6:2? Well, yes. But perhaps the more important message is that to God age does not matter. Elizabeth and Zechariah were beyond child bearing age but God has a very important task for them, for example. And nearer to home God waited until I was 75 before calling me to write these reflections and I have no doubt He will call me to do more for Him in the future.
Each of us, whether 17, 27, 57 or 77 years of age is called to some unique purpose. Let us ask God to help us to see what that call is and to give us the strength to carry it out. We are not alone in this task for: God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.1 Corinthians 1:9 NIV. We are called to work in fellowship with Jesus. The call may start out as something small, but like the ripples on a pond it will spread.
What is God calling you to do for Him today? Just ask Him and be open to listen carefully for His response.
Recently we re-planted one of our camellia bushes into the garden as it had been in its pot for some time and was not flowering as it should. When we took it out we found that its roots were tightly bound together so that it was not getting the nourishment it needed. We teased the roots out and planted it in a freshly dug and well composted hole. It can now spread out and hopefully will benefit.
Are we a bit like the camellia? Are our Christian roots pot bound? Do we profess a Christian faith but keep our beliefs to ourselves for fear of what others might think, or of offending anyone? Do we attend church regularly and if asked will help arranging the flowers or stacking the chairs after the service - don’t get me wrong these acts are still service to God. But then we go home to put our Christianity into a drawer until next Sunday. Are our churches like that? Do we direct our parish resources and energies to providing a nicer, more comfortable place for fellow members of the congregation? Or do we make an effort to go out into the community and extend God’s welcome to those who have never been near a church in their lives? Look at Isaiah 58:6-14 to see what God has to say. A holy place is a place of refuge, and where refuge is provided, there the living Spirit of God dwells for God’s will is done.
As we nourished the roots of the camellia on replanting it, so must our spiritual life be nourished. Lent is a good time to do that for it calls us to leave behind our bad habits, our faults and our failings. But God also wants us to grow closer to Him, by inviting Him into our lives and being drawn more deeply into his love for us. Thus we pray for His help and guidance. However, most importantly, Lent also calls us to reach beyond ourselves and our own wants to be of service to others, especially those most in need. Thus we give alms in Lent; but is that enough? We are also called to give of ourselves to the service of others.
In Luke 9:1-6 we read: ‘When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal those who were ill.’ We may not be able to heal the sick but like the newly planted camellia we can spread our nourished roots. Then we can go out into the world to proclaim the Kingdom of God.
Let us use this Lenten period to prepare for the mission God has for us; to let the world see what true faith in God means by our words and actions. We cannot do this alone but with God by our side anything is possible.
Peter is a father and a grandfather who has been retired from full time work for a number of years