Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd July 19, 2020
Where do you find the presence of God? I asked this question in last week’s email and have had a few responses. I’ll share these, together with other conversations I’ve had with some of you over the years.
I have heard many of you say that this sanctuary offers a place of peace and reverence. I have heard you say that it is the music that draws you here and gives you a taste of the holy. It is in this place where we experience the holy. But what happens when this sacred place is closed? What happens when the choral singing that transports us to the heavenly realm is silenced? Where, then, do we find the holy? I recognize that Zoom is a poor substitute, although I have also heard some of you say that Peter’s magic has helped us recognize the holy even through the screen.
There has been a loss as we have been locked out of our sacred space. We also miss the holy moments in our conversations with one another, in our laughter and in our social support, for God is deeply present when we are together. This, too, has been a loss.
But God is not bound by time nor place. In fact, God shows up in the most unusual places, when we least expect the holy. Some of you have talked to me or emailed me about these times. One person told me that she was distinctly guided by God to drive their car down a mountain road when her husband was having a heart attack. Another person told me that when someone she knew died, she saw a ribbon of light whist from the body and out the window. Yet someone else told me that he was distinctly aware of God’s strength helping him resist the temptation of alcohol. Surely God was in each of these places. One last person emailed me to say that two days before her husband died, he said to her, “We’ll meet again. I know we’ll meet again.” His words boosted her faith and she felt as if God was with them that evening.
What these stories of holy presence have in common is an experience of the holy in a moment of deep, emotional angst. There, in the midst of a crisis, they found God.
There are other stories as well—experiences of the holy in moments of awestruck beauty. Nature is the most common theme. In the middle of the wilderness, there is a holy presence that unites all beings into itself. Alma Acheson wrote about her place at the lake, saying:
I would get up early before the boats started running about and take my canoe out for a solo paddle. In the quiet of those early moments and amid nature you truly felt at peace and [knew] that there was a Greater Being who made all this and kept the balance. I guess in some ways all this chaos of the last several months reflects…the lack of belief and lack of caring that [has been] increasing in the world. It’s why being a part of the church is so important as it reaffirms my belief when I see the way our congregation cares for each other and the world in general.
Of course, nature isn’t always peaceful. On one of our annual canoe trips many years ago, Nancy & I had two portages ahead of us before we reached a campsite. We heard a thunderstorm off in the distance and knew that we didn’t have much time. Once we had finally carried everything over the two portages, the thunder came closer. We quickly paddled to possible sites and found a few of them already taken. As the cracks grew louder, we finally found an empty site, decided to forego supper and just get the tent up and haul the food pack up the tree. Just as Nancy was tying off the pack under the largest tree and I was walking on top of a huge rock in an open space, lightning struck our point. It was like a canon going off, emitting a strong sulphuric smell as if a match had been struck.
The explosion buried our screams and we both leapt around, sure that the other had been hit. We were relieved to see each other still standing and we quickly walked into the bush to our tent when a second strike hit a small, dead tree a couple of meters in front of us, right beside our tent, sending shards of wood into the tent fly. I felt the electrical charge in the fillings in my teeth, but we were fine. As we clung to each other in the pouring rain, we were keenly aware that there was no safe space for us to be. And we talked about how refugees must feel, having no safe place to go.
This was a terrifying experience, but strangely enough, it also became a holy place for us. We had felt the raw power of nature and survived. It was a reminder to us that we are insignificant in the vast ecosystem of our planet. And yet somehow, we are still an important piece of that ecosystem. It’s humbling and holy. Surely God was in that place, although I would have preferred a less terrifying way for God to get our attention!
Jacob encountered the holy through a riveting dream. He had deceived his brother twice and had defrauded him out of his birthright, his inheritance and their father’s blessing. His brother was out for blood and Jacob fled for his life. Jacob was not the most righteous person around. And yet, even Jacob received God’s mercy and blessing. After he set up camp in the wilderness, he was visited in his deep sleep by a vision of angels going up and down a ladder that disappeared into the clouds, connecting heaven and earth. Then, he heard God blessing him with offspring and land, confirming the blessing he had deceitfully arranged.
We might wonder about the moral of this story. Why did God bless defrauding acts? I see God blessing in spite of, not because of. In spite of Jacob’s deceitful arrogance, God still offered him blessing and mercy. This, to me, is what grace is all about. God doesn’t bless us because of our good deeds. If that were the case, we would take all the credit: of course God is blessing me—I deserve it! Rather, God blesses us in spite of our failings, and we are humbled. Then, we say with awe, “Surely God is in this place.”
Angels are important in this story. In our worship service a few Sundays ago, we heard stories of angels at West Broadway Community Ministry. Our scripture describes angels as messengers of God, often in human form. God sometimes moves through other people, sending them as messengers to us. At other times, God moves through us, sending us as messengers to others. When this happens, we are seldom aware that God is moving through us.
I was visiting someone in a retirement home many years ago, when we heard a commotion in the hall. I opened the door and heard someone yelling for help, so I went to their room and found someone lying on the floor beneath a bookcase. I can’t quite remember what happened, but I think I was able to move the bookcase as they called 911. At any rate, I found out later that the occupants began to tell people that an angel had visited them. Who knew?
As I have listened to stories, I have found that God does not discriminate in where the presence of holy is made known. Often, it is only in retrospect when we realize that we did have an encounter with the divine but, along with Jacob, did not know it at the time. When Jacob woke from his sleep he said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’
We grieve the loss of familiar places that are holy, including choral singing in our beloved sanctuary, but there is no place where God is not. Psalm 139 assures us that even in the hellholes of earth, God is there, for love is without bound. We may not know it at the time, but God’s presence is always with us, sometimes made known through human messengers of God, other times made known in the silence; sometimes through the melodic songs of birds or choirs, other times through the peace of nature; sometimes through the storms of life, other times through moments of ecstasy. When we look back at these moments in our lives, we will find ourselves saying, “Even though I didn’t know it, surely God was in this place.”
I close with a tribute to the presence of God in nature in the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
It may indeed be fantasy when I
Essay to draw from all created things
Deep, heartfelt, inward joy that closely clings;
And trace in leaves and flowers that round me lie
Lessons of love and earnest piety.
So let it be; and if the wide world rings
In mock of this belief, it brings
Not fear, nor grief, nor vain perplexity.
So will I build my altar in the fields,
And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be,
And the sweet fragrance that the wild flower yields
Shall be the incense I will yield to Thee,
Thee only God! and thou shalt not despise
Even me, the priest of this poor sacrifice.