4-11-18 1 Kings 19:1-13 & Matthew 13:44-53 Pearl and field and the still small voice
Reflection by Mart the Rev
Later this month the clock ticks over declaring that I have been an ordained minister for thirty years. I’m not quite sure what that really means – mostly, I think it means that I am still doing what I was doing a year ago but starting to think about how long it has been. Of course it is not an endurance race, nor is it in the end really about me. Primarily, this minister thing is, I think, testament to two significant things: one, of course, God’s wicked sense of humour…Me? This? For so long? What a joke! The second thing it is testament to is very significant, you, and others like you, who have chosen to have me in your midst and provide me a living that still feels purposeful. I have never felt entitled by the role and task, just constantly humbled that people would give out of whatever they have to enable me to minister in their midst. That they do this in my rough patches and my good ones is amazing. I can’t quite believe it happens and has continued through thirty years. It is crazy and kind of beautiful and possibly wasteful… I hope it hasn’t been wasteful.
I’ve been thinking about what makes sticking at it more than an act of endurance. What makes it a living and sustaining thing that feels like it is growing and fruitful? I’m not only talking about my thing, but yours as well – your work, your marriages, your friendships, your faith-lives, your vision of what can be. What keeps these things alive? Sometimes it is plain old stubborn resolve. We all have elements of that in life, the most honourable form of conservatism – hanging in there despite things. Sometimes it is our brokenness that sustains us. Sometimes we have tripped and fallen, and in the collapse we have felt the merciful hands of God and others pulling us up and steadying us and this has kept us going. More than sometimes, it has been a particular kind of support – friendships, companionship, being held, being valued, the team, the ones who manage to love us even though we have our rough edges and areas of potential never realised. Sometimes the grace of God has nudged especially close… it is not always easy to name how this works, but sometimes there is a stillness like what Elijah experienced, that becomes a place for God to speak into our hearts, and it is enough. Actually, it is more than enough. It is both elemental and powerful… it is the pearl or the treasure in the field that Jesus talked about in his smallest of parables. It is the ancient speaking into the present, almost visible, and it helps us craft a shape for our living. Can you identify a particular time in your life that God’s grace was elemental for you – raw, close, and powerful?
I want to share a poem by the Welsh preacher/poet, R S Thomas. The poet recognises that what came to was stepped away from for a time, but its richness remained powerful and formative:
THE BRIGHT FIELD
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you. RS Thomas
Can you recall such a time of brightness in your lives? The bright field that gave you a glimpse of eternity present?
These times are kind of like signposts for us – like yellow road signs pointing the way ahead, not necessarily needing any words on them, but in seeing them we know that we are to follow where they are pointing, and it will not only be enough, but we know it is the direction to where all will be well.
I’ve been fortunate a few of these signs along the way, some signs with words on them, but most of them have been represented by particular faces – people with names and faces. These faces have been the pearls of great price in my life – pearls with the faces of people who have had laughter in their eyes despite life’s struggles. These days I think of the faith life first as wholeheartedness and soulfulness before thinking about a set of beliefs. Faith as wholeheartedness. Big-heartedness. Passion. Joyfulness. Kindly acts. Gracious generosity. Gentle and meaningful living.
The names and faces of particular people have held these godly qualities in front of me over the thirty years of ministry and in all the years before that. Many of these people are in this room… such is the treasure God has had on display these last twelve years of my life. Today I want to mention just one of the treasures in the field of my life. I am not doing this to suggest that he was especially saintly, or that what I received was anything more significant than what you might have received through who you remember. But I do think it is a useful thing to stop from time to time and count our blessings, and recognise what it is that makes us who we are, and what steadies us, and what inspires us. In the wonder of God at one with us this particular man, Jim, has become for me, as R S Thomas puts it, one of the ‘miracles of the lit bush’ and a bearer of ‘the brightness of eternity awaiting.’
Maybe what I offer will prompt you into remembering a particular angel in your life.
Jim would be hugely surprised to think that he even featured all that significantly in my life. The truth is that I barely knew him – he was a member of the church in my first parish, a quiet unassuming single man from the Duntroon area who died in a farm accident just ten months after I began in ministry. Jim was still in his 50’s when his motorbike slipped on wet grass one morning and rolled on top of him. His death was a great loss for his family and the community. His funeral was the first I conducted in that area, and in many ways I would never have imagined, his funeral set up my ministry there. The funeral was large – more people outside than inside. They gathered in their shock and in the unspoken sense of their own vulnerability… farming can be dangerous.
The thing about Jim that became an inspiration for me was that he was an artist. I truly didn’t know this until he died. He was not a conventional artist, if there is such a thing. He was a practical DIY farmer-type who didn’t speak much, but he was a soulful man. It has always been soulfulness that has influenced, steadied, and inspired me in ministry. Here are just three ways a big part of Jim’s soulfulness was expressed that I got to talk about at his funeral: 1. His family farm was at one end of an area known as Island Cliff. It is a ravine edged by large limestone formations and it is one of the most pleasurable of places to spend time in. Driving through the ravine was a frequent thing for me, but it was up near Jim’s farm that there was a place I could park on the side of a dusty track and look along the ravine and watch the way the light played off the limestone… it is a place of great beauty and I spent some hours there over the years I lived there.
Jim made his own particular response to that amazing landscape. Over the years he would take the time to sit and watch the way the bees flew and then follow them. With all the limestone outcrops on his edge of the ravine there were natural wind currents that the bees seemed to follow for shelter and heat and nectar. Jim’s response to the flight of the bees was to plant trees along the route. Trees that would flower at different times in order to give the bees their nectar. Driving around his farm tracks meant coming across flowering cherries and other trees in unexpected places. It was beautiful to the human eye, but he planted the trees most of all to serve the bees. The pleasure he received was in the pleasure of serving. But he needed to first have looked and listened in order to know how to serve in that way. By the way, there was no garden at his house. The farm was the garden!
The second expression of his soulfulness was what to do with his old shed. It was a beautiful wooded shed built by his forebears and it had functioned very well for years, but it had become tired and it was too small. Flat land in that area was at a premium, he needed more shed space, and it need to be where that old shed was. After some months of scratching his head, he decided what to do. He would build a shed that encompassed the old shed, thus he could have more space but most importantly, he would continue to have the use of the old shed while protecting it from further decay. He set about making his plans and crafting the walls and the trusses. Then, in the style of the Amish, he called in his brothers and the neighbours, and they set about hauling the walls into place and winching up the trusses.
There was a lecturer at the Victoria University School of Architecture who had an interest in what he called ‘natural architecture,’ the kind of design and build stuff that was worked out on the land by practical people who worked things out and made it happen. (These were the good old days before the highly regulatory season we are now in.) From time to time the lecturer from Wellington would take students out on natural architecture field-trips and bring them to meet Jim and hear his story and see his work. Jim’s shed was a work of art.
The last story I want to share about Jim’s soulfulness was to do with his crawler tractor. Jim’s farm was steep. So steep in places that the only safe vehicle to work the land was a crawler tractor with its wide continuous track wheels like what tanks have. Jim needed to upgrade his tractor so he imported a new one. It arrived in its huge wooden crate which was dumped in the middle of his yard. Jim called the neighbours in for a ceremony. It was a big occasion! They arrived and gathered around as he opened up the crate and dropped the sides off it to reveal the new crawler. It looked amazing. Then, after what I can only imagine as a brief and to the point stumbling farmer speech, Jim hopped up into the cab and turned the key. The engine spluttered to life as the neighbours applauded. Leaving it running, Jim hopped down and tilted his head, listening to the engine. He walked around it, back and forward, listening and scratching his head. Eventually, he hopped up and turned the key off. He wandered off and grabbed his overalls and tool kit and proceeded to open up the engine casing and systematically dismantle the engine. Most of the neighbours drifted off but a few stayed to watch. Deep in the engine he found a metal piece… he prized it out, turned it over, and then proceeded to reassemble the engine. Once it was back together, he hopped up, turned the key and started it up. A smile came upon his face. That’s better, he said.
I’m thinking about the bright field that inspires and focuses soulfulness in us. I’m thinking about what happens and what has happened to enable me to sit down and find the soulful words of any given week. I’m thinking about what is going on to make a church not be a club or a project, but a living breathing way of being. I’m thinking about what pays the bills and stretches us to reach into the land of generous living. I’m thinking of what ignites our passions and sustains them and helps us to be the kind of people who live lightly and freely in the way of Jesus. Often, usually, it is not some particular revelation apart from our everyday, but it is the brightness and soulfulness of the precious few who nudge near us in there here and now that inspires us. There have been a few Jim’s for me. I’m sure there have been a few for you as well. The great challenge that I am reaching for is to be one such soulful person for just one or two or maybe three people in their lives… that would be the best thing. I think that’s how we are to live forwards into the light… drawing on what we have been given and paying it forward. Who passed the light of God’s bigness to us? In whom did the soulfulness of Christ show up? Who will meet us this week and what will God bring to life because it was we who they met? Food for thought eh!