Gen 1:1-31, Colossians 1:15-20
Creation 1 – experiencing the elemental
Sermon by Anne Stewart
Dan has suggested that this month’s reflections be based around the theme of creation. You may know me well enough to know that this was music to my ears. The created order or nature as we usually refer to it as, is where I most frequently encounter God. I put people and animals in there too, as part of the created order. When Martin and I were away one of the things, we often talked about was what we came to term the ‘elemental’ things of life. You know the classical four elements, earth, fire, water, and air, but I think what we are meaning here is wider than that. What we mean by the elemental things of life are those more primal first blocks that we so frequently get pulled away from by the more sophisticated intricacies of life. I guess these are sometimes framed as the ‘necessities of life’, or ‘getting back to basics’. Walking across Spain we were deeply immersed in these elemental things, far from the distraction of the busyness of our everyday lives. This was such a rare opportunity where we were forced to strip away the extras and find what we actually only really needed to live, because we had to carry most of these things on our backs for a very long time. Life was pared right down to the wind, the heat, the cold (and snow!), the amazing and ever-changing scenery, the food and drink, and the weariness at the close of every day and anticipation at the next start. Added to that there were interactions with strangers who quickly became new friends, conversations that went deep without any thought for the normal pleasantries we sometimes never get beyond – it became a rich feast. The ironic thing is that the complications of everyday life that numb us to the beauty of the simple, were going on in the lives of the Spanish people around us – but we were free of that. It kind of proves that you don’t have to leave anywhere to rediscover and revel in life’s basics, but it helps.
These elemental experiences have a primal edge to them. They trigger something deep within and bring us back to earth, so to speak. They re-ground us, and help us find our feet. While our packs may have forced a paring down in the ‘things’ we had with us, there were other forces enabling us to pare down the weight that we had carried in our heads, hearts and spirits. This process of letting go or emptying that we had hoped for, edged its way into us and just as we began to barely notice the 10kg weights on our backs, we began to recognise how we were being released in other ways, we began to feel lighter – both physically, mentally and emotionally. Being fully occupied by the essentials of life left us with the space and time to more fully see how deeply we had become sucked into other less useful ways of being. This sense of being pilgrims was a revelation.
Added to this, our engagement with the elemental was not something we were in control of, we were more at the mercy of it. Whatever came at us, we had to embrace, experience and find pleasure in, and we did. Sometimes we needed help too, to fully enter into these things. One day we found ourselves with a coach who guided us and cared for us as walked through an area where we were buffeted about by some fairly high winds – fortunately these winds were mostly coming from behind us. On this day, fairly early in our walk we wandered into a village, a quiet place with not much happening except for a large dog chasing another one through the streets, with some enthusiasm and dedication to the task. Eventually the owner of the one being chased came along and called his dog inside, leaving the chaser a bit lost for entertainment. Then she spied us and started trotting alongside us. As she continued accompanying us out of the town, we started to be a little concerned that we were inadvertently drawing her away from her home. So, we, politely at first, asked her to go home, then we got a little firmer in our request, and finally we yelled GO HOME! Still she trotted on, a little in front of us. The village was by now disappearing into the background behind us as we entered another valley but she was stuck to us like glue. She didn’t just trot beside us though, she zigzagged in front of us, sometimes disappearing for quite long periods of time and just when we thought we had shaken her off she would reappear up front, turning every so often to ensure that we knew to follow her. This went on for I would say about 15 kilometres, we just couldn’t shake her but by now we had kind of adopted her too and had grown to really love having her along as our guide. As she ran ahead it felt as though she was checking the way, preparing it for our safety and enjoyment. We felt the comfort of her presence with us.
But then as we neared the next village and our final one for the day, a car came out of a sideroad, the only traffic we had seen for most of the day. It drove past our new friend, then stopped, the driver got out, opened the boot and our furry friend jumped in and they drove off together. We couldn’t believe our eyes! Clearly this was something that happened regularly, they both knew exactly what to do. She must have been exhausted though, because she ran well over twice as far as we had walked, as she scouted the path into the hills on either side of our track. We wondered what led her to adopt us that day and to stay so purposefully attached. We were thankful for the company she provided and for the way she drew us into the surroundings and made us feel we belonged there, even for that time of passing slowly through. We wondered if her presence with us made the ground we walked on holy ground, her energy feeding our flagging energy, her strength giving us strength. We wondered what simple instinct called her to accompany us that day. I’m not sure there was any cognitive awareness on her part, it’s more likely that she simply followed some primal aspect of her nature and invited us to join in and celebrate it. Was she the face of the Holy Spirit that day?
She was a reminder also of that basic, primal, elementary law at the core of who we are as people of God – to love one another. Our grounding in the created order reminds us about what is good. From our reading today from Genesis we know that God speaks creation into being so we can’t presume God then just shuts up and has nothing more to say. God continues to speak through what God has created, the natural order and all who inhabit it. From Paul’s letter to the Colossians we know that God makes Godself known through Jesus who is the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation…in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…” So, we shouldn’t be surprised when we have experiences where we are met by the elemental and are made more whole or holy by these encounters. Being ‘holy’ is not about being good or conjuring an experience, it’s about noticing what has always been there. It’s about being open to what comes and finding the goodness in it. I think that sometimes we need to be ripped out of our comfort zones or our familiar ways and allow ourselves to be led by something other than just our intellects. As helpful as our intellects are, they too can take over and draw us away from our true selves and ultimately deny us the freedoms of the wider world that has been created for us to revel in, enjoy and learn from. Being transported to a place outside of the familiar is not always easily accessible for all of us but there will be times in your lives where this will have happened, in one way or another. Times you can return to in your memory and be able to connect again with that closeness to God through the created order. I hope some of our reflections today and in the weeks ahead help you back to these memories and enable you to hear God again speak words of comfort and love into your lives.
The closing words are from Martin who wrote a poem about our doggy friend
leading, flanking, scenting she left the road often as if to say I will attend to the side –
you make your camino straight
releasing us from the edges we climbed Terros de Campos
while she tested every crossroad as if she was scouting our passage
as if there was no way that would be safe without her having checked
we tried to make her go back home even resorting to strong words from a foreign land
but she wouldn’t leave us
we, of course, never felt like we were lost or had anything to fear,
but she looked at us with an exasperated air:
just who is on the other side of the world in a place they have never been to before?
on the descent to Boadilla del Camino we worried for her as if we were somehow responsible
but this spirit-dog had everyone on a leash: us, so far from home,
and her ‘owner’ who, we discovered, knew exactly where to find her
it was not anyone‘s business to try to be in charge of her – she was free