Ordinary Wednesday: Nature’s Hat-stand

Today would have been the 100th birthday of one of the most important people in my life: my maternal grandfather James Savage, known to his friends as Jim and to me and my cousins as Pep. Born in 1921 to an Irish Australian father and Scottish Australian mother, he grew up in working-class Sydney during the Depression, and the death of his father when he was nine due to the after-affects of mustard gas in the trenches of WWI saw his mother raise him and his two sisters alone with very little to live on. When she remarried and he clashed with his step-father he ran away to fight in WWII, flying in Number 10 Squadron with the RAAF. Returning to Sydney after the war, he eventually started working for a photographic company and as a result also became a respected photographer, especially for his architectural work for the National Trust. Forced to leave school young, he never realised his desire to be a History teacher but he inspired me with four of his great loves: history, great books, good tea (always Twinings) and photography.

My grandfather, inside the old copy of Ulysses that I inherited from him.

Pep piled photographic equipment on me like he showered me with books. He introduced me to Dickens, Orwell, Camus, Brave New World, Joyce and Hemingway. And he taught me something that never made sense to me at the time: a picture needs something to hang its hat on. An enthusiastic reader of early Richard Dawkins and angry at the Catholic Church of his childhood, Pep subscribed to the “blind watchmaker” view of the cosmos, but believed up to his death that God was love and saw order and beauty in nature that was not easily explained by his scientific determinism. The way I look at the world has my grandfather’s stamp on it. When I see a dazzling array of light and grab my phone to capture it, Pep has prompted that sense in me. When I photograph an interesting doorway or the curious shape of a tree, Pep again. He taught me to see all the places where God hangs His hat in the world’s form and wonder, though he would never have put it that way.

Bible scholar John Walton speaks of the seven days of creation as a process of God building a home for Himself. The first six days He spends ordering His home. On the seventh day, He comes inside, hangs up His hat, switches on the lights and puts His feet up. In every arm-like tree bough I see God carving a dwelling for Himself with us. I do not know where my grandfather stood before His creator when he died – in his last days he took great comfort in remembering the Lord’s Prayer – but I know that he taught me how to see God’s world with an eye attentive to beauty and order. And my faith is the richer for it.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 22

Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah 4:6-8

First in these verses I am struck by God’s kindness to Jonah, seeking to “ease his discomfort” from the heat even in the midst of Jonah’s temper. Then I am struck by what seems petulant of God – to strike the plant and make the weather even hotter. Somehow I think I would be more comfortable with God never giving Jonah the plant than by Him giving it then taking it away. To human eyes, Jonah’s anger over this at least makes sense: he has felt the comfort of God’s presence with him and then the burning discomfort of God’s presence against him. In Advent we might ask the challenging but necessary question: is God-with-us always a source of comfort? For Jonah, it seems to be both; and I think that’s the point.

God will explain Himself to Jonah at the end of this chapter, and so we won’t preempt the answer yet. As I hope we’ve seen again and again in the book of Jonah, there’s great value in taking Jonah’s story as he experiences it, step by step. And this step – of feeling angry at God for the seeming inconsistency of His actions towards us – is something that many of us no doubt can relate to, little though we might like to focus on it. It makes us uncomfortable because it is unpredictable; it is outside our control. We are happy to give things up to God’s control if we can predict what God can do. But, as we’ve seen in Jonah’s story, we aren’t just content with that: we often think we can dictate to God the terms and choose to opt out of His will (sail in the opposite direction) if we predict what He will do (save Nineveh) and don’t like it much. Which means, in reality, that we don’t want to surrender to God at all. We only want Him as a means to our own ends.

Trusting in an all-powerful God does not mean trusting in our ability to predict, and understand, His actions. Trusting in a good God doesn’t involve that either. If God knows all, and is perfectly good, then our imperfect, incomplete minds will often hit against a failure to understand what He is doing. If He were to always act on our terms, He wouldn’t be all-powerful or perfectly good. He wouldn’t save Nineveh. He wouldn’t save us either. He might be predictable, but in the end we would not like the result.

It’s much less comfortable, much more unpredictable, trusting in God on His own terms. It means taking the shade and the scorching heat, the flourishing vine, the aggressive worm. It means accepting that God-with-us will be sometimes different to what we expect because His presence is not only providing for us but most of all growing us – to be more like Him. And in the end it means – least predictable of all – the wonder of grace.

Compline: After Christian Wiman

Man is what he is and he is everything that he is in the decision of faith

Karl Barth
And faith, or belief, is more
direction than assent
to a thought or a fact; it is
movement towards
the thing from which others turn,
and from which you may have turned,
will have turned,
for hole-hearted love is never whole-hearted,

and yet
you correct, in daily
micromovements, to turn
back, again, again, and dwell -
for faith also is dwelling,
an end-of-day settling,
body and soul, weary and fighting,
ending your fighting,
and drooping, falling
into infinite arms.

Vespers: After Louise Glück

Once I believed in You,
still do,
though belief is often evasive, often abstract,
like air, which itself defies grasp
yet needy lungs clutch at it with the certainty
that this, this alone they must have.

And I believe like
the fig tree believes in the soil,
sometimes wilted, sometimes refusing fruit,
always held, always known to the roots.

And at the vesper light, I
believe, not with
the confident certainty of the apologist in debate,
the smug politician turning
divine name to unholy cause,
but like
the bed beneath me believes in the ground,
believes in the frame that holds it.

Pruning

Against expectation, this
Spartan clipping makes spring flourish more,
this cutting back to bones,
to bare knobbly knuckles makes
growth more abundant when it comes.

And so we bear
the naked cruelty of these bare days,
knowing
against all experience,
trusting against
barren winter feeling,
enduring against
the buckling in our bones that wants to fall.

Advent 11: Nunc Dimittis

My eyes have seen
yet my heart forgets,
eager to assume the worst.
I would be Simeon and yet
dismiss the word
still unfulfilled.

Only let me see, I pray,
yet choke to hear the words.
Sight is not faith; I must hold on
to all my hope deferred and keep
vigil with what mercy shows.

Do not dismiss me yet.