The variety of ways in which God speaks to people in The Bible suggests that God is able to speak through almost anything. It does not seem to be possible for there to be something through which God cannot speak. Yet most of us go around with very fixed blinkers on, which only allow us to entertain the possibility of God speaking to us through very particular means. One of the unhealthy consequences of such an attitude is that we easily end up dividing the world into good [things through which God does speak] and bad [things through which God could not possibly speak]. This is not only unhealthy, it is also un-Biblical. The Bible has many examples where we are encouraged to see that God has a knack of addressing us precisely through those things that we are inclined to reject. Jesus gives us many examples, of which perhaps the most obvious is the story of the Good Samaritan, where the man who shows the love of God, who incarnates God, in this situation, is the despised foreigner, the man least likely. But Jesus’ whole attitude to those on the edges of acceptable society makes the same point: he is regularly criticised for mixing with disreputable folk, tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, etc, and he replies that it is exactly to these people that He is called to go and that very often it is they who will be entering His father’s kingdom first. Jesus is amazed at the faith of certain Gentiles, and comments that their faith is much greater than those of many of the Jews to whom he was sent. So let’s not decide for ourselves how or in what manner God may speak to us. God can speak through anything, and may be more easily able to surprise us with His word through an unexpected source. I shall not easily forget reading how Bishop John Robinson, struggling with cancer, spoke of trying to find God in the cancer!Evelyn Underhill [‘Practical Mysticism’ pub J.M. Dent 1914]tells a wonderful story:
The old story of Eyes and No-Eyes is really the story of the mystical and unmystical types. ‘No-Eyes’ has fixed his attention on the fact that he is obliged to take a walk. For him the chief factor of existence is his own movement along the road; a movement which he intends to accomplish as efficiently and comfortably as he can. He asks not to know what may be on either side of the hedges. He ignores the caress of the wind until it threatens to remove his hat. He trudges along, steadily, diligently; avoiding the muddy pools, but oblivious of the light which they reflect. ‘Eyes’ takes the walk too; and for him it is a perpetual revelation of beauty and wonder. The sunlight inebriates him, the winds delight him, the very effort of the journey is a joy. Magic presences throng the roadside, or cry salutations to him from the hidden fields. The rich world through which he moves lies in the foreground of his consciousness; and it gives up new secrets to him at every step. ‘No-Eyes’ when told of his adventures, usually refuses to believe that both have gone by the same road. He fancies that his companion has been floating about in the air, or beset by agreeable hallucinations. We shall never persuade him to the contrary unless we persuade him to look for himself.
We might usefully try to cultivate the ability to look for ourselves, and to notice what we see. To try to be awake to the assumption that God might be speaking to us through the ordinary events of our lives, and that if we keep our eyes open, we will recognise when it happens.
Try looking back over the day and asking yourself ‘What are the images from the day that have stuck in my mind?’ They may have been actions of others. They may have been images from our television screens or newspapers? They might have been very fleeting. But if an image has stuck, especially if you can’t quite think why, then possibly God is trying to say something to you through it.
If you do this regularly, you may well find that the same message seems to be repeating itself!
Some Biblical Models
The Bible is full of examples of what I have been describing:
In the Old Testament: Amos chapter 7: 1-9, and chapter 8; 1-3 tell of four instances of God showing the prophet something. Amos is shown a swarm of locusts hatching and devouring a crop of corn; he is shown an out of control fire burning the land; he is shown a builder holding a plumb line against a wall to measure it; he is shown a basket of summer fruit. Now presumably anybody might have seen these things, and no doubt some people did, but only Amos found himself addressed by God through them. Only he was able to see significance in what many people saw.
The opening chapters of Hosea tell how the prophet took a wife at God’s command, had children with her, and then found her to be unfaithful. She seems to have left him for another man. But Hosea finds that his love for her is so great that he goes and buys her back. No doubt he was something of a laughing-stock to those who knew him! Hosea reflects that if his love for his wife is so great that he feels himself compelled to do this, how much more must God be willing to love His people who let him down? He comes to a deeper awareness of the depth of God’s love through his own experience.
Jesus seems to have learnt much about God by a similar process. So he wonders about the variable success of his preaching ministry and perhaps feels downcast, but then he sees a sower sowing seed and notices that much of the seed falls in places where it will not flourish, but the sower seems unconcerned by this fact, because he presumably knows that the seed that falls on good soil will provide a sufficient crop. Anybody must have seen this common sight in Palestine, but only Jesus is recorded as drawing a conclusion about God and His ministry from it. The same is surely true about so many of the images that Jesus uses in his teaching. He must have known of a man who was beaten up on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, who subsequently found help from an unlikely source. He must have known of a prodigal son who left home and spent all that his father had given him. Jesus not only knew of these stories, but as he reflected on them he found God’s teaching in them too.
The God Who speaks to us through Life
I wrote earlier of my conviction that life will teach us most of what we need to know, if we but pay attention to it. Here are some exercises to help open you to that wisdom of God coming to you through your own life. You will find more such exercises in the chapters on ‘Creating a Prayer Space’ and ‘Rule of Life’.
1. How am I today?
Sit yourself comfortably and relax. And then give a little time to each of the following four questions.
Ask yourself: “How is my body today?” What is my body saying to me? Is it tired? Does it ache? Is it tense? Is it full of energy? Does it want to go to sleep? Does it need food and drink? Has it had too much food and drink? How is my body today? What is God saying to me through my body?
Ask yourself: “How is my mind today?” What is my mind doing now? What is it thinking about? Is it wondering what I’m going to do next? Is it preoccupied with something else, or maybe somebody else? Is it full of ideas? Is it tired and needing a rest? How is my mind today? What is God saying to me through my mind?
Ask yourself: “How is my heart today?” What is my heart saying to me? What is it feeling? Is it full of love ? Is it full of hate or anger, or some other feeling? Is it feeling dried up and numb, unable to feel anything? Does it feel as if I have switched it off? Or does it feel full of life and energy? Full of hope and expectation? How is your heart today? What is God saying to you through your heart?
Ask yourself: “How is my soul today? The part of me that longs for God and the divine. What is my soul saying to me now? Does it feel alive or dead? Am I aware of it at all? Does it long for God? Does it feel abandoned or hurt by God? Does God feel close or far away? Does it sing or does it weep? How is your soul today? What is God saying to you through your soul?
Then bring these four questions and your answers together, and ask yourself, “So how am I today?” “What is God saying to me today through my body?” “What response might God be inviting me to make to what God is saying?”
2. The Four Directions
I was given this prayer exercise by the Spirit some years ago, and I have used it myself ever since. I was led to understand that each of the four points of the compass, north, south, east and west, represent both a different Season and a different time of the Day. Together they represent Four Directions
So, North represents the season of Winter and the Night-time
It is a place that is described by words and phrases like cold, dark, stripped bare, waiting, helplessness, hunger, emptiness, exhaustion, vulnerability, weakness, death, fear and failure.
East, represents the season of Spring and the Dawn of the Day
It is a place that is described by words and phrases like new life, beginnings, renewal, hope, new shoots, inspiration, fresh energy, birth, initiatives and resurrection.
South, represents the season of Summer and the Noon of the Day
It is a place that is described by words and phrases like coming into strength, power, authority, leadership, using gifts, maturity, affirmation, recognition, pleasure, relaxation, rest, Sabbath, enjoyment
West, represents the season of Autumn and the Evening of the Day
It is a place that is described by words and phrases like twilight, waning, diminishing, pruning, letting go, gathering in, harvest, burning, cleansing, discernment, judgement, reflection and commitment
My life always seems to have something in it in each of the four directions: There is always some part of my life that is in winter, where it is empty and dark. There is always some part of my life that is in spring, where there are new beginnings, and fresh hope. There is always some part of my life that is in summer, where I am powerful and able to relax and enjoy life. There is always some part of my life that is in autumn, where there are things that need to be let go of, and others that need to be re-committed to.
On any day one of the energies usually seems stronger than the others, but if I search my life there are always some parts of it that are in each of the directions.
So, I stand upright, with my feet a little apart, and face north. I open my arms out wide, and ask the blessing of The Angel of the North on all those parts of my life that feel as if they are symbolically in the north, and I take the time to name them out loud to God one by one. I then turn 90 degrees to face east, and perform the same ritual action, only this time I ask the blessing of The Angel of the East on all those parts of my life that are symbolically in the east. Continuing to turn to face south and then west, I repeat the action with The Angel of the South and then The Angel of The West.
My experience with this prayer exercise is that it helps me in a number of ways:
- It helps me to stay in touch with all that is going on in my life, not just the dominant bits of the moment, and by naming them to own them to myself. So, if the dominant energy of the moment is the north, and life feels bleak and hard, then it is quite salutary to discover that there are also parts of my life in the south, where things are sunny and bright. It is all too easy to forget the directions which are not the dominant ones of the moment.
- It helps the whole of my life to be better integrated.
- It gives me a way of offering up the whole of my life to God.
- It seems to make it less likely that I stay stuck in any one direction. Life is circular or rather spiral, not mainly linear. Things do move on, like the seasons and the daily rhythm. Using this little ritual seems to help to oil things, and keep them in movement.
I am quite clear that the intention is not to pass judgement on or try and change anything in any of the directions. You won’t be able to. Just accept that things are as they are. They will change like the seasons, when they are ready, when the timing is right. And life for you, under God, will change with them.
It might be good to keep a record of what is in each of the Four Directions, as you do the prayer exercise on a regular basis, and to notice how things do move and change: even the things that you thought would never change, especially the things you thought would never change. And to give thanks, and to pray that you may learn to trust even more.
3. Two More Directions
This can be an add-on to the previous exercise, but it can stand on its own.
Stand with your feet a little apart and be aware of yourself firmly rooted to the ground. Think of yourself as being like a tree, with roots going deep into the ground. Imagine the nourishment that you draw up from your roots which has made you who you are.
Be aware of who your roots are? Who are the people who have helped to shape you into the person you are, for better and for worse? Name them to yourself. Some of them will still be alive, some of them will not be. Some of them will be people you knew personally. Some will be people you only know about at second hand. Some will be people who wrote books or music or created things that have influenced you. These people are your roots: some of them you will have chosen, others you will simply have been given. Ask God’s blessing on them all. Give thanks where that is appropriate, ask for healing if that is what you need.
It may also be that you sense that some of the tasks you face in life are tasks that you have in some way inherited from those who make up your roots. You may or you may not choose to accept these tasks. You can decline them. You might also consider asking for the support and guidance of those who are your roots in facing them now.
But our roots go deeper. They lie in the lands from which our ancestors came. They lie in the cultures and civilisations from which they came. Again be aware of them. They have helped to shape you, they are a part of your root system. Hold them before God, and honour their place in your story.
But our roots go deeper still. Read these words of Donald Nicholl from his book ‘Holiness’ [ pub Darton, Longman and Todd 2004 ]and reflect on them:
One spring morning I set out at dawn and walked from the top of the Grand Canyon down the steep path that leads to the bottom where the Colorado river flows, some seven thousand feet below. As you descend the canyon you can observe on its walls layer upon layer of the sediments that have formed over millions of years, and you can relate those layers to the successive species of living creatures, both fauna and flora, that dwelt upon this earth before we appeared: Permian ferns and crinoids and armour plated fish. Observing the traces of them in this way you feel a true kinship with all those beings, knowing that both they and you trace your existence back to that first moment of transcendence when life appeared on earth. And then you start to reflect that the very eyes with which you are observing these wondrous evidences are themselves the result of millions of years of striving for light, ever since the first pin-hole eye appeared on those primitive marine creatures, the cephalopods. And you are the beneficiary of all that struggle for light, the heir to all that agony. And as you gaze at your hands or think of your ears or of your tongue it takes your breath away to envisage the innumerable strivings that had to be attempted before you could see and touch and hear and taste and speak. Had any breakdown in that series of stirrings occurred it could have destroyed the possibility for you to see and hear and sing. The breakdown was prevented by untiring faithfulness on the part of millions of beings. The mere thought of this makes you realise what an incredible hard-won privilege it is simply to be a human being; and at the same time it is an awesome responsibility. Every human being has a responsibility toward all those creatures whose agony & groaning has given him birth.
Our roots go way, way back. If we go back far enough we are connected to all the humans who have ever lived, and beyond that with all of evolving creation. Be aware of this deep connectedness, and give thanks for your place on the earth. Ask for the blessing of the angel of your roots.
Still standing with your feet a little apart rooted to the ground, be aware of the top of your head and imagine a thin thread going up from it into the heavens. Name the dreams and hopes that you have for yourself and for those whom you love. Name the dreams and hopes that you have for the groups to which you belong; those that you have for your country, for the world, for the cosmos.
Where do these dreams and visions come from? They come in part from deep within us. Some of them may be the dreams and hopes of the people who make up your root system. Some of them may be particularly your own. Some of them may come from beyond you. They may be a calling to dream that is nurtured by angels and comes from a world beyond ours to which we will travel in due time and to which we ultimately belong. They may come from God.
Open your heart, mind and soul to these dreams. We all need dreams to beckon us forward to greater and better things for ourselves and for others.
Ask God’s blessing on your dreams. Invoke the angel of dreams to your aid.