john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    God in the material

    Bridestowe, Lydford

    Genesis 1.1-2.3, Romans 8.18-25, Matthew 6.25-34
    What is the point of a goldfish?
    What is it exactly they do?
    They're not very fast
    And don't often last
    you can't even put them in stew.

    What is the use of a goldfish?
    Their open mouths make them look dim.
    It's a tedious fact
    that their sole daily act
    consists of a half-hearted swim.

    What is the crux of a goldfish?
    Would they like to discover new seas?
    Or get up at dawn
    and race round the lawn
    and feel what it's like to have knees?

    Would they like to shout 'boo' at the postman?
    And bark at the starlings outside?
    Or swallow the cat
    thus becoming quite fat
    and know what it's like to be wide?

    What is the mark of a goldfish?
    It's not like they do as they're told.
    It lacks any goal
    but this fortunate soul
    just woke up one day and was gold. [1]
    A poem by Stewart Henderson - which I always like reading to children: they think it's funny but they also appreciate the deeper thing behind it, about the way that God values all the creatures in his creation, even those we think of as modest and unremarkable.

    Faith helps us in our understanding of creation's mysteries. And the great thing about many children is that they have a very pure, simple faith which instinctively understands what it's all about. They understand that every creature in creation, even the modest and unremarkable ones, are not immaterial - they are material. And in the material is where we find God.

    I know as a child the one thing about God I was sure about, was that God had made the world. I loved this first Genesis story. I loved the pattern of it, a bit like a poem in the way it repeats itself:
    God said, let it be;
    God made it;
    God gave it a name;
    God saw that it was good.
    I loved all the things in this story: the bright lights of the sky, the great waters of the sea and the vast skies, all those plants and trees, the swimming, swarming creatures of the deep, the varieties of birds and wild animals. It is our pleasure to try to get to the heart of the mystery of creation. That's why for many people, 'church' isn't about coming into a service like this, it's about walking the hills, or doing the garden, or in other ways engaging with nature - their spirituality finds God outdoors. Their spirituality is not immaterial - it is material. And in the material is where we find God. In the words of George Macleod,
    Invisible we see You, Christ beneath us.
    With earthly eyes we see beneath us stones and dust
    and dross, fit subjects for the analyst's table.
    But with the eye of faith, we know You uphold.
    In You all things consist and hang together:
    The very atom is light energy,
    the grass is vibrant,
    the rocks pulsate.
    All is in flux; turn but a stone and an angel moves. [2]
    As a child I loved the finale of the Genesis story - when God made the people: male and female, made in God's likeness, made in God's image - whatever that meant, it sounded very good indeed. We're like God, somehow. Which is special. And God likes us. Which is very special indeed.
    God said, let me be;
    God made me;
    God gave me a name;
    God saw that it was good.
    It felt true to me, as a youngster - that God made me. I'm not immaterial - I am material. And in the material is where I find God.

    My childlike faith ingrained within me, I still enjoy making new discoveries about God's work in creation. The only difference, now that I'm getting older and slowing down a bit, is that I have more appreciation of something else which Genesis tells us God did: that when his work was done, then God rested.
    So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 2.3)
    God put rest into creation. Without rest creation would not function properly. Just as God put sleep into our human framework to refresh and revitalise us, just as God put the need for seeds to die and lie hidden in the ground before being wonderfully reborn, in their time. It is good to rest from our work, because when we do then we receive God's blessing. It is good to take sleep, because when we do we permit God to restore our bodies and souls. We are material - and it's not immaterial to appreciate that we work best when we embrace rest.

    It's worth reminding ourselves as well, though, what God did on day eight. He got up and started work again. God has been about the work of re-creation ever since:
    Who gives food for all his creatures;
    for his mercy endures for ever. (Psalm 136.25)
    Where do we find God? We find him at work in the material of creation, the stuff of everyday life, providing for us as he provides for the birds and the flowers of the fields.

    How can we know God? We can know God best when we join him in his work, the work of re-creation, the work of making things new every day, of making things good.

    God is not immaterial - he is material. And in the material is where we find God.

    This might help us because we are so deeply material ourselves. Our waking thoughts relate to the material needs of our bodies - what shall I eat now? What shall I drink? As we face each new day we ask ourselves questions about the material stuff of our lives - what shall I wear?

    Our spiritual needs are inseparable from our physical, material needs. The questions we have about what we will eat, drink, wear - they are fundamental to our well-being, our sense of security, our strength, our self-worth. That's why God works so hard each day to ensure that we are provided for, 'Who gives food for all his creatures'. Just as he provides for the birds and the flowers of the fields, so God provides for us, 'for his mercy endures for ever'.

    Our difficulties arise, our anxieties begin, when we separate our spiritual needs from our physical, material needs. When we forget that God is not immaterial - he is material. And in the material is where we find God.

    When we separate our spiritual needs from our physical, material needs then we tend to forget that God will provide for us. We enjoy our church services or our walks in the hills because we think that they take us out of the ordinary, away from our material lives with all their worries about what we will eat, drink, wear. But even while we are at these services or on those walks those worries still linger. If only we could grasp that whether we are somewhere out of the ordinary or right in the middle of our ordinary material lives, if we'd only stop, look, listen, then we'd find God right there with us.

    God is here: and God is out there - that's why our services always end with the words of the dismissal which send us out to love and serve the Lord, helping us to make a deeper connection between the spiritual and the material sides of our lives. God is here: and God is out there - walking with us in the material, as we go. God is here: and God is out there - inviting us to share in his material work of re-creation, to help him make things new, every day.

    Jesus awakens his followers to these things when he encourages us to stop asking anxious questions about our material needs - what shall I eat now? What shall I drink? What shall I wear?

    He wants us to wake up to a different set of questions - questions about how we can share in God's work of material re-creation. Questions perhaps like, 'What shall I do to find God today?', 'Where shall I look to see God more clearly?, 'How can I listen to hear God's voice today?', 'What work can I do to share in God's re-creation?'

    These questions are not immaterial. Because we will find the answers to them in the material world in which we spend our days. If we coach ourselves to prayerfully ask God into our everyday lives then we will find that the anxious questions will, over time, subside, and these other, deeper questions take over.

    'What shall I do to find God today?' - maybe pray more, pray as I go through the day, like the Ancients Celts did who had prayers for breakfast time, prayers for laying the fire, prayers for making the bed, who started their days by saying, 'Bless to me, O God, Each thing my eye sees; Bless to me, O God, Each sound my ear hears...'[3]

    'Where shall I look to see God more clearly?' - certainly in those places of beauty which thrill and inspire me; but in the smaller, less obvious places too, where God is also at work.

    'How can I listen to hear God's voice today?' - by being open to the idea that God is present with us in every conversation, even the mundane ones, by welcoming words which might challenge us or shake our belief a little - because that's how we grow. As you know, you can learn a lot from the words of children, or from snippets of other people's conversations overheard, or from what good writers put in the books or publications we read, what good broadcasters and entertainers talk about.

    'What work can I do to share in God's re-creation?' - we don't have to be ecological champions, installing wind turbines in our gardens, to win God's approval. Planting some seeds in a window box, feeding birds, calling on a previously neglected neighbour, writing a get well card - we partner God in all these things.

    If we look for God in the stuff of our material lives we will find him - he will help us to see how we can daily share in his work of re-creation, and he promises us that the material things which we need each day will come to us as well.

    [1] Stewart Henderson, What is the point of a goldfish? in Who left Grandad at the Chip Shop?
    [2] George Macleod, Man is made to rise, in The Whole Earth Shall Cry Glory
    [3] Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations from the Gaelic. See also my talk on Heaven in Ordinary, Greenbelt 2007, for an extended version of this prayer and much more on this general theme.