Ways to engage different ages, spiritual styles and learning preferences
Ideas for a sermon or interactive talk
See also ‘Thought for the week’ to read out in place of a sermon; and The week in focus', linking the readings to the news.
Come close to these images of growth by looking at a seed and a leaf (e.g. by giving out leaves and/or seeds so that people can take a close look at them during the sermon/talk – be aware of allergies and choking hazards). What do you see? How does a leaf ‘work’? What is its purpose? How does a seed become a plant? When the everyday has given way to wonder – through explanation and discovery or contemplation – can we see these things as images of God’s power and a metaphor for the process of growth in the spiritual life? Perhaps we should spend more time just sitting with a plant or beside a tree?
How do we view Christians that we disagree with? How can we affirm that ‘everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new’, if they hold values that we deeply disagree with? This is a big challenge and may strain the bonds of fellowship. Interestingly, Paul makes this assertion in the middle of a series of letters full of frank disagreements. So, he is not recommending ‘saccharin sweetness’ but more honest relationships. Maybe part of the answer lies in Jesus’ parables: if we catch a vision of the kingdom persistently growing, we can have the courage to play our part faithfully, knowing that it is not all about us.
‘Earth was God’s great work and to serve in that great work is humanity’s highest calling’ – so wrote Thomas Berry, Christian ‘geologian’ and prophet (T Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, Bell Tower/Random House, 0609-80499-5). Hundreds of species a week are becoming extinct because of how we are choosing to live. We need to remember that we are earthlings (Adam was sculpted from adamah, Hebrew for ‘earth’). We do not have the capacity to save the earth alone, but we can serve the earth and nurture its deep energies for healing. Stirring in the hearts of people everywhere is the growing awareness of earth’s interrelatedness and sacredness. How do we create together an environment in which God’s ‘nature’ flourishes?
In her writing, Sallie McFague suggests imagining the world as God’s body. This is not intended to describe God – it would be a very limited description! – but rather an invitation to think of God’s creation in a fresh way, as sacramental with the presence of the invisible God. We might think of ourselves as gardeners, caretakers, co-creators and friends of a world that gives us life and sustenance, but also depends on us to continue both for itself and for us. What do these roles suggest for an environment in which God’s ‘nature’ flourishes?
Thought for the week
The growing adventure: exploring the environment in which God’s nature flourishes
Read out in place of a sermon if you wish.
Pay attention to what the natural world teaches us about the nature of God, and our place in creation. When we are present to nature, God teaches us through its seasons. The readings today describe the place of trees in the cycle of being. From the tiniest of seeds a great mustard scrub can grow up and provide a home for birds. The Ezekiel reading reflects on the same qualities of trees, as a symbol of hope. Trees appear throughout Scripture and are a cosmic symbol of wholeness. The tree of life that appears in the Genesis story reappears in the last chapter of Scripture when its leaves will be for the healing of the nations.
Thomas Merton said a ‘A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying [God]. It consents to God’s creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.’
Recall in your imagination, in as much detail as possible, a tree with which you are familiar. Trees can live for 100 or more years. Imagine how old your tree is. Once it was a small seed, a seed that trusted itself into the act of letting go into death, as it sank into the soil, its outer shell cracking open as it absorbed water and nutrients and, of its very nature, began to grow. Roots went down, shoots up. And over many years it has become the tree you are seeing in your mind’s eye, roots going as deep as the trunk and branches are high, roots giving its trunk stability to endure through all passing weathers. Remember some of the birds you have seen sheltering in its branches and other creatures, or remember its fruitfulness. The tree ‘IS’ by letting itself be itself, by allowing itself to be the organism God created it to be. And that is all that God asks of any of us. Each year another circle of growth adds girth to the trunk. Each year it offers a fresh home to nesting birds, and perhaps fresh fruit or berries. Each year it is enfolded by different weathers. At the end of the tree’s life, other creatures will make their home in its decaying wood. Or perhaps it will provide warmth, even shelter, for humans.
In the same way as we entrust ourselves to God’s wisdom, allowing God’s life to unfold at its own pace within us, we give glory to God by being ourselves, by consenting to be who God created us to be. What season of our lives are we living in at the moment? What sort of weathers are enfolding us?
Get close to nature
Explore being grounded
- Invite people to go outside to the churchyard/garden or perhaps a nearby park. Look at the ground, the earth. Touch it. Smell it. Examine it closely. Notice the variety of things growing in it. For a few moments, immerse yourself in a connection with ‘earthiness’. (If this isn’t practical, set up a few trays of earth for people to do this inside.)
- When everyone is back in their place, ask for responses using the following quotation from Thomas Berry to draw out some threads:
‘The spirituality of Earth refers to a quality of Earth itself…Earth is the maternal principle out of which we are born and from which we derive all that we are and all that we have. We are earthlings. Earth is our origin, our nourishment, our educator, our healer, our fulfilment…The human and Earth are totally implicated, each in the other.’
T Berry, ‘The Spirituality of the Earth (1979).’ In Tucker M. (Ed.), The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-first Century, (2009), New York: Columbia University Press. (pp.69-79). E S
Begin to grow a rule of life
A way to enable God’s nature to flourish in your life
- ‘Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.’ In ‘Canticle of the Sun’, St Francis reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.
- Show a clip from the YouTube video, ‘Growing a Rule of Life’, from 11:15 to 13:30. (If you have time, you could use more of the video.) Ask people to share ideas about practices and rhythms that might enable God’s nature to flourish in personal or shared lives, using the metaphor of a garden as in the clip. E S A
Using music to encourage a joyful response
- Listen to ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams, inviting people to reflect on what God may be saying to them through the evocative music. The music was inspired by a poem by George Meredith (you could read out the first few lines).
- Either give out paper and pens, and invite people to respond by writing words or phrases of joyful exultation, perhaps a few lines of poetry, or a verse or two for a psalm or prayer; or invite people to share their inspired and joyful responses verbally. W E S
Craft and reflect
A creative response to nature
- Read this quotation from Thomas Merton:
‘A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him…The more a tree is like itself it is like Him. This particular tree will give glory to God by spreading out its roots in the earth and raising its branches into the air and the light in a way no other tree before or after it ever did or will do.’
Then read the poem ‘I go among trees and sit still’ by Wendell Berry.
- Make available a range of craft materials (paper, card, scissors, glue, tape, crayons, etc.) including small twigs and leaves. Invite people, working together in households or groups, to make a collage of a tree with branches and leaves, and a sense of the creatures that find a home in it. Suggest that just as a tree glorifies God by being a tree, so everyone gives glory to God by being fully themselves. E S
Graffiti turns cities into botanical tours
Explore a focus on God’s nature in the city
- During 2020’s coronavirus lockdown, in some cities labels sprang up on the plucky plants that were living in the cracks of deserted streets. ‘Rebel botanists’ chalked names near weeds and trees to strengthen people’s connection to nature and raise awareness of overlooked flora.
"Botanical chalking gives a quick blast of nature connection, as the words encourage you to look up and notice the tree above you, the leaves, the bark, the insects, the sky. And that’s all good for mental health." Anonymous London chalker
- Create a graffiti botany tour of the streets around your church, and invite members of your church to explore it. S A
A simple worship activity
A prayer of contemplation and thankfulness
- In advance, gather a basket of natural objects from outside – e.g. pebbles, feathers, twigs, leaves, grass.
- Pass the basket round, asking everyone to take something from it. Invite people to spend some time examining carefully the object, as if seeing it for the first time: consider its colour, shape, texture, smell, etc. Imagine its history. Where has it come from and how? What has it contributed simply by being itself? Spend a few moments appreciating the wonder, diversity and interconnectedness of each single part of nature.
- Invite everyone to say ‘thank you’ to and for the object for all it is and all it symbolises, and ‘thank you’ to God for the wonder of growth and interconnectedness of creation. E S