A couple weeks ago, I took the better part of a day simply to pray. Rather than bringing my lists of questions and requests to God, I realized that I needed to take a posture of listening. So I drove out to Ball’s Falls Conservation Area for the morning. I figured withdrawing to a quiet place that I’ve not been to before would heighten my attention.
Over the years, I have recognized that I tend to listen well to the Spirit when I am out in the woods. It’s something I’ve learned by practice and by theology. The Belgic Confession Article 2 starts with:
We know God by two means:
First, by the creation, preservation, and government
of the universe,
since that universe is before our eyes
like a beautiful book
in which all creatures,
great and small,
are as letters
to make us ponder
the invisible things of God:
In the context of that teaching, I’d like to share two of the things from my listening and pondering.
As a Woodpecker
I could hear the woodpecker for a minute or two before I finally saw it. Then, once I figured out where the bird was, I stood under the tree watching it for a couple minutes. The woodpecker spiralled it’s way up a 30+ foot tree, tap-tap-tapping as it went around and up the trunk and then onto one of the main branches. Then it flew off and went to another tree and started all over again.
This time of year, woodpeckers are looking for weak spots in the tree that would indicate where insects might be located. Basically, the woodpecker was looking for something to eat. Something in the systematic and persistent way this bird worked its way around the tree stuck with me.
As the woodpecker flew off to the next tree and I resumed my walk further into the woods, I heard the Spirit inviting me to continue seeking God’s face. A phrase that shows up in multiple places in the Old Testament (slightly different versions each time) came to mind: “When my people who are called by my name turn to me with all their heart” or as another place says “when they seek me with all their heart”.
Admittedly, a woodpecker knocking on trees is not quite the singable cadence of Psalm 42’s “as the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God”. But that bird’s persistence gave me a glimpse of seeking God’s face with all my heart.
Our church has a core value of “steadfast prayer” and something of that core value emerged in the context of watching the woodpecker and listening to the Spirit. We express that value saying “We are committed to prayer in all aspects of our communal and personal lives, for without prayer, we can achieve nothing.”
We pray, we seek God’s face, again and again, because we recognize that everything depends on God’s provision. And if we are detached from God, if we are no longer seeking God’s face, all of our efforts are in vain. As I walked, I wondered what it might be like for me to steadfastly seek God’s face, like a woodpecker persistently looking for food.
The Ball’s Falls property contains the ruins of several old mills and lime kilns, as well as a number of restored/preserved buildings. One of these preserved buildings is a church. The church is still used occasionally for weddings, but the building is no longer attached to a worshipping community.
The Ball family built this cluster of buildings in the early 1800’s to support the workers they employed. The original vision was to turn this working community into a city. But for a variety of other reasons (train access, the development of the Welland Canal, and other industrialization) the community never officially incorporated as a city.
I sat by the church building for a while, simply trying to practice Psalm 46:10 – “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.” What welled up within me was an overwhelming awareness of God’s faithfulness from generation to generation.
For a season this little community with its mills, kilns, and farms provided for other communities, including what is now Grimsby, Port Dalhousie, and St. Catherines. As I read little snippets of their history I thought about the first line of our mission statement: “we exist to serve our communities”. The church is built in a fairly central location among the other buildings – as was often the case in those days. It is clear that for a season, God lavished his grace both on this community and through this community into other surrounding communities.
By some standards today, the Ball’s Falls community would be considered a failure. After all it only exists as an historical relic now. Too often, I think, we want our institutions and our communities to last forever (which, when you think about it, sounds like we have a bit of god-complex when it comes to our institutions). We have a tendency to get caught up in making things survive and somehow lose sight of the wonder and awe of what God is doing in the moment. Gratitude and thankfulness disappear.
As I sat there, I found great comfort in God’s willingness to provide for a community and through a community that would only last for 70-80 years. I found myself in awe of God’s goodness and the lavish nature of God’s goodness.
And in that recognition, I felt a whole bunch of worries coming off my shoulders: worries about the election in my home country, about my kids as they transition more and more out of our home, about my congregation as we wonder about staffing needs, about how to care for youth and seniors, about where the finances for those things will come from, and multiple other concerns that were cluttering my heart.
In the quiet testimony of that church building, I remembered God, who was faithful to the Ball’s Falls community, who has always been faithful, and who will continue to be faithful – to us who gather in our local worshipping communities and to God’s church throughout the world – until Jesus returns to make everything new.*
* this post is adapted from a weekly reflection I wrote recently for our church leadership.