Finding God in the Trees

June 11, 2017

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Preached by Canon Richard Lindley, using Isaiah 6.1-8 & John 16.5-15 at Mattins on Sunday 11th June 2017, Trinity Sunday.

Trinity Sunday – an occasion for preachers to lapse into heresy, as someone kindly reminded me last week.  But you can only lapse into heresy if someone has previously defined orthodoxy. A bit like a new government departing from its party manifesto, particularly in the hands of what one American radio presenter described as ‘Britain’s well-hung parliament’. The difference is that Trinitarian doctrine was defined over 1800 years ago, rather than in the run-up to a snap election.

The credal definitions of the Trinity that we have today largely date from the 4th and 5th centuries. They came about in order to outlaw specific heresies, but, like many a political decision, they had an unintended consequences. These were ruptures within the Church, notably the separation of the Eastern Orthodox churches on the one hand from, on the other hand, the western Catholic Church along with, since the Reformation, the Protestant and Anglican churches. It’s quite possible, for those minded to do so, to study the Greek and Latin texts behind all of this. But, the underlying concepts can seem quite foreign to us today. No language about God can be adequate, as it is inevitably drawn from our day-to-day experience, and is a kind of second-hand language that doesn’t quite fit.

So while Trinity Sunday can be a day for preachers to fall into heresy, more profitably it’s a prompt for us to go back to basics and develop our own thinking about God. ‘No-one has ever seen God’,[1] Jesus said. The idea of seeing God is inconceivable. And trying to define God is a lost cause, since no human words really make sense when applied to God.  There’s no way we can define the indefinable.  All words about God are of a picturesque nature and can’t be taken literally.

The traditional formula of three persons in one God is like that. Clearly, we’re not here talking about human persons. We’re into the realm of imagery, not literal description. In the second reading just now, Jesus says, ‘I am going to him who sent me’; then, more explicitly, ‘I am going to the Father’. And after that, ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth’. Previously Jesus has said that he himself will be sending the Spirit. Clearly, Jesus has in mind a very close relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

But all this can be difficult territory for people not versed in church teaching. For many people, magnificent churches or the glorious countryside may offer more instinctive clues about God.

As some of you may know, I’ve been doing a bit of long-distance country walking.  I was fascinated by the variety of woodland I passed through.  Some of it seemed symbolic.  And when I came to ancient churches, I oftenfound some resonance of woodland in their architecture. Some churches had tall, plain pillars reaching up to delicate vaulting. Just like the Kent woods of beech trees: majestic, with massive, smooth trunks rising to great heights and whispering ceilings of distant sparkling leaves. Then, in some churches, and in Canterbury Cathedral, like here, there were multi-stranded, fluted  pillars. These replicated the sinewy, multi-stranded trunks of Box Hill yew trees, with their tangles of close, dark foliage sweeping the faces of passers-by.  I was glad I didn’t have the job of cutting them, incidentally – our one yew hedge is quite enough!  In occasional churches, there was stonework that had been truncated where alterations had been made, left a bit ugly, but with new lesser arches springing from these much bigger bases.  And then, near the end of my walk, I saw a row of poplar trees, with trunks about three feet in diameter, sawn off at about five foot high – where, miraculously, young, poplar branches had sprung.

Now here was a different set of symbols for God, not terribly systematic, but evocative for me. I grew up with a reproduction painting called ‘Nature’s Cathedral’, given to my parents as a wedding present.  This was of a natural avenue through a wood of majestic beech trees, with a glimpse of sunlight over a corn field at the far end, a tantalising promise of something good to be found.  Beech trees, like the huge pillars of a cathedral, can speak of the grandeur of God, with a glimpse of mystery at the east end. And then yew trees, more complex, often ancient yet more homely, trying to enfold us and our lives with all our troubles and joys.  This is God, too.  And finally, the poplars that you think have been cut down, but from which fresh life unexpectantly springs: resurrection following crucifixion, new hope springing from disaster.

So there’s a new kind of Trinity.  There’s no exact correspondence between these trees and the three persons of the Trinity.  But it’s an alternative way of approaching the indefinable mystery that is God.

Last Sunday, Pentecost, we were in Canterbury Cathedral for their Sung Eucharist.  It was similar to what we are used to here, but of course there were exceptions.  One was their much freer use of incense.   The cloud above the nave altar lent an extra dimension of mystery to what was going on there, rather like the glimpse of the sunny corn field in the picture of my childhood.  With all the incense the choir became almost invisible, but they seemed to be intact when they processed out.  I can’t exactly say, like Brian Hanrahan, ‘I counted them all out, and I counted them all in again’.   But they seemed to have survived their eclipse.

The incense takes us to the other reading this morning, Isaiah’s vision in the Temple in the 8th century B.C. Try and imagine something of the context, the inside of the Jerusalem temple, with carvings and cloths, chanting and incense.

I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.  And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’  The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house was filled with smoke.

The effect on Isaiah was moving in the extreme, as he felt God’s presence in all the drama and ritual. His first reaction was one of his own smallness and total unworthiness:

Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips . . . ; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.

I don’t expect ever to have such an intense experience of God as that, and you may never either.  But it is through imagery that we might get closest. Indeed, it is unlikely that there is any other way. The only way is through imagery.

Defining things too closely in doctrine may not work so well for us today.  But we can be alert for other images, like the woodland trees, or the peace that can reach us as we sit on the seashore and listen to the waves and the breeze. Someone once described to me how he felt God’s presence on a calm beach after a storm, with the waves coming up and going back.  God, if truly God, cannot be restrained or restricted, and we must be alert to novel clues as to the reality of God and his presence with us.  By such can come salvation and a sense of God’s love and peace. As the physicist, Russell Stannard has expressed the Trinity: ‘God over us; God with us; God in us.’

[1] John 1.18