Learning in God

October 28, 2018

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Deuteronomy 32.1-4, John 14.15-26, Simon and Jude at Evensong on Sunday 28th October 2018, the Last after Trinity.

Moses said, ‘May my teaching drop like the rain, my speech condense like the dew, like gentle rain on grass, like showers on new growth’.

Our vision of teaching today can be brutal – teaching is for learning new skills and knowledge to help us get on in life and contribute to society. From an early age we imbibe this instrumental view, which is useful perhaps when learning gets tough. We keep going with our studies as we see the prize or certificate or position or advancement before us. It will be ours, as long as we stay on track and keep our shoulder to the wheel.

But Moses’ hopes for his teaching could hardly be gentler. While a pressure shower is bracing, the showers that Moses has in mind are more like dew poised on fresh grass. Sadly, the lawn outside this cathedral in now being clobbered; we’ll have to wait till April for any signs of new life out there, but it’s an amazing sign when young grass, so fine and bright, supports the sheen of a light drizzle. It’s the joining together of two most delicate of elements, water droplets and the emerging tender blades of grass.

So let’s explore this analogy more closely, of the encounter between grass and dew, between our minds and the delicate knowledge God holds out in love before us.

Religious teaching has had quite a bad press. We have been horrified to hear this past week about the efforts in North West China to stamp out Muslim belief. Reciting even one verse of Koran in public is sufficient justification to lock people away in internment camps, where inmates have to substitute the convictions of their faith for political indoctrination.

In Britain, too, faith is now seen as something rigid and oppressive, not as something that people would willingly choose to lighten their spirit, to help them live richer lives. Faith has been split in two. There’s religion, a nasty trap for the weak willed and unenlightened, and a fluffier spirituality for those who seeking a finer appreciation of the poetry of existence but not daft enough to sign up to a belief system.

Moses’ words, however, belie that distinction; they move seamlessly from gentle images of teaching to bold proclamation, from drops of rain to a Rock like no other, the Lord God.

How, then, can we see teaching more positively, especially religious teaching?

The first thing it helps to acknowledge is that I’m really quite slow on the uptake. What I need for teaching to get into my thick skull is for the focus of study not to be ceaselessly changing, unlike IT, where technologies come with an expectation of obsolescence. I am looking to know something reliable and dependable, something to which I can return to reflect about again and again, or hold on to in good times or bad.

The rockishness of God helps thick people like me. God is no way capricious, which doesn’t mean that God is inert, like a block of marble or quartz, but that his character does not change, like a mature person who has learnt to be steadfast and persevering whatever the circumstance.

I once asked a prolific author how he managed to write his big books amidst a busy life. He said that he was lucky that he could continue after any interruption where he had left off. And it’s like that with God: he’s not distracted, no matter how often the freedom of his creation means a longer route to his completing his work.

Our second reading today, in honour of St Jude, who’s mentioned in the reading, is about this consistency. Jude is worried about how, when Jesus leaves this world, only some will see him. For Jude this seems to mean that Jesus is changing the rules of the game, as in his earthly life he can be seen by everyone.

Jesus answers him by pointing out the inner dynamic of their knowledge of him, which will never change, even when he’s out of their physical sight. Whether he is visibly with them or not, he says, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them’. God is to be found as ever he was, in loving Jesus; only, those who reject his word won’t be able to see it.

This, then, turns out to be a lesson not only in consistency, but also in gentleness. God will not force himself on anyone. He will not shout over our determined efforts to ignore him.

If we seek to receive him, God’s gentleness works in our favour, rather than as judgement, as he seeks to make his home in us. And I’d like to suggest three ways in which God does this, slowly but surely, gently and gracefully.

The first way is that our understanding grows, as we come back to God again and again (sometimes after long interruptions where we’ve been preoccupied with worldly affairs), we are drawn closer to the mystery of God. We find ourselves leaning into the stories that we hear time and time again, so that they form who we are and how we choose to behave.

We come to stand under and wonder at the things we profess and worship; and as we grow in faith we become happier to say – quite a lot of the time – I don’t know. As one saint said, the process of learning we follow is of ‘faith seeking understanding’.

The second element of learning is to be patient. We’re is the business of absorbing lessons outside the classroom. There are rarely tight objectives about what should be remembered and applied. Real-life learning is more like a process of harvesting the rain drops that fall upon our lives, and we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves when we take time to grow, or when progress seems less than obvious, or when the certainties of the past need to be unlearned, or when elements of the past return to us with greater force of clarity demanding our attention. Our hope is for a harvest we cannot control, and finally our hope is in God.

Learning from God is a process that takes time. On the other hand, the only time we have for insight, for our sense of being at peace and living in joy, is the present. This is the place where we find ourselves formed by faith and hope; it is also the only place where we can encounter God.

Remember that when Jude asked the question how Jesus could be present with them when to the outward eye he was gone, Jesus told him, and tells us, that the secret is to abide/remain/rest in a love manifest as heartfelt obedience. We find God in the present moment through an openness to all that he is willing to lavish on us. We are but grass: without refreshment we wither soon enough, but we are ready to absorb the slightest drop.

A nun once made a comment to me just before a retreat I was leading for her community. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘We feed on morsels, like church mice’. She meant to be encouraging to someone who was wondering what on earth he had to offer those sisters; and so she was. But I realise now that she was actually being honest about her learning. An insight as small a dewdrop could fill her spirit because it came from the heavens. She could hold it gently to her bosom as it sunk slowly in.

This what it means to learn: to have our spirits lifted and lightened, and to be refreshed and filled by God with joy and love.