The Hospitality of Now and Here.

September 30, 2018

berlin trees I am fascinated by how often, though an utterly  shy and introverted person, I manage to find myself in deep conversations with strangers who stop to chat. Conversation often turns to sharing the things that matter – family, love, a sense of meaning, our sources of joy, the things we find ourselves reaching for and believing in though they have no immediate or apparent instrumentality – but yet more deeply seem to beckon to us with a promise of purpose – and how this is surely richer than mere function.

And so it was, that I sat on the park bench before one of the immense and magnificent oak trees in Canterbury Gardens this one summer Sunday morning, my paints and journal beside me, my prayer liturgy in my hand and mid-contemplation drinking in the expanse of green before me, and canopied fresh, breathing shade far overhead, all the way across and beyond me, more meters than I can throw a tennis ball. As I was captivated in this living moving cosmos of greens,  an elderly man shuffling a little as he walked, paused and first looked my way. I could feel him study my face and then follow the path of my emerald eyes greening their way to the verdure of the tree.

After a moment he began, “There are magnificent trees here – look at this one!”

Indeed, a safe thing to say, as I already was enraptured by this particular tree.

“It’s very beautiful. I’m looking at all the moss growing so high up the trunk. It’s unusual to see moss that far above the ground. It must be so cool and shaded and damp.”

“Yes,” he agreed, “It’s unusual. and I hadn’t noticed.”

A small gentle comfortable silence falls between us, like dew drops on soft moss.

I turn to him, taking in his face for the first time. “Do you walk in these gardens often?”

And our conversation takes off.

He tells me in that brief polite factual way strangers converse, that he  moved into the area only a year ago, and then returns my question. I tell him of my childhood move here and that it has over the years continued to be a place I return to, then the conversation moves back and forth, in a flow that can’t be recorded in writing.

We speak and he unfolds stories of moving, of life’s shifting ground underneath him, of fragile loved ones, of difficult choices and agency, of finding new safety and help in neighbours, of confronting his own physical limits, of  the things he now looks forward to, anticipating life still coming at him, finding new company, and new rhythms to sustain old and dear relationships.

I have a few little cameo stories to share on  some of those themes too, but mostly I listen. Honestly I am captivated and inspired.

After about 20 minutes he continues on his way, having passed many smiles and nods of agreement between us, and I realise I am late for church. Formal church. Planned church. Dependable church.

Though I think that much of where I have been sitting and the conversation I have been having has been holy speech in the Cathedral of the Cosmos.

Is it Easy Church? Or perhaps Harder Church?

I don’t know, because ergonomic measures of effort don’t seem to fit the nature (see what I did there?)  of conversation, even more than the spoken words the way that as humans we shared time and space and sense.

Whether found in Proper Planned Church or in Spontaneous Sacralised Space, the blessing of the hospitality of here and now – place and time together, is a great gift among humans; especially those of us who live our everyday critically conscious of the measurements of minutes and pressures of possession as the markers of value, success, status, and for some the criteria against which  to battle even for survival.

This stranger and I welcomed one another in this simple hospitality of here and now,  with the equality of being that comes from neither of us owning the ground we stood on, both being travellers, guests, borrowers, and yet, also, welcomers, givers, sharers, enrichers of the other. Equally transient, equally present, equally vulnerable, equally brave.

This time, freely shared and preciously encountered in the gardens between me, the praying painter and he, the parkinsons pedestrian (though how irrelevant are those labels!), and the tree, deeply watered and  widely drooping with freshness – this was a moment of spirit, of creation, of incarnation. A moment of trinity. Trinity – not a doctrine or a propositional shibboleth – but a call. A call to meet one another in the shade of more than we can know or understand or generate or control.

These encounters happen when we arrive and locate our selves in relation to one another in this very present moment and place. There is a beautiful and liberating equality of being. All the wrestles of power and voice and authority and legitimacy and leadership and reaction and resistance and role that have plagued our faith and gatherings for centuries were dissolved.   There is no powerful man with the luxury of prepared words, nor the demand of the crowd for critical distance. There is no role of responsibility or pseudo parent, nor the passive aggression or hungry enthusiasm that brings fleeting, deceptive buoyancy, orswift crushing decimation to vision and call.

This encounter in the gardens, by this tree of life, was unencumbered grace.

The price for this sweet liberation, this pure sincerity, this genuine gift – uncomplicated and immediate, transparent and unconditional – is its impermanence.

The man who stopped and looked deep into my face, who followed my gaze to the beauty of the creation I was devoted to, who met my wonder with a proclamation of his own praise, who confessed his weaknesses and fears, and heard mine, who opened his heart story and gently received mine, who walked on in peace, just as he had arrived – ah this is the cost. There is no repeating. There is no fixing. There is no rescheduling.

That moment of trinity is gone.

But there are many more trees in the cathedral of the cosmos. Arms outstretched, harbouring thriving life all up and down its lines and wrinkles,  out along its branches and bumps.

Our faith communities must wrestle with the rhythms of meeting regularly, meeting as we have agreed to do, keeping our covenants of care and consistency with one another. Chance encounters with old men by even older trees in creation’s cathedral  is no substitute for gathering regularly and reliably, showing up for one another, and asking what our overlapping lives can express in the kingdom of God that can’t be expressed by an individual. The answer to this is  – almost everything of the good news of God’s living hope can only be expressed collectively.

But in our gatherings, we have much to learn from the serendipitous encounter by the tree.  Learnings about simplicity, about other, about common ground, about strengths and weakness and respect, about leading and listening in conversation, about art and nature and movement and story and spiritual sincerity. About who we really are as spiritual and human gift to one another.

Professionally I have focussed on the problem of freshness and longevity in spiritual life; ageing and being age-deprived; the absence of emotional and behavioural maturity among older followers of Jesus and the meaning that christian orthodoxy attributes to the life and ways of the child. I particularly pursue what makes for freshness and sustainability in ministry – whether indeed that can be attained.

I am constantly drawn back to the rolling of seasons of planting and plenty and fallow peace, before flourishing continues.

I wonder what further explorations of the hospitality of here and now – and the trinity of spiritual encounter – might help to release among burdened congregations and burnt out leaders, all the anxious, frustrated, exhausted, disempowered saints – those in the pulpit and those in the pews and those in Ikea or the cricket club or the backyard.

By what rhythms can we find one another? Day by day, week by week, month by month, or in seasons of outward growth and inner dark waiting? Gently soft rustling stalks and leaves, and heavy fruiting. What rhythm and patterning shapes our community life together. Or are we trapped in working our faith life on a schedule and order that pays its dues to the incessant uniform repetitions of  industrialisation?

“There are magnificent trees here – Look at this one!”










One comment

  1. Timely (see what I did there?). Onwards to the next season, with new rhythms of life and faith and the search to find a new sacred alone space closer to my new residence.

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