“Nor can foot feel, being shod.”

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

I have just had the privilege of stepping out of my usual world for four days and spending the time writing in a lovely old house with an enchanting garden. All around me, and quite undaunted by my presence, have been collared doves, dunnocks, jays, magpies, blackbirds, thrushes and a green woodpecker which fluttered between the trees and even, on one occasion, sat on the ground less than two feet from me, making its characteristic laugh.

I have had time to notice the buttercups and speedwells in the grass, the stunningly gorgeous waterlilies now fully open in the pond, the delicious scent of the dew-covered lawn first thing in the morning, the soft caress of the blades of grass between my toes and the musical trickle of the fountain in the centre of the pond. Coupled with the excellent meals that have appeared in front of me three times a day, all of my senses have been fully engaged in the present moment, in a feast of appreciation of the wonderful world God has placed me in.

It has made me think….. how often I surround myself with a hard layer of busyness that keeps me from feeling the full effect of all that is around me. I am in exceptionally beautiful surroundings here, but there is no shortage of beauty in my own home; the problem is that I cushion myself against its impact and so often the present moment passes me by as I bury myself in activity or withdraw into emotional numbness to avoid painful memory. It is as if my soul’s foot, being shod, can no longer feel.

Taking off the shoes is always an action of great significance in the Bible. The classic example we always think of is Moses removing his shoes before the burning bush, only to find himself in the presence of the God previously unknown to him, whose name is I Am. Often on a Sunday morning when I’m in the middle of the congregation of the family of God, I slip out of my shoes; it is a gesture that has significance for me as a mark of my reverence towards God.

But there are other Biblical examples, too. Boaz’s relative removed a shoe as part of the ceremony which established Boaz’s status as Ruth’s Kinsman-Redeemer, and his willingness to become her husband. Maybe I’m stretching the analogy a little, because it was the relative, not Boaz, who removed the shoe. But bear with me, because here’s a thought. God has removed His shoes. When Jesus hung on the cross, the nails were driven through His unshod feet. It was His sign that He was making Himself not only our Redeemer but our Kinsman too, and securing Himself a Bride for all eternity.

When I return home shortly, I am resolving to spend more time barefoot in my garden, feeling the grass between my toes and being deliberately conscious of the sacrament of the present moment, the presence of God in tangible reality within me and around me. I am also resolving to keep my soul unshod, to stop protecting it and allow its vulnerability to be both a channel through which I can feel and experience the Spirit of God present in me and a sign of my desire to revere and honour God in my everyday life.

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Lawn mowing and the presence of God

Last weekend I was cutting my grass between showers.  Because it had been raining, the grass was damp, and soon after I had finished it began to rain again.  The smell from the newly-mown grass was wonderful, all the more so because of the rain, and it reminded me of the verse that says, “He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth.” (Psalm 72.6). 

It set me thinking.  When the rain falls and waters the earth it brings a lovely, earthy scent with it.  When it falls on newly mown grass, the scent has an extra sweetness and richness about it.  The presence of God, which is often symbolised in Scripture by rain, always brings refreshing and newness of life.  But when we have been through harrowing experiences and feel as if we have been mown down, somehow the sweetness of the rain of God’s Spirit in our lives is all the greater.

Sometimes the rain naturally falls and waters everything.  At such times, gardening is effortless!  But at other times we have to seek out a source to give the land the water it needs.  I have an outside tap which I seldom use because my rain-butt collects most of the water I need for my garden.  But either way, I have to get out there and water it myself.  I have to carry my watering can to where the water is, and then bring it back to the plants.

Of course God is omnipresent; there is never a moment when I’m not in His presence.  But somehow He doesn’t always seem immanent.  Sometimes that’s my own fault – the result of neglecting fellowship with Him.  At other times, maybe He withdraws His felt presence so that I will seek Him with a new urgency.  There are times when the sense of His presence just pours into my life unbidden.  And there are other times when I have to go and put myself in the place where the water is, so to speak – to sit by the well; to find where the waterfall is and stand in the spray.

This coming week I’m going to do just that.  I’m off to shut myself away to write the second draft of a book I wrote between September and April.  But I know that my first need is to seek out God’s presence and gaze at Him, allowing His presence to transform me into His likeness.  Until I do that, I have nothing worthwhile to write.