Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean

Long ago I used to chuckle to myself when I saw ‘elderly’ people pulled up alongside the beach, simply sitting in their cars instead of getting out on to the beach. Now I know better and one of the pleasures of life, especially on a day such as we had yesterday, when, despite the sun shining, the wind cuts chill through layers of clothing, the car provides a warm and cosy cacoon. So it was that yesterday afternoon Christine and I spent a pleasant hour at the beach, warm from the sun and sheltered from the wind, reading the paper. Movement outside caught my eye. There, on the lee of a bush, were five little sparrows, hunkered down against the wind. An unknown author wrote the following story, not dissimilar in tenor.

“There once was a King who offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace. Many artists tried. The King looked at all the pictures, but there were only two he really liked and he had to choose between them.

One picture was of a calm lake. The lake was a perfect mirror, for peaceful towering mountains were all around it. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this picture thought that it was a perfect picture of peace.

The other picture had mountains, too. But these were rugged and bare. Above was an angry sky from which rain fell and in which lightening played. Down the side of the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall. This did not look peaceful at all. But when the King looked, he saw behind the waterfall a tiny bush growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush a mother bird had built her nest. There, in the midst of the rush of angry water, sat the mother bird on her nest in perfect peace.

Which picture do you think won the prize? The King chose the second picture. Do you know why?

‘Because’ explained the King, ‘peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. Peace means to be in the midst of all those things and still be calm in your heart. That is the real meaning of peace.’”               Author Unknown

 This sort of writing resonates with us, perhaps because it so easily becomes a metaphor for our own lives. It is not difficult to identify similar feelings and experiences – those precious moments of peace in the midst of turmoil. Some find Choral Evensong offers that peace, when we can let the beautiful music and well-known words of the Canticles wash over us.

Tonight’s psalm, number 84, offers food for thought too. It’s a beautiful psalm full of lovely word pictures and evocative longing.

“O how amiable are thy dwellings: thou Lord of hosts.”

Who wrote it? How was it used? What might it mean to us today?

We have no idea who wrote the words – but we can guess that it was possibly someone who lived some distance from the Temple in Jerusalem, and either longs to be there, or is preparing to travel there. It’s a ‘coming home’ sort of psalm; this is the place where I truly belong, where I’ll be safe, where I long to be. It’s a place that harbours all-comers, a place of safety, warmth and comfort – the sort of place that offers shelter to a sparrow, and a safe place for the swallow. There’s more than a hint of longing, jealousy almost, to be one of those blessed ones who live there, who sing God’s praises in the Temple. A number of people who come to the Cathedral only on occasion express this sort of sentiment – and those of us who regularly worship at St Peter’s should take note of what others say, for it is easy to take for granted the things we are accustomed to: – the beautiful architecture, music, good liturgy, warm welcome, sense of awe and sacredness in a much prayed in building.

The Temple is portrayed as a place where the troubled, those who find themselves in hard places, draw strength – and I find myself thinking of the prayers left at the pricket stand where people can light candles. At the early morning Eucharist each weekday we pray those prayers written by unknown people. People who find they can draw strength from this sacred space. It would be so good if we had a few more people each morning to pray those prayers.

I am interested at just how many different ways God is referred to in the psalm, and how often God is referred to as ‘Lord of hosts’. My King, my God, God of Jacob, God our defender, a light and defence. We could usefully spend time thinking about each of these epithets.

Notice how, apart from the desire to be in God’s presence, the psalmist does not actually ask for anything of God. There is no long impassioned plea for good health, or wealth, or vengeance against one’s enemies – as there is in many of the psalms, and in many of the prayers we ourselves utter. This is not the sort of prayer that demands of God. It is a simple prayer of longing to be in God’s presence. That alone is enough.

And I wonder if, in fact, that is really what prayer is about – putting ourselves into the presence of God, to simply be there, in the God-space. In our busy-busy, always demanding, largely self-centred lives it takes a special sort of courage to say, all I want to be is in God’s presence. No demands. No requests. No expectations of blessings, or material benefits, or more ‘friends’ on Facebook, or networking – just the desire to be in God’s presence. To be a sparrow who has found her a house, a swallow a nest where she may lay her young. To be in God’s presence – that is enough.

Someone once said that if you want to catch a butterfly it is useless to chase after it. You need to sit very still until the butterfly comes and lands on your finger. 19th century English poet Edward Carpenter expressed something of this longing for peace, for love, for being in God’s presence in his poem, The Lake of Beauty.

 The Lake of Beauty

Let your mind be quiet, realising the beauty of the world,
and the immense, the boundless treasures that it holds in store.
All that you have within you, all that your heart desires,
all that your Nature so specially fits you for –
that or the counterpart of it waits embedded in the great Whole, for you.
It will surely come to you.

Yet equally surely not one moment before its appointed time
will it come. All your crying and fever and reaching out of
hands will make no difference.
Therefore do not begin that game at all.
Do not recklessly spill the waters of your mind
in this direction and in that,
lest you become like a spring lost and dissipated in the desert.

But draw them together into a little compass, and hold them still, so still;
And let them become clear, so clear – so limpid, so mirror-like;
at last the mountains and the sky shall glass themselves in peaceful beauty,
and the antelope shall descend to drink and to gaze at her reflected image,
and the lion to quench his thirst,
and Love himself shall come and bend over and catch his own likeness in you.

Edward Carpenter

Perhaps if we can be still, be quiet, and simply be – we will find ourselves in the presence of God in quite unexpected ways. It doesn’t mean the busyness of life, the howling wind, the rushing waterfall disappears. It might just mean that there is a moment of peace, real peace – that peace which passes beyond our understanding, and that comes from being in the presence of God, the Lord of hosts.