I grew up in a place full of the beauty of creation, in the High Peak of Derbyshire on the edge of the Peak District. I enjoyed watching the birds in our garden, but the beauty of creation was not really my passion – that was trains! I was a trainspotter. I built model railways in my bedroom, and travelled the country by train to see trains. For £5 this 14 year old could buy a one day ‘Round Robin’ ticket which allowed me to travel from home to Crewe, up to Glasgow, across to Edinburgh, south to York, and back home via Sheffield, and still find time to spend an hour or two in the paradise that was Doncaster locomotive works. I would travel through glorious parts of our country, and visit historic towns and cities, but I wouldn’t actually see them, because I was more interested in locomotives and rolling stock.
All this is by way of saying that by the time I was 30 and beginning to become fascinated with the natural world I wasn’t necessarily very knowledgeable. During my first pastorate after college I was living and ministering in a rural Oxfordshire community on the edge of the Cotswolds. One Sunday a lovely couple from church announced that their field would be open that afternoon as the orchids had begun to bloom. This field was on the edge of Otmoor, and I have a feeling that the reason they owned this field was to prevent it being ‘developed’. It wasn’t a terribly large field, and it was maintained by them solely as a place of natural tranquillity. I loved this idea and so headed off to the field that Sunday afternoon, said hello to the owners at the gate, and then quietly strolled meditatively around the field for 10 minutes or so, to enjoy the orchids. Eventually I returned to my friends and confessed I had no idea what an orchid looked like – were they the pretty yellow ones? I’m sure we laughed, but I needed to be taken and shown the delicate fragile beauty of the purple orchids (I think they were Green-Winged Orchids). They also showed me the pretty yellow Cowslips! I had looked, but I hadn’t seen…
Some years later I spent a wonderful day, courtesy of a fantastic gift from Karen, in the company of the woodlore and bushcraft expert Ray Mears, in the glorious Ashdown Forest, Sussex. I had wandered around in woods before, but there was something transformative about being in a group of people in the company of an expert guide. Trees stopped being simply trees en masse and became individual living organisms as Ray helped us to stop and look and wonder. I noticed for the first time the cold, barren area surrounding a magnificent Beech tree, where little can grow in the darkness of its immense canopy and with the dense fall of leaf matter and old beech nut husks. We marvelled together at the massive and intricate mounds constructed by Wood Ants, and watched with fascination as they defended their nest by spraying Formic Acid at the Bluebell tapped on the nest – something you could see because the acid turned the Bluebell white! We spent some time sat underneath an ancient Yew tree in the company of the late Chris Boyton, a craftsman skilled in the age-old art of making bows from Yew. He spoke with quiet authority and passion about a skill and craft I knew nothing about. I simply knew I was in the presence of a master. That day in the Ashdown Forest I saw the familiar woodland with new eyes, as my eyes were opened by expert guides.
There’s a simple worship song from the 1970s (arguably not a golden era for worship music…) that says:
Open our eyes, Lord,
we want to see Jesus,
to reach out and touch him,
and say that we love him.
Open our ears, Lord,
and help us to listen.
Open our eyes, Lord,
we want to see Jesus. (Robert Cull, © 1976 Maranatha! Music)
I can’t remember when I last sang this in a service, and not just because of lockdown restrictions, but I think God is speaking to me again through its simple message. I need to have my eyes opened to what God has done and is doing. We need to have our eyes opened to see the works of God in Christ in this beautiful messed up world of ours. I recognise that for me this is often something that comes through the wisdom and grace of others. In a similar way to having my eyes opened to the wildflowers of a meadow through the people who knew that meadow, or the treasures of the woodland by those who knew the woodland, so I often find that my eyes are opened again to see Jesus through the words and experiences of fellow pilgrims; those who have gone before and whose writings fill countless books, and those who still walk the way of Christ and who speak and tweet and blog and preach, who paint and sing and write and bake, who love and weep and laugh and listen. Even in lockdown, or perhaps especially in lockdown, I need the fellowship of others to keep my eyes open to God in Christ. And others will need me to walk with them too.
Open our eyes, Lord. Amen?
John Goddard, 11th May 2020
(Photo courtesy of Rev Carl Edwards, Vicar of Fairfield, Derbyshire, and showing an Early Purple Orchid, with Cowslips)
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