Photos: Me joining a bunch of retired firefighters for a pre-christmas lunch last year: Relationships are "of God". I don't remember that much of our conversation was about "faith" but God was present in the friendship, solidarity and companionship.
I was watching an Australian program on TV the other night. Many TV programs annoy me, but there is a type of program that often rubs me the wrong way. They will follow some people doing their job - police officers, outback truck drivers, or in this case, outback pilots. That is quite interesting, but they ruin it by the narrator endlessly repeating the situations, and over dramatising the things that happen, I guess in an effort to make the ordinary seem interesting. I am interested in the ordinary anyway. But that grating practice is an aside. The "Outback Pilots" program showed various people who flew planes for a job in the arid and vast areas of Australia. There was a police pilot, crop duster pilots and a United Church of Australia minister from Broken Hill. This church minister flew his plane to visit people in sheep or cattle stations in the wild areas. There were big distances to cover so he used a plane, landing on rough farm airstrips. He visited one such station and the farmer had him help with some jobs. He assisted with rounding up stock, then he flew the farmer over his farm so that he could checkout fences and the condition of stock in far off paddocks. It was a statement that the very likable and, I am sure, able minister said after that visit that got me stewing further, and I share my cogitations.
As the plane took off from that particular farm he talked into the camera. He said something like, "Well we didn't get to talk faith. Most of it It was pretty light, but we have sown the seed. You do not know where that will lead in the future." This minister had enquired about the impact of a drought, asked about the health of the farmer, talked about his work, his hopes and helped him practically. I am an industrial chaplain who has conversations with potentially, up to a hundred different people each week. In the great majority of my conversations I do not "talk faith". But I do not see them as "sowing the seed." There are a number of reasons for this.
(1) In the flying minister's case, I suspect the farmer would feel insulted if the apparent interest and friendship expressed by the flying minister was seen as just so that in the future he could get him to "talk faith." I believe something spiritual, real and important happens when we really take an interest in another and walk alongside them. When somebody spends time and really listens to me in my life journey, I grow spiritually; I am affirmed; I feel loved! That is "of God". It is a stand-alone useful and important ministry, deeply spiritual, even if it is not "religious". In the case of our flying minister, in spite of his theology, I think he was doing this in a genuine way. It is sad that he only felt it was a means to an end and not a valuable end in itself. (Having mentioned the above impact of when somebody truly "attends" to me, on thinking about it, for me it rarely happens - I encounter few real listeners - and that is probably true for others - which is sad. We love talking, but rarely truly listen!) Genuine caring, compassion, attending and traveling alongside another is divine ministry.
(2) The Apostle Paul talked of a God "in whom we live and move and have our being." (At the time he was talking to pagans in Athens - not a bunch of spiritual elites in a Church service - he saw that "God" was a part of their experience of life, even though they did not name "him". ) God is a reality of ordinary life, not some other "being". Marcus Borg wrote; "God is not 'a being,' but a non-material layer or level or dimension of reality that permeates everything, and at the same time, is more than everything." ("God at 2000" book he edited) So God is a part of and in "coping with droughts" our health, our work, our relating with one another, and when we talk life, its hopes, its challenges and when we relate with care and compassion, God is present and there. We are, whether we name it or not, talking faith, love and hope.
(3) We do "God" a disservice if we see him only wrapped up in religious words and religious activities. I believe He is expressed more fully in loving listening, active caring and genuine sharing life with others, than in doctrinal discussion. St Francis of Assisi said something like; "Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary use words."
(4) I believe God is in relationships. You may have gone on a walk with a mate and chatted along the way, or just accompanied each other in silence, drinking in the world about you with another. When the day was finished and you went your separate ways, you say a warm farewell, and you feel like something special or even sacred has taken place. In that relationship, somehow in that sharing with another, the "sacred" is present. I have a little booklet in which, near the end of a year together, my social work class mates wrote affirming comments about me. We all wrote in booklets for each other. At the end of the session we read our booklets in silence, and we were to leave in our own time. But there were hugs of friendship, tears of appreciation, deep emotions and whispered conversation as we left what had become a sacred place, a sacred meeting. I facilitated a Critical Incident Debriefing for fire fighters, police, and ambulance after a very sad fire in which people were burnt. To my relief these emergency workers shared their emotions openly and honestly. They expressed support and care for each other and when I wrapped up the conversation at the end of the session, there was an extended period where people just sat together in silence. During supper a hardened fireman came up to me and thanked me for facilitating it and commented, "Someone should have prayed." "God" the "sacred" is in caring, supportive relationships. They are the most important ministry we can offer, and not just a means to the end of "talking religion."