A friend was telling me recently about a job she used to do, which involved supporting families affected by Alzheimer’s disease. She found that the best way of getting people to open up was by going for a walk with them. If they didn’t have to look at her, they were much more likely to share honestly whatever might be troubling them. I was reminded of this today when a colleague alluded to the old adage about how we lecturers are meant to interact with students – ‘the guide at your side, not the sage on the stage’.
Both those pieces of advice caused me to reflect on my relationship with God. He has been, I must say, the guide at my side for longer than I have ever acknowledged – even to myself.
For years, He was there, a presence I am ashamed to say I took for granted. If I had to describe it now, I would say that it felt as though He was just by my shoulder and that I could turn and speak to Him as you do to any companion seated nearby. There were periods of many months during which I said nothing and then, I might speak to Him easily and casually, with no preamble.
I never really thought of it as praying. There was no kneeling, no bowing of my head, no formality. And, I realise now, no amen.
My life, for almost as far back as I can remember, has been a conversation with God. He was there, whether I remembered or not, and whether there was silence, or speech from me. His presence is the reason that I never felt alone, even though I was frequently by myself; and His nearness is the reason I never felt weak, despite being faced by many situations to which I was not equal.
When I was a wee girl of nine or so, I asked Him in. The Victorian devotional for children that I was reading each night urged me to do so, and I was moved by the image of Jesus knocking at the door of my heart and being ignored. It troubled my childish conscience that He wanted my attention and was not receiving it. Yet, I hesitated to make the move because I had gathered that it was not to be undertaken lightly or unthinkingly.
Eventually, though, my defences were breached and I made the invitation.
And, if you had asked me a few months ago whether it changed my life, I would have very swiftly answered in the negative.
Now, though, I am not at all sure that’s true. Something did change for me that day: He did as I asked and took up residence in my heart, so that I was never quite free of Him afterwards. Even when my mind was far from Him, even when my behaviour was a million miles short of what would please Him, God was working in my life, and waiting by my shoulder.
It surprises me now to reflect on how utterly dense I was. All those years of wondering whether He would save me, trying to figure out what I had to do . . . I had to do nothing because He had already done it all.
It has been said that, if all else failed, God would whip you into Glory. I remember, shortly after my husband died, repeating this to the minister who visited me at home. He looked mildly surprised. Probably, on reflection, because this heathen was quoting Professor Collins at him. But I felt instinctively that this was what had happened – not necessarily that the Lord was inflicting pain on me to force my hand, but that He was using my pain to illustrate His own complete sufficiency. To demonstrate, in fact, a truth that has become so precious to me since then: that our trials are opportunities to experience even more of His love.
When these troubled times recede, even a little, it is easy to slip back into old habits and to reduce God back to nursery proportions. Because of His tenderness to me, and because of how I first got to know Him, I risk making Him smaller than He is. I know this, and it troubles me.
I was discussing this with a friend last Friday, and he spoke of how the heavens really do declare the glory of God – the stars He has placed so precisely, for example. Driving home that evening, I tried to capture some sense of that awe, but it evaded me. It still felt that He was in the passenger seat beside me, that I could tell Him about my day.
And then, on Sunday, I had a brief sense of the wonder I had been seeking. It was not in a blinding flash of lightning, nor the smallness one can feel under a wide-open Lewis sky.
No, it was sitting in church. The sermon was about God’s dealing with the ever-grumbling Israelites when He substituted the bitterness of Marah for the sweet waters of Elim. This God of the Old Testament – the one who is often said to lack love, by people who simply don’t know Him – dealt with the Children of Israel as He deals with me. He is patient, and He blesses in situations when that is the very last thing I expect.
There are not two Gods – Old and New Testament; the God of Creation and the God of salvation; the jealous God and the loving God; the nursery God and the church God. He is one. This God is vast in His power, but intimate in His knowledge of us; He is just, but merciful; He is a King, and He is also a Father.
He goes before me, but He walks beside me. I can speak to Him anytime I want. That does not make Him small – it only goes to show what love there is in the hand that shaped the universe, that it pauses in its work to dry my tears.