#CoffeeTimePrayer: The people who stare at trees

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Lately I’ve been staring at trees. Not in a weird way – in a spiritual way[1]. It started with a book called “Pad Na Gebed” (Road to Prayer) by Jörg Zink. I picked it up at a second-hand bookshop and I’ve been reading it slowly, savouring its wisdom. It’s about contemplative prayer. We are always talking to and at God, Jörg Zink says, and so his little book is about listening.

Have you ever actively tried listening for God? It’s tough. I don’t know about you, but my brain is like a fugitive on the lam from mental quietness and has taken me down some very strange paths when I challenged it unexpectedly with meditativeness. It is not unlike a long-time parishioner confronted with hymns newer than the twentieth century: deeply sceptical and sure that this nonsense will pass if resisted long enough!

For some reason I tended to equate spiritual disciplines like contemplative prayer with all sorts of strange things, like ecstatic visions of angels (thanks, Teresa of Avila). Did I have ecstatic visions of angels when trying this kind of prayer – just quietly waiting on God? I did not. But I have come away from these encounters (and that is indeed what they are) feeling peaceful, more comfortable with God and more comfortable in my own skin. Of course I still imagined ecstatic visions of angels would be cool, so I thought that in God’s general direction. No voice resounded, but the impression I got was that it’s perfectly okay just to enjoy some comfortable silence with God. We don’t always need to be talking to him to be in communication – in communion – with the Lord. Perhaps God, too, is an introvert.

19og6lBut to get to the tree staring: it’s a spiritual exercise[2]. Since trees are such a popular metaphor in the Bible, Jörg Zink asks, shouldn’t we try to understand them better? And so he suggests you find a tree and examine it. You don’t become the tree or any of that nonsense: you just look at it like you’ll have to sketch it. You meet it. And in that meeting, perhaps you find that you want to be more like it: steady, firmly rooted, tall, fully inhabiting your “patch of dirt”. To be steady in God’s presence, rooted in his goodness, stand tall in his love, and fully inhabit your life in his grace – all this through prayer, contemplative or otherwise – that’s worth the oddness of standing around staring at trees, I think.

What I’m discovering about prayer as a means to listen for God is that this quietness is spilling over to noisier areas of my life, even if I only try to listen for five minutes a day, and even if the actual silence only lasts two or three minutes. Obviously something about it makes enough of an impression on my brain to be remembered long after the actual silence has gone. And it’s that remembered silence that finds me listening for God even in other moments and in other people; like I am not just listening for his voice, but that I’m listening for him – on his behalf – too. Which in turn leads to more prayer; to intercession.

Interesting how that works…

I’m not going to suggest that you go outside and stare at a tree. You have neighbours, for goodness’ sake. Instead take a few lines from Psalm 16, find a quiet moment, and think about them. Turn them over like they’re puzzle pieces. Taste them like they’re a new kind of cheese. Don’t worry too much about what to do with them – just hold them in your hands. Let them catch the light like they’re crystals. This exercise is not about doing, it’s about being: being with God. We needn’t expect anything more than God and we needn’t fear that we won’t get him because we already have. This is remembrance, not initiation.

“You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (Psalm 16:11 NIV)


[1] Party sou sê dis om te ewe. Hulle is nie noodwendig verkeerd nie.

[2] Which you should tell people if they ask what on earth you are doing. If this doesn’t frighten them off, threaten to pray for them.

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