April 3, 2024 at 9:21 a.m.

The smile of God

God’s own tender care for all creation is an ongoing act of God’s love, of God’s grace and favor that never abates.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

By Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

On a recent visit with our seminarians on the West Coast, I was amazed to learn how they are coming to appreciate the presence of God in their lives, sometimes in unexpected ways. God is always full of surprises, of course because, after all, what does an eternal Creator do all day long but continually come up with ways to invent new things!

Theologians call these “things” grace — or “favors.” More precisely, these are “actual graces,” because they are spontaneous blessings that come from the very heart of God — which our faith reveals to us as the Holy Spirit — and we just never know where they might land. Jesus came up with that beautiful parable of the profligate sower to give us a powerful image of God’s almost wasteful love. No one who first heard this parable would have quite understood that Jesus was not teaching his listeners about the principles of good farming, but something much more, the reality of God’s unbounded love, that embraces all of creation, all human beings in particular, even those who do not always receive those favors with open hearts and souls. Quite frankly, we may not always want to look into the light that God shines on us. We may not be ready for what God desires to do with us and for us. But that will not stop God from trying, from sowing the seed of divine love everywhere.

So, in a far less supernatural way, but every bit as real, I was surprised to learn about the affinity of some of our seminarians for noticing God’s beauty and the wonders of God’s grace in their natural surroundings. On an afternoon outing one not-so-sunny Saturday, one of them asked if we could stop “there.” I did not know what “there” was at first, but it turned out to be a florist of sorts on the east side of the road — we were driving south — and we were at an inconvenient spot to do a U-turn just then. I said, okay, we can hit that place on the way back. We had been headed toward a nearby bay to watch the surf. (It’s California!)

On the way back the rain had picked up, but I remembered the unplanned stop requested, so as a compliant chauffeur I asked if we should still pull over — the rain was gracing us even more loudly — and the consensus remained that we should. All told, there were five of us in the van. As it turned out, this “place” was several different shops and nurseries that had cropped up at the roadside, each of them dedicated to some variety of growing things.

As we traipsed in the rain from one door to the next, I was impressed not only by the varieties and variations of plant life, but how they seemed to engage each of the men in different ways. Not everyone noticed the same kind of plant at the same time or with the same degree of interest. There were cacti and succulents, annuals and perennials, and the whole gamut of varietals and cultivars, that a better-schooled gardener’s eye might have identified. By the time we were finished with our detour, it seemed everyone had found something to take back with them to brighten up their quarters. My takeaway, however (and I suspect theirs), was more than just a plant.

In my reflections on following days, it kept recurring to me how often Jesus used images drawn from nature, from farming and agriculture. He spoke of vines and grapes, of pruning and harvesting. He noticed the “lilies of the field,” which I would one day learn on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, were actually the red poppies that dotted the spring landscape in Galilee. Not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these, he said. That Saturday outing not only revealed to me something about the hearts and minds of our men, but of God’s own tender care for all creation that is, after all, an ongoing act of God’s love, of God’s grace and favor that never abates.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I received an unexpected text from one of the men that — and I paraphrase — my larger ‘flower’ succulent has by this point turned itself from standing straight up, and even bent a little the opposite way, to now being bent 45 degrees toward where the sun comes up. I didn’t know plants could reorient themselves in just 2-3 weeks. Now this text would not have struck me as so profoundly as the occasion of grace it was, had it not resonated with a similar experience of God’s wonder that I had had many years ago.

I recall a country drive one spring morning, perhaps on my way to a pastoral visit. Our Diocese is, after all, mostly rural. I was suddenly overcome by the beauty of the landscape. The trees, the flowers in the meadows, and then a flash recall of the poppies that Jesus noticed, all drew out of me a kind of “God looked at it and said it was good” moment, that phrase repeated after each stage of creation in the first Genesis account. It occurred to me then to pray and to thank God for this wonderful display, and for the gift of having the eyes even to notice. I wondered if the plants and trees could know I was taking such delight in their mere existence. Some readers, I guess, will understand and tell me that, yes, they talk to their plants (and pets?) and it makes a difference. We won’t go there …

Then I think of what my seminarian friend noticed and texted me … Yes, all creation bends to the light, of the sun, of God’s grace, the smile of God. The odd thing is that the sun might be shining and not even be noticed. Clouds remind us all the time! A total solar eclipse is coming up next week and, we are told, not to look directly at it without special protective lenses. But if we don’t find some way to look at it, we won’t appreciate it. Is grace like that?

I was wondering that day if the meadows and their riotous array of colors and blossoms had any idea I was looking at them and loving them. Then I thought — it was shortly after Easter — how much of God’s work is going on around us that we hardly notice. Maybe there is much more to what we call “reality.” We are surrounded by saints and angels, as we often hear in scripture, with those who know and love us and pray for us, even from afar. Like the trees and plants, we bend toward the smile of God, whether we know it or not. God’s smile orienting us toward heaven, the real home for which we are finally made.

 @AlbanyDiocese


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