Resilient Love – Look, See, Pray

My resilient red rosebud- complete with scars

A red rose- the flower of romance. This little bud shows off the best quality of real love- resilience. Despite shocking weather for July (strong winds and heavy showers) it has blossomed boldly. The scarlet is intense, the fragrance delightful. Entirely suitable for a romantic gift to my sweetheart.

Yet if you look closely, you see the scars that it bears. The outer petals have been marked by the onslaught of the elements. Discolouration and ragged edges prove this rose is not just for a passing fancy. More than romance, this red rose speaks of true love.

Our constant flirting with romance and sensuality can cheapen our appreciation of real love. Lovers bear scars from the rough edges of life; lovers have learned to go through troubles and survive them. None of us can control the circumstances we will face over the years- but to be accompanied with true love means we face life with renewed gratitude for the good things, and shared sorrows for the sadness and loss that comes to us all.

For Juliet and I, a red rose brings back memories. We became acquainted through our church, and began the journey of discovery and joy that led us to our wedding. I wore a red rose in my lapel.

There is a deeper love that we have shared: it’s the Love we have discovered through Jesus Christ. It would take too long to tell our story; and some parts of it we will keep private. However, we can say that through our 33 years of marriage, there is a golden thread that binds us, and leads us to the Presence of the Christ that has been with us in joy, sorrow, confusion and uncertainty. Health issues have cropped up, and scared us silly. Believing in God, and trusting Him, is not a red carpet walk to dreamland! It’s about real life, real people, and continuing to trust whilst holding onto promises made and received.

When I was a kid, bumps and bruises could be sorted by getting Mum to “kiss it better.” Adults don’t qualify for that therapy! But sharing the best and worst of times, committed to holding each other up, and knowing that the greatest Love the world could ever know is a present Reality… well, there are scars but they are marks of triumph as well as suffering. The Christian good news is of a Saviour with scars, a Lord with the bruises of battle. Death and Resurrection… the first sounds so final, until you realise that Jesus defeated Death- and in His Resurrection, he triumphed for eternity.

To wonder if Jesus toyed with the idea of running away from the Cross… then to understand He embraced its cruel kiss. This is where the scars came from. If God were to sent you a red rose- would you reject it because its scarred marking, or rejoice in the resilience of True Love?

I wish I could give God a rose to say “Thank you.”

I don’t think He’d mind if it showed a few blemishes, some scars from the journey. I’m learning to be resilient, to keep on getting back to my feet after I stumble. I keep visualising an Arm across my shoulders, hearing an encouraging whisper in my ear, and picking up a fragrance that makes even the reddest rose seem not quite heavenly. Yet.

Thank You, Lord, for a resilient rosebud that taught me a valuable lesson today. Amen!

Clouds lifted – Look, See, Pray

This has been the most unusual three months of my life. It began with a small news item from China- a new illness has been discovered and it is dangerous.

Quickly the story grew. Details of the virus, Covid-19, were passed round at Government level, without much action. Then it all changed. People were getting sick across Europe, in the USA, and almost everywhere connected to the airline networks. Cruise ships were hit hard. Patients in ICU were dying, or surviving on ventilators. In this country, we became concerned that the under-staffed and under-resourced NHS might collapse under the strain.

Folks started to panic buy, and toilet rolls became the new currency. Lock down. Airlines stopped flying.

International Quarantine was imposed; some horror stories emerged from Italy and so it began. Three months of frozen time… and suddenly doctors/nurses, carers, funeral directors, binmen, cleaners and retail staff became heroes.

No end in sight yet. Risks remain, and some selfish people are putting others at risk by foolish behaviour.

Will it end? Probably, if they can develop an effective vaccine.

In the meantime, our priorities have changed. We have a healthier view about who is important- long may that last! We know the VALUE of some things, not just their price. Change is inevitable: the majority don’t want to “go back to the status quo.” Community has become important again. Perhaps, in the longer term, we might see a better kind of people-centred politician emerge. Churches have tried hard to adapt; and it is likely that some of those adaptations will be permanent.

Underlying all this uncertainty is a message of confidence. God has a purpose in this world, and that affects us all.

My photo was taken early one morning as our ship entered a narrow fjord through banks of fog. Good old radar! The Captain knew where we were, and we glided slowly and majestically through the dark waters: hardly a ripple marked our passage. Then the clouds began to lift and the fog dissipated. We had safe passage. We moored in time for breakfast and watched the scenery take on life.

There is a prayer written on the picture. It is a mixture of hope, uncertainty, and eventual confidence. Even when the way is hidden, and peril surrounds us, we can trust that God will be alongside. However difficult the journey, our destination is securely defended. Parts of the trek will be smooth and straightforward. Part will be like the last three months.

One day we will see our destination. The clouds will lift and we will be at peace: more, we will be filled with joy! Until then: here is advice and exhortation from the Apostle Paul.

Philippians 4:6-7 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Reflection of Light – Look, See, Pray

Not every experience, photograph or person has to be outstandingly dynamic. Ordinary is good.

We have become addicted to the buzz of adrenaline. Bigger, better, faster, louder, brighter- and usually more expensive to us as “buyer” and to the ordinary person doing the producing. This is not, in my opinion, a “good thing.” We become greedy, and then dissatisfied when our latest “fix” doesn’t meet our expectations.

So today’s photo is distinctly ORDINARY. Reeds, grasses, water, colour, and a reflection. Not even a duck or dragonfly. It just IS. And that, my friends, is just fine.

Bellamy or Attenborough might get excited about the botany or biology. It’s a habitat but we don’t know for whom. Perhaps Ratty and Mole will pass by, messing about on the river…

Why have I bothered to post it? It won’t excite many people, naturalists apart.

Two theological reasons. First, the Creation narratives in the Bible record one amazing truth. God saw “That it was GOOD.” Everything that existed through the act of creation has divine approval. (We’ve made a mess of much of it, but that’s a story for a different day with different questions!)

Second, the actual reflection. What is it? Light. What we see as a reflection is the light coming back from our subject. Our Sun has flooded the atmosphere with light; it bounces off the grass, reeds and water. Our eyes receive that light and our brain interprets what we “see” in terms of what is there, that which is revealed by the light.

That’s the point, really. The photo is pleasant, colourful, and shapely in an ordinary sort of way. Ordinary things (and people) are GOOD… and defined by the Light they reflect.

My life actually gains its meaning not from my ego or experiences, but the quality and quantity of Light that I reflect. My ordinary daily “being” is defined by how clearly and accurately I reflect the Light of the World: which is of course one of the descriptions of Jesus Christ. I think I should pray next.

Hey, God, just a few words, if I may.

I know I’m pretty ordinary. I shall never be a Dad or grandad, but I love all my family. I’ll never play football for England, I’m not going to be the best preacher in the world, nor the best photographer. I can make the effort to be the best “me” possible- if You give me some help! – and I can stay as clean as possible, inside and out. Then I will reflect Your Light. It won’t make me famous, or rich, or really successful, ‘cos I’m ordinary, and I’m not sure I’d do well with too much fame or celebrity status. So please give me a Hand to be kind, decent, holy and a help to others: and let Your Light shine on me so I can reflect Your love accurately and well. Thank You for giving me a lovely wife to share my days, for allowing me to serve a bit in churches and the community, and giving me the wit and willingness to know that ordinary is good. Not just “good enough” but actually GOOD, the way You intended me to be.
I’m sorry I haven’t always managed to be “me” very well- and the regrets and repentances of my life are best left to Your grace-filled mercy. When those mistakes and sins have hurt other people, Lord, please comfort and heal them: and I trust Your promise about forgiving and being forgiven, so I also want to say that I forgive the people who have been less than kind or helpful to me.
All in all, Lord Jesus, please let me reflect Light all my days- and to enjoy You and Your gifts, always. Then I reckon You will look at the reflection I am, and say that’s good too. You will even see Your own Face reflected in me- and that’s the highest honour I could ever, ever have. Amen.

If any of that reflects who you are, or how you feel, reflect on that for a bit… and may God shine the Light of His smiling face on you too. God specialises in making the ordinary “good” and, in His eyes, special.

All the rage! Look, See, Pray

So many angry people. So much hatred and violence- being angry is all the rage!

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I find nature very calming. Green grass, trees, bumping into a bear…  Happily this bear was safely in an enclosure, but she looks just the way I feel this week. In need of peace, quiet, and a calm place to lay my head.

It seems almost everyone has been furious with everyone else this last fortnight. Some is justified outrage, some is prejudice being expressed loudly. Tragic events have brought the topic of racism to the fore, leading to cries for justice and even more public unrest. We still have a viral pandemic wreaking havoc. Politics is in a terrible state; the world economy navigating perilous waters. Someone has to be to blame.

Any instant solutions spring to mind? No?  Me neither.

At the moment the best we can do is learn to handle our own anger.  To be honest, if you’re NOT angry about something somewhere you should check your pulse- you may be clinically dead…

If I face my indignation, my rage, my discomfort, what do I see? Am I passionate about true justice, integrity, the value of lives, the importance of our beautiful planet?

Or am I upset because my buttons have been pressed or my interests threatened?

A bit of self-examination is required. An understanding of history is helpful- we cannot simply apply our “norm” to the past- and sometimes the choices are/were between two evils, not just right and wrong. Life is complicated…

I have often found hope in the Book of Psalms. It places real faith in real life, facing real questions and holding out the confidence of a loving, just God.  I encourage us all to “take five” and meditate on this verse: be still, God will act, there will be justice. Let the rage go…

Psalm 37:7 (NLT)   “Be still in the presence of the LORD, and wait patiently for him to act. Don’t worry about evil people who prosper or fret about their wicked schemes.”

If you’ll pardon the pun, please “bear” with God today… allow Him to bring you to a place of calmness and security. He IS taking care of today; and the future lies with Him. Our anger can easily become unrighteous: but He is just and merciful.

Philippians 4:8 “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”

 

Grebe Expectations- Look, See, Pray

“Grebe Expectations,” a lesser known book of birds by Charles Dickens. (No, Richard, be serious!) “Grebe Expectations” is what I got when I photographed this Grebe at Pagham reserve. I packed my lens and headed for home, eager to see the bird immortalised.

“Big Disappointments” was the sequel. The grebe was too small, and my focus was not sharp. Yet I had a strange reluctance to bin it- the memory of sharing a few priceless minutes observing its world, trying to guess where it would surface after each dive… I was invested in Gregory Grebe’s existence.

So I played with the technology.. and the picture took a texture, a form that suggested Grebes without claiming to own one. A brushstroke filter added a touch of artistry. Then the poet’s muse dived in the lake…

More odious than ode, words took their place as I tried to capture a visual moment in solid prose, or poetry of a kind.

What is its worth as a photo, a poem, a thing? To me it is real, the securing of a past moment that touched my soul. No-one else may share my pride of creation: a daubing with doggerel, a whimsy whispering in the evening light.

There is, however, a parable in this Grebe.  A man went out to seek beauty, and finding a grebe fishing, prepared his camera for a trophy. Attainment did not equal inspiration, and a failure was clear to see. “Not good enough!” cried the critics. Shamed and blamed, the photographer told himself what he should have done.

But the colours enticed, and the grebe WAS there. So the creative urge did a surge, the program offered a new possibility, and a poem was born on a failed canvas.

Then the Great Artist looked and smiled, for His child had pinned a clumsy picture on the fridge door of Heaven, and smiled with tremulous eyes at his Father’s face. “It’s for You, Dad. I’m sorry it isn’t as good as I hoped…”

Smiles beamed from the Throne Room. “That’s fine, my boy- I made that Grebe for you, to fill your mind and soul with the wonder of Creation. And I love your picture, because you created it for Me.”

God of the second chance… Lord of the gracious heart. Father of the child who fails, and tries, and loves as best he can.

Truly, “Grebe Expectations” has given me a prayer of thankfulness tonight. May you see the beauty, the wonder in this world, and offer what you see to the Father who loves us.

Disappointments can be gateways to renewed joy!  Nice one, Gregory Grebe.Grebe artist 007Pagham 030518

Juggling Otters – Look, See, Pray

1973. That’s the year I was as damp and as happy as this lil’ juggling otter.

Why? Because the 29th April 1973 was the day I publicly acknowledged Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour through believer’s baptism. For those who may not know, Baptist Christians are baptised by full immersion on their profession of faith, repentance, and committed obedience to God. Imagine a pool about 3 metres x 2 metres and about 1.5 metres deep. My Dad was the pastor who joyfully baptised me and two friends on 29th April 1973. So it’s an anniversary.

Here I am stuck indoors while it rains. I want to celebrate! Celebrating may have to be limited to baking some naughty but nice condensed milk biscuits. I’ll share some with you, if you like, as long as you can tell me how to WhatsApp them across.   My inner otter also approves of my diet, since I’m having salmon for dinner to balance the biscuits!

Forty-seven years ago. 47. Yes, nearly fifty years, and I have the silvery-white beard to prove it. Doesn’t seem possible! I don’t look old enough (and some might say “or behave well enough” but I am a work in progress).

Any regrets? No. Some bruises and sadnesses, some questions still without answers, some hard lessons, but no regrets. Happy about it? Oh yes! So many joys, memories, friends, experiences. My life has been shaped forever by that Sunday evening dunking. I cannot imagine having lived any different life than being loved by God and finding out how to love Him back.

Why the rather tenuous connection with a juggling otter photo? Well, I wanted to mark the anniversary with something joyful, fun, and irrepressible. That pretty much spells “otter.” They play enthusiastically, work with dedication, love generously, and move with graceful elegance (which is where the similarity stops. I am about as graceful as a T-Rex on skis).

Some people give the impression that being a Christian is dull, serious, goody-goody, and possibly hypocritical. It has been my intent to disprove that theory! I can be serious when necessary. But I love to laugh, tell jokes, play and sing… in fact doing the things that Jesus did. Really important things are learned through laughter… and some only learned through tears. Jesus talked about giving us LIFE IN ABUNDANCE.

That otter… totally focussed on the moment, juggling a stone, full of the joy of being alive!

Me too. I love otters, dolphins, hummingbirds, swallows and pretty much anything that looks happy as it goes about living each brand new day. The promises I made 47 years ago are still binding: and that gradually-growing relationship with Jesus is the reason I am smiling.

I’m far from perfect. Jesus is working on that. So, perhaps, are you. Thank you to my family, my friends, my fellow-believers, and those I have served with and worked alongside. Too many to name, but not forgotten.

Finishing with an anniversary “joke” of sorts: If ever my love for God and for my neighbours should grow cool, I know I can simply ask the Lord to ……. make me a little ‘otter.

Be blessed on my anniversary day! Be blessed on your special days too.

How can Christians pray in isolation?

Praying during lock down… we may have more time, but what can we do creatively as followers of Jesus who have a calling to be Good News to the world? St Paul wrote letters from prison- we can pray from our homes!

Jesus told Simon & Andrew (fishermen both) they would become evangelists- instead of catching fish, they would draw people to Christ. So- ideas for effective prayer that extends Holy Spirit power beyond our physical presence to those “out there”…

1. Think about four people per day.
A family member/close friend
A neighbour/work colleague
A Covid-affected situation- the NHS, emergency services, key workers, political leaders, shut-ins, school staff/students…
An international need/event

2. Pray for God’s wholeness blessing, the “shalom” peace of the Lord for those four. Pray that Kingdom life will touch them and draw them into the Holy Presence. Be specific if you know details; if not, trust that the Holy Spirit knows and can direct your prayer.

Numbers 6:24-27 (NLT)
‘May the LORD bless you and protect you.
May the LORD smile on you and be gracious to you.
May the LORD show you his favour and give you his peace.’
Whenever Aaron and his sons bless the people of Israel in my name, I myself will bless them.”

3. Give thanks to God that we can act as priests (like Aaron) and know that our prayer will become a blessing from God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then read the passage from Mark’s Gospel, and end by saying: “Lord, draw these people in Your Everlasting Arms, in Jesus’ Name. I trust in your reconciling grace and loving-kindness to them. Amen.”

Mark 1:16-18 (NLT)
One day as Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew throwing a net into the water, for they fished for a living. Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and followed him.

Row for glory – Look, See, Pray

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Easter Day was so different. We joined our local church family online: very grateful for technology, but missing the human contact. But YES – Jesus is Risen from the dead. Hallelujah!

What now? Imagine the disciples (minus the dead betrayer, Judas Iscariot) gathered together coming to terms with all that happened.”We saw Him… He spoke to us…” Fresh from their amazing encounter, the two from Emmaus rushed back to Jerusalem only to find the others already knew Jesus was alive!

Thomas speaks for many of us- he needs to be convinced… that’s a tale for another day. Jerusalem was in turmoil- rumours are circulating and the authorities are scared and furious.

Jesus has a timetable. His appearances continue to surprise, encourage and challenge. “Wait until Pentecost” – the next great feast-day. In the meantime, the disciples are supporting each other and learning to depend on the Risen Christ without His constant physical presence. They are also learning more of each other as they begin to consider the future. “Team Jesus” is being prepared.

Like the disciples, these days after the Resurrection present a challenge. What do we do with this astounding Good News?

Waiting on the Lord is a good start: we too need Pentecost power, and the annual reminder and refreshment is vital. Let’s seek Him now, wholeheartedly.

Some time back Juliet and I stayed in a hotel by the Thames. An early morning stroll beside the river was notable for a speedy pass by a racing rowing team. Smooth as silk, precise as a machine, their oars rose and dipped as the fragile boat sliced through the water.

Imagine the hassle if just one lost rhythm… if an oar clashed, or a backside slipped! Graceful and vigorous, this team was serious about their race. Their sheer committed energy was thrilling and exhausting to watch! They were preparing now so they could WIN when it counted.

In these days of lockdown we can’t do “team practice.” But we can use our time and the changed social patterns to prepare. Some of Christ’s followers are carrying the burden of the NHS, of food supplies, of caring, emergency services- these key workers will need a hero’s reception and a rest!

The rest of us? The stay-at-homes. How will the Kingdom of servant-witnesses emerge from the days of restriction? Will we crawl out, blinking like moles in the sudden sunlight? Or might we come out strengthened, built up, spiritually sharpened and Spirit-filled? Taking living Good News into a community that is finding out now that life is more than wealth or status. Discovering people eager to pray, to seek a reality beyond what we had in our fractured society.

The Kingdom of Christ spread from Jerusalem in a pandemic of LOVE, telling stories of grace, hope, and justice. Signs of the Kingdom followed as words and actions combined in Christ-like positivity. What will the history books say about the way church in our generation emerges from the darkness of Covid-19 fear and loss?

May they read Jesus in our eyes, ears, hands, and hearts- and words of everlasting life. The race is on…

Just Wait – Look, See, Pray

just wait butterfly

So what am I supposed to do today? Yesterday was Good Friday. I reflected on and, as every Good Friday, remembered the horrifyingly cruel and unjust suffering of Jesus on the Cross. The worst that humankind could do to the One who loved us unconditionally with His arms stretched wide open. Deep grief with a strange sense of thankfulness: “It is finished” were words that declared the end of the beginning.

Tomorrow is Resurrection Sunday, Easter Day, when we will celebrate the Resurrection of Christ- dead, buried, cast aside, then gloriously vindicated through the death of Death, the outpouring of glory and the Beginning of new Beginnings. Wonder, gratitude, laughter, tears- He is Risen! Disciples coping with the unthinkable. “We have seen the Lord” the greeting that lit flames of hope in broken hearts.

Today? Holy Saturday. What am I supposed to do?

My photo today comes from a butterfly hatchery where assorted shapes and sizes of chrysalis hang silently on their frame. Just waiting. Inside, an astounding transformation is taking place. No longer caterpillar, not yet butterfly…

Waiting is essential. It takes as long as it takes. Any attempt to “help” them along will kill or maim- even when they begin to emerge, the actual physical struggle is vital to develop and strengthen their wings. Haste will destroy them or condemn to a land-bound crawling weakling existence, doomed to an early end. Just wait, and watch. The process cannot be hurried, the outcome more beautiful than we expect.

It begins… the new insect arrives, the shell is discarded. When out of their cradle, butterfly wings of beautiful pattern unfold. Brown, with exquisite “eyes” and coloured markings… the best is yet to come. At the right time, the wings open and a richly spectacular vibrant blue announces a joy-bringer has come to the world! Whoever sees this butterfly will be gifted with beauty beyond imagining. A brown “lump” has become a work of art!

Holy Saturday. Just WAIT.

I shall get on with my day. Whatever activities may require my attention, whatever pleasant distractions come my way, whatever pain or sadness is in “my” world, I am waiting.

Waiting for LIFE to be announced afresh. For a certainty of forgiveness, reconciliation, purpose. To echo the cry of nearly two thousand years- “Christ is risen- He is Risen indeed!”

God’s Love came down to Earth. Now He rises to open the gates of the New Creation and invite us within. For now… today…

Just you wait.

Darkness overcame the Son – Look, See, Pray

Darkness fell over the land as Jesus suffered the cruel death of crucifixion. Good Friday- the day of injustice and separation, the last triumph of Death.

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Today we grieve.

But darkness cannot overcome Light forever. Put your trust in the promise of Christ and the witness of history. Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.

Let us cleanse our hearts as we prepare to celebrate Resurrection!