Some pictures move me on a mental, emotional and spiritual level. Wondering why this is so, I looked up a definition of art and found several. Like this one:
“Art is an expression of yourself, so create a mood with your description. Describe it as if the person were in pitch black and could not see it. Think about the feeling you want to express through your piece. What did you feel when you made this?”
I was experimenting with some old photos, and found some of Pagham Harbour nature reserve. The original photo was a bit dull- the ground was dark and featureless, the sky rather bland. A bit of tweaking made it better. Then I applied a “texture” filter, and suddenly the picture spoke. It became like an oils-on-canvas painting, and came alive.
What did I feel when I made this? Excellent question! It made me remember what I felt when I took the photograph. Quietness is a feature of the Reserve. The most noticeable noises are natural ones; the sound of waterfowl, the gentle lapping of the water. Cool gentle air moved enough to make me shiver. Curlews whistled nearby, and that always sounds mournful- or perhaps “plaintive” is the word I’m looking for.
Natural sounds too often get masked by “progress.” Engines, planes, radios, shouting and bustle. It’s almost as though we are afraid of silence, of any quietness, so that we have to go looking for it and leave our civilised mod-cons behind.
Why do I love the open air so much? Because I can slow down and listen, look round and take in the “art” that God made. It is a meeting-place free of distractions. An art gallery of beauty signed with the Creator’s mark- and He said of the world “It is good.”
I can’t know YOUR reaction to this picture. Does it make you feel something, make you take a second look? ! wonder… (Try opening the photo to full screen for more impact.)
God is present at all times and places… our problem is one of being un-receptive, or impatient, or preoccupied. We need to find the art, the places, and the open heart that allows us to encounter Love. After all, God has said that we WILL find Him, when we seek with all our heart…
This guy is a serious fisherman: he is passionate about his sport, has invested in the correct equipment, and studied his subject.
On top of that, he has the patience necessary to get results.
I find it fascinating that Jesus chose fishermen to be the first disciples. Used to a tough life, skilled at their trade, and unafraid of patient hard work- and obviously with an open heart, willing to listen. They hoped that God might do a new thing in their day, and encountering Jesus changed their lives forever.
Others listened to Jesus- up to the point where “following” was proving difficult, disappointing, and dangerous. Jesus even asked if his closest followers wanted to leave as well.
Peter answered on their behalf: “Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69 The Message Translation)
Having such commitment and determination meant that those disciples would live at great risk- for a great vision, a purpose worthy of life and death. Many of them died violently.
Such obedient faith is much more than believing some facts about Jesus. It is be willing to go to great lengths in the expectation of world-transforming results: putting trust in the words of real eternal life spoken by Christ. Jesus went to a terrible execution so that all things might be reconciled to God. Another of the extraordinary followers of Jesus described Him in these terms:
“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1 v17-20)
So, what is there that I will believe in, put into practice, and expect God to do through my life and passionate discipleship? The way I answer that question sums up what I might achieve through the presence and power of Jesus!
It still is a stunning memory. I glided above the tops of unknown mountains. Far ahead, the sun rose splendidly, and it felt as though I was being kept in the air by God himself. According to my memory, I was about 12 and this is the earliest dream that I have ever remembered. What a psychologist might say about an interpretation is best left to the imagination!
Enjoying a lovely childhood in a loving family, with few things likely to cause lasting trauma, I suspect that I was as ordinary as most 12-year-olds. Perhaps a bit more imaginative and expressive than some, and certainly cheeky. This was the year when I made my first conscious choice to believe in Jesus Christ and begin a life as a follower of his Way.
If my dream was a kind of vision-dream holding out the prospect of a straightforward and glorious life full of beauty and wonder (and no problems) then it has failed. Life isn’t like that- at least in my experience. That doesn’t make it valueless.
Ever since that dream, I have felt drawn to mountains: photos or paintings, word-pictures in books of adventures, and even the black and white TV trying to do justice to a world inherently colourful. The first time I saw a real mountain was in my late teens when a group of friends travelled in a knackered old Commer minibus all the way to North Wales. Here we climbed through mist and rain up the slopes of Tryfan to the summit. Damp and weary we looked out and the clouds concealing Snowden unfurled.
The reality of mountains is far more awe-inspiringly wonderful than any dream.
In the same way, the reality of fulfilled faith will exceed my best hopes- even my best imagination. My faith isn’t built on that 12-year-olds dream, though sometimes I wish everything would go as smoothly as my first “flight…”
I dreamed I was flying.
The Apostle Paul made an obscure reference to “being caught up to the third heaven” (see 2 Corinthians 12 v2). Bible interpreters and scholars have been wondering about that ever since. Really, we don’t know what Paul meant or experienced: the most likely explanation is that Paul felt lifted into the very presence of God himself. (That ties in with the known beliefs of the period.)
Paul refused to boast about this revelation, even speaking in the third person as if it had happened to somebody else: and he even talks about being given “a thorn in the flesh” (v7) to keep him humble. Annoyingly, we don’t know what this thorn was either. Suggestions have ranged from some form of chronic illness right the way through to a crabby mother-in-law!
It seems the Corinthians were fascinated by visions and dreams, and Paul does his best to stop them from fastening onto an exciting tale. Paul uses his own experience to point them to an important truth. Whatever our knowledge, gifting, or experience, whatever our strengths or our weaknesses, we are called to be servants of Christ and to love others in every way we can.
When we are young, we often behave as if we were immortal, acting without regard to risks and dangers. Then comes that moment in life where the first serious illness, accident or loss invades our being. We suddenly must grow up. Christian faith isn’t a divine insurance policy against the unpleasantness of life. Knowing “God is with us” is not the same thing as saying that “only good things should happen to us.”
Since I started with my dream, I want to finish with a snapshot of my experience in Christian ministry.
As a newly-trained pastor I rather hoped the Kingdom of God would be demonstrated forthwith through me! I am glad that my first church was full of patient and kind Christians. During the 30 years of active ministry there were times of blessing, times of difficulty, and occasionally we all wondered where God had gone. Part of my life became learning how to deal with chronic illness, and how to develop a lifestyle that had some rhythm and grace evident in it.
Dreaming of flying is all very well, but there can be bumpy landings.
Without in any sense wanting to equate my life or ministry with that of the Apostle Paul, I think I have learned one of the lessons he did. Perhaps this will be an encouragement to some of you reading today: yes, “God is with us…” and the words of Jesus to Paul and the Corinthian church remain equally true now. Jesus said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (v9)
I never know what I will find on the beach. Low tide is my favourite: as the sea retreats, the sand is sculpted into sinuous shapes by shifting waves. Shellfish leave their mark. Plants of strange forms and unexpected colours are there to admire- like this white “tree” standing out boldly against the sand and sky-painted rivulets.
Some tides bring in rubbish, old tins and perennial plastics. I suppose we might say the flotsam and jetsam of 2021 has largely been junk!
When the opposite happens, though, we have memories of beauty, love, courage, and service.
Concentrating only on the rubbish is unhealthy. Most people have found 2021 hard and hostile, and we’re glad to see the back of it. Whatever your experiences this year, will you try to find one (at least) moment of joy and life to remember- and give thanks God for that?
Looking ahead… no-one is master of tide or weather. But a simple prayer for us all:
“May you find life in unexpected places.”
Keeping our hearts, eyes, and ears open for those special life-affirming moments, we may meet a person, embrace an opportunity, fulfil a hope… and may the God of Hope grant you inner peace and an everlasting love.
There’s a verse in Ecclesiastes Ch. 3 that states “God has put eternity in our hearts.” May the year 2022 bring us hope, peace and joy- and may we find life where we don’t expect it.
In between two storms… a walk along the beach at low tide, as the ebbing tide left seaweed decorating the sea defences- and the gulls lined up facing the wind.
When resting, the gulls usually face into the breeze. Its helps give lift at take-off. Presumably, they can also observe coming changes better.
Bob Dylan, prophet of change since the 60s wrote this: “May you have a strong foundation when the winds of change shift… and may you be forever young.” The pace of change hasn’t slackened. It often seems the “old” are left behind by the youngsters. The best people to fix your computer or mobile are probably the grandkids!
It’s often tempting to take shelter from the wind. Doing so may be comforting, even cosy, but we can lose our vision and awareness. Change that is coming will come! The difference is that we can’t prepare for unexpected change- but seeing the signs early means we can adapt in time.
Our church is facing the winds of change. After the lockdown society is coming to terms with a different world, and we are trying to see the best ways to serve our community now and in the future. We had a really exciting gathering this week, flagging up local opportunities, and exploring creative ways we can respond (and even take the initiative). The Bible often used the image of “wind” for the work of the Holy Spirit of God. Jesus said “the wind blows where it wills…” when talking to Nicodemus about a change of heart, of a new life (see John 3 v8).
In the Old Testament, Isaiah saw a revelation of God that changed his life- because he responded “Here I am. Send me.” I wonder what the Lord may reveal to us? How we might we choose to respond: “Here I am, send someone else…” or “Send me.”
If we aren’t willing to face the winds of change and be messengers… who will?
Isaiah 6:1-8 (NLT) “It was in the year King Uzziah died that I saw the Lord. He was sitting on a lofty throne, and the train of his robe filled the Temple. Attending him were mighty seraphim, each having six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. They were calling out to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Heaven’s Armies! The whole earth is filled with his glory!” Their voices shook the Temple to its foundations, and the entire building was filled with smoke.
Then I said, “It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man. I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips. Yet I have seen the King, the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched my lips with it and said, “See, this coal has touched your lips. Now your guilt is removed, and your sins are forgiven.”
Then I heard the Lord asking, “Whom should I send as a messenger to this people? Who will go for us?” I said, “Here I am. Send me.”
When you’ve seen one low tide… you look for a fresh angle to make a different photo!
This photo is the seafront houses reflected in a tide pool. It’s a glimpse, an interpretation of the reality in front of the lens. There is a contrast of the natural water course of sand/pebbles: and the partial, tantalising view of the buildings beyond. The picture “works” because it intrigues me.
John Bunyan’s classic “Pilgrim’s Progress” details the journey towards the Celestial City: with Pilgrim hindered or helped by people met and moral challenges encountered. Thousands of readers have been inspired on their own pilgrimage: they enter into the story.
Jesus also painted word pictures to inspire his audiences. “The Kingdom of God is like….” He used metaphors such as a mustard seed, a treasure, a magnificent pearl. These image-stories helped the listeners to discover truth for themselves, instead of “just” being told what to believe. Truth we determine ourselves sticks in our minds better.
So- “The Kingdom of God is like a city glimpsed in a tidal pool…”
We are rooted on the beach, we see the water, stones, the sand and seaweed. We can see something reflected… windows… walls… a flag pole? Or is it a streetlight? We need to look harder… We can only be sure if we get closer to the REAL image, not settle for an obscured partial view- which is upside down anyway! Well then, let’s walk up the beach to find the city. Then we’ll KNOW.
The 12 disciples had a privilege; they could ask Jesus to tell them more, to explain. We can read the New Testament for ourselves and study the insights of generations of followers. Do we really want to know, to understand?
Jesus often teaches us via stories, glimpses, visions, circumstances and life in general. Much of our heart-learning is gained on the journey. This is what changes us- it becomes Light on the inside and life that wells up within us.
The Kingdom is come among you. That is the reality: Jesus came to bring us the Kingdom where He will reign. One day we will see it clearly. If we want to.
When the tide came in on this beach, the glimpse vanished. Don’t leave the looking too late. Instead, let it become your vision.
Whenever I am tempted to think I have everything sorted out, God has a way of reminding me that I’m not that amazing. Sunsets, sea, sand, sky… too vast and marvellous for me to calculate or control. My response is personal, but cannot be separated from the union of worshipping Church through all ages.
So then, Lord God,
this interaction of matter, light, and wonder
humbles my heart before the infinite glory,
telling me there is a Glory beyond Glory.
Infinite Love and Infinite Grace,
Absolute Holiness and Divine Majesty,
You alone are God.
I thank You for the gift of another day,
and praise You for revealing Love
that covers my sins
as the sea scrubs the sand.
Far above the golden air
energised by the Sun
Lifts my soul to contemplate infinity-
yet infinity is wrapped in your Hand
and stars and galaxies beyond sight
glow in the Presence
that has come to Earth
and will reconcile all things to Yourself.
Lord, I am too small
and too flawed
to offer perfect praise-
all I have I give You,
a prodigal son
in a prodigal world,
hardly daring to believe
my Father runs to greet me:
my crucified Christ Rose for me,
Holy Spirit Presence fills me-
For I was lost, and am now found;
I was dead, and am alive in You.
Such Infinite Mercy,
such mystery of grace.
In Christ alone mystery is unfurled
as the Banner over me is Love.
(c) Richard Starling, 2021
It’s officially “Blue Monday.” Apparently this is the point in the year when everyone feels at their worst. There is no doubt that short daylight hours, Christmas credit card bills, coronavirus and 101 other things can combine into a swamp of depression and angst. We’ve all “got the blues.”
I see it as my job today to counterbalance the angst! Blue is beautiful, calming, inspiring and comforting. Blue is what we remember from holidays- I’m sure that when I was a kid, ALL school holidays were sunny– and blue is the colour we wear as part of the crowd as we strut our stuff in our blue jeans. Blue can be lovely.
My picture comes from Pagham Harbour, taken just after we moved back to Sussex. Look at that sky! I found this place where the RSPB has a bird-watching hide; as I arrived I noticed this cluster of people coming back from a bench on the shingle. They knew the tide was coming in- I didn’t. So I boldly went off to the left, found the hide- and hid. A kingfisher flashed past (never seen it since!) and I watched the waders and geese patrol the calm blue waters under fluffy well-behaved clouds. Heavenly.
On leaving the hide… I’d been cut off! The tide was very high, and the path was underwater. My inner “Corporal Jones” leapt into action- “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!”
No other route back to the car. I had to wait hours or take the plunge. The water came half-way up my shins, was pleasantly cool, and was no peril. It became part of my memory, and whenever I see this photo I think “blue-but happy” thoughts. A place of beauty, plus a kingfisher sighting. Brilliant!
It is easy to be overcome by our circumstances, and we wouldn’t be human if our moods and thought processes weren’t affected by pressure and pain. Now then, preachers are fond of pointing out that “Do not be afraid” occurs 365 times in English Bibles- that’s once per day. We get scared, we become depressed, overwhelmed and sad. Physical and emotional factors all play a part in that.
Here is an antidote to the blues. This ancient song of praise asks “Why are you feeling blue?” (my translation!) and offers hope from God. Trusting in Him makes the difference! Maybe when we enter the flood water it won’t be too deep after all…
Read these verses to yourself- God has not forgotten you.
Psalm 42:8-11 (NLT) But each day the LORD pours his unfailing love upon me, and through each night I sing his songs, praying to God who gives me life. “O God my rock,” I cry, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I wander around in grief, oppressed by my enemies?” Their taunts break my bones. They scoff, “Where is this God of yours?”
Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again— my Saviour and my God!
Perfect sunrise. Flat calm on the sea. The only jarring note: a “Biffa” dustcart immediately behind me, chugging, grinding, beeping and banging as they collected the waste of the flats. Noise disturbed the peace, and tranquil thoughts disappeared.
What an illustration of human life! Beauty and banshee in the same space.
As soon as the truck drove round the corner, quiet returned- the most raucous sound the muffled screams of seagulls arguing by the tideline.
Our planet is stunningly beautiful: and we have spread ourselves across its surface, many races and cultures. At our best, humanity achieves glorious heights. At our worst, we pillage and spoil the garden we were given.
Yet God- whose glory is seen in the skies- has also undertaken the task of rubbish clearance, the recycling and removal of the dirt and waste. In a real sense, that dustcart is a symbol of the Good News. Clean slate, fresh beginning, thorough cleansing- achieved in the noises of anguish at the crucifixion. Jesus, the Saviour, Redeemer, rightful owner; our Heavenly Father waiting eagerly to welcome the returning prodigal. Holy Spirit, full of grace and purifying Fire, bringing reconciliation and renewal to our inner lives.
Schools teach in many ways- one is “compare and contrast” where two things are examined, and our understanding of both helps us grasp the meaning of each one.
Take, then, this photograph of the fulfilment of Psalm 19 v1. Look at the colours, sense the atmosphere, feel the cool of a winter morning and the gentleness of a quiet tide. Seek God in the peace. Now supply your own “dustcart disturbance”… remember the perils of Covid, the tensions of a hurting society, and the personal regrets over wrong choices, words, and actions. Watch as the Lord loads YOUR dustcart! Each bin emptied represents a sin, a hurt, a regret being dealt with and taken away. No longer burdened, but forgiven and cleansed, we can now look again at the beautiful skies and the love that surrounds us.
This is what God has done! Be thankful. Be still in God’s loving Presence..
“The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship.”Psalm 19:1 (New Living Translation)
Enjoy the gift of this day in peace and wholeness of spirit.
“There’s nothing to see. Move on” said the small group of walkers who paused to see what I was looking at. Yet I spent a happy half-hour looking at this “nothing.” I had a reason.
Can you work out the missing element?
It is mid-October, about 4pm. Until 4.30pm. As I stood, leaning on the fence, everything was still. Scarcely a ripple on the water, very light breeze, and almost complete silence. So peaceful! I was content and stayed focussed on just being there.
Time is what the photo misses. It is frozen history, a moment that is past forever. But because I gave this scene time, I witnessed life. You, the reader, can’t see or hear this Life- you weren’t there, or you moved on too swiftly. Over beyond those reedy mudflats, two swans set off to a lakelet behind the North Wall of the RSPB Reserve. The place was so still, I heard the sound of the wind through the pinions of their wings, swooshing forcefully with every downbeat. An Oystercatcher swept by heading for the beach. Dunlins sprang up and dashed like a high-speed train inches above the water. Ducks passed by, a kestrel hovered spying on the mammal morsels she sought to invite for supper. The piping calls of wading birds echoed across the placid water.
Nothing to see? Rubbish! This scene just needed some time and attention.
So it can be with “hearing God” or even just trying to pray. We give a few moments, but we’re not tuned in. We see nothing of interest, hear nothing to take our attention. What if we invested more time? A day, a week, maybe an hour or two. Perhaps we would hear a gentle Voice of relieved Love- “At last! You can hear me!” – as our senses are sharpened and our attention made real.
I do not think there is any shortcut to hearing God. But giving time and attention is a great start.
God sometimes takes the initiative- He may call out to us, or communicate via a prophet, preacher or stranger. The Holy Bible is the record of what He has already said. Holy Spirit insight may be given in several ways. The Old Testament writers like Amos, Jeremiah, and the Chronicler point out that “If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me.” Jeremiah 29:13 (NLT).
2 Chronicles 15:1 (NLT) Then the Spirit of God came upon Azariah son of Oded, and he went out to meet King Asa as he was returning from the battle. “Listen to me, Asa!” he shouted. “Listen, all you people of Judah and Benjamin! The LORD will stay with you as long as you stay with him! Whenever you seek him, you will find him. But if you abandon him, he will abandon you.…”
Verse 8 tells us that King Asa “heard the words of the prophet and took courage.” Asa became a good king, faithful to God and to the people: he introduced vital reforms, and mostly did well. He sought God with all his heart. He gave time, attention, and obedience.
Perhaps you are “stuck” in a place or time where there is “nothing to see” and you are frustrated. The halls of heaven echo silence.
In that silence the Lord may speak. Wait. (We don’t like waiting, we live in an “instant” society.) Use the time, embrace the silence, cling on to the truth that God is the Revealer and Reconciler. Look for God wholeheartedly: don’t rush away despairingly. In the silence and in peace or turmoil- God will speak.
“Silent” and “Listen” have the same letters, just in a different order; and being silent is often the first step of listening. Start right here, right now.