Shared Wisdom- Look, See, Pray

Seeking wisdom in the Tree Cathedral, near Whipsnade.

The Tree Cathedral is a wonderful place to visit, pray, and think. I used to live fairly close, and always found it a sympathetic destination! When there, I could walk among the trees and it seemed as if God were easier to reach. Did you know that trees are mentioned in the Bible more than any living thing other than God and people? There’s a tree on the first page of Genesis, the first Psalm, the first page of the New Testament, and the last page of Revelation. 

In the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, a collection of proverbs describe wisdom as a character, as if wisdom is really a person rather just “knowing stuff.” Encyclopaedias are stuffed with facts, but until facts are learned and put into practice the book isn’t much use to anyone.

“Wisdom is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed” Proverbs 3:18

“Do you lack wisdom? Ask for it!” said James (see James 1 v5). If our natural inclination is to “go it alone” there is no-one to check with- “Am I right or wrong?” Gaining wisdom is best done as a shared quest, life done as a rhythm of personal thinking and shared conversation. Part of my calling as a pastor and theologian has been to explore, learn, and develop in both knowledge and wisdom: and it has always been a journey with companions (and done in the context of including God and the scriptures along the way).

Then my vocation is to share what I have discovered, and try to do so in words that make things clearer and easier to grasp for other people.

This morning I came across a blog post that succeeds in that aim: so I’m sharing a snippet of wisdom! Question: how well do you understand the Holy Trinity? “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is the form of words we use to describe God. But what does that mean?

Mike Higton, theologian at the University of Durham, set himself the challenge of explaining the Holy Trinity in words of one syllable:

“So there is God, the one to whom we pray, the one to whom we look, to whom we call out, the one who made the world and who loves all that has been made. And then there is God by our side, God once more the one with whom we pray; God in the life of this man who shares our life, this man who lives the life of God by our side, and who pours out his life in love for us. And then there is God in our hearts, God in our guts, God one more time, the stream in which we dip our toes, the stream in which we long to swim, the stream which filled the Son and can fill us too, and bear us in love back to our source.

Link to the full blog post: click here: The Trinity explained in words of one syllable | Psephizo

God: the to whom, and with whom, who is also within. You may or may not feel qualified to write a book of theology now, but I suspect you have a better appreciation of the Holy Trinity- and you have gained wisdom as a result. Wisdom shared by Mike Higton, me, and now you. And next time someone asks us “What about the Trinity, then?” we may feel wise enough to pass on what we have discovered.

Wisdom is for sharing! Here’s a prayer you may like to use:

O Lord our God,
help us to know you when we pray.
Help us to know you as the one to whom we pray;
help us to know you as the one with whom we pray;
help us to know you as the one in whom we pray.
Help us to know you, and to love you,
and to live our lives for you,
one God in three,
Holy Trinity. Amen.

‘Ware Wolves! Look, See, Pray

Wolves… hunters, scavengers, feared – not one of the cuddly creatures! Their eerie howling strikes terror (and that’s just when they’re in a zoo!). Imagine being lost in the forest, or being stranded in the wild country, and hearing the howling gradually getter louder…

They hunt with great stamina. Wolves can run and run, wearing down the energy and the hope of their prey, finally moving in for the kill as their weakened target reaches the point of collapse.

In these photos of wolves in captivity, even they have scavengers! Crows and magpies harry the wolves, darting in with sharp beaks to grab a share.

We use the wolf as a metaphor when someone is in trouble… “the wolves are closing in…”

Society has invented our own form of wolf: the gaping jaws of the paparazzi lurking with cameras poised, the character assassins digging dirt and flinging it until mud sticks. Social media is abused so it can become an abuser of the innocent: though sometimes the dogged determination of investigators reveals the hidden secrets of the dirty and/or mighty. Once a story- true or false- hits the internet, it builds its own momentum and the fangs drip poison. Perhaps we should call this the “Daily Gnasher”? The scavengers are always lurking.

Position, status, or leadership is often sought for its benefits and advantages, or for the power to dominate, or even for the chance to bring good change. Motives can be mixed. The one guarantee is that people in the public eye are under constant scrutiny, and the wolves WILL gather, sniffing around, and will pounce at signs of weakness or failure.

This is why power has to be matched with accountability, privilege with responsibility, and ambition with character.

Pretence will be gnawed away, sooner or later, and the bare bones will be on display. This is why the Bible insists that CHARACTER is the necessary quality for leadership. “A good leader motivates, doesn’t mislead, doesn’t exploit. God cares about honesty in the workplace: your business is HIS business.” (Proverbs 16 v10-11)

There is an old saying that we should only elect leaders who DON’T want the job.

Of course, we all, everyone of us, make mistakes and get things wrong. But there is a huge difference between a good person failing and a wrong-hearted person savaging justice and truth. Now, I’m a dog person who loves and admires their loyalty and companionship. A mistreated or badly trained dog is bad news! The similarity of dog and wolf ought to warn us.

Bad leadership breeds unfairness, injustice. The gap between rich and poor gets bigger. A sad truth- Jesus foretold “the poor will be with you always.” (Mark 14 v7) Bad leaders sometimes start as well-meaning people who rot as greed or pride blights them.

Rot “at the top” will ruin a society, a business, an institution, a life.

The people of God are called to be watchers on the walls, heralds who warn of danger, and prophets who speak truth to power/wealth. When we hear the wolves howling, it’s time to speak up. AND it’s time for us to pray. Today, we could pray for Ukraine; pray for political leaders; pray about poverty and sickness and injustice, against racism and extremism and hate.

I think I hear carrion crows… and the wolves are howling… Stand up, speak up, and pray.

Joy in January? Look, See, Pray

January… the crown of winter’s dreary days! It’s not all bad: but it is notoriously fickle and grey. Short daylight hours, cold, damp, and it’s time to get rid of the excess pounds after the Christmas extravagances. A true recipe for joyful living.

Can we renew our joy? Perhaps this picture can help.I’ve never seen a dull red tulip. None in the garden, so I’ve hunted this out from my photo albums. Gloriously scarlet, then an even brighter yellow inside. Just for added impact, starkly geometrical black stamens contrast violently in alien shapes. Looking more closely, speckles of black pollen give a mute testimony to the visit of an early bee. Do these specks spoil the bloom, or remind us of life and growth to come? Can you spot the aphid? I only noticed this today. A pest, or another little miracle of life?

A principle of photography is that the actual subject should be the most important thing in the photo. A common mistake is to make the subject too small. It is lost in the background, and the picture loses impact.

Getting in close makes a difference. This picture shouts “I’m a tulip!” in dramatic tones. It would be easy to walk past the flower beds, camera at head-height, and take a picture of some “nice tulips.” Beauty turned into a vague generalisation!

When we need to renew the sense of joy, the experience of lightness of spirit and being at peace in our world, a great way to start is to pay attention to the small things, the details, the abundance of life all round us. Attention given leads to awareness, appreciation, and a deep gratitude for the richness that is here.

This works in relationships: when did you last tell your partner or friend or colleague that you appreciate what they have done and what they add to your life?

It’s a vital part of faith, too. When you see that first snowdrop, or the daffs beginning to emerge, will you SAY “thank you” to God? Not just thinking it, but putting gratitude into spoken words- it releases a powerful surge of joy.

God is present in our world: and has compassionate love for His creation. Acknowledging His love and majesty “tunes us in” to the love-song God sings over us. In knowing this, we find renewed joy. It could start with a tulip… or with the hope of a psalm:

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

The Holy Bible: Today’s New International Version. (Ps 139:7–12). (2005). Zondervan.

I dreamed that I was flying- Look, See, Pray

Herring gulls over the English Channel

I dreamed that I was flying.

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)

Early one morning… Look, See, Pray

Woke up too early this morning! Made coffee, decided against vacuuming the carpet (too noisy, might wake up Juliet and the neighbours) so switched on the computer to carry on the sorting of my old photographs. That’s a LOOOOOOOOONG job… I didn’t get very far. I was distracted by this poppy.

The colours, the geometric precision, the intricate shapes… What would it look like if I played around with the pic in my editing software? In the “good old days” monochrome was king. Apart from any other consideration, keen (i.e., “real”) photographers could process black and white film at home, and remarkably skilfully too.

So let’s go monochrome.

Oh. Six choices… all giving very different results. This would have taken hours in the darkroom, using different chemicals, paper, filters, and much patience. One click for each choice… Not that one… no, too dark… not enough contrast… no… maybe… That it. That one, the “newspaper” setting. It brings out the patterns in a pleasingly abstract way. I like that… now, put side-by-side with the original colour image. Interesting! (To me, anyway).

I wonder what other people will think.

Hang on, this page is Look, See, Pray. Why the droning on about photo processing? Why abstract images of a long-dead poppy? (Perhaps Richard should have stayed in bed…)

So, then. It’s an old picture, I’ve seen it before. It brings back the memory of growing these poppies in Luton, of enjoying the vibrant colours, soft fragile petals, watching the bees foraging in these great big architectural blooms. That’s nice.

And now I can see it in another way, a fresh angle, a new insight. Ignoring the colour brings out the structure as a complex pattern- wonderful in its own right. I can study the flower in a new way, understand it better, more fully.

I wonder what would happen if I applied the same process to other familiar things… parts of the Bible… or the Lord’s Prayer… I’ve read that before, I’ve prayed the prayer countless times. Maybe there is more to discover. What have other Christians learned from this verse, or chapter, or book… what exactly do these words mean…

I mean, the Lord’s Prayer… what could be “new” there? Try this version from The Message:
Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are. Set the world right; Do what’s best— as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.

Compared to a version for primary school children:
Our Father in heaven, you are awesome! Show us who you are and how you want us to be. Make earth more like heaven. Please give us what we need to keep going each day. Help us when we are wrong and clean us up on the inside. Help us to let other people off and move on. Keep us from bad stuff. You’re in charge! You’re strong and powerful and always there. Forever! Amen.

Now it’s your turn. Find a familiar Bible passage, or pray the Lord’s Prayer as you know it best… then look for a fresh way to look at it, to understand it, to bring Truth home so it makes a difference to the way you live, behave, think, relate to others.

It might change the way you look at God, see Him, and the how-or-why you pray.

Look, See, Pray. There IS a reason for mucking about with an old poppy pic after all… May God’s Light and Truth shine on you in a fresh new way today.

Don’t lose the wonder- Look, See, Pray

What will 2022 bring?

What am I hoping for?

Three days in- so far, so good. Yesterday I enjoyed the privilege of preaching in our local church, speaking about the difference Christmas makes to every New Year. Simply put, it’s the description of Jesus as Immanuel, “God is with us.” Simple words, but deep, deep meaning.

I don’t know what 2022 will bring. But I’m confident that God is with us- whatever will be. That, in turn, means I expect to keep a sense of wonder and hope every day.

The wonder of seeing the frosted leaves, the snowfall, the sunrises and settings… the first signs of snowdrops, crocii, and daffodils… cherry blossom and roses… Restless seas and cloud-paintings, seagulls stunt-flying, the field mice and squirrels…

Stormy days and dark skies, the Milky Way like a chandelier over the sea. Gentle dew and charming streams, trees standing bold before our wondering eyes.

People living in kindness, sharing love and community.

Change. I’m hoping for change in politics and public life, with integrity and compassion displacing greed and sleaze. Change in the ways people behave and believe, learn and persuade. Truth becoming important, with a reaction against shallow sound-bites, dodgy websites, and manipulative extremists.

Health. I’m hoping for an end to this pandemic, and for respect and gratitude to be shown to good medicine and good science.

Ecology: for responsibility from all of us, doing what we can to look after the planet we’ve been given, with hope of reversing some of the damage.

Some hopes, eh?

God is with us. With that fact to hold onto, we can have high hopes indeed! Don’t lose the wonder. Every wondrous thing we see inspires true hope. I won’t see everything on my wish list happen in 2022 – but God is with us, therefore NOTHING good is impossible (even if it will be difficult).

The first frosty morning may be the first day of wonder- and hope.

There is always hope- Look, See, Pray

Advent is the time leading up to Christmas. It’s a season to prepare for a celebration: God took on human flesh, declaring Love to this world by identifying with us. We ARE “in this together” which is a marvellous truth (especially when compared with the rather devalued meaning intended by many politicians when they say that!).

Odd contrast: the hope of Light and Life comes just when the days get short and the cold gnaws our bones. Everything is saying “time to moan, let’s endure it as best we can” and the shout comes from the heralding Angels – “Prepare the Way of the Lord!”

It’s often a dull season for photography. Apart from dramatic skies and snowy wastes, most other subjects are lurking out of sight in the warm- and the motivation of the photographer has gone into hibernation anyway.

So a memory will have to suffice. Imagine a pleasant late April day, perhaps early May; the bluebells are cheerily dancing the blues, and the bracken begins to unfurl hairy fronds. Look down at the signs of Spring: and a heart-shape presents itself as fronds entwine. Glossy fresh greens and gentle browns mark out the hope of new life.

I love Christmas. Not the busy shops, nor the crazy adverts, not even the mass attempt to double our waistlines in a week! Although that has some attractions, if we’re honest.

Christmas means HOPE. We can all do with some of that!

God, the Giver and Source of Life and Love, sings a song to make the stars shine brighter. In the darkened streets of Bethlehem, an Eternal Light begins to glow.

And every year, however dreadful, has a heartfelt message. “There’s ALWAYS hope.”

“For a child has been born—for us! the gift of a son—for us! He’ll take over the running of the world. His names will be: Amazing Counsellor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness.” Isaiah 9:6 (Message Translation)

Just what- or rather, whom- we need. There’s always hope. May Advent this year put the glow of hope in your soul- for God has set His heart on YOU.

Climbing Slowly- Look, See, Pray

The Alps near Sheffau, Austria

My imagination was fired up the first time I read “Lord of the Rings” when Gandalf and Bilbo talked about “the Road that goes ever on” leading to adventures and tall Mountains. I was 13. The tallest “mountains” I’d ever seen up till then were the South Downs in Sussex- but the story lit a fire in my heart. I so wanted to see mountains, REAL mountains… and follow the Road to somewhere…

Fast forward twenty years or so. My mountains grew taller: Dartmoor, the Lake District, North Wales, Scotland. Then the Alps. I was in dreamland! Real mountains!

Part of my heart is attached to Austria. My boot-prints marked the tracks and high Alpine meadows, and my eyes became dizzily drunk on the heady wine of pure air above the treeline.

Wise walkers don’t rush up mountains. Pace after pace, keeping on keeping on, with the expectation of a hot meal to sharpen the flagging spirits. Mountains are unforgiving of the careless, and unrelenting in their challenges. But the rewards are (almost) out of this world. Spectacular views, forests and flowers, snow and storms- sun and wind to redden the cheeks and give a healthy glow.

The longer the route, the more deliberate the planning; and the demands of exertion to your limits mean that success is valued highly! “We did it!”

I was reading an article today which referred to Maximus the Confessor, who helped the Church in the sixth century to work out the implications of Christian faith. You may never have heard of Max… but he is remembered for his careful and determined efforts to help Christ-followers become as much like Jesus as possible. His writings and his personal experiences weren’t full of miracles and spectacular change: Maximus spoke of the gradual, incremental changes that culminate in “the slow transformation of our own human existence into the image of the divine.” It is a process, a constant practice, a determined “following” on the Way of Christ- until we arrive.

It’s a long, slow, often difficult Road of adventure over the mountains: glorious views and visions, obstacles overcome, storms survived, weary feet and a heart on fire with the desire to reach the glorious end; lived with a passionate and thankful sense of worship and a knowledge of being Loved and sustained on the long Road.

If I had a fiver for every shortcut I’ve tried, every blind alley explored… and a tenner for every time I fell and skinned my knees and cut my hands and got up again… I’d be a millionaire. But I still wouldn’t be as richly rewarded as I am in looking back at the incremental changes in my character and faith, slowly adding to my understanding of God, building a Road towards the Mountain-Maker.

John the Disciple was known for love. A long life of following Jesus, of being His friend, and of teaching others what he had gained. He wrote these lovely words about climbing slowly alongside Jesus, and gradually becoming LIKE Him. With all the miles and mysteries, the promise is clear: God WILL transform us utterly. The Road is long- but we WILL meet Jesus, and know Him as we are known. Read this- then keep climbing slowly and growing steadily in hope.

1 John 3:2-3 (New Living Translation)
Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure.

A Road that goes ever on.

October Roses- Look, See, Pray

Fewer rosebuds in the garden now October is here… the ones that survive the winds and rain are even more precious. Here is “Double Delight” which is blessed with a rich fragrance and creamy petals flushed with sumptuous raspberry pink. Gorgeous. Worth its place in any garden, in my opinion anyway.

Autumn chills and weather presage the coming of winter, when colour in the garden is rare and hard to find. Roses sometimes keep flowering into December- a lovely gift.

I have built two gardens from builder’s mudheaps- and restored two neglected gardens. Roses have ALWAYS been the plants that I use as the centrepieces of the borders. Despite the pain of thorns and the months of dormancy where roses are just aggressive sticks, I pay the price for their majestic colour, shape and scent willingly. The eruption of the new buds fills me with joy.

There are one or two strange gardeners who don’t like roses. Perhaps I’m biased, but I think they’re a lost cause!

The objects of our ambitions can take many forms. Some collect stamps, others strive for profit. Others are never satisfied, and cannot find contentment. What we choose to search for, to value, defines who we are. Jesus addressed this problem of identity and ambition, essentially by asking “Who are you?” and “What is your life purpose?”

Two questions that continue to nag at the heart of a society built on the acquisition of wealth and power… and with many people who want more than they have. So, rich or poor, powerful or not- what do we really want?

It seems people choosing wisely are as rare as rosebuds.

Jesus never said “Come to Me, and I will give you stress.” The offer He makes is “rest” – peace in a reconciled relationship with God.

How much do you think that’s worth?

Facing the winds – Look, See, Pray

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.”