Eye of the Beholder- Look, See, Pray

Cotswold Landscape

How do we decide what is beautiful? Here are two photographs, one a landscape taken in the Cotswolds. The other- an abstract view of beach huts in Bognor.

Beach Huts in Bognor Regis- rear view.

Which is more beautiful? I have no idea what you will say. Guessing, I think more people probably will prefer the landscape. It is the kind of rural scene that John Constable painted; dramatic skies, big trees, everyday scenes which (almost) idealise the English countryside.

Others may be drawn to the bright mix of colours, geometric shapes, and the abstract viewpoint which makes the onlooker interpret their own meaning in the image.

Things that may influence our choice will be very varied. Background, education, artistic gifting, training, what we expect a picture to be… Or what if colour-blindness affects us?

I discovered I loved John Constable’s paintings when I was about 14. A breakfast cereal company offered tokens: when a certain number were collected, I was sent a copy of “The Haywain.” Loved it! Then I acquired the “Cornfield”. Still the vouchers kept coming (a family of six gets through cereal quickly) and I rashly ventured out in a new artist… Turner’s “Fighting Temeraire.” It was different, yet familiar, and the colours and lighting… well, wow!

My art teacher at school taught us about the Impressionists. Initially, I was underwhelmed. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t recognise what I was looking at! He persevered with our youthful and developing brains, and Monet and Manet and Van Gogh entered our appreciation zone.

Then we came across Picasso. It just seemed WRONG.

Yet friends of mine loved his work. Strange world, odd people… How far can “art” go before it becomes no longer art? Is that even a reasonable question to ask?

Now, I have my preferences and my favourites, and I have learned to appreciate some art that seemed challenging at first. At least I have learned how to look. No doubt we all have different things that make us go “ahhh” and others that get the response “yuk.”

But when we look at a painting, a photograph, a sculpture, a tapestry, we have a moment in which we can learn, we can be stimulated, challenged, and inspired. Similarly we can read, or listen to music, or use our own creativity: that’s wonderful. These are all ways in which we interpret our world and find beauty in living. But why do we bother?

Because “beauty” is a soul-food. Beauty is one of the ways God touches our deep inner being; in nature, art, music, poetry we can experience an other-worldliness, even a transcendent “lifting” of our spirit into a moment of being God-present.

Here is an ancient expression of this: look at something you find beautiful, and read these words: “O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth! Your glory is higher than the heavens… When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers- the moon and the stars you set in place- what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?” (Psalm 8:1, 3-4, NLT)

Welcome Showers- Look, See, Pray

The forecast promised sunshine and showers. Weather fronts pay no attention to the Met Office, and delivered showers, heavy rain, thunder and lightning, more enthusiastic showers, a little drizzle, and about an hour of sunshine.

My garden was cheering! It has been the “Year of the Lock-down Garden” and the hard-baked soil has wrestled with me over every inch reclaimed from the wild. I’m worn out, the garden has been putting on a brave face, and the arrival of copious rainfall has been a relief. It’s been really hot, very dry, and some of the flowers have been scorched. I wonder what tomorrow will bring?

Sussex is a sunny county, generally. But the “WWWW” I was taught about at school are rarely far away. If you are wondering, that’s “Warm Wet Westerly Winds.” So drought is not frequent here.

I saw some time-lapse film recently of a desert which only gets rain a few times in a century. Showers turned into a brief downpour- and the ground seemed dry again within hours. Then the cameras caught the hasty growth of gorgeous blooms, that flowered swiftly, set seed in a few days, then withered back into the sands. Until next time.

The writer of Psalm 68 knew all about life in a desolate land; and how dependent the people were on the rain showers arriving in season. No rain = no crops.

For me, today’s rain was a pleasant interlude, a cooler day, and the opportunity to dig out a photo of a water-lily. Beauty on demand, as it were. Sitting gracefully atop the surface, finding a gap in the lily-pads, this lily is a symbol of abundance. Am I truly grateful for the water that gives lilies a home? Do I remember to give thanks for summer, sun and rain, beauty and harvest?

Perhaps it is also a symbol of the need of my country. Truly a worn-out land; contention, deception, injustice and disharmony. We are not alone in this. International tensions and rivalry make a potent cocktail of bitterness. The coronavirus pandemic has magnified the stress-markers, and proven many political leaders to be inept or out of their depth.

Lord, send plentiful showers of Holy Spirit grace to us now. We are dry, and breaking. Our society is in danger of becoming a desert of self-centred cynicism and the poorest and weakest are left to one side: where they can be ignored until they die, or at least until they are silent.

Lord, please send abundant rain to restore these worn-out lands. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Yet, still… there is hope. The water lily still floats, and beauty touches hardened hearts.

Laser Love – Look, See, Pray

Psalm 26:2-3 Test me, O LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; for your love is ever before me, and I walk continually in your truth.

——————–

Let Your Light shine, bright as a laser. Please light up my darkest shadows, so I may see how Divine Love conquers darkness.

Lord, You know me inside and out; even the things I condemn in myself- Yet Your knowing opens a window in my soul, allowing fresh air and fragrance within. Refine what is good and to be valued. Allow the holy Fire to purify my heart and mind, for without Your Holiness I cannot be clean. Let Your Light shine, a welcoming lamp for the pilgrim. Light my path, make a clear way for me to walk: show me Your footprints on the Way, so I may follow.

Test me, try me, examine me, in Truth and with Love. Not to catch me out, nor to condemn, but to help my journey with mercy and hope.

Forgive, O Lord, my detours and departures from the Way. Shine a beacon to bring me home. Shine a light for all those in peril on the seas of confusion. Shine Your love for all travellers mired in the mists. Make Your Way plain, that we may walk in it.

Let Your laser-love highlight the beauty in Creation, and illuminate the Christ-child within my own heart. Let Your living Word speak, illumine my mind, Your essence shaping mine, as I become like You.

With thankfulness I turn to You this day; You are the Way, the Truth, the Life. Forgiven, chosen, called and welcomed, a child of Your light, a child of Your adoption, a lost and prodigal son feasted by my Father in Heaven through the mercy in Christ Jesus and the indwelling Spirit of Holiness.

Lord, with humble heart I call on Your Name. Help me to live today with integrity and sincerity, to live in the Light and reflect Jesus wherever I go, whatever I do. Amen.

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.”

 

The Delicate Dance” – Look, See, Pray

“The delicate dance.” Whirling, waving, singing in the breeze. Humble grasses of endless variety grow almost anywhere round the world.

A carpet to walk on, a banquet to creatures great and small. Background colours of restful greens and brown, and all too easy to overlook. We cut it down to make hay, we give our civilised selves a never-ceasing summer of work with scythe or lawnmower. We take grass for granted.

Grass helps protect from soil erosion. It makes a perfect surface for sports and picnics. It helps regulate the atmosphere we breathe.

Our Bibles are full of references to grass; in the beautiful 23rd Psalm of the Good Shepherd, we read “He causes me to lie down in pastures of green grass; he guides me beside quiet waters.”

My photograph today comes from a lakeside in the Zillertal of Austria. A good long walk up the valley led to a gorgeous turquoise-coloured lake. Kindly souls had put a seat with a view across the water to a snow-clad peak. Here, in the peace and quiet, we took our rest, our lunch, and our pictures.

Dancing delicately in the mountain air, these grass seed-heads rustled and swayed to an unheard tune.

Sunshine was followed by gentle showers, and a little later by a brief but dramatic thunderstorm. Our day was enriched by these curious climatic changes. Tomorrow would see the delicate dance of the grass as an encore. The rain makes it all live. Soil is shallow on the hard rocks, and sun and wind dry the grass quickly. It is the living water that gives the life.

A verse to ponder from Deuteronomy, extolling the virtue and value of the Words and Love of God. Be refreshed.

“My teaching, let it fall like a gentle rain, my words arrive like morning dew, like a sprinkling rain on new grass, like spring showers on the garden.” – Deuteronomy 32:2 (Message)

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Faithfulness and Grace- Look, See, Pray

Today was a GOOD NEWS day- for me. I want to shout out “God is good!” which is, of course, true… but I must restrict myself a bit and say only that God has been good to me at this moment in time. This is not to be boastful or claim any special “holy” status, but because God is in His essential nature faithful and loving: and He gives grace not because “we deserve it” but because He CHOOSES to love the unfaithful.

I was diagnosed with bowel cancer this autumn. It was serious enough to require urgent major surgery, and our wonderful N.H.S. acted swiftly and effectively. Getting over the surgery has been painful and seems slow. But today I visited the oncologist about follow up treatment (chemotherapy). My expectation was six months of chemo.

Chemotherapy not required… the doctors think I am 85% likely to be clear of cancer; annual scans will look out for any possible regrowth. You can imagine the relief… the sense of getting your life back, the lifting of the gloomy shadow of fear and doubt.

Many people have prayed for me (I am truly grateful) and practical support and love has been showered on my life. I have felt a sense of God’s presence; and known other dark moments where faith felt like a mouse squeaking in the cellar waiting for the cat to pounce.

This evening I have sent the good news round to friends and family. I looked in the book of Psalms hoping to find a good “praise verse”… and I found this.

Psalm 91:14-16 (NLT)
The LORD says, “I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name. When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue and honour them. I will reward them with a long life and give them my salvation.”

God is faithful. I do love Him, I trust Him, and I need Him. It’s just that I’m not as faithful in my faith as He is. Do I have any right to say God has blessed me? No, if I am trading with God… “Hey, God, if you scratch my back… and I’ll try to be nice and be good…”

It doesn’t work like that.

I know my own weaknesses, and the things that trip me up. I wish I was 100% perfect but I’m not (yet).

Father God has reminded me this evening that He IS faithful, the One of eternal loving-kindness. He has also reminded me that GRACE is what is given when my faithfulness falls flat on its face. A namesake of mine, St Richard, was Bishop of Chichester from 1244 to 1253 and gave us a prayer that I treasure. It’s my faith-response to the gap between God’s faithfulness and my own.

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which you have given us, for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us. Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day. Amen.

God has been good to me- and I really want to love Him better, and be more like Jesus. I’m depending on His faithfulness- AND still on His grace. Left to myself, I can, do, and will fail. The reason God has “been good to me” today is that HE won’t take my weakness and failures as the last word. I’m proud of having a Father like that. My hope is that more and more of us will come to know and understand and experience that Fatherly Love.

 

Trusting in princes? Look, See, Pray

Who’s in charge? Take me to your leader!

It is both humbling and sad to see the state of the “Mother of Parliaments.” Who leads? A good question! Does a job title mean more than a label? Passionate disagreements have split friendships, alliances, and public opinion. Personal ambition and hidden agendas lurk in the dark corners. Who can we trust? Where should we turn?

There is nothing new under the Sun and stars. History is littered with the relics of ideas and ambitions. Some conquer by brute force- but fade away. Some float lofty ideals and aspirations- and are brought back to earth. Playing “piggy in the middle” are the ordinary people caught up in struggles beyond our ability to influence very much.

Relying on human authorities is unwise. Praying for those in positions of authority is required of Christians because there IS a Higher Authority. In Psalm 146 we can read a lovely and realistic expression of a Hope that will not fade. “Don’t put your trust in princes! Put your trust in the Lord your God… Look at what God WILL do…” He reigns as the True Sovereign over heaven and Earth.

Pray today. Pray now. Pray that God will somehow guide and direct so that righteousness, mercy, and justice are the benchmarks of our society: that extremism on all sides will be tempered by calm thinking and peacemaking. Pray that God may do what only He CAN do. Pray for the peace and security of our richly diverse society so that all are valued by the worth God places on them- God who loves the world SO MUCH that He sent Jesus, the Christ, to rescue and redeem us. Pray NOT that God be on “our side” – rather pray that WE might be on God’s side, so that we may be peace makers and peace bringers. Joyful are those who have God as their helper.

019270319 Springins Comma LSP Ps146

Praise the LORD ! Let all that I am praise the LORD. I will praise the LORD as long as I live. I will sing praises to my God with my dying breath. 

Don’t put your confidence in powerful people; there is no help for you there. When they breathe their last, they return to the earth, and all their plans die with them. But joyful are those who have the God of Israel as their helper, whose hope is in the LORD their God. He made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them. He keeps every promise forever. 

He gives justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry. The LORD frees the prisoners. The LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are weighed down. The LORD loves the godly. The LORD protects the foreigners among us. He cares for the orphans and widows, but he frustrates the plans of the wicked. The LORD will reign forever. He will be your God, O Jerusalem, throughout the generations. Praise the LORD !

   Psalm 146

Seeking Peace- Look, See, Pray

Psalm 34:14 (NLT) Turn away from evil and do good. Search for peace, and work to maintain it.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how fed up are you with watching the news? Every headline is dramatic, every event is a potential crisis, and what wouldn’t we give for a bit of peace and quiet?

Mild February days are rare enough to be treasured. This afternoon I cycled down to Pagham Harbour, my local nature reserve. I was surprised to find the tide was right in: the mudbanks usually hosting a convention of wading birds were covered in blue and gold water.  I settled down to absorb the peacefulness of the scene, and watched the available wildlife action: a short-eared owl quartering the reed beds, and then the explosively noisy eruption of hundreds of Brent geese who left their farm field and came down to the water. After a short while, quiet took over again.

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One of the best-known and powerful images in the Bible is found in Psalms.

Psalm 23 speaks of “still waters” and water symbolises life, cleansing, and renewal.

This is a beautiful theme. Without water, we could not live.

Psalm 34 v14 instructs us to search for peace, and when we find it, work to preserve that peace.

Searching for peace in a wearying world may seem a fruitless task.

Perhaps this week, you could find- search for- a peaceful place, near water if possible, and take time to enjoy it. Reflections and ripples can inspire thoughts and prayers.

Silence and beauty restore our soul. In this world of strife and noise, we are called to be peacemakers, peace-bringers, servants of the Prince of Peace. In the quiet and calm of our restored souls, we may find strength and grace to share peace and preserve it.

Sleepless hunter

Chronic pain is something doctors and patients hate because it is hard to treat and often has a cause that has some element of mystery. Some of you may know that I had to retire early because of the “invisible illness” fibromyalgia. I am truly grateful to the NHS for all they have done to help me cope, and for the techniques and medications that help keep the pain under control.

But the illness may flare up at any time.

The photograph is of an owl prowling, flying just above the ground with those flame-orange eyes fixed on food. There is a grace and magnificence about the hunter at work, and yet a primal fear of the merciless efficiency of the predator.  Owls change from total stillness to silent flight in a moment; they are looking for the weak and vulnerable. Their hunting instinct never sleeps.

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This week my “sleepless hunter” has been fibromyalgia, suddenly sinking talons again into muscle and bone. Without warning, like the silently swooping owl, it strikes efficiently. For no apparent reason symptoms flare into life as the wings fan the dormant sparks into fire. It has been a reminder that I can’t take it for granted that the more relaxed life of a retired minister will always keep my hunter away.

Today’s post is a plea to us all: please keep your eyes and ears open so we can support and encourage those who are ill, especially for those who suffer the “invisible illnesses.”  It seems easier to care for the ones in hospital, or carrying a limb in plaster. The ones who may look OK on the outside aren’t noticed. Please pray for the people you know with MS or ME, fibro and COPD, with chronic pain or with mental illness.

Tomorrow I may be feeling better again. Or not. Good days are treasured but not guaranteed. Here’s one of my favourite psalms about the God who guards our lives: the “sleepless hunter” faces an unsleeping Guardian. Truly and reverently I say: Thank God.

Psalm 121:1-8 (Message)
I look up to the mountains; does my strength come from mountains? My strength comes from GOD, who made heaven, and earth, and mountains. He won’t let you stumble, your Guardian God won’t fall asleep. Not on your life! Israel’s Guardian will never doze or sleep. GOD‘s your Guardian, right at your side to protect you—  Shielding you from sunstroke, sheltering you from moonstroke. GOD guards you from every evil, he guards your very life. He guards you when you leave and when you return, he guards you now, he guards you always.

 

Patterns- Look, See, Pray

Patterns attract our eyes. Sometimes our eyes “make” patterns or interpret shapes as something familiar: for example, we can “see” faces in the patterns of the scorch-marks on a piece of toast!
 
This diagonal pattern of orange fenders protecting the woodwork of a landing stage is striking because of the colours, reflections, and regularity of all the elements in the photo.
 
The fenders are there to protect the jetty and take the weight of the boat that comes alongside. One is needed on each upright.
 
Here’s a pattern of a different sort- a song that repeats one line 25 times! How boring is that? Well, that depends…
 
“For his faithful love endures forever.”
 
This line is in Psalm 136. It’s a song written and sung to remind worshippers that God is there to protect them in all the ups and downs. Here’s an idea… read the psalm in the morning, or the evening, or whenever life is getting challenging… The pattern reinforces the TRUTH.
“His faithful love endures forever.”
 
Psalm 136:1-3 (NLT)
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods. His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords. His faithful love endures forever.
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