Hardy or Tender? Look, See, Pray

Hardy or tender? This has suddenly become the priority question for English gardeners. Frost is starting to turn our gardens into a killing zone. Colourful stars of the summer like dahlias and pelargoniums are quaking to their roots! Shrubs like this fuchsia have had a rude awakening… some must be rescued, others may survive- time will tell.

Hardy plants are so useful: year after year, through summer and winter, they survive almost anything the seasons send against them. Tough as boots, some of them.

Tender specimens can fall over at the first crystalline kiss of Jack Frost.

Both types have their beauty and distinctive contribution to make. Our British gardens are enriched by species collected from all over the world: but we have to learn about their needs, vulnerabilities, and how to place them to best advantage. And, of course, our native plants also have riches to add to our treasury of colour, form, and fruit.

The problem is this. A novice gardener has to learn (often the hard way!) and frequently is taught by the change of external circumstances. Winter is coming…

I suppose you could draw a parallel with people and organisations. This year has slapped our faces with a dangerous illness. We react to the new circumstances according to our essential nature- there is loss, hardship, courage, despair, and hope… When the new season begins, what will still be standing? What will re-grow? What is gone for ever?

From a church viewpoint, I have noticed a miracle! Nobody has said “We’ve never done it this way before…”

We have made use of Zoom, given thanks for broadband, tried to find new ways to care for each other, offer pastoral support, pray and worship, teach and encourage. Are those efforts perfect? No. But they are good. Do we miss meeting together? Of course.

We’ve never done it before… So let’s do it NOW! Let’s work together, challenge discrimination and injustice, let’s share love, compassion and sincere faith. Let’s change the things that were broken for something new and better!

Some church denominations (whose way of being church is based on a priestly, sacramental, and heirarchical theology) are pleading with the government for permission to meet in their church buildings. There is a clash between their way of “doing church” and the “love your neighbour by not giving them Covid-19.”

Other church fellowships are saying the Government “has no authority to tell us not to worship God.”

I understand their opinions and pain. Our year is blighted by frost! Yet I believe our response to the horrible change of circumstances could be more adventurous. It is an opportunity to live out our faith in different ways and discover that new methods can still be life-giving and worshipful. All of us should be observing sensible rules on distancing, using masks, maximising hygiene, protecting the most vulnerable- wherever we worship.

I miss not meeting with others: family, friends, church. I’ll queue up for the vaccines which can help restore “normal” life. But I really hope that we won’t just go back to the ways things were. Those ways are broken. Society is broken. Families are broken. The racism, poverty and injustice that afflicted too many should NOT be re-instated by default.

Jesus spoke of “new wine needing new wineskins.” New life can’t be contained in worn-out, brittle institutions.

He also said “My Father is the Gardener.”

May the Gardener tend us all, so that next year will be full of colourful flowers, strong plants, and a great harvest.

Finding Hope – Look, See, Pray

Sunset over the Selsey Peninsula

Living without hope is soul-destroying. Hopelessness eats at our spirit, our courage, our relationships and even our ability to love. Then we give up. Or we start to try experimenting with ridiculous risks or harmful actions.

“Acceptable social anaesthetics” like drugs, alcohol or sexual indulgence offer temporary relief: but if there is a vacuum at the centre, everything is sucked in and destroyed. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I may seek bigger experiences, zingier worship, allow my faith to collapse- or I can build on my foundation.

WHAT we focus on will affect our day-to-day mood and actions.

WHO we focus on will determine our story’s end.

I count myself blessed to be living near the sea. Autumn means the beaches are mostly empty, and the sunrise and sunsets are a personal art gallery to be enjoyed and cherished. The other day I watched small waves coming in at an angle of about 25 degrees to the shoreline. As they broke there was a long succession of noise as the water curved onto the stones, like a succession dive by a line of synchronised swimmers. It was almost hypnotic- certainly very calming.

Perhaps it is in these observations of the wonder of creation that we can find reminders of God. Combine that with a reflection on God’s revealed Word, and we can find encouragement to strengthen our minds and our spirits.

The grateful heart finds hope in counting these blessings and the solidity of the world- the Faithful God is revealed in the faithful repetition of sea, land and sky. There can be- will be- storms and disasters- but they pass and new days come. So far, I have a 100% record of surviving life… and a growing bundle of joy-filled photos to remind me that God IS… He is LOVE… AND HE IS FAITHFUL.

My choice is important. What and WHO will I focus on? That’s where I will find hope.

Psalm 33:22 (NLT) Let your unfailing love surround us, LORD, for our hope is in you alone.

Blessed are the Grumpy – Look, See, Pray

I’ve been reading Tanya Marlow’s helpful little book “Coming back to God when you feel empty” which sets her story of serious personal illness against the story of Ruth & Naomi (Book Of Ruth).

Reality for many of us is that we have times of sadness, frustration, or annoyance. Try as we might to be “poster boy/girl” of perfection as Christ-followers, life persists in poking spanners in our plans. Perhaps we have been (badly) taught that a Christian should be always smiling, calm, successful and never cross. When you started your experience of Christ and His Church, were you issued with your SWEG? Mandatory a few years ago, the “Slimy Wet Evangelical Grin” divided the failures from the REAL people of faith.

Well, in “Ruth” we have a story set in dangerous days when Israel was mostly doing whatever they liked, and God had to keep sending leaders (Judges) to sort them out. Naomi gave up on God because a famine lasted too long; then went to Moab, where the Lord had forbidden Israelites to go. Tragedy followed- her husband died, her sons marry- but also die- and her sensible daughter-in-law skipped out. Naomi was understandably grumpy, and even told people she was called “Bitter.” The story has a brilliant and happy ending (read it, it’s quite short) and God uses Naomi, Ruth, and a man named Boaz to be part of the story that leads up to the Incarnation of Jesus.

Some of you are thinking “Grumpy?” Others are offended by the “SWEG” comment. Tough. Be real.

A surprising number of Bible characters get grumpy, and don’t grin like loons. The Bible tells it straight, warts and grumps included. Moses, Jacob, Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Nehemiah… the list goes on. Grumpy is real (although not something to aspire to).

The good bit is this. God understands. Especially when the mucky end of the stick comes our way, when others aggravate us, or persist in holding contradictory opinions, or when circumstances drop us in the swamp… God would rather have our honest grumps than insincere swegs.

Having gone through life with a passing resemblance to the warthog in the photo, I say passionately that we don’t have to pretend perfection. Praise and thanksgiving ought to be coming out of our heart and mouth regularly- but if you get a Warthog Day please know this: Blessed are the grumpy, for God still loves them and understands.

As a man whose character tends toward smiles and contentment, with a deep conviction that God has been good to me, I still get grumpy (even if I may not show it often). So with all my heart, I thank God for this truth: Blessed are the Grumpy.

Go on, smile for the camera, Mrs Warthog…

Warthog, Houston Zoo, Texas, USA

See www.tanyamarlow.com and her blog “Thorns and Gold” for more helpful and honest articles. https://www.facebook.com/tanya.marlow

Ordained! – Look, See, Pray

Today I am remembering my Ordination, July 24th 1988. A long time ago, many promises made and many people to remember. As I walked along Pagham beach, on all the stones, I enjoyed the stubborn plants that were bringing brightness and life to the day. It reminded me of a song by Paul Field, link below, called Stony Ground.

If you have time, please listen to the song. It says so much about the struggle between a “vocation” and the inner growth that must take place if anyone is to measure up to that call.

Becoming a Christian minister was the result of a ten-year process of discovery and preparation. I will remain ever grateful to my tutors and fellow students at Spurgeon’s College, where I learned to wrestle with the Bible’s message and begin the process of forming my inner self. Part of me says I was not worthy of the honour of serving Christ, the Church, and the communities I have lived in. The rest of me is so grateful that God does allow imperfect people to proclaim “Life in all its fullness” (as Jesus put it in John 10 v10).

Some of you may not know what a “minister” does apart from speak in church on Sundays, and with the occasional wedding or funeral to lead.

Ministry is an amazing privilege: I have shared in the most personal and important moments in many people’s lives, often helping most by being there when they needed a friend. Ministry is also a stressful and difficult road. Without God’s help, I would not have lasted more than a few months!

It also involves being a disciple of Jesus, learning from Him as I travelled through my life. Without faith and grace, I would have had nothing to share. Being able to assist others in their exploration of Christianity, and walking alongside to serve with them, has been a greater honour than I deserve.

There are people I have loved, and others I found hard to like. I have learned and received a huge amount from their stories and experiences; and I have laughed and cried with them all.

I wouldn’t change any of it- they have taught me so much.

My journey still goes on, in different ways now, and I remain astonished that God loved me enough to put up with my imperfections and hard heart. Surely, Lord, I have been stony ground- surely You must have found a better man than me. Thank You for softening my stony heart, thank You for allowing the flowers to bloom and show that true life of the Spirit can breathe on anyone, even me.

God seems to specialise in loving obstinate, ordinary, broken, beautiful souls in all shapes and sizes. Perhaps you know what I mean… or will do one day.

Thank God for life, love, and purpose. May Christ be glorified in all the refugee rebels who He calls and rescues- as He has done for me.

Potential- Look, See, Pray

It has potential. This dahlia bud will develop into a glorious scarlet flower, which will be a bee-feeding station for several days, will attract insects to pollinate it, and eventually produce seeds for the future of dahlia existence.

Right now, it won’t win prizes. Interesting shapes, but unless you are a biologist or keen gardener it won’t attract a crown until the flower is in full-on-in-your-face-red mode.

If you judge this dahlia at this point, you’ll pass it over- despite its potential. Unless you are a photographer, in which case (like me) you will take its picture and marvel at the wonder of such a diverse and splendid Creation.

What will be grows from what is.

The principle applies in our spirituality too. Philippians 1:6 (NLT):  And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.

Once submitted to Christ, we have potential. That potential will take time and effort; and the direct assistance of Holy Spirit power. Just think. The Creator who designed dahlias and created the laws of physics that enable us to enjoy its colour also sees potential in US.

We are often too quick to judge, to criticise, or to dismiss. I am so grateful for people who saw potential in me: and to God Himself who placed that potential within me. I am deeply indebted to the people who kept on trusting, testing, and investing in me so that the potential began to turn into effective and attractive fruitfulness.

Today I sat in the shade of my palm tree and looked at the garden I am rebuilding. Obstacles have been removed, the soil is being improved, plants are settling in well and produce wonderful form and colour. It might not be at this stage without the pandemic! I have been isolating at home, and have been working dahlia, sorry, DAILY, with a plan, some tools, and a little knowledge. Now it is becoming rewarding and enjoyable- potential is being realised, and I love it.

As I sat there, mug of tea in hand, I prayed in thanksgiving and in humility. Grateful for potential fulfilled in me and in the garden God has given me to tend.

Jeremiah the prophet spoke to a people in exile (a bit like a terrible pandemic…) and it helped me remember my task. Plant a garden, and pray for the community.

Jeremiah 29:4-7 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

A situation with potential… What might God do with believers who settle into their community and seek blessing for that community! Rather than a selfish “Bless me, Lord” prayer, to mean wholeheartedly “Bless THEM, Lord.”

What God has begun in me- and in you- will be completed and fulfilled by God. Potential for hope, love, joy, healing, grace, mercy and peace. Thanks for letting me see this dahlia, Lord… and what it shows of potential for change, growth, and glory. Amen.

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.

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.