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)

Journey’s Blessing- Look, See, Pray

Some photographs are planned- some just happen. I waited at Bonehill Rocks above Widecombe-in-the-Moor for the setting sun to break through the cloud: then with little warning, a climber stepped into the light. The traveller was enshrined- his journey over the rocks and wild hills of Dartmoor has been immortalised.

We didn’t speak. He may not even know he was photographed. His evening was all exertion and the warm glow of achievement.

I regard this as a favourite photo. It tells a story- or lets YOU tell a story- about the silhouetted figure against the warm light. Dark clouds and solid granite frame the moment. What does it say to you?

A prayer for all who travel, who make pilgrimage:

“God bless the path you take, and the earth beneath your feet. May God bless your destination.”

May God guide you, protect you, and make your travelling a blessing to others when you arrive.

Ups and Downs- Look, See, Pray

Back where we started… nearly. East Sussex to West Sussex, via the hills of England. As a child, it seemed hilarious that the local hill areas were called “Downs” instead of “Ups.” It’s still quite funny.

Many youthful hours were spent exploring the South Downs. Foredown, Southwick Hill, Truleigh Hill, the Devil’s Dyke, Lancing Clump, and Mount Caburn… There were favourite walks, and other walks when we kids were “persuaded” to enjoy a long hot slog across rural Sussex. We survived; maybe even thrived!

Later more competitive jaunts featured: including one ambitious navigation exercise eastwards from Brighton which proved interesting when a local farmer demolished a barn which was (unknown to him) supposed to be a crucial waymark that weekend. Teams disappeared in various directions as those groups lacking guidance and map-reading skills improvised. That was a long day.

Welsh mountains, the glorious Lake District, the Peaks of Derbyshire, the delights of Dartmoor, sunny Dunstable Downs- and now living in sight of the South Downs again. I have been privileged to live in beautiful places. Do I have favourites? Yes- all of them!

What started out as family walks to keep us occupied and use up our excessive energy gradually changed into a lifetime’s passion. After a while, I began to “read” landscapes. Their shapes and contours, the pathways, and the flora and fauna became a storybook. In time the countryside became a prayer-book: a favoured place to seek God, and to think through the ups and downs of decision-making and (even more important) the ups and downs of my own heart.

Look at the photo. Rounded contours form a shape painted by evening sunlight. Crops are growing, with the trails of tractors weaving patterns that give a sense of both movement and symmetry. Somehow the farmer overcomes the slopes to maintain straight lines. There is purpose in the landscape that rests on the very bones of the Earth. People pass through, changing the surface, but leaving the immense chalk mounds untouched.

How does that reflect our own lives? Our small ambition, even our great purpose, is acted out on a mighty stage. The hills represent the great unchangeable structure of the world- our greatest efforts and achievements, our human history there to be re-written by the next generation.

Climbing these hills is always laborious. The summits are never easily gained! Even the journey down-slope is hard on the knees- but the view from the summit, the sense of attainment, the awe that comes from being a very small creature in a huge, huge planet… THAT is a place for vision, for choices, celebration and encouragement. If you allow, it is a place for worship of the Most High God.

Perhaps, using the photo or your own memories, you can spend some moments of prayerful reflection on your own life, your ups and downs, and your faith. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God’s favourite “hill” and the promise that humanity WILL come to worship… why not now?

Isaiah 2:2 (New Living Translation) In the last days, the mountain of the LORD’s house will be the highest of all— the most important place on earth. It will be raised above the other hills, and people from all over the world will stream there to worship.

Memories- Look, See, Pray

Lewtrenchard Manor Gardens, Devon.

Birthday presents get trickier as you get older. So when I asked my wonderful wife what she would like for a “significant” birthday, I received a profound answer.

“Memories.”

Nothing like raising the stakes! Wisdom was applied… and we booked a short break at Lewtrenchard Manor in Devon. It was more expensive than our usual level of venue, but it was an experience to remember. It became a memory to cherish. This photo of the garden is my favourite; although it could have been a picture to remind us of the excellent restaurant, or the authentic antique furniture. Or the grandeur of the building… and so on.

Wrapping the gift was easy. Suitcase, overcoats, suit & posh frock, and off we went across Dartmoor and past Okehampton to our hotel. Did you know that the writer of the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” used to live in the Manor, and was Rector of the adjacent parish church? See, now you have a memory to hold on to as well!

It is still a lovely, precious memory. If one of us says “Lewtrenchard” we both sigh happily and recall the special moments of the Manor that weekend.

Most truly valuable things in our lives are memories, thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Stuff we acquire along the way fades or fails, or is replaced or upgraded. We can’t take any of it with us!

The things we do, and the people we become, are what matter most.

Jesus told us to “store up treasure in heaven” rather than amass wealth that could rust, ruin, or be stolen. It’s about priorities and values: when we choose to live according to the way of Christ, our lives have a deeper purpose and the things we “hold” in this life are to be used for the Kingdom of God rather than our selfish requirements. God, it seems, has a bias to the poor. I do wonder what it will be like for immensely rich people when God enquires about the way they used their wealth.

But then, although not well off, I and most of us in the wealthy West are ASTONISHINGLY rich compared to the majority of the world’s population. What will Jesus say to me when He looks me in the eye?

Love God, love your neighbour, and live a holy life (with His help) is a short summary of following Jesus. Being forgiven is not to be taken for granted; but definitely something for which to be thankful.

Sitting loose to our possessions is good advice. Making and storing great memories, and doing the things Jesus would do, these are the kind of “treasures” we should store.

My most precious memories are about love. The love of God, the love of my wife, my family and friends- and sometimes the love of a stranger. Memories are made of this.

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.

Restlessness? – Look, See, Pray

St Anton am Arlberg

High in the Alps is a grassy slope, enriched with myriad flowers. Home to butterflies, bees, and the harsh cry of raven and eagle.

People come here in the winter to ski and make merry.

Summer is a quieter time, a few serious walkers striding out a strenuous path- and many ramblers, seeking rest and quiet in the vaulted cathedral of creation.

It is a “thin place” to those seeking God’s Presence. A long slow climb, or the near-silent flight of the cable-cars, then sitting, reflecting, prayers with or without words. Magnificent beauty, the grandeur of mountains already ancient before human footsteps wore pathways or eyes beheld the rich tapestry of an ever-changing display of light and shadow, sun and cloud. Above the treeline our perspective on the world changes. We can become open to wonder- if we so choose.

Far below in the valley, the roads are lines with ant-sized cars. Houses are tiny, the railway almost unnoticed. The noise of “civilisation” fades under the whistle of wind in the grass, the sawing rasp of grasshoppers, and the silence of stone.

It is quiet- no, it is peaceful. Maybe a storm will pass its wings overhead, the clang of cowbells may drift up from below… For those willing to sit, to wait, and to wonder, it becomes a grander Colosseum where stone walls stretch to the clouds and beyond: instead of a Man-place, it is a God-place. He is here. So are you.

What use will we make of this soul-restoring, humbling beauty? Will our restless heart demand attention- or will our spirit fall silent in the Presence of the Holy One?

God awaits our chosen response. The world is hushed.

The Lord is in this place.

Love with no Limit – Look, See, Pray

Um. Er, God, um… I’m having a little bit of trouble. With some Christians.

I read this piece from the New Testament, you see, where Paul tells them off about the way that church behaved and worshipped. It isn’t that I disagree with Paul, but… Love and all that – well, there are a couple of people I’m finding hard to love. Not even sure I like one of them!

Why? Well, they are wrong about….. Sorry, did You interrupt me? Oh. I interrupted… What were You saying? “I’m wrong about some stuff?” Never! I went to college and everything. What about what?

No, I don’t really want to talk about THAT. I’m embarrassed enough without You saying stuff. Can we change the subject, please? “You still love me, even though…” Well, of course You do. It’s Your job. Can we get back to the point, please. Sorry? “It’s not MY place to tell You your job!” Alright, alright. Point taken. I’m sorry.

As I was saying, these two bozos… er, sorry, gentlemen, they’re obviously wrong or deluded- or perhaps they’ve gone to the Dark Side… “Another clanger, Richard!” Oh, slip of the tongue, that isn’t in the New Testament. You know what I meant. Anyone can make a mistake! “Exactly.”

“You want me to go back and read it again?” Why? “I seem to have missed the point… ???”

But I was talking about them, you know, not very lovable… annoying, even. Daft as a brush!

“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal… If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing. Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out… Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance…

Oh. Well, when You say it like that… But… “Deal with your own faults before criticising them.”

I don’t want to. Surely I’m better than… Sorry? What? “Not the way Jesus sees me? Love doesn’t play favourites like that…” I need to listen some more? “Prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever!  Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture! But when full understanding comes, these partial things will become useless. When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.

So does that mean… “Definitely YES. I can’t go round behaving like an arrogant…” – Well, I didn’t mean to be. But aren’t they wrong? Oh dear- “You’ll tell them at the right time IF they’re wrong: just like You tell me when I behave badly…”

I guess I was having more trouble than I realised. Father God, can you help me to love better? To be patient and kind, and forgiving, and less of a …….. I think I’m just going to leave that there, God. Thanks for Your help. I think. Yeah, I suppose You’re right. Love. That’s You all over. Um, yes, this has been awkward- no, I’ve been awkward. And a bit wrong. It’s all about Love. Goodnight, Father.

“You can do better- when you let Me help… Love really matters.”

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.