Nothing to See? Look, See, Pray

There’s nothing to see. Move on” said the small group of walkers who paused to see what I was looking at. Yet I spent a happy half-hour looking at this “nothing.” I had a reason.

Can you work out the missing element?

It is mid-October, about 4pm. Until 4.30pm. As I stood, leaning on the fence, everything was still. Scarcely a ripple on the water, very light breeze, and almost complete silence. So peaceful! I was content and stayed focussed on just being there.

Time is what the photo misses. It is frozen history, a moment that is past forever. But because I gave this scene time, I witnessed life. You, the reader, can’t see or hear this Life- you weren’t there, or you moved on too swiftly. Over beyond those reedy mudflats, two swans set off to a lakelet behind the North Wall of the RSPB Reserve. The place was so still, I heard the sound of the wind through the pinions of their wings, swooshing forcefully with every downbeat. An Oystercatcher swept by heading for the beach. Dunlins sprang up and dashed like a high-speed train inches above the water. Ducks passed by, a kestrel hovered spying on the mammal morsels she sought to invite for supper. The piping calls of wading birds echoed across the placid water.

Nothing to see? Rubbish! This scene just needed some time and attention.

So it can be with “hearing God” or even just trying to pray. We give a few moments, but we’re not tuned in. We see nothing of interest, hear nothing to take our attention. What if we invested more time? A day, a week, maybe an hour or two. Perhaps we would hear a gentle Voice of relieved Love- “At last! You can hear me!” – as our senses are sharpened and our attention made real.

I do not think there is any shortcut to hearing God. But giving time and attention is a great start.

God sometimes takes the initiative- He may call out to us, or communicate via a prophet, preacher or stranger. The Holy Bible is the record of what He has already said. Holy Spirit insight may be given in several ways. The Old Testament writers like Amos, Jeremiah, and the Chronicler point out that “If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me.” Jeremiah 29:13 (NLT).

2 Chronicles 15:1 (NLT)
Then the Spirit of God came upon Azariah son of Oded, and he went out to meet King Asa as he was returning from the battle. “Listen to me, Asa!” he shouted. “Listen, all you people of Judah and Benjamin! The LORD will stay with you as long as you stay with him! Whenever you seek him, you will find him. But if you abandon him, he will abandon you.…”

Verse 8 tells us that King Asa “heard the words of the prophet and took courage.” Asa became a good king, faithful to God and to the people: he introduced vital reforms, and mostly did well. He sought God with all his heart. He gave time, attention, and obedience.

Perhaps you are “stuck” in a place or time where there is “nothing to see” and you are frustrated. The halls of heaven echo silence.

In that silence the Lord may speak. Wait. (We don’t like waiting, we live in an “instant” society.) Use the time, embrace the silence, cling on to the truth that God is the Revealer and Reconciler. Look for God wholeheartedly: don’t rush away despairingly. In the silence and in peace or turmoil- God will speak.

“Silent” and “Listen” have the same letters, just in a different order; and being silent is often the first step of listening. Start right here, right now.

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.

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.

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.

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.

All the rage! Look, See, Pray

So many angry people. So much hatred and violence- being angry is all the rage!

DSC_0116_1661114Whipsnade_

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.”