Elephants and a Bridge- Look, See, Pray

What am I photographing? Is it a famous Dartmoor bridge? Perhaps it’s the River Dart. Yes …. but… No. It’s the Sun.

“Eh?” I hear. “But the sun isn’t in the picture!”

Correct- but the Sun is too bright, too big, too awesome. No earth-bound camera can cope with that challenge. All we can do is record the effect of the Sun, showing how the light changes our perception of the world. Reflected by the stone and water inside the arch, light glows out. We just KNOW that if we looked through the arch, we’d see the sun (or be dazzled by it, anyway!).

When we say “What is God like?” we’re doing theology. Our problem is trying to explain and describe the gloriously indescribable- we lack the words to speak, and the mindpower to comprehend. Our best insight comes from the self-revelation of God’s true essence in the person of Jesus Christ. (Since it’s Lent, it is a great time to think about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.)

Imagine describing an elephant to someone who has never seen one. Ask two friends to draw a picture, one starting from above, and the second person working from the feet upwards.

The picture might look like the one below: and it’s a brain teaser! How many legs does an elephant have? Of course you know… but the drawing may make you rather confused.

Now, the conclusion of Christian theologians is that Jesus is the Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Three-in-One. How will you explain the Trinity? Tricky… our best efforts are incomplete. How do you “explain” Jesus as both human and divine? With difficulty. If you start from the top, the God-ness of Jesus, you will understand quite a lot. If you start from below, the human-ness of Jesus you will understand a whole lot more.

But the picture isn’t perfect, or without mystery. It’s like the “legs of an elephant” picture… and it’s the best we can do. So if someone understands a bit differently, perhaps it’s just because they’re seeing from a different angle. We can still be friends, and still follow the path of Jesus.

Jesus said “I am the Light of the world.” All our theology, and all our debates, are trying to describe the effect of Light in a world in shadow. Our God is too big, too strong and too Mighty to capture in our “brain-cam.”

He is LIGHT. In a dark time in a suffering world, it’s the Light that keeps us alive, still hoping, still trusting, May the Light shine on you! 

Early one morning… Look, See, Pray

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

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

So let’s go monochrome.

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

I wonder what other people will think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Dandelion Prayer- Look, See, Pray

I may never know what comes from a conversation, an act of kindness, a moment of generosity- or indeed from an angry word or unjust action. All I can do is choose how to live, how to speak- and to aim high.

Dandelions are a good example of seed sowing. The golden yellow flower cheers the heart, feeds the bees, and the plant is edible and nutritious. The wind takes the seed wherever it blows. In the right place, a valuable new plant grows. In the wrong place (my flower beds, for example!) it can be a wretched nuisance.

These seeds are fascinating- like tiny parachutes, the seed floats and is taken off to begin a new possibility. Once detached from the puffball, anything can happen.

A Dandelion Prayer:

Lord God, help my life to be a source of goodness and hope: may my deep roots grow in Your good earth. Then may justice, compassion, and kindness be the seeds I send into the world.

May my words be gracious, my attitudes positive, and my gratitude be contagious. Let my face know smiles and laughter, and share joy freely.

Help me keep my negative thoughts quarantined; my selfish impulses on a short leash; and please guard against any careless weeds or habits I may start growing that hurt or offend others.

May I remember that others aren’t worthless if they believe differently, or follow a path I might think is stupid. There but for God’s grace… and I must remember I have my own catalogue of poor choices and ridiculous actions, and therefore have little licence to judge!

O Lord, only You are Perfect: neither I nor those I meet today can ever proudly boast perfection- only Your salvation.

Lord, it is said that a weed is simply a plant in the wrong place. Please help my life sow good seeds that will grow a harvest of Love and Joy in the places and people You direct me to.

Finally, Lord, it is a fact that life is fragile and precious. Please use me to affirm the worth and beauty of the Life that You have shared with those I shall engage with this week. Wherever the Breath of Your Spirit blows the seeds You have given- may there be peace, wholeness, and Eternal Hope.

In the Name above all other names, please let my life sow the Love of Christ. Amen.


	

Shortcuts? Look, See, Pray

“Bowerman’s Nose, on Dartmoor. “Pastels on canvas” finish

Shortcuts are very tempting.

I used to dabble with painting before I became more interested in photography. Mostly, I used oil paint, pastels, or acrylics. Every now and then, I get the urge to “be arty.”

Now, though, I have a computer and I can take shortcuts. Instead of hours of work, constant practice, and achieving mastery of the medium- I can click a mouse button and select “Artistic Filters.”

Here is a picture I “art-ed” tonight.

One version is pretending a pastels finish on “canvas.” Another is a “watercolour” version; and the third is a JPG version of the original photo taken on real film about 20 years ago.

Watercolours… sort of…
Scan of the original photo taken on 6×4 film, Mamiya 645 camera

If I’m honest, none of them do justice to the film… or to the glorious Dartmoor landscape (Bowerman’s Nose, an ancient natural rock formation allegedly looking like a head with a prominent nose).

Shortcuts- they don’t always work out so well.

Growing as a Christian disciple is often long, slow, and painstaking. There are books and talks in plenty offering “perfection in 5 easy steps” – but none of them actually work out. Shortcuts can’t replace the time taken to develop relationship, to learn to depend on God, to discover deep truths from the Scriptures and Holy Spirit. Acquiring skills such as learning to pray, or to offer worship, or the arts of community (getting on with other believers without screaming too often!).

None of my pictures are a worthy substitute for visiting Dartmoor, walking through heather, listening to the wind hissing over the gorse… Sun on the face, and rain down the neck!

They may strike you as nice, possibly inspirational, or naff.

Bowerman’s Nose in the “I-can-touch-the-granite” sense is the best way to experience its reality.

I am learning- still learning after 66 years- that the authentic is worth seeking out. Taking time, making the journey, travelling with reliable guides and map: this is the best way, if not the SatNav approach of “Finding the Fastest Route.” To reach Bowerman’s Nose, you will explore Devon lanes, walk over wild and rugged land, and experience Dartmoor weather. Blisters are likely.

Jesus invites me to walk with Him; to be an apprentice, learning to imitate His life, accepting His authority, and choosing to obey. Shortcuts, though tempting, have sold me short.

Back, then, to the invitation of Jesus: Matthew 11:29 (Message) “Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.”

Planting in hope- Look, See, Pray

From the Garden- Lesson 2: Patience! Planting in hope… the basic optimism of gardeners.

This is a strange time in the garden- flowering is almost at its peak, but the cold wet Spring meant the wallflowers lasted longer than usual. I steeled myself to the horrid task of uprooting flowers that have given a long and bright burst of colour (I struggle with the ruthlessness of it, but it has to be done.)

Hidden in the mass of leaves and seed-heads were the rather scrawny anemones which I planted in hope several months ago. Anemone corms aren’t very impressive. Small, wrinkly, dark, dead-looking! On the packing was a glorious picture of floral splendour, but I hadn’t seen any signs of life yet. I wasn’t even sure they were where I thought I’d planted them.

Optimism is the belief that hope is worth it.  Hope is the expectation that what you plant is what you get later on.

Patience is the boring bit where you hold on to hope. My first gardening as a small boy was radishes and lettuce. Mum gave me a small bit of ground for “MY garden” and I eagerly did exactly what I was told. Next day, apparently, I was back on the plot digging them up to see if they were growing yet! Patience has improved… in fact, gardening is a brilliant way to learn patience.

Anyway, patience is paying off. The front garden now has anemones in whites, blues, and red.

In theory, they should be a good habit now. Having been planted, survived, and blooming they are perennials which should grow every year at the end of Spring.  Just like discipleship: the good habits and practices of prayer, worship, Bible reading, shared life and mission become a GOOD habit, a fact of life.

Paul writes about patience, endurance and hope-  it might be a letter about gardening!

Romans 5:3-6 (NLT) We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.

Deep Secrets from the garden- Look, See, Pray

“So long ago the Garden…” sang Larry Norman, when I was young, and referencing the oldest tale in the Bible. God created a Garden as the perfect home for humanity. I’ve just come in from my garden which is teaching me many lessons about living as a follower of Jesus Christ.

This rose has a history for me. I bought “Deep Secret” for my Mum: it’s almost-black buds open into a lovely deep velvety red rose with a glorious fragrance. She loved it!  It came from Woolworths (another name from the far past). Mum kept it and cared for it, and repaid the love by growing the rosebud I wore in my lapel on my wedding day. She also grew a cutting for me, so my garden in Derbyshire had a “Deep Secret.”

“Deep Secret” also featured in my new-build garden in Devon; and in the garden in Luton. Now back in Sussex, I went searching the garden centres until I found it again. This photo is from my front rose-bed today.

Retirement is offering me, for the first time ever, the opportunity to garden without needing to grab time from pressing agendas and obligations. My garden is a place to think, and to wholesomely sweat as I wage war against weeds and bugs; but above all a haven of peace and beauty. Having a garden gives responsibilities to mow the lawn, weed out the wrong plants, and share the blessing of beauty with the neighbours.

So I’m going to do a little series of reflections on gardens, me, and God.

The Garden of Eden is a story of love and tragedy. A perfect place, a new creation, a perfect relationship: all too quickly scarred and spoilt, and a breakdown of trust. What’s the “Deep Secret” of Eden?  Love doesn’t give up. God provides for human needs, and puts into motion the secret plan prepared before Time began.  See 2 Timothy 1:9  “For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time- to show us his grace through Christ Jesus.”

Life changes when we discover this precious “Deep Secret.” There’s a heavenly fragrance to enjoy…

Worth waiting for… Look, See, Pray

Waiting is worthwhile.

On Saturday, I posted a photo of this iris tightly furled and reflected on the value of patience.

Today it is fully open- and I love it.

Christian faith is built on the faithful and loving nature of God. In this age of “urgency” and hurry, it is important to remember that even though we have to wait for the final revelation of the perfect Kingdom of God, and may have to struggle with issues that take time to resolve, we CAN trust Him.

Here’s a truth to meditate on today: Hebrews 10:23 (Message)

“Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. He always keeps his word.”

A good reflection? Look, See, Pray

Reflections in the Fjord at Olden, Norway

Forty eight years. Where have they gone? If you’re doing the maths, that’s 1973. 29th April to be precise- the day I was baptised as a follower of Jesus Christ. 48 years today.

My Dad conducted the ceremony, three baptisms that evening: baptism by full immersion as believers and disciples. All three of us were baptised at our own request because we had received the grace of God and responded in faith & trust. Our public testimony marked us out as people who had encountered the love of God and who now intended to follow Him as obediently and sincerely as we could, with the help of the Holy Spirit working in us.

How much I have learnt. How much have I succeeded? Good question!

I hope that my faith in Christ has been clearly reflected throughout my life. Have I been perfect? Far from it. But I have learnt that forgiveness is given when needed, and that purpose has also been a consequence of my faith.

The proverb written on the photo was taken on a very still early morning, approaching the mooring at Olden in the Norwegian fjords. The reflection had a gorgeous clarity, a detailed copy of the sleeping village. Our ship was moving so slowly we hardly disturbed the surface. My hope is that the reflection I have left in the passing years has had that same clarity: people watching my life, hearing my words, judging my actions and attitudes OUGHT to be able to discern a true picture of what Christian living is about.

Storms and squalls have stirred up the waters at times. Interacting with other people isn’t always calm and straightforward. But I’ve been grateful for companions on the journey, including those who have knocked off my rough edges and/or helped me learn lessons I had hoped to avoid! My apologies and regrets to those who may not be glad we met. I wish I could have been better able to navigate some of those troubled seas.

A reflection is never PERFECT. Even in a quality mirror, there will be slight distortions and some of the light is reflected away. Sadly there are times when my reflection of Jesus has been distorted or incomplete, and some of the Light of the World has bounced off my imperfections. I hope you will forgive my shortcomings.

But I REALLY, REALLY hope that my representing of Jesus has been good enough to help others see Him more clearly. As my namesake, St Richard of Chichester, prayed:

Thanks be to you, my Lord, Jesus Christ,

For all the benefits that you have given me;
For all the pains and insults you have borne for me.

O, most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know you more clearly;
Love you more dearly;
And follow you more nearly,

Day by day.

Richard of Wyche, also known as Richard of Chichester, was born at Wyche (Droitwich), Worcestershire, England. He was orphaned when he was quite young. He served as Bishop of Chichester for the last years of his life and this “Prayer of Gratitude” is his memorial.

Thaw Point- Look, See, Pray

January. 31 weeks days in January and it already seems longer. I’m getting square eyes- not from watching the TV, but gazing out of the window hoping for sunshine or snow. Don’t mind which! There have been too many grey rainy days- if 2021 had a warranty, I’d send it back to be adjusted.

There are good moments, of course. This photo reminded me of those crisp frosty days when icy layers encase the grass and twigs, painting the landscape in white lace. This particular photograph catches the precise time when sunlight touches the ice and brings it to thaw point: opaque crystals melt into pure globes that fill with light. Grasses flex themselves and as the droplets fall the magic of the moment is gone. But the hope lingers on…

Every winter comes to a thaw. Even in Narnia, the Wicked Witch could not overcome the Spring!

Be encouraged! This winter will pass. Right now, we can look for the thaw and for the floodwaters to drain. Tiny snowdrops make a delicate prayer of thanks. As days pass by, more daffodils are daring to show off “sunshine on a stick” as the sluggard tulips pull the duvet up for “just a few minutes” or perhaps weeks!

Passing through difficult times is always a trial. Keeping our eyes open to notice the thaw points is medicine for the soul. Take time to appreciate them- if we gloss over them, and dash onwards in drab, soul poverty will strike.

Difficult times can become an invitation to seek God. Many who have chosen this path can echo the words of the Psalmist- and have found a “thaw point” in their deepest heart-yearnings.

“Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found. Surely when the mighty waters rise, they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble
and surround me with songs of deliverance.”
(Psalm 32 v6-7)

Living on the Edge- Look, See, Pray

Windhover, eye-sharp flight
piercing through
waits… waits… until scurrying feet
betray voles to violence.

Seated on rising air, gnawing need
to feed
fierce nestlings, strong kestrel sons,
life the price for life.

Thrilled by hunter,
weeping for the small,
prey needing to pray,
furry squeak of death or life.

Hunter or hunted,
the eyes of God above see
no life is spent
but in the knowledge of the Highest.

Lord, we watch and marvel
at diversity
As life exists hungrily
living on the edge.

Living on the edge…
where the blink of an eye
sees the meal taken
or the great escape!

Mysteries and miracles!
Not understanding,
we shed tears for the dying,
watch the drama of life persist.

This, this is blood-real.
Only the Creator knows
rhyme or reason for now-
but the Story plays, life the price for life.

Have we enemies watching?
A life we take lightly,
open to be taken suddenly.
God watch over a life on the edge.

“Kestrel Hunt” (c) Richard Starling 2020