The strong, loyal one- Look, See, Pray

I like to think I’d stay strong like Simon Peter. You know, recognising Jesus as God’s Messiah, walking on water, all that strong man stuff. A person of faith, bold- even brash- courage, answering questions and sticking with my excellent reasons for following Jesus. Who else has words of eternal life?

Hang on, though. It’s Thursday in a couple of hours: and that’s when it all went wrong…

Jesus mentioned being betrayed: well, it won’t be by Peter, that’s as sure as anything! I’m the strong, loyal one. But… didn’t Jesus say “Before the cockerel crows, Peter, you will deny Me three times.” Surely not, Lord, that’s as unlikely as Judas selling you out to the authorities! Must have misheard.

Peter, now in a cold sweat. So much happening, a cold garden, noisy soldiers, a slashing sword, and Jesus led away… “What are they doing to Him in there? I can’t go until I know… perhaps they’ll let Jesus go after all. Hot fire. I’ll just wait here. No, I don’t want to talk, just shut up. Leave me to my thoughts. Jesus? Did I hear His name? They’re talking about Him – Who me? NO, not me. Yes, the accent gives me away, I’m Galilean. No, I don’t know him. Will you just shut UP… For heaven’s sake… I never EVER knew Jesus!”

Talking Cockerel, stage left. “Pardon? O Peter, did you really… did you say you never knew him? Look at those flames, Peter. Burning like the garbage in Gehenna… bet you feel rubbish now, Peter. Hey, where are you going?”

Bystanders round the fire. “Yeah, he was a Galilean, I bet he did know him in there. Not got the guts to hang around, though! Not much of a friend… Where’s the Galilee man gone to, d’you think? That one in there, that Jesus, I heard he came to town like a king on a donkey… I heard him speaking once, seemed rather wonderful, but going against the establishment like that… wouldn’t want to be where he’s going…”

So I wonder. Would I have stayed by the fire? Would I have said “OH yes, I know Jesus, let I tell you what He’s like…”

Or just another betrayer doing a runner? Lord Jesus, forgive the feebleness of my heart… just as you forgave Peter…

Shared Wisdom- Look, See, Pray

Seeking wisdom in the Tree Cathedral, near Whipsnade.

The Tree Cathedral is a wonderful place to visit, pray, and think. I used to live fairly close, and always found it a sympathetic destination! When there, I could walk among the trees and it seemed as if God were easier to reach. Did you know that trees are mentioned in the Bible more than any living thing other than God and people? There’s a tree on the first page of Genesis, the first Psalm, the first page of the New Testament, and the last page of Revelation. 

In the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, a collection of proverbs describe wisdom as a character, as if wisdom is really a person rather just “knowing stuff.” Encyclopaedias are stuffed with facts, but until facts are learned and put into practice the book isn’t much use to anyone.

“Wisdom is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed” Proverbs 3:18

“Do you lack wisdom? Ask for it!” said James (see James 1 v5). If our natural inclination is to “go it alone” there is no-one to check with- “Am I right or wrong?” Gaining wisdom is best done as a shared quest, life done as a rhythm of personal thinking and shared conversation. Part of my calling as a pastor and theologian has been to explore, learn, and develop in both knowledge and wisdom: and it has always been a journey with companions (and done in the context of including God and the scriptures along the way).

Then my vocation is to share what I have discovered, and try to do so in words that make things clearer and easier to grasp for other people.

This morning I came across a blog post that succeeds in that aim: so I’m sharing a snippet of wisdom! Question: how well do you understand the Holy Trinity? “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is the form of words we use to describe God. But what does that mean?

Mike Higton, theologian at the University of Durham, set himself the challenge of explaining the Holy Trinity in words of one syllable:

“So there is God, the one to whom we pray, the one to whom we look, to whom we call out, the one who made the world and who loves all that has been made. And then there is God by our side, God once more the one with whom we pray; God in the life of this man who shares our life, this man who lives the life of God by our side, and who pours out his life in love for us. And then there is God in our hearts, God in our guts, God one more time, the stream in which we dip our toes, the stream in which we long to swim, the stream which filled the Son and can fill us too, and bear us in love back to our source.

Link to the full blog post: click here: The Trinity explained in words of one syllable | Psephizo

God: the to whom, and with whom, who is also within. You may or may not feel qualified to write a book of theology now, but I suspect you have a better appreciation of the Holy Trinity- and you have gained wisdom as a result. Wisdom shared by Mike Higton, me, and now you. And next time someone asks us “What about the Trinity, then?” we may feel wise enough to pass on what we have discovered.

Wisdom is for sharing! Here’s a prayer you may like to use:

O Lord our God,
help us to know you when we pray.
Help us to know you as the one to whom we pray;
help us to know you as the one with whom we pray;
help us to know you as the one in whom we pray.
Help us to know you, and to love you,
and to live our lives for you,
one God in three,
Holy Trinity. Amen.

‘Ware Wolves! Look, See, Pray

Wolves… hunters, scavengers, feared – not one of the cuddly creatures! Their eerie howling strikes terror (and that’s just when they’re in a zoo!). Imagine being lost in the forest, or being stranded in the wild country, and hearing the howling gradually getter louder…

They hunt with great stamina. Wolves can run and run, wearing down the energy and the hope of their prey, finally moving in for the kill as their weakened target reaches the point of collapse.

In these photos of wolves in captivity, even they have scavengers! Crows and magpies harry the wolves, darting in with sharp beaks to grab a share.

We use the wolf as a metaphor when someone is in trouble… “the wolves are closing in…”

Society has invented our own form of wolf: the gaping jaws of the paparazzi lurking with cameras poised, the character assassins digging dirt and flinging it until mud sticks. Social media is abused so it can become an abuser of the innocent: though sometimes the dogged determination of investigators reveals the hidden secrets of the dirty and/or mighty. Once a story- true or false- hits the internet, it builds its own momentum and the fangs drip poison. Perhaps we should call this the “Daily Gnasher”? The scavengers are always lurking.

Position, status, or leadership is often sought for its benefits and advantages, or for the power to dominate, or even for the chance to bring good change. Motives can be mixed. The one guarantee is that people in the public eye are under constant scrutiny, and the wolves WILL gather, sniffing around, and will pounce at signs of weakness or failure.

This is why power has to be matched with accountability, privilege with responsibility, and ambition with character.

Pretence will be gnawed away, sooner or later, and the bare bones will be on display. This is why the Bible insists that CHARACTER is the necessary quality for leadership. “A good leader motivates, doesn’t mislead, doesn’t exploit. God cares about honesty in the workplace: your business is HIS business.” (Proverbs 16 v10-11)

There is an old saying that we should only elect leaders who DON’T want the job.

Of course, we all, everyone of us, make mistakes and get things wrong. But there is a huge difference between a good person failing and a wrong-hearted person savaging justice and truth. Now, I’m a dog person who loves and admires their loyalty and companionship. A mistreated or badly trained dog is bad news! The similarity of dog and wolf ought to warn us.

Bad leadership breeds unfairness, injustice. The gap between rich and poor gets bigger. A sad truth- Jesus foretold “the poor will be with you always.” (Mark 14 v7) Bad leaders sometimes start as well-meaning people who rot as greed or pride blights them.

Rot “at the top” will ruin a society, a business, an institution, a life.

The people of God are called to be watchers on the walls, heralds who warn of danger, and prophets who speak truth to power/wealth. When we hear the wolves howling, it’s time to speak up. AND it’s time for us to pray. Today, we could pray for Ukraine; pray for political leaders; pray about poverty and sickness and injustice, against racism and extremism and hate.

I think I hear carrion crows… and the wolves are howling… Stand up, speak up, and pray.

Joy in January? Look, See, Pray

January… the crown of winter’s dreary days! It’s not all bad: but it is notoriously fickle and grey. Short daylight hours, cold, damp, and it’s time to get rid of the excess pounds after the Christmas extravagances. A true recipe for joyful living.

Can we renew our joy? Perhaps this picture can help.I’ve never seen a dull red tulip. None in the garden, so I’ve hunted this out from my photo albums. Gloriously scarlet, then an even brighter yellow inside. Just for added impact, starkly geometrical black stamens contrast violently in alien shapes. Looking more closely, speckles of black pollen give a mute testimony to the visit of an early bee. Do these specks spoil the bloom, or remind us of life and growth to come? Can you spot the aphid? I only noticed this today. A pest, or another little miracle of life?

A principle of photography is that the actual subject should be the most important thing in the photo. A common mistake is to make the subject too small. It is lost in the background, and the picture loses impact.

Getting in close makes a difference. This picture shouts “I’m a tulip!” in dramatic tones. It would be easy to walk past the flower beds, camera at head-height, and take a picture of some “nice tulips.” Beauty turned into a vague generalisation!

When we need to renew the sense of joy, the experience of lightness of spirit and being at peace in our world, a great way to start is to pay attention to the small things, the details, the abundance of life all round us. Attention given leads to awareness, appreciation, and a deep gratitude for the richness that is here.

This works in relationships: when did you last tell your partner or friend or colleague that you appreciate what they have done and what they add to your life?

It’s a vital part of faith, too. When you see that first snowdrop, or the daffs beginning to emerge, will you SAY “thank you” to God? Not just thinking it, but putting gratitude into spoken words- it releases a powerful surge of joy.

God is present in our world: and has compassionate love for His creation. Acknowledging His love and majesty “tunes us in” to the love-song God sings over us. In knowing this, we find renewed joy. It could start with a tulip… or with the hope of a psalm:

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

The Holy Bible: Today’s New International Version. (Ps 139:7–12). (2005). Zondervan.

Go on, Joe – Look, See, Pray

I won’t count the miles. Just the stones that hurt my feet.

How far yet to Bethlehem? Too long for the daylight, for sure. Heat shimmers so the rocks seem to vibrate, to twist, almost to move. Oh for a pitcher of cool water, for food. The bread is dry and I’m out of dates.

Another day, more like three days… Footsore and anxious. What will this journey bring? Angels and women and dreams- what could go wrong? To the House of Bread… my family home, in all its faded glory. David’s day so, so long ago, and now just a pregnant girl and a weary man- can even the Lord do something with that?

It’ll be a quiet birth, no fuss, a room and a midwife, brave Mary keeping her head bowed- but the eyes that saw and the ears that heard cannot forget… no. Never forget.

I wish I could understand Mary’s courage! “Here am I, the Lord’s handservant… let it be to me as you have said….” I was scared at first too. Angels and dreams… we don’t do those, not in my tribe- well, not nowadays. Being a Dad… well, sort of Dad. A bigger challenge than I’ve faced before! Wood can be shaped, and stone can be shifted, but a baby? What if I drop him? If it is a him… Mary seems sure. The angel was pretty clear, but I’m not used to miracles. I guess its the long stony road for me, one step, one day at a time. I can do that. Well, I’ll do my best. Mary deserves no less!

And I’ve always believed,and kept the Law best I can…

I can… I will… do it! The angel said not to be afraid. Nothing about stones in my sandals and walking in this heat, once you hear “baby” nothing else matters. We’ll get there. I sure hope that was Your angel, God, because if the baby arrives before Bethlehem we’re in big trouble!

C’mon Joe, get a grip… one day, one step at at time. WE WILL DO THIS, do You hear me, God?

On we go… to Bethlehem.

I wonder if anyone will remember us? Footsore, anxious, obedient.

Welcome to your new home – Look, See, Pray

Wirksworth, December 1988

That weekend is etched in my memory. As I put out the milk bottles, light powdery snow danced through the rays of the streetlamp. “Oh,” I said boldly, “That won’t lay.” The new pastor-in-town (me) had a lot to learn about Derbyshire!

Saturday morning dawned suspiciously bright throught the new curtains. Shivers chased down our ribs as we emerged, blinking, from under the duvet.

16 inches of snow blessed the road outside. The drifts were deeper. Thick rolls of clingy white stuff turned telephone lines into 2-inch ropes which came crashing down under their own weight, pulling the plug on the phone system. Roads were impassible. Our paperboy didn’t turn up! This was the land of milk and honey newly married Sussex southerners had been been plunged into… what had we done???

Our first church we had been called to serve; it was our first Christmas in ten days. How should I respond to the crisis? Cancel Christmas! Send for the snow ploughs! Where’s Rudolph when you need a reindeer?

Yes, I was a tad over-dramatic. On the Sussex coast, three snowflakes was ALWAYS a cause for a national holiday and the breakdown of all public transport until further notice.

Derbyshire folk were tougher than that. Hardly had I tied my dressing-gown cord when I spied neighbours, “old” people, you know, in their 60s and 70s shovelling snow and clearing footpaths. The existence of a large – think Ben Nevis, no exaggeration – heap of rocksalt & grit in the town should have given me a clue. By Sunday lunchtime pretty much everywhere was clear enough to get about (and these “feeble” ancient folk I’d been so worried about turned up in good cheer for Sunday service, jolly and talking about times when they’d had REAL snow…).

Welcome to our new home.

The Bible has stories of people whom God calls to new places and new tasks. Some struggle, some thrive- and God teaches them faith as they explore their new “home.”

Abram is called from the town-with-no-need-for-a-nickname (Ur) and not actually told where he was going. Jacob picks up more airmiles than he ever expected. Gideon hides in a winepress just before God makes him a general of the army. Jonah gets to tell Nineveh that God is pretty angry- and then the wretched Ninevites turned back to God! Jonah says “I told you so” and sulked in the shade of a plant (that promptly died).

Mary and Joseph get to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, have a baby, go to Egypt…

Just think about Jesus. Son of God, leaving glory for a new life as a teeny-weeny blob, then thrust out into a world where loads of people wanted him dead. That’s Christmas.

Aye, lad. Welcome to your new home.”

There is always hope- Look, See, Pray

Advent is the time leading up to Christmas. It’s a season to prepare for a celebration: God took on human flesh, declaring Love to this world by identifying with us. We ARE “in this together” which is a marvellous truth (especially when compared with the rather devalued meaning intended by many politicians when they say that!).

Odd contrast: the hope of Light and Life comes just when the days get short and the cold gnaws our bones. Everything is saying “time to moan, let’s endure it as best we can” and the shout comes from the heralding Angels – “Prepare the Way of the Lord!”

It’s often a dull season for photography. Apart from dramatic skies and snowy wastes, most other subjects are lurking out of sight in the warm- and the motivation of the photographer has gone into hibernation anyway.

So a memory will have to suffice. Imagine a pleasant late April day, perhaps early May; the bluebells are cheerily dancing the blues, and the bracken begins to unfurl hairy fronds. Look down at the signs of Spring: and a heart-shape presents itself as fronds entwine. Glossy fresh greens and gentle browns mark out the hope of new life.

I love Christmas. Not the busy shops, nor the crazy adverts, not even the mass attempt to double our waistlines in a week! Although that has some attractions, if we’re honest.

Christmas means HOPE. We can all do with some of that!

God, the Giver and Source of Life and Love, sings a song to make the stars shine brighter. In the darkened streets of Bethlehem, an Eternal Light begins to glow.

And every year, however dreadful, has a heartfelt message. “There’s ALWAYS hope.”

“For a child has been born—for us! the gift of a son—for us! He’ll take over the running of the world. His names will be: Amazing Counsellor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness.” Isaiah 9:6 (Message Translation)

Just what- or rather, whom- we need. There’s always hope. May Advent this year put the glow of hope in your soul- for God has set His heart on YOU.

Climbing Slowly- Look, See, Pray

The Alps near Sheffau, Austria

My imagination was fired up the first time I read “Lord of the Rings” when Gandalf and Bilbo talked about “the Road that goes ever on” leading to adventures and tall Mountains. I was 13. The tallest “mountains” I’d ever seen up till then were the South Downs in Sussex- but the story lit a fire in my heart. I so wanted to see mountains, REAL mountains… and follow the Road to somewhere…

Fast forward twenty years or so. My mountains grew taller: Dartmoor, the Lake District, North Wales, Scotland. Then the Alps. I was in dreamland! Real mountains!

Part of my heart is attached to Austria. My boot-prints marked the tracks and high Alpine meadows, and my eyes became dizzily drunk on the heady wine of pure air above the treeline.

Wise walkers don’t rush up mountains. Pace after pace, keeping on keeping on, with the expectation of a hot meal to sharpen the flagging spirits. Mountains are unforgiving of the careless, and unrelenting in their challenges. But the rewards are (almost) out of this world. Spectacular views, forests and flowers, snow and storms- sun and wind to redden the cheeks and give a healthy glow.

The longer the route, the more deliberate the planning; and the demands of exertion to your limits mean that success is valued highly! “We did it!”

I was reading an article today which referred to Maximus the Confessor, who helped the Church in the sixth century to work out the implications of Christian faith. You may never have heard of Max… but he is remembered for his careful and determined efforts to help Christ-followers become as much like Jesus as possible. His writings and his personal experiences weren’t full of miracles and spectacular change: Maximus spoke of the gradual, incremental changes that culminate in “the slow transformation of our own human existence into the image of the divine.” It is a process, a constant practice, a determined “following” on the Way of Christ- until we arrive.

It’s a long, slow, often difficult Road of adventure over the mountains: glorious views and visions, obstacles overcome, storms survived, weary feet and a heart on fire with the desire to reach the glorious end; lived with a passionate and thankful sense of worship and a knowledge of being Loved and sustained on the long Road.

If I had a fiver for every shortcut I’ve tried, every blind alley explored… and a tenner for every time I fell and skinned my knees and cut my hands and got up again… I’d be a millionaire. But I still wouldn’t be as richly rewarded as I am in looking back at the incremental changes in my character and faith, slowly adding to my understanding of God, building a Road towards the Mountain-Maker.

John the Disciple was known for love. A long life of following Jesus, of being His friend, and of teaching others what he had gained. He wrote these lovely words about climbing slowly alongside Jesus, and gradually becoming LIKE Him. With all the miles and mysteries, the promise is clear: God WILL transform us utterly. The Road is long- but we WILL meet Jesus, and know Him as we are known. Read this- then keep climbing slowly and growing steadily in hope.

1 John 3:2-3 (New Living Translation)
Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure.

A Road that goes ever on.

October Roses- Look, See, Pray

Fewer rosebuds in the garden now October is here… the ones that survive the winds and rain are even more precious. Here is “Double Delight” which is blessed with a rich fragrance and creamy petals flushed with sumptuous raspberry pink. Gorgeous. Worth its place in any garden, in my opinion anyway.

Autumn chills and weather presage the coming of winter, when colour in the garden is rare and hard to find. Roses sometimes keep flowering into December- a lovely gift.

I have built two gardens from builder’s mudheaps- and restored two neglected gardens. Roses have ALWAYS been the plants that I use as the centrepieces of the borders. Despite the pain of thorns and the months of dormancy where roses are just aggressive sticks, I pay the price for their majestic colour, shape and scent willingly. The eruption of the new buds fills me with joy.

There are one or two strange gardeners who don’t like roses. Perhaps I’m biased, but I think they’re a lost cause!

The objects of our ambitions can take many forms. Some collect stamps, others strive for profit. Others are never satisfied, and cannot find contentment. What we choose to search for, to value, defines who we are. Jesus addressed this problem of identity and ambition, essentially by asking “Who are you?” and “What is your life purpose?”

Two questions that continue to nag at the heart of a society built on the acquisition of wealth and power… and with many people who want more than they have. So, rich or poor, powerful or not- what do we really want?

It seems people choosing wisely are as rare as rosebuds.

Jesus never said “Come to Me, and I will give you stress.” The offer He makes is “rest” – peace in a reconciled relationship with God.

How much do you think that’s worth?

Glimpsed in a Pool- Look, See, Pray

When you’ve seen one low tide… you look for a fresh angle to make a different photo!


This photo is the seafront houses reflected in a tide pool. It’s a glimpse, an interpretation of the reality in front of the lens. There is a contrast of the natural water course of sand/pebbles: and the partial, tantalising view of the buildings beyond. The picture “works” because it intrigues me.

John Bunyan’s classic “Pilgrim’s Progress” details the journey towards the Celestial City: with Pilgrim hindered or helped by people met and moral challenges encountered. Thousands of readers have been inspired on their own pilgrimage: they enter into the story.

Jesus also painted word pictures to inspire his audiences. “The Kingdom of God is like….” He used metaphors such as a mustard seed, a treasure, a magnificent pearl. These image-stories helped the listeners to discover truth for themselves, instead of “just” being told what to believe. Truth we determine ourselves sticks in our minds better.

So- “The Kingdom of God is like a city glimpsed in a tidal pool…”

We are rooted on the beach, we see the water, stones, the sand and seaweed. We can see something reflected… windows… walls… a flag pole? Or is it a streetlight? We need to look harder… We can only be sure if we get closer to the REAL image, not settle for an obscured partial view- which is upside down anyway! Well then, let’s walk up the beach to find the city. Then we’ll KNOW.

The 12 disciples had a privilege; they could ask Jesus to tell them more, to explain. We can read the New Testament for ourselves and study the insights of generations of followers. Do we really want to know, to understand?

Jesus often teaches us via stories, glimpses, visions, circumstances and life in general. Much of our heart-learning is gained on the journey. This is what changes us- it becomes Light on the inside and life that wells up within us.

The Kingdom is come among you. That is the reality: Jesus came to bring us the Kingdom where He will reign. One day we will see it clearly. If we want to.

When the tide came in on this beach, the glimpse vanished. Don’t leave the looking too late. Instead, let it become your vision.