Lessons from the Trees – Week 33 – Fruit (1)

A lesson learned from flat peaches

One of the best things about summer is the abundance of fresh and delicious fruit that comes in waves across the season.  I like eating seasonally so the anticipation of that first strawberry, raspberry or peach is mouth-watering.

As the summer progresses, more fruit comes into season – this last weekend I picked the first blackberries of the season and enjoyed my first Victoria Plum – so delicious.

I never used to eat flat peaches though – they just didn’t look right to me – less generous than round ones, often the skin looks a bit mottled and the stem is larger.  They just didn’t appeal…… until I actually tried one!  Succulent, pale flesh, dripping with sweet goodness – just perfect…. what have I been missing all these years?

IMG_6052

Well, I can only apologise to all the peaches I overlooked in the past and when I was musing on my omission it brought to mind a bible verse:

“The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

Read: 1 Samuel 16:1-13

This story of David’s anointing has a very modern twist.  Samuel was impressed by the fine appearance of Jesse’s boys, but David was the only one who was a man after God’s own heart. (Acts 13:22).  God saw what was inside and knew he was the right man to fulfil his purposes, even to the point being an ancestor of the Messiah.

When we look at David, we can see his life was far from perfect, but he honoured God’s name, he loved God and wasn’t ashamed to show it (2 Samuel 6:14), he sought God’s will, he listened to God’s guidance, he repented when he was wrong, he was devoted, faithful and trusted God.

Tall Oaks – Attleboro, MA, © Alison Thomas Steer – June 2018

Reflect: How often do we form an instant impression of something or someone and find it hard to get beyond it?  Think back in your life to a situation where your first impression proved to be wrong.

Next, think about someone you have met who turned out to have a heart of gold, despite initial appearances and thank God for them.

Finally, think about a time when you have been misjudged.  Give God the hurt feelings that this has caused and ask him to give you insight into the fact that he sees you completely and loves you fully.

Is there an opinion of someone or something you need to re-evaluate?

floral-swirl-vector-element_My4DoYU__S

The beautiful song by Bethel Music, ‘God I look to you’, contains this verse

God, I look to You, I won’t be overwhelmed
Give me vision to see things like You do
God I look to You, You’re where my help comes from
Give me wisdom, You know just what to do

This is my prayer for you and for me this week – Lord, give us vision to see things like you do. Amen.

Advertisements

Lessons from the Trees – Week 32 – Shade and Shadow (3)

Welcome shade!

We finally get to the final part of this trilogy – that sense of shade that means relief from the power of the sun.  During this glorious, unexpectedly long, hot summer, I have come to a renewed appreciation of the refuge that shade offers from those blazing rays.  Don’t get me wrong, I love summer, but sometimes it is best viewed from a shady place, from where I can appreciate the cloudless sky without burning or overheating.

The Bible also uses this meaning to describe being under God’s protection:

Psalm 36:5-9 reads:

Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens,
    your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the highest mountains,

    your justice like the great deep.
You, Lord, preserve both people and animals.
How priceless is your unfailing love, O God!

    People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house;

    you give them drink from your river of delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;

    in your light we see light.

I love the thought of ‘being safe in the shadow of God’s wings’ – could there be anywhere safer?  And this is repeated many times …

‘Keep me as the apple of the eye; Hide me in the shadow of Your wings’ (Psalm 17:8).

‘Let me dwell in Your tent forever; Let me take refuge in the shelter of Your wings.’ (Psalm 61:4)

Other examples: Deuteronomy 32:11, Psalm 63:7 and Psalm 91:4.

IMG_5206 (2) - Copy

©Alison Thomas Steer – Wood Lake, New Brunswick, Canada – 15th June 2018

As well as protection, Hosea talks about the blessing of living in God’s shadow:

‘Those who live in his shadow will again raise grain, and they will blossom like the vine. His renown will be like the wine of Lebanon.’ (Hosea 14:7)

When we live in Christ, we grow and flourish in our inner lives and God can shine through us, bringing praise to His name.

River Dee

©Catherine Greenfield – River Dee near Llangollen – July 14th 2018

This week: Rest!  Get enough sleep, allocate some time to relax and enjoy, spend a little time imagining what it feels like to be safe in the shadow of God’s wings.

IMG_4806

©Karen Trevan – 2018 – ‘Venise Verte’ – Marais Poitevin, France.

And finally…

There are many other examples of the blessing of shadow and shade throughout the Bible, I leave you with just one which reflects the power and the goodness of God.

‘The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people.  Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.’ (Acts 5:12-16 NIV)

What an amazing God!

Lessons from the Trees – Shade and Shadow (2)

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me; your rod and staff, they comfort me.

This week I want to think about the kind of shadow that represents real darkness.  We talk about ‘living in someone’s shadow’, meaning that we are not able to fulfil our true potential because of a dominant other person; or we ‘come out from under a shadow’ – meaning that we have been in a dark place previously; or something ‘casts a shadow’ over an event.  All these are negative meanings of the word.

P1000740

©Alison Thomas Steer – Center Parks, Elveden, June 2011

The Bible uses the words ‘shadow’ and ‘darkness’ to describe places where things are bad, where sin prevails, where God seems not to be known or worshipped. A place where there is no light.

It is hard to live in darkness; anyone who has tried to find their way in the dark will know this – we trip over things, break things, bump ourselves or worse.  Darkness and shadow are also used as a symbol of sin, where the light of truth and grace does not shine and we are not living well (Romans 1:21). Proverbs 4:19 tells us, ‘the way of the wicked is like darkness; they do not know over what they stumble.’

There are stories in the Bible of hard times and great distress – in his suffering Job tells us that ‘my face is flushed from weeping, and deep darkness is on my eyelids’ (Job 16:16).

Isaiah too prophesies about the difficult situation that God’s people will find themselves in: ‘therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us; We hope for light, but behold darkness; for brightness, but we walk in gloom’ (Isaiah 59:9).

P1020994

©Alison Thomas Steer – Sutton, 12th March 2012

There are days when I walk in gloom too, when things are not going right, when I feel depressed, when bad things are happening in the world or to people I love.  The lament Psalms are full of helpful vocabulary for us to share our dark situations with God – Psalms 12, 44 and 86 are just a few examples. David did not hold back when his life was in danger or things had gone wrong (Psalm 35) and neither did Job: ‘Let the day perish on which I was to be born, and the night which said, “A boy is conceived”. May that day be darkness; Let not God above care for it, nor light shine on it. Let darkness and black gloom claim it; Let a cloud settle on it; Let the blackness of the day terrify it’ (Job 3:3-5). These saints can help us to understand that God is there to share all our lives, not just the good bits! It is okay to tell him about what is troubling us, what seems unfair, what makes us angry….

We all suffer and face difficult times in our lives, even when we know God, love God and are trying to live a ‘with-God’ life.  As Christ-followers we are not protected from everything bad, rather we are invited to remember that if we walk through the ‘valley of the shadow’ we walk with Him and can grow through the experience. Learning to see God for who He is in spite of our circumstances is part of our spiritual journey.

ATSP1090209.JPG

©Adam Thomas Steer – Malawi – 11th August 2013

The good news is that throughout the Bible there is an ongoing theme of God being with his people both in the darkness and by bringing light into difficult situations.  God does not turn away from bad situations, but meets us in them

Job knows that God sees all things and can overcome the darkness, ‘[God] reveals the deep things of darkness and brings utter darkness into the light.’ (Job 16:16)

Isaiah foretells the coming of Jesus, the Light of the World, when he writes, ‘the people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them’ (Isaiah 9:2).

Ephesians 5:13 reminds us that things we try to hide tend to get found out, and that we are ultimately accountable for our actions: ‘but all things become visible when they are exposed by the light’, while the Psalmist raises our spirits when we are feeling in a dark place: If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light around me will be night,” Even the darkness is not dark to You, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to You,’ (Psalm 139:11-12).

P1000719

©Alison Thomas Steer – Center Parks, Elveden, June 2011

Read John 1:1-14  – We normally read this at Christmas as part of a Carol Service, but it has all year application. Jesus is not only the Word who spoke light into being (Genesis 1), but he is also the light of life, full of grace and truth.  Meditate on this passage.

Believing the Promises of God

The Bible is full of God’s promises to be with us always. These are just three:

‘Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you,’ (1 Peter 5:7)

‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord,’ (Romans 8:38-39)

‘So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.    (Isaiah 41:10)

This week: spend some time telling God how you feel about things happening in your life right now – good and bad.  Rejoice or lament with your whole heart and hold on to those promises, that He is with you always.

floral-swirl-vector-element_My4DoYU__S

This is a beautiful song based on Psalm 23 by Shane and Shane.

Lessons from the Trees – Week 30 – Shade and Shadow (1)

There’s nothing quite like sitting beneath the boughs of a beautiful tree enjoying the cool shade on a sunny day.  We talk about ‘welcome shade’ from the glaring heat of the sun, and yet how often are the deep shadows of a forest used as a backdrop to danger or something sinister in our storytelling:  we only have to think of Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel from childhood fairy stories

DSC_3975.JPG

©Ali Thomas Steer – Lixwm, Wales 2010

We have a dual view of the words ‘shade’ and ‘shadows’, and often use the words interchangeably, although they can mean things at opposite ends of the spectrum. This range is also reflected in their use in the Bible.

The Collins Dictionary definitions include:

Shade: comparative darkness and coolness caused by shelter from direct sunlight.

Shadow: darkness in a place caused by something preventing light from reaching it.

Interestingly, there are ‘shades’ of meaning that overlap between the two words and the Bible uses them in three different ways:

  • In a positive way, as in the definition of shade above;
  • In a negative way, as in the definition of shadow above;
  • As a metaphor for the passing of time.

The next three posts will consider this topic, beginning with the third way – a metaphor for the passing of time.

‘Lord, what are human beings that you care for them, mere mortals that you think of them?  They are like a breath, their days like a fleeting shadow.’ (Psalm 144: 3-4)

“Like a flower he comes forth and withers. He also flees like a shadow and does not remain.” (Job 14:2)

‘I am gone like the shade when it is stretched out: I am forced out of my place like a locust.’ (Psalm 109:23)

P1040087.JPG

©Ali Thomas Steer – Magnolias at RHS Wisley, 2011.

I am reminded that my days on earth are relatively short and I am challenged about how I use my time. Not in frantic ‘doing’ but in living well, in treating each moment as precious, to be savoured at the present moment, rather than endured, taken for granted, or wasted. I believe that the choices I make in this life shape me for eternity.  I am always very taken with John Milton’s phrase  ‘spending light’.  Somehow it makes it real to me that the passage of days on this earth is finite – and spending is an active, not passive verb.  I can choose the way I spend many moments of my day – I pray that I may spend them well.

IMG_4807

©Karen Trevan – 2018 – ‘Venise Verte’ – Marais Poitevin, France.

When I consider how my light is spent,

   Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

   And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

   My true account, lest He returning chide;

   “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need

   Either man’s work or His own gifts. Who best

   Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state

Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,

   And post o’er land and ocean without rest;

   They also serve who only stand and wait.”

 John Milton (1608-1674)

 

And finally….

Hidden in 2 Kings 20: 1-11 and repeated in Isaiah 38: 1-8 is one of my favourite parts of the Bible and one of the most cosmically extraordinary events that has ever happened.

I love it because the writer of this account could have had no concept of what actually had to happen for this event to take place.  I love it because it makes God even bigger in my eyes.  I love it for the almost casualness of God’s offer to effectively move time as a sign of the promise he had made, and Hezekiah’s response that it is easier to move time forward than back!

Do I believe it?  Absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt!  The God I know has been consistently truthful through time. The God I know keeps his promises both in the Bible and in my own life. The God I know created the universe using knowledge and power beyond anything I can imagine, and set out the laws by which the universe works. The God I know raised Jesus from the dead, beyond all reasonable doubt*. Why then would I quibble over the veracity of this?  Instead, it makes me stand in awe at God’s power and makes me want to praise Him more.

In The Healing Light, Agnes Sandford explains it like this ‘God does nothing except by law.  But He has provided enough power within His laws to do anything that is in accordance with His will.  His will includes unlimited miracles.  It is for us to learn His will and to seek the simplicity and beauty of the laws that set free His power.’

floral-swirl-vector-element_My4DoYU__S

*For a logical, in-depth examination of this subject, read Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus or Frank Morison’s Who Moved the Stone.

Lessons from the Trees – Week 29 – Knots

If you look at a piece of wood, floorboards or a piece of wooden furniture you may see knots in the grain but what are they and why are they there?

Knots are formed as a tree grows and its trunk increases in width, growing around the base of the branches that grow out of it.  The branch wood growing at an angle into the trunk hardens into a solid knot of very tough wood which thickens as the tree grows and may make a bulge in the trunk. A different kind of knot will form depending whether the branch is living, broken or dead.

PHOTO-2017-08-18-15-22-33

©Ali Male – see particularly the left hand part of the trunk.

As a tree grows normally, its trunk increases in width. Soon, the trunk grows much larger than the branches that grow out of it. It’s common to see knots emerging from around the branches of these trees, thickening in size as the tree keeps on growing. With the branches of the tree continuing to grow, they are quickly overtaken by the tree trunk where a solid knot forms containing live wood. The knot comprises very thick and tough wood, much more so than the wood surrounding it and may end up as a big bulge around a branch that spouts from its middle.

Knots occur in all kinds of wood, and are  prevalent in Knotty Pine (hence the name!) and alder.  They can be especially beautiful in hardwoods, though some people consider them defects.  There are various kinds of knots, each of which occurs for a different reason and have varied appearance.

You can find out more about knots in this interesting online article by Grandpa Cliff.

PHOTO-2017-08-18-15-19-30

©Ali Male – an example of a knot in the large branch at the top right of the photo.

A craftsman choosing wood for a project will look carefully at the knots in his chosen piece.  There are at least 5 different kinds of knots – some are attractive and can add to the beauty of a project, some are unstable and would weaken a project where the wood needs to be strong.

The knots on each tree are unique and make the wood pattern completely individual  – this made me compare them with people.  Each of us lives a unique life, with our own characteristics, genetic make-up and situation.  Each life has its own struggles, difficulties and challenges – different things leave marks on us, physically, mentally and spiritually.  We all have our own knots, but unlike those in wood, they are not always visible to the casual observer.  However, they are part of us and affect the way we live our lives.

After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples, then many others.

Read: John 20:24-29.

IMG_4925

Jesus’ resurrected, transformed, Kingdom body still bears the scars of the crucifixion.  They are part of who He is.

In the same way, when we come into relationship with Him, we can receive healing, acceptance or forgiveness for the things that have caused our scars. And sometimes, afterwards He can use our scars, healed by his touch, in beautiful ways.  He invites us to sit with those who are living the kind of pain we have lived, to weep with those who weep – because we have shed those tears ourselves.  Our example of surviving great difficulties brings hope, our story of Christ journeying with us through the darkness is a powerful witness to those in despair.

What we consider ugly can be redeemed.  Consider the Apostle Peter – he messed up so badly, yet Jesus drew him back, forgave him and commissioned him to take care of his sheep (people like us).   Great wisdom can come out of bitter experience – I imagine it made Peter more aware of the struggles of others as he lived out his life sharing the good news of God’s Kingdom.

©Nathan Thomas Steer – knots in olive wood add beautiful interest to the grain – 18/7/18

This week: If you are carrying painful scars, spend some time with God, allowing Him to hear your pain, and ask Him to draw close to you in it.

Trevor Hudson’s beautiful book ‘Touched by Resurrection Love – finding hope beyond our tears’ is a series of meditations based around Mary Magdalene’s Easter morning encounter with Jesus.  Described on the cover review as ‘a deeply healing book’,  it has helped me to better understand restorative grace, to weep with those who weep rather than trying to fix things, and to press on with my own journey from tears towards transformation.

If, and only if, you have known God’s healing presence in those painful places, consider asking Him whether there is a place that you can share your story – this does not have to be in public, it may be in your journal, or with a friend who is struggling. If it feels like a burden, then maybe it is too early.  If it feels like an invitation, you may find that He ‘coincidentally’ sends someone your way.  Just today, I heard exactly that story from a friend – in a time of need, she ‘just happened’ to meet a person who could share her story of God’s grace and gentle presence in her pain.

floral-swirl-vector-element_My4DoYU__S

 

Lessons from the Trees – Week 28 – finding our way (2)

Last week we were considering how we can learn from all that has come before in Scripture and church history as we make decisions about our lives.

Some time ago I found a beautiful card called ‘Teach Me Your Paths’ by Cornwall-based artist, Hannah Dunnett who with her husband, Ben, loves “all things creative and especially love to see how faith and creativity can be combined in so many exciting ways.” Hannah has very kindly given me permission to use the image here – I hope you will love it as much as I do. You can see other gorgeous artwork on her website here.

© Hannah Dunnett (used with permission)

Blazing a Trail

Cutting a path from scratch is a daunting task.  Without good equipment and training, it can be a huge undertaking.  You may need a machete or other sharp implement; a knife or something to mark your way, so that you can find it again; compass will help you with your bearings, good footwear and the right clothing, bug spray, and many other things may help you in your quest.  With this much effort at stake, you want to be pretty sure about where you want to go and why.  Are you absolutely sure that no other path has already been created?

Equally, when we are faced with a decision and there is no direct guidance in the Scriptures or in other writing, it can feel very challenging.  In the same way, we must equip ourselves well, building a framework of good practice through which we can reach good decisions.

Sometimes, however, we find it harder to decide what is right, when there is no direct help in Scripture or in the writings of others.  Then we must equip ourselves well, and build a framework of good practice through which we can reach good decisions.

Holding on to the tenets of Scripture, making sure that our thoughts and lives are centred on God, ensuring that love of God, self and others is foremost and, above all, asking God for the wisdom that only He can bestow, taking time to share the challenge with him and asking Him for guidance will all help us to create a good way through the tests that life throws at us.

Above all, we have to hold on to God’s promises, trust that God hears us, loves us and will be with us through everything.

Read: Isaiah 30:18-21

floral-swirl-vector-element_My4DoYU__S

One of the biggest challenges in hearing God is learning how to listen. It is a much-needed skill – isn’t it a gift when we really feel listened to?

One of the key things I have learned on the Renovaré Institute is about the need for silence and solitude in order to listen to God. I may have previously mentioned the running commentary in my head that I was utterly unaware of until I was asked to spend some time in silence at the first Residency.  It took me several hours to quieten it, and often still does!!  Happily, I have learned some ways to help me, such as the centring (centering, if you are American) prayer mentioned in the Extra post on Monday.

IMG_4981 (4)

© Alison Thomas Steer – Attleboro, MA – June 2018

If you are facing a big decision and need guidance, devote some time to silence and prayer, listening for the wisdom of God to guide you to the right path.

  • Once you have told God about your situation, fall silent and allow him space to speak.
  • Start small, devoting a few minutes wholly to God, removing all distractions and guiding your wandering mind back towards God whenever a stray thought comes to mind.
  • Use a centring prayer to help you.
  • Expect to hear from him.

If you have the opportunity to take more time out, plan a quiet half day, or day to go and spend with God so you can extend your conversation with him – a conversation (I have found) that truly does go both ways.

One book I found very helpful in learning how to listen, and how to discern what God might be saying to me is Hearing God by Dallas Willard.

IMG_3708

© Alison Thomas Steer – Syon Park – 22/11/2013

George VI famously quoted some lines of a poem by Minnie Louise Haskins in his Christmas Day broadcast to the nation in 1939.  However, her poem continues well beyond the familiar lines he quoted…..

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied,

“Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the hand of God,

Trod gladly into the night.

He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone east.

So heart be still!

What need our human life to know if God hath comprehension?

In all the dizzy strife of things, both high and low,

God hideth his intention.

God knows. His will is best.

The stretch of years which wind ahead, so dim

To our imperfect vision,

Are clear to God. Our fears are premature. In Him

All time hath full provision.

Then rest; until God moves to lift the veil

From our impatient eyes,

When, as the sweeter features of life’s stern face we hail,

Fair beyond all surmise,

God’s thought around His creatures

Our minds shall fill.

Minnie Louise Haskins (1875-1957)

floral-swirl-vector-element_My4DoYU__S

 

 

 

Lessons from the Trees – July Extra

It’s been a while since I did one of these, but this week I need more space than a reasonable blog post should take up.

I’ve been thinking a lot about listening to God recently, and as our theme this week is about guidance and finding the right path, it seemed a good time to look at this subject briefly.

It is a sign of a very good and deep friendship when you are comfortable enough in someone’s presence that you don’t feel the need to talk all the time.  I believe that we are invited into this kind of relationship with God, and in the same way as human connections turn into bonds of friendship, we can grow in relationship with God.  Also like human friendship, it takes time and intention to develop and deepen the connection.

DSC_0025 (500x335)

Silence and solitude are two key Spiritual Disciplines, and in our noisy, distracted way of 21st century living is completely at odds with the idea of spending time alone and in silence, focused on God.  While monks may have happily chosen to do this in the past, it doesn’t come naturally to most of us.  It leaves us vulnerable to our own thoughts and often takes us into places we spend time and effort to conceal, close up and, if at all possible, forget about altogether.

To be restored people, we need to allow God access into our interior world, however scary this may seem at the outset. Often, even if we decide that this is something worth doing, we wonder how to even begin such an endeavour.

In his book, Freedom of Simplicity, Richard Foster writes:

‘Still every motion that is not rooted in the Kingdom.  Become quiet, hushed, motionless until you are finally centred.  Strip away all excess baggage and non-essential trappings until you have come into the stark reality of the Kingdom of God.  Let go of all distractions until you are driven into the Core.  Allow God to reshuffle your priorities and eliminate unnecessary froth.’

 Clearly, this is not the job of a moment, or even a morning, but God is kind, leading us step by step if we are committed to taking his hand and following his lead. As Richard Foster phrases it: His heart cry is ‘I am with you, will you be with me?’

Once we decide that we do want to share life with God, we need to learn how to do it, and as I have mentioned once or twice before (!), this involves training not trying.  And one of the best ways to train is to get to know God alone and in silence.

One key thing about seeking God in silence is that we are absolutely not emptying our minds. Rather we are trying to focus utterly on the most important Holy One, who wants to know us, who loves us and longs for us to love him in return.

In his book ‘Discovering your Spiritual Identity – practices for God’s beloved’, Trevor Hudson helps us to understand how we might become ‘centred’, inviting us to ‘turn in a Christward direction’ by encouraging us to find a short phrase, sentence or prayer that helps us to let Christ into whatever we are doing, and including when we are intentionally spending time with God. The name of Jesus, a verse of Scripture, the ‘Jesus prayer’ – (a cornerstone of the Orthodox church)  – O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, or other ‘breath prayers’ – ‘Father, I belong to You’, ‘Jesus, let me feel your love’,  ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening’ are all examples of this type of prayer which draw us to focus on God.  (More information can be found in this article.)

Trevor Hudson continues, ‘habits of holy mindfulness are not easily formed.  In their awkward early stages they need all the help they can get.  Tangible symbols of the Holy help us in this regard.’ (p95)

In silence and solitude, these could take the form of a candle, cross or other helpful image that brings the mind back.  I find a pen and paper also handy to jot down anything that is distracting me, such as something I need to do, and once written down, to try and let it go.

When you try this phrase out intentionally seeking to focus all your attention on the God who loves you, Trevor advises ‘refuse to be discouraged by what Quaker Thomas Kelly calls “frequent lapses and forgettings.” Without self-accusation, gently remind yourself of your intentions and begin again just where you are.  After a period of experimentation, reflect on the experience and see whether your relationship with God and awareness of the Divine Presence has been deepened.’

I can only echo the words of the Psalmist, ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him’ (34:8).

 

floral-swirl-vector-element_My4DoYU__S

Lessons from the Trees – Week 27 – finding our way (1)

This week marks a milestone as we now enter the second half of the year of my blog.  Thank you for the feedback and encouragement that I have received from you over the weeks.  I thank God for each of you and pray that He will use the words written to his glory.

I mentioned last week that I had been in the USA and Canada, and that there were untold numbers of trees stretching across the land.  Some of the trees have little undergrowth under them, making it more simple to walk among them, and easier to spot potential difficulties – however, it is easy to get lost in them as there is little to differentiate one place from another.

IMG_4968

©Alison Thomas Steer – Attleboro, Massachusetts – June 2018

In other places, there is thick undergrowth below the trees, often appearing so impenetrable that I wondered how the First Nation peoples and early settlers managed to travel through these woods at all before the days of chainsaws and bulldozers.

IMG_4974

©Alison Thomas Steer – Attleboro, Massachusetts – June 2018

We all need guidance to make the right decisions, to find the right pathway, to avoid the holes, the swamps, the thorns and brambles…  Our eyesight will only tell us so much, the rest comes from what we have learned, what others have told us, the advice we have received, the training we have undertaken.

The wisdom and experience of others can help and advise us.

Jeremiah 6:16 says:

This is what the Lord says:

“Stand at the crossroads and look;
    ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
    and you will find rest for your souls.

Scripture is always a great place to start when seeking to make good decisions – not in a ‘randomly open the bible, close your eyes and put your finger on a verse’ sort of way, but in careful reading, with inspiration of the Holy Spirit and help from scholars who have looked into the context and meaning of the original text.  We are incredibly blessed in the English language to have a broad range of resources to help us understand what the Bible is telling us.

There are wonderful promises in the Bible about how God will help us when we seek wisdom.  Proverbs 3:5-6; Romans 12:2; Proverbs 4:18; Exodus 15:13; Psalm 43:3; Psalm 25:4 are just some of the examples.  Jesus tells us that he is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

In addition, there are wise truths about how to live running throughout Scripture, and even a small analysis will show how relevant they are today. We can also benefit from the writings of those who have lived before us, from the Early Church, the Desert Fathers, to the saints who have lived through the centuries and blessed us with their experiences relevant to this present day. Many are the trails that have been blazed before us, leaving their guidemarks for us to follow.

IMG_5297

©Alison Thomas Steer –  – An example of where one can benefit from others building the path! – Orono Bog Boardwalk, Maine – June 2018

 

IMG_4976

©Alison Thomas Steer – Attleboro, Massachusetts – June 2018

This week: spend some time with the promises mentioned earlier about wisdom.  Look for some more – there are plenty to choose from.  Note them down in your journal.

If you are a reader (or even if you are not), invest some time in finding out about writers from the past who might open your horizons and draw you closer to God.  Begin with those from your own tradition, or if you have exhausted these options look further, back into church history or towards another tradition, to gain insight into the lives of those who came before, but who faced many of the same joys and challenges we face today.  Treat yourself to a new book, download a sample on your Kindle, or borrow a book from a library or a friend, and see where God will take you.

IMG_5292

©Alison Thomas Steer –  Bangor City Forest, Maine – June 2018

And finally….

John Bunyan’s 17th century allegory, ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ is a wonderful tale of following the narrow way described by Jesus in Matthew 7 and well worth the time to read it.  There are updated versions which make the old-fashioned language easier to understand.  Our culture would hold that the narrow way is rigid, boring, judgmental and miserable.  But I have found that there is much good freedom in God’s kingdom, and so much joy besides… I pray that you can say the same.

Lessons from the Trees – Week 26 – Only for God

For the past three weeks, I have been in the United States and Canada, on holiday and doing the last Residency of the Renovaré Institute (and in so doing, spending a final week with an amazing group of people with whom I have journeyed deeply for the past 22 months). God has done so much in my life over this time that I can only marvel at his goodness and kindness in being patient enough to work at my spiritual transformation at my speed.

During those three weeks, I have also seen more trees that I have seen in my life – the north east side of the USA and Canada is covered in them – mile upon mile upon mile, and all verdantly green and radiant in their spring colours, wild lupins festooning the verges on each side of the road, evoking praise for the wonder of creation as we drove.

IMG_5137

©Alison Thomas Steer – June 2018 – Perry, Maine, USA

It brought me to wondering whether some of those trees had never been seen by any human, or whether anyone had ever walked upon the ground where they grew?  And then I  began to wonder why that was important?  Every tree is still growing in the presence of God, and fulfilling its role within the eco-system around it.

Humans are so small, and yet we are so self-centred!

In chapter 4 of a lovely allegory called ‘Hinds Feet on High Places’ by Hannah Hurnard, there is an exchange between the main protagonist, Much-Afraid, and the Shepherd.

“I have often wondered about the wild flowers,” she said, “it does seem strange that such unnumbered multitudes should bloom in the wild places of the earth where perhaps nobody ever sees them and the goats and the cattle can walk over them and crush them to death. They have so much beauty and sweetness to give and no one on whom to lavish it, nor who will even appreciate it.”

The look the Shepherd turned on her was very beautiful. “Nothing my Father and I have made is ever wasted,” he said quietly, “and the little wild flowers have a wonderful lesson to teach.  They offer themselves so sweetly and willingly, even if it seems that there is no one to appreciate them.”   …

I have often seen cards which say ‘bloom where you are planted’ and there is a reminder in that saying to partner with God in whatever situation we find ourselves, but how often do we feel unnoticed or unappreciated, and rather far from blooming in the places where we live and work?

We have a craving for human affirmation, however transitory and short-lived it can be.  It is so easy to forget that our greatest significance is to God – our identity is as God’s children, first and foremost.

Proverbs 18:24 tells us, One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (NIV).

Jesus is that friend, modelling the faithfulness, commitment and community of love that is our Trinitarian God.  We can live to that ‘Audience of One’ – who sees us, notices us, appreciates us, loves us….

In Hind’s Feet, the Shepherd continues, “Many a quiet, ordinary and hidden life, unknown to the world, is a veritable garden in which Love’s flowers and fruits have come to such perfection that it is a place of delight where the King of Love himself walks and rejoices with his friends.  Some of my servants have indeed won great visible victories and are rightly loved and reverenced by other men, but always their greatest victories are like the wild flowers, those which no-one knows about.”

I think we can learn the same lesson from the trees that grow all the way to the horizon in North America…

IMG_5273

©Alison Thomas Steer –  Sunset at Cadillac Mountain – Acadia National Park, Maine.

Consider: How can you learn from the example of Jesus in your friendships?  What do mature human relationships tell us about God?

Have a look at Colossians 13 – not only for weddings, but for all!

Read: Luke 12: 22-34 to remind yourself how much God cares for you.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that the Father sees our secret actions (Matt 6:1-8).

To do: Next time you feel unnoticed or unappreciated, remember that God always notices, that he forms us through the unseen things, that ultimately we do all things for him and in his service (The Great Commandment, Matt 22:36-40) and that he loves us – completely.

 

Lessons from the Trees – Week 25 – Ai Weiwei’s Iron Tree

IMG_2527

©Alison Thomas Steer – a Instagram @alits1 – August 2017 – Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield.

‘Out in the countryside, among sycamores and laurels jewelled with bright raindrops, stands a tree of another kind entirely – not born of nature but made by many human hands. Its boughs open like gesturing arms. Its iron trunk is turning the colour of rusty lichen in the English weather, and each branch ends expressively, as if making a point. A thing of metal, it looks improbably alive.

Ai Weiwei‘s Iron Tree has come all the way from Beijing. Its 99 component parts are cast from the branches, roots and trunks of many trees gathered by many people across China. Even if you didn’t know this, you would sense the great convergence of individual elements, all pieced together, all joined with nuts and bolts and delicate welding that looks like silver stitching in the rainy sunlight. Everything unites in the vast body of the trunk; everything comes together.

It is a vision of hope – one people, one body – and majestically beautiful, a tree that speaks for its many selves.’ (Laura Cumming, The Guardian, 18/05/2014)

I was fortunate to see this masterpiece on a visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Wakefield last summer.  It is now installed outside the chapel and from a distance could almost be mistaken for a real tree.  Close up though, it is definitely a construction of man.

 

IMG_2523

 

It made me think of the church in two ways:

Firstly, we are the body of Christ – a whole made up of many parts.

Read: 1 Corinthians 12: 12-27.  It describes how our sheer variety is blended so that each of us is needed within the church, and something is missing when we exclude people who we don’t feel are ‘necessary’.  A body only functions properly when all its parts are working together in harmony.

Psalm 133 (NLT) says,
How wonderful and pleasant it is
when brothers live together in harmony!
 For harmony is as precious as the anointing oil
that was poured over Aaron’s head,
that ran down his beard
and onto the border of his robe.
Harmony is as refreshing as the dew from Mount Hermon
that falls on the mountains of Zion.
And there the Lord has pronounced his blessing,
even life everlasting.

The next chapter in 1 Corinthians (chapter 13) is that wonderful discourse on Love that we so often hear at a wedding.

In a world of dissent, can we be different?  Inclusive? Show unity with our brothers and sisters in the family of God?

Reflect: Is there anyone in your congregation or community who could be included better?  What could you do to change this?

IMG_2522

My second thought was about the multiplicity of denominations within Christ’s church.  I am not going to get into the whys and wherefores of why they exist and why churches split, but the bible is very clear that we are one in Christ.  Ephesians 4: 3-6 instructs us:

 Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace.  For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future.

There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
 one God and Father of all,
who is over all, in all, and living through all.

Could it be clearer?  Galatians 3:28 tells us that we are one in Christ Jesus.

In his book, the Good and Beautiful Community, James Bryan Smith writes, ‘For me, the basic teaching found in the creeds is essential.  Everything else is non-essential.  Not unimportant, just unimportant enough for me to divide from those who share the same belief in the essentials’.  He continues, ‘the solution to gender, race and social divisions is not to eradicate our differences but to see them in the light of Jesus’ and ‘the true source of our unity in diversity is the Trinity – the good and beautiful community is a mirror of the Trinity.’

This is a much bigger topic that I have room for here, but perhaps you could consider whether there are denominations you avoid because of non-essential differences – is it time to revisit your opinion?  Is there someone you have fallen out with over doctrine?  Could you mend fences by agreeing to disagree well?

James Bryan Smith concludes the section ‘If your heart beats in love for Jesus, then take my hand and we will walk together in fellowship.”  I think that is a pretty good invitation, isn’t it?

floral-swirl-vector-element_My4DoYU__S

You can see the same sculpture being installed in the Tate Modern in 2010 in this video.