When worlds collide

I caught a snatch of lyrics as a car drove by a few days ago, and then, as is often the case, heard it again more than once in subsequent days. Is it because it is a recent imprint on the mind maybe?

In another conversation with my Spiritual Director, I was encouraged to make a review of the past year, an examen, if you like – to notice and reflect in a broader way what God had done in past year, what I had learned, what helped or hindered my life with God. It has been an immensely helpful exercise, bringing a broader perspective and drawing out things to work on, dwell with, or talk to God about, and to give thanks.

A charm of goldfinches in our garden

So this is where the worlds collided in my head. The song, I have learned, is Memories by Maroon 5, and the line that stuck in my head goes ‘Toast to the ones that we lost on the way’. In the context of reflection, I began to think about those people who had made a significant impact on my life but with whom I am no longer in contact. Not those who have died, but those who were in my life for a while and no longer are. And I was so grateful for some of them and the things they brought to me during the time of our acquaintance, friendship or interaction. I have been happy to spend time giving thanks to God for them and the results that came from knowing them.

So that is my encouragement to you – spend some time remembering those people, whether they were a special teacher, Sunday School leader, person on a train, someone who helped you out, dispenser of wisdom, shining example and give thanks to God for the time that they were in your life. And you can take it wider – to those you have never met but have impacted your life through books, broadcasts, art…

Tunnel vision

In the down time over Christmas, I’ve been reading Karen Kingsbury’s ‘and the Shofar blew’.

I’m not going to review it, I’m sure it’s been done plenty of times elsewhere. In a nutshell, it’s about a pastor who starts to miss the point in his ambition to emulate his successful father and build a mega church.  Eventually ambition replaces God and things go pear-shaped.

The thing that fascinated me was the way she weaves a story which highlights how we can so easily have blind spots. Not only the pastor, but also his wife and mother.

It started me thinking about where the blind spots might be in my life. Where do I compromise without realising or noticing? What unhelpful habits continue day after day to draw me away from God?

This is why a regular examen or review of life is so important. Daily is ideal, but do as you can and don’t beat yourself up if you can’t!

Just being a bit honest with ourselves in God’s presence can illuminate things that get in the way, shed light on things we don’t normally notice and allow us to reflect, assess, pray and ask God how we can change. Little and often allows for gradual change that is less overwhelming, especially when we look back and see how far we’ve come.

photo by Nathan Thomas Steer

The Shofar was a horn, made from the horn of a sheep or goat and used in Biblical times, particularly for public announcements related to worship or war. It is mentioned around 70 times in the Bible. Sometimes God sounds the Shofar, as in Exodus 29, when Moses went up Mt. Sinai to meet God, and in Zechariah 9.

Wishing you joy!

‘Tis the season of joy. This is definitely my word for the season. It conveys so much more depth than happiness or all the rush and shiny glitz we’ve turned the season into.

Joy, that deep bright warmth that stays lit whatever is happening in our lives. That certainty of being loved and knowing that your life is hidden in Christ’s.

How generous of God to share this with us as He created us in His image. For as Dallas Willard tells us, God is the most joyous of all.

As we celebrate the season and remember the coming of the Christ-child, once again, let’s thank God for the gift of joy he freely offers, but just at Christmas, but always. Grace and peace to you this Christmas!

A little Christmas inspiration…

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel.

As we enter the season of Christmas carols, this one has been in my mind. Despite the fact that it fails to mention Christ or the Nativity, the song is redolent with Christlike behaviour.

As the King of Bohemia in the 10th century, I was wondering what drew him to the window that night. It was probably draughty and well away from the fire, yet when he looked, it was not the magnificent snowy panorama glittering with frost that caught his attention, it was a person looking for wood for his fire in the bitter winter cold. Like Christ, he noticed someone poor and needy and had compassion.

“Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

The King’s attention is gained, he wants to know who he is. The man is an individual in his mind, worthy of his attention.

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

And like Christ, the King responds with action, sacrifice and personal, immediate attention. He could have sent his servant, he could have delayed until a more conducive moment, but instead he chose to go himself in the dark, in the cold, in the present.

“Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

When we respond to a need in Christ’s name we also step in His footsteps, He goes before us, is there before us, and is also with us. He gives us strength to continue, like the page, when we are weak and feel we cannot go on. The true King washed others’ feet and led from the front like a Middle Eastern shepherd, and in the song Wenceslas does the same.

Our weakness is made perfect in his strength.

Good King Wenceslas was murdered by a conspiracy of nobles including his brother, is considered a martyr and was canonised and is the patron saint of the Czech Republic. He was committed to supporting the Christian faith despite opposition from many pagans in Bohemia. He is now commemorated not only in this carol but in the main square in Prague, and other places in the Czech Republic.

Photos free from Pixels.

What a star!

With Advent beginning, my thoughts have turned to the story of Christmas and the coming of the Christ child.

I was musing about the visit of the Magi who saw the star, reflected on its meaning and acted in faith in their interpretation.

It occurred to me that this was a sign for the whole world, a gratuitous cosmic initiative by God, unnecessary to the story, except to share the good news of Emmanuel, God with us, beyond Israel and the Jewish nation. God arranged the stars to announce the coming of Jesus – Saviour of the World – to Gentiles.

I wonder how many Magi there were, studying the skies at that time? Learned scholars across the known world seeking knowledge from the universe. How many saw the star? How many could interpret the message? And yet only a handful made the journey. And maybe countless others saw and wondered at its brightness, knowing nothing of the meaning it carried.

It brings me to reflect that God is willing to communicate but only if I notice. What am I missing in the noise, consumerism and trivia of Christmas celebration in Great Britain in 2019? Am I willing to patiently seek the signs and whispers and nudges of God? Do I know what I am looking for? And most of all, like the Magi, am I willing to respond?

What did their friends and family think when they packed their bags, loaded their camels and headed off to seek what they believed they’d read in the stars?

For us, as Trevor Hudson says in his incisive little book Pauses for Advent “it means living in the expectancy that we may be surprised by grace and mercy breaking into our lives at any moment.”

This Advent, may I make time to find quiet to notice, listen and respond as God leads me. May it become for me the way of every day, not just for Christmas. And for you too.

Freedom (3)

I’ve been a bit quiet on here for a couple of weeks. Two weeks ago I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau on a visit to Krakow and there were many things to process.

I may write more of my thoughts another time. It was very crowded when we were there and we were herded round our tour in a way that irritated my First World sensibility. I wanted time and space and I wasn’t getting it. Then my conscience pricked in, reminding me of my immense freedom and choice, while here were the memories of millions who had all their choices taken away, were treated as hardly human and either murdered or worked to death in slavery enduring horrific deprivation and inhumane treatment.

The main thing that impressed upon me during my time there was the individuality of every person who came through the gates – each a child of God, each with a face, a name and a story, however hard their captors tried to take that away. Mass killing tends to take away some of the individual stories, but being there, seeing names and faces and hearing stories brought home the individual tragedy of each death, each survivor’s trauma.

And each captor too – how could they? Could I see them as children made in God’s image?

However the horror of Nazi Germany has not prevented genocide and persecution continuing to happen across the globe.

Please pray for those who face oppression and death for their race, tribe, religion or other characteristic. May God have mercy.

Am I free?

There is so much about freedom in the Bible. Here are just three quotations, from Old and New Testament.

John 8:34-36

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a stage had no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Galatians 5:1
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

Psalm 118:

“When hard-pressed, I cried to the Lord; He brought me into a spacious place.” Or as the NIV says “He answered by setting me free.”

It’s funny how I know this, and appreciate it, and yet fail to allow it to penetrate into my everyday life in so many ways. I am free, yet I don’t live free.

It is just another example of fact being overridden by feeling. I can be swamped by the things around me, and forget that the giver of freedom is in control. Whether it’s Brexit, Syria or other examples of events in the world that seem so awful, or so unstoppable, and beyond anything we can influence, it’s easy to feel trapped, powerless, tied into a system I cannot change.In C.S. Lewis’ book ‘The Last Battle‘ there is a brilliant example of this.

After an epic battle between good and evil, the protagonists find themselves no longer in a small thatched stable, but in a new land, filled with beautiful things, delicious fruit, breathtaking scenery. As they move through it they meet some dwarves that they have encountered previously. Although they are in the new land, they are huddled together as if tied up…

“They never looked round or took any notice of the humans until Lucy and Tirian were almost near enough to touch them.Then the dwarves all cocked their heads as if they couldn’t see anyone but were listening hard and trying to guess by the sound what was happening.

Look out!’ says one of them in a surly voice.’Mind where you’re going. Don’t walk into our faces!’

‘All right!’ said Eustace indignantly, We’re not blind, we’ve got eyes in our heads.’

‘They must be darn good ones if you can see in here’, said the same Dwarf whose name was Diggle.

‘In where?’asked Edmund.

‘Why you bone head, in here of course.,’ said Diggle, ‘In this pitch-black, poky, smelly little hole of a stable.’ ‘Are you blind? said Tirian.

‘Ain’t we all blind in the dark? said Diggle.

‘But it isn’t dark, you poor stupid dwarves’, said Lucy. Can’t you see? Look up! Look round! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and the flowers? Can’t you see me?”

‘How in the name of all Humbug can I see what ain’t there? And how can I see you any more than you can see me in this pitch darkness?’

The conversation goes on. Eventually Aslan arrives and offers the Dwarves a feast, but they only see it as rotten leftovers. Their main consideration is not to let anyone take them in. ‘at any rate, there’s no Humbug here.’

”You see’ Aslan explains, ‘they will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison it’s only in their minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.’

How am I a prisoner of my own mind? What freedom am I unable to see and step into?

Henri Nouwen in The return of the Prodigal Son, writes about the freedom which comes from being released from the bond of comparison. ‘God is urging me to come home, to enter his light, and to discover the that, in God, all people are uniquely and completely loved. In the light of God I can finally see my neighbour as my brother, as the one who belongs as much to God as I do. But outside of God’s house, brothers and sisters, husband and wives, lovers and friends become rivals and even enemies; each perpetually plagued by jealousies, suspicious, and resentments.’

Only in Christ can I truly be free…

everything has the potential to draw forth from me a fuller love and life. Yet my desires are often caught on illusions of fulfillment. ‘ Sacred Space (2019), p.350. So true!Photos from Colne Valley Country Park, Middlesex, October 2019.

Encumbered by our freedom

I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom these past weeks, and I think there may follow a few musings on different things that have occurred to me.

More than once recently I’ve encountered and read the passage in like 10:1-9 where Jesus sends out the 70 to visit those places he intended to visit. He tells them not to take anything, but to bring peace to a community, mingle with the inhabitants, cure the sick and announce that ‘God’s Kingdom has come near to you.’

I don’t know about you, but the word ‘evangelism’ makes me feel tense, and all sorts of anxiety comes into my mind. Sharing my faith often seems like a burden because I want to manage the outcome and I don’t want to get it wrong.

Photo by Nathan Thomas Steer

In my mind I see myself metaphorically packing for every eventuality. I need to have the right answer, using the right jargon-free language, tailored to every possible scenario. Meanwhile, ‘the lost’ become somewhat morphed together in my mind.

So instead of being free to be myself and respond in the power of the Holy Spirit to whatever comes up, The Lost person (who may not recognise their status in my mind) sees me coming a mile off, burdened by the excess baggage of anxiety and over-thinking and the stuff I’ve taken ‘just in case’ and wonders why s/he would ever want to be like me! No one wants to be a project.

The seventy were sent out unencumbered to start a conversation prior to the arrival of Jesus. While they may have generated a buzz of interest, they were not the real thing; it was, and always is, about Jesus. And in sharing our faith, the outcome is not our responsibility; but perhaps reflecting a truer picture of God is, because if we can see people as precious image-bearers, perhaps we can prepare the way better for the arrival of Jesus, by seeing each person as an individual, and the good news of the Kingdom as a blessing for now and not just a golden ticket for the future. That it’s about a trusting relationship and not a fearful transaction, joyful acceptance rather than reluctant coercion.

Photo by Adam Thomas Steer

Scripture requires us to give an answer for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15), and I would never say that we should glory in unpreparedness, but let’s see freedom for what it is, rather than burden ourselves with a task so that our glorious freedom is hidden underneath the encumbrances we put upon ourselves.

Jesus was always true to himself. He knows firsthand that living in the Kingdom leads to a better way of life. So let’s show it!

Lord, may I hold on to the freedom you have graciously given me. May I hold onto the confidence you place in me through your love and creative vision. May I not be weighed down by the burdens of fear and managing outcomes. Help me to remember that this is about you, Lord and play my supporting role in reflecting the joy and freedom of your Kingdom, now and always.

So much noise!

There are so many words out there – spoken words, written words, broadcast words.

More content than anyone could ever consume, more books than can ever be read – endless streams, highways, marching hordes of letters, one behind the other. Good, harsh, poetic, life-changing, pointless, encouraging, destructive …. So many words.

Sunrise photo by Ken Thomas Steer

How can I get to that place where there are no more words? Just a deep silence beyond the noise. God’s silence. A place where there is no need for words. A place to simply be with God.

Blinded by the log!

Our friends have a dog that loves sticks. Nothing unusual in that, but this dog loves big sticks, the bigger the better. She charges along the path, but her spatial awareness does not include the stick! It can be quite disconcerting to be suddenly rapped sharply on the calves as she attempts to run past with her stick!

Reading Luke 6:39-42 the other day, I suddenly thought of this as I imagined having a log in my eye.

How much damage do we do to others because of our log? We swing round and clout others, perhaps the sharp end grazes or cuts, we leave bruises behind on others.

In chapter 7 of The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard cautions against the spirit of condemnation that blinds us to the reality of our brother with the speck in his eye. Until we see that person with love and ‘have grown into the kind of person who does not condemn’, ‘we will never know how to truly help him/her.’ (p.243).

In my Sacred Space devotional, the passage is accompanied by a challenge: are we quick to see the flaws in others? Do we like to guide and correct others from a self-installed pedestal? How much of it conversation is focused on the failings of public figures or those around us?

Which takes me back to my canine friend. Sometimes a rap on the calves can be timely in drawing my attention to my behaviour.

More photos from the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden.