Monday, 8 February 2016

Perishable Goods

"You've sought me not because you saw something remarkable, but because your stomachs were filled with bread".

Jesus (John 6:26).

It's the turning-point in what was to come.
From here on in, rather than days which struck people because of the miraculous, there would be a new emphasis - a turning to Jerusalem, and the conflict with death that awaited there.

The Gospel of John, however, tells this moment differently, taking in another aspect of the story, than the other Gospels.

The people had been truly fed by the 'miracle worker' (verse 2) on the cusp of passover (verse 4) - the time when the people recalled the feeding of their forefathers by Moses in the wilderness - and had deemed that such a man was indeed worthy of their devotion and elevation (verse 15), but Jesus had walked across the lake to distance Himself from such ends. The throng, however, knew when they were on to a good thing, and they raced after Him, wanting more of the free lunches their prescribed 'king' could provide.

It's here that things get really interesting (verse 28 onwards).
Jesus said that they didn't understand what really mattered - that they really needed to believe in Him if they were to gain something more than just a meal. The response of the crowd, of course, was 'well, you give us another sign, and then we may consider you worth following'. Their only real interest was in the immediate, not what Jesus was really all about.

When you read through the concluding sections of most of the Epistles of the New Testament, you see how this is spelt-out, over and over again, and if we're honest, the reason it's there is because, like the hungry crowd awaiting breakfast, we're not really taking on board what it means or seeking to understand what's really going on. If we can have our plates filled for another day, oh, and our desires met in full along with that, then everything will be pretty peachy and, well, we can worry about anything else, maybe, after that. I must admit that my own thoughts and related deeds, when soberly examined, can often be just that shallow.

Jesus doesn't let us off the hook.
He refers them to the feeding by Moses in the desert, but corrects their understanding - it isn't Moses that gives bread that satisfies, but God, and when people eat of that bread, they will not only be satisfied, but they will gain a life that never ceases (and, in truth, never sits easy with being satisfied for less).

The crowd isn't there for a lecture on something that is so clearly removed from their own  wants and needs, so they start to complain (verse 41 - so often our own de-fault setting!) - who does this man think He is? I'm the one, Jesus replies, who gives a 'bread' that will sustain you forever, because the true life that will sustain creation is my flesh (verse 51).

It's not the answer they (or we) were looking for. Sure, give us what we need and, hey, you can stick around (handy for the next meal) and be a 'king', of sorts, but what is all this ghastly talk about us needing to eat you!

They'd been so busy thinking about daily bread, of course, that they'd forgotten what passover itself really entailed - the eating of the Lamb and the shedding of its blood (Exodus 22).

The spotlight then turns away from the masses (probably because they realized that another free meal wasn't going to be forthcoming) to the disciples who were with Him  (verse 60), who were clearly struggling in the same way that the crowd had done. Jesus doesn't dilute what's required one jot, but just says, 'do you wish to go as well?' Peter states something, which, thankfully, keeps me (and, I suspect, so may of us) in the pull of the Gospel - where could we go? Only you have come from God, and you feed us with the words of life (Verse 68).

When we sit in church on Sunday's, it's hopefully because we expect to hear God speak to us through His living word. When we take of the bread and the wine, it is because as Matthew, Mark and Luke* tells us (and as John is unpacking here) - that we are eating and drinking of Christ, because without that life to feed us and sustain us, we're merely scraping around in the dirt for the next scrap, whoever and whatever we are - it's not going to last.

If I'm honest, then I know that often, I'm just one of the crowd, or, at best, a disciple scratching his head and saying, boy, is this hard to get - principally because I have a propensity to go back to what I want or think I need, but Jesus wants to raise our eyes to eternity.

C S Lewis often nails the issue, and he notes: 
"It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us. Like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday by the sea. We are far too easily pleased".
(The Weight of Glory).

Too easily pleased so often sums it up. May God grant us the hunger for that stronger meat and undiluted wine, that our appetites may increase for richer things.

* The Gospels of Matthew (26:27,28) and Mark (14:22-24) both simply say that the bread & wine are the body & blood of Christ, mentioning nothing about 'remembrance' Luke's gospel (22:17-20) speaks of 'remembrance', but some ancient manuscripts do not contain that phrase here (only in Paul's instruction to the Corinthians), and it should be noted that what is meant in the Greek with regards to the word used - anamnesis - is not simply a bringing to remembrance, like one would on a memorial day, but a quickening of our faculties, especially our affections, to engage with the person Himself.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Getting what counts

"If bread is the first necessity of life, recreation is a close second".
Edward Bellamy

We all have things we love to do. It might be a taking a particular walk or ride, listening to certain songs or music, or engaging creatively with food or paints or other materials. Often, we enjoy such activities with others, but sometimes, we value such engagements alone.

This past week provided an opportunity for me to be involved in my first photo shoot of the New Year. As is so often the case, I spent the day before this prepping gear and considering locations for the day itself, thinking about the kind of images that I hoped to gain.

We enjoy such times, not only because they deeply refresh and inspire us, but because they "feed" a profound hunger that all of us share at the heart of our nature.

As people, we were fashioned to want and desire on a whole range of levels - from the basic need to feed our bodies, to the seemingly infinite capacity to satisfy our need to engage with and unpack the resplendence of the creation which surrounds, sustains and impresses upon us. One of the wonders of life is when we can not only provide for, but abundantly elaborate on furnishing such longings, whilst one of the true horrors is when we seek to crush or stifle such longings by channeling them in such a fashion that we harm or demean the person(s) concerned (think about the fall of humanity in the garden of Eden, and how many cults have taken a similar line).

When Jesus begins to address the everyday people of His day, He speaks of how God wants to use our basic desires - our hunger and thirst, not just for food and water, but for life - to point us to what's really going on with regards to who and what we are. God made us with such great appetites and needs amidst a creation that can furnish us on a basic level to prompt us to look further - to go deeper - to find the true satisfaction to those deepest longings. He shows us that all the things we naturally enjoy allow us to gain a savor of what will truly, eternally satisfy our restless souls. We can spend our lives rushing all over the place to find such peace, or we can find it in the one who made us and deeply cares for us - that is the true intention behind all that 'speaks' to us so deeply regarding meaning in our world.

Christ doesn't remove our delight in all the good things of life - He makes it all the more satisfying because He allows us to see that this present splendor is just a prelude, a foretaste, of the magnificence that is close, when all of creation is once more clothed in its full radiance, lost because of our fall.

Jesus came as a man to set each of us free by His death and resurrection - to give life in all its fulness. All of creation awaits the day when that shall be seen once again.

I hope 2016 proves to be a year when all of us taste of and enjoy such splendor.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

In plain sight?

"If the truth about the nativity doesn't reach our heart, then we shall sense none of the sweetness or solace which lies there. We will not truly laugh or be merry.
There is such richness and goodness here that if we deeply understand, we should be wrapped in perpetual joy".  Martin Luther - Christmas sermons.

"Did you have a good Christmas?"
That will be the question in around a week's time. The answer will often be along the lines of "well, it was alright, and the kids enjoyed it", harping back, perhaps, just a touch to the "magic" we once knew on those breath-taking nights when we were excited about the idea that something special was going to happen on that night. It wasn't just the presents, or all the food, or the visits from family - there was a sense that something major was going on, and it called for merriment and celebration.

Christmas is about the most staggering moment in all of space and time.
It doesn't happen in a hadron collider or a nuclear detonation, but in the very everyday event of a mother having a child, and that tells us something truly profound about our being here, and the God who made us.

John's gospel begins by speaking about the Word - logos - being made flesh and dwelling amongst us (John 1:1-18). The Greek word he uses here is filled with meaning, including:
the means by which the deepest inward thought and intent is expressed
the source of such thought
the giving of such deep intent by reflection and deliberation
the employment of calculation and reckoning
the implementation of action following deep consideration
the implementation of action in proportion to all else
the implementation of things on the grounds of what is truly reasonable

In the coming of Jesus, we encounter the deepest longing and intent of God our Father.

Like a seed, Logos encapsulates choice, inquiry, harmony, truth, and the deep expression of these in our world, which is no doubt why John speaks of the Word as light, shattering the darkness as He brings light of the most glorious kind amongst us. 

Amongst us.
Christmas unwrapped isn't about things that are far away, but a God who is very present in the very nitty-gritty of our world - being nursed at a mother's breast, enjoying good wine and company at a wedding (John 2)  or breakfast on a beach (John 21). The Word has been made flesh and dwelt among us.

That's both the joy and the irritation of Christmas. We don't have to look very far to see that what is special is the way in which God Himself wants to say yes to all that we rightly delight in that's good in life, but we're also aware of our own poverty inside and how that spoils so much.

There is an answer. The Word came to give us life - the gift amongst the wrapping - so that we might be truly human once again... Not perfect, not yet anyway, but knowing that Christmas means the darkness is broken, and there is now a joy even amidst our trials and pain.

The 'magic' of this season isn't very far away at all, so as you hear the carols, or look at the nativity on a Christmas card or in a school play, consider what's really going on. God, in Christ, reconciling us to Himself by His amazing Grace and Truth.

The joy of the season to us all!

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Christmas Comfort?

James Donovan: Aren't you worried?
Rudolf Abel: Would it help?

From Stephen Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies".

Do you ever wonder what this season is all about?

Hearing of the conditions in Cumbria this weekend left me chilled to the bone as I proceeded to see, again, images of vast swathes of the country deluged and people struggling to hold on to their homes and lives amidst the trauma.

And then came Monday morning, and the news that I'm facing redundancy at work - the third occasion of this in a decade.

Christmas can often appear somewhat detached from such events, especially as people revel in the delight of good times and good company amidst warmth and cheer.

That's until we recall the first Christmas.
Matthew records how there was a slaughter of innocents. Luke describes a birth amidst hardship and squalor in a place far from home, as well as Shepherds terrified as heaven literally burst into the skies above them.

Unsettling times, surrounding the one who came to bring us peace.

It can be really hard to find peace most of the time in our world, especially when circumstances make us want to worry about security, comfort and aid, but Jesus comes to say that above and beyond such issues (and the struggle to keep them), there is actually something more important - the peace that He brings.

This life is brief, but the splendor it speaks about is really what counts, and that is often where Jesus points us.  Consider the array of the lillies, He says, and how none of even our best finery even comes close to what we see here, in creation. If God, he asks, so adorns something that's here and then gone, then what about you? Why do we spend so much time troubled about things that are momentary. No doubt, so often, because we often find them truly unsettling, as they often are, but there's more to see. Life's real splendor, He's saying, should cause us to look further, delve deeper, into what's really going on amidst all the tragedy and triumph. If we don't understand that, then it all just becomes a series of unrelated and irrelevant events, topped with futility and death, but Jesus wants us to invest it all in the surety of God's immediate and present life and purpose. That's where real peace and comfort lye.

The Christmas nativity affirms the vital relevance of the name given to Jesus - Immanuel (God with us). That's what really counts, and it means, as we come to another Christmas, we can begin to see something wonderful at the heart of our time here.

God is with us, to deliver us and make these checkered days vital and valuable.

Truly, then, there are tidings of joy, even amidst the pain.

Saturday, 21 November 2015


"I learned the truth at seventeen, that love was meant for beauty queens".
From the song, at seventeen.

Art, when used well, grants us a window into the world around us and, on occasion, into ourselves (hence Solomon's connecting beauty and the deepest longings of the human heart).

As a photographer, I've learned that people can use such creativity, like anything else, to either show or hide their actual nature, so it's good to question what the artist is actually intending in what's produced and, often just as important, what our relationship to that work says about us and our candor about life and what we see when we look in the mirror.

A few weeks ago, a model posted a confession on a photography site I belong to. I have posted part of it below, only slightly edited. Here's what she said:

"Over the past year I have thoroughly enjoyed being a mature model, I've met some wonderful, kind, generous, fabulous, creative and very funny people, some of them have become close friends which has been wonderful.  I started modelling as a distraction, a hobby, something that allowed me a break from coping with challenges at home, and also to gain insight into Photography. It has accomplished all that but, and there's always a but, over the past 6 months it has become something else, and I have found it has changed parts of me that I'm really not comfortable with.  I have STUPIDLY very slowly and gradually developed an unhealthy and damaging self image.

Now I know photographers, iron out wrinkles and crinkles, lumps and bumps, scars and defects, but over the passing year I have found myself wanting more and more of ME to be edited to get rid of those defects.  It becomes addictive, because gradually over time you see the reaction you receive to perfection and naturally you want more, and before you know it, you just not happy with yourself at all.  Its addictive validation and at my age, it can take away all I've spent years and years trying to accomplish in accepting myself for who I am.  I suffered from crippling low self esteem, and its taken me most of my life to get over that and accept myself for who I am, and also other peoples acceptance of me and what I do with that. I'm losing that due to all the editing wizardry that allows me to delete the me that's come about over the last ten years.
So, I've made a decision, rather than ask Photographers to change me, I've decided to change what I do and how I model. I almost lost a very good friend on here because I had a completely unrealistic sense of how I should look, I was deeply ashamed that I had put a friendship before my appearance, it was then I realised I was damaging myself by trying to model in a world that is, well lets face it, not really set up for women in their 50's.  I don't want to give up modelling, as I still enjoy it and there are so many fabulous creatives out there.  So I have made a decision not to do any more full figure work, I will only be taking on TF work with people that match my commitment on a shoot, and I will be putting the emphasis on quality rather than quantity with shoots". 

There's a wonderful scene in the film, the Agony and the Ecstasy, which tells the story of Michelangelo's  painting of the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.  He is nearing completion of the famous scene of God creating man, when the Cardinal's arrive crying "obscenity!, obscenity!". A very telling exchange follows (which I won't spoil for you - it's a must see), but essentially, the artist declares how he has sought to express the truth of what God has done, both in creation and redemption, in his art, and that's all that any of us can really seek to do.

The model quoted above had realized that if we're not careful, we can spend our time engaged in actions and ways of thinking that actually defraud us of a true understanding of ourselves. However 'good' the intention may be, we can so easily find ourselves loosing what counts or, like those prelates in the film, not truly understanding what is happening before us because of miss-placed scruples or uninformed 'piety' or self-worth.

In the Gospels, Jesus often uses illustrative stories (parables) to both unveil and deliberately mask or hide precious truths about the nature of God and ourselves, and it's when we unpack these "it's like this" tales well that we can glean precious truths that deeply enrich us.

Life needs us to be honest about our poverty and our true needs to really grow. God wants us to see ourselves as we are, so we understand our great need of Him, and the love He gives to make us whole in His beloved Son.

The next time you're listening to some music, looking at a painting or image, watching a movie or play or reading a favorite novel or poem, ask yourself 'what is this really saying to me and about me?'

You may find you're in for a few surprises.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Busily going nowhere, when the light is green.

"If there's one thing I need to do,
it's to find out more about you".

Randy Stonehill - First Prayer.

It's been another painful week in the world.

Paris was truly shocking, but as I've read of the current political troubles in Portugal and economic quakes China, as well as the call in Russia for more nuclear arms, and the sense of uncertain justice in relation to drone strikes, I've been reminded that it's all too easy for us to loose sight of the bigger picture and thereby lack understanding.

The same is true in our faith.

Take the story of the the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11).
We all recall Jesus famous words here, 'let him who is without sin cast the first stone', but who do we usually identify with in this event?

Perhaps, like me, you can so easily find yourself looking at someone else the way these people did at this woman. It's so, so easy for us to 'arrest, judge and convict' someone with speed, especially if they confess or are caught in sin or weakness. I find myself all too readily  reaching for the 'guilty' button (or stone) then, and Jesus' words certainly strike home in those circumstances, but how many of us identify with the woman? How many of us are prepared to recognize that we're just like her, standing before an arena of judgement for who and what we are?

The problem so often with being religious is that we think it lets us off the hook.
The pious folk of Jesus' day were masters at playing the role outwardly, but they didn't fool God for a second. Once the garb was taken off, they were exactly the same as this woman - all their religion did was blind them to their poverty.

Despite her being condemned by the crowd, this woman had everything that mattered going for her at that dreadful moment.
It didn't matter how guilty or deserving of judgement she was, because standing next to her was the judge of all the earth, and He was going to show her and those who had convicted her that there was only one thing that truly mattered in all of heaven and earth - God was there, and God was totally loving and merciful - that's what truly makes the difference.

Recently, I was watching an astonishing video by Nadia Boles on Confession and Absolution, in which she talks about how it is so helpful to use this as a way of understanding that God has dealt with our sin and finding our way back to that point that, yes, whilst we are sinners saved by grace, His salvation truly makes us free.

The true work of God, Jesus says, is to rest on the one the Father has sent (John 6:28, 29). Jesus is standing with us today, if we put aside our pretense and our scrutiny of others, to see our need of Him - to know His health and peace in our time of need.

The world is filled with pain and fury, but there is one, standing oh so close, that heals us and truly sets us free.

That alone allows us to get somewhere.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Seriously sodden amidst a sea of umbrellas

I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Bob Dylan

We all need one.

In those, dark, boiling, demanding days, that seem to screech and prey upon our innards, making our very bones quiver, longing for solace.

We all have one.

That panacea above us, giving us what we need, supposedly, to make it through the hard rain of another day. Some employ their stance (naturalism)  and confidence towards the 'greatness' of science, thinking this gives them sound footing, unaware of the 'movable feast' this has truly become. Most of us are not even that concerned about what is going on there... just don't think about it too much. Just enjoy it all while it lasts.

Reality doesn't really afford us that luxury.

Sooner or later, we're the one standing amidst the fury with nothing but a ruined (supposedly "weatherproof") brolly in shreds around our ankles, facing the full brunt of the storm.

Some years ago, as I sat facing the final day of my wife's life, I found myself listening to a counsellor trying to tell me that she could do her job because the world was a fine place, filled with wonderful things that allowed her to cope with the more painful 'illusions'. I was staggered that someone working in a hospice could be so closed to the reality of what surrounded them, which was certainly not an illusion.

We live in a world where there is evil, real and unrelenting, and it is something which destroys not only by pain and torment, but by blinding us to the sheer ugliness of what we become without proper aid and shelter for our naked souls.
God stands amidst the cavalcade of our revelries, quietly and calmly calling to us to recognize the deeper realities of our lives and His love, so fully revealed to us in the gift of His Son.

Come, all you who hungry and thirsty, who have no coin, come and eat, all who have spent their lives on things that do not satisfy or sustain, for here is food and drink that will truly feed you and allow you to live (Isaiah 55: 1-3). 

 He tells us of the day fast coming, when we will indeed find the consequences of our folly about who and what we are (not just self-serving 'things') catching up with us, and how we need something much better than those rags we consider to be of value to provide a remedy on that day.

"But now", writes Paul, the righteousness of God has been revealed, when we have faith in Jesus Christ, because He alone is the one who has nullified the power of sin and death by taking it upon Himself at the cross, clothing us with His righteousness to make us free if we trust in Him (Romans 3:21-26).

The pain of that final day at the hospice was finally eased at my wife's bed when God graciously reminded me and her of those precious promises of what will really matter on that day.

That's the only shelter that can truly outlast the perfect storm.