This reflection has 'happened' as I drew the image. Based on a photo from a walk in the Cheshire countryside with friends I had in mind our personal journeys to Bethlehem and the Christ-child during the Advent season. In retrospect the star over Bethlehem appears just as much as a cross and leads one to reflect on the journey to our new birth. The fact that it comes through self-sacrifice gives us a notion as to what it meant for God to be born in our human lives in Jesus. It puts the question of the cost of Christmas into a whole different perspective!
Having said this, there are those who will be counting the cost in very significant ways:
Those who have amassed large debt in order to buy presents that will impress.
The newly-marrieds who expected some time as a couple enjoying their new life, now expecting a baby with all the commitments this means.
The wise, who recognise the significance of Jesus' birth and give something of themselves in celebration, but then discover that they are to return home a completely different way.
We all might consider what it means to celebrate and share in the 'incarnation of God' as we and He muddle along in the mess of human life.
This image was given to a dear friend who had terminal cancer, carrying the Gospel that we journey, not to an end, but to a new beginning and life. I trust that it continues to carry this message for her grieving family.
Another friend has commented that the picture has the sense of evening time for him. Perhaps it is when we are in the evening of life that we are most aware of the promise that lies ahead of us?
In relation to the whole climate crisis debate and response I am quite surprised how muted any response has been from the Christian community. Not that nothing has been said, but that it has been said quietly. And yes, there was a Christian presence amongst the climate protesters on the streets in 2019, but given the church’s presence in every community around the country ….! The growth of the eco-church movement is good to see, but here again the vital matters around climate change are, more often than not, low down the ‘agenda’ considering.
Perhaps more important than joining the campaigning on the basis of science and other empirical evidence is the whole matter of faith. After all, there is everything blasphemous in only looking at the situation on the basis of ‘humanity has messed up, humanity is able to put it right’.
Not unnaturally, when confronted with news of unprecedented floods around the world my mind turns to the story of Noah. Earthquakes, wind and fire turn my attention to Elijah on Mount Horeb.
The Chester Mystery Plays, which date back to the early 15th century, include the story of Noah and the flood. This was used as the basis for Noyes Fludde, an opera by Benjamin Britten which I helped to produce in Birmingham in 2002. The story is relevant for both times. One of the comical features is Mrs Noah along with her ‘Gossips’ who are the naysayers, the Donald Trump characters, who deny that disaster is coming. However, the key message is found in the Ark and the rainbow, evidence of God’s desire for the renewal and continuation of his creation and his promise that never again will he destroy all life.
It is likely that we will jump on the rainbow promise to reassure ourselves that the disaster, which we can see coming, will not happen. In doing so we too easily overlook the simple fact that in our current situation it is not God who is wreaking destruction but our own selfish actions.
The rainbow promise holds and we can be assured, not that we can mess up as we like without negative result, but that God’s love for his creation continues undiminished.
There is no need for God to repeat the act of judgement because we have the experience of Noah as a judgment for our actions today. We also have this story of salvation and new beginnings and God’s living Word in Jesus, so a similar act of judgement should be unnecessary!!
It may be helpful too to take heed of Elijah’s experience (1 Kings 18) who found himself up Mount Horeb seeking God’s direction for his life, as he faced considerable opposition from some influential people. Sat in a cave he experienced earthquake, wind and fire but realised that in none of these did God speak, but rather in the silence that followed. For our own part we perhaps need to allow ourselves to be moved more by the evidence of God’s love - the rainbow promise, that so often comes quietly, than by the 'bangs and the crashes' of nature. We may then find a responding love and care for God’s creation and all who are part of it rather than a devotion to self-preservation.
Noah was the instrument of God's salvation witnessed in the rainbow. Jesus is God's salvation witnessed in the Cross and a faith that resurrection is his promised love for eternity. We too may be instruments of God's salvation for a world ravaged by flood, earthquake, wind and fire, but faith needs to be put into practice!
A walk in Austy Wood at bluebell time, or the park, the countryside, the national park, the seaside.
A holiday to view far-flung wonders, a safari, a mountain climb, a scuba dive.
We watch David Attenborough, Countryfile, Spring Watch, Gardeners’ World
There are so many ways in which we sample the world of nature.
We appreciate it, have concern for it, care for it, rejoice in it.
At times we enter into it, becoming part in an active way. We manage our garden, we tend plants and grow vegetables or fruit.
In our appreciation and concern, through a sense of care, it becomes a cause which we support. A local conservation project gains our interest, we donate to the World Wildlife Fund, we re-cycle bits of paper and plastics, we grow flowers for the bees, build an insect ‘hotel’, feed the birds and the hedgehog.
However, a question remains over the depth and intimacy of our relationship with the world of creation and how often we ‘pass through’ it.
Especially for urban dwellers there is a strong element of the ‘optional’ about the relationship with nature.
The countryside and our gardens are our ‘pleasure grounds’. Birds, badgers, climate change, green belt very easily become causes or projects, carrying the sense that they are ours, when we want them. The beauty and wellbeing of nature is very much a peripheral to everyday life.
For those involved in farming or any way of life whose focus is outdoors, contending with nature, working with it and in it, things are rather different but it could become ’the workplace’, with a relationship that can become detached.
Humanity and the world of nature have, from every perspective, become distanced and far from the unified creation of God’s making.
The creation accounts offered in the book of Genesis make quite clear the fact that humanity, along with every other aspect of creation small or large, belong together as parts of God’s creation. Jesus puts above all other things a love for God and our neighbours as ourselves. The unified relationship of God’s design goes further - There is a real sense that our attitude towards the world of nature reflects clearly our attitude towards God, the Creator, and our neighbours with whom we share in its care. A love for self does not give any room for a selfish, optional care for all around us.
If our relationship with God is intimate enough surely we should not be able to ‘pass through’ the natural world around us without feeling a sense of belonging and a heavy ‘duty of care’ - and this not only for those who are closer neighbours, but also for residents of the Pacific Islands or the Amazon Rainforests.
I find that amongst my collection of images there are quite a number which depict 'conversation'. It is always interesting to surmise what the conversation is about, but also to realise that conversation is perhaps the simplest and most common way in which we share ourselves with other people.
Is it the family gathering where conversation can be the most personal and often around familiar topics, events, relationships and people known.? Is it a sharing of information or knowledge or a point of view? Is it a casual encounter with the usual topics of the weather and one another's health? Is it a negotiation of business or opinion? Is it a shared decision-making over a meal menu or something of greater significance? The list could go on because conversations cover the whole spectrum of human life. In it all we share something of ourselves - who we are and how we are.
Conversation is usually the starting point for, and the ongoing foundation of, relationships. It is of great importance in our lives and yet is often not treated as such. More often than not we treat it very casually - either not giving much thought to what we say, or allowing a set pattern to shape things, depending on who we are talking to.
Then, of course, we must remember that conversation is as much about listening as speaking! How often are our minds focussed on what it is that we wish to say, to such an extent that we do not really listen to the other person, or we don't let them get a word in edgeways!
All this sounds pretty 'normal' and therefore 'acceptable', apart from the fact that the conversation we are so bad at is central to our relationships. Is it any wonder that these break down so easily, or exist in a rather fragile form? The 'conversations' that take place in the House of Commons probably mark the lowest standard, as clearly there is not much listening and the emphasis is very much on 'telling'. Questions carry an important role in conversation, as they can lead the exchange into new areas and invite the contribution of others, but Question Time in Parliament never seems to be this positive.
It seems that we have a lot of ground to make up if our society is to be renewed, yet it can begin with the simplicity of good conversations.
So to in the realms of faith, conversation or 'prayer' is a foundation for the relationship we have with God. We can believe and we might go as far as to say that we 'trust' God, but without the conversation the relationship remains rather impersonal. It is conversation/prayer that gives us opportunity to share ourselves to the fullest extent - and equally, enables God to get close to us and share what is at his heart.
Conversation - sharing self, listening and allowing times of silence, so that these are given the space they need - a central art for our human relationships that needs some practice!
A Summer jazz festival on someone's back lawn in Orford, Suffolk, brought out the garden chairs, the picnic baskets and the hats!
Recreating the scene caused me to analyse a little what it means to be an audience. In a similar way to the coffee shop experience, the question is about whether one is there to simply receive - observing and listening, remaining on the outside - or is it more about participating - entering into the spirit of the performance, reacting with feelings and emotions, responding with applause and cheers?
Certainly the performance would be rather empty without an audience, but then there are those who object to too much participation, which causes a distraction.
Perhaps it is more of an exchange, with the performers being given their space to give of themselves, without undue interruption, while the audience have their own, necessary, moment in which to respond. A performance is not a performance without an audience and, even in a relatively passive way, we are essential.
Similarly, in relation to the performance that is creation, there is a need to give God his space to do what he desires, but we are also participants responding and sharing in what is going on. What we should not do is take on the role of the performer, the Creator. But entering into all that is going on in our world we have our essential role. God is on his stage, while we appreciate and are moved.
The Barbarossa Tower stands in its ruined form above the coastal town of Gruissan in the South of France, affording a spectacular view of all that surrounds it. The rooftops of the town, which lies immediately beneath the tower, while being an amazing display of terracotta colours, give the impression of a sort of armour, protecting all that lies within. One can see the whole town and beyond, but little of the people and the life that are what really makes it a town!
My interpretation of the view seeks to emphasise the fact that the viewer can only glimpse the life of this busy and bustling seaside town.
My imagination conjures the varied lives and the activity that is hidden from sight and carefully protected. I am certain that it is not just the town's 'best face' that one glimpses in the street and that the real life of it's people remains out of sight and probably behind closed doors.
Most residential communities are much the same as this. We protect our lives and privacy very carefully. Living in a second-floor apartment I am aware that our home-life is totally hidden from view, except to those who we welcome in, and even then there is much of personal life and thought which is not readily shared with others.
We would naturally refer to Gruissan as a community, as we would Dickens Heath, our home, but how can this be when we share very little of ourselves? For community to happen there needs to be a greater sharing of self and a willingness for others to get to truly know you. An openness to receive as well as to give.
It is such an open relationship that we also need with God, who knows us entirely whether we like it or not, not closing ourselves in so he cannot reach us. All that we surround ourselves with may be as colourful as the rooftops of Gruissan, but a life that we share with others and with God will be much richer in its colours.
And there are those who, behind the counter, are there to serve us, engaging in a professional way and offering their 'barista skills' for our benefit. Usually these folk are cheerful and polite, but there are those times when, annoyingly, they can seem more absorbed in their own schedule or in conversation with colleagues.
I realise that in 'people watching' I am choosing to 'sit outside' all that is going on, rather than participate. It is as if I am not a customer and more a fly on the wall. As I begin to reflect on relationships in my life, I wonder to what extent I remain rather aloof, rather than fully entering in? How often am I so absorbed in what I want to be doing that I neglect relating to others fully? How many conversations have remained superficial or cursory because my mind is actually focussed somewhere else? Have I neglected to offer what someone else is really wanting from me (attention, interest, information ...) because I am too self-absorbed?
In the coffee shop it is fascinating just watching others and interesting to let one's imagination roam around what is going on for people. However, it would be a whole lot more interesting to really engage and relate, to meet and chat, to explore a conversation, a discussion or even an argument, that means you are truly relating to someone else.
What then of that crucial relationship with God?
I suspect that most of us would need to admit to being more self-absorbed than is healthy if God is to have his place in our lives. Many are likely to be, like me in the coffee shop, sitting on the edge and watching it all go on for others but not attending to our own relationship with God. Like those who make a single cup of coffee last for an hour or so, we may not be open to being served by God as he would wish to with his gifts.
Of course, those who relate to all those sitting in the coffee shop are those who serve, with their cheery smile and 'how my I help you?' and this seems rather closer to the God who gives of himself in Jesus. The image is rather spoiled, however, by the fact that they tend not to be so good at clearing the messy tables - and clearing the mess is at the heart of God's relationship with us, so that we might appreciate his gifts the more.
During my teenage years I had a real fascination with Gothic architecture. It probably began with visits to numerous French cathedrals and a real wonder (in both senses of the term) about how they came to be built. Reading William Golding’s novel ‘The Spire’ gave me a sense of the fragility of these massive structures (insubstantial foundations) and a real interest in how they were built. On touring holidays around France with many long car journeys I often engrossed myself in Bannister-Fletcher’s ‘A History of Architecture’, which taught me much of the technical as well as the aesthetic aspects of buildings. My particular fascination with the Gothic then led to a wider interest in ecclesiastical architecture and how church buildings have been shaped to express faith, encapsulate worship (in various forms) and, like the Gothic, lift the eyes and the heart in worship.
While the spiritual aspect, along with the dedication and skill required, is very worthy, there are aspects of these grand buildings that are well removed from faith and God. Even today cathedrals are institutions of status, prestige and wealth. They are also communities within which ambition, power and influence are at play and where some of the baser expressions of human relationships work themselves out. These are brought out quite clearly in ‘The Spire’. These are all elements of human life and nature where faith plays out in a transformative way leading then to a greater appreciation of God and indeed worship, but care is needed that such inspired structures, while encouraging our eyes and hearts to God, do not foster the baser elements too.
For me, it is an awareness of the fragility of these structures that proves most important. They are not solid monuments to human achievement, but rather more delicate expressions of human weakness out of which spring aspirations towards the Divine. They are places where, yes, people’s eyes are raised toward heaven but also where people are to be found on their knees.
The first image in a planned series entitled 'Big', exploring the scale of creation, from microscopic cells to the planets of space.
Honey bees are perhaps a quintessential example of interdependence within the ecosystem, carrying a disproportionate influence on the future of life in comparison to their diminutive size.
30% of the world's crops amongst 90% of all plants require cross-pollination to spread and thrive, for which the honey bee is the most important pollinator.
Bees earn their reputation as busy workers by pollinating billions of plants each year, including millions of agricultural crops. In fact, pollinators like bees play a key role in one out of every three bites of food we eat. Without them, many plants we rely on for food would die off. Equally many birds and other insects depend on bees as food.
The threat to their existence therefore brings a consequent threat for much of animal life and humans too.
Changes in the climate are perhaps the largest threat, with a late flowering of plants leaving bees struggling for food at the beginning of the season. Chemicals and pesticides used by humans to overcome some threats to agriculture are themselves a threat to bees and ongoing life and growth.
So, all respect to the honey bee, who is not alone in 'punching above their weight' in the great eco-system that is creation.
How do you see the world?
Is it the 2 dimensional image that is monotone and with little detail? Do we like this because it keeps things superficial and does not draw us in too much?
Is it the 3 dimensional layered image, which adds some perspective and allows us to add in the bits that are hidden, from our knowledge and experience?
Is it perhaps an image to which we add a 4th dimension? - To whom are the houses home? Who is driving the car, where has it come from and where is it going? Who is that elderly person on their way to the shops and what is their situation?
Who is my neighbour?
The dimensions of this image might spark thoughts about the identity of the neighbour - who lives next door or down the street, lives far away and passes by in the car on their way to who knows where, potters by on the way to the shops etc. - giving shape to the web of interdependency that we live within and are sustained by. Even at this local level the web is wide, but spreads to all those on whom we depend, or who depend on us, around the globe.
The big issues of the current time - migration, climate change etc. - emphasise how we all need to be aware of this web of interdependency and allow it to shape our decisions and way of life, rather than shrink away into a defensive nationalism that offers a false security.
What is it that prompts such a wide awareness in us and has the ability to counter the fearful conservatism and narrow-mindedness of so many currently in places of influence? It is nothing other than the Spirit of God who conceived the whole creation and every race of people. The Spirit of Jesus, who through life, death and resurrection demonstrates a love for all in this world and beyond.
There is a responsibility amongst those who have a sense of the unity of God’s creation to share this vision, this way of life, with others. It is not all about protest and political action, although these have an important place, but it is also about introducing others into a life where the Spirit of Christ is within, prompting and calling response.
I recall an initiative in the ecumenical parish I served in the 1990s where folk were encouraged to pray for their neighbours - not just those who lived next door, but those who passed by and those they encountered regularly. People were invited to simply note down something that identified their neighbour (elderly man with cap, young mum with three kids, or a name if they knew it etc.) as a prompt for prayer, drawing others into that relationship with God that they enjoyed themselves.
This takes witness to Jesus out of the institutional life of the church and into the everyday, into the life of the community, into the world where our dependency on God and our interdependency with people around the globe prompt action.
In a world situation where so often we can feel helpless, faced by such enormous issues, it is a knowledge of who is our neighbour, along with a care for them, that gives us our role and purpose.