Sunday, August 31, 2008

Picking up our cross and following Jesus...

There’s a story of a young woman who wanted to go to University, but her heart sank when she read the question on the application form that asked, "Are you a leader?" Being both honest and conscientious, she wrote, "No," and returned the application, expecting the worst. To her surprise, she received this letter from the University: "Dear Applicant: A study of the application forms reveals that this year our University will have 1,452 new leaders. We are accepting you because we feel it is imperative that they have at least one follower."1

The way of this world is ingrained in us from an early age. It is all about success, about reaching the top, about being whatever we want to be. It's about having enough money and material possessions so that we feel secure. We look up at successful people, we want to be like them. We want their fame, their money, their houses and cars, we may secretly long for the amount of attention and adoration they receive. Do you know anyone famous, anyone that is looked up to by thousands or millions of people? No, I don't either, I suspect that the images we have of their fame and fortune is perhaps quite different to the reality. A writer by the name of Philip Yancey has this to say:

“In my career as a journalist, I have interviewed diverse people. Looking back, I can roughly divide them into two types: stars and servants. The stars include NFL football greats, movie actors, music performers, famous authors, TV personalities, and the like... Yet I must tell you that, in my limited experience, these 'idols' are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met. Most have troubled or broken marriages. Nearly all are hopelessly dependent on psychotherapy. In a heavy irony, these larger-than-life heroes seem tormented by incurable self-doubt.”2

Few would doubt that Jesus is the biggest super-star that ever lived. There is no-one else in history that comes even close to His sustained fame that has shaped world history over centuries, (not even Elvis). Yet He achieved all this in just about three years of activity in the public spotlight. There was nothing neurotic about Him whatsoever. As a man he was the most together person who ever lived. Yet He was (and still is) a real hero. Peter and the other disciples worshipped Him as the Messiah, they thought (quite rightly as it turned out) that He was invincible, but the way He carried out His mission to save people from their sins was very different from what Peter and co. expected. So imagine their surprise, confusion and perhaps even anger when the Lord Jesus turned to them and said:

“I must go to Jerusalem and suffer much from the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. I will be put to death, but three days later I will be raised to life.”
(Matthew 16:21 GNB)

In his typical style, Peter rushes in before anyone else. He takes the Lord aside and begins to rebuke Him, to tell Him off. In Matthew's account he says to Jesus:

“Never, Lord! ... This shall never happen to you!”
(Matthew 16:22b NIV)

Of course Peter should have known better, had he not read about the suffering servant in Isaiah 53? Did he not remember that John the Baptist had called Jesus “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”?3 Peter and probably most of the other disciples wanted to follow the Messiah the King. They were happy to be associated with someone who was powerful and mighty and who could perform miracles. They were not so happy (at this stage) however to follow someone who would be so humble that He would willingly walk the road to death. Unknowingly, Peter was trying to get Christ to avoid going to the cross, the central part of Jesus' mission, and that is why the Lord Jesus responds so harshly, He replies to Peter:

“Get away from me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my way, because these thoughts of yours don't come from God, but from human nature.” (v.23 GNB)

Jesus fully realises that at the back of Peter stood Satan, who was attempting to turn Jesus away from the cross4 and it is to the enemy speaking through Peter rather than to Peter himself that the words are addressed.

Peter and the other disciples were motivated in love to protect their master and friend, they didn't want Him to die, He was everything to them. But they had a very important lesson to learn, that what was true for Christ is true also for his followers. It is only by way of the cross that we enter glory. Of course Christ's death is totally different in that He died for our sins, we only die to our sinful selves, but nevertheless the saying is true that “the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear”5

So the Lord Jesus says to the disciples and the crowd about them:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?
(v.24-26a NIV)

The Disciples, knew what taking up the cross meant. Death on a cross was a form of execution used by Rome for dangerous criminals. A prisoner carried his own cross to the place of execution, signifying submission to Rome's power.

Jesus used the image of carrying the cross to illustrate the submission required of his followers. He is not against having fun, nor was he saying that we should seek pain needlessly. Jesus was talking about the heroic effort needed to follow him moment by moment, to do his will even when the work is difficult and the future looks bleak.

We should be willing to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel, not because our lives are useless, but because nothing – not even life itself – can compare to what we gain with Christ. Jesus wants us to CHOOSE to follow him rather than lead a life of sin and self-satisfaction. He wants us stop trying to control our own destiny and to let Him direct us. This makes good sense because, as the Creator, Christ knows better than we do what real life is about. He asks for submission, not self-hatred; he asks us only to lose our self-centred determination to be in charge.”6

Remember at the start I quoted the writer Philip Yancey saying that he had interviewed people who were stars, and yet what a mess they were in? Well he also interviewed many people who he called servants. These were people who worked amongst the poorest of the poor, people who left high paying jobs to work with leprosy patients in rural India and people all over the world who gave their lives in the selfless task of helping and serving others in many different ways. This is what he had to say about them:

“I was prepared to honor and admire these servants, to hold them up as inspiring examples. I was not however, prepared to envy them. But as I now reflect on the stars and servants side by side, the servants clearly emerge as the favoured ones, the graced ones. They work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, (supposedly) wasting their talents on the poor and the uneducated. But somehow in the process of losing their lives they have found them. They have received the 'peace that is not of this world'”.7

So the message to us then becomes clear; we must let go of our own desires, plans and ambitions for our lives and submit to Christ and His plan and purpose for our lives. In Jeremiah 29:11 God says:

For I know the plans I have for you, ... plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.

Look, it doesn't take much faith or life experience for us to realise that God knows a whole lot better about what is best for us that we do, the only difficulty is that we are naturally so proud and so sold on the illusion of thinking we know what's best. Like chasing a rainbow, happiness always recedes from those who pursue it for their own selfish wishes. Of course we cannot take up the cross and follow Christ in our own strength and that is why the Holy Spirit is and must always be our Guide. But every new day the choice is there for us. Will I go my own way, or will I go the way of Christ? Which, will we choose?

2 Philip Yancey, “Where is God when it hurts?”, Zondervan 1990, p.57
3 William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary MARK, Banner of Truth 1999, p.328
4 Hendriksen, p.328
5 Philip Yancey, What's so Amazing about Grace, Harper Collins, 1997, p.132
6 Life Application Bible, Tyndale House 1991, notes for verses 34 and 35, p.1742
7 Philip Yancey, “Where is God when it hurts?”, Zondervan 1990, p.57, 58

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Family Stroll...

Walking on the beach at Garrettstown (Click to enlarge)
Nikon D70s, 1/500 sec, F11, ISO 200, 18mm, RAW

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ben Bulben, Co. Sligo

View from the road to Strandhill from Sligo
Nikon D70s, 3 photos at f18, 44mm, ISO 200, shutter speed not recorded.
(click to enlarge)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

All that glitters...

"The Quays", Galway (click to enlarge)
Canon A570IS, 1/8 sec, f2.6, ISO 200, 5.8mm (3 photos)

This picture is of perhaps the most famous bar in Galway. The over-the-top Gothic design and wooden ceilings give a mixture of impressions of being in a medieval cathedral or a creaky old ship. In case one was forgetting which century we were in, there is the big screen in the background showing a race from the Olympic cycling velodrome...

The recent Olympics in Beijing were many things: Impressive, huge, spectacular even awe-inspiring, but there was also much that left me uncomfortable. In some ways it's great to see China come of age and to be mostly free of the bloodbath that was Mao's "Cultural Revolution", but all the bad stuff hasn't gone away, just swept under a very large (red) carpet.

One of my favourite songs at the moment is Casting Crowns' "What this world needs", the chorus of which goes:

What this world needs is a Savior who will rescue
A Spirit who will lead
A Father who will love them
In their time of need
A savior who will rescue
A Spirit who will lead
A Father who will love
That's what this world needs

As I look at China this is what I think, that they are a nation desperate to be loved and accepted by the rest of the world, but also wanting to say "well actually we're much better, more powerful and more civilised than you". (Just look at the games' opening ceremony to get that message.)

All this was put in a nutshell with the case of poor old Liu Xiang, the magnificent 110m hurdler, who won the gold medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004. This great athlete had become a centrepiece of the hopes of the Chinese nation for the games. Everywhere one went around Beijing there were giant posters of him hurdling over a credit card or drinking coke. Unfortunately, the nations idol came a cropper in the heats, pulling up with a hamstring injury before even the first hurdle was reached. 1.3 billion people were crestfallen, that immense sense of national pride had been dented - even the Chinese newsreader broke into tears. We were left with an overhead shot of this poor chap, with impossible pressure put upon him retreating back to the dressing room and taking out his frustration by kicking a door (with his good leg).

People put their hopes in so many different things - but everyone and everything will always let us down in the end - except Jesus that is.

Here's an astonishing statistic: According to Open Doors International ( there are between 60-80 million Christians in China, and possibly many more! It seems that the harder the Chinese authorities come down on the church, the more people that are imprisoned, tortured and/or killed, the more the Church grows

Perhaps some of those who were putting their faith in Liu Xiang will leave him alone now to get on with his life and instead put their faith and trust in the One who will lead them, love them and rescue them - and never, ever let them down...

Friday, August 22, 2008

Back from short holiday

Spiddal Harbour
Nikon D70s, 1/250 sec, f8, ISO 200, 24mm, RAW

We had a very enjoyable week in Galway. Even though it rained every day, it didn't matter as we were not camping this time!

September is very busy in the Parish so it was good to re-charge the batteries a little...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Double Rainbow

Nikon D70s, 3 photos, 1/125, f4.5, ISO 250, 70mm

Taken yesterday evening after a cold, wet and cloudy August day (click to enlarge).

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Walking on water

From near the Old Head of Kinsale
Panasonic FZ50, 1/500 sec, f6.3, ISO 100, 10mm

In today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel (chapter 14, verses 22-33), the Lord Jesus had gone up on a mountainside by himself in order to pray. Before he did so he told the disciples to get in the boat and go across to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. According to John’s gospel they had got about three and a half miles across the water when a strong wind started to blow and they were being thrown around by large waves. Then during the forth watch of the night, at about 3 am, we learn that the Lord Jesus went out to them, walking on the water. On seeing a figure approaching them across the water, the disciples are understandably terrified and they think they are seeing a ghost, but then as the figure draws nearer He says to them “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid”.

Peter still isn’t sure, so he says “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come out to you on the water”. So the Lord says “Come Peter”, so he gets out of the boat and also walking on the water makes his way to the Lord Jesus. But then Peter takes his eyes off the Lord and looks at waves and notices the wind and so he begins to sink. He cries out “Lord save me”. Jesus reaches out his hand and catches hold of Peter and says: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

When they had got into the boat we are told that the wind and waves died down, and not surprisingly all those who were present in the boat worshipped him and said “Truly you are the Son of God”.

What an absolutely amazing story this is, that the Lord Jesus would go out to his disciples in distress, walking on the waves as if they were solid ground. Of course if we look at this rationally, it’s absurd, something that is completely impossible. So what does it tell us? One of the main purposes of the gospel is to tell us who Jesus is. We see through his teaching, his miracles, and above all through his death and resurrection that he is indeed portrayed to us as God in the flesh. The Lord Jesus the second member of the trinity of God, becomes one of us, he becomes like us in every way except without sin. The Lord Jesus became fully man, whilst at the same time remaining fully God. A person cannot walk on the water in his own strength, but with God as we see from our reading, this is possible.

In Colossians chapter 1, speaking about the Lord Jesus, the Apostle Paul writes:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… all things were created by him and through him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

And in paragraph 291 of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church”, we read “The New Testament reveals that God created everything by the eternal Word, his beloved Son.”

So if we try and get our minds around the fact that along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, Jesus the Son of God is the creator of the world, then it is not hard to understand how the creator of the wind and the waves has ultimate power over them. Jesus can walk on the water because He is the One who created water in the first place. He can command the wind and the waves to be still and calm because it was by his word, his command that they came into being in the first place. And vitally, for us, he can save us from our sins, he can wash us from the inside out, he can make us new, he can wipe the slate clean and he can give us a fresh start and a new beginning, because, it was He who made us in God’s image.

Let’s not be too harsh on Peter for taking his eyes off the Lord Jesus and sinking as a result. At least he had the courage to get out of the boat in the first place! No doubt the other disciples, and probably me and you if we were there, were huddled together in fear in the far corner of the boat. Peter has faith. He believes that if the Lord calls him out on to the water, then his Lord has enough power to do that. But then Peter was to learn an important lesson and it’s a good one for us to remember as well. He took his eyes off the Lord for a moment and instead looked at the rolling waves and he let himself notice how strong the wind was and as a result he succumbed to them and began to sink. But to his credit he knew what to do, he cried out “Lord save me” and so the Lord took hold of him and held him up.

Peter learned not to take his eyes off Jesus, and how important that is for us as well. Especially when we are in the midst of the storms and troubles of life, we must not lose our faith to such an extent that we stop trusting in the power of our Saviour to rescue us and to help us. If we do, then like Peter we will begin to sink under the weight of our stress and troubles. We too are of little faith when we fail to turn to Christ. As with Peter, He holds out his hands to save us, but how often we turn away thinking that we can get through life on our own. Only the Lord Jesus has the power, and the love to forgive us our many sins, only Jesus is able to rescue us from ourselves and the mess of our lives that we make - when we selfishly live our lives for ourselves rather than live them for God.

When the wind and the waves had died down, the disciples were absolutely astounded at what they had just seen. They worshipped their Lord and Master and said to Him “Truly you are the Son of God”.

What do we think of Jesus? Do we think he was just a good man and a teacher of morality? Or do we believe that He is who He said He is, namely God’s son and our Saviour? It is a very sad thing indeed when someone has heard about the Lord Jesus many times and fails to act upon what they have heard and read for themselves in the Bible. It’s like being “man overboard” and refusing to grab hold of the life-line that’s been thrown to them and choosing instead to sink and drown.

Many of us just go through the motions of life without really thinking or questioning the meaning or purpose of life, why we are here in the first place and what we are to do with the short number of years that we are given. Meaning, purpose, truth and certainty are found only in Christ. It is only by giving our lives to the One who gave His life for us that we grasp what life is about. It is only in Jesus that we know what it is like to be at peace, only in Him do we truly know what it is like to be really happy, and secure in the knowledge that death rather than being the end, is just the beginning.

In Romans 8:38 the Apostle Paul writes:

For I am convinced that neither death, neither angels or 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.

The single most important fact in the universe is that God loves us. He reaches out his nail pierced hands for us to take hold of. What are we going to do, are we going to look away and sink or are we going to turn to Him with all our heart?

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Fota Gardens

The Lake at Fota Gardens
Canon A570IS, 1/500sec, f4.5, ISO 80, 5.8mm

Fota Gardens & Arboritum are a wonderful place to visit. Through the seasons there are always enchanting surprises, whether it be to see real lemons growing in the Orangery or a Banana plant doing it's very best to thrive or the glimpse of a dragonfly or red squirrel out of the corner of your eye...

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

We're doomed ... or are we?

Canon A570IS 1/60 sec, f2.8, ISO 80, 5.8mm

I noticed this bit of tongue-in-cheek graffiti whilst walking past the Crawford School of Art (in Cork). So much graffiti seems to be just the name of the author: baz wos ‘ere, etc. - not particularly interesting. There is perhaps a bit more thought though in this particular scrawl, as it is written on the wall surrounding a very large Convent. Is it a challenge to the church, to God even, masked in a little humour? The question is clear, are we doomed, is there any hope at all, is this life all there is - God if you are there please answer?!

So often Christians get in the way of what should be a very clear and obvious answer to this question, a question which is asked in different ways by many people. Yes Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) and all who believe in him are (not doomed) but have eternal life (John 3:16). But when someone seeking God looks at me and my life and indeed the lives of so many Christians do they in fact see something different from their own life, something that would attract them to follow Jesus? Would they see something to give them hope that we are not in fact doomed and that God does indeed have a plan and a purpose for their lives (Jeremiah 29:11)? Would they realise that yes, this life is short, but that it is merely a preparation for the real and eternal life that is to come for all who put their faith and trust in the Lord Jesus?

I hope so.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

God can do an awful lot with very little...

"As evening approached the disciples came to him..."
Canon A570IS, 1/80 sec, f5.0, ISO 200, 19.6mm

Sometimes, we can look around us at what other Christians are doing and then get a bit despondent. We look at people whom God is using in lots of different ways, these people have heaps of energy and enthusiasm, they are more intelligent and even better looking than we are. In short we think that they have more gifts, more talents, more abilities – they are like giants in God’s Kingdom. Then we have an introspective look at ourselves. We can’t think of a great deal that God could use us for, after all, we’re not good at anything much, ‘What could God possibly do with me – surely I am one of the very least effective people he has in His army of followers, a mere foot soldier…?’

One of the very special and important things that we learn (or are reminded about) the Lord Jesus from today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 14:13-21), is this: God can do an awful lot with very little indeed. With just a few scraps of bread he can feed thousands so let us understand that with a few scraps of our faith, our time and commitment, the sky is the limit.

Jesus had just heard the sad news of the death of his friend, John the Baptist and along with the disciples He intended to withdraw to a quiet place to reflect and pray. But somehow word got out and as the Lord and the disciples were making their way across to the other side of the Lake, crowds of people walked from the villages in the region, following them around the shoreline to the other side. These people were really impressed by what they had heard and seen of Jesus’ stories, teachings and miracles – they were hungry for more.

You know the times when you are really tired, you just want to rest, to get away from all the busyness and hassle and noise? It’s great to go for a quiet walk along the beach or sit out in the garden with a cool drink and just relax. So often though there are interruptions, whether it’s the phone ringing, someone at the door or a hungry child wanting to be fed! Jesus could have looked at the crowd and buried his face in his hands in despair. He could have stood up and said: “Look, me and the guys here are just wrecked and we seriously need some down time O.K.?!” But He didn’t do that; verse 14 tells us what He did:

When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
Even though he needed and wanted a rest, the needs of the people, sick, hungry for knowledge (and later physically hungry) meant far more to Him than His own need for a rest. The thing that we may find uncomfortable is that in doing this, Jesus is providing an example for His disciples both then, and you and me today to follow. Yes we all need a break, it’s vital that we relax, but when others need us to be there for them we must look after them first.

There was no let up as the evening approached so the disciples came up to Jesus to tell Him to send the people away so that everyone could get something to eat. Of course Jesus knew what He was going to do and what would happen all along (see John 6:6). It’s amazing isn’t it that the disciples were at a loss as to what to do and how to deal with the situation. They had seen Jesus perform numerous miracles and yet it did not occur to them that Jesus might have a miraculous solution to this problem too!

The Lord plays a bit of a game with the disciples, He says: You give them something to eat. This must have baffled the disciples even more. How could they with their very meagre and limited resources give all these thousands of people something to eat?!

Jesus wants to teach the disciples something about the importance of responsibility. They are always wanting the people who come to Jesus to go away. Here they want to dismiss the crowds, later they want to send the Syrophoenician woman away (15:23), they even get cross with the parents bringing their children to Jesus for a blessing in chapter 19. Jesus wants to remind them that trying to get rid of people in need is not the solution. This is not God’s way.

My natural instinct is to pretend I never heard or read that sentence because it raises an awkward and unavoidable question: How many different ways and means do I employ to try and get rid of people in need? How many cries for help do I turn a deaf ear to? How many outstretched emaciated hands do I shut my eyes to? How many shuffles of little footsteps do I turn and flee from? Oh yes I have my excuses, only so much I can do, limited resources etc., etc. But as we shall see, there are no excuses, Jesus doesn’t want us to change the world on our own, He just wants us to offer Him what we have to give, no matter how small or insignificant that may seem to us.

So the disciples answer Jesus:
“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish”.

Does Jesus say “Is that all you’ve got?” No, He says “bring them here to me…” He directs everyone to sit down on the grass and taking the five loaves and two small fish He looks up to heaven, gives thanks and breaks the loaves. It was Jewish custom to thank God before starting a meal, one that rightly is continued in many Christian households today.

Both astonishing and intriguing is the miracle that takes place – we are not told the mechanics of how the bread and fish multiplied, just that it did. There is more than enough to go around the large crowd. All the people ate and were satisfied – in fact there was more than they could eat because the disciples picked up twelve basket full’s of broken bread pieces afterwards. To emphasize the greatness of the miracle, we are now told the size of the crowd, five thousand men, not counting the women and children.

Clearly we are left with the important connection between Jesus as the One who feeds us both physically and spiritually. Also, we think of the manna given to the people of Israel during the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 16) and how this was always meant to reside in the psyche of the Jewish mind, pointing them towards the Messiah who would be for them truly the “Bread of Life” (John 6:32-35).

Do you ever feel out of your depth in a situation? I can think of times when I have let God down by not doing what I should in a situation, either by failing to say something or failing to do something. One time years ago I was walking from where I worked to catch the train home when a lady dressed in little more than rags came up to me and asked me for some money. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know whether she was genuine or not - she certainly looked like she could do with some help. It was the end of the month and I had very little money after paying the rent and the bills, I had just £5 in my wallet. I hated the thought of my little bit of money being taken from me and then just being wasted – I wanted to get my money’s worth! So I told her to follow me and we went round the corner to the nearest Supermarket. With that £5 we were able to get all sorts of bargains and nearly a basketful of food. Those of you that know me know just how shy I am but on this occasion I actually enjoyed all the other shoppers staring at this guy in a suit leading around a lady dressed in ragged clothing. The girl at the checkout didn’t even look up but I was able to hand the woman two bags of shopping – she gave me a strange quizzical look - I wanted to say how I had done it because I wanted her to know that God cares about her and her family, I wanted to share the gospel message, I wanted God to do something, but all I could manage as she walked away was an embarrassed “God bless you!”
But I think God was able to do something with my meagre £5 even though I wished I had more to give. How many times do we not bother because we think that what we do won’t make a difference? How often do we wish God would use someone else – someone more talented, more skilful, and more generous or someone with more money or more time? But God doesn’t do that, He uses you and He uses me. God can use your inadequacies and mine and work mighty miracles through them.

Implied in the story is this question: Have we surrendered our five loaves and two fish to Christ? Have we surrendered the meagreness of who we are to Christ? I think we would be amazed at what mighty miracles God can do with our meagre self when we have surrendered who we are to Christ. The question is persistent when the memory of this story lingers on: “Have we surrendered to Christ, have we really?”

Sources of Help:
1. New Testament Commentary, Matthew, William Hendriksen, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh 1979.