Friday, February 27, 2009

Surely it's just an old wall?!

Panasonic LX1, 1/320 sec, f4, ISO 80, 28mm equivalent (click to enlarge)

How interesting can an old wall be! A good question I’m sure. I was walking past the wall in the above photo and just something about it caught my attention. It might have been the texture of the ancient stone or the way the overcast conditions gave an even tone and light – I really don’t know. When looking at the original colour picture on my computer screen I thought it deserved a gritty, grainy treatment to emphasise the textures a bit more.

You may know my style by now – of at least trying to see the hand of God at work in all things. What came to mind here? Well I could do no better than be reminded of the traditional canticle at morning prayer (yes that one ;-)
We have a strong city: salvation will God appoint for walls and bulwarks.
(Isaiah 26:1)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Harbour Reflections

Panasonic LX1, 1/125 sec, f4.5, ISO 80, 93mm equivalent (click to enlarge)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

God. Where are you?

Sermon for Ash Wednesday (Isaiah 58:1-12)

Do you ever get the feeling that God is just not there? I think we perhaps all experience this sometimes. I want to read to you the opening paragraph of a play called “Racing Demon” by David Hare. The character is the Reverend Lionel Espy. He is kneeling on the ground. He is in his fifties with a bald head fringed with white hair. He wears a black cassock. He is addressing God.
God. Where are you? I wish you would talk to me. God. It isn’t just me. There’s a general feeling. This is what people are saying in the parish. They want to know where you are. The joke wears thin. You must see that. You never say anything. All right, people expect that, it’s understood. But people also think, I didn’t realise when he said nothing, he really did mean absolutely nothing at all….(1)
Hmm it can be a very lonely place to be in when God seems that distant. Of course there are many reasons why we may find ourselves on the rocky road of doubt and our reading from Isaiah sheds some light on why sometimes it may seem as if God is simply not saying anything at all.

As we look at the reading we see that every day the people are seeking God, like they are knocking on the door of Heaven and there is no one in. They are asking themselves ‘what was the point of our fasting, it hasn’t got us anywhere?’ They thought they could somehow make God take notice of them by how religious they were. It’s all very well fasting but it doesn’t impress God at all because they are also exploiting their workers and fighting with each other.
God is only interested in an outward show of religion if it is accompanied by kindness and acts of love and generosity.

We need to be so careful don’t we? We can go through the routine of going to church, receiving communion, singing hymns, saying prayers, shaking hands at the peace and so on – we can do all those things without having a living, vital relationship with God.

From verse 6, God tells the people the kind of religious observance He expects of them:
6 “No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
7 Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
If our faith is real, if it is genuine then we will want to express our love for Jesus in practical ways. Imagine if all we ever did was tell our wife or husband or children that we love them but never actually did anything to show or demonstrate that love! In a much greater way we need to show our love for God in the way that we do things to demonstrate it.

So what do we do? We need to show acts of kindness, acts of charity and acts of generosity.
Do we find it hard to be kind and generous to our spouse and children? Of course not! We love to buy presents and do things that make those whom we love happy and smile. Well then let’s think like this when we want to please God. When we help someone imagine God’s smile. When we show a stranger an act of kindness, imagine God’s pleasure. When we give even a little money to help those who are suffering in another country and when we show compassion, don’t you think that causess delight in heaven?

As Christians we have to walk the walk not just talk the talk. Our words and our outward devotion have to be at least matched but what we do in secret to help others.
Here’s a great quote from John Wesley:
Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all people you can, as long as ever you can.(2)
And do you know what will happen if we can even begin to do this? Our relationship with God will take off onto another level! Listen again to verses 8 and 9:
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
There can be numerous reasons why in our journey with God He can seem very far away and distant, but one possible explanation is that we have just not been demonstrating our love for Him. In the same way our partner or children would reluctantly begin to shun us if we ignored them, so God may turn away (a little) from us. As I said, it can be for different reasons but if God seems far away and at the same time we are not being particularly kind or charitable then perhaps there is our answer.

And what better time than Lent to begin to turn things around? This very night let us recommit ourselves to serve Jesus by ministering to others with acts of love and kindness, always bearing in mind that the very least we can do is give our lives to the One who gave His life for us… Amen.
(1) David Hare “Racing Demon”, 1990, Faber & Faber p.1


Panasonic LX1, 1/100 sec, f3.6. ISO 80, 34mm equivalent (Click to enlarge)

I’m not a great gardener, I’m one for sitting in the sunshine on the lawn rather than getting excited about bedding plants or shrubbery, but I do especially love watching and waiting for the spring. For me there is something special about seeing the snowdrops and the crocuses emerge, then the daffodils bursting forth with vivid life and colour. For most of my life I was blissfully unaware of this seasonal glory, failing to see or appreciate the beauty that was all around me. Thankfully though I have a patient and (I’m ashamed to admit it) long-suffering wife who has slowly but surely turned this gardening Philistine into someone who can see and appreciated God’s hand at work, not only in the starry night sky and in mountainous vistas, but in every small corner of the world too – including our very ordinary back garden…

Friday, February 20, 2009

A mill and a memory

Belgooly Mill, Co. Cork
Panasonic LX1, 1/400 sec, f4, -0.3 EV, ISO 80, 28mm equivalent (click to enlarge)

In the town where I did most of my growing up (still a long way to go mind), there was a flour mill that was perhaps the main local employer. I was fascinated with the place, especially since I was told that the flour went from there to McVities biscuits, you know those staple accompaniments to a nice cup of tea, the mighty Digestive and the slightly more humble Rich Tea. I suppose my imagination was doing a little over-time and created for me a Charlie-and-the-Chocolate-Factoryesque picture of magnificent white powdery mountains and huge deadly grinding cogs and wheels. I even got to go on a tour - a nearby neighbour worked there and took me one day - it was quite dark and very dusty and not surprisingly there was a lot of noise and a lot of urm ... flour. In fact there was flour everywhere, including, by the time we had finished, a liberal dusting upon me and my dog (who was surprisingly allowed to accompany me).

It was a sad day then when the mill closed - if there's anything left of it today it would just be a sorry looking pile of concrete and rusty corrugated iron.

It's amazing how memories are forgotten and buried somewhere in the filing cabinet at the back of your head, only for them to resurface at unexpected moments. Such was the case when we passed by this old mill in Belgooly, Co. Cork recently. I know nothing about this place - except that it reminded me of the perhaps more friendly mill I mention above. Looking at the photo now it reminds me of the line in William Blake's hymn Jerusalem:
"And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark Satanic mills?"

If only those old crumbling walls could talk...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Roads - Cork style

Panasonic LX1, 1/100 sec, f3.2, ISO 80, 28 mm equivalent (Click to Enlarge)

This road (known locally as Priest's Hill), is very well known to me, as the Rectory is just to the left once you get to the top (or should I say if you get to the top!) Someone somewhere in their great wisdom has decided that the speed limit for this boreen, that can barely accommodate one vehicle at a time should have a speed limit of 80km / hour (that's about 50mph for you imperial types). Can you imagine it? It's terrifying and a a sincere flirtation with death even at 50km! To make things even more interesting, there are many majestic roads with wide lanes and extensive hard-shoulders that have speed limits either the same as or less than the glorious track we see above. Of course we know that these are simply an arrangement between the Gardai and the Roads authorities to be a lucrative source of income for speeding fines (allegedly of course ;-)

Back to Priest's HIll - I wonder how it got it's name? Perhap's because a blessing is needed before anyone dares to travel thereupon...!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

But deliver us from evil

Sunrise in Glounthaune, Co Cork, October 2007
Nikon D70s, 1/100 sec, f5, ISO 200, 105mm equivalent (click to enlarge)

Mark 1:21-28

So our Gospel reading picks up from last week. You may remember that Jesus had been walking by the Sea of Galilee and he had called four fishermen to be amongst His followers: Simon, Andrew, James and John. Our reading for today carries on with the five of them making their way around the lake to Capernaum, where Jesus had recently moved to from Nazareth, about 20 miles to the south (Matthew 4:12,13). When Saturday, the Sabbath day arrives, Jesus (and presumably the small group of his disciples) attends the Synagogue. Because the temple in Jerusalem was too far for many of the Jewish people to travel to regularly for worship, many towns had Synagogues to serve as both places of worship and as schools. Each Sabbath day the Jewish men would gather to listen to a Rabbi teach from the Scriptures. Because there was no permanent Rabbi or teacher, it was customary for the Synagogue leader to ask visiting teachers to speak. So on this particular Saturday Jesus indicates His desire to speak and gets permission to do so.

Once Jesus begins teaching, the people are amazed – you can imagine their jaws dropping open as this carpenter from Nazareth teaches from the Scriptures so clearly and with so much power and authority. They were used to dusty, dry and boring sermons, they had never heard anything like this before.

Satan clearly is not pleased. A man enters the Synagogue, who is possessed by an evil spirit. He cries out:

“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Are you here to destroy us? I know who you are – you are God’s holy messenger!” (v.24)

Perhaps it all too easy with our 21st Century way of looking at things to dismiss this as a bit of primitive superstition – that demon possession is what the writers of the New Testament understood was happening whereas it was in fact some kind of physical or mental illness that was being manifest. But if you actually read the New Testament, you will see that the writers are quite clearly able to distinguish between someone who is demon possessed and someone who had a physical or mental illness. Even later on in this chapter in Mark we read:

Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons…(v.34)

I’m sure you remember that the Lord Jesus had already defeated Satan in the wilderness, but now it seems that the devil is trying a different tactic, he sends out his servants, the demons to take control of unwitting hearts.(1)

This horrible creature, this demon that has taken over a man’s heart knows that it has met its match in the Lord Jesus. The Lord is its Master, he knows that his time is up, he recognises the Holiness and Deity of the Lord Jesus.

Jesus’ complete authority is emphasised in what happens next, He issues a short, firm command:

“Be quiet and get out of him” (v.25)

The demon obeys at once, for it is all he could do, albeit unwillingly. He shakes the poor victim violently and with a shriek comes out of him.

Clearly, the people were dumbfounded, amazed and in awe of what they had just witnessed. Here is Someone who not only spoke with such great authority but who acted with great authority too, a rare combination indeed.

I think that the very clear message from our gospel reading is the fact that Jesus is very much in charge and that He has complete authority over evil, in its many guises. But there’s that nagging question knocking away at the back of our minds, the question that takes many forms and the question that longs for a satisfactory answer: Why then is there so much evil and suffering in this world, if Jesus has complete authority over it? Why do children die? Why is justice not forthcoming for innocent victims? Why is there so much suffering in this world? Why does the Devil seem to be on the rampage causing seemingly limitless destruction and pain?

Of course with just a couple of hundred words and a few minutes of time it is not possible to give a full answer to this most pertinent of questions. Some time ago I visited a person in hospital who was in a lot of pain. Although they could talk and even walk around, it was not possible for them to describe or articulate the level of suffering they were going through except perhaps in the lines of pain that were deeply etched in their face. I struggled with what words to say and conversation was difficult. The person then looked up to high on the wall opposite their bed and we both looked and stared for some time at this object. It was of course a crucifix. The pain of Christ suffering on the cross somehow seemed to mirror that of the person I was with and there was for an unspoken moment a sense of peace and release. Like a bit of light shining from the end of a very long dark and difficult tunnel came the realisation that everything here is only for a time. The pain people feel now is only for a time. The suffering and misery of so many is only for a time and there is the fact that God is not remote aloof and aloft from our suffering, He is right there in the very midst of that suffering and has indeed gone through the grave and gate of death Himself. Why? To make all things new. To make us new:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

For that is the One Thing above all that conquers evil – Love and the love of God in Christ is greater than anything that can come against us…

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

All our questions about God and suffering should, in fact be filtered through what we know about Jesus. Dorothy Sayers wrote:

For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – He had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.(2)

We want Jesus to banish evil now, we want an end to suffering today, but in so doing we are wanting an end to this world in all its fallenness and brokenness. We know that this world will end. We know that the Lord will return and that all things will be made new and I suppose it is a measure of comfort for us to remember that suffering, evil, death, pain and the whole repertoire of misery that are the Satan’s calling cards, will like him be destroyed and put firmly into past, into the history of a world and a people that went very wrong and yet were utterly rescued and saved by the God whose love and whose power was more than a match for that which would come against it.

(1) William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Mark, Banner of Truth 1999 p.62
(2) Philip Yancey, “Where is God when it hurts?” Zondervan 1977, p.225