Wonderful Emmetts

Emmetts Garden is one of our favourite National Trust properties. This is, in part, due to the fact that it is only a couple of miles down the road from our home, but it is also a place of peace, serenity and beauty. An ideal place to gently while away a morning, enjoying nature and relaxing into the calmness that eminates from every corner of the place.

The estate was owned by Frederic Lubbock, who in the 19th century oversaw the development of the extensive gardens. Today alongside the many exotic and rare trees and shrubs one can enjoy the rose and rock gardens and the spectacular bluebell display in the woodland. When it comes to refeshments, do try the spicy cauliflower pasty!

My wife and I have visited a number of times over the past month or so, initially to see the bluebell display but more frequently just to stroll amongst the colour. Yesterday, it felt like Emmetts had dressed in her finest gown. I am far from an expert on fauna but I am drawn to colour and I loved some of the bright colours that were on display as well as the ways the colours, so often complement each other.

Further to yesterday’s post about poppies, the rose garden had lots of bright yellow poppies dotted around. As we were leaving, my eye was caught by the contrast of these two yellow poppies and the rich dark red of the bush behind.

So much beauty at each and every turn.

We even managed to find a few minutes to nip out the side entrance and explore Scords Wood which borders Emmetts. By this time the sun had come out and cast its normal woodland magic. Near the entrance to Emmetts, two trees have become entangled in some kind or arboreal hug.

Musically, I have recently been enjoying Eden, Joyce Didonato’s paean to nature, her own ‘And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden’ moment. The music matches the plaintive beauty of her longing. Aaron Copland is one of my favourite composers and I suspect that ‘Nature, the gentlest mother‘ from ‘8 Poems of Emily Dickinson‘ has never sounded better.

Thoughts on hitting 60 (part 2) – “I will not die an unlived life”

“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying [God]. It “consents,” so to speak, to [God’s] creative love.”

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

My life has been beautified in the last few days by the appearance of these beautiful orange poppies, which have somehow managed to grow between our garden path and the fence.  Poppies fascinate me in that the flower appears in the morning, but they are so delicate that by later in the day, the flower has gone, blown off by the wind or disturbed by the postman or delivery person.  All those months of growth, then the poppy appears in its beauty and then just as quickly it is gone again.  I’ve often pondered the ‘wastefulness’ of such a process – if a poppy goes to all that effort why not hang around for a few days and give us a bit longer to enjoy you?  But maybe that very question betrays how much my mindset has been shaped by modern capitalist notions of productivity and efficiency.  As the Elvis Costello sung, “what are we to do with all this useless beauty?”  Enjoy it, I guess is the answer.

But what are we to do with all this transient beauty?  What are we to do with these transient lives that we live?  And how do we, or rather how do I, give glory to God in the way I live and the kind of person I am?  As I enter my seventh decade (which makes me sound much older than I feel), these questions pop backwards and forwards between my conscious and unconscious thoughts.

A couple of months ago, I had a short difference of opinion with someone on Twitter. When I checked this person’s bio, it simply consisted of a long list of things that he was against. It seems to me that it is incredibly sad to define your life by what you are against rather than working towards the good things in life – beauty, friendship, joy, faith, and so on. Of course, that does not mean that there are things in life that we shouldn’t protest and even resist, but a life that is spent focusing on what is wrong with the world (or other people) without celebrating the good feels like a diminished life. The late great Desmond Tutu provides a wonderful example of how to oppose evil whilst affirming good.

Photograph by Shayne Robinson, African News Agency (ANA)

You may have come across this wonderful poem:

I will not die an unlived life
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance,
to live so that which cam to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.

Dawna Markova

At the heart of my faith is the idea that life is to be lived fully and freely, that God’s intention is that we flourish as human beings by living in harmony with creation, other human beings and with God. In fact, my conviction is that God’s intention is that together we create societies in which each and every individual has the possibility to flourish and live with dignity and purpose. Sadly, some will choose to live an unlived life, a life sucked dry by fear or greed or prejudice or sheer self-absorption. Others will choose to live an unlived life by defining themselves by what they are against, but as for me I am determined to do a better job of living fully and freely in a way that enables others to truly flourish. Along the way, I might even get to dance in my own gawky, uncoordinated way (which, after all, is how God made me!).

To end, a bit of ancient wisdom. This prayer was written by Sir Richard of Chichester shortly before he died in 1253. Over 750 years later, it captures what is on my heart at this time:

Day by day, Dear Lord, three things I pray:
To see you more clearly;
To love you more dearly;
And to follow you more nearly
Day by day. AMEN

Thoughts on hitting 60 (part 1) – Giving Thanks for Home

This is the house I grew up in. My family moved here when I was six and 54 years later my parents still live there.

I went back on Saturday for an early celebration of my sixtieth birthday and it was wonderful that the whole family were able to gather – my parents, sister and her husband and my kids and their respective partners. It was a happy day spent with those I love.

The house is full of memories – the time I kicked a ball through the round window at the front of the house (it was probably the crossest I’ve ever seen my mum), playing cricket on the upstairs landing, my radio catching fire, Christmases together, revising for exams and so on and so on. As Miranda Lambert sings below – this is the house that made me. This is home.

And yet, of course, it is not really the house, it is the people – it is my parents and my sister, their unconditional love, their support and encouragement, their example and the way they live out their faith. I am aware that I have been so blessed in my life – not the least was growing up in an environment in which I knew that I was loved and in which I felt secure.

My parents’ health has not been great recently and it was so good to be able to celebrate together, but also to see the bonds between grandparents and grandchildren and to give thanks for the way my family has grown over the years – for the love and patience of my wife and for my four wonderful children and for the ways in which they inspire me to continue to grow and to live life to the full. This family is my home and will continue to be my home wherever I may live.

And then on Sunday, we celebrated with my church family – another group of people that continue to love me and encourage me. Occasionally they frustrate me, but they graciously put up with my many foibles and they also continue to inspire me to follow Jesus. This too is home.

Home is where we are known and loved and feel safe and therefore free to be the people we truly are.

I thought if I could touch this place or feel it
This brokenness inside me might start healing
Out here, it’s like I’m someone else
I thought that maybe I could find myself

In the song above, the main character is visiting her childhood home, looking for healing. Being away from home means that she has forgotten who she is and she is hoping to find herself again. For myself, even as I reflect on how lucky I am, there is still deep in my spirit, a certain restlessness, a sense that these experiences of home point beyond themselves to another home. Part of the witness of the Christian faith is that God is our true home and that it is in God’s presence that we are most fully known and held, and accepted and forgiven and our brokenness is in the process of being healed. And all of this enables us to be our authentic selves and to live that out fully and freely. And as I enter my seventh decade, I am grateful for the ways in which I experience that truth even while I long to experience it more deeply.

Thank you dear reader for sharing part of my journey.

Two benches

“How often do we overlook and dismiss the everyday things in our day? Ignoring their beauty and wonder is at our own expense. By switching off from the beauty of the mundane, the ordinary, we start to dismiss our lives as unremarkable. Take time everyday to truly appreciate at least one mundane and seemingly ordinary thing everyday and appreciate its unique beauty. In doing so you are revealing your own beauty, your deeper connection with the world. By engaging in this way your life becomes richer, you begin to appreciate and be grateful for the beauty of your life. Look up, look down, look around, beauty surrounds.”

Paul Sanders, https://www.facebook.com/discoverstill

I am grateful to my friend Paul for the challenge contained in these words. One of the reasons that I have a ‘thing’ about empty benches is that I see each one as an invitation to do some of what Paul encourages us to do – to stop, to look, to observe, to reflect, and to engage with God if that’s your thing.

Anyway, Paul’s post caused me to wonder what a mundane or ordinary bench looks like?  Anyway, these are two benches I spotted over the last couple of days.  The first one is in Dunloran Park in Tunbridge Wells.

Who are Harold and Mabel I wonder? What is their story? Where they married or friends or lovers perhaps? And who sends them love? Is it their children, a friend, a thankful community? And did they enjoy the view from this point? Did they dream dreams from here, or sit and rest mid-walk? Did they laugh and cry and put the world to rights? So many questions from one simple bench.

The second photograph was taken at Sevenoaks Bus Station. Here the benches have a much more practical use – they are for weary shoppers to rest their feet as they wait for a bus. But again, I wonder how many people have met a stranger here who became a friend or a partner? Maybe this is also a place of hellos and goodbyes. Maybe also a place for eager bus-spotters to engage their hobby.

Whatever the answers, it is clear that there is no such thing as an ordinary or mundane bench!

So what music to choose today? Well as I was reading this song All This Useless Beauty popped into my mind – it is one of Elvis Costello’s finest moments.

Good Friday, 2022

[Source: European Baptist Federation]

A scarred cross stands in front of the bombed out shell of Bethany Baptist Church in Mariupol. A witness to a reality in which love is stronger than hate, life is stronger than death and forgiveness not violence has the final word.

In his 1981 book, Darkening Valley, the author Dale Aukerman reflecting on the possibility of nuclear war wrote this:

“The magnitude of the horror comes when I realise that Jesus would be the central Victim in the midst of the annihilation. Each victim he would know; each passion, each death he would feel. He in whom God has drawn near would be there in a thousand infernos with the least of all who are he.”

Darkening Valley, Dale Aukerman, p. 48

Of course, these words are easily applicable to the war in Ukraine as well – in the bombing, in the dreadful slaughter, in the war crimes, Jesus stands with the victims, he is still the central Victim. Moreover, such is the scandal of the cross, that he also suffers with and for the perpetrators of the evil that has unfolded over the past few weeks. He is there as evil does its worse, suffering with those who suffer.

As part of my response to the Ukrainian conflict, I have been trying to familiarise myself with some of the riches of Ukrainian art – to celebrate the beauty and the creativity of that culture. Here the Kyiv Chamber Choir sing a 15th century monody: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on us.

Of course, it is (relatively) easy to name evil in situations such as Ukraine, it is sometimes harder to see and to name evil when it occurs among us and in our name, but as I have wondered about the UK’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda – I cannot move past that word. That such a policy is even discussed is a sign of a deep brokenness at the heart of our national life.

At the moment, we are rightly seeking to welcome those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine and I cannot fathom why we would seek to deny non-Europeans fleeing similar horrific situations a similar welcome (although, of course that Britain’s role in some of these conflict is far more ambiguous than our role in Ukraine!).

Reading Luke 15 on our church’s Good Friday walk this morning, I was struck by how the high priest’s worked the crowd up to such a frenzy that they demanded Jesus’ blood – “nail him to a cross!” As asylum seeks fleeing horrific situations in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq appear at our borders, would we treat them similarly? Would we fall prey to such performative cruelty? And, of course, as we do it to the least of these who need our help, so we do it to Jesus – once again he will be the Central Victim.

Lies, Damned Lies cover of Woodie Guthrie’s lament reminds me that each ‘immigrant’ or ‘illegal’ (to quote a Tory MP this week), is first and foremost an individual – a father, a mother, a son, an individual made in God’s image.

Sorry if that all seems a bit heavy, but for me both situations highlight the ways in which we continue to live in a Good Friday world, where the crucifixion of Christ continues.

Finally, a beautiful setting of the Agnus Dei by Patrick Hawes, which feels like a fitting way to close.

O lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
O lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
O lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Praying with the Ukrainian People II

Ісусе, Ісусе, сину Божий, помилуй, помилуй нас.
Transliteration: Isuse, Isuse, Synu Bozhyy, pomyluy, pomyluy nas.
English translation: Jesus, Jesus, Son of God, have mercy, have mercy on us.

Well this is just beautiful (and heartbreaking) – a lovely setting of the Jesus prayer by an unknown Ukrainian vocal ensemble. A reminded of the riches of Ukrainian culture.

The Jesus Prayer is one of the ancient treasures of the Christian faith. It has its roots in the spirituality of the emerged in the 5th century from the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers who settled in the Egyptian desert and has been an important part of Eastern Orthodox spirituality ever since.

As an act of solidarity with our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, I suggest simply praying along with this video.

[with thanks to Victoria Emily Jones]

Praying with the Ukranian people

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief,
my soul and body also. (Psalm 31:8)

A few days ago the Chief Rabbi in Ukraine, invited Christians in Ukraine to join with the Jewish community in praying Psalm 31 during these difficult times. This moving video shows people across Ukraine reading it in bunkers and shelters.

Those who know me will know that I love the Psalms; part of the reason is that they contain words to capture every human emotion and every human situation – they give us words to pray whatever is going on in our lives, words to offer our lives and situations up to God. Anatoliy Raychynets of the Ukrainian Bible Society said this of Psalm 31:

“For me, as a pastor, that Psalm … well, I read it differently now because it’s about our current situation in Ukraine … This ancient prayer — written several thousand years ago — now we see is so alive, is living.”

Source: CBN News

A couple of things struck me as I watched this video and reflected on it. The first is that I felt like I was praying with the Ukrainian people, rather than just praying for them. Praying for people is important, especially praying for the Ukrainian people at the moment; to pray for someone is an act of concern, of love even. To pray with someone is also an act of identification and solidarity – in a sense it means giving up our agenda (and we all have an agenda even when we pray), and allowing someone else to set the agenda.

(Incidentally this is one of the reasons why I find using a Daily Office helpful, it is a way of praying with a larger community, even when that community is scattered.)

The other thing that struck me as I watched this video is that at the heart of our faith is divine solidarity, that God stands with us in our suffering and that Christ shares our suffering and the suffering of the Ukranian people, and that our suffering and their suffering is at the same time a sharing in the suffering of Christ.

Many years ago, Dale Aukerman pointed out that Christ is the central victim in each and every conflict, the death of each victim is taken into his death. And as I watch that video, in each and every frightened face, I see the face of Christ and as the bombs rain down on Kyiv, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Mariupol and Volnovakha, so they rain down on Christ.

Praying for Putin

Today is Ash Wednesday. It has also been designated as a Day of Prayer for Ukraine. As part of that, I find myself wondering how to pray for President Putin. Of course, as a Christian, I am to pray for my enemies and at the moment this means Mr Putin, a man who despite his worldly power is in reality enslaved by the demons of rampant nationalism, fear, a lust for power, and that’s just for starters.  Here is a man whose humanity has been so compromised he willingly calls down such destructive power on those who stand in his way. 

To be honest, I am finding it difficult to know how to pray for this man.

Many times this week, I have been reminded of the words of Mary’s song, when she sings of God

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
  (Luke 1:52-53)

How I long for God to bring down Mr Putin and his lackeys and neutralise his whole military machine, and I have prayed for that many times.  And yet history suggests that this is not necessarily how God works at this time (although I continue to hope for an exception this time, but that is in God’s hands not mine).

Yesterday, David E Fitch put this ‘prayer’ on his Facebook page.

VLADIMIR PUTIN MAY YOU BE SHAMED before the world, before your people, before your family, in your soul (if you still have one). 

David E Fitch

I am drawn to Fitch’s prayer – that God will bless Putin with that deep shame that will bring him to his senses, break the hold that evil has on him and cause him to turn around. Of course, I fear that Putin’ humanity might be so diminished, his heart so hardened, that he is incapable of such shame, I hope that I am wrong.

And then in our morning prayers this morning at church, one of the readings was from Isaiah 6. Isaiah 6 describes this encounter that Isaiah has with God in all his fullness. And at that moment of encounter, Isaiah is confronted not just with God, but with himself in all his brokenness.

It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man … Yet I have seen the King, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. (Isaiah 6:5)

And in this encounter, Isaiah is transformed, healed, forgiven and given a new vocation for his life. Is it too much to hope that Mr Putin might have a similar encounter? Well, that is what I shall pray for today.

Of course, Putin is not the main focus of my prayers, alongside praying for peace, I pray for my Ukranian brothers and sisters, taking my lead from these words by the President of Odesa Theological Seminary.

“But above all these things, there is the reality of God’s kingdom. God rules over history and directs its movement towards its final goal. He does this in an implicit, hidden, yet irresistible way. The kingdom of this world will one day become the kingdom of God. We do not doubt it!

“So, we just keep doing what we are called to do, even though we know that something is going on. We keep praying to the Lord, trusting him, and following his way. We ask you to join our prayers at this crucial period for our country.”

Oleksandr Geychenkо

Musical accompaniment to my prayers is provided by Bruce and his lament on the uselessness of war.

When The Palace Becomes A Circus

Come,” they say, “let’s get some wine and have a party.
    Let’s all get drunk.
Then tomorrow we’ll do it again
    and have an even bigger party!” (Isaiah 56:12)

I don’t often comment on politics on this blog, although from time to time I am severely tempted.  Maybe I should comment more, because at its deepest level, politics is about the type of society we wish to build and live in.  It also reveals something of our true values as a society.  That’s part of the reason I think that faith is deeply political (not party political, but political in its widest sense), because God is interested in and invested in both our values and the type of society we are building.

It would therefore be remiss not to comment on Monday’s proceedings in the House of Commons.  I was tempted to write on Monday evening, but I was simply too angry/frustrated/ashamed.  Hopefully I have now cooled down a bit!

The truly sad thing about Monday was that it revealed nothing new about the character of the Prime Minister.  He was true to himself, he behaved as he always has done.  This is who he is.  This is how he has acted his whole career/life.  This is the character of the man we decided to elect to the highest political office.  I remember praying when he was seriously ill with covid that his brush with death would cause him to reflect on his life and turn around, but instead he has just doubled-down.

From the scurrilous, dishonest smeer of Keir Starmer, vis-a-vis Jimmy Saville, to the half-truths, deflection, to the continued lies about crime statistics, the speed of our economic recovery vis-a-vis the other G7 countries, the number of people in work, etc., etc., etc.. Apparently, this tactic, enunciated by Steve Bannon, is called ‘flooding the zone with shit,’ overwhelming everyone with a tide of lies.

At one point during the debate, Theresa May pointed asked the PM:  “Either he had not read the rules, or understood the rules, or thought they didn’t apply to him… which was it?”  The disturbing thing about this question, is that from all we know about the PM’s behaviour over the years, all three are probably true.

So what does it say about our nation, that we decided that this was the person who was best qualified to be our Prime Minister.  This is what we chose – we are reaping what we sowed.  When did we decide that honesty, integrity, decency didn’t matter?  This is what made me so ashamed on Monday evening.

There is a reworking of an old Turkish parable that has been doing the rounds on twitter recently which goes like this …

“When a clown moves into a place, he doesn’t become a king.  The palace becomes a circus.” 

Parliament has become a circus in which someone who speaks truth to power calling out obvious lies is removed, whilst the Prime Minister lies without censure.  You could not make it up!

I breathed a sigh of relief when the whole farce came to an end, only to be treated to Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorres’ awful performance in a Channel 4 interview ending with the line, “the Prime Minister tells the truth.”  Once again, I shouldn’t have been surprised – many senior members of the cabinet seem as allergic to the truth as the Prime Minister and we are fast approaching the point where the Government is systemically dishonest – every official statement or announcement, every interview, every report is infected with this malaise. Who knows what is fact and what is fiction? The palace has become a circus.  I must confess, frequently when watching the Prime Minister and his followers, I am reminded of Jesus’ words, “what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” (Mark 7:36)

Recently, I was reminded of these words in Isaiah 56 which warns of God’s opposition to those whose leadership was geared towards their own benefit.

They [the leaders of my people] are ignorant shepherds,
    all following their own path
    and intent on personal gain.
“Come,” they say, “let’s get some wine and have a party.
    Let’s all get drunk.
Then tomorrow we’ll do it again
    and have an even bigger party!”

Isaiah 56:11-12

As the journalist, Peter Oborne, put it this morning, ultimately this story is not just about Boris Johnson, or even about the Conservative, party,

It’s about Britain. What we have become. What kind of people we are.”

As Oborne points out, the Nolan Report set out seven principles which should govern British public life:  selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.  It feels to me like we are on a path where our public life will be governed by selfishness, mendacity, bias, unaccountability, secrecy, dishonesty and tribalism. To quote Oborne again, ” We will become a country where truth is falsehood, black is white and where good is bad.” 

It’s a scary prospect and I don’t know about you, but I do not want to live in that kind of culture. 

So I will continue to pray for the PM and I will continue to use some words from Mary, the mother of Jesus, to guide me, “He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble.” (Luke 1:52)

To lighten the tone somewhat, enjoy this 1979 radio-hit from After The Fire.