Since it’s first transformation from seed to seedling the giant redwood on my windowsill has changed very little in recent months.  In the meantime, the strange caterpillars I found last August and put in a tin have just emerged from their cocoons as moths – earlier than expected.  (The elephant hawk moth is particularly stunning.)  And within 2 weeks of planting, my daughter’s sunflower seed already towers over the giant redwood.

Elephant hawk moth and lime hawk moth

Giant Redwood and Sunflower SeedlingsSometimes growth is sudden – a step change.  Sometimes it takes a long time – a strengthening of what is already there.  Often it happens in the dark, underground, when nothing seems to be happening at all.

In our own times of darkness or waiting, the world around us reveals the promise of hope and new life.  Every endless winter is followed by another spring.  Even destructive forest fires burn out eventually and life bursts forth stronger than ever.  What was once concealed out of sight in seed or cocoon, reaches for the open air in miraculous splendour when the time is right (and the shell that once protected it is discarded – dead – so the new life can be set free).

Moth Pupa Cocoons

There is a time for everything and everything has it’s time.  Some grow slow, some fast, but all have their own purpose and beauty, and a comparison between the redwood and the sunflower at this stage will not hold up in 100 years!

As the natural world shows, times of darkness and waiting are necessary to growth, and even death and pain release new life.

Kahlil Gibran said it so well:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses
your understanding.

Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its
heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.

And could you keep your heart in wonder at the
daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem
less wondrous than your joy;

And you would accept the seasons of your heart,
even as you have always accepted the seasons that
pass over your fields.

And you would watch with serenity through the
winters of your grief.

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This is a profound book – I urge you to read it!  Life is a journey home towards a deeper, wiser, happier simplicity – what he calls the second half of life – but not everybody gets there.

It’s the kind of book that I want to quote in its entirety!

But here is an excerpt:

There is a gravitas in the second half of life, but it is now held up by a deeper lightness, or ‘okayness’. Our mature years are characterised by a kind of bright sadness and a sober happiness… There is still darkness in the second half of life – in fact maybe even more.  But there is now a changed capacity to hold it creatively and with less anxiety…

In the second half of life one has less and less need or interest in eliminating the negative or fearful, making again those old rash judgements, holding on to old hurts or feeling any need to punish other people. Your superiority complexes have gradually departed in all directions.  You do not fight these things anymore; they have just shown themselves too many times to be useless, ego based, counter-productive and often entirely wrong.  You learn to positively ignore and withdraw your energy from evil or stupid things rather than fight them directly.

You fight things only when you are directly called and equipped to do so.  We all become a well-disguised mirror image of anything that we fight too long or too directly. That which we oppose determines the energy and frames the questions after a while.  You lose all your inner freedom…

The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better…

Such inner brightness ends up being a much better and longer-lasting alternative to any war, anger, violence, or ideology could ever be.  All you have to do is meet one such shining person and you know that she or he is surely the goal of humanity and the delight of God.

(This extract is taken from Falling Upwards by Richard Rohr with kind permission of SPCK)

Strangely, I have Islamic extremists to thank for the recent renewal of my faith and trust in Jesus.

DSC01124The abhorrent evil of their actions and all that they stand for naturally shocked me and led me to despair.  The small margin between their ideology and that of some people I meet in my own community brought the threat closer.

As a person of faith, I did a lot of soul searching – What is the real nature and source of this evil?  Where is God and… how can this be happening?

And I feared.  I feared for the future of my young daughter in this type of world, and for the very existence of what is now the most persecuted faith group worldwide – Christianity.  My faith.

And in fearing, I fell victim to the terrorist’s agenda.

Much of my fear was based on assumption.  I assumed that in the midst of destruction, beheadings, incomprehensible evil, all was hopeless for the victims, and there was no comfort.  My own latent doubts about God combined with the horrific reports on the news and led me to feel in the pit of my stomach that He was absent.  I saw the darkness growing, but not the light.

But then, I began to hear stories from the actual sufferers of persecution themselves.

The first was a few nights ago when I switched on the new TBN channel on freeview.  An Iranian lady, whose husband, a pastor, is detained and undergoing torture in Iran’s Evin jail.  She spoke of how she used to fear and suffer terrible anxiety.  Yet when her worst fear was fulfilled, she realised she really had nobody to turn to but Jesus.  And in turning to Him afresh she found a joy and peace even in the midst of the sorrow.  There was real weight to her words – the integrity born of suffering.  She said she no longer feared, nor felt the crushing anxiety.

It got my attention.  Fearful little me, who hasn’t even suffered like her.  Have I ever really known Jesus?  Not like that.  But I want to.  And her husband was leading people to Jesus even in that prison.  This Jesus must surely be more than a Sunday school slogan.

Then I heard of the brother of 2 Coptic Christian men beheaded in Libya, speaking of his pride in them, and the hope in his community: ‘ISIS helped us strengthen our faith…Since Roman times we as Christians have been targeted to be martyred.  This only helps us endure such crisis, because the Bible tells us to love our enemies, and bless those who curse us.’  He had a message of forgiveness towards the murderers.

Then the young Iraqi girl Myriam, whose family were driven out of the Mosul area by ISIS, saying ‘I don’t want revenge, I don’t want to kill them, I pray for them.’

And more: After the burning of churches that took place in Egypt over a year ago, the Christians held up a sign in their burned down church that read, “My terrorist brother, I came today to pray for you.” And the mother of a young girl who was shot and killed in front of her church, showing genuine forgiveness to her daughter’s murderers.  She declared on secular Egyptian TV that she not only forgives them, but prays that they would repent of their sins.

To love, to bless… to forgive?  Isn’t it madness to respond this way to such atrocities?  No:

It is the only real power that will end the madness.

Only love and forgiveness can change corrupted hearts, break the cycle of revenge, and bring hope to the oppressed.  And when such love is offered by the oppressed themselves, towards their corrupted oppressors, it has a power that cannot be ignored.

While false ideologies prepare their own demise through the spread of evil, love springs up and shows the way to hope.

This is the gospel, and the reason my faith is renewed.  It’s all about love and forgiveness, it always was.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. / Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. / For God so loved the world that He gave His only son…

And it all hinges on the person of Jesus himself.  The man whose actions matched his words, who loved right to the end – and beyond.  Who showed us the only way out of the madness, and was willing to walk that hard path Himself, to show us a hope beyond death.

In the midst of suffering in the Middle East, there are reports of people who never knew Christ before coming to find this real hope and love in Him.

I grew up a Christian, and took it all for granted.  In my young untroubled world I found some of the truth but not it’s depths.  Because I didn’t need it.  I hadn’t yet seen the bleakness of the alternatives: the inevitable evils of religion without love; or the Godless ideologies that elevate man’s limited reasoning so high it becomes foolishness.

Now I see afresh the hope I half-knew all along.  Not a vague idea nor a totalitarian system.  But a person to follow who has proven themselves trustworthy.  One who will never force Himself or be forced on anyone, yet welcomes all who come to Him.

More lately, instead of taking for granted these inherited beliefs, I want to know the real historical person of Jesus.  And for all my questions about the Old Testament etc, I simply cannot walk away from this person.  I used to be secretly annoyed at people going on about him – in connection with love, joy peace etc.  For as long as these things were not real to me, I judged them to be spoken in hypocrisy, and his name to be invoked with shallowness, by people just repeating what they were taught.

Yet the more I study His life and words for myself, the more I meet with Him in prayer, and the more I try to follow his example, I find myself ever more captivated by Him.  And those blessings becoming my own.  His integrity, consistency, compassion, wisdom – they challenge me, and keep bringing me back.  And above all His love.  It is our only hope.  He is our only hope.

Student: I know they’re our enemy, but don’t you consider there’s something noble about being a martyr?

Bartlett: A martyr would rather suffer death at the hands of an oppressor than renounce his beliefs.  Killing yourself and innocent people to make a point is sick, twisted, brutal dumb-ass murder.  …We don’t need martyrs right now.  We need heroes.  A hero would die for his country but he’d much rather live for it.

2 Horses

Sometimes I want to write about something, then I find it expressed much better elsewhere.  The above dialogue is from the West Wing, start of season 3 (I love the West Wing!)

And on a slightly related note, a quote shared with me recently by my Dad, from a book I now want to read:

The young, idealistic men were all too ready to commit themselves to some grand purpose in which they could excel and gain renown.  They found it much more difficult to keep going with the daily grind and routine which didn’t seem to use/acknowledge their (wonderful) talents as much as they had hoped nor lead to an over-arching rewarding venture.

From The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodoy Dostoyevsky.

Sometimes the quiet, faithful service of unrewarded love is the true heroism.

Light in the darkness

I saw a darkness in the world.
I found it mirrored in my soul.
The world, my nation, and my street,
Seemed daily paced by evil’s feet.

With violence there, suspicion here,
I soon succumbed to constant fear.
(For loss of hope seems logical,
When darkened eyes see dark in all.)

We build a fake security,
I told myself with gravity,
While others far away from us
Are bombed, beheaded, ground to dust.

And so I judged the lives we’d kept,
And scorned our houses, neatly swept:
Our comfort feeds our apathy,
While evil grows and hate roams free.

And as the dark completely gripped me,
I presumed to see more clearly:

It’s like the lawns we tend with care:
In vain they mask what’s really there,
Now let us face the truthful part:
That this whole world is black at heart!

And all the good we do in life
Is not enough, no more than skin,
To hide the darkness, dirt and strife,
That lies there – just the same – within.

So I resolved to dig a hole,
To lay things bare through sweat and toil,
No longer holding to illusion,
Seeking truth as my conclusion.

Wrestling deep inside my soul,
In thoughts and words I dug my hole.
Deeper into dark it took me;
Lonely fearful visions shook me.

And though in muck I found some gems,
I couldn’t find a place for them,
And though I chanced upon deep roots,
I lost the way to find their fruit.

And all this striving to be free,
Was just another vanity.
Exhausted now and far from home,
I gave up in my pit, alone.

 

—————–

 

Until a gentle voice broke through:

 

Look up, I’ve not forgotten you

 

Still hardened to the voice of hope,
I said, yes Lord, but what’s the use?

It’s not enough to comfort me,
While still out there the hate roams free,
While still out there the babies die,
While people’s lives are torn apart
And all the while you stand apart.

This faith that did once set me free,
Now strikes me as hypocrisy:
The hopes that led my youthful years,
Now grate upon my care-worn ears.
The love that once allayed my fears,
Seems insufficient for these tears,

 

Look up He said, Look up at Me

 

So now at last, in honesty,
I faced my Lord and let him see.
And looking up to hear Him speak,
I felt great tears fall on my cheek

 

The tears you cry, I cry them too.

 

But why Lord, why, should this be true?
I mean, Lord, why this need to cry,
Why must you let good people die?

Though death may come it has not won,
My child, you know this to be true,
Your childish faith will yet grow strong,
But you must let me comfort you.

Your eyes have opened to the fight,
Between the darkness and the light.
You mourn the losses, I do too,
This battle is real so the losses are true.

You say that I have stood apart,
You feel this anger in your heart,
Do you forget I came to earth,
Faced death myself to bring new birth?

Now will you face this truthful part:
It’s you who tries to stand apart,
While wrestling with these painful things,
You still refuse to enter in,

To help support the orphaned youth,
To push back darkness with the truth,
To love the hurting on your street.
That’s why you feel so incomplete:
You’re called to be my hands and feet.

Fighting darkness all alone,
You lost the light to guide you home,
You feared the darkness would be stronger,
You were wrong: my light shines longer. 

Turn your eyes now to the light,
Give up your striving in the night,
The light I bring you from above,
Is the greatest power, the power to love.

You said in youthful enthusiasm, ‘I want to serve you Lord, and whatever you need to put me through, bring it on!’

Filtered Light

Did you mean it?  Would you have prayed this so proudly if instead of the grand and challenging adventure you imagined, your training ground was to be years spent in disappointment, doubt and despair?  Could you accept failure, confusion and pain as the necessary cost of forming your character?

And what if His purpose for you is to be humbled, to serve without recognition, or to be set aside altogether, for the sake of a plan beyond your comprehension, the fulfilment of which you never get to see?

Would you still trust Him, even then?

Yet do not fear, do not despair:

For these light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

Fear is trust. The things we fear or trust are the things we expect to prevail, so both are a type of faith. To fear God is to trust him, for He is good. To expect evil to prevail is to trust it, and to live in fear.

Faith attracts it’s object. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Fear the darkness and it looms larger.

We have a choice where we focus our attention.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? …One thing I ask of the Lord, that I shall seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to meditate in His temple”
Psalm 27