“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”
These were some of the reassuring words read out at the funeral I attended of a young man today. A service at which I was filled with sadness.
On the way there I stopped at the Old St Helen’s Church ruins for a few minutes’ contemplative prayer.
As I entered the grounds I saw my first butterfly of the year – a Red Admiral brought out of hibernation by the Spring-like weather. What a wonderful divine reminder of the resurrection hope and eternal life that so many of us believe in.
Like a lot of people, we suffered some storm damage at home. Nothing too dramatic – our next door neighbour’s cherry tree fell on our fence. That is, one major bough toppled on to a fence that was already in need of some repair.
My neighbour and I chopped and sawed the fallen tree, and we’re getting the fence fixed. No lasting harm done.
(I didn’t think to get a picture of the tree first. Sorry for that missing bit of the story!)
Not one to waste an opportunity to delight in the gifts that Nature brings my way, I picked up a few of the snowy blossom-laden twigs to brighten up the kitchen.
Janine and I have enjoyed their presence the last few days as they’ve slowly shed their tiny, white petals over the worktop.
I started this post with my own version of the old “When life gives you lemons…” platitude*:
“When Life brings storms, pick up the flowers.”
I’m not much of a fan of far-too-easy platitudes, but sometimes they do resonate.
I’ve experienced a storm of stress and anxiety with physical symptoms recently, which is all calming down now, and I’m beginning to glean some bright fragments of blessing from the debris: things I’ve learned that will carry me through into a better future.
The Divine often has a way of speaking to us through Nature.
Whatever the weather, whatever the season, there’s always something to be received, to connect with, to draw us closer to Divine Reality and therefore closer also to ourselves and others.
(All photos mine, but I’m not precious about copyright, so feel free to use any of them if you wish, with my blessing.)
*For an “alternative”, less platitudinous version of “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”, check out Kaitlin Shetler’s version. It’s brilliant.
“Everywhere we look, the complex magic of nature blazes before our eyes”, according to Vincent van Gogh in the Doctor Who episode, Vincent and the Doctor.
A wealth of artists, from poets and singers such as Van Morrison, Mary Oliver and The Unthanks, to writers Richard Mabey, Brian McLaren and Mackenzie Crook, to the genius Vincent van Gogh himself, have helped and inspired me to delve further into the ‘magic of nature’ – to dive deeper into its divine depths.
Maybe it’s me but I feel that both science and theology sometimes reduce the world around us to a utilitarian thing. An ‘it’. Call me picky (and I have been known to be picky about words), but the religious use of the word ‘creation’ for ‘Nature’ slightly jars with me….
…like Nature is seen as an inanimate object – there simply to ‘give glory to God’….
….rather than being a living, breathing entity given to us, to enjoy and love for her own sake, in her own right….
… to dance with, sing with….
enjoy being a part of.
Be family with.
I think this delights God’s heart.
Like tree-hugging: an exchange of vital gases, of complementary textures. A sharing of lives, of life. Of the Love that flows through all things.
Religion can sometimes be so intent on trying to worship God that it misses the wood for the trees – literally.
Likewise, science can be known to scrutinise, compartmentalise, to explain away in binary detail, until all awe and wonder have evaporated in the heat of cold analysis (I do like a paradox!).
Of course, it needn’t be – and isn’t always – like this. We need science and religion, both of which have the potential to lead us into the sheer, incredulous amazement that our souls were born for. Brian McLaren’s book, God Unbound: Theology in the Wild, is a great example of this.
As for me, my ever-deepening immersion into Nature, and my habit of talking to birds and trees, has led me to question whether I’m straying from my Christian faith into something more pagan. Fearing that my love for the created world exceeds my love for her Creator.
It’s good and healthy to question ourselves, and my self-query led to self-reassurance.
I find myself walking in the steps of St Francis, who acknowledged the consciousness and unique personality of each wild animal and addressed them as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’.
…St Francis, who in turn walked in the steps of Jesus, who in turn followed the pattern of thousands of years of wisdom teachers and prophets, who walked in and with Nature, learned and taught from Nature, found God in the everyday and not-so-everyday miracles of the wild.
And, as one of Jesus’ own best friends, John, made clear, our love for other human beings – and by extension all our fellow creatures – is a good barometer of our love for God.
Rather than drawing us away from God, our deepening love for people and Nature is in fact an accurate expression of our love for God. And this is true even for those who profess no religious faith!
Our Western society and, sadly, Christendom, have a poor record of respect for the Earth, preferring largely to conquer rather than acknowledge and celebrate our oneness with her.
And the more industrialised, commercialised and technologised we become, the more we lose touch with Nature, with the Earth – and in the process lose something of ourselves and our experience of the God who lives and shines humbly and vulnerably from the natural world: incarnate through every creature, as well as in the infant Jesus.
As we desperately try and reverse our tragic destruction of our home planet (and therefore our self-destruction), it’s surely more vital than ever that we as a human race recapture our oneness with Nature.
I rather like this quote that I recently came across: “Prayer is the act of resacralizing the desacralized world.” I think that a prayerful approach to any situation enables us and those around us to (re)discover the inherent sacredness of anything and everything.
And I realised that when I enjoy my contemplative walks through woods and wilderness, I’m simply enjoying the sacredness, the magic, the holy wonder of Nature (of Creation, if you like!).
Although I do sometimes pray with words during these walks, I often try and avoid using words, even in thought, because words can be so superficial, so one-sided, and a hindrance to the experience of God in the presence of stillness, silence and songs of Nature.
Photos all mine and taken in glorious East Sussex.
“I will be yours, you will be mine, together in eternity
Our hearts of love will be entwined, together in eternity, forever in eternity.”
My wife Janine and I sang these words from Brian Doerksen’s Eternity at our wedding 25 years ago today, on 21st December 1996, as a celebration of our union both with God and with each other.
I was reminded of the song recently when I came across these two chestnut branches wrapped round each other in Newgate Woods, the quiet woodland where I walk the dog most mornings.
I wondered if they were branches of the same tree….
…..so I stepped back…and back…
…until I could see that they were reaching across from two separate trees, fusing together at this point in the arboreal canopy (top left in the photo below).
It’s been said that the goal of all religion is the union or reconciliation of all things. For example, according to Paul, the end result of Jesus’ death, is that: “all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms – get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies” (Colossians 1, The Message version).
I think that’s rather wonderful.
The entwining of branches is, of course, just a picture, an analogy, but one that beautifully illustrates the highest goal of humanity: our union with each other, with Nature, and with God, our Source.
Reconciliation between individuals and between people groups; increasing respect and care for our environment; appreciation for Nature; the growth of faithful love between people; and the emergence of peace-giving faith all point towards a brighter, unified future.
Over our 25 years of marriage, our mutually supportive relationship with each other, with God and with Nature has evolved and grown. I hope that the entwining of our hearts and lives reveals something of that ultimate universal union.
In recent years, our – and especially Janine’s – love for and appreciation of trees has steadily grown. I dedicate this blog to her, with love.
I’ve always tended to think of this time of year as as a season of dying back.
I’m increasingly discovering that that’s not the whole story, as many examples of wintry life become apparent, from tiny insects to fungi to migrating birds, as well as the endless regeneration happening beneath the surface of trees and soil.
The very colours of nature tell us that, even in the winter of our discontent, in the ‘valleys’ and ‘deserts’ of our lives, in the challenges and difficulties, when all hope seems lost and it feels like dying in our souls, something vibrant and luminous may be happening at a deeper level.
…as these winter leaves teach us.
Something seen only by the One who creates and shapes us.
Wisdom teaches us to meditate on Nature and learn from her. Last Sunday, at HTH (Holy Trinity Hastings) church, the speaker gave us a classic example…
Jesus pointed to the birds and meadows, reminding his listeners to trust the Father who clothes and feeds the world around them, rather than worry about their day-to-day needs. He advised them to seek higher things like compassion, mercy and social justice (“God’s kingdom”), and let the rest take care of itself .
After the service, a strange thing happened. My young daughter called me over to look at a crumpled ball of feathers on the mat just inside the church’s main doorway (which is currently out of use while some building work is going on).
The crumpled ball turned out to be a very young bird, not yet fledged. Almost certainly a baby pigeon dislodged from a nest in the walls by the building work.
At first we were sure it was dead, but soon realised to our surprise that it was breathing. Wow! Now we had to do something. But what?
After a few phone calls for advice, we wrapped it in a builders’ cloth lying nearby and jumped in the car, my wife cradling the young bird in her hands to keep it warm.
We whisked it up to Mallydams, our local RSPCA centre, where they gladly received it but said it looked pretty ill and injured, and weren’t sure it would survive.
Well, we thought, at least we tried. And maybe it will survive (we’re still waiting to hear).
We also thought, what a weird thing to find this poor creature inside the church after a talk about looking to birds for inspiration.
What kind of divine message could there possibly be for us here?
I think that, while trusting God and not worrying about our mundane needs, God was also reminding us that very often there are others around us who do lack basics like food or clothing, and that we’re called to care for each other’s needs. The idea of a global family is central to Jesus’ teaching. Yes, God may provide, but God does so through us.
Just the day before that church service, about 50 migrants arrived in a tiny dinghy on the beach just down the road from us – people seeking asylum from desperate situations.
I can’t help but feel there is a prophetic link between these events at the weekend. Jesus said that we humans are far more valuable to our heavenly Father than the birds. Some might argue that all life is equally precious.
Either way, most would agree that the lives of both vulnerable people and animals call for our care and attention and love.
A local group, Hastings Supports Refugees, is welcoming supplies – food and clothing – to support these sisters and brothers of ours. As I write, my family and I are gathering together some donations.
If you’re local to Hastings, you might consider supporting them too. Look them up on Facebook.
If not, who are your (global) neighbours, brothers, sisters, that God / The Universe may be calling you to provide with food and clothing?
Matthew 6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
“The seeming value or dignity of an object doesn’t matter; it is the dignity of your relationship to the thing that matters. For a true contemplative, a gratuitously falling leaf will awaken awe and wonder just as much as a golden tabernacle in a cathedral.” Richard Rohr.
I’m very grateful to be able to affirm genuinely that I have this kind of relationship with Nature – always. I never tire of her wonders, which help to re-connect me to their Source.
To my Source.
And to myself.
Spending the last ten days in Brixham, Devon, enjoying seeing dolphins, seals, a plethora of birds, moths and butterflies, and incredible coastal landscapes, has been tonic for this soul that had been worn down by the wearisome stresses of work.
Nature (as well as rest and family time) is a true healer of mind and spirit – a conduit of balm from the Creator of life.
We stayed here last year as well, near the wildlife haven that is Berry Head, and delighted in the moths that came to the light trap I set up in the garden – which I wrote about in The Moths of Brixham.
This year (2021), during a very similar period – 31st July to 4th Aug (actually about a week earlier than last year), the trap turned up some of the same species as in 2020.
Like this Jersey Tiger…
…this Swallow Prominent:
…and this Ruby Tiger:
But also many new ones, like these:
Of equal delight to the nocturnal visitors have been the moths we found out and about in the daytime, around Berry Head, including Jersey Tigers (again),
these gorgeous Magpie moths…
…loads of Six-spot Burnets….
and this exquisite Carrot Seed moth:
The Carrot Seed moth (Sitochroa palealis) is one of the larger micro-moths, but still pretty tiny, as you can probably see from its relative size to the umbellifer in this picture. It’s been quite a rare species in the UK but, from what I’ve gathered, seems to have become fairly well established in the south-west in recent years.
Always so encouraging to hear of any insect species on the rise.
The following are most of the species attracted to the trap this time round (there were others unidentified):
Heart and Dart
Large Yellow Underwing
Lunar Yellow Underwing
I leave you with a final pic of a Poplar Hawk….
….and a final quote, this time from the naturalist and conservationist John Muir, by way of a reminder of our therapeutic need to engage our senses with Nature:
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strengthto body and soul alike.”
(All photos taken by me, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)
After the beautiful but short-lived heatwave we had this week here in England, lasting a mere two days, it’s a little disheartening to see such a cold forecast for the week ahead, with night-time temperatures as low as -3C.
But despite the fluctuating weather, Spring moves forward. Although she seems slow in her arrival this year, like April (in the Simon & Garfunkel song) come she will.
I love the resilience of nature and the dependability of the seasons, like a faithful lover or spouse.
As the old hymn goes: “Summer and winter and springtime and harvest…join with all nature in manifold witness to Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.”
The divinity of nature and God entwined as one.
Today was the first day this year that I saw wild bluebells (in our local woods).
Every year, the first day of bluebells feels like a landmark moment.
Perhaps signalling the end of winter.
An auspicious icon of something new and beautiful.
A promise fulfilled.
On the way home, after taking these photos, I bumped into a friend and told him about the bluebells.
He pointed to his head and said, “It does something good to the mind – seeing these things.”
Indeed. The eternal spirit of Yahweh in nature bringing healing balm to mind, body and soul.
(The following photos are of Spring Snowflakes, also adorning the woods….)