Recovery – in Nature and in Us

ivy on tree

Accepting help from divine gardener?

Six-thirty a.m. and peace and quiet is mine!  I’m having my prayer time early in the morning before the rest of the family surfaces, sitting in my favourite red armchair, with a view onto a tree at the side of the house.  As I read a Psalm and glance out of the window, I can see its first white bloom of the year.  This tree[1] always brings me joy – it’s easily overlooked, situated where it is on a path from the front of the house to the back, but it produces a mass of white, pop-pom like flowers with a heady, vanilla scent.  I’m so glad it’s flowering this year, because on Good Friday I discovered it was being swamped by ivy, so much so that its lower branches were lost underneath and I wondered if it would ever recover.  The tree looked dead, and I didn’t know if it was, or if it simply hadn’t sprung back to life after the winter months.  Strangles of ivy were all you could see in places, thicker than my thumb, wound so tightly around the trunk and branches that it looked like it was the tree in its own right.  I pulled off what I could, yanking at the sections I could lift before, frustrated, having to call for help.  My husband came to my rescue, and once we’d traced it down the trunk and discerned its roots amongst the tree’s own, he sawed it off from the bottom of the tree.

This is how our garden rolls – it’s hard to keep track of every plant and tree, and there’s a certain rambling quality where we discover what’s growing, sometimes with pleasure, sometimes not.  Beneath the tree as I look out at it now, I see a jumble of wild, everlasting sweet peas and hollyhocks competing for light and space, periwinkles that have been left to rove, valerian in different shades of pink and wild geranium… It’s all managed with a light touch, and often only when it gets out of hand.  Yet the sight of that first white bloom really cheers me.  Spotting the flower in my quiet time, its metaphorical quality is all the more obvious.  It makes me think of how the Lord feels when he sees in us the first flush of faith, tentative at first, before an explosion of belief takes hold after those ‘If you’re there, God’ prayers.  We read that “there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.”[2] Whose joy?  The Father’s surely, in the context of the Bible passage, for Jesus goes on to talk about the prodigal son and the way his father welcomes him home.

Isn’t so much of the beauty we enjoy outside simply part of God’s generosity towards us, as a new parent prepares their child-to-be’s bedroom, hanging a mobile above the cot, choosing the colour scheme, wondering how they will enjoy this thing and that?  God didn’t have to give us all this but he knew we’d enjoy it, and when something he’s made gives us pleasure, that gives him pleasure too.  This tree and its recent story remind me of another lesson: God doesn’t give up on us. Certain things may overtake us, not that we’d consciously allowed them to (or perhaps we had), but God is there, just like the gardener, wanting to pull away that which, when given long enough, may begin to strangle our faith.  We sometimes fear how God will deal with us; even allow sin to cling because we expect the process of release will be painful.  (We can all look back on at least one of those episodes if we are honest enough — times of clinging to old hurts, bitterness, unhelpful habits?)  Yet he is gentle, with the hands of the good shepherd himself, or the prodigal’s father, whose fingers perhaps tingled with excitement when he had the opportunity to drape the best cloak over his son.  (I know that story was metaphorical too, but I think we’re meant to be able to picture them, and their redeemed relationship.)

I can see, now that I study the tree hard, three more blooms, and a few waxy buds, preparing to unfold.  They might not be there if the gardener was forbidden from doing his work.

 

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.

Hebrews 12:1-2

[1] I think it’s the Philadelphus ‘Virginal’ (Mock Orange) tree, ‘Philadelphus’ meaning ‘extreme’ because of its overpowering scent.

[2] Luke 15:10

On the humble bumble (a devotional)

A new discovery on bumblebee behaviour has got me thinking…

Maddy's bee in her windowbox

I think sometimes that as Christians we grow so familiar with a passage of scripture that it can lose its impact on us. We enjoy hearing a well-known verse in a different translation, as the meaning catches us again, like a joking friend who’ll pounce on us from around a corner.  We need that vibrancy so that the truth settles in as it did the first or second time we heard it.  That’s one of the reasons I love looking at nature for new metaphors on what are heads know, but our hearts need reminding.

     We have all heard Jesus’s words on the sparrows and his Father’s provision for us:

29 What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin[a]? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. 30 And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. Matthew 10:29-31

     Today in the news I’ve heard something that reminds me of that old truth.  Scientists have discovered that hungry bumblebees can cause a flower to bloom early, even up to 30 days, simply by biting a ‘half-moon’ shaped hole in its leaf.  These scientists have tried to recreate the effect but have so far failed.  It could be down to a special ingredient in bee saliva, but no one is sure.  Speculation is around the idea that this bee behaviour is ‘instinctive’.

     Lars Chittka, behavioral ecologist at the Queen Mary University of London says ‘It’s certainly surprising’ and states ‘it’s hard to imagine how it would have started’ – hmm.  As believers I think we have an answer for that one.  To me, it suggests yet one more incredible example of the Lord’s brilliance and thoughtfulness.

     The Bible speaks often about God’s provision.  He is Jehovah Jireh, our provider, and he knows exactly what we need.  If he can provide so wonderfully for the humble bumblebee, how much more can we trust that he has our future in his hands, and has a plan all worked out?

Source: sciencemag.org ‘Hungry bumble bees make plants flower early by cutting holes in their leaves’ By Erik Stokstad May. 21, 2020 , 2:05 PM

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/05/hungry-bumblebees-make-plants-flower-early-cutting-holes-their-leaves

Birdsong (a devotional)

Open window

A member of one my adult education classes is in the high-risk category during this lockdown and has been told in a letter that she can have her window open a short way – the extent of her freedom (though if she owned a very spacious garden I believe she could use it at her discretion).  These restrictions would drive me insane!  Yet even with the window open just a crack, God’s reassurance comes flooding in.  How exactly?  It’s a rare place that has no birdsong at close proximity right now, and even in the normal run of things in the U.K. we can usually hear a bird if we stop and pause; a minute is long enough in the depth of winter, a few seconds in the summer, if that. Birdsong was the most quoted element from Rebecca Arendell Frank’s now famous testimony that came out of Wuhan as the pandemic took hold:

“Right now I hear birds outside my window (on the 25th floor). I used to think there weren’t really birds in Wuhan, because you rarely saw them and never heard them. I now know they were just muted and crowded out by the traffic and people. All day long now I hear birds singing. It stops me in my tracks to hear the sound of their wings.”

Hearing birdsong always lifts us.  There is something about the constancy of nature here; the birds are still singing – oblivious to the virus – it’s an irrelevance to them.  Today the birds sound like they’re really celebrating, which is appropriate on another level: it’s 75 years since the original V.E. day, and the village, decorated in red, white and blue bunting, is basking in a mini heatwave.  Seeing the birds swoop and dive seems to instruct us that this is the right way to behave.  The Lord has brought our country through worse and we don’t need to despair.

During lockdown the absence of traffic means all I can hear outside for most of the day is the birdsong. The harmonies, though unintentional, are stunning – the melodious blackbirds fluting in alto, the sparrows’ slow repetitive chirping, like an infant trying out new sounds, and on our walk today, the chiffchaff, with an even more exaggerated I’m trying to learn this sound as it tries out its name, over and over: ‘chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff’, and on.  The woodpigeons refrain always sounds like they are staking their claim with ‘I live here, don’t you know’, and these familiar voices go a long way to making this alien world still feel like home.

There is a complexity to much birdsong though, too; Olivier Messiaen called birds ‘God’s own musicians’, and from Handel through to Mozart (who owned a starling for musical purposes), to Wagner, to Messiaen himself and more recently Jonathan Harvey, composers have long recognized birds’ innate musical brilliance and sought to imitate it.  It’s as if their ability is better than ours, and more importantly, birdsong always makes me think of praise; this isn’t such an outlandish suggestion when you read from the Psalms.  That the birds ‘sing among the branches of the trees’ (v.12) is one aspect of life that makes the writer declare ‘I will sing to the LORD as long as I live.  I will praise my God to my last breath!’ (v.33) Psalm 148 takes it one step further and instructs the natural world to praise God, including, of course, the birds:

Praise the LORD from the earth,

you creatures of the ocean depths,

8 fire and hail, snow and clouds,

wind and weather that obey him,

9 mountains and all hills,

fruit trees and all cedars,

10 wild animals and all livestock,

small scurrying animals and birds,

11 kings of the earth and all people,

rulers and judges of the earth,

12 young men and young women,

old men and children.

13 Let them all praise the name of the LORD.

For his name is very great;

his glory towers over the earth and heaven!

14 He has made his people strong,

honoring his faithful ones—

the people of Israel who are close to him.

Yet even if birds are not deliberately singing praise (and we know that, at least in part, they are defending territory and attracting a mate), the fact that they are there at all, singing away, points us to God.  He didn’t have to add this backing track of joy to our world, yet he chose to.  How dull the world would seem without it!  And I wonder how many birds are singing the world over at any one time?  In our garden, even?  The American Museum of Natural History estimates that there are between 40 and 60 birds per head for the world population[1], which is still astonishing, even despite the decline of many species over the years.  That’s an awful lot of birds, and yet God hears each one, individually as well as corporately, just as he does our prayers and praise (though he listens to us all the more intently, hanging on our every word).  I love to think about how God can hear all of our communication with him simultaneously.  He sees his collective body worshipping without the walls in place.  At this current time – and perhaps at other points in the future, as is sadly the case for many believers worldwide – we can’t see or hear the output of each other, but there’s something comforting in the thought that we’re never doing this alone.  The cry of the persecuted or isolated believer mingles with those in a more happy, euphoric place, and of a vast angelic throng.  Yet perhaps the greater the sacrifice on our part, the greater the meaning to him.  In Revelation we read of ‘gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.’ (Revelation 5:8)

My own church is operating a twenty-four-hour prayer marathon every Sunday this month and it’s wonderful to dwell on how the baton is being passed invisibly, seamlessly, and how for God this is a constant stream of prayer and praise.  Does this sound strange, considering the challenges we face?  I think that, like the birds, we are meant to be joyful – designed to be, and we need it all the more right now.  To be joyful isn’t to be happy.  It is a decision based on who God is, not a feeling based on our current circumstances.  When we utter truth about God, whether in speech or in song, we declare his goodness.  Something happens inside of us when we praise.  The birds, in their incessant chirping, remind us to keep going.  Their song is constant and so is God’s love.  So is his worthiness and reliability, that will never falter.  His devotion to us is never muted.  Let’s keep speaking and singing our love back to him – for somehow it renews us when we take our eyes off our troubles and look into the heart of our loving God.  We know we can go on.  What’s more, ours is a God of lavish celebration and he sings songs over us.  Here is an astounding verse to meditate on today.  Bear in mind that the Hebrew for ‘singing’ is said to refer to a joyful ‘ringing cry’… that’s the Lord Jesus’s celebration of you and me:

“He will take delight in you with gladness.
With his love, he will calm all your fears.
He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.”

Zephaniah 3:17(NLT)

[1] https://www.amnh.org/explore/ology/earth/ask-a-scientist-about-our-environment/how-big-is-the-bird-population

Worship during Lockdown

 

Worship during Lockdown

I’m rethinking my perfect surroundings for worship – what’s needed, what’s desirable, and what we can manage without, for a time.  Perhaps what I love most about my church (One Church, Dover) is our times of worship, when up to around 200 people are drawing close to God together, and singing out heartfelt praise.  These are tender moments, when God draws close, and we expect to encounter him.  His presence is tangible. It’s one of the main highlights in my usual week.  But while it’s my heart’s wish to be worshipping in church this morning, I’m reminded that the most exciting moments in my journey with God haven’t happened in a church building.  I’ve known his direction when I’ve dug into his presence at home, and even when I’m praying and singing in my Mini as I do in the usual run of things.  When I worship at church it’s from the overspill of my heart, because I’ve been walking with him through the week.

There have been times, though, when I’ve been in church and thought how amazing it would be if we could move the whole thing to an outdoor setting – not permanently, but just sometimes.  There are many songs that speak of how God touches us and communicates with us when we’re outside, perhaps my favourite being ‘How Great Thou Art’.  ‘When through the woods and forest glades I wander’ is a line I’ve long identified with, and the words continue ‘Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to thee, how great thou art…’. We take inspiration from walking through his creation, knowing that the One who made all that we’re enjoying is alongside us, even within us, if we’ve invited him.

Tuning into God while we walk is something most of us have the opportunity to do, whether living in or out of lockdown.  Perhaps what’s especially significant about this song is that soon after it was written, believers were needing to find new ways to worship, and their usual Sunday routine had been taken away from them.  Bud Boberg, great-nephew of Carl Boberg who wrote the song says, “My dad’s story of its origin was that it was a paraphrase of Psalm 8 and was used in the ‘underground church’ in Sweden in the late 1800s when the Baptists and Mission Friends were persecuted.”[1]  The song takes on a whole new relevance here for anyone who is living during a lockdown, or in an environment where church is forbidden, for whatever reason.  When believers worshipped outdoors regularly in the past, it was often because of persecution; Bunyan’s dell in Wain’s Wood, Hertfordshire, was a place of clandestine fellowship, where he preached at night to his ‘gathered church’, a congregation sometimes of over a thousand, praising God under the stars.

In 1931 Boberg’s song was heard by Stuart Hine as a Russian translation.  He wrote his own paraphrase, which is what most of us in the UK are familiar with now.   Before completing the project he added a couple of verses of his own, including this one, which is new to me:

“When burdens press, and seem beyond endurance,
Bowed down with grief, to Him I lift my face;
And then in love He brings me sweet assurance:
‘My child! for thee sufficient is my grace’.”

Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking about how church will be different as we move forwards, and wondering when it will ever seem ‘normal’ again – when we will have our old, cherished routines back.  It occurred to me this week that small groups will no doubt be allowed to resume first (confirmed a couple of days later by a message from a church leader raising the same thought), and pictures of the scattered early church are filling my mind.  We’ll be in good company, when we think of those who have gone before.  My imagination has got carried away as usual: So German churches are allowed to meet, but with facemasks and no singing.  Imagine if our small group could congregate outside to worship and praySurely that would be allowed, when lockdown starts to ease?  Several members of our group shared the vision this week – ‘I have the space for about 40 or so socially distant worshippers’ said one.

Of course, it never was about the building but meeting the Lord and having fellowship with the people of God.  The current lockdown must be forcing Christians worldwide to push new boundaries, and here we’re no exception.  To stretch my understanding of ‘normal’ worship further, yesterday evening I enjoyed what will be the first of many worship times at home as a family – it felt spontaneous, leading on from the practice of a song Maddy and Eliott had been preparing to sing to grandparents on Zoom.  The whole household congregated, and I settled in with the cajun while the rest of the family strummed along on guitars and ukuleles. It was an opportunity to really worship, and while we got a few words (and notes) wrong, God’s presence was strong and it felt like a significant milestone.  Would this have happened without the lockdown constraints?  Possibly not.  So while I miss seeing my church fellowship, we are all growing and hopefully becoming more resilient and self-sufficient as believers.  As we know, ‘In all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.[2]

1973 version of ‘How Great Thou Art’. (Less familiar):

O mighty God, when I behold the wonder
Of nature’s beauty, wrought by words of thine,
And how thou leadest all from realms up yonder,
Sustaining earthly life with love benign,

Refrain:
With rapture filled, my soul thy name would laud,
O mighty God! O mighty God! (repeat)

When I behold the heavens in their vastness,
Where golden ships in azure issue forth,
Where sun and moon keep watch upon the fastness
Of changing seasons and of time on earth.

When crushed by guilt of sin before thee kneeling,
I plead for mercy and for grace and peace,
I feel thy balm and, all my bruises healing,
My soul is filled, my heart is set at ease.

And when at last the mists of time have vanished
And I in truth my faith confirmed shall see,
Upon the shores where earthly ills are banished
I’ll enter Lord, to dwell in peace with thee

 

[1] Ireland, Michael (7 October 2007). “Veleky Bog: How Great is Our God”ASSIST News Service.

[2] Romans 8:28

Outdoor worship

Gospel Voices – obtaining your copy

Gospel Voices COVER

I have been so excited about my book being read at last, but like most things in life, the current situation has had an impact.  Delivery from the printers has been delayed and while the warehouse is open, it’s with skeleton staff.

However, we’ve found a way around this for those who have ordered the book!  In the short term we can send you a PDF copy, while we wait for business to get back to normal. Let me (or Faithbuilders) know if you’d like this option.  You may have ordered from Waterstones or elsewhere – if so, a digital receipt would be good. Either way, please get in touch with me.

See below for endorsements.

Gospel Voices COVER

“These stories will quite literally take you to heaven and back as a series of voices, some well known and others less familiar, ask the questions we tend to avoid. What is it like to feel constantly compared to your brother Jesus? Why does he roll out miracles to fix problems that he could have prevented in the first place? And what does he want from us? Surrounding the historical Jesus with a wholly believable cast of characters, from nosy neighbours to the wannabe manager who lends his donkey on Palm Sunday, this collection shows the divine at his most human.”
Prof. Carolyn Oulton, Subject Lead Creative and Professional Writing, Canterbury Christ Church University

“Caroline Greville’s engaging style draws you into well known biblical stories as she reimagines them through the eyes of human and angelic participants. The author’s attention to detail means that rather than distracting from the biblical narrative, her recount adds the colour, sound and aroma of the first century Middle Eastern life. … Expect to become part of the big story of the Bible, listening afresh to the events of the Gospels, and being changed by something you thought you knew! ‘My God isn’t a God of failure or of missed moments; he’s a God of triumph, and what he sets out to do, he accomplishes every time.’”
– Grace Turner, Senior Pastor, RiverLife Church, Bern

Corona Crisis – a personal response

‘It’s the end of the world as we know it… and I feel fine.’ The words of R.E.M. in 1987, but I don’t agree.  Firstly, it’s not ‘the end of the world’ – this time will pass, we’ll deal with the bruises to our sense of what’s right, our sense of security in this world, and move on.  Perhaps the phrase ‘as we know it’ does ring true, especially as we struggle with the prospect of living without some people – we wonder if they will be neighbours, colleagues, familiar faces from our daily routine, or, dare I say it, loved ones who are dearer to us than our own lives – those whom the planet won’t be the same without; those who, for many many years have made life worth living.  We can’t imagine life if they are not with us, we don’t want to, and yet our fears take us there.

So no, I don’t feel fine.

This virus feels unfair.  But perhaps there is a touch of heaven’s mercy in what’s happening – and please don’t stop reading.  We know that we all have to die some time, and for most of us it’s unlikely to be because of the virus.  But we are re-evaluating as individuals, taking stock of relationships and life goals, remembering that our relationships with people are what we most value in being human.  And if there is a meaning to life, a purpose in being here and a life beyond, we now have time to research it.

Why do I personally believe?  I took a step of faith as a teenager, and that faith has grown as I’ve seen many answers to prayer and even come to know God’s presence.  My commitment began just months before R.E.M.’s song release, in the summer of 1986.  And who is my God?  The God of the Bible, seen in Jesus.  I don’t do anything without considered thought, and I looked into the claims that Jesus made about himself and the historical evidence that was not written by believers.  Because, like the apostle Paul, I think that if we are wrong about him then we of all people are most to be pitied.

Some people would say, ‘If your God is real, why has he allowed this?’  I certainly don’t think he’s responsible, but I suspect he’s permitted it for a time, and he must have his reasons. I know that in Jesus we find a true picture of his mercy and compassion.  Could we see something of his guiding parental hand in this virus?  Like when we put out a hand to prevent a small child from falling off their trike?  Could we say that when our time’s up, it’s up?  If there is life beyond, as I believe, this life builds us towards it.  As a Christian, I have trusted him with my life, and that is incredibly freeing.  I believe that a transaction has happened with him – I’ve recognized that I do bad things, that I’m far from perfect, and that I’m designed to communicate with him, to receive his help, to engage with him – what many Christians call ‘being in a relationship with him’, which may sound cliched to you, but it’s hard to find words that come close to explaining this in any other way.  I’ve entrusted my life to him, because he’s given up everything for me, and I’m going to walk with him, even when I question what he’s doing, or think I have a better idea of how he should be running things.  In reality I think I probably don’t – I don’t get to say what happens to me, whether on a small scale or large, or what happens to my nation, or even the world, but I do get to choose how I will live out each day.  Whether in kindness or anger, in looking for the good or in frustrated rebellion.  I know that I can expect to be given the answers one day, and his purposes are bigger than mine, his ways ‘far beyond anything’ that I can comprehend (Isaiah 58 v.8).  For now I need to take one day at a time – pray for my loved ones, pray for those who are ill right now, pray for him to be intervening in the lives of individuals, and playing my part in looking out for people and staying in touch, even if most of this will be done virtually.

Jesus felt pain – this is very hard to dispute. He grieved when Lazarus had died and was deeply shaken as the reality of what we face as humans hit him.  But he didn’t stop there – he brought Lazarus back from the dead, which set things moving for his own arrest, mock trial and crucifixion.  Thankfully it didn’t end there – so the Bible tells us, and so my experience of him assures me.  There is so much evidence about who the historical Jesus is, that if you are even remotely intrigued, some investigation into this would be beneficial, especially if our country goes into any sort of lockdown.

How will our days be different in the short term?  We know that schools may close.  Work routines may change, or even be put on a long pause.  My university teaching will perhaps be done virtually, and the groups I run for Kent Adult Education have many retired members, so in the short term I think those are under threat.  But if we find ourselves at home more, there is fun to be had.  I plan to work hard on my current book that is not quite half-written, but may be nearly finished if this virus drags on.  We will all be finding creative outlets, old and new.  If we’re not in isolation, we can enjoy nature, and even if we are, we can feed the birds and enjoy the arrival of spring.  (Today we heard skylarks above us as we walked the dogs, though we couldn’t see them.  The sound took me beyond myself, reminding me that spiritually there is another dimension that we need to tune into more.)  Of course, we’ll enjoy extra time with family, if they live with us.  I know that for my own mental well-being I need to limit my time reading news online, and channel my fears into prayers.

This era may feel like a very long weekend or a prison sentence, depending on the outlook we choose to take.  But to not be fearful is a decision – we can replace desperation with engagement with him.  ‘Anxiety is meditation on the wrong thing,’ says Pastor Matt Brown of Sandals Church (see link).  We can get through this – and with God’s help it will be a whole lot easier.

 Please get in touch with me if you want to ask any questions or hear more.  You might like to read my book, Gospel Voices, a series of short stories based on Christian truth.

(Today I’ve also watched an amazing live stream from Rivers Crossing Community Church on 15th March, 2020. Link here.)

Books I recommend:    

Who Moved the Stone by Frank Morrison

The Evidence for the Resurrection by Norman Anderson

The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Dr Gary Habermas