Early Autumn

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The air is warm and there is still fruit, seed and harvest to be done in the last of the good daylight hours.  Late September: it is autumn.  The great sky spreads close and the sun hangs low, casting long deep shadows under the thinning hedges that border the stubble fields. There could be rain, but on the dry afternoons the tractor works quickly to pull the plough that cuts furrows through the tired stalks, burying the straw beneath the sod.  Leaves tremor in the tree top breeze, grass sways low and heavy berry laden branches welcome hungry birds.  The tractor works in the last light of the evening and the stubble is lost in the deep chocolate brown of the fresh ploughed land. Whilst all that is green begins to fade, a little gold appears here and there, at eye level liquid light moves between the branches catching the falling leaves. They lie muddy brown on the ground, but orange and resplendent in the tops of the trees. As they fall more green is consumed. Under the wound left by each felled leaf there lies a small dormant bud, curled tight and hidden for spring.

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Wildfowl who made their home just under the ice rim in the arctic lands are drawn every year to the skies and they fly from the far north without a break. They winter on marshland and in the fields in an obscure corner of northern England, a place where we too had been drawn to make our home.

I love to watch and write about these birds, they are my calendar and my moveable feast.

On the 17th of the month there were 500 pink footed geese newly arrived in the area, now only ten days later there are over 8000.  They come from Iceland and Greenland, a whole gaggle from a green oasis amongst the glaciers and headwater of the river Pjorsa.

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I read how Peter Scott first discovered the birds on a horseback expedition in 1951 when he ringed the birds in a bid to learn more about the mysteries of their migratory habits. I also read that he married his assistant Philippa in the  same year on the same trip and how they came home to England to have a daughter of their own. I imagine them galloping across the tundra on horses, engrossed in their work, with great panoramas of sky and water for company.  Then back at home a more domestic scene, homemaking, nest-making, her heavily pregnant writing, him painting or walking out miles to see birds from the arctic at home in England, on their wintering grounds.

IV

I am taking a picture of Martinmere every week now and over the winter, to document the arrival of the winter visitors. Whooper swans should,be arriving in the next three weeks. A small number have already been spotted locally.

photoPhoto of the mere taken during the third week in September 2013

photoPhoto of the mere taken during the last week in September 2013

More birds on the water and in the sky

 

Does God allow suffering?

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At home with family, discussing that strange and unprecedented conversation between God and the devil in Job.

Then the Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.’

‘Does Job fear God for nothing?’ Satan replied. ‘Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.’

The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.’

Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

Job 1.8-12

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He says, it reads like a Greek myth where the gods consult together and decisions are made about the mortals from the clouds.

I say, it has stuck to me all my life like a a burr, it’s a problem and its tiny barbs have got under my skin.

This is the story of Job. God casually agrees to a little sport with Job, a man who has had life too easy. Material loss, tragic death and philosophical miseries follow. Job’s friends torment him with the kind of poor theology I will try and spare you here, until 40 chapters on Job hears the voice of God reminding him of a few home truths, his fortunes are restored and everyone lives happily ever after. Everyone apart from those of us who still have residual questions about this version of God. Whilst Job lights the fire under his burnt offering and invites his neighbours over to celebrate the happy ending, I wonder how to balance the tricky question of God’s good will and all the trouble it caused?

I get to thinking later, God’s good will and all the trouble it caused: the crux of this story is surely the cross. These words in Job are not like Homer, Sophocles or Euripides they are like Gethsemane and the prayers of Christ himself. Amongst the dust of the olive grove I can enter the problem of pain and re-work the words in Job. When I read the philosophical discourse on suffering in Job in parallel with the gospel stories of Christ, my version of God is changed.

photoJesus in Jerusalem, facing his final days, piece by painful piece showing and telling his followers, who he is, what must happen and what will follow on. “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Death precedes the miracle, but the disciples don’t yet understand.

On the day of the passover feast Jesus has plans for himself and his friends. He wants to tell them more plainly what will happen and it’s all about how he must die. “Do you understand?” he asks them over and over again. Time is running out. Afterwards they talk through this together, remembering teachings from scripture, parables and all the things he did and said. But for now they do not see and they do not hear, though death and pain and suffering are all around and getting closer.

It is heaving in Jerusalem. People from every place have come here and they have their own business to do, with God and with each other. They do it in the temple court yards, in the purchase of a bird or an animal for sacrifice, they hear the scriptures read from the scrolls, they sit amongst scholars, rabbis and itinerant teachers, listen and learn. Others on the edges wander the streets, nowhere to sleep, they mumble their complaints and questions, rebels and radicals and the discontent. They are sick, starving and have come nursing twisted limbs, festering wounds, tumors and undiagnosed complaints that cripple and cry out from every street corner and begging bowl.

They have loved and lost, then loved some more and lost again. They have fallen, gotten up and been knocked to the ground again. They have trusted ,been betrayed, and they do not know if they can trust again.

Amongst the ancient olive trees, in a place where anyone can walk, Jesus kneels, even falls to the ground, and He prays. He has said to his Father “All I have is yours, and all you have is mine”, he has said, “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me” and “You and I are one”. He feels the ground beneath his bent knees and all around the ancient olive trunks wider than a man, the thin grass and the sand. The solid rock under him seems unsure, as it crumbles away, I wonder what heaven sound he heard?

His friends fall asleep, but this is no private moment, he is on public display and all of heaven listens. Of all the withdrawn desert days of secret sojourns in the mountains or on the far side of the lake, was there ever a praying dialogue quite like this? The sound of God the Father and God the Son in conversation with satan himself? All of eternity is poised to fall once again or to be lifted and turned in its course. When the Father speaks the others listen. Maybe this is what he said, Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.

We are invited into the terror of Gethsemane every time we ask why and when we feel our experience is so painful it will turn us away from our God. And we are not deceived, the experience is painful and it could turn us away from God. In Gethsemane the choice was as dire as it looked and much much worse. On the other side of Gethsemane there is a miracle waiting to happen and we see it from deep inside because God has chosen us to be participators and not spectators in the things of heaven and the things of earth.

There were angels in the dusty olive groove. They were amongst the branches of the trees like birds, white robed in light, there to strengthen him. Their silky hems dragged in the dirt as they whisper open heaven songs. Ancient songs that told of how it was supposed to be, how it will yet be and how close it had become: no more tears, no more pain, no more suffering; true words, true world, just a sob away.

Does God allow suffering? Yes, it would seem that he does, but never as the end of the story, so we must enter into the story …

Kneel with this God in Gethsemane and hear Him say,

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

John 16.33

What I am reading

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I escaped the crowds at Animal Magic, Martinmere yesterday for a quiet half hour alone in the hide. And it was quiet: I was the only person there for most of the time: me, my binoculars, a coffee and a notebook (bliss).

Apparently the first whooper swans were spotted circling the mere on Friday, but I haven’t seen any yet. I studied the geese grazing, alongside lapwings and starlings. A buzzard watched from a far off fence post.

I plan to take a photo of the mere from the same spot, every week, all through the winter and into the spring, to show the changing patterns of life: how the birds arrive and then they leave.

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For now I am sharing a little Sunday evening reading from around the blog-sphere, a couple of sermons and some Autumn crafting.

Why you’re never ever really a failure by Ann Voskamp at A Holy Experience

Man finds calling at age 80 by Stephen Altrogge at The Blazing Centre

The most important interview I’ve ever done by Rick Warren, Senior Pastor of Saddleback Church, California

Walking out of pain by Kris Vallotton, Senior associate leader of Bethel Church, Redding, California

Why does God allow pain and suffering? by Jen Hatmaker

For my sons: On Depression by Addie Zierman at Deeper Story

If you desperately fear you have nothing to offer by Emily Freeman at Chatting at the Sky

In which I am electrocuted and break my toe by Sarah Bessey

… and finally a little homemade Autumn activity from The Crafty Crow and an Autumn chalkboard printable.

Something lovely for the weekend

A quote from Hudson Taylor is on my twitter profile page.

It is oft repeated in our house and the children know it as well as they know that ‘Hope is the thing with feathers …’ or that Thought followed a dust cart and thought it was a wedding.

A random-er once tweeted me that I had quoted Hudson Taylor incorrectly. After extensive research I found that I probably had, but I have never changed the quote because, even if I gave the stages in the wrong order, I still stand my the fact that in my own experience, “First it’s difficult, then it’s impossible and then it done” (rather than “First it’s impossible, then it’s difficult and then it’s done”).

By this I must explain, that in my own experience, I have found that a thing can cause a problem in a hum-drum everyday kind of difficult way until at some point in time it becomes an in-your-face problem, an insurmountable difficulty, a bottom line impossibility. By this time it has grown so huge it appears impossible to conquer, and you struggle and strive and fight and groan and if you are a praying person you usually wind up telling God that you have had it: end of.

Then BOOM, its over: DONE!

This is why I stick with my own version of the quote,

“First it’s difficult, then it’s impossible, then it’s done”

And I have begun to feel quietly encouraged when an impossibility comes my way, that this is the eve of something good, because I have a God who specialises in showing His power and His love in impossible situations.

So, at the moment I contend with a number of impossibilities, but impossibilities beware. If you have impossibilities in your own life, bring them to God and know this: the moment when your impossibilities seem really impossible is the moment when they will probably be DONE.

“Jesus I am resting” was Hudson Taylor’s favourite hymn. Andy recently found this version with all the verses.

James Hudson Taylor was a Victorian missionary to China. He was rejected by the missionary societies of his day because he had neither Church of England ordination or a medical degree and so he went to China without any visible means of support, being utterly confident that this was what God had asked him to do. He worked amongst the Chinese people, in a manner that was especially sensitive to the culture of the people and received much criticism for adopting the dress and customs of the Chinese people he worked with. Yet many came to know the love of God and joined with him in planting churches. It is estimated that he was instrumental in seeing 18, 000 people come to Christ.

He was the founder of the Chinese Inland Mission (now OMF International) and is thought to have influenced 800 Christian volunteers to work in China. I recommend his story to anyone (Dr and Mrs Howard Taylor, Biography of James Hudson Taylor, Hodder and Stoughton, 1973) and have myself been humbled and changed by the deep trust this man had in Jesus.

On a lighter note …

On a lighter note, I wanted to share something funny that I found when I was doing online research for my previous post.

This short video puts into perspective every joke your husband/pastor/partner/male friend ever made about the pain of labour. And if you are a husband/pastor/partner/male friend, and you made that joke, this video is for you.

Enjoy

Out of our pain

God only allows pain if He’s allowing something new to be born.

From Ann Voskamp, How to live through the hard weeks

Every year I bring the painful question of evil and suffering and a good God into my classroom, using Youtube videos, card sorts and various bedraggled worksheets from the old grey filing cabinet where I hide this stuff away.

Three times a week in class we ask ourselves the question: If there is a God who loves and cares for us, why does he allow so much suffering in this world? Seated round the lightly graffitied desks amongst the pencil cases and plastic wallets we work our way through several hundred PowerPoint slides, newspaper collages of natural and man made disasters, bullet points, paired work and class discussions. We make posters, model in play dough, debate and consider: 9/11, the holocaust, war, poverty, sickness, cancer and death. In our own words and borrowed words we map out the territory, a glossary of grand sounding names, quotes and key words: omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent. And everyone memorises the classic theodicies.

At the end of the term nearly all my pupils will score one hundred percent in six mark exam question that asks them to explain suffering, or ten mark questions that asks them to weigh up an idea and state their own view. Everyone will get a GCSE qualification but how many will really know the answer to the question: If there is a God who loves and cares for us why does he allow so much suffering in this world? These children who have maybe seen more every day pain in one 14 year life span than the rest of us will see in 100 years.

Amongst the conflicting views the only thing we seem to agree on is this; there is no water tight, one-size-fits-all answer and to try and provide one is an insult to those who suffer and grieve.  Yet I remain an avid collector of wise words and quotes, a life longer seeker after hope, even when it has been hope against all hope.  So when Ann Voskamp comes out bright as the day to tell us God allowed the pain and that from it something good will come, I sit up and listen. This farm girl writer, mother of 6, advocate for the poor and spinner of words, who watched her baby sister crushed under the wheels of a truck and her own mother turned half crazy by the death, who took pieces of her own pain and beat it into hope and wrote it out for us to read, she said this,

God only allows pain if He’s allowing something new to be born.

So could we ever believe this: that out of pain, God births something good?

Who amongst us would dare to say this to a friend in the midst of their pain? When all the world shouts in upper case anger, WHERE IS YOUR GOD NOW?  Who amongst us would interupt and say: watch carefully now and in time you will see a new thing being born here, hope out of despair and healing in brokenness, thanksgiving from abandonment and bounty from loss. Who amongst us has the discernment and the timing, the compassion and the integrity to speak in even a hushed voice such daring words?

There comes a point in childbirth some eight tiring hours into labour, a little after your waters breaks and wave after wave of gut wrenching contractions roll in short minutes apart, and you can hardly pull yourself up before next one pushes you down again. Here you fight in the undertow of a great tide, pulled under into the weight of its roll, until you can not breath and fighting for air you think you might drown. There comes a point when you think you’ve taken as much as you can endure, your cervix thinned and stretched, your uterus prepares to release a beautifully formed child.  Some 9 cm dilated, when all your emotion rush to the surface and with the next contraction you defy any person to touch you, speak to you or approach.   You could curse the midwife telling the world the child is about to be born because from the point of view of pain there is never an end in sight.  Who would dare suggest that this woman’s pain is not real, immense and unavoidable? There is no turning back, no rest, no relief. But at the moment when she cries out all the louder, the wise know the baby is about to be born and in a few short pushes he will leave his confinement and rush into the freedom of the world.  Vernix covered and fists clenched he will come, a cry against the sharpness of his first breath, raging against the strangeness of the light.

And no new mother ever said it wasn’t worth it and very few said they would not do it all again and they’re smiling at the baby and thanking the person that stood with them those long hours: midwife, husband, partner, mother, sister, friend.

Out of our pain, something new is born.

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