In search of spring

 

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We took a walk in the woods yesterday. It felt like spring.

The water of the mere was still, but for a few slow ripples stirred by the movement of birds: goldeneye, teal and widgeon. A pair of great crested grebes, in the shallows pulling at roots and weeds, looked like they might be getting ready to build a nest. Buds were sprouting on the dark twigs of hawthorn and there were lamb’s tail catkins hanging in the sun. Underfoot a delicate carpet of tiny green leaves were making a show, nettles, sweet ceicely, wood anemone, cow parsley, many textured, in every shade of green. Lesser celandine, gorse and coltsfoot; some of our favourite first flower of spring are yellow. Their shining faces bring out of hibernation all the humming insects and the bees.

Sitting in the hide with the window open and the sun shining on my face I came to think of images of spring and the power they have over us. We can be renewed inwardly when the  black branches come into bud and the first shoots of flowering bulbs stand proud from the cold ground. When the days grow longer we understand more clearly than before how a light has shined in the darkness and the darkness can never put it out.

The writer of the Song of Song said this:

See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
is heard in our land.
The fig tree forms its early fruit;
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling;
my beautiful one, come with me.

It has!

They do!

I will!

Spring will reign forever as a powerful image of renewal and hope in every Christian heart. Yet walking in the woods yesterday, it was not enough. I have done this nearly every year of my life. I’ve seen it before and been cheered by it before. I will be cheered by it again. But we have struggled and we have been troubled. It is not a casual thing, it is not easily swept away. It isn’t that the imagery of spring is inadequate only that we hunger for more; this bright shining light, this chance to see all things made new. We dig deeper, look more closely, wonder more ferociously, write with more care. We know that the beauty of the earth is never quite enough.

I prayed that God would speak to me in new and startling ways outside of cliches and well worn phrases. Or, I prayed that I would get beneath the thin skin of the too familiar words and images to the heart of the message, to the heart of me, to the heart of him. That I would know myself startled by this voice, truly taken aback by what he says, listening and watching for something more. That I would have courage when I am stirred by this beautiful world to know that feeling for what it is: a holy call to something more.

A holy call to something more.

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Wren

Because Andy set up a kitchen table office, in front of the french windows, overlooking our small back yard, he was the first to see the wren.

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The wren built her nest in an un-pruned, bed-head of jasmine, on a rotting trellis by the kitchen window. In a tangle of mis-spent vines that stroke and stray across the red brick wall of the house she layered up, cocoon-like, a spun wonderment of nest. She layered up moss, stalk, grass and stem with the remnants of dead leaves and the brittle white hair from the tail of a horse. For the love of one hundred small journeys back and forth, she spun before our watching eyes, stalk upon stem and feather-lined: a home from the dust. At the kitchen table office the work comes slow but good, we have enough. He typed out proposals, completed reports and answered his mail, whilst spent fibre was bent into a bed and summer leftovers formed the roof above the wren’s feathered head.

And then, one day, she was gone.

We both worked on through early spring days, him at the table, me out of the house. Long days and too much to do. Hearts can be discouraged but each night there is food on the table and our fine children sit with us to eat. They tell us their grades and their dreams between sips of juice and with mouths crammed full of hot potatoes, salad and dessert. They help us remember that we too have dreams and dead dreams can live.

The writer of Ecclesiastes says,

So I came to hate life because everything done here under the sun is so troubling.

Everything is meaningless – like chasing the wind.

I gave up in despair, questioning the value of all my hard work in this world.

So what do people get in this life for all their hard work and anxiety? 

Their days of labor are filled with pain and grief; even at night their minds cannot rest.

It is all meaningless.

Ecclesiastes 2

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Daylight saving, the clocks go forwards. The evenings are longer and the daylight is more.  Leaving the dishes in the sink and the washing machine un-emptied I step into the yard with a mug of tea. It’s six o’clock and the birds sing loud and long into the shameless blue sky. The gravel in the yard shines rain-washed under my feet.  Hosta shoots stand proud in frost cracked terra cotta, rampant strawberry leaves tumble out of the raised beds onto the path. The rose is heavy with hard green buds, the ferns coiled tight, hyacinth flowers like stars, alchemilla mollis leaves hold globes of rain drops like a jewel. On the rotting trellis by the kitchen window stalks of jasmine, brown and dead, find a way to shoot and leaf. And then I take a look at the well spun nest …

I stare into the nest and the wren stares back.

The bird we thought had flown, she is there in her nest. She will lay eggs. She will sit on them, keep them warm. And in a few short weeks she will be feeding young.

Dreams die. Toil takes charge. Hope slips when our sight slips and we grieve what is gone instead of naming what we have. It would seem we did not look closely enough, we did not wait and watch. This is how we live in thin times: our eyes struggling to focus. This is how we live in thin times, because God is still good and grace turned up in a thousand shocking ways. Grace in the place you least expected it. You stared hard at the darkness and the face of joy stared back.  When you thought joy had flown, you stared into the black opening of an empty nest and hope stared back.

Grace showed up like a bird: one quarter ounce of beating heart, chiselled tail, black bead eye and speckled wing.

Here she is now on the garden wall with her little-big-voice song, a song she sings for all glory like the very stones cried out in praise. She does not labour nor toil yet Solomon in all his splendour was not so well arrayed.

And how much more does your Father in heaven love you?

How much more does He love you?

So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work.

Then I realised that these pleasures are from the hand of God. 

Ecclesiastes 2

Unborn forests in an acorn cup

“In the very beginning, when this great universe lay in the mind of God, like unborn forests in the acorn cup; long before the echoes awoke the solitudes; before the mountains even brought forth; and long before the light flashed through the sky, God loved His chosen creatures.

Before there was any created being when the ether was not fanned by an angel’s wing, when space itself had not an existence, when there was nothing save God alone even then, in that loneliness of Deity, and in that deep quiet and profundity, His heart moved with love for His chosen.

Their names were written on His heart, and then were they dear to His soul.

Jesus loved His people before the foundation of the world even from eternity! and when He called me by His grace, He said to me, “I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with loving-kindness have I drawn thee.”

 from, Charles Spurgeon

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“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,  just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love,  having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.”

from, The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians

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“And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. But what is this to me? Truly, the Creator, the Keeper, the Lover. For until I am substantially “oned” to him, I may never have full rest nor true bliss. That is to say, until I be so fastened to him that there is nothing that is made between my God and me.”

from, Julian of Norwich 

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The photographs were taken at Mere Sands Wood Nature Reserve, Rufford, Lancashire 

Autumn Days

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Autumn is late this year by about two weeks, apart from in coastal Suffolk (my homeland) where autumn has been early.

It looks like she just refuses to perform to schedule. Summer and winter and springtime and harvest are indeed manifold witness to mercy and love, but will we still be singing ‘Great is thy faithfulness’ when the schedule is not what we expect?

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We celebrated Autumn day here on Friday, a relatively new family tradition where we take the time to enjoy an autumnal meal and indulge in some crafts to suit the season. We had guests, made lanterns, mulled cider, roasted vegetables and lit a fire in the garden. I like to think I’m making memories for them and reinforcing a little family identity amongst the business of our changing lives. Lucy moved on to high school in September and we re-decorated her bedroom. Edward started his GCSE work, he played Minecraft and developed a hair style that adds several inches to his height, making him nearly as tall as his dad. Jonathan started college and it does him good, from what I can see it’s all Marxist social theory and ancient Greek architecture. Peter is now in his final year at uni. He loves Liverpool and has a passion for building church there that makes us proud. Andy lost his job, started a company and spent a little more time doing household chores than is usual. We have had more time together and it has been good. Mostly it’s people who make the difference. We hung out with friends as we get to know them better and we said goodbye to other friends which was sad. We watched with interest the great shifting patterns we call family, work, home and church unfold before us, asked our questions and shared our thoughts on pasts unexplained and futures yet to be.

It isn’t unusual to see autumn as a gloomy time of year as we bid farewell to the long days of summer’s pleasures and plenty and we prepare ourselves for the trial of winter. Yet autumn has a splendour all of its own. Gloriously each shed leaf tells us that a tree knows how to protect itself against the cold dark months ahead. The days get shorter and the leaf, robbed of light, can not stay green.  At the base of the leaf, cells laid down in spring have accommodated the flow of water and food but now swell to block that flow.  The chlorophyl, that makes the leaf green, disappears and the character of the leaf is changed.  Within the boundaries of its original shape  the leaf takes on fine hues of fiery red and purple, yellow and orange.  Glucose trapped in the cells of the leaf are helping the tree cling to life for a little longer, helping the tree lay down the stores of energy it will need, deep in its roots, to last out the winter.  A tear line appears between the leaf and the tree, until the leaf is finally blown off in the wind or simply falls under the force of its own weight. Some leaves will even cling there until spring, when the growth of a new bud coming through will finally push the old leaf to the ground.

I have been loving autumn. The relatively mild weather and bright sunny days have pulled a little extra colour into the leaves of the ash, beech, field maple, horse chestnut, oak, rowan, silver birch and sycamore before they finally fall.  And I continually resist the urge to draw parallels between seasons of my life and the changing seasons of the year. As if grief and loss, trials and disappointments could be reduced to a simple comparison with a tree that sheds its leaves. But I will observe as the naturalist observes, the changing seasons of life in all their detail, the predictable and the unpredictable. And I will name them where I can, that, like the sons of Issachar long ago, I too may know the best things to do in every season of life. For we can not escape the seasons any more than we can escape the turning world, for all thing change and move on and we must too.

In the cold and the dark of winter, a tree never forgets what it is like to be clothed entirely in green, leaves upturned like basins to capture the sun.

In which I do what I can

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Today I shall do what I can.

Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.

Philippians 2.12-13

Between each turn of the head on the pillow, post Monday morning alarm clock calling, a quiet prayer will be whispered into the free-fall of the still empty day. I will do what I can in my speaking with Jesus, in the six o’clock half light, beside the warm heap of a slumbering husband and the cries of the marsh bound geese overhead. I will pray. I will greet Him and He will greet me, I will tell and He will hear, I will listen and He will speak some, until I am ready to sit up in bed, open his Word and read.

Maybe this morning I prayed for you and maybe you prayed for me. And maybe in a Spirit-stirred moment our tiny prayers brushed and the friction lit a spark enough to ignite and light up the darkness, creating for us both, enough light to walk in this day and more light as hope for the next. That is what I felt when I prayed, light breaking into darkness, an effortless glow, clear shining and warm. Together we prayed and the whole Emanuel reality turned inwards upon itself like a garment spread: God with us, us with God and though we seemed alone we prayed in accord with a host of heaven in waiting.

Propped up with pillows, in the light of a table lamp, I read Paul’s letter to the Philippians, his hard won words, “I have you in my heart” (Philippians 1.7). For Paul the heart was the place where Christ reigned and it was the place where he could confidently hold his friends in prayer through good times and bad times. His confidence was not in himself but in Christ. So, for me, when I am disappointed, or hurt or confused, when I have unanswered questions or things fall apart, this is where I will go. And if I see any of these things befall you, I will go to that place on your behalf, knowing Christ is there for you. I will do what I can to pull every last one of us survivors and stragglers into such a prayer place, every cast-away who flounders, the wounded and those who fight help. I will strain to bring us all into the safety of a prayer that bears the name, I-have-you-in-my-heart.

So this will be my work today: to have the same affection as Christ, just as Paul writes, “I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1.8). Today I will probably not feed the starving or visit those in prison, I will not start a NFP or change a nation with an act of political protest, I will not rescue a human slave from a trafficker or pray releases to an addict in bondage to alcohol or drugs, I will not preach to a stadium packed with eager hearted worshippers, this blog post will not go viral. But I will try this one thing, to love as He loves, to be attentive as He is attentive, to be kind, to forgive and to make peace where there is none. I will take my opportunities and do what I can.

Downstairs below and upstairs above I hear my own children up and about, climbing from beds, using the bathroom, searching for far flung items of uniform and equipment for school. I get up to greet them with a smile and a word and a meeting of the eyes. Today I will do what I can, though my bed is warm and I do not need to be up this early. This morning I am not a parent in a super hero cape or a Proverbs 31 woman of great virtue. Today does not require me to work myself up to some place of super human possibilities. Without serenade and without applause I will perform small acts of private non-heroism, just because I can.

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When Andy and I walk out later we notice how much the autumn has moved on since we were last at the mere. I hold his hand and love him well, my husband who faces uncertainty: redundancy, a mortgage and bills, fragile plans for the future all to be grown out of nothing. The golden glow of early autumn, all sunshine and abundance has changed into a wind damaged turmoil of sodden leaves piled by the path, broken branches and shrivelled fruits. I count sixty whooper swans on the mere and soon there will be more. Out in the hide at the far end of the reserve I see my first marsh harrier, and wonder at its great wing span, a shallow V, cutting the air in effortless flight.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ,” says Paul, “if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.

Philippians 2.1-5

He has been our comfort and He has been compassionate, we have known His help and He gives us hope. He says that we can have the mind-set He has, that we can be like Him in this world (1 John 4.17). Even when emotional resources are low, or challenges seem too great or when I don’t have the understanding necessary to negotiate the events that unfold before me, my trust will be found in Him. I will follow the example of Christ, and let the Christ within in me make Himself known, this Jesus who,

Being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Philippians 2.6-8

This is why I do what I can.

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.

III

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.

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More birds on the water and in the sky

 

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.