God’s Many-Coloured Works of Art

No, this is not about Joseph and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat of musical fame! It is about God’s creativity … and what we can learn about it from some things Paul says in his letter to his friends in Ephesus.

Thinking about this was triggered by a recent Facebook post by Claudia Beversluis of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This took me, with Charles Strohmer’s help, to one of his own ‘Waging Wisdom’ blogs. Then, out of the blue, came Matt Tuttlebee, an Irish friend of mine, and a ‘Bundoran Bible Reflection’ video that he made and posted on Facebook. During this time, I was also in touch with Alexandra Kingswell, another old friend, about her artistic designs.

It has all come together in a four-part harmony which I hope you will find helpful. (I don’t know who sings soprano and who alto or who tenor and who bass!)

  1. ‘God’s many coloured / many textured wisdom’ (Ephesians 3:10)

The story begins on June 7th with a sharing of a Facebook post by Tom Hoeksema, a good friend who was Head of the Education Department at Calvin College (now Calvin University) when I was a visiting teacher there on several occasions in the Noughties. What Tom had shared was a piece by Claudia Beversluis, a Calvin colleague, about the meaning of the Greek word polupoikilos and its significance for the current debate about racism.

Claudia says that she loves markets because they “are usually places filled with color, texture, smell, sound, chaos, and beauty”. So, she points out, when Paul writes in Ephesians 3:10 that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God will be made known”, the word polupoikilos translated ‘manifold’ is not an academic word. It is “a marketplace word, a word of the street, a word for colors and textures, and fabrics, and art”. It means many coloured or many textured!

She goes on to say that Paul’s wonder, surprise and delight can be heard in this passage. She imagines him exclaiming: “What we thought was in monochrome – look! It’s in purple, and green, and red and blue! This God has a different story than the one we thought was happening, and I, Paul – am alive to tell it!”

The wonder for Paul was the coming together of Jewish and Gentile Christians in one people of God. The wonder for us is of people from innumerable cultures coming together as the people of God. “Dividing walls of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) are destroyed and, in this many coloured, many textured people of God, we are “being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives” (2:22).

2. ‘God’s handiwork / poem / masterpiece’ (Ephesians 2:10)

The story continues. Thinking about what Claudia had written triggered a memory for me. It was a recollection of reading or hearing at some time or other that where Paul says just a few verses earlier in Ephesians 2:10 that we are “God’s handiwork”, the translation could be “God’s work of art”. I mentioned this in a message to another good friend, Charles Strohmer whom you have met already in these blogs. He immediately sent me a link to a blog he had published five years ago and I realised that was almost certainly the source for which my aged memory was casting around.

Charles entitles his blog ‘Christ the Editor’ and he points out that the word translated ‘workmanship’ is poiēma. He says that this word was derived from a word for all kinds of craftmanship. In Homer’s time it was used for pieces crafted from metal and “it developed into a word that often denoted what we today would call artistic work, including the work of someone who wrote a book or a play. Plato and others after him also used poiēma especially of poetical works.”

Charles reflects on how great poems get written: “Just as every note in a musical score is significant, every word in a poem tells, and tells significantly. And it does not line up that way by chance or sloth. Poetry, with its compact, exact language and precise punctuation, may be the most carefully crafted and painstakingly written, and edited, form of communication. Poets will fight tooth and nail with a publisher over placement of a comma.”

He goes on to picture Christ as the editor working with us on the stories of our lives and replying after we have submitted a revised draft:

“Patience,” Christ the Editor responds. “You’re making good progress, but we’ve still got a few wrinkles to iron out. You have a tendency to get ahead of yourself or fall behind or forget about a change that’s been made. And you are still inclined to insist on keeping material from the old story.

“I know it’s slow and painful at times. I get that. But keep in mind that I’ve already been sending parts of your story around for reviews and, as you know, they’re being well-received. So hang in there. You want that masterpiece I promised, don’t you?

“So when will you have that next draft ready for me?”

3. God the Restorer / Master Craftsman

The story continues with me musing on what Claudia and Charles had written about these passages in Ephesians. I looked up the account in Acts 19 of Paul’s two-year stay in Ephesus and was reminded that it all ended with a riot which was started by “a silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis”. He called together “the craftsmen” for whom the worship of Artemis/Diana “brought in a lot of business” and also “the workers in related trades” (19:24-25) and soon the whole city was in an uproar.

So Ephesus was the home of skilled craftsmen whose trade had a “good name” (19:27). Paul himself was a tent-maker and it seems that he worked at his craft during those two years in Ephesus because he says in his later farewell message to his friends in Ephesus, “you yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions” (Acts 20:34).

In the midst of these thoughts early on June 14th, I found myself watching and listening to an 8-minute video uploaded to Facebook that morning by an Irish friend, Matt Tuttlebee. In his ‘Bundoran Bible Reflection’ entitled ‘The Longing for Restoration’, Matt says that he loves a good restoration project and goes on to talk about the work he did for a friend in restoring a table, bench and chairs that had looked “tired and sad, rickety and brittle” and were “ravaged by woodworm and water damage”.

Matt then refers to Ephesians 2:10 about our being God’s handiwork. He says that God’s work in our lives can be painful because it will “expose faults of which we were not aware or didn’t want to face”. Restoring the table and chairs required abrasive processes such as planing and sanding the wood. God, the Master Craftsman, is also “patient and gentle with us” like the furniture restorer staining the wood and waiting for the paint to dry.

4. God the Inspirer of Art

Through the days of this developing story, I was also in touch with another friend, Alexandra Kingswell, about her artistic work. When I first knew Alex back in the nineties, she was doing great work in designing the classroom materials that teams of teachers had worked on together and which we published for the Charis Project.

Since then, Alex has become a designer of beautiful one-off textile artwork in which, as she says on her website, she “explores the creative potential of number, proportion, sequence and colour”. A number of her works make use of the Fibonacci Sequence. I was in touch with her by email because I was then working on my recent blogs about the Fibonacci numbers and the Golden Ratio.

In one of her emails, Alex said that she loves “those (Old Testament) passages that talk of God designing the fabrics in the temple and His equipping of artisans with skill to do the work”. This took me to some Old Testament passages. Exodus 28 tells of skilled workers to whom God had given wisdom to make priestly garments for Aaron using “gold, and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and fine linen” (28:5). 2 Chronicles 2 tells of preparations for building the temple and mentions “Huram-Abi, a man of great skill, … trained to work in gold and silver, bronze and iron, stone and wood, and with purple and blue and crimson yarn and fine linen. He is experienced in all kinds of engraving and can execute any design given to him. He will work with your skilled workers.” (2:13-14)

Alex’s work is that of a skilled artist and it surely displays the many coloured wisdom of God that Claudia Beversluis tells us about.

All of this applies at the level of the individual person who trusts Christ. God is at work in us as individuals to transform us into the image of Christ but we surely cannot stop with an individualistic account.

It is the whole people of God of innumerable cultures that is his many coloured work of art. In what Tom Wright in his recent ‘Undermining Racism’ talk calls “polychrome unity”, all the colours have their place as have all the notes in a piece of music, all the words in a poem, all the components of Matt’s beautiful upcycled table and chairs, and all the pieces that make up Alex’s textiles.

Let us pray.

Lord, you came as a man and worked for many years in the skilled craft of carpentry in Nazareth. In you all things hold together. Help us to use the creative gifts that you have given us in a way that attracts people to you and brings you honour and praise. Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

Nature by Numbers (Part Two)

We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body.” (Colossians 1:15-18, The Message)

Paul says in Colossians that in Christ all things hold together. In Part One of this blog, I tried to explain an example of this in how the Fibonacci numbers are found in the natural world. Now in Part Two, I will try to do the same for the Golden Ratio, a ratio that is found both in the natural world and in arts created by human beings.

What is the Golden Ratio?

In Part One, we saw that the Fibonacci Sequence is a sequence of numbers that starts with 1 and 1 and in which the next number is obtained by adding the two previous ones. 1 + 1 = 2, 1 + 2 = 3, 2 + 3 = 5, 3 + 5 = 8 so the sequence is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, … and so on ad infinitum.

Before we go any further, I suggest that you stop reading at this point and view a 7:31 minute TED talk entitled ‘The (ab)surd golden ratio’ by Robb Enzmann‘ of Miami University.

I hope you found that informative and enjoyable. Now for more on how this ratio links with the Fibonacci numbers and how it occurs in the natural world.

The Golden Ratio and the Fibonacci numbers

As Professor Enzmann shows in the TED talk, as we go through the Fibonacci numbers dividing each one by the one before it, the answers converge on a number that begins 1.6180339887 …..

1/1 = 1, 2/1 = 2, 3/2 = 1.5, 5/3 = 1.666…, 8/5 = 1.6, 13/8 = 1.625, 21/13 = 1.61538…

This number is an irrational number like pi (π). In other words, it goes on for ever and cannot be expressed as a fraction for any whole numbers. (0.33333… goes on for ever but it can be expressed as 1/3.) The Golden Ratio is represented by the Greek letter phi (φ).

This can be presented visually by making a picture starting with two small squares of size 1×1 next to each other. On top of them, we can draw a 2×2 square. Beside them we can then draw a 3×3 square and below them a 5×5 square and so on for as long as we like.

Each addition of a square makes the whole into a rectangle – 3×2, 5×3, 8×5, 13×8,… . As the process continues, the whole approximates more and more closely to a rectangle with sides in ratio 1.6180339887… to 1, i.e. a Golden Rectangle.

Golden Spirals in nature

The quarter circles shown above inside the squares form a spiral that approximates to what is known as the Golden Spiral or Phi Spiral.

This spiral often appears in the natural world. Examples include the shapes of sea shells and the shells of snails. The Nautilus sea shell is a frequently quoted and pictured example.

I have seen accounts which say this spiral is also seen in the shape of water spiralling down a drain, waves on the sea, hurricanes, and spiral galaxies. However, I notice that such examples are not usually mentioned by mathematicians so I am hesitant about saying that this is definitely the case. As Ian Stewart says, the literature can be “long on speculation but short on fact”.[1]

One undisputed example is in the case of the spirals we met in Part One – the spirals in seed heads and florets of composite flowers, e.g., the flower pictured at the top of this blog. The angle between primordial cells in the growth of the plant is crucial to the optimal packing of florets or seed heads and this angle is 137.5 degrees and is known as the Golden Angle. Only this angle leads to seeds with no overlaps or gaps. This is represented beautifully in Cristobal Vila’s ‘Nature by Numbers’ video (starting at 1:40 minutes).

At this point, I want to sing with Louis Armstrong (with tears in my eyes as he had in his!) ‘What a Wonderful World’!

The Golden Ratio in Architecture, Art, Music, …

The Golden Ratio has been known since the days of Pythagoras and Euclid. In his TED talk, Robb Enzmann says that it was known to the Mayans. It is therefore possible that it was known from early times by some architects, painters, sculptors, musicians and poets and deliberately incorporated in their work. On the other hand, there are many who hail the Golden Rectangle as the shape most pleasing to the eye and claim that it therefore is likely to occur naturally in artistic creations without deliberate and conscious intention.

The idea that the Golden Rectangle is the most pleasing shape is open to criticism. In his TED talk, Rob Erzmann quotes research done in the 19th century when people were given a group of rectangles and asked to pick their favourite one. The one he picks out on the screen as being most often chosen is not the Golden Rectangle. However, not knowing about any such research, I often gave this task to students when I was teaching Mathematics and I have to say they usually chose the Golden Rectangle!  Perhaps they had read up about it in advance and just wanted to give the answer their teacher expected!

Closeness of approximations to phi is also an issue. Mathematicians tend to shudder when they see phi rounded down to 1.6 and claims made that Golden Rectangles are present on the basis of such rough approximations. They tend to be happier with the observation that the proportions of the credit card are very close to the Golden Ratio. Did it just happen that way … or was that ratio deliberately chosen?

Architecture: Golden Rectangles are claimed to exist in buildings as old as the Parthenon of Athens and the Great Pyramid of Giza. The approximations are reasonably good but there no documents to show whether this was intentional.

In modern times, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier and others have intentionally made use of the Golden Ratio in their designs.

The Core, the education building at Cornwall’s Eden Project, was inspired by the plant architecture of sunflower heads. Eden’s director of learning, Dr Jo Readman, says, “We wanted a building the shape of a sunflower and the size of a spaceship. Nature has a fundamental blueprint which goes beyond DNA. We have translated that blueprint into the structure of this amazing building.”

Painting and Sculpture: Close approximations to the Golden Rectangle may exist in the work of da Vinci, Michelangelo, Seurat and Mondrian. Some cubist and modern painters, e.g., Salvador Dali in his The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, have deliberately sought to use the Golden Rectangle in their work.

Ron Knott says that there are clearly Golden Ratios in Graham Sutherland’s huge tapestry of ‘Christ the King’ behind the altar in Coventry Cathedral.

Music: The Golden Ratio has also been claimed to exist in the compositions of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, Debussy and Bartók. Some modern composers have deliberately sought to use Fibonacci numbers in their work.

In an interesting video entitled ‘The Golden Ratio and Fibonacci Sequence in Music’, classical pianist Nahre Sol and drummer LA Buckner discuss what are called ‘Phi moments’. These occur when the climax of a piece of music occurs at a point in the whole that lands close to the Golden Ratio. Examples they give include ‘Under Pressure’ by Queen and David Bowie and ‘In My Feelings’ by Drake and they suggest that Phi moments occur naturally and these musicians weren’t “writing songs with calculators by their sides”.

What should we conclude from all this? It is clearly the case that many creative people find the Golden Rectangle to be a pleasing shape albeit not necessarily the most pleasing shape. Their art deliberately imitates nature and therefore reflects natural beauty.  On the other hand, even though exaggerated claims are often made by the over-enthusiastic who see the Golden Ratio everywhere, it seems to me quite likely that human creativity should unconsciously and without deliberate intent manifest these beautiful proportions. They are clearly there in the natural world and most clearly in the plant kingdom so it is hardly surprising that they should be present in works of human creation. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world!

Let us pray

Creator God, we thank you for the wonderful and beautiful world you have made and for the beauty of so much architecture, paintings, sculptures, music, song, poetry that we human beings, made in your image, have made and do make. Help us to recognise and appreciate beauty wherever we find it and to discover and employ our own creative gifts. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

[1] Ian Stewart, ‘Nature by Numbers’, The Times, 5 May 2011.

Nature by Numbers (Part One)

We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body.” (Colossians 1:15-18, The Message)

Paul says in Colossians that in Christ all things hold together. You may find it strange that I am going to Mathematics to find one way in which this is true. Please bear with me even if you are one of the too many who, sadly, have had bruising experiences of the subject. I hope that what follows may be redemptive for you as I try to explain the truly amazing, even mind-blowing, Fibonacci Sequence and how it is to be found in the natural world.

Who was Fibonacci?

Fibonacci was an Italian mathematician who was known also as Leonardo of Pisa and who was born at about the time that Pisa’s famous tower was being constructed in the 1170s. As the son of a merchant trader, he travelled widely around the Mediterranean coast. This brought him into contact with the Hindu-Arabic system of numbering and we have him to thank that our number system is not any longer the Roman one of I, II, III, IV, V, …! (Your experience of Mathematics might have been even more bruising!)

What is the Fibonacci Sequence?

The Fibonacci Sequence is a sequence of numbers that starts with 1 and 1 and in which the next number is obtained by adding the two previous ones. 1 + 1 = 2, 1 + 2 = 3, 2 + 3 = 5, 3 + 5 = 8 so the sequence is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, … and so on ad infinitum.

Before we go any further, I suggest that you stop reading at this point and view a very beautiful 3:43 minute video entitled ‘Nature by Numbers’ by Cristobal Vila.

I hope you enjoyed that. Now for some detail of how these numbers occur in the natural world.

Flower petals

On many flowers, the number of petals is a Fibonacci number. For example, irises and lilies usually have 3 petals, buttercups have 5, delphiniums and clematis have 8, ragwort and corn marigolds have 13, asters have 21. Daisies usually have 34, 55 or 89 petals. Sunflowers usually have 55, 89 or 144 petals.

It is important to note that there are also ‘non-Fibonacci’ flowers. However, as mathematician Ian Stewart of Warwick University puts it, “the plant kingdom seems to have an inordinate fondness for Fibonacci numbers”.[1] Where flowers have varying numbers of petals, the average number for a particular species is often a Fibonacci number.

Seed heads

Fibonacci numbers are also found in the way seeds are arranged on flower heads and florets are arranged in composite flowers (‘composite’ because what appears to be a single flower is a composite of smaller flowers). Viewed from above, the seed heads and florets seem to form spirals curving both to the left and to the right. Counting the number of spirals in both clockwise and anticlockwise directions, they are almost always neighbouring Fibonacci numbers (e.g., 13 and 21, 21 and 34). An example often found on websites discussing this is a beautiful picture of a coneflower daisy.

Neighbouring Fibonacci numbers can also be seen with pinecones (usually 8 and 13) and even with the common cauliflower (5 and 8 spirals). Pineapples have hexagonal scales which tend to exhibit three sets of spirals in consecutive Fibonacci numbers (usually 5 gradual, 13 moderate and 21 steep spirals).

The reason why this happens is that these arrangements mean that all the seeds or florets are uniformly packed in the heads or composite flowers.

Leaf arrangements

Fibonacci numbers can also be found in how the leaves of plants are often arranged around their stems. Looking down from above, the leaves are arranged so that leaves above do not hide those below. This means that each gets sunlight and catches rain.

On his very comprehensive web pages about the Fibonacci numbers, mathematician Ron Knott of the University of Surrey describes this phenomenon:

“The Fibonacci numbers occur when counting both the number of times we go around the stem, going from leaf to leaf, as well as counting the leaves we meet until we encounter a leaf directly above the starting one. If we count in the other direction, we get a different number of turns for the same number of leaves. The number of turns in each direction and the number of leaves met are three consecutive Fibonacci numbers!”

This is not easy to visualise and check. Ron Knott accompanies his explanation with some helpful pictures

Professor Knott goes on to say that has been estimated that “90 per cent of all plants exhibit this pattern of leaves involving the Fibonacci numbers”. I hope you can now see why Ian Stewart said that the plant kingdom seems to have an inordinate fondness for Fibonacci numbers.

In Part Two of this blog, we will go on to look at the Golden Ratio which underlies the Fibonacci numbers and how it is to be found in the natural world and in the arts created by human beings.

In preparation for Part Two, you may like to view a 7:31 minute TED talk entitled ‘The (ab)surd golden ratio’ by Robb Enzmann of Miami University. His aim is “to bring the fun part of math into the layperson’s life by exploring one of nature’s most fascinating numbers: The Golden Ratio”. Does he succeed? I leave that to you to judge.

Let us pray.

Lord, for those of us who believe that everything has its source in you and holds together in you, the occurrence of these numbers in nature encourages our faith in you. We thank you for the wonderful and beautiful world that you have made. Help us all to care for it. Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

[1] Ian Stewart, ‘Nature by Numbers’, The Times, 5 May 2011.

It’s about Time!

(This blog is available in the form of a video chat at https://youtu.be/oKBv-u2YYi0.)

No, this isn’t an impatient plea for the easing of lockdown! In fact, I think that here in the UK we started lockdown too late and that we’re possibly relaxing it too early.

But this piece is about lockdown and, in particular, about our experience of time in lockdown and our perceptions of it.

Strange things seem to be happening to how we perceive time. The position of the hands on the clock doesn’t seem to matter as much as it normally did. We seem to have a distorted image of time. It’s a bit like the melting clock faces in Salvador Dali’s painting ‘The Persistence of Memory’.

I’m going to talk briefly about three aspects of our experience of time in lockdown.

  1. Changed rhythms of life

The first is about the changed rhythms of life that we are experiencing. Human, animal and plant life all have their rhythms. There are the rhythms of day and night, weekdays and weekends, months, seasons, and years. There is the rhythm of annual festivals and celebrations.

Talking of seasons, Val and I lived in East Africa for a year. We were about two degrees north of the Equator. When we came back home after that year, we noticed just how good it is to have the rhythm of the seasons. It was something that we had missed for that year.

Of course, in lockdown there are some new rhythms! Here in the UK we have been going outside our homes at 8.00 pm every Thursday to clap in appreciation of the work of people in our National Health Service, people on the frontline in the battle with the coronavirus.

The rhythms of life have a powerful beat as Sammy Davis Jnr sang years ago. The beat of those rhythms is slower in lockdown!

Even though we have slowed down and been putting less pressure on ourselves, it seems, as we look back, that time in lockdown has been passing surprisingly quickly.

It is surprising because when everything stays the same (our activities, our location), time seems to pass slowly. We give more attention to time and the more attention we give to it, the slower it seems to go. A watched pot never boils!

However, in retrospect as we look back upon the weeks or months of lockdown, it all seems to have gone very quickly. This seems to be because there have been fewer changes, fewer new memories being made, fewer landmarks in time.

Even if we are busy with Zoom meetings all day, we are still in the same location. There is still that sameness which feels slow to experience while we are going through it but seems to have gone very quickly when we look back upon it.

The rhythm of work and rest is especially important. The first blog I wrote back at the beginning of the year before we knew that all these changes were coming was entitled ‘Green spaces in time’. We need those green spaces.

The Sabbath is the climax of the week for Jewish people. Sadly, our UK government is considering totally relaxing the Sunday trading laws for the sake of the economy and people’s jobs.

Let’s be thankful for the rhythms of life and let’s make space for God-filled moments in those rhythms!

2. Irreversibility of time      

A second aspect of our experience of time is of its irreversibility. The arrow of time goes irresistibly in one direction only.

Isaac Watts in his old hymn ‘O God our Help in ages past’ talked of time as being “like an ever-rolling stream” bearing all of us away.

As we see the daily statistics of how many people have died and as we hear the news of deaths of friends or acquaintances as a result of coronavirus infection, we become very aware of mortality, very aware of the irreversibility of time.

Henri Bergson said that the most naked experience we have of time is that of a death and a birth occurring together.[1] Thirteen years ago, in March, my mother passed  away and, in less than a month, our second grandson was born. Dylan came into our lives. I had that very definite feeling of the past being gone and irretrievable and the future opening up with all its possibilities, all its promises.

Let’s remember, as we contemplate this arrow of time, this irresistible movement of time, that Christ is risen and because he is risen, we can have the possibility of resurrection ourselves.

3. Uncertainty about the Future

A third aspect of our experience of time is of total uncertainty about the future. We feel almost as if we are backing into the future. The Ancient Greeks and the Mesopotamians thought of the future as being behind them. They were reversing towards it and the past was in front of them. They could look over the past and contemplate it.

Our modern western notion of time has us facing the future and the past is very definitely behind us. Our younger son, Gareth, was just a little boy when, one day, he was searching for the word ‘yesterday’ and couldn’t get it. He said “the day at the back of this one”! In saying that, he showed that he had already imbibed the notion that the future is something that we are moving towards or something that is moving towards us and that the past is behind us.

In our experience of lockdown and this total uncertainty about the future, about what’s going to happen about our jobs, about the economy, about when we are going to be able to have our loved ones come to visit us in our homes again, it is as if we are rowing facing back rather than forward. We can see where we’ve come from and we don’t know where we’re going.

Of course, in a rowing boat, although the rowers are looking back, there is a cox and he is always looking forward. He or she is steering the boat and coordinating the power and rhythm of the rowers.

As we go backwards into the future and wonder what may be coming, we need a cox. The biblical image is not that of a cox in a rowing boat but that of a shepherd.

Psalm 23 says that the Lord is my shepherd. Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd”. The shepherd doesn’t drive the sheep before him. He goes in front and leads the sheep … and they follow.

I love the Russian translation of ‘good shepherd’ as ‘dobryy pastyr’. I love the sound of those words when spoken by Russian-speaking followers of the Good Shepherd.

We need the cox in our rowing boat, we need the Good Shepherd. We can trust him as he goes on in front of us. We know not what the future holds for us but we can know who holds the future.

I conclude with a prayer, quite a long prayer. It was written by Robert Banks. He is an Australian writer and it is in his book, The Tyranny of Time.[2]

Let us pray.

A Prayer about Time

God our Father, you are the maker of everything that exists, the Author of the world of nature and of all living things, the Creator of both space and time.

Without you there would be no past, present or future; no summer or winter, spring or autumn, seedtime or harvest; no morning or evening, months or years.

Because you give us the gift of time we have the opportunity to think and to act, to plan and to pray, to give and to receive, to create and to relate, to work and to rest, to strive and to play, to love and to worship.

Too often we forget this and fail to appreciate your generosity: we take time for granted and fail to thank you for it, we view it as a commodity and ruthlessly exploit it, we cram it too full or waste it, learn too little from the past or mortgage it off in advance, we refuse to give priority to those people and things which should have chief claim upon our time.

Help us to view time more as you view it, and to use it more as you intend: to distinguish between what is central and what is peripheral, between what is merely pressing and what is really important, between what is our responsibility and what can be left to others, between what is appropriate now and what will be more relevant later.

Guard us against attempting too much because of a false sense of our indispensability, a false sense of ambition, a false sense of rivalry, a false sense of guilt, or a false sense of inferiority: yet do not let us mistake our responsibilities, underestimate ourselves, fail to be stimulated by others, overlook our weaknesses, or know our proper limits.

Enable us also to realise that important though this life is, it is not all, that we should view what we do in the light of eternity, not just our limited horizons, that we ourselves have eternal life now.

God our Father, you are not so much timeless as timeful, you do not live above time so much as hold ‘all times … in your hand’, you have prepared for us a time when we will have leisure to enjoy each other and you to the full, and we thank you, appreciate you and applaud you for it.


The story of the grandmother and granddaughter in the photo is told in my blog ‘Knowing of the Third Kind’. The photo is used with the kind permission of Canadian Guardian journalist Daniel Brown.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

(This blog is available in the form of a video chat at https://youtu.be/oKBv-u2YYi0. If you are interested, you can sign up to become a ‘subscriber’ to my YouTube channel and receive notification when a new video is added.)

[1] Quoted in Paul Fraisse, The Psychology of Time, 1964, p. 281.

[2] Robert Banks, The Tyranny of Time, 1983, pp. 200-201.

My Favourite Hymn … albeit with a ‘but’

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I have drawn up a short list of my favourite six or seven hymns and songs. They include both the more traditional older hymns like Amazing Grace and Dear Lord and Father and also some of the more modern contemporary songs like In Christ Alone and The Servant King.

Actually, talking about what is ‘modern’ can be open to question. Back in 2003, I was teaching philosophy of education for a semester in Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was standing in for one of their folk who was on sabbatical. One day in a session with a group of students, we were thinking about the topic of humility and the contrast between the attitude of Aristotle who regarded humility as a vice and the example of Jesus who washed the disciples’ feet. Towards the end of the session, I put up on the screen the words of The Servant King because it was a song that the students didn’t know. We scrolled down through the verses to the end and, at the bottom of the slide, the year in which the song was written was shown. Then one of the students, a young man named Brian from California who was a great person to have in the group because of his wonderful sense of humour and a very gentle manner, said, “Professor Shortt” (everyone is a professor in American colleges – even people like me!) “you said this was a modern song? You do realise that song was written before any of us were born?!” It was a case of how to make a happy man very old! It was an unforgettable experience.

So what is modern or contemporary probably depends on how old or young you are. But my most favourite hymn is actually in between. It is a kind of bridge between the ancient and the modern, the traditional and the contemporary. The original version was written in Swedish back in 1885. In the early 1900s, it was translated first into German and then from German to Russian. In the 1930s and 1940s, an English missionary in western Ukraine discovered it and began to work on translating it into English and adding verses to it. In the 1950s it was discovered by the Billy Graham team and popularised by George Beverly Shea in the Billy Graham evangelistic events in the mid and late 50s.

You have probably guessed what it is. Yes, it is How Great Thou Art.

I’ve been asking myself why does this one stand out from the six or seven on the list or, indeed, all the hymns and songs that I’ve learned through the years, the decades.

Admittedly it has got a great tune but a great tune isn’t enough to make it stand out. What is it about the words that makes it so special to me?

1. Resonates with childhood formative experiences

I’ve come to the conclusion that, for a start, it resonates with many of my childhood experiences, those formative experiences that make the adult I became. The child is father or mother of the adult.

The hymn talks about seeing the stars. As a youngster I would go out and look up at the stars. No light pollution dimming the sight in rural Ireland in those days. Every month, the Irish Times newspaper published a map of the night sky. I remember the excitement of seeing Sputnik crossing the sky.

It also talks about going through the woods and hearing the birds in the trees. On the farm on which I grew up, there were woods and groves of trees.  I loved to wander and I loved to listen to the song of the birds, even to the less tuneful ones like the corncrake or the sound of the drumming of the snipe as it swooped down through the air.

It also talks about a brook. We had a brook called the Ballyfinboy River that flowed through the farm. My brothers and I loved to go and play in it. We built a dam of rocks to raise the water level so that we could begin to learn to swim. Mention of a brook is therefore very evocative for me.

The hymn also talks about looking down from lofty mountain grandeur. There weren’t very high mountains near where I lived. There were some but I guess mountaineers would call them hills. One of them was called the Devil’s Bit Mountain because it had two high-up bits with a hollow in between (see picture above). Our father and mother took my brothers and me up there and we looked down from that lofty mountain and tried to work out where our farm was away in the distance.

There are all these things to do with Creation, to do with nature, to do with the wonderful world that God made. They certainly go towards making it a hymn that I love, that I can respond to.

Not only that because it goes on to talk about how Jesus bled and died to take away my sin. That has resonances for me as well from childhood.

I was about seven years old and we had a mission in our little church. The Reverend Kenny came as the visiting speaker. It was at Easter time and I can remember sitting in a service on Good Friday with my family. He was up in the pulpit and he was talking about how Jesus died for our sins. I remember sitting there and feeling that he was talking about me and about my life and things that I have done and said and thought. I was feeling really uncomfortable at the thought that Jesus bled and died to take away my sin.

Reverend Kenny also visited our farm and I showed him the dolmen, a prehistoric site. He was interested in it but he took me to a tree that was lying on the ground nearby. He pointed out the thick tendrils of ivy that had climbed up around the tree and brought it crashing to the ground. He said, “John, sin is like the ivy on that tree. If you don’t do something about it, it can climb up and choke you and kill you.”

There are those Creation resonances for me and also those biblical spiritual resonances in this hymn.

I also used to listen to Radio Luxembourg on 208 metres medium wave because it was the only station that broadcast popular music in those days. Every evening from 7.00 to 7.30, it also had Christian programmes. One of them was called ‘The Hour of Decision’ with a speaker called Billy Graham. (I wondered why it was called that when it only lasted half an hour.) How Great Thou Art was probably played on many occasions on that programme but I have no clear recollection of that.

I think it is one of my favourite hymns because of those resonances with childhood experiences, experiences that have formed me and made me the person that I became in adult life.

2. Connected with early days as a committed Christian

I think it is also my favourite because it is connected with my early days as a committed Christian. I had left home and moved to work in Dublin and I came to trust the Lord and to realise that I was forgiven because he bled and died. That is when I would really have got to know How Great Thou Art and other gospel hymns in services in the YMCA and churches in Dublin.

In fact, George Beverly Shea himself came to Dublin to sing in a concert in the YMCA. The demand for places was so great that it was a tickets-only event and I was given the responsibility of checking that people had their tickets before they went in. That was an amazing evening.

How Great Thou Art would have become so meaningful to me at that time and that meaningfulness has continued through the years, through the decades, right down to the present day.

3. Leads me to look forward to the world to come

Thirdly, I think it is my favourite hymn because it leads me to look forward to the world that is to come. The great last verse goes, “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation …”.

Here’s the ‘but’ because it goes on, “And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart”. For me, that suggests something that is not quite right. It suggests that Jesus is going to come back and take us away from this world, this earth. However, as I read the Bible, that is not how it is going to be. The Bible talks about new heavens and a new earth. It talks about Creation groaning to be released from its captivity. It talks about Jesus rising from the dead with a physical body and 1 Corinthians 15 says that we will rise and we will have new bodies. We will be physical beings. We won’t be spirits sitting on clouds playing harps!

I’m therefore not altogether happy with those words “And take me home”. In his book Surprised by Hope, Tom Wright suggests that they could be replaced by “And heal this world”. When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and heal this world, what joy shall fill my heart!

God comes down to live with us!

Revelation 21:1-5 (NIV)

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.

‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Let us pray.

O Lord our God, how great you are! Thank you for the wonderful world you made. Thank you that you are going to make it all new. Thank you for your Son who bled and died to take away our sin, who rose again and who is coming again. O Lord our God, how great you are!

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