Heron – Look, See, Pray

Herons arrived in my universe via the pages of “Tarka the Otter” as Henry Williamson described the world in words that conjured up visions and dreams, wild hopes of one day seeing otters, herons, salmon and so on.  I was young- Mum taught me to read before I went to school, and ever since I have devoured books like a hungry heron nabs frogs.

Getting a decent SLR camera gave opportunity to seek out these wonderful creatures and film them. It also began a life-time search of frustration in acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary to get good results. Lots of practice does help success!

This heron was in Regent’s Park, London, and was happy to ignore people unless they came very close. (I had a good telephoto lens with me and stayed at a safe distance.)

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Preening Grey Heron

I was able to observe for about 20 minutes and took photos of the heron preening itself, sharpening its fearsome bill, and hunting patiently for small fish and frogs.

It was the patience and preparation that impressed me. “My” heron was truly dedicated to hunting: it sought food with all its attention.

The things I see often become the starting point for spiritual reflection and prayer.

Watching this committed bird made me wonder about my own dedication to “seek out the Lord.”

Do I sharpen up? Take good care of myself? Wait patiently on God? Devote as much time to prayer as to photography?

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Heron sharpening & cleaning its bill

Am I as motivated to “feed” my soul with spiritual food, to make time to relate to God, set intimacy with the Holy Trinity as a life priority?

If not, why am I surprised when my spirituality seems stale or more of a vacant space than a heart-filling joy?

It also helps me to look at the heron and see how scrawny, leggy, and frankly weird it looks!

Yes, it is beautiful in its own way. It is also superbly equipped as a fishing-hunter, water-wader, and strong flier. But hardly classically cute!

So then… when the onlooker sees me living as a “spiritual being,” and thinks what an odd shape I am, what a strange haircut… nice strong legs, shame about the face…

Perhaps they will discover that I am gradually becoming a better “heron”,  learning God’s ways and learning to love and be loved. They may observe those moments of triumph when I connect with the Almighty! Or see how Jesus brings strength and comfort when I face struggles and pain.

Maybe they will see as I am learning to see- and find looking leads to praying.

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Will Eugene’s frogs-eye view lead to enlightenment before he croaks?

The Delicate Dance” – Look, See, Pray

“The delicate dance.” Whirling, waving, singing in the breeze. Humble grasses of endless variety grow almost anywhere round the world.

A carpet to walk on, a banquet to creatures great and small. Background colours of restful greens and brown, and all too easy to overlook. We cut it down to make hay, we give our civilised selves a never-ceasing summer of work with scythe or lawnmower. We take grass for granted.

Grass helps protect from soil erosion. It makes a perfect surface for sports and picnics. It helps regulate the atmosphere we breathe.

Our Bibles are full of references to grass; in the beautiful 23rd Psalm of the Good Shepherd, we read “He causes me to lie down in pastures of green grass; he guides me beside quiet waters.”

My photograph today comes from a lakeside in the Zillertal of Austria. A good long walk up the valley led to a gorgeous turquoise-coloured lake. Kindly souls had put a seat with a view across the water to a snow-clad peak. Here, in the peace and quiet, we took our rest, our lunch, and our pictures.

Dancing delicately in the mountain air, these grass seed-heads rustled and swayed to an unheard tune.

Sunshine was followed by gentle showers, and a little later by a brief but dramatic thunderstorm. Our day was enriched by these curious climatic changes. Tomorrow would see the delicate dance of the grass as an encore. The rain makes it all live. Soil is shallow on the hard rocks, and sun and wind dry the grass quickly. It is the living water that gives the life.

A verse to ponder from Deuteronomy, extolling the virtue and value of the Words and Love of God. Be refreshed.

“My teaching, let it fall like a gentle rain, my words arrive like morning dew, like a sprinkling rain on new grass, like spring showers on the garden.” – Deuteronomy 32:2 (Message)

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River of Tears

Today – the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz & Birkenau, the infamous Nazi death camps. It is Holocaust Memorial Day: and we should never forget. Words are inadequate but they are all I have. This is my Lament for the Jews, Gypsies, cast-outs, unwanted, despised… all the victims of what happens when evil thoughts are let loose.

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Tears unheeded
shed on concrete floors
wiped away by skeletal kids
Lungs choked
by noxious hatred
with genocidal solutions

Lest we forget
Holocaustal reminders
should make us cry
so our generations
never repeat killing
by decree of expediency

Camps of Death
liberated by shocked soldiers
to save the few
Too late for millions
we must never forget
Auschwitz and Birkenau

Never again
for God’s sake
and ours

And theirs, hid in a river of tears.

(c) Richard Starling, Holocaust Memorial Day, 27th Jan 2020

Faithfulness and Grace- Look, See, Pray

Today was a GOOD NEWS day- for me. I want to shout out “God is good!” which is, of course, true… but I must restrict myself a bit and say only that God has been good to me at this moment in time. This is not to be boastful or claim any special “holy” status, but because God is in His essential nature faithful and loving: and He gives grace not because “we deserve it” but because He CHOOSES to love the unfaithful.

I was diagnosed with bowel cancer this autumn. It was serious enough to require urgent major surgery, and our wonderful N.H.S. acted swiftly and effectively. Getting over the surgery has been painful and seems slow. But today I visited the oncologist about follow up treatment (chemotherapy). My expectation was six months of chemo.

Chemotherapy not required… the doctors think I am 85% likely to be clear of cancer; annual scans will look out for any possible regrowth. You can imagine the relief… the sense of getting your life back, the lifting of the gloomy shadow of fear and doubt.

Many people have prayed for me (I am truly grateful) and practical support and love has been showered on my life. I have felt a sense of God’s presence and known other dark moments where faith felt like a mouse squeaking in the cellar waiting the cat to pounce.

This evening I have sent the good news round to friends and family. I looked in the book of Psalms hoping to find a good “praise verse”… and I found this.

Psalm 91:14-16 (NLT)
The LORD says, “I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name. When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue and honour them. I will reward them with a long life and give them my salvation.”

God is faithful. I do love Him, I trust Him, and I need Him. It’s just that I’m not as faithful in my faith as He is. Do I have any right to say God has blessed me? No, if I am trading with God… “Hey, God, if you scratch my back… and I’ll try to be nice and be good…”

It doesn’t work like that.

I know my own weaknesses, and the things that trip me up. I wish I was 100% perfect but I’m not (yet).

Father God has reminded me this evening that He IS faithful, the One of eternal loving-kindness. He has also reminded me that GRACE is what is given when my faithfulness falls flat on its face. A namesake of mine, St Richard, was Bishop of Chichester from 1244 to 1253 and gave us a prayer that I treasure. It’s my faith-response to the gap between God’s faithfulness and my own.

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which you have given us, for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us. Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day. Amen.

God has been good to me- and I really want to love Him better, and be more like Jesus. I’m depending on His faithfulness- AND still on His grace. Left to myself, I can, do, and will fail. The reason God has “been good to me” today is that HE won’t take my weakness and failures as the last word. I’m proud of having a Father like that. My hope is that more and more of us will come to know and understand and experience that Fatherly Love.

 

Love of a Different Kind

I’m ready to enjoy Christmas. It will have a particular resonance this year.  For over thirty years I have celebrated a “professional” Christmas:  yes, I believe in the message and meaning of Christmas, but when my role was to enable others to understand and live Christmas it could become repetitive or stale. I’ve always tried my best, because I love Christmas and enjoy it myself!

This year is different. A couple of months ago I was brought up short when the doctor suggested some extra tests. In no time at all (well done the NHS) I was face to face with a surgeon who explained I had cancer in the large intestine… and then set out the risks involved in treatment. Stark truth!  The alternative would be no treatment, and sooner or later I would die.

Now then, I am not just a “professional” Christian, a minister who teaches others about faith. I really do believe and trust in the good news that Jesus proclaimed. It isn’t “just” a religion, it is a living experience that has demanded (and still does) an active obedience which has shaped the whole of my adult life.

But to be confronted with “This could kill you” makes things very real, very quickly.

Surgery went well, although the recovery took longer than expected, and now I am home in time for Christmas. The long, lonely & noisy hours on the ward shared with seven very sick men became a time to think about life, faith, and mortality. Helplessly subject to the regime of the hospital, it would be easy to despair. That way is dangerous. I am truly thankful that I kept hoping and trusting.  I wish I could say it was a deeply spiritual experience. Honestly, it was a dark road… but illuminated by shafts of light and gradually moving toward a clear sky and a hope-filled future.

The experience reminded me of a song I wrote 15 years ago. “Love of a Different Kind” tries to relate the first Christmas, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, to the rest of His life- and even to His death and resurrection. When we sing carols about the angels, the Star, the Baby, and those humbly obedient human beings (Joseph, Mary, the shepherds…) we are declaring that what the human race needed and needs is a love of a different kind. No ordinary affection, no pretty story, no fictional hero- but TRUE love. God proving that He is always involved in the life of this tiny planet set in a vast sea of stars. As Graham Kendrick memorably wrote, “the hands that flung stars into space” are the hands that were crucified.

Surely, after the year we’ve all had, the song of love to Man and peace on Earth is one we should all listen to with open hearts.  May we all have a memorably lovely Christmas.

 

When shepherds came, and angels sang “Glory to God!”
Who would have thought this was the night when history changed?
What can this mean? Love of a different kind!

The baby grew, as babies do, love in his heart.
No-one has seen a love like this- so is it a dream?
What does it mean? Love of a different kind!

The Light that shone in heav’n above is shining now.
The world is full of darkness yet hope lingers on.
What can it mean? Love of a different kind!

Two arms out-stretch’d, a crown of thorns, beginning or end?
The song is sung of love to man, and peace on Earth.
It’s not a dream! Love of a different kind.

A Saviour’s song, that fights the pride, which keeps us away:
But what a price to find the lost did Jesus pay!
Glory to God! Love of a different kind.

© 2004, Richard I. Starling.

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Light Breaks Through

Not a promising sort of day. Cloudy, showery, and cool. Then the light broke through. Dark clouds ripped apart, silver swathe across the sea horizon, and our boat trip suddenly became much more enticing!

That’s the thing about Light. It has immense power to overcome darkness. It is the light and energy of the Sun that powers the weather on the planet, not the clouds that shroud and dull our days. Sooner or later, Light breaks through.

It is less than two weeks to Christmas. The familiar Bible stories and Christmas carols will remind us of angels, of a mysterious Star, of a lamp breaking the darkness as a baby takes breath- and the cosmos celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ.

I was awake early, and sitting with a cuppa waiting for daybreak. Picking up a Bible, and turning to the Letter to the Philippians, I found myself marvelling at the words that Paul used to describe unity and Christlike-living, setting it against the background of the attitude of Jesus. Son of God, yet born in total humility, and living a selfless life of obedient faith. The Light broke through for me- THIS is the message of Christmas!

Philippians 2:1-14 (ANIV)
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with 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 purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed— not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence— continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Do everything without complaining or arguing…

Secret and Sacred – Look, See, Pray

Deep down in the valley the trees hide their treasure. Down there a river flows, water brown from the peat washed off the moor. A track wanders between the trees with fallen leaves as a rustling carpet for dogs and kids to play in. Birds and secretive mammals watch carefully those who pass by: squirrels swear from their lofty seats and throw acorns to encourage departure.

If you go far enough, a graceful stone bridge arches the water so drovers and foresters can cross.

Go further, and find a stump or stone. Just sit in silence. No traffic sounds, no signal on mobiles, just the birds, the beasties and the breeze. Stay long enough, and a deeper stillness slips into your soul.

Far from distractions, the silence becomes comfortable. Only natural noises can be heard, forming a gentle background of peacefulness which allows the silence of the soul to bring rest.

The secret place becomes sacred. The signature of the Creator embellishes the quiet beauty with an invitation to inhabit the peace… and allow the Presence of Christ to open a chapter of awareness and grace in the Book of Life.

Words are important- but they are not the only speech. Silence is eloquent.MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

All it needs is a secret place where our heart can meet God’s faithful fathering. This is one such place. Have you found yours?

Here is a refuge, a sacred place of worship and reconciliation. Nearer, my God, to You.

Practice this sacred silence, and it becomes a peace within the soul, available any “when” and every “where.” God IS with us. We simply need to be aware- and engage.