I dreamed that I was flying- Look, See, Pray

Herring gulls over the English Channel

I dreamed that I was flying.

It still is a stunning memory. I glided above the tops of unknown mountains. Far ahead, the sun rose splendidly, and it felt as though I was being kept in the air by God himself. According to my memory, I was about 12 and this is the earliest dream that I have ever remembered. What a psychologist might say about an interpretation is best left to the imagination!

Enjoying a lovely childhood in a loving family, with few things likely to cause lasting trauma, I suspect that I was as ordinary as most 12-year-olds. Perhaps a bit more imaginative and expressive than some, and certainly cheeky. This was the year when I made my first conscious choice to believe in Jesus Christ and begin a life as a follower of his Way.

If my dream was a kind of vision-dream holding out the prospect of a straightforward and glorious life full of beauty and wonder (and no problems) then it has failed. Life isn’t like that- at least in my experience. That doesn’t make it valueless.

Ever since that dream, I have felt drawn to mountains: photos or paintings, word-pictures in books of adventures, and even the black and white TV trying to do justice to a world inherently colourful. The first time I saw a real mountain was in my late teens when a group of friends travelled in a knackered old Commer minibus all the way to North Wales. Here we climbed through mist and rain up the slopes of Tryfan to the summit. Damp and weary we looked out and the clouds concealing Snowden unfurled.

The reality of mountains is far more awe-inspiringly wonderful than any dream.

In the same way, the reality of fulfilled faith will exceed my best hopes- even my best imagination. My faith isn’t built on that 12-year-olds dream, though sometimes I wish everything would go as smoothly as my first “flight…”

I dreamed I was flying.

The Apostle Paul made an obscure reference to “being caught up to the third heaven” (see 2 Corinthians 12 v2). Bible interpreters and scholars have been wondering about that ever since. Really, we don’t know what Paul meant or experienced: the most likely explanation is that Paul felt lifted into the very presence of God himself. (That ties in with the known beliefs of the period.)

Paul refused to boast about this revelation, even speaking in the third person as if it had happened to somebody else: and he even talks about being given “a thorn in the flesh” (v7) to keep him humble. Annoyingly, we don’t know what this thorn was either. Suggestions have ranged from some form of chronic illness right the way through to a crabby mother-in-law!

It seems the Corinthians were fascinated by visions and dreams, and Paul does his best to stop them from fastening onto an exciting tale. Paul uses his own experience to point them to an important truth. Whatever our knowledge, gifting, or experience, whatever our strengths or our weaknesses, we are called to be servants of Christ and to love others in every way we can.

When we are young, we often behave as if we were immortal, acting without regard to risks and dangers. Then comes that moment in life where the first serious illness, accident or loss invades our being. We suddenly must grow up. Christian faith isn’t a divine insurance policy against the unpleasantness of life. Knowing “God is with us” is not the same thing as saying that “only good things should happen to us.”

Since I started with my dream, I want to finish with a snapshot of my experience in Christian ministry.

As a newly-trained pastor I rather hoped the Kingdom of God would be demonstrated forthwith through me! I am glad that my first church was full of patient and kind Christians. During the 30 years of active ministry there were times of blessing, times of difficulty, and occasionally we all wondered where God had gone. Part of my life became learning how to deal with chronic illness, and how to develop a lifestyle that had some rhythm and grace evident in it.

Dreaming of flying is all very well, but there can be bumpy landings.

Without in any sense wanting to equate my life or ministry with that of the Apostle Paul, I think I have learned one of the lessons he did. Perhaps this will be an encouragement to some of you reading today: yes, “God is with us…” and the words of Jesus to Paul and the Corinthian church remain equally true now. Jesus said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (v9)

Early one morning… Look, See, Pray

Woke up too early this morning! Made coffee, decided against vacuuming the carpet (too noisy, might wake up Juliet and the neighbours) so switched on the computer to carry on the sorting of my old photographs. That’s a LOOOOOOOOONG job… I didn’t get very far. I was distracted by this poppy.

The colours, the geometric precision, the intricate shapes… What would it look like if I played around with the pic in my editing software? In the “good old days” monochrome was king. Apart from any other consideration, keen (i.e., “real”) photographers could process black and white film at home, and remarkably skilfully too.

So let’s go monochrome.

Oh. Six choices… all giving very different results. This would have taken hours in the darkroom, using different chemicals, paper, filters, and much patience. One click for each choice… Not that one… no, too dark… not enough contrast… no… maybe… That it. That one, the “newspaper” setting. It brings out the patterns in a pleasingly abstract way. I like that… now, put side-by-side with the original colour image. Interesting! (To me, anyway).

I wonder what other people will think.

Hang on, this page is Look, See, Pray. Why the droning on about photo processing? Why abstract images of a long-dead poppy? (Perhaps Richard should have stayed in bed…)

So, then. It’s an old picture, I’ve seen it before. It brings back the memory of growing these poppies in Luton, of enjoying the vibrant colours, soft fragile petals, watching the bees foraging in these great big architectural blooms. That’s nice.

And now I can see it in another way, a fresh angle, a new insight. Ignoring the colour brings out the structure as a complex pattern- wonderful in its own right. I can study the flower in a new way, understand it better, more fully.

I wonder what would happen if I applied the same process to other familiar things… parts of the Bible… or the Lord’s Prayer… I’ve read that before, I’ve prayed the prayer countless times. Maybe there is more to discover. What have other Christians learned from this verse, or chapter, or book… what exactly do these words mean…

I mean, the Lord’s Prayer… what could be “new” there? Try this version from The Message:
Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are. Set the world right; Do what’s best— as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.

Compared to a version for primary school children:
Our Father in heaven, you are awesome! Show us who you are and how you want us to be. Make earth more like heaven. Please give us what we need to keep going each day. Help us when we are wrong and clean us up on the inside. Help us to let other people off and move on. Keep us from bad stuff. You’re in charge! You’re strong and powerful and always there. Forever! Amen.

Now it’s your turn. Find a familiar Bible passage, or pray the Lord’s Prayer as you know it best… then look for a fresh way to look at it, to understand it, to bring Truth home so it makes a difference to the way you live, behave, think, relate to others.

It might change the way you look at God, see Him, and the how-or-why you pray.

Look, See, Pray. There IS a reason for mucking about with an old poppy pic after all… May God’s Light and Truth shine on you in a fresh new way today.

Don’t lose the wonder- Look, See, Pray

What will 2022 bring?

What am I hoping for?

Three days in- so far, so good. Yesterday I enjoyed the privilege of preaching in our local church, speaking about the difference Christmas makes to every New Year. Simply put, it’s the description of Jesus as Immanuel, “God is with us.” Simple words, but deep, deep meaning.

I don’t know what 2022 will bring. But I’m confident that God is with us- whatever will be. That, in turn, means I expect to keep a sense of wonder and hope every day.

The wonder of seeing the frosted leaves, the snowfall, the sunrises and settings… the first signs of snowdrops, crocii, and daffodils… cherry blossom and roses… Restless seas and cloud-paintings, seagulls stunt-flying, the field mice and squirrels…

Stormy days and dark skies, the Milky Way like a chandelier over the sea. Gentle dew and charming streams, trees standing bold before our wondering eyes.

People living in kindness, sharing love and community.

Change. I’m hoping for change in politics and public life, with integrity and compassion displacing greed and sleaze. Change in the ways people behave and believe, learn and persuade. Truth becoming important, with a reaction against shallow sound-bites, dodgy websites, and manipulative extremists.

Health. I’m hoping for an end to this pandemic, and for respect and gratitude to be shown to good medicine and good science.

Ecology: for responsibility from all of us, doing what we can to look after the planet we’ve been given, with hope of reversing some of the damage.

Some hopes, eh?

God is with us. With that fact to hold onto, we can have high hopes indeed! Don’t lose the wonder. Every wondrous thing we see inspires true hope. I won’t see everything on my wish list happen in 2022 – but God is with us, therefore NOTHING good is impossible (even if it will be difficult).

The first frosty morning may be the first day of wonder- and hope.

Finding the Unexpected- Look, See, Pray

Seaweed on Aldwick Beach

I never know what I will find on the beach. Low tide is my favourite: as the sea retreats, the sand is sculpted into sinuous shapes by shifting waves. Shellfish leave their mark. Plants of strange forms and unexpected colours are there to admire- like this white “tree” standing out boldly against the sand and sky-painted rivulets.

Some tides bring in rubbish, old tins and perennial plastics. I suppose we might say the flotsam and jetsam of 2021 has largely been junk!

When the opposite happens, though, we have memories of beauty, love, courage, and service.

Concentrating only on the rubbish is unhealthy. Most people have found 2021 hard and hostile, and we’re glad to see the back of it. Whatever your experiences this year, will you try to find one (at least) moment of joy and life to remember- and give thanks God for that?

Looking ahead… no-one is master of tide or weather. But a simple prayer for us all:

“May you find life in unexpected places.”

Keeping our hearts, eyes, and ears open for those special life-affirming moments, we may meet a person, embrace an opportunity, fulfil a hope… and may the God of Hope grant you inner peace and an everlasting love.

There’s a verse in Ecclesiastes Ch. 3 that states “God has put eternity in our hearts.” May the year 2022 bring us hope, peace and joy- and may we find life where we don’t expect it.

A blessed New Year to you.

Go on, Joe – Look, See, Pray

I won’t count the miles. Just the stones that hurt my feet.

How far yet to Bethlehem? Too long for the daylight, for sure. Heat shimmers so the rocks seem to vibrate, to twist, almost to move. Oh for a pitcher of cool water, for food. The bread is dry and I’m out of dates.

Another day, more like three days… Footsore and anxious. What will this journey bring? Angels and women and dreams- what could go wrong? To the House of Bread… my family home, in all its faded glory. David’s day so, so long ago, and now just a pregnant girl and a weary man- can even the Lord do something with that?

It’ll be a quiet birth, no fuss, a room and a midwife, brave Mary keeping her head bowed- but the eyes that saw and the ears that heard cannot forget… no. Never forget.

I wish I could understand Mary’s courage! “Here am I, the Lord’s handservant… let it be to me as you have said….” I was scared at first too. Angels and dreams… we don’t do those, not in my tribe- well, not nowadays. Being a Dad… well, sort of Dad. A bigger challenge than I’ve faced before! Wood can be shaped, and stone can be shifted, but a baby? What if I drop him? If it is a him… Mary seems sure. The angel was pretty clear, but I’m not used to miracles. I guess its the long stony road for me, one step, one day at a time. I can do that. Well, I’ll do my best. Mary deserves no less!

And I’ve always believed,and kept the Law best I can…

I can… I will… do it! The angel said not to be afraid. Nothing about stones in my sandals and walking in this heat, once you hear “baby” nothing else matters. We’ll get there. I sure hope that was Your angel, God, because if the baby arrives before Bethlehem we’re in big trouble!

C’mon Joe, get a grip… one day, one step at at time. WE WILL DO THIS, do You hear me, God?

On we go… to Bethlehem.

I wonder if anyone will remember us? Footsore, anxious, obedient.

Welcome to your new home – Look, See, Pray

Wirksworth, December 1988

That weekend is etched in my memory. As I put out the milk bottles, light powdery snow danced through the rays of the streetlamp. “Oh,” I said boldly, “That won’t lay.” The new pastor-in-town (me) had a lot to learn about Derbyshire!

Saturday morning dawned suspiciously bright throught the new curtains. Shivers chased down our ribs as we emerged, blinking, from under the duvet.

16 inches of snow blessed the road outside. The drifts were deeper. Thick rolls of clingy white stuff turned telephone lines into 2-inch ropes which came crashing down under their own weight, pulling the plug on the phone system. Roads were impassible. Our paperboy didn’t turn up! This was the land of milk and honey newly married Sussex southerners had been been plunged into… what had we done???

Our first church we had been called to serve; it was our first Christmas in ten days. How should I respond to the crisis? Cancel Christmas! Send for the snow ploughs! Where’s Rudolph when you need a reindeer?

Yes, I was a tad over-dramatic. On the Sussex coast, three snowflakes was ALWAYS a cause for a national holiday and the breakdown of all public transport until further notice.

Derbyshire folk were tougher than that. Hardly had I tied my dressing-gown cord when I spied neighbours, “old” people, you know, in their 60s and 70s shovelling snow and clearing footpaths. The existence of a large – think Ben Nevis, no exaggeration – heap of rocksalt & grit in the town should have given me a clue. By Sunday lunchtime pretty much everywhere was clear enough to get about (and these “feeble” ancient folk I’d been so worried about turned up in good cheer for Sunday service, jolly and talking about times when they’d had REAL snow…).

Welcome to our new home.

The Bible has stories of people whom God calls to new places and new tasks. Some struggle, some thrive- and God teaches them faith as they explore their new “home.”

Abram is called from the town-with-no-need-for-a-nickname (Ur) and not actually told where he was going. Jacob picks up more airmiles than he ever expected. Gideon hides in a winepress just before God makes him a general of the army. Jonah gets to tell Nineveh that God is pretty angry- and then the wretched Ninevites turned back to God! Jonah says “I told you so” and sulked in the shade of a plant (that promptly died).

Mary and Joseph get to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, have a baby, go to Egypt…

Just think about Jesus. Son of God, leaving glory for a new life as a teeny-weeny blob, then thrust out into a world where loads of people wanted him dead. That’s Christmas.

Aye, lad. Welcome to your new home.”

There is always hope- Look, See, Pray

Advent is the time leading up to Christmas. It’s a season to prepare for a celebration: God took on human flesh, declaring Love to this world by identifying with us. We ARE “in this together” which is a marvellous truth (especially when compared with the rather devalued meaning intended by many politicians when they say that!).

Odd contrast: the hope of Light and Life comes just when the days get short and the cold gnaws our bones. Everything is saying “time to moan, let’s endure it as best we can” and the shout comes from the heralding Angels – “Prepare the Way of the Lord!”

It’s often a dull season for photography. Apart from dramatic skies and snowy wastes, most other subjects are lurking out of sight in the warm- and the motivation of the photographer has gone into hibernation anyway.

So a memory will have to suffice. Imagine a pleasant late April day, perhaps early May; the bluebells are cheerily dancing the blues, and the bracken begins to unfurl hairy fronds. Look down at the signs of Spring: and a heart-shape presents itself as fronds entwine. Glossy fresh greens and gentle browns mark out the hope of new life.

I love Christmas. Not the busy shops, nor the crazy adverts, not even the mass attempt to double our waistlines in a week! Although that has some attractions, if we’re honest.

Christmas means HOPE. We can all do with some of that!

God, the Giver and Source of Life and Love, sings a song to make the stars shine brighter. In the darkened streets of Bethlehem, an Eternal Light begins to glow.

And every year, however dreadful, has a heartfelt message. “There’s ALWAYS hope.”

“For a child has been born—for us! the gift of a son—for us! He’ll take over the running of the world. His names will be: Amazing Counsellor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness.” Isaiah 9:6 (Message Translation)

Just what- or rather, whom- we need. There’s always hope. May Advent this year put the glow of hope in your soul- for God has set His heart on YOU.

Climbing Slowly- Look, See, Pray

The Alps near Sheffau, Austria

My imagination was fired up the first time I read “Lord of the Rings” when Gandalf and Bilbo talked about “the Road that goes ever on” leading to adventures and tall Mountains. I was 13. The tallest “mountains” I’d ever seen up till then were the South Downs in Sussex- but the story lit a fire in my heart. I so wanted to see mountains, REAL mountains… and follow the Road to somewhere…

Fast forward twenty years or so. My mountains grew taller: Dartmoor, the Lake District, North Wales, Scotland. Then the Alps. I was in dreamland! Real mountains!

Part of my heart is attached to Austria. My boot-prints marked the tracks and high Alpine meadows, and my eyes became dizzily drunk on the heady wine of pure air above the treeline.

Wise walkers don’t rush up mountains. Pace after pace, keeping on keeping on, with the expectation of a hot meal to sharpen the flagging spirits. Mountains are unforgiving of the careless, and unrelenting in their challenges. But the rewards are (almost) out of this world. Spectacular views, forests and flowers, snow and storms- sun and wind to redden the cheeks and give a healthy glow.

The longer the route, the more deliberate the planning; and the demands of exertion to your limits mean that success is valued highly! “We did it!”

I was reading an article today which referred to Maximus the Confessor, who helped the Church in the sixth century to work out the implications of Christian faith. You may never have heard of Max… but he is remembered for his careful and determined efforts to help Christ-followers become as much like Jesus as possible. His writings and his personal experiences weren’t full of miracles and spectacular change: Maximus spoke of the gradual, incremental changes that culminate in “the slow transformation of our own human existence into the image of the divine.” It is a process, a constant practice, a determined “following” on the Way of Christ- until we arrive.

It’s a long, slow, often difficult Road of adventure over the mountains: glorious views and visions, obstacles overcome, storms survived, weary feet and a heart on fire with the desire to reach the glorious end; lived with a passionate and thankful sense of worship and a knowledge of being Loved and sustained on the long Road.

If I had a fiver for every shortcut I’ve tried, every blind alley explored… and a tenner for every time I fell and skinned my knees and cut my hands and got up again… I’d be a millionaire. But I still wouldn’t be as richly rewarded as I am in looking back at the incremental changes in my character and faith, slowly adding to my understanding of God, building a Road towards the Mountain-Maker.

John the Disciple was known for love. A long life of following Jesus, of being His friend, and of teaching others what he had gained. He wrote these lovely words about climbing slowly alongside Jesus, and gradually becoming LIKE Him. With all the miles and mysteries, the promise is clear: God WILL transform us utterly. The Road is long- but we WILL meet Jesus, and know Him as we are known. Read this- then keep climbing slowly and growing steadily in hope.

1 John 3:2-3 (New Living Translation)
Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure.

A Road that goes ever on.

Headlong – Look, See, Pray

Headlong

Icy

Clean

I am the stream

Scouring the rocks

Cutting a path

Through the Arches of Time

Hemmed in

Icy

Strong

I am the Love

That purifies daily

Bridging the gap

Between mountain and sea

Hasty

Icy

Refreshing

I am the Craftsman

Sculpting all beauty

Making a signpost

To the Heavenly Face

Hopeful

Alive

Graceful

God planned my course

God counts my years

God gives us Life

© Richard Starling 2021

October Roses- Look, See, Pray

Fewer rosebuds in the garden now October is here… the ones that survive the winds and rain are even more precious. Here is “Double Delight” which is blessed with a rich fragrance and creamy petals flushed with sumptuous raspberry pink. Gorgeous. Worth its place in any garden, in my opinion anyway.

Autumn chills and weather presage the coming of winter, when colour in the garden is rare and hard to find. Roses sometimes keep flowering into December- a lovely gift.

I have built two gardens from builder’s mudheaps- and restored two neglected gardens. Roses have ALWAYS been the plants that I use as the centrepieces of the borders. Despite the pain of thorns and the months of dormancy where roses are just aggressive sticks, I pay the price for their majestic colour, shape and scent willingly. The eruption of the new buds fills me with joy.

There are one or two strange gardeners who don’t like roses. Perhaps I’m biased, but I think they’re a lost cause!

The objects of our ambitions can take many forms. Some collect stamps, others strive for profit. Others are never satisfied, and cannot find contentment. What we choose to search for, to value, defines who we are. Jesus addressed this problem of identity and ambition, essentially by asking “Who are you?” and “What is your life purpose?”

Two questions that continue to nag at the heart of a society built on the acquisition of wealth and power… and with many people who want more than they have. So, rich or poor, powerful or not- what do we really want?

It seems people choosing wisely are as rare as rosebuds.

Jesus never said “Come to Me, and I will give you stress.” The offer He makes is “rest” – peace in a reconciled relationship with God.

How much do you think that’s worth?