Difference- Look, See, Pray

One white petal. It’s the only white petal on this dahlia in three years. Does it spoil the flower? Not in my eyes. I love the warm apricot and crimson shades of this dahlia: but the white stands out symbolising purity and innocence, and with a touch of sadness.

Appropriate for today.

As I looked at this beautiful flower through the camera lens, the difference of the one petal made me think about the tragedy of history and the need for peace and justice. So often we allow “differences” to become excuses. They’re different- so we can insult, exploit, fight, kill… Then those who have suffered hurt and loss seek vengeance… and the cycle of hatred fans flames again.

I am meditating on three Bible passages. The first is a “9:11” …. describing life for humans.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 (TNIV)
I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.

The second is taken from Matthew’s Gospel. These verses (from a King James Bible) were found at Ground Zero, and the page had somehow been fused to the rubble.

Matthew 5:38-39 (TNIV)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

My third verse is from the ancient prophecy of Micah, pointing out that our hope of true justice and peace is found in God, not the wisdom and folly of humanity. I have chosen the “Message” translation of this verse, because it catches the mood using very down-to-earth modern phrases.

Micah 4:3 (Message)
He’ll establish justice in the rabble of nations and settle disputes in faraway places. They’ll trade in their swords for shovels, their spears for rakes and hoes. Nations will quit fighting each other, quit learning how to kill one another.

A prayer:
Lord God, may that Day come soon. And until then, help all of us to be peacemakers, healers, forgivers, carers, and devoted to Love and Justice for all. Amen.

A Dandelion Prayer- Look, See, Pray

I may never know what comes from a conversation, an act of kindness, a moment of generosity- or indeed from an angry word or unjust action. All I can do is choose how to live, how to speak- and to aim high.

Dandelions are a good example of seed sowing. The golden yellow flower cheers the heart, feeds the bees, and the plant is edible and nutritious. The wind takes the seed wherever it blows. In the right place, a valuable new plant grows. In the wrong place (my flower beds, for example!) it can be a wretched nuisance.

These seeds are fascinating- like tiny parachutes, the seed floats and is taken off to begin a new possibility. Once detached from the puffball, anything can happen.

A Dandelion Prayer:

Lord God, help my life to be a source of goodness and hope: may my deep roots grow in Your good earth. Then may justice, compassion, and kindness be the seeds I send into the world.

May my words be gracious, my attitudes positive, and my gratitude be contagious. Let my face know smiles and laughter, and share joy freely.

Help me keep my negative thoughts quarantined; my selfish impulses on a short leash; and please guard against any careless weeds or habits I may start growing that hurt or offend others.

May I remember that others aren’t worthless if they believe differently, or follow a path I might think is stupid. There but for God’s grace… and I must remember I have my own catalogue of poor choices and ridiculous actions, and therefore have little licence to judge!

O Lord, only You are Perfect: neither I nor those I meet today can ever proudly boast perfection- only Your salvation.

Lord, it is said that a weed is simply a plant in the wrong place. Please help my life sow good seeds that will grow a harvest of Love and Joy in the places and people You direct me to.

Finally, Lord, it is a fact that life is fragile and precious. Please use me to affirm the worth and beauty of the Life that You have shared with those I shall engage with this week. Wherever the Breath of Your Spirit blows the seeds You have given- may there be peace, wholeness, and Eternal Hope.

In the Name above all other names, please let my life sow the Love of Christ. Amen.


	

Woodland Prayer- Look, See, Pray

The peace of the green trees be ours
and calm our thoughts tonight;
The song of Creation bring harmony
and help our minds to rest.

Industrious insects garden our world,
as birds bring an offering of music;
the streams bring the waters of life,
and a woodland symphony is born!

Creatures large and small have their being
in this cathedral canopied by trees.
O Lord most High, O Lord most holy,
thank you for this place.

The joy of blue skies overwhelms us!
Softness of raindrops caress our heads.
Clouds of gentleness soothe our days,
and may wholeness be our portion.

(c) Richard Starling, 2021.

It’s raining again- Look, See, Pray

“It’s raining again” sang Supertramp, “you know it’s hard to pretend…”

A broken love, disappointment, bereavement, ruined plans, a pandemic… We know the feeling. The rain just goes on and on, and we try put a brave face on things even as we are dying inside.

A wise man once commented “There are no strong people.”

You may not agree completely, but anybody and everybody can be broken. As I write, there are brave people in Afghanistan feeling utterly desperate. Another earthquake hit Haiti last week, wreaking havoc once more. War in Yemen. Discarded people in Britain living on the streets, families using foodbanks to survive (in one of the wealthiest nations in the world!). Millions of impoverished ordinary human beings in every continent trodden down into the mud as the rains keep pouring down.

Even Jesus said “The poor will always be with you.” Sounds grim.

Every person’s own suffering is uniquely valid and equally heartrending: and ours is the first generation to experience at second-hand the tragedies of the whole world in real time. Super-fast communication means the “NEWS” lashes the ears and eyes of the planet within moments of disaster. The pace of information overload has increased exponentially over the last 100 years- we are so soaked in it that we have a phrase, “compassion fatigue,” to express our diminishing responses and our helplessness. Many do try to help, and astonishing generosity makes a difference sometimes: but against that, others with wealth and influence take a selfish view and wash their hands of the problems.

The rain just goes on and on, and we try put a brave face on things even as the world dies.

“The rain falls upon the just
And also on the unjust fellas
But mostly it falls upon the just
Cause the unjust
have the just’s umbrellas.”   
      ~ Cormac McCarthy

But we are not without hope. The consistent message of the Bible is that God cares for all, has a special care for the poor and suffering, and WILL establish justice- with or without our help.

Pretending not to be affected by trouble is simply unreal and ultimately unsuccessful. Trying to solve all the world’s problems is beyond our scope- the best we can do is make a difference to this one… and the next one… and so on. My responsibility- and yours- must be to do what we can; and to be as trustingly obedient to God as we can. The Book of Revelation has a lovely phrase about special trees in a time yet to come: “and the leaves are for the healing of the nations.”

To love God, and to love God’s ways, is the only hope-filled life choice we can make: to love Him, and work with Him, and to recognise the scope of Jesus as Saviour, Redeemer, and Lord of all Creation that yearns to be reconciled- even as we run away from the Reconciler! When the rains fall, and fall, and fall… it’s time to fall on our knees and cry out to God for help. He will answer… even though we live through the cloudburst. There is hope.

This is what God is like- in a verse taken from a song of faith, thousands of years old. Hold on to this description of the Just and Holy God Eternal- which was lived out in the flesh by Jesus Christ.

Psalm 113:7 (NIV)
“He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap…”

Shortcuts? Look, See, Pray

“Bowerman’s Nose, on Dartmoor. “Pastels on canvas” finish

Shortcuts are very tempting.

I used to dabble with painting before I became more interested in photography. Mostly, I used oil paint, pastels, or acrylics. Every now and then, I get the urge to “be arty.”

Now, though, I have a computer and I can take shortcuts. Instead of hours of work, constant practice, and achieving mastery of the medium- I can click a mouse button and select “Artistic Filters.”

Here is a picture I “art-ed” tonight.

One version is pretending a pastels finish on “canvas.” Another is a “watercolour” version; and the third is a JPG version of the original photo taken on real film about 20 years ago.

Watercolours… sort of…
Scan of the original photo taken on 6×4 film, Mamiya 645 camera

If I’m honest, none of them do justice to the film… or to the glorious Dartmoor landscape (Bowerman’s Nose, an ancient natural rock formation allegedly looking like a head with a prominent nose).

Shortcuts- they don’t always work out so well.

Growing as a Christian disciple is often long, slow, and painstaking. There are books and talks in plenty offering “perfection in 5 easy steps” – but none of them actually work out. Shortcuts can’t replace the time taken to develop relationship, to learn to depend on God, to discover deep truths from the Scriptures and Holy Spirit. Acquiring skills such as learning to pray, or to offer worship, or the arts of community (getting on with other believers without screaming too often!).

None of my pictures are a worthy substitute for visiting Dartmoor, walking through heather, listening to the wind hissing over the gorse… Sun on the face, and rain down the neck!

They may strike you as nice, possibly inspirational, or naff.

Bowerman’s Nose in the “I-can-touch-the-granite” sense is the best way to experience its reality.

I am learning- still learning after 66 years- that the authentic is worth seeking out. Taking time, making the journey, travelling with reliable guides and map: this is the best way, if not the SatNav approach of “Finding the Fastest Route.” To reach Bowerman’s Nose, you will explore Devon lanes, walk over wild and rugged land, and experience Dartmoor weather. Blisters are likely.

Jesus invites me to walk with Him; to be an apprentice, learning to imitate His life, accepting His authority, and choosing to obey. Shortcuts, though tempting, have sold me short.

Back, then, to the invitation of Jesus: Matthew 11:29 (Message) “Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.”

Greedy or Grateful? Look, See, Pray

Blue tit: parent and chick

Greedy or grateful? I’ve been editing some photos from the garden when we first put out some feeders.

This one makes me chuckle- the poor parent, looking worn out and scruffy, confronted by a very dapper fledgling in smart new plumage. The lunge and the recoil…

Is the adult saying “What’s the magic word? Cheep ‘please’ or you go hungry!”

OR perhaps it’s mealworms with menaces… “Look, you feeble old tit, hand over the dinner OR ELSE! I’ll put you in an aviary!”

Naturally, this musing is simply proof of my own decline into old age. I’m imagining things. At least my imagination still works. I can finally say I qualify for OAP discounts – and I have my Bus Pass to prove it.

If you will work with my whimsy, these birds could pose a question worth a little time. The choice of “greedy or grateful” cuts both ways. The parent could keep all the food and neglect Junior. Junior could grab everything available… or be grateful for the parent’s care. The young are often thoughtless and demanding, focussed on the need to grow and become strong- survival instinct, if you like. Parents shift to a different survival mode- ensuring the species continues, at the cost of their own comfort.

We can go further: what about God’s provision for us? Are we grateful? Do we remember that He took OUR survival seriously, and sent Jesus to embrace life and death for our benefit?

A final thought: assuming “gratitude” holds a place in our hearts, today is a very good day to remember and bless all those who have been parents/guardians, guides, tutors, providers and educators. Looking back over 66 years there are a HOST of people who have helped and encouraged me: and I’m grateful. There are also some I have been able to help, and it’s been a privilege beyond words.

God who watches over even the sparrows (& blue tits!) is watching over us today… and giving freely of love and grace. May we all be blessed in discovering and remembering such a love as this!

“My Father is the gardener” – Look, See, Pray

“My Father is the gardener” – Learning to Prune. Another life lesson from my garden…

Like many gardeners, I love roses with a passion. One word guaranteed to make a novice quail is PRUNING. Where to cut, when, how much, what type of rose, what if I get it wrong… Yet roses are generally quite tough plants, and can forgive errors. However, being informed and wise in pruning certainly gives the best results.

I think the variety may be ”Queen Elizabeth” but that’s a bit of a guess! They had been rather neglected- left to please themselves- and had become leggy and woody. In fact, they looked as if they might pop their clogs. Black spot and stem damage from wind rock meant they looked tired, and frankly, scruffy.

Last autumn I decided to be bold. Pruning secateurs plus some crossed fingers- and some rose fertiliser.

After three flowers last summer- strong new shoots, and clusters of beautiful pink roses (if slightly battered by the rain last week). Success! And the next pruning will clear the other old woody stems to make room for new growth. I’m a happy lil’ gardener.

Pruning seems counter-intuitive. Why cut back the little growth that was surviving?  Roses, like disciples, need to be trimmed, smartened up, given opportunities for new shoots and the joy of beauty.  If you asked the rose bush, it might well say “Stop! Don’t cut me- leave me alone, I’m OK really.”  It would be fibbing. For the gardener truly knows best.  Jesus used the concept of pruning to explain how our Father helps and trains us: John 15:1-2 (NLT)  “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.”

Gardens left untrained quickly become wild and only the strongest plants will thrive- by dominating the rest.

A heartfelt prayer: Lord, You know me best of all, and You want the best for me and the maximum fruitfulness from my life. Help me to trust that the pruning that disciples me will be a blessing to all the others who will appreciate MY roses! Please prune my life into peace and health, for You ARE my Gardener. Amen.

Bold Singer- Look, See, Pray

Sing boldly, sweet singer!
Let music ripple on the breeze
as smooth as cream,
as clear as crystal,
sweeter than nectar.

Elegant chorister, soloist divine!
Charm the sunlight with purity,
singing praise for the new day,
pitch perfect, delicious balm,
Nature's remedy for night's sorrow.

Though mouths be silent,
the blackbird sings!
Though heart be darkened,
creation's harmony persists
raising hope in the Light.

This new day is freshly made-
gifted with song and silence,
stirring my spirit,
my Father's blessing
to all who will listen- and love.

(c) Richard Starling 2021

A psalm worth reflecting upon today: Psalm 59:16-17

But as for me, I shall sing of Your strength;
Yes, I shall joyfully sing of Your lovingkindness in the morning,
For You have been my stronghold
And a refuge in the day of my distress.
O my strength, I will sing praises to You;
For God is my stronghold, the God who shows me lovingkindness.

Let no evil- Look, See, Pray

A peacefully sleeping Red Panda at the Cotswold Wildlife CentreO to sleep so soundly!

I had a really peculiar dream two nights ago. It involved places I lived in, but weirdly distorted… with odd shops and even more odd shopkeepers. Nothing was right! Even worse, it kept resetting… every time I got near the end of a street in Fishersgate, I dropped back to “Go” and started the journey again!

Very disturbing and frustrating until I eventually woke up and realised it was “just” a dream. Five o’clock in the morning is NOT my best waking up moment…

The details have faded now (thankfully). I’m not looking for an explanation or interpretation. Whatever poked my subconscious can go away, please.

Sleep is our refuge from the stresses and business of life. It is also the time we are most vulnerable because we are unaware. Time for a night-prayer, I think…





Heavenly Father, Protect us in our daily lives, night and day.

Let no evil draw near as we sleep.

Allow our minds to ramble safely,

processing events and memories

that may be significant- and, in peace,

may Holy Spirit life

renew and restore soul and body.

May the love and strength of Christ build up resources of grace

to equip us for the day to come.

Until that morning Glory greets

our awaking in our Eternal Home,

fill us with joy and love so we become signposts

pointing to the Lord and Saviour of all.

In the lovely Name of Jesus

we ask this bedtime boon.

Amen.

(c) Richard Starling, 2021

	

Planting in hope- Look, See, Pray

From the Garden- Lesson 2: Patience! Planting in hope… the basic optimism of gardeners.

This is a strange time in the garden- flowering is almost at its peak, but the cold wet Spring meant the wallflowers lasted longer than usual. I steeled myself to the horrid task of uprooting flowers that have given a long and bright burst of colour (I struggle with the ruthlessness of it, but it has to be done.)

Hidden in the mass of leaves and seed-heads were the rather scrawny anemones which I planted in hope several months ago. Anemone corms aren’t very impressive. Small, wrinkly, dark, dead-looking! On the packing was a glorious picture of floral splendour, but I hadn’t seen any signs of life yet. I wasn’t even sure they were where I thought I’d planted them.

Optimism is the belief that hope is worth it.  Hope is the expectation that what you plant is what you get later on.

Patience is the boring bit where you hold on to hope. My first gardening as a small boy was radishes and lettuce. Mum gave me a small bit of ground for “MY garden” and I eagerly did exactly what I was told. Next day, apparently, I was back on the plot digging them up to see if they were growing yet! Patience has improved… in fact, gardening is a brilliant way to learn patience.

Anyway, patience is paying off. The front garden now has anemones in whites, blues, and red.

In theory, they should be a good habit now. Having been planted, survived, and blooming they are perennials which should grow every year at the end of Spring.  Just like discipleship: the good habits and practices of prayer, worship, Bible reading, shared life and mission become a GOOD habit, a fact of life.

Paul writes about patience, endurance and hope-  it might be a letter about gardening!

Romans 5:3-6 (NLT) We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.