Why Do I Climb? – Look, See, Pray

It’s a photo of an old smuggler’s route in the Pyrenees. A steep climb up from the valley leading to a magnificent view. Stunning!

Much social energy and ambition is poured into “being a success” or attaining “celebrity status.” It is the equivalent of climbing a mountain to be seen, to be able to boast. As David McCullough Jr pointed out, it is better to “Climb mountains, not so the world can see you, but so you can see the world.”

(By the way, getting to the mountain top by using the chairlift doesn’t entitle a name change to “Edmund Hillary”…)

Standing over such a panorama as this changes our inner perspective. At least, it should do (in my opinion, anyway!) because the rugged vast beauty suggests that we are not the centre of the universe. Even if we’d like to be.

One of the deep lessons of spending thirty years as a pastor has come from standing on the highest available hills overlooking the communities I served- and simply seeing the whole area spread out. Being there and consciously praying for the people was both humbling and inspirational. Doing this “mountain climbing” at twilight was especially moving. Lighted windows and lit street lamps twinkled below whilst the stars above began to sparkle, signposts of the immensity of the Galaxy. The number of lights spoke of the number of people- and the importance of reaching every person with the Light of the World. Jesus said “Go into ALL the world…”

I don’t think the church or community knew I was up there- and I’m glad. I wasn’t there to be seen. I was there to recognise the scale of God’s everlasting loving-kindness to everyone I could see, know, or imagine- and pray. My one regret is that I might have done this more often.

In one of the temptations of Jesus, the devil took Jesus to the highest point and offered Him “all of this- if you will worship me.”

Jesus answered him, “It is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’” (See Luke 4)

The highest places and attainments in this world are dangerous indeed- they can make us proud unless they keep us humble. It’s always worth asking ourselves how we’re responding to the “mountains” in our world. Jesus came to serve.

Lord of the Slugs- Look, See, Pray

You know how people post their best photos, successes, nicest meals, etc.? Look at this one! Wow!

This is my prized delphinium. Slugs have pitilessly invaded and savagely chomped everything green- despite sharp grit and coffee grounds (both ignored) and then beer traps (which thinned out the numbers).

An evil slug mastermind must be plotting harm… but I am determined not to lose! I have just dug out and re-potted the delphinium’s skeleton (roots and stumpy bits) and put it well away from the Sluglord. And the nematodes are coming… the cavalry that routs slugs, rooting them out…

My delphinium still looks rather tragic. Will it survive?

God specialises in restoration, renewal, and re-creation. It is the message of salvation and reconciliation that runs through the Bible. The prophet Joel gave a promise of hope:

“So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the crawling locust, the consuming locust, and the chewing locust…” Joel 2 v25 (just substitute “slug” for “locust” !!!)

Shortly after in this passage Joel gives the promise that was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost:

“And it shall come to pass afterward

That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh;

Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

Your old men shall dream dreams,

Your young men shall see visions.

And also on My menservants and on My maidservants

I will pour out My Spirit in those days.”

Joel 2 v28-29.

Of course, what Joel said is about far more important things than one slug-shredded delphinium! But the principle is sound. Even when years have been wasted or ruined (pandemic, anyone?) or our lives have been torn and turned upside down- God can restore and heal.

I’d love to see my delphinium flower tall in “Midnight Blue” and even though it seems to taste like honey to slugs, I will NOT stop trying.

And though there are sad memories, failures and pain from the past, I will NOT stop trying to growing a beautiful life that shows godly beauty: because I believe God can do wonderful things despite locusts, slugs, and my weaknesses and limitations.

Please, Heavenly Father, pour out your Spirit today!

What’s the Catch? Look, See, Pray

This guy is a serious fisherman: he is passionate about his sport, has invested in the correct equipment, and studied his subject.

On top of that, he has the patience necessary to get results.

I find it fascinating that Jesus chose fishermen to be the first disciples. Used to a tough life, skilled at their trade, and unafraid of patient hard work- and obviously with an open heart, willing to listen. They hoped that God might do a new thing in their day, and encountering Jesus changed their lives forever.

Others listened to Jesus- up to the point where “following” was proving difficult, disappointing, and dangerous. Jesus even asked if his closest followers wanted to leave as well.

Peter answered on their behalf: “Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69 The Message Translation)

Having such commitment and determination meant that those disciples would live at great risk- for a great vision, a purpose worthy of life and death. Many of them died violently.

Such obedient faith is much more than believing some facts about Jesus. It is be willing to go to great lengths in the expectation of world-transforming results: putting trust in the words of real eternal life spoken by Christ. Jesus went to a terrible execution so that all things might be reconciled to God. Another of the extraordinary followers of Jesus described Him in these terms:

“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1 v17-20)

So, what is there that I will believe in, put into practice, and expect God to do through my life and passionate discipleship? The way I answer that question sums up what I might achieve through the presence and power of Jesus!

Blow That Bugle! – Look, See, Pray

Not every plant in the garden has to be dramatic. “Celebrity” plants are undoubtedly spectacular.

Some garden inhabitants are quite unassuming little things that fill a valuable place. Meet “Ajuga reptans,” often known as Common Bugle. (Photo)

Ajuga likes shady spots. The exact places where the expensive and flashy don’t thrive. Ajuga is great at crowding out nasty weeds that might otherwise take over and invade. Looked at closely, the bright blue flowers and multi-coloured foliage are actually rather attractive.

It isn’t high maintenance: and it’s cheap to buy! Just £1 each from my local greengrocer who sells a nice selection of bedding plants and ground cover.

Actually, Ajuga sounds ideal for problem free gardening!

I’ve known people in churches who are like this. They don’t blow their own bugle, they just get on with being useful, kind, and good to know. Never hogging the limelight, not anxious or ambitious, just genuine servant-hearted blessings.

Thank God for such plants AND such people. They are worthy of loving appreciation- and even if they’re not “celebrities” in this life, they will be richly rewarded by the Lord who sees even the small things born from a loving soul. I started thinking about the ones who do or have blessed me… and I am so, so grateful for them. Names are pouring out of my memory now- friends, colleagues, family- and there are others I can’t put names and faces too. Yet I know they have supported, encouraged, served, and been a HUGE blessing from their quiet and shady corners.

Some of them would be embarrassed to think I might include them on my “loving list” because they honestly don’t think they’ve done much. But God knows. One day perhaps I will be able to thank them properly!

“God resists the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.”

Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time. Cast all your care upon Him, because He cares for you. – 1 Peter 5 v5-7

Look, a Snake! – Look, See, Pray

Beware the dread Timber Snake of Slindon Woods… lurking in nettles and fresh leaves, the mossy-headed monster speaks with forked twig.

Please, someone else, tell me you can see the snake! Or is my fevered imagination leading me astray? I’m certain there are at least two people who say “Snake!”

Me and whoever shoved the sticks right up “hiss” nose.

Human eyes and brain need to interpret the light if we are to see. Naturally enough, our brains are tuned to recognise potential dangers (like snakes) and so translate a passing likeness into a “threat” to evaluate. A similar process helps us to recognise faces of people we know and distinguish them from strangers.

Even more wonderfully, sometimes our minds are stirred into action because sight is turned into vision- a revelation of possibilities and opportunities.

Walking through the woods today with bluebells tinkling and the birds offering a Spring Chorale, the rest of the world receded and a sense of peaceful calm descended. It seemed as though we were in an open-air theatre for a matinee performance of new life.

Fallen trees are part of this cycle of renewal. Mosses, fungi and insects find homes, the old wood gradually breaks down and nourishes the next generation. The majestic columns enter into a new birth, and new saplings and fresh leaves are the flags that wave in celebration of life- and its Creator.

Some people talk of a “forest bath” which refreshes our spirits in the green and tender beauty. More than that: I believe it becomes a “forest baptism” when our hearts and spirits see the fingerprint of God. We are immersed in the holy Presence who is Love.

Romans 1:20 reads, “For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities- his eternal power and divine nature- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” Paul, here, is verifying the fact that we can see God’s hand in all of creation- if we have eyes willing to see.

Good Friday? Look, See, Pray

Even the elements of Creation paused in horror. How could this be happening? What measure of Love accepts crucifixion to redeem a lost world? What kind of people smash rough nails through ankles and hands, offer vinegar and insults, and mock the dying Man?

Darkness came upon the Land. Earth quaked. The dead, disturbed, disturbed the city.

A hardened executioner, expert in Death, trembled and murmured “Surely this was the Son of God.” So the skies grieved and the angels recoiled and the laughter of Hell reached a crescendo- then stopped, dead.

This corpse is like no other. Hell has no power; Greatest of Accusers, Satan, falls silent, dreading the next Battle. Already the smoky deceit of the Liar is being challenged, confronted by Christ. “Send guards to the tomb! Seal the stone, the biggest of Stones, over a gaping grave…” Jesus is dead… yet He refuses to bow down to the Deathmaster.

Let Caiaphas sweat, and Pilate dream nightmares of an Innocent, let Herod the Fox hear the Hounds of Heaven scenting the quarry. Even an Emperor, far off in Rome, cannot command the Christ. Though Jesus gave up his spirit, his story does not finish on the Hill of the Skull.

“For on the Third Day…” said Jesus, “I will Rise.”

The strong, loyal one- Look, See, Pray

I like to think I’d stay strong like Simon Peter. You know, recognising Jesus as God’s Messiah, walking on water, all that strong man stuff. A person of faith, bold- even brash- courage, answering questions and sticking with my excellent reasons for following Jesus. Who else has words of eternal life?

Hang on, though. It’s Thursday in a couple of hours: and that’s when it all went wrong…

Jesus mentioned being betrayed: well, it won’t be by Peter, that’s as sure as anything! I’m the strong, loyal one. But… didn’t Jesus say “Before the cockerel crows, Peter, you will deny Me three times.” Surely not, Lord, that’s as unlikely as Judas selling you out to the authorities! Must have misheard.

Peter, now in a cold sweat. So much happening, a cold garden, noisy soldiers, a slashing sword, and Jesus led away… “What are they doing to Him in there? I can’t go until I know… perhaps they’ll let Jesus go after all. Hot fire. I’ll just wait here. No, I don’t want to talk, just shut up. Leave me to my thoughts. Jesus? Did I hear His name? They’re talking about Him – Who me? NO, not me. Yes, the accent gives me away, I’m Galilean. No, I don’t know him. Will you just shut UP… For heaven’s sake… I never EVER knew Jesus!”

Talking Cockerel, stage left. “Pardon? O Peter, did you really… did you say you never knew him? Look at those flames, Peter. Burning like the garbage in Gehenna… bet you feel rubbish now, Peter. Hey, where are you going?”

Bystanders round the fire. “Yeah, he was a Galilean, I bet he did know him in there. Not got the guts to hang around, though! Not much of a friend… Where’s the Galilee man gone to, d’you think? That one in there, that Jesus, I heard he came to town like a king on a donkey… I heard him speaking once, seemed rather wonderful, but going against the establishment like that… wouldn’t want to be where he’s going…”

So I wonder. Would I have stayed by the fire? Would I have said “OH yes, I know Jesus, let I tell you what He’s like…”

Or just another betrayer doing a runner? Lord Jesus, forgive the feebleness of my heart… just as you forgave Peter…

Living Joy- Look, See, Pray

Grey, dull miserable… that’s just the BBC. Outside: add drizzling, damp, cool, windy weather. What a start to Wednesday.

Then the display of orchids on my windowsill changed the way I perceived the day. A white one with yellow and pink; yellow and purple with two sprays of blooms; and the purple and white-spotted one. Immediately, my mind shifted gear: and I wrote a few lines trying to capture in words what I was feeling. The shape and colour fascinated and inspired heart and soul: such exotic beauty lifted my spirits and restored joy to life. So, go find a flower!

The WAY we see is as important as WHAT we see. Our perception of life is determined by our focus and choices.

“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.” Henri Nouwen

So my view of today has been shaped by the vivid creative imagination of God, who thought about orchids- and I’m deeply grateful for living joy!

Fair beyond telling, 
shaped within dreams, 
imagination takes form: 
richly laid colour, 
subtle echoes of an angel’s wing-beats, 
the exotic orchid  
painted in living joy.             © Richard Starling 2022

Even better than any poem, and even more wonderful than an orchid, as we get closer to Good Friday & Easter Sunday we can focus on Jesus. The story of his final journey is full of rich teaching and memorable moments and records his determination to fulfil his mission, whatever the personal cost. Reading this story will change the way we see life- because Jesus changed the ending. How then shall we live?

“Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”   

Hebrews 12v2

New Words, Ancient Truth- Look, See, Pray

The most familiar words can become filled with greater meaning when they are placed in a new setting. As I looked at the photo taken in a remote fjord in Norway, the morning tranquility reminded me of that well-known Psalm “The Lord is my Shepherd.” So as I thought about the ancient truth of David’s song of faith, I tried to put it in my own words- not to “improve” it (!) but to make it personal. Perhaps my effort will bring ancient Truth alive through these new words.

There’s a path through the mountains
On the way to a promised land,
That leads beside the green fields
Where still waters quench my thirst.

God is my Guide, my provider for need.
God renews my life from within,
And teaches the way  for my steps,
So my soul honours His Name.

In desolate days not even Death cuts me off,
For God walks beside me and evil must flee.
He saves me, comforts and challenges me;
His love disciples my heart and mind.

The banquet of blessing scorns my foes,
Signs of Your grace overflow!
All You provide is good beyond measure,
To be near to You, the greatest of treasure.

From setting out, to coming home
I live in Your Presence, forever in peace.



Psalm 23-ish © Richard Starling, 2022

Who’s Watching? – Look, See, Pray

That feeling of being watched… slightly creepy, feeling judged…

As I photographed busily the usual cute furry creatures in the wildlife park, that prickling sensation in the back of my neck made me look round…

A parade of eagle owls unblinkingly watching me. Possibly admiring the technique, maybe checking the camera gear was suitably serious-looking… perhaps working out how many portions I would make for lunch!

A “parliament” of owls. That’s the collective noun – a more accurate term might have to be found to reflect current times. A society of overwatch and data-harvesting, the tendency of keyboard warriors to viciously condemn victims, the gutter press and paparazzi: and where Parliament used to be a symbol of stability and good governance it is too often reduced to buffoonery.

Perhaps a “critique” of Owls? Cos everyone’s a critic.

It’s easy to become paranoid about being watched. Those owls have SHARP talons and a viciously efficient razor-beak; and many folks who watch critically are too intent on finding a mistake and so miss the true message!

“They” are watching. Don’t panic- I’m not advocating the “conspiracy theory” response to life. Yes, our lives are too easily an open book- but if we whinge about our “privacy right” why are we all on Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat/Instagram/etc etc???

Mind you, the things that Amazon and Facebook reckon I’m interested in suggest the intelligence of these watchers is low. As a wise person said, it’s not necessary to assume malignant intent behind an action when it’s easily explained by incompetence!

Good news: there IS a Watcher. And a GOOD one. God watches over us; and longs to bring reconciliation and hope. Since God knows us from the inside out, He knows us well- and longs to help us become the best fulfilment of His holy purpose.

This Watcher is not there as our critic or an angry judge. He is the Lord of Love and justice, mercy and peace- everything, in fact, that we long for.

So when you feel “watched” and worried- reflect on these words that remind us that God is still in charge. Psalm 103 v19-22:

“The LORD has established His throne in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all. Praise the LORD, you His angels, you mighty ones who do His bidding, who obey His word. Praise the LORD, all His heavenly hosts, you His servants who do His will. Praise the LORD, all His works. Everywhere in His dominion. Praise the LORD, my soul.”