What on earth is that?

We place a lot of trust in our eyes. It can be disturbing when we see something for the first time, or from an unexpected angle. It can also be refreshing when something familiar is seen in a new way.

Today’s photo. What on earth is that?

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I took the picture, and I had to look twice! Is it reflecting on water, or glass? It seems so flat yet I find it intriguing. If you haven’t worked it out yet, it is a purple clematis flower viewed edge-on. The spiky bits in the middle are where all the pollinating goes on; they are in sharp focus, but the petals are not. The background is entirely unfocused.

Time seems in greater supply for me. Well, as a retired minister, I have greater freedom to choose how I use my time. I do the things I want to instead of the things everybody else wants me to. I have time to read, to think, to write. It’s a luxury- I am very grateful.

Looking at God… working on theology (which is knowledge about God). Taking what we do know, and recognising the mysteries- the things we don’t know or can’t understand or explain- is like painting a picture. We have a palette of colours, life is our canvas, and we put down a “picture” of God. It’s partly revelation, and partly exploration. Our picture is a representation of God, not a “photograph” of Him.

How comfortable are you with your picture of God? Does He look the same as always? As children, we see stuff simply. Our squiggles and blotches are OBVIOUSLY what we say they are! I painted it, of course it’s my cat and my house. Can’t you see that? You are silly!

Our willingness to explore new perspectives is vital if we are to grow in understanding and application of faith in our life. Seeing God in our life through troubles or illness; unexpected encounters and joyful moments. Questions answered, and prayers NOT answered.

Are we willing to take the risk of looking harder, in more detail, from a new angle? One thing I am sure of: the better view I have of Jesus, the better I am able to know God and His ways. In John’s Gospel, Chapter 4, Jesus has a fascination conversation with a woman who thinks she knows some things about God. She gets to know a lot more! Then she tells her neighbours, and they are very surprised- but decide to check Jesus out.

John 4:42 Then they said to the woman, “Now we believe, not just because of what you told us, but because we have heard him ourselves. Now we know that he is indeed the Saviour of the world.”

So perhaps the question to leave here is one about Jesus. “WHO on earth is that?” There just may be some new angles, new questions, and more truth to discover. Have fun looking.

 

(c) 2018 Richard Starling

 

Multi-tasking… and Pentecost

Buzz word multi-tasking. (Ewe can do it, Mum! Quickest conversion of grass to milk by any sheep, ever. Poor ewe.)

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It’s a multi-tasking weekend. Collected relative from hospital, home for observation after she had dental surgery under general anaesthetic. We both survived, so far. Went to Sainsburys… strangely quiet. Cup Final day and a wedding happening somewhere.

Finished preparing sermon for preaching tomorrow morning- feeling thoughtful about Paul’s words to the Philippians. Fixed Flymo. Used Flymo. Trimmed strimmer. Used strimmer. Chomped salad. Wished for steak and kidney pudding.

Commented on Royal wedding sermon, wondered if I could just play that at church… Made FB comments on a couple of good shaggy dog jokes I posted earlier… wondered if Thor, the neighbour’s cat, liked said jokes. He put nose in the air and went home for tea.

Wonder how the disciples of Jesus felt on the day before Pentecost. I expect they were busy, multi-tasking, doing ordinary life stuff and hiding away in case Pilate or Caiaphas got stroppy.

They agreed to meet for worship, doing the waiting Jesus had insisted on… “I wonder if anything special will happen at church, Thomas?” … “Doubt it, Andrew…”

What if Holy Spirit power turns up… Life might get exciting. “Doubt it,” said Thomas.

A prayer for Pentecost:

Almighty and Sovereign God, we need some Holy Spirit presence and power if we are to do what Jesus told us to do. Churches all round the world will be celebrating Pentecost.

Please be there in our worship; equip us to serve, to preach, to love, to witness, to care, to pray & praise. Fill us with the unimaginable gift of grace, just as you did with Peter, Thomas and the rest. Give us boldness as Your Spirit fills us, so the world may hear Good News in their own language and culture. By Your power, touch the heart of everyone who heard Bishop Michael Curry proclaim Love- let Love live in them, transform them, and transform us too.

Lord, renew our minds by Your Spirit. Help us to think, act, and speak like Jesus. Help to respond as living sacrifices, giving up our multi-tasking lives to be single-minded, holy, and full of compassion and grace. May Pentecost power and presence make us anew- to live for Your glory, with eternal hope and confident assurance, even when the doubts creep in.

Jesus, send us in the power of Your Spirit, to be Good News in the world so that Your Kingdom comes, just as You promised.
Amen.

 

Photo & words (c) Richard Starling

Feed me!

Performing for food- is it limited to the zoo and Sea Life?

Imagine you are standing at the front of a church. Everybody is looking at you and expecting a brilliant, brief, barnstorming message that will equip and excite them- until next time. Fancy that for pressure?

Jesus fed thousands with bread and a few fish – a miracle. He also taught listeners with loving and challenging words – and some lives changed. Another miracle.

What do seals and sea-lions have to do with Christians?

Sea-mammals are meant to catch their own food in the wild. Performing in captivity is not the best life purpose, even if it may be the most appropriate circumstance for some animals.  I don’t know how to write the noise sea-lions make. “Arf! Urf! Woofff!” maybe?

The cry “Feed me!” can be heard loud and long from the church’s big mouth, and the “keeper” has to dig down deep to find enough fish fillet to fill it. Funnily enough, Christians are also supposed to feed themselves. Jesus described himself as the Bread of Life. The Bible is complimented as having a sweet taste. Coming to church is not a performance for preacher or congregation. Worship is a gift, a sacrifice we offer to God; and it is the way of learning together how we can best love God and follow in His ways.

When I became a pastor & preacher, I didn’t volunteer to keep a zoo. I followed a call to teach, train and equip the saints for service. And I thank God for the many marvellous saints I’ve met, and for the quirky ones, the normal ones, and even the awkward squad who have helped me grow up (sometimes the hard way). It’s been a GOOD life.

I am preaching on Sunday about being Hope-phil and Thought-phil ( from a chunk of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, hence the -phil bit).  Hope-philly people will come eager to be fed by God, not expecting the preacher to do it all for them- for then we will truly worship together. I’ll do my bit in preparing, hope-philly God will feed my soul so there is “food on the table” to share. Just don’t be fish-ious if you don’t like the dinner.

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“Oi! Bung us a fish!”

Question: if you find yourself saying “Feed me!” or “I don’t get fed in this church” will you go and take a long, hard look in the mirror? There you will see the person who is responsible for your feeding, growing, and growing up. God is on our side. Church is there to help. Preachers try their hardest. Bibles are most helpful when open and read. God even gives us His Spirit to re-make from the inside out.  “Feed me!” is something we should say to the Lord Himself… and probably a bit more politely.

How hungry are you? What are YOU going to do about it? May God feed us all so we’re fit for purpose and can get on with our jobs.

 

 

Be Gentle

If only “gentleness” could be taken for granted. Headlines rarely mention being gentle. The “go-getters” and the back-stabbers, the driven and ambitious ones are held out as role models. Unspectacular lives lived by ordinary people are not deemed newsworthy. That’s wrong. Celebrity envy is a symptom of an aggressive materialism. I think we are missing a trick…

Some good friends visited at the weekend, and gave us a beautiful potted geranium.

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I went into the garden this afternoon to photograph a hairy caterpillar I’d seen. By the time I grabbed my camera and arrived at its last location, the caterpillar had disappeared. So, rather than waste opportunities, I went looking and found the geranium: spectacular colour and delicate form, with a collection of new blooms breaking out of protective covers and beginning to flourish. So delicate, so easily bruised.

Using a macro lens, I very gently set up the picture. Fresh new life. Worthy of notice, even of contemplation. Here ’tis.Be gentle 007Garden 100518

Working very close to the buds risks damage to them if the photographer hurries or pushes in too carelessly.

Precision focussing is essential to capture the ruffled head of the subject.  Doing the job properly, the flower is preserved for posterity AND has a destiny of sheer beauty as it opens to let the deep inner colour dazzle the world. I rather think that God expects us to be gentle with creation. I also suspect He is gentle with us, encouraging growth so we display beauty to the world.

These flowers are not celebrities, fashionable or trendy. But they’re GORGEOUS.

Few of us are celebrities. We do have beauty to share- if others treat us gently, with dignity, respect and compassion. Imagine the impact on the world if we were all treated with gentleness- and extended gentleness to others in our turn.

Contemplate this geranium’s splendour and potential. Be aware of the Giver of beauty. Consider the attitude we show to others. Someone once said the measure of a person is how they treat those who are not wealthy, influential or powerful. St Paul told his protege Titus to teach believers to live peaceably and respectfully:  Titus 3:1-2 
Remind the believers to submit to the government and its officers. They should be obedient, always ready to do what is good. They must not slander anyone and must avoid quarreling. Instead, they should be gentle and show true humility to everyone.

Be gentle. Offer those small acts of generosity and kindness that allow others to blossom. Be willing to be different, to stand out from the crowd, to go against the harsh shallowness of a selfish culture. Be gentle. Be… like Jesus.

Photographs & text (c) Richard Starling, 2018

Tears in a bottle

“You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.”  Psalm 56:8 (NLT)

When I was about six or seven, I came home from school to proudly present Mum with a string bag. It was made of a loose-weave cloth that I had carefully “decorated” with stitched patterns. I didn’t think much about it, except when I needed string and that’s where it was kept, hanging up in a cupboard.

Mum still had that bag when I was in my late 40’s.

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Mum valued that old bag much more than it was worth. But she was strangely proud of all her family- her heart was big enough for kids, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She loved us all and had a store of “treasures.”

There was a bigger store of treasures that she she kept in her heart. Memories of triumphs, tragedies, laughter and tears. Mum carried them all, offering support, a listening ear, and cake when we came home.

The verse from Psalm 56 first came to my attention at a “Mainstream” conference where about 300 pastors and church workers gathered to worship and be encouraged. Early January in Derbyshire… exhausted by the Christmas workloads… wanting to hear from God and in some cases desperately needing to know God loved and accepted us.

We were praying at the end of an evening session. Words of encouragement, challenge and comfort were being shared as the Spirit prompted us. Words came into my mind: “God cares for you, every tear is precious, and He collects them in a bottle.” I didn’t realise they were from the Bible- but they made an impact on me, reflecting my spiritual need at that quite difficult time in my ministry. The words spoke to my heart, and maybe to others as well.  I couldn’t forget them, and later tried to find if anything like that was in Scripture. Computers have uses- and my Bible program obligingly pointed out Psalm 56.

Lamenting his sufferings, the psalmist cries to God for mercy and justice- and finds comfort and restored hope in discovering that the Lord cares deeply- He stores our tears as precious as jewels. We bring our “stringbag” best efforts, and Almighty God KEEPS them as things of huge value.

Wolf lamb 012whipsnade1212Quite a number of family and friends have been having rough times. Two have been brought to my attention today, several last week, and still others recently. I am finding hope in this psalm-verse: God IS with us and cares for us. Sufferings are not a cause for shame or despair. Even though we may not understand why pain comes, or why some prayers don’t get answered in the way we hope, our heavenly Father treats those tears as precious. Jesus knew the pain of loss- He wept. The Spirit within us groans- Romans 8 v26-27 tells us “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”

Think on this- God loves us MORE THAN a parent loves a child. OUR Father in heaven stores up treasures. Remember- diamonds are basically carbon that has been put under intense pressure. Maybe our sufferings produce valuables too. I think that Father has lots of stringbags and bottles stored in His House- because He is Love, ultimate Love. Some are yours, and some are mine. I’m glad.

You renew the face of the Earth

“When you give your breath, life is created, and you renew the face of the earth.” – Psalm 104:30 (NLT)

new shoots 044Slindon 280418Over thirty years ago, the “Great Storm” carved its way across southern England leaving a broad scar on the wooded landscape as ancient trees uprooted and crashed.

Today I went on a bluebell hunt in Slindon woods and, as well as some lovely bluebells, I photographed these fresh shoots. They were springing up from the moss-draped carcass of one of the forest giants wrecked in the storm. The new leaves are fresh, soft, and perfectly shaped. Life has been renewed.

Mysteries exist- and our understanding of how our planet works is patchy. If there is a Creator, whatever processes were used, life itself stands as a true wonder. The Christian Bible, with its roots far back in beginning of civilisation, does not explain everything. The ancient writings describe, question, and marvel: and consistently affirm that God is the Giver of Life.

The quoted verse from the book of Psalms offers tremendous hope and confidence. God created, breathing Life so life exists; and God is constantly renewing Life, healing the scars of history’s storms and making new life.

These fresh leaves and the bluebells shown below could be described as the fingerprints of God on His artwork. Reflect on this: the stump has lessons to teach, the renewed shoots testify to the power of Life, and the bluebells suggest that such beauty could only come from a Creator with a beautiful heart. Think on those things, and as you do that- you will be praying and maybe praising. And I surely hope you will be grateful for the gift. Peace and grace be with you!

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Wolf offers peace…

Wolves have a fearsome reputation. This one was “safe” although not tame. He was part of a small pack at the zoo, and in the large enclosure it wasn’t hard to see the hunter in his genes. We leave wolves alone, and don’t provoke them. In the right setting they are magnificent. In the wrong one they are deadly.

I selected this photo to celebrate the better news from Korea. Two national leaders have met, negotiated, and offered hope of a reduction of the nuclear threat.

Wolf lamb 012whipsnade1212Pray that this new state of political agreement will last, and become stronger. Isaiah, that great spokesman of hope, foretold the day when the predators would be at peace with their normal prey. Part of the purpose of God is to bring reconciliation through Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God and Prince of Peace.

Naturally enough, we worry and pray when international tensions are high. We should also pray with thanksgiving at every small step towards peace and the dawn of the Kingdom of God.

There is more hope today than there was yesterday. Give thanks and commit to being a peacemaker. Our prayers make a difference!