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.”

“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.

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.

Deep Secrets from the garden- Look, See, Pray

“So long ago the Garden…” sang Larry Norman, when I was young, and referencing the oldest tale in the Bible. God created a Garden as the perfect home for humanity. I’ve just come in from my garden which is teaching me many lessons about living as a follower of Jesus Christ.

This rose has a history for me. I bought “Deep Secret” for my Mum: it’s almost-black buds open into a lovely deep velvety red rose with a glorious fragrance. She loved it!  It came from Woolworths (another name from the far past). Mum kept it and cared for it, and repaid the love by growing the rosebud I wore in my lapel on my wedding day. She also grew a cutting for me, so my garden in Derbyshire had a “Deep Secret.”

“Deep Secret” also featured in my new-build garden in Devon; and in the garden in Luton. Now back in Sussex, I went searching the garden centres until I found it again. This photo is from my front rose-bed today.

Retirement is offering me, for the first time ever, the opportunity to garden without needing to grab time from pressing agendas and obligations. My garden is a place to think, and to wholesomely sweat as I wage war against weeds and bugs; but above all a haven of peace and beauty. Having a garden gives responsibilities to mow the lawn, weed out the wrong plants, and share the blessing of beauty with the neighbours.

So I’m going to do a little series of reflections on gardens, me, and God.

The Garden of Eden is a story of love and tragedy. A perfect place, a new creation, a perfect relationship: all too quickly scarred and spoilt, and a breakdown of trust. What’s the “Deep Secret” of Eden?  Love doesn’t give up. God provides for human needs, and puts into motion the secret plan prepared before Time began.  See 2 Timothy 1:9  “For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time- to show us his grace through Christ Jesus.”

Life changes when we discover this precious “Deep Secret.” There’s a heavenly fragrance to enjoy…

I choose my song- Look, See, Pray

I’ve just been sitting in my back garden, enjoying the sunshine. The road was quite noisy… we’re near enough to hear it. A TV was broadcasting to the neighbourhood- they obviously wanted to share their favourite programme with us all.

To be honest, I felt rather disappointed. To much noise.

Then a robin and a blackbird started a duet (or possibly a bragging rights competition?). Suddenly I had a choice. What would I choose to listen to?

No contest. Birdsong won, claws down.

The other noises became “wallpaper” which I could ignore.

Seems to me that this is exactly what prayerful contemplation should be. Choosing to become aware, choosing which Voice to heed, with which song to harmonise.

God is present. I am choosing awareness, choosing to listen, instead of rushing into a barrage of words thrown in God’s Face. Instead of allowing the traffic or TV or lawnmower to distract and distort my attention, I am fixing my attention on the constant song that has been part of my life: the gentle melody that awakens the heart.

“My” robin just came down to investigate my offering of mealworms. A fearless little eye sparkled with life and light. Like a tiny angel, “my” robin sang of the praise of the Lord. My heart responded.

If a robin, a thrush, a blackbird or wren can sing my heart alive, just imagine what a choir of heavenly angels can do.

Psalm 34:1-9

“I will praise the LORD at all times. I will constantly speak his praises. I will boast only in the LORD; let all who are helpless take heart. Come, let us tell of the LORD’s greatness; let us exalt his name together. I prayed to the LORD, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears. Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces. In my desperation I prayed, and the LORD listened; he saved me from all my troubles. For the angel of the LORD is a guard; he surrounds and defends all who fear him. Taste and see that the LORD is good. Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him! Fear the LORD, you his godly people, for those who reverence him will have all they need.”

Worth waiting for… Look, See, Pray

Waiting is worthwhile.

On Saturday, I posted a photo of this iris tightly furled and reflected on the value of patience.

Today it is fully open- and I love it.

Christian faith is built on the faithful and loving nature of God. In this age of “urgency” and hurry, it is important to remember that even though we have to wait for the final revelation of the perfect Kingdom of God, and may have to struggle with issues that take time to resolve, we CAN trust Him.

Here’s a truth to meditate on today: Hebrews 10:23 (Message)

“Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. He always keeps his word.”

I’m impatient- Look, See, Pray

This the first plant I added to our garden when we moved here. When it unfurls, an iris of glorious purple and white stands like a flag at the beginning of the path to the front door. Gorgeous!

My problem is this: the flowers only last for a short time, just a couple of weeks or so. Then I spent the next 50 weeks impatiently waiting for the next flowering. Gardeners get used to this trial of patience- we try to plant enough different varieties to give the garden something beautiful for as many weeks as we can.

In the winter we wait for snowdrops, crocus and daffodil; then the tulips and flowering cherry, the violas put up a grand fight against dullness, and gradually green leaves fill the trees and shrubs. Today I saw the first rosebuds are beginning to form. I’m anxiously waiting for the green shoots of bulbs and seeds, and the sprouting of some perennials who are hugging their mulch duvet and refusing to pop up. Don’t blame them really, I’ve felt the same this week! Digging up seeds to see if they have started growing is always a disaster. Trying to unfurl the iris before it is ready will be ruinous. Nothing for it but to learn patience.

The waiting is the hardest part of the journey.

So much of living involves waiting. We wait for the vaccines so life can be more normal. We wait for shops to re-open. I’m waiting for the dentist to call back to make an appointment to fix my damaged crown. Then of course it will be waiting in the dentist’s chair, the place where every minute lasts a month…

“Wait.”

Surely God would never say that? Well, if ever you are at a loose end waiting for something or someone- do a bible study on “waiting.” You may be surprised.

One specific example: we are in that period between Easter and Pentecost. Jesus, alive and resurrected, gives instructions to the disciples. Obviously, it was important to get going immediately with the task of proclaiming good news to the WHOLE WORLD. Delays? To be avoided at all costs! EXCEPT for the waiting…

Luke 24:49 (Message Translation)
“What comes next is very important: I am sending what my Father promised to you, so stay here in the city until he arrives, until you’re equipped with power from on high.”

Really? Wait??? Ah… there’s a reason. God’s promise will be fulfilled, and at just the right time, Holy Spirit power will come to change their lives and equip them for the hazardous future.

I’m impatient. Not as impatient as I was- but not as patient as I should be. Yet.

So then, Lord,

make me more patient

or at least, help me to fuss less and trust more.

I’m sure I could sort the world out by Christmas-

but then my previous attempts haven’t been

exactly successful.

So perhaps I will yield my will to Your Will,

my talents to your service,

and seek the Presence of Holy Spirit life within me.

Help me to rest in Your Love,

work in Your strength,

worship in Spirit and Truth,

and let You be God.

I’ll try not to nag, or scheme for my plans,

but You’ll need to help this impatient man.

A Prayer of the Impatient Heart

(c) 2021, Richard Starling, words and photograph

So Easy? Look, See, Pray

Astrantia & Lavender

When looking at the end result, gardening is obviously so easy. This bed of astrantia and lavender just grew! You wish.

Behind every floral display, bag of apples, or immaculate lawn there is a story involving hours of effort and a measure of skill. Today I spent three hours weeding. It’s done, and so am I. My back aches, my knees creak, and the invading brambles have left little thorny souvenirs in my fingers.

The only evidence is the bare soil between the tidier plants. All the sweat and tear-drops have been swallowed by the thirsty soil.

I love gardening- hands in the soil, choosing plants, sowing seed, enjoying the colours and the birdsong. I feel part of Creation in a deeper way. And, often, I feel connected to God. There have been times over the years when knotty issues have been thought & prayed through over a trowel. Looking at the favourite roses, or photographing a choice specimen of rich colour and form, is in a way an act of praise and thanksgiving.

Gardening has parallels to the devotional life: it requires obedience, wisdom, stamina, faith, and discipline. In the same way, building a strong spirituality requires effort, willingness, and humility. Now, the New Testament uses the example of athletes racing as an illustration of discipleship. Runners don’t win accidentally, as a general rule! Personally, running races is a distant memory- but gardening is a current passion.

So then, a gardener’s instruction to Richard of Aldwick: “Dig the soil well, and weed it thoroughly, not letting the brambles take over. Choose plants wisely, and nourish them well- water the soil as necessary, and prune poor growth and dead wood. Wait patiently as God gives growth; enjoy sunshine and gentle rain, enjoy birdsong and give thanks at all times. Watch out for slugs and weevils, and remember to share the joy of your garden with all who pass by.”

God likes gardens- He first gave us one in Eden, and calls us now to be good stewards of this wonderful world. There’s a task for a lifetime!