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.”

Elephants and a Bridge- Look, See, Pray

What am I photographing? Is it a famous Dartmoor bridge? Perhaps it’s the River Dart. Yes …. but… No. It’s the Sun.

“Eh?” I hear. “But the sun isn’t in the picture!”

Correct- but the Sun is too bright, too big, too awesome. No earth-bound camera can cope with that challenge. All we can do is record the effect of the Sun, showing how the light changes our perception of the world. Reflected by the stone and water inside the arch, light glows out. We just KNOW that if we looked through the arch, we’d see the sun (or be dazzled by it, anyway!).

When we say “What is God like?” we’re doing theology. Our problem is trying to explain and describe the gloriously indescribable- we lack the words to speak, and the mindpower to comprehend. Our best insight comes from the self-revelation of God’s true essence in the person of Jesus Christ. (Since it’s Lent, it is a great time to think about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.)

Imagine describing an elephant to someone who has never seen one. Ask two friends to draw a picture, one starting from above, and the second person working from the feet upwards.

The picture might look like the one below: and it’s a brain teaser! How many legs does an elephant have? Of course you know… but the drawing may make you rather confused.

Now, the conclusion of Christian theologians is that Jesus is the Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Three-in-One. How will you explain the Trinity? Tricky… our best efforts are incomplete. How do you “explain” Jesus as both human and divine? With difficulty. If you start from the top, the God-ness of Jesus, you will understand quite a lot. If you start from below, the human-ness of Jesus you will understand a whole lot more.

But the picture isn’t perfect, or without mystery. It’s like the “legs of an elephant” picture… and it’s the best we can do. So if someone understands a bit differently, perhaps it’s just because they’re seeing from a different angle. We can still be friends, and still follow the path of Jesus.

Jesus said “I am the Light of the world.” All our theology, and all our debates, are trying to describe the effect of Light in a world in shadow. Our God is too big, too strong and too Mighty to capture in our “brain-cam.”

He is LIGHT. In a dark time in a suffering world, it’s the Light that keeps us alive, still hoping, still trusting, May the Light shine on you! 

Shared Wisdom- Look, See, Pray

Seeking wisdom in the Tree Cathedral, near Whipsnade.

The Tree Cathedral is a wonderful place to visit, pray, and think. I used to live fairly close, and always found it a sympathetic destination! When there, I could walk among the trees and it seemed as if God were easier to reach. Did you know that trees are mentioned in the Bible more than any living thing other than God and people? There’s a tree on the first page of Genesis, the first Psalm, the first page of the New Testament, and the last page of Revelation. 

In the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, a collection of proverbs describe wisdom as a character, as if wisdom is really a person rather just “knowing stuff.” Encyclopaedias are stuffed with facts, but until facts are learned and put into practice the book isn’t much use to anyone.

“Wisdom is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed” Proverbs 3:18

“Do you lack wisdom? Ask for it!” said James (see James 1 v5). If our natural inclination is to “go it alone” there is no-one to check with- “Am I right or wrong?” Gaining wisdom is best done as a shared quest, life done as a rhythm of personal thinking and shared conversation. Part of my calling as a pastor and theologian has been to explore, learn, and develop in both knowledge and wisdom: and it has always been a journey with companions (and done in the context of including God and the scriptures along the way).

Then my vocation is to share what I have discovered, and try to do so in words that make things clearer and easier to grasp for other people.

This morning I came across a blog post that succeeds in that aim: so I’m sharing a snippet of wisdom! Question: how well do you understand the Holy Trinity? “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is the form of words we use to describe God. But what does that mean?

Mike Higton, theologian at the University of Durham, set himself the challenge of explaining the Holy Trinity in words of one syllable:

“So there is God, the one to whom we pray, the one to whom we look, to whom we call out, the one who made the world and who loves all that has been made. And then there is God by our side, God once more the one with whom we pray; God in the life of this man who shares our life, this man who lives the life of God by our side, and who pours out his life in love for us. And then there is God in our hearts, God in our guts, God one more time, the stream in which we dip our toes, the stream in which we long to swim, the stream which filled the Son and can fill us too, and bear us in love back to our source.

Link to the full blog post: click here: The Trinity explained in words of one syllable | Psephizo

God: the to whom, and with whom, who is also within. You may or may not feel qualified to write a book of theology now, but I suspect you have a better appreciation of the Holy Trinity- and you have gained wisdom as a result. Wisdom shared by Mike Higton, me, and now you. And next time someone asks us “What about the Trinity, then?” we may feel wise enough to pass on what we have discovered.

Wisdom is for sharing! Here’s a prayer you may like to use:

O Lord our God,
help us to know you when we pray.
Help us to know you as the one to whom we pray;
help us to know you as the one with whom we pray;
help us to know you as the one in whom we pray.
Help us to know you, and to love you,
and to live our lives for you,
one God in three,
Holy Trinity. Amen.

‘Ware Wolves! Look, See, Pray

Wolves… hunters, scavengers, feared – not one of the cuddly creatures! Their eerie howling strikes terror (and that’s just when they’re in a zoo!). Imagine being lost in the forest, or being stranded in the wild country, and hearing the howling gradually getter louder…

They hunt with great stamina. Wolves can run and run, wearing down the energy and the hope of their prey, finally moving in for the kill as their weakened target reaches the point of collapse.

In these photos of wolves in captivity, even they have scavengers! Crows and magpies harry the wolves, darting in with sharp beaks to grab a share.

We use the wolf as a metaphor when someone is in trouble… “the wolves are closing in…”

Society has invented our own form of wolf: the gaping jaws of the paparazzi lurking with cameras poised, the character assassins digging dirt and flinging it until mud sticks. Social media is abused so it can become an abuser of the innocent: though sometimes the dogged determination of investigators reveals the hidden secrets of the dirty and/or mighty. Once a story- true or false- hits the internet, it builds its own momentum and the fangs drip poison. Perhaps we should call this the “Daily Gnasher”? The scavengers are always lurking.

Position, status, or leadership is often sought for its benefits and advantages, or for the power to dominate, or even for the chance to bring good change. Motives can be mixed. The one guarantee is that people in the public eye are under constant scrutiny, and the wolves WILL gather, sniffing around, and will pounce at signs of weakness or failure.

This is why power has to be matched with accountability, privilege with responsibility, and ambition with character.

Pretence will be gnawed away, sooner or later, and the bare bones will be on display. This is why the Bible insists that CHARACTER is the necessary quality for leadership. “A good leader motivates, doesn’t mislead, doesn’t exploit. God cares about honesty in the workplace: your business is HIS business.” (Proverbs 16 v10-11)

There is an old saying that we should only elect leaders who DON’T want the job.

Of course, we all, everyone of us, make mistakes and get things wrong. But there is a huge difference between a good person failing and a wrong-hearted person savaging justice and truth. Now, I’m a dog person who loves and admires their loyalty and companionship. A mistreated or badly trained dog is bad news! The similarity of dog and wolf ought to warn us.

Bad leadership breeds unfairness, injustice. The gap between rich and poor gets bigger. A sad truth- Jesus foretold “the poor will be with you always.” (Mark 14 v7) Bad leaders sometimes start as well-meaning people who rot as greed or pride blights them.

Rot “at the top” will ruin a society, a business, an institution, a life.

The people of God are called to be watchers on the walls, heralds who warn of danger, and prophets who speak truth to power/wealth. When we hear the wolves howling, it’s time to speak up. AND it’s time for us to pray. Today, we could pray for Ukraine; pray for political leaders; pray about poverty and sickness and injustice, against racism and extremism and hate.

I think I hear carrion crows… and the wolves are howling… Stand up, speak up, and pray.

Joy in January? Look, See, Pray

January… the crown of winter’s dreary days! It’s not all bad: but it is notoriously fickle and grey. Short daylight hours, cold, damp, and it’s time to get rid of the excess pounds after the Christmas extravagances. A true recipe for joyful living.

Can we renew our joy? Perhaps this picture can help.I’ve never seen a dull red tulip. None in the garden, so I’ve hunted this out from my photo albums. Gloriously scarlet, then an even brighter yellow inside. Just for added impact, starkly geometrical black stamens contrast violently in alien shapes. Looking more closely, speckles of black pollen give a mute testimony to the visit of an early bee. Do these specks spoil the bloom, or remind us of life and growth to come? Can you spot the aphid? I only noticed this today. A pest, or another little miracle of life?

A principle of photography is that the actual subject should be the most important thing in the photo. A common mistake is to make the subject too small. It is lost in the background, and the picture loses impact.

Getting in close makes a difference. This picture shouts “I’m a tulip!” in dramatic tones. It would be easy to walk past the flower beds, camera at head-height, and take a picture of some “nice tulips.” Beauty turned into a vague generalisation!

When we need to renew the sense of joy, the experience of lightness of spirit and being at peace in our world, a great way to start is to pay attention to the small things, the details, the abundance of life all round us. Attention given leads to awareness, appreciation, and a deep gratitude for the richness that is here.

This works in relationships: when did you last tell your partner or friend or colleague that you appreciate what they have done and what they add to your life?

It’s a vital part of faith, too. When you see that first snowdrop, or the daffs beginning to emerge, will you SAY “thank you” to God? Not just thinking it, but putting gratitude into spoken words- it releases a powerful surge of joy.

God is present in our world: and has compassionate love for His creation. Acknowledging His love and majesty “tunes us in” to the love-song God sings over us. In knowing this, we find renewed joy. It could start with a tulip… or with the hope of a psalm:

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

The Holy Bible: Today’s New International Version. (Ps 139:7–12). (2005). Zondervan.