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!

“Dear Diary…” – Look, See, Pray

Monday- the day after Resurrection Day. I wonder if John, the “beloved disciple”, started making notes? If John kept a diary…….

Dear Diary,
I’m so happy I could burst! I hardly dared believe at first. Those dear, dear women, so excited, so scared, so certain. Then so out of breath, racing Peter to go and see for myself. I just couldn’t bring myself to go in. What if he was still there, dead? What if he wasn’t?

Not sure which thought was scarier!

Somehow, deep down, I knew it… and when Peter went in, his cry of astonishment gave me the courage to see for myself. Just the linens there, Jesus was gone. Such a strange day- what are you supposed to do when the dead friend isn’t there? Go for breakfast? Find some wine? Hide?

Mary of Magdala told us “I have SEEN the Lord!” She said Jesus spoke to her, I must check with her later exactly what Jesus talked about. Someone should write it all down so we don’t forget.

Anyway, we got together last night, the gang and me. Except Judas, of course… and Thomas. Don’t remember why Thomas was missing, I must ask him. He really missed out! We were all pretty jittery- so we locked ourselves in. Don’t suppose that would have stopped the guards if they turned up, but it felt a bit reassuring.

HE came in. No warning, door still locked, and looked at us- bunch of frightened rabbits that we were!

“Peace be with you.”

Immediately, the fear melted into the most wonderful joyous amazement! Laugh, cry, shout, fall down- I can’t really remember what I did- but it was glorious. The Marys all cried- there were tears of joy in my eyes, I can tell you. His Mum, well, sort of MY mother now, that’s going to take some getting used to! But I will look after her, I will, it’s the last thing Jesus asked of me. But if he’s alive again, erm, a dead man walking, no, no, a LIVE man talking! What happens next?

“Receive the Holy Spirit…”

I have a funny feeling feeling we haven’t heard the last of this.

How to explain this? A dead man taken down from that awful, hideous cross, hurriedly buried in solid rock, guards and all… now we don’t have a tomb to grieve at, the Cross is empty, and Jesus saying and doing stuff I can’t get my head round yet. How can I tell Thomas all this- what’s he going to think? Will he even believe us? I wish Jesus could have told him personally, Thomas will probably think we’re hysterical and imagining things.

Well, diary of mine, it’s getting late. I don’t know if I’ll get off to sleep tonight, but the oil in the lamp is pretty low, I’ve got some more, but I’m too tired.

It’s the eyes, you know. Those lovely eyes that look right inside and burn with a holy love. He looked right at me… he smiled, a little smile just for me, and he knew EVERYTHING I was thinking and feeling, and the sorrow and joy in his heart made me shiver and go hot all at once. All my worst fears, and my biggest hopes, they were reflected in his eyes. You know, it’s going to be alright.

There will be some shocked faces in Jerusalem in the morning. Will anyone believe us? “I have come that you may have life, REAL life…” That quote will be useful, I know it will. Real life.

REAL life. That’ll get me going in the morning. I wonder if Jesus will be back tomorrow… or the day after?

REAL… real life. It’s REAL.

(c) Richard Starling, Easter Monday 2021

Sonrise – Look, See, Pray

Some things speak for themselves. Few people seriously doubt that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure- the evidence is too compelling. The crunch question has always been this: is Jesus still dead?

The closest eyewitnesses tell their stories plainly. Millions of lives have been changed for the better through faith in the one who came back from the dead. Those who had most to gain by disproving the Resurrection never succeeded. His body was gone from the tomb- and many witnesses risked their lives by testifying to meeting Jesus. And, honestly, who will die for a lie?

If Jesus has been raised from death, then at the very least he deserves a sincere investigation of the evidence.

I wish that Christians had always lived up to their beliefs and principles. But that is rather the point: we aren’t perfect- but we can be forgiven. We can live with a worthy purpose and a renewed love. We can live in healing communities of learning and accepting each other, and we can share in the task of mercy and rescue of the whole human race. Ultimately it isn’t about us. It is about Him.

So, is Jesus still dead?

Your answer to that question makes all the difference in the world.

Peachy! – Look, See, Pray

Peaches on sale at a Fruit Market, near the Spain/Andorra border

A rare treat as a child- tinned peaches with evaporated milk. Delicious!

Discovering FRESH peaches was a whole new experience. I still like the tinned ones, but fresh… yes please.

The market we visited on holiday was an adventure. Being on the border of Spain and Andorra, the stalls sold everything- and especially the stuff that was hard to get in one or the other place. A glorified swapping system! You bring your cloth to market, we’ll bring our fruit.

I was enchanted by fruit displays: the colour and size of these peaches was irresistible to my camera. The lens was drooling. The light contrast was tricky, very bright in the sun and very dark indoors; but the colours glowed and with a little bit of tidying up in the photo editor, a picture fit for a banquet. Can you (almost) taste the tangy sweetness of the juices as your teeth sink into that yellow-pink fruit?

That’s the test. It’s not just how good something looks. Does the taste match the promise? Bright colours and perfect shapes don’t guarantee anything. You have to put it to the test.

Jesus used this principle to help us distinguish between good and bad in people. Outward appearances, though important, are secondary. Carly Simon summed it up perfectly in the hit song “You’re so Vain” (if you’re too young to know Carly Simon, look her up on YouTube and have a listen.)

But it isn’t just about testing others. How do I measure up? When Jesus looks me in the eye, will that a positive or very embarrassing moment??? Hey, Lord- help me become sweet fruit, not sourplease!

Matthew 7:16-23 (NLT)
You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions. “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter.  On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws’.”

Final thought: the riper and sweeter the fruit, the more easily it is bruised. Perhaps when we are full of the love and grace of Jesus, we need to expect a bit of mistreatment. Love makes itself vulnerable for the sake of the ones who are loved. That’s exactly what Jesus did for us- and that’s good to remember during Lent. It will soon be Good Friday.

Daddy’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow- Look, See, Pray

Young black-headed gulls at Whipsnade Zoo

A song on the radio… remember transistor radios?

"Daddy's takin' us
to the zoo tomorrow.
And we can stay all day!"

Peter, Paul & Mary singing about going to the zoo must have imprinted on my psyche at a very young age. Part of my love for animals goes back as early as I can remember- and I still love going to the zoo today.

These young seagulls reminded me of the song as they clustered together on the fencing of the penguin pool at Whipsnade. Lined up in an orderly fashion, watching the penguins play. Just as noisy as a school trip on an outing!

What they were really waiting for was feeding time. As the keepers dished out the fish, the penguins grabbed most of it very quickly- but scraps and overlooked fish were grabbed gleefully by gulls.

You might be thinking “SEA gulls? So far inland?”

Indeed, not a family outing so much as an adaptation to human impact. Intensive agriculture, excess rubbish and waste littered across Britain- an invitation to the wild creatures to invade our space even as we squeeze then out of theirs.

Climate change and habitat loss are huge issues. Conservation of species at risk of extinction is the biggest reason zoos still exist.

According to Genesis, the human race has a responsibility to be good stewards of the world we live in. We aren’t very good at it, and since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution we have made a mess of unimaginable proportions and caused injustice galore through overexploiting the Earth’s resources and people.

What has this to do with prayer? Everything!

Of all people, it should be Christians who are concerned about conservation and care for our planet. Our Father has given care of Creation to His kids. Issues of justice, fair trade, and climate change should be on our minds, on our lips, and in our prayers.

Wouldn’t it be dreadful if the ONLY place to see animals and birds was a zoo?

The thing about stewards is they have to give an account of that stewardship. Our prayers and actions matter- as does indifference. “Hey, Dad, you know that lovely planet you gave us? We broke it! What do we do now for food, water, and air….?”

One day Jesus will return to Earth. The rate we are burning our bridges, it might have to be soon- and before we are ready.