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.
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.”
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.
“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 fellasBut 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…”
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.
January. 31 weeks days in January and it already seems longer. I’m getting square eyes- not from watching the TV, but gazing out of the window hoping for sunshine or snow. Don’t mind which! There have been too many grey rainy days- if 2021 had a warranty, I’d send it back to be adjusted.
There are good moments, of course. This photo reminded me of those crisp frosty days when icy layers encase the grass and twigs, painting the landscape in white lace. This particular photograph catches the precise time when sunlight touches the ice and brings it to thaw point: opaque crystals melt into pure globes that fill with light. Grasses flex themselves and as the droplets fall the magic of the moment is gone. But the hope lingers on…
Every winter comes to a thaw. Even in Narnia, the Wicked Witch could not overcome the Spring!
Be encouraged! This winter will pass. Right now, we can look for the thaw and for the floodwaters to drain. Tiny snowdrops make a delicate prayer of thanks. As days pass by, more daffodils are daring to show off “sunshine on a stick” as the sluggard tulips pull the duvet up for “just a few minutes” or perhaps weeks!
Passing through difficult times is always a trial. Keeping our eyes open to notice the thaw points is medicine for the soul. Take time to appreciate them- if we gloss over them, and dash onwards in drab, soul poverty will strike.
Difficult times can become an invitation to seek God. Many who have chosen this path can echo the words of the Psalmist- and have found a “thaw point” in their deepest heart-yearnings.
“Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found. Surely when the mighty waters rise, they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.” (Psalm 32 v6-7)
It’s officially “Blue Monday.” Apparently this is the point in the year when everyone feels at their worst. There is no doubt that short daylight hours, Christmas credit card bills, coronavirus and 101 other things can combine into a swamp of depression and angst. We’ve all “got the blues.”
I see it as my job today to counterbalance the angst! Blue is beautiful, calming, inspiring and comforting. Blue is what we remember from holidays- I’m sure that when I was a kid, ALL school holidays were sunny– and blue is the colour we wear as part of the crowd as we strut our stuff in our blue jeans. Blue can be lovely.
My picture comes from Pagham Harbour, taken just after we moved back to Sussex. Look at that sky! I found this place where the RSPB has a bird-watching hide; as I arrived I noticed this cluster of people coming back from a bench on the shingle. They knew the tide was coming in- I didn’t. So I boldly went off to the left, found the hide- and hid. A kingfisher flashed past (never seen it since!) and I watched the waders and geese patrol the calm blue waters under fluffy well-behaved clouds. Heavenly.
On leaving the hide… I’d been cut off! The tide was very high, and the path was underwater. My inner “Corporal Jones” leapt into action- “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!”
No other route back to the car. I had to wait hours or take the plunge. The water came half-way up my shins, was pleasantly cool, and was no peril. It became part of my memory, and whenever I see this photo I think “blue-but happy” thoughts. A place of beauty, plus a kingfisher sighting. Brilliant!
It is easy to be overcome by our circumstances, and we wouldn’t be human if our moods and thought processes weren’t affected by pressure and pain. Now then, preachers are fond of pointing out that “Do not be afraid” occurs 365 times in English Bibles- that’s once per day. We get scared, we become depressed, overwhelmed and sad. Physical and emotional factors all play a part in that.
Here is an antidote to the blues. This ancient song of praise asks “Why are you feeling blue?” (my translation!) and offers hope from God. Trusting in Him makes the difference! Maybe when we enter the flood water it won’t be too deep after all…
Read these verses to yourself- God has not forgotten you.
Psalm 42:8-11 (NLT) But each day the LORD pours his unfailing love upon me, and through each night I sing his songs, praying to God who gives me life. “O God my rock,” I cry, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I wander around in grief, oppressed by my enemies?” Their taunts break my bones. They scoff, “Where is this God of yours?”
Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again— my Saviour and my God!
Perfect sunrise. Flat calm on the sea. The only jarring note: a “Biffa” dustcart immediately behind me, chugging, grinding, beeping and banging as they collected the waste of the flats. Noise disturbed the peace, and tranquil thoughts disappeared.
What an illustration of human life! Beauty and banshee in the same space.
As soon as the truck drove round the corner, quiet returned- the most raucous sound the muffled screams of seagulls arguing by the tideline.
Our planet is stunningly beautiful: and we have spread ourselves across its surface, many races and cultures. At our best, humanity achieves glorious heights. At our worst, we pillage and spoil the garden we were given.
Yet God- whose glory is seen in the skies- has also undertaken the task of rubbish clearance, the recycling and removal of the dirt and waste. In a real sense, that dustcart is a symbol of the Good News. Clean slate, fresh beginning, thorough cleansing- achieved in the noises of anguish at the crucifixion. Jesus, the Saviour, Redeemer, rightful owner; our Heavenly Father waiting eagerly to welcome the returning prodigal. Holy Spirit, full of grace and purifying Fire, bringing reconciliation and renewal to our inner lives.
Schools teach in many ways- one is “compare and contrast” where two things are examined, and our understanding of both helps us grasp the meaning of each one.
Take, then, this photograph of the fulfilment of Psalm 19 v1. Look at the colours, sense the atmosphere, feel the cool of a winter morning and the gentleness of a quiet tide. Seek God in the peace. Now supply your own “dustcart disturbance”… remember the perils of Covid, the tensions of a hurting society, and the personal regrets over wrong choices, words, and actions. Watch as the Lord loads YOUR dustcart! Each bin emptied represents a sin, a hurt, a regret being dealt with and taken away. No longer burdened, but forgiven and cleansed, we can now look again at the beautiful skies and the love that surrounds us.
This is what God has done! Be thankful. Be still in God’s loving Presence..
“The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship.”Psalm 19:1 (New Living Translation)
Enjoy the gift of this day in peace and wholeness of spirit.
How do we decide what is beautiful? Here are two photographs, one a landscape taken in the Cotswolds. The other- an abstract view of beach huts in Bognor.
Which is more beautiful? I have no idea what you will say. Guessing, I think more people probably will prefer the landscape. It is the kind of rural scene that John Constable painted; dramatic skies, big trees, everyday scenes which (almost) idealise the English countryside.
Others may be drawn to the bright mix of colours, geometric shapes, and the abstract viewpoint which makes the onlooker interpret their own meaning in the image.
Things that may influence our choice will be very varied. Background, education, artistic gifting, training, what we expect a picture to be… Or what if colour-blindness affects us?
I discovered I loved John Constable’s paintings when I was about 14. A breakfast cereal company offered tokens: when a certain number were collected, I was sent a copy of “The Haywain.” Loved it! Then I acquired the “Cornfield”. Still the vouchers kept coming (a family of six gets through cereal quickly) and I rashly ventured out in a new artist… Turner’s “Fighting Temeraire.” It was different, yet familiar, and the colours and lighting… well, wow!
My art teacher at school taught us about the Impressionists. Initially, I was underwhelmed. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t recognise what I was looking at! He persevered with our youthful and developing brains, and Monet and Manet and Van Gogh entered our appreciation zone.
Then we came across Picasso. It just seemed WRONG.
Yet friends of mine loved his work. Strange world, odd people… How far can “art” go before it becomes no longer art? Is that even a reasonable question to ask?
Now, I have my preferences and my favourites, and I have learned to appreciate some art that seemed challenging at first. At least I have learned how to look. No doubt we all have different things that make us go “ahhh” and others that get the response “yuk.”
But when we look at a painting, a photograph, a sculpture, a tapestry, we have a moment in which we can learn, we can be stimulated, challenged, and inspired. Similarly we can read, or listen to music, or use our own creativity: that’s wonderful. These are all ways in which we interpret our world and find beauty in living. But why do we bother?
Because “beauty” is a soul-food. Beauty is one of the ways God touches our deep inner being; in nature, art, music, poetry we can experience an other-worldliness, even a transcendent “lifting” of our spirit into a moment of being God-present.
Here is an ancient expression of this: look at something you find beautiful, and read these words: “O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth! Your glory is higher than the heavens… When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers- the moon and the stars you set in place- what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?” (Psalm 8:1, 3-4, NLT)
The forecast promised sunshine and showers. Weather fronts pay no attention to the Met Office, and delivered showers, heavy rain, thunder and lightning, more enthusiastic showers, a little drizzle, and about an hour of sunshine.
My garden was cheering! It has been the “Year of the Lock-down Garden” and the hard-baked soil has wrestled with me over every inch reclaimed from the wild. I’m worn out, the garden has been putting on a brave face, and the arrival of copious rainfall has been a relief. It’s been really hot, very dry, and some of the flowers have been scorched. I wonder what tomorrow will bring?
Sussex is a sunny county, generally. But the “WWWW” I was taught about at school are rarely far away. If you are wondering, that’s “Warm Wet Westerly Winds.” So drought is not frequent here.
I saw some time-lapse film recently of a desert which only gets rain a few times in a century. Showers turned into a brief downpour- and the ground seemed dry again within hours. Then the cameras caught the hasty growth of gorgeous blooms, that flowered swiftly, set seed in a few days, then withered back into the sands. Until next time.
The writer of Psalm 68 knew all about life in a desolate land; and how dependent the people were on the rain showers arriving in season. No rain = no crops.
For me, today’s rain was a pleasant interlude, a cooler day, and the opportunity to dig out a photo of a water-lily. Beauty on demand, as it were. Sitting gracefully atop the surface, finding a gap in the lily-pads, this lily is a symbol of abundance. Am I truly grateful for the water that gives lilies a home? Do I remember to give thanks for summer, sun and rain, beauty and harvest?
Perhaps it is also a symbol of the need of my country. Truly a worn-out land; contention, deception, injustice and disharmony. We are not alone in this. International tensions and rivalry make a potent cocktail of bitterness. The coronavirus pandemic has magnified the stress-markers, and proven many political leaders to be inept or out of their depth.
Lord, send plentiful showers of Holy Spirit grace to us now. We are dry, and breaking. Our society is in danger of becoming a desert of self-centred cynicism and the poorest and weakest are left to one side: where they can be ignored until they die, or at least until they are silent.
Lord, please send abundant rain to restore these worn-out lands. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Yet, still… there is hope. The water lily still floats, and beauty touches hardened hearts.