Sleepless hunter

Chronic pain is something doctors and patients hate because it is hard to treat and often has a cause that has some element of mystery. Some of you may know that I had to retire early because of the “invisible illness” fibromyalgia. I am truly grateful to the NHS for all they have done to help me cope, and for the techniques and medications that help keep the pain under control.

But the illness may flare up at any time.

The photograph is of an owl prowling, flying just above the ground with those flame-orange eyes fixed on food. There is a grace and magnificence about the hunter at work, and yet a primal fear of the merciless efficiency of the predator.  Owls change from total stillness to silent flight in a moment; they are looking for the weak and vulnerable. Their hunting instinct never sleeps.

sleepless hunter 422Birdsprey2July16

This week my “sleepless hunter” has been fibromyalgia, suddenly sinking talons again into muscle and bone. Without warning, like the silently swooping owl, it strikes efficiently. For no apparent reason symptoms flare into life as the wings fan the dormant sparks into fire. It has been a reminder that I can’t take it for granted that the more relaxed life of a retired minister will always keep my hunter away.

Today’s post is a plea to us all: please keep your eyes and ears open so we can support and encourage those who are ill, especially for those who suffer the “invisible illnesses.”  It seems easier to care for the ones in hospital, or carrying a limb in plaster. The ones who may look OK on the outside aren’t noticed. Please pray for the people you know with MS or ME, fibro and COPD, with chronic pain or with mental illness.

Tomorrow I may be feeling better again. Or not. Good days are treasured but not guaranteed. Here’s one of my favourite psalms about the God who guards our lives: the “sleepless hunter” faces an unsleeping Guardian. Truly and reverently I say: Thank God.

Psalm 121:1-8 (Message)
I look up to the mountains; does my strength come from mountains? My strength comes from GOD, who made heaven, and earth, and mountains. He won’t let you stumble, your Guardian God won’t fall asleep. Not on your life! Israel’s Guardian will never doze or sleep. GOD‘s your Guardian, right at your side to protect you—  Shielding you from sunstroke, sheltering you from moonstroke. GOD guards you from every evil, he guards your very life. He guards you when you leave and when you return, he guards you now, he guards you always.

 

Patterns- Look, See, Pray

Patterns attract our eyes. Sometimes our eyes “make” patterns or interpret shapes as something familiar: for example, we can “see” faces in the patterns of the scorch-marks on a piece of toast!
 
This diagonal pattern of orange fenders protecting the woodwork of a landing stage is striking because of the colours, reflections, and regularity of all the elements in the photo.
 
The fenders are there to protect the jetty and take the weight of the boat that comes alongside. One is needed on each upright.
 
Here’s a pattern of a different sort- a song that repeats one line 25 times! How boring is that? Well, that depends…
 
“For his faithful love endures forever.”
 
This line is in Psalm 136. It’s a song written and sung to remind worshippers that God is there to protect them in all the ups and downs. Here’s an idea… read the psalm in the morning, or the evening, or whenever life is getting challenging… The pattern reinforces the TRUTH.
“His faithful love endures forever.”
 
Psalm 136:1-3 (NLT)
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods. His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords. His faithful love endures forever.
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A prayer of the small to the Majestic One

Kind and gracious Lord,
Thank you for supplying my needs.
I will “rest in the meadow grass” and drink from still streams.
Thank you for strength of body and spirit
that helps me serve You;
I will seek to love and serve You in all things.
Even in the dark and troubled days and nights,
where grief and despair search for my heart,
You keep me safe and guide my footsteps.
Enemies seek to hurt and destroy,
but You give hope like a banquet for my soul.
You accept me in gracious compassion,
show kindness to the unworthy,
and promise a place of secure Eternal Love.

Psalm 23v2 ladybird 201_hatfieldhouse15crop18Lord, I am so small,
and You are so great;
be with me in every day,
every moment,
and every experience
throughout my life.
My soul will praise You;
may my life honour You.
Amen.
(Photograph and Prayer (c) Richard Starling, 2018, based on Psalm 23 as written in the Living Bible.)

Beauty and Danger

Some of the most beautiful creatures are also among the most dangerous. Consider the sheer elegance of the big cats, sheer bulk of an elephant, or the toxicity of jewel-coloured tree-frogs. The speed with which this cheetah moved from dozing to alertness was impressive. Lunch was on the way and it would be unwise to get in the cheetah’s way!

Beauty conceals threats. Even the most lovely landscapes contain insects or reptiles that can hurt or kill. It isn’t a safe world. Domesticated animals are not entirely safe either. Come between a cow and calf and you will see how quickly a placid slow-moover can turn testy.

The most dangerous creature is humankind. We are the most inventive, most creative, exploitative, most co-operative & competitive tool-using killers ever. Humans can be casually cruel- and maliciously vicious.

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Unsurprisingly the Bible contains praise for the beauty: and wisdom for the trials. One repeated theme is the promise of God’s protective justice. In particular the Psalms have songs that deal with perils, persecutions and promises. Psalm 121 is only short but it makes a great prayer when the dangers overwhelm the beauties.

If your world is not safe right now, there is only one sensible action. Reach out and trust God; commit your path to Him and look for His protection.

Psalm 121:1-8 (NLT)
I look up to the mountains— does my help come from there?  My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth! He will not let you stumble; the one who watches over you will not slumber. Indeed, he who watches over Israel never slumbers or sleeps.  The LORD himself watches over you! The LORD stands beside you as your protective shade. The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon at night. The LORD keeps you from all harm and watches over your life. The LORD keeps watch over you as you come and go, both now and forever.

Text & photograph Copyright (c) 2018  Richard Starling. Bible verses from New Living Translation (2nd Ed.)

Veiled in White

White water cascades over this rugged cliff in a Norwegian fjord. Constant streams of cold abrasive water, wrestling with the solid rock, and gradually carving a pathway that might one day become a new valley.

Life cannot exist without water. Yet in the wild outdoors, water is an agent of change and trial. The endless roar of this waterfall gradually numbed the senses, until wind caught spray and woke those same senses up again with shocking cold. But it was fascinating to be there, to watch and experience, and to enjoy raw power in the eternal conflict.

It’s a picture of life and faith. We need solid rock to stand on, and living water to enliven us in the daily struggles and conflicts.

This psalm speaks of the contrast: trouble weaves patterns through circumstance, and hope sounds a clear rallying cry- God IS with us!

Psalm 42:7-11 (TNIV)
Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me— a prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?”  My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?”

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.

Norway25th_1102Take courage in the everlasting sign of the rainbow. This photo was taken a few hours later as a squall passed. The rainbow rested briefly across the broken mountainside as late sunlight basted the slopes with warm light.

Sometimes we simply need to do what the psalmist suggested. Even when things are hard and conflict steals our assurance… “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.”

There is hope and peace eternally.

May the Almighty Lord God bless your soul with peace this day. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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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