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.

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.

There is always hope- Look, See, Pray

Advent is the time leading up to Christmas. It’s a season to prepare for a celebration: God took on human flesh, declaring Love to this world by identifying with us. We ARE “in this together” which is a marvellous truth (especially when compared with the rather devalued meaning intended by many politicians when they say that!).

Odd contrast: the hope of Light and Life comes just when the days get short and the cold gnaws our bones. Everything is saying “time to moan, let’s endure it as best we can” and the shout comes from the heralding Angels – “Prepare the Way of the Lord!”

It’s often a dull season for photography. Apart from dramatic skies and snowy wastes, most other subjects are lurking out of sight in the warm- and the motivation of the photographer has gone into hibernation anyway.

So a memory will have to suffice. Imagine a pleasant late April day, perhaps early May; the bluebells are cheerily dancing the blues, and the bracken begins to unfurl hairy fronds. Look down at the signs of Spring: and a heart-shape presents itself as fronds entwine. Glossy fresh greens and gentle browns mark out the hope of new life.

I love Christmas. Not the busy shops, nor the crazy adverts, not even the mass attempt to double our waistlines in a week! Although that has some attractions, if we’re honest.

Christmas means HOPE. We can all do with some of that!

God, the Giver and Source of Life and Love, sings a song to make the stars shine brighter. In the darkened streets of Bethlehem, an Eternal Light begins to glow.

And every year, however dreadful, has a heartfelt message. “There’s ALWAYS hope.”

“For a child has been born—for us! the gift of a son—for us! He’ll take over the running of the world. His names will be: Amazing Counsellor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness.” Isaiah 9:6 (Message Translation)

Just what- or rather, whom- we need. There’s always hope. May Advent this year put the glow of hope in your soul- for God has set His heart on YOU.

Headlong – Look, See, Pray

Headlong

Icy

Clean

I am the stream

Scouring the rocks

Cutting a path

Through the Arches of Time

Hemmed in

Icy

Strong

I am the Love

That purifies daily

Bridging the gap

Between mountain and sea

Hasty

Icy

Refreshing

I am the Craftsman

Sculpting all beauty

Making a signpost

To the Heavenly Face

Hopeful

Alive

Graceful

God planned my course

God counts my years

God gives us Life

© Richard Starling 2021

October Roses- Look, See, Pray

Fewer rosebuds in the garden now October is here… the ones that survive the winds and rain are even more precious. Here is “Double Delight” which is blessed with a rich fragrance and creamy petals flushed with sumptuous raspberry pink. Gorgeous. Worth its place in any garden, in my opinion anyway.

Autumn chills and weather presage the coming of winter, when colour in the garden is rare and hard to find. Roses sometimes keep flowering into December- a lovely gift.

I have built two gardens from builder’s mudheaps- and restored two neglected gardens. Roses have ALWAYS been the plants that I use as the centrepieces of the borders. Despite the pain of thorns and the months of dormancy where roses are just aggressive sticks, I pay the price for their majestic colour, shape and scent willingly. The eruption of the new buds fills me with joy.

There are one or two strange gardeners who don’t like roses. Perhaps I’m biased, but I think they’re a lost cause!

The objects of our ambitions can take many forms. Some collect stamps, others strive for profit. Others are never satisfied, and cannot find contentment. What we choose to search for, to value, defines who we are. Jesus addressed this problem of identity and ambition, essentially by asking “Who are you?” and “What is your life purpose?”

Two questions that continue to nag at the heart of a society built on the acquisition of wealth and power… and with many people who want more than they have. So, rich or poor, powerful or not- what do we really want?

It seems people choosing wisely are as rare as rosebuds.

Jesus never said “Come to Me, and I will give you stress.” The offer He makes is “rest” – peace in a reconciled relationship with God.

How much do you think that’s worth?

Woodland Prayer- Look, See, Pray

The peace of the green trees be ours
and calm our thoughts tonight;
The song of Creation bring harmony
and help our minds to rest.

Industrious insects garden our world,
as birds bring an offering of music;
the streams bring the waters of life,
and a woodland symphony is born!

Creatures large and small have their being
in this cathedral canopied by trees.
O Lord most High, O Lord most holy,
thank you for this place.

The joy of blue skies overwhelms us!
Softness of raindrops caress our heads.
Clouds of gentleness soothe our days,
and may wholeness be our portion.

(c) Richard Starling, 2021.

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.