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

A good reflection? Look, See, Pray

Reflections in the Fjord at Olden, Norway

Forty eight years. Where have they gone? If you’re doing the maths, that’s 1973. 29th April to be precise- the day I was baptised as a follower of Jesus Christ. 48 years today.

My Dad conducted the ceremony, three baptisms that evening: baptism by full immersion as believers and disciples. All three of us were baptised at our own request because we had received the grace of God and responded in faith & trust. Our public testimony marked us out as people who had encountered the love of God and who now intended to follow Him as obediently and sincerely as we could, with the help of the Holy Spirit working in us.

How much I have learnt. How much have I succeeded? Good question!

I hope that my faith in Christ has been clearly reflected throughout my life. Have I been perfect? Far from it. But I have learnt that forgiveness is given when needed, and that purpose has also been a consequence of my faith.

The proverb written on the photo was taken on a very still early morning, approaching the mooring at Olden in the Norwegian fjords. The reflection had a gorgeous clarity, a detailed copy of the sleeping village. Our ship was moving so slowly we hardly disturbed the surface. My hope is that the reflection I have left in the passing years has had that same clarity: people watching my life, hearing my words, judging my actions and attitudes OUGHT to be able to discern a true picture of what Christian living is about.

Storms and squalls have stirred up the waters at times. Interacting with other people isn’t always calm and straightforward. But I’ve been grateful for companions on the journey, including those who have knocked off my rough edges and/or helped me learn lessons I had hoped to avoid! My apologies and regrets to those who may not be glad we met. I wish I could have been better able to navigate some of those troubled seas.

A reflection is never PERFECT. Even in a quality mirror, there will be slight distortions and some of the light is reflected away. Sadly there are times when my reflection of Jesus has been distorted or incomplete, and some of the Light of the World has bounced off my imperfections. I hope you will forgive my shortcomings.

But I REALLY, REALLY hope that my representing of Jesus has been good enough to help others see Him more clearly. As my namesake, St Richard of Chichester, prayed:

Thanks be to you, my Lord, Jesus Christ,

For all the benefits that you have given me;
For all the pains and insults you have borne for me.

O, most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know you more clearly;
Love you more dearly;
And follow you more nearly,

Day by day.

Richard of Wyche, also known as Richard of Chichester, was born at Wyche (Droitwich), Worcestershire, England. He was orphaned when he was quite young. He served as Bishop of Chichester for the last years of his life and this “Prayer of Gratitude” is his memorial.

“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

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.

Hear the Trumpet! – Look, See, Pray

There’s no mistaking the trumpet! Bold, brassy, beautiful. In the hands of an expert it can cover a range from subtle through sublime to stupendous. Soldiers respond to its summons, Satchmo played a wonderful world.

Spring is coming… although this may the coldest night of the year! The sentinels are standing tall, the trumpet of Spring is yelling yellow and sunshine has climbed from the earth.

Hey, it’s been tough this year. We know that, and we know why. Can things change?

We can! Listen to the trumpet of Spring. Accept these gifts of colour, of brightness and beauty. Days are getting longer, the dark hours are shrinking, and warmth and colour bring hope. It’s up to us to receive the gift, and start to rejoice again in life. We may have to decide to embrace hope, to enjoy the spring as much as possible, and sing along with the trumpets.

There are encouragements and promises in the Bible that should help motivate us in celebration. Life has always had seasons of darkness; and God comes to bring Light to those who trust Him. Have a look at the daffodil, read the words of Jeremiah who speaks for God… listen to the trumpet!
“The young women will dance for joy, and the men—old and young—will join in the celebration. I will turn their mourning into joy. I will comfort them and exchange their sorrow for rejoicing.” Jeremiah 31:13 (New Living Translation)

Sweet Flower- Look, See, Pray

Long ago
Far away
in the dark
a new beginning began.

Child of eternity
taking humanity
as Mary and Joseph
took responsibility.

Baby to cherish,
witnessed by angels
by shepherds
a Star.

The most fruitful harvest
comes from tender petals... Sweet flower.
The One true Saviour
embraced our frail shell.

It's done. 
Jesus is born in humble place
with gifts
gold, frankincense and myrrh
foretelling
a Cross in His future
and then
Resurrection.

This is Christmas. The beginning begins.


(c) Richard Starling, 2020

Glory of Light- Look, See, Pray

The early Sun shining through the edge of the woods of Ashridge Estate

Walking in woodland is wonderful. If you move quietly and respect the life around you, the sights, sounds and smells are invigorating. They even prompt the human brain to produce the happiness hormones, and reduce stress levels.

This photo came from an early morning walk through dense woods in Buckinghamshire- I got lost. All the trees looked the same, and I took a wrong path. I was never in any danger: but being lost is unsettling and inconvenient.

I knew that if I walked in the general direction of the rising sun I should find my vehicle and the road home.

Gradually the light grew stronger and I could see the edge of the wood.I felt instantly better, and could confidently enjoy the woods again.

Luke 2 gives the narrative of Christmas. A favourite part is when angelic messengers awaken shepherds in the dark hills above Bethlehem: the Light of the Glory of God bursts into their quiet reality. A message of HOPE sends the men off to see the new-born child. No longer lost in the dark, their way becomes clear.

It’s almost Christmas Eve. I’m going to be reflecting on that holy Light that came to the world- because we sure do need some brightness and hope! Ponder these words and apply them to your own situation: Luke 2:14 (NLT) “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

Have a wonder-filled Christmas.

Hardy or Tender? Look, See, Pray

Hardy or tender? This has suddenly become the priority question for English gardeners. Frost is starting to turn our gardens into a killing zone. Colourful stars of the summer like dahlias and pelargoniums are quaking to their roots! Shrubs like this fuchsia have had a rude awakening… some must be rescued, others may survive- time will tell.

Hardy plants are so useful: year after year, through summer and winter, they survive almost anything the seasons send against them. Tough as boots, some of them.

Tender specimens can fall over at the first crystalline kiss of Jack Frost.

Both types have their beauty and distinctive contribution to make. Our British gardens are enriched by species collected from all over the world: but we have to learn about their needs, vulnerabilities, and how to place them to best advantage. And, of course, our native plants also have riches to add to our treasury of colour, form, and fruit.

The problem is this. A novice gardener has to learn (often the hard way!) and frequently is taught by the change of external circumstances. Winter is coming…

I suppose you could draw a parallel with people and organisations. This year has slapped our faces with a dangerous illness. We react to the new circumstances according to our essential nature- there is loss, hardship, courage, despair, and hope… When the new season begins, what will still be standing? What will re-grow? What is gone for ever?

From a church viewpoint, I have noticed a miracle! Nobody has said “We’ve never done it this way before…”

We have made use of Zoom, given thanks for broadband, tried to find new ways to care for each other, offer pastoral support, pray and worship, teach and encourage. Are those efforts perfect? No. But they are good. Do we miss meeting together? Of course.

We’ve never done it before… So let’s do it NOW! Let’s work together, challenge discrimination and injustice, let’s share love, compassion and sincere faith. Let’s change the things that were broken for something new and better!

Some church denominations (whose way of being church is based on a priestly, sacramental, and heirarchical theology) are pleading with the government for permission to meet in their church buildings. There is a clash between their way of “doing church” and the “love your neighbour by not giving them Covid-19.”

Other church fellowships are saying the Government “has no authority to tell us not to worship God.”

I understand their opinions and pain. Our year is blighted by frost! Yet I believe our response to the horrible change of circumstances could be more adventurous. It is an opportunity to live out our faith in different ways and discover that new methods can still be life-giving and worshipful. All of us should be observing sensible rules on distancing, using masks, maximising hygiene, protecting the most vulnerable- wherever we worship.

I miss not meeting with others: family, friends, church. I’ll queue up for the vaccines which can help restore “normal” life. But I really hope that we won’t just go back to the ways things were. Those ways are broken. Society is broken. Families are broken. The racism, poverty and injustice that afflicted too many should NOT be re-instated by default.

Jesus spoke of “new wine needing new wineskins.” New life can’t be contained in worn-out, brittle institutions.

He also said “My Father is the Gardener.”

May the Gardener tend us all, so that next year will be full of colourful flowers, strong plants, and a great harvest.

Finding Hope – Look, See, Pray

Sunset over the Selsey Peninsula

Living without hope is soul-destroying. Hopelessness eats at our spirit, our courage, our relationships and even our ability to love. Then we give up. Or we start to try experimenting with ridiculous risks or harmful actions.

“Acceptable social anaesthetics” like drugs, alcohol or sexual indulgence offer temporary relief: but if there is a vacuum at the centre, everything is sucked in and destroyed. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I may seek bigger experiences, zingier worship, allow my faith to collapse- or I can build on my foundation.

WHAT we focus on will affect our day-to-day mood and actions.

WHO we focus on will determine our story’s end.

I count myself blessed to be living near the sea. Autumn means the beaches are mostly empty, and the sunrise and sunsets are a personal art gallery to be enjoyed and cherished. The other day I watched small waves coming in at an angle of about 25 degrees to the shoreline. As they broke there was a long succession of noise as the water curved onto the stones, like a succession dive by a line of synchronised swimmers. It was almost hypnotic- certainly very calming.

Perhaps it is in these observations of the wonder of creation that we can find reminders of God. Combine that with a reflection on God’s revealed Word, and we can find encouragement to strengthen our minds and our spirits.

The grateful heart finds hope in counting these blessings and the solidity of the world- the Faithful God is revealed in the faithful repetition of sea, land and sky. There can be- will be- storms and disasters- but they pass and new days come. So far, I have a 100% record of surviving life… and a growing bundle of joy-filled photos to remind me that God IS… He is LOVE… AND HE IS FAITHFUL.

My choice is important. What and WHO will I focus on? That’s where I will find hope.

Psalm 33:22 (NLT) Let your unfailing love surround us, LORD, for our hope is in you alone.

Blessed are the Grumpy – Look, See, Pray

I’ve been reading Tanya Marlow’s helpful little book “Coming back to God when you feel empty” which sets her story of serious personal illness against the story of Ruth & Naomi (Book Of Ruth).

Reality for many of us is that we have times of sadness, frustration, or annoyance. Try as we might to be “poster boy/girl” of perfection as Christ-followers, life persists in poking spanners in our plans. Perhaps we have been (badly) taught that a Christian should be always smiling, calm, successful and never cross. When you started your experience of Christ and His Church, were you issued with your SWEG? Mandatory a few years ago, the “Slimy Wet Evangelical Grin” divided the failures from the REAL people of faith.

Well, in “Ruth” we have a story set in dangerous days when Israel was mostly doing whatever they liked, and God had to keep sending leaders (Judges) to sort them out. Naomi gave up on God because a famine lasted too long; then went to Moab, where the Lord had forbidden Israelites to go. Tragedy followed- her husband died, her sons marry- but also die- and her sensible daughter-in-law skipped out. Naomi was understandably grumpy, and even told people she was called “Bitter.” The story has a brilliant and happy ending (read it, it’s quite short) and God uses Naomi, Ruth, and a man named Boaz to be part of the story that leads up to the Incarnation of Jesus.

Some of you are thinking “Grumpy?” Others are offended by the “SWEG” comment. Tough. Be real.

A surprising number of Bible characters get grumpy, and don’t grin like loons. The Bible tells it straight, warts and grumps included. Moses, Jacob, Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Nehemiah… the list goes on. Grumpy is real (although not something to aspire to).

The good bit is this. God understands. Especially when the mucky end of the stick comes our way, when others aggravate us, or persist in holding contradictory opinions, or when circumstances drop us in the swamp… God would rather have our honest grumps than insincere swegs.

Having gone through life with a passing resemblance to the warthog in the photo, I say passionately that we don’t have to pretend perfection. Praise and thanksgiving ought to be coming out of our heart and mouth regularly- but if you get a Warthog Day please know this: Blessed are the grumpy, for God still loves them and understands.

As a man whose character tends toward smiles and contentment, with a deep conviction that God has been good to me, I still get grumpy (even if I may not show it often). So with all my heart, I thank God for this truth: Blessed are the Grumpy.

Go on, smile for the camera, Mrs Warthog…

Warthog, Houston Zoo, Texas, USA

See www.tanyamarlow.com and her blog “Thorns and Gold” for more helpful and honest articles. https://www.facebook.com/tanya.marlow