What’s the Catch? Look, See, Pray

This guy is a serious fisherman: he is passionate about his sport, has invested in the correct equipment, and studied his subject.

On top of that, he has the patience necessary to get results.

I find it fascinating that Jesus chose fishermen to be the first disciples. Used to a tough life, skilled at their trade, and unafraid of patient hard work- and obviously with an open heart, willing to listen. They hoped that God might do a new thing in their day, and encountering Jesus changed their lives forever.

Others listened to Jesus- up to the point where “following” was proving difficult, disappointing, and dangerous. Jesus even asked if his closest followers wanted to leave as well.

Peter answered on their behalf: “Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69 The Message Translation)

Having such commitment and determination meant that those disciples would live at great risk- for a great vision, a purpose worthy of life and death. Many of them died violently.

Such obedient faith is much more than believing some facts about Jesus. It is be willing to go to great lengths in the expectation of world-transforming results: putting trust in the words of real eternal life spoken by Christ. Jesus went to a terrible execution so that all things might be reconciled to God. Another of the extraordinary followers of Jesus described Him in these terms:

“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1 v17-20)

So, what is there that I will believe in, put into practice, and expect God to do through my life and passionate discipleship? The way I answer that question sums up what I might achieve through the presence and power of Jesus!

Blow That Bugle! – Look, See, Pray

Not every plant in the garden has to be dramatic. “Celebrity” plants are undoubtedly spectacular.

Some garden inhabitants are quite unassuming little things that fill a valuable place. Meet “Ajuga reptans,” often known as Common Bugle. (Photo)

Ajuga likes shady spots. The exact places where the expensive and flashy don’t thrive. Ajuga is great at crowding out nasty weeds that might otherwise take over and invade. Looked at closely, the bright blue flowers and multi-coloured foliage are actually rather attractive.

It isn’t high maintenance: and it’s cheap to buy! Just £1 each from my local greengrocer who sells a nice selection of bedding plants and ground cover.

Actually, Ajuga sounds ideal for problem free gardening!

I’ve known people in churches who are like this. They don’t blow their own bugle, they just get on with being useful, kind, and good to know. Never hogging the limelight, not anxious or ambitious, just genuine servant-hearted blessings.

Thank God for such plants AND such people. They are worthy of loving appreciation- and even if they’re not “celebrities” in this life, they will be richly rewarded by the Lord who sees even the small things born from a loving soul. I started thinking about the ones who do or have blessed me… and I am so, so grateful for them. Names are pouring out of my memory now- friends, colleagues, family- and there are others I can’t put names and faces too. Yet I know they have supported, encouraged, served, and been a HUGE blessing from their quiet and shady corners.

Some of them would be embarrassed to think I might include them on my “loving list” because they honestly don’t think they’ve done much. But God knows. One day perhaps I will be able to thank them properly!

“God resists the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.”

Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time. Cast all your care upon Him, because He cares for you. – 1 Peter 5 v5-7

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.

Good Friday? Look, See, Pray

Even the elements of Creation paused in horror. How could this be happening? What measure of Love accepts crucifixion to redeem a lost world? What kind of people smash rough nails through ankles and hands, offer vinegar and insults, and mock the dying Man?

Darkness came upon the Land. Earth quaked. The dead, disturbed, disturbed the city.

A hardened executioner, expert in Death, trembled and murmured “Surely this was the Son of God.” So the skies grieved and the angels recoiled and the laughter of Hell reached a crescendo- then stopped, dead.

This corpse is like no other. Hell has no power; Greatest of Accusers, Satan, falls silent, dreading the next Battle. Already the smoky deceit of the Liar is being challenged, confronted by Christ. “Send guards to the tomb! Seal the stone, the biggest of Stones, over a gaping grave…” Jesus is dead… yet He refuses to bow down to the Deathmaster.

Let Caiaphas sweat, and Pilate dream nightmares of an Innocent, let Herod the Fox hear the Hounds of Heaven scenting the quarry. Even an Emperor, far off in Rome, cannot command the Christ. Though Jesus gave up his spirit, his story does not finish on the Hill of the Skull.

“For on the Third Day…” said Jesus, “I will Rise.”

The strong, loyal one- Look, See, Pray

I like to think I’d stay strong like Simon Peter. You know, recognising Jesus as God’s Messiah, walking on water, all that strong man stuff. A person of faith, bold- even brash- courage, answering questions and sticking with my excellent reasons for following Jesus. Who else has words of eternal life?

Hang on, though. It’s Thursday in a couple of hours: and that’s when it all went wrong…

Jesus mentioned being betrayed: well, it won’t be by Peter, that’s as sure as anything! I’m the strong, loyal one. But… didn’t Jesus say “Before the cockerel crows, Peter, you will deny Me three times.” Surely not, Lord, that’s as unlikely as Judas selling you out to the authorities! Must have misheard.

Peter, now in a cold sweat. So much happening, a cold garden, noisy soldiers, a slashing sword, and Jesus led away… “What are they doing to Him in there? I can’t go until I know… perhaps they’ll let Jesus go after all. Hot fire. I’ll just wait here. No, I don’t want to talk, just shut up. Leave me to my thoughts. Jesus? Did I hear His name? They’re talking about Him – Who me? NO, not me. Yes, the accent gives me away, I’m Galilean. No, I don’t know him. Will you just shut UP… For heaven’s sake… I never EVER knew Jesus!”

Talking Cockerel, stage left. “Pardon? O Peter, did you really… did you say you never knew him? Look at those flames, Peter. Burning like the garbage in Gehenna… bet you feel rubbish now, Peter. Hey, where are you going?”

Bystanders round the fire. “Yeah, he was a Galilean, I bet he did know him in there. Not got the guts to hang around, though! Not much of a friend… Where’s the Galilee man gone to, d’you think? That one in there, that Jesus, I heard he came to town like a king on a donkey… I heard him speaking once, seemed rather wonderful, but going against the establishment like that… wouldn’t want to be where he’s going…”

So I wonder. Would I have stayed by the fire? Would I have said “OH yes, I know Jesus, let I tell you what He’s like…”

Or just another betrayer doing a runner? Lord Jesus, forgive the feebleness of my heart… just as you forgave Peter…

Living Joy- Look, See, Pray

Grey, dull miserable… that’s just the BBC. Outside: add drizzling, damp, cool, windy weather. What a start to Wednesday.

Then the display of orchids on my windowsill changed the way I perceived the day. A white one with yellow and pink; yellow and purple with two sprays of blooms; and the purple and white-spotted one. Immediately, my mind shifted gear: and I wrote a few lines trying to capture in words what I was feeling. The shape and colour fascinated and inspired heart and soul: such exotic beauty lifted my spirits and restored joy to life. So, go find a flower!

The WAY we see is as important as WHAT we see. Our perception of life is determined by our focus and choices.

“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.” Henri Nouwen

So my view of today has been shaped by the vivid creative imagination of God, who thought about orchids- and I’m deeply grateful for living joy!

Fair beyond telling, 
shaped within dreams, 
imagination takes form: 
richly laid colour, 
subtle echoes of an angel’s wing-beats, 
the exotic orchid  
painted in living joy.             © Richard Starling 2022

Even better than any poem, and even more wonderful than an orchid, as we get closer to Good Friday & Easter Sunday we can focus on Jesus. The story of his final journey is full of rich teaching and memorable moments and records his determination to fulfil his mission, whatever the personal cost. Reading this story will change the way we see life- because Jesus changed the ending. How then shall we live?

“Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”   

Hebrews 12v2

New Words, Ancient Truth- Look, See, Pray

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.

There’s a path through the mountains
On the way to a promised land,
That leads beside the green fields
Where still waters quench my thirst.

God is my Guide, my provider for need.
God renews my life from within,
And teaches the way  for my steps,
So my soul honours His Name.

In desolate days not even Death cuts me off,
For God walks beside me and evil must flee.
He saves me, comforts and challenges me;
His love disciples my heart and mind.

The banquet of blessing scorns my foes,
Signs of Your grace overflow!
All You provide is good beyond measure,
To be near to You, the greatest of treasure.

From setting out, to coming home
I live in Your Presence, forever in peace.



Psalm 23-ish © Richard Starling, 2022

Elephants and a Bridge- Look, See, Pray

What am I photographing? Is it a famous Dartmoor bridge? Perhaps it’s the River Dart. Yes …. but… No. It’s the Sun.

“Eh?” I hear. “But the sun isn’t in the picture!”

Correct- but the Sun is too bright, too big, too awesome. No earth-bound camera can cope with that challenge. All we can do is record the effect of the Sun, showing how the light changes our perception of the world. Reflected by the stone and water inside the arch, light glows out. We just KNOW that if we looked through the arch, we’d see the sun (or be dazzled by it, anyway!).

When we say “What is God like?” we’re doing theology. Our problem is trying to explain and describe the gloriously indescribable- we lack the words to speak, and the mindpower to comprehend. Our best insight comes from the self-revelation of God’s true essence in the person of Jesus Christ. (Since it’s Lent, it is a great time to think about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.)

Imagine describing an elephant to someone who has never seen one. Ask two friends to draw a picture, one starting from above, and the second person working from the feet upwards.

The picture might look like the one below: and it’s a brain teaser! How many legs does an elephant have? Of course you know… but the drawing may make you rather confused.

Now, the conclusion of Christian theologians is that Jesus is the Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Three-in-One. How will you explain the Trinity? Tricky… our best efforts are incomplete. How do you “explain” Jesus as both human and divine? With difficulty. If you start from the top, the God-ness of Jesus, you will understand quite a lot. If you start from below, the human-ness of Jesus you will understand a whole lot more.

But the picture isn’t perfect, or without mystery. It’s like the “legs of an elephant” picture… and it’s the best we can do. So if someone understands a bit differently, perhaps it’s just because they’re seeing from a different angle. We can still be friends, and still follow the path of Jesus.

Jesus said “I am the Light of the world.” All our theology, and all our debates, are trying to describe the effect of Light in a world in shadow. Our God is too big, too strong and too Mighty to capture in our “brain-cam.”

He is LIGHT. In a dark time in a suffering world, it’s the Light that keeps us alive, still hoping, still trusting, May the Light shine on you! 

I dreamed that I was flying- Look, See, Pray

Herring gulls over the English Channel

I dreamed that I was flying.

It still is a stunning memory. I glided above the tops of unknown mountains. Far ahead, the sun rose splendidly, and it felt as though I was being kept in the air by God himself. According to my memory, I was about 12 and this is the earliest dream that I have ever remembered. What a psychologist might say about an interpretation is best left to the imagination!

Enjoying a lovely childhood in a loving family, with few things likely to cause lasting trauma, I suspect that I was as ordinary as most 12-year-olds. Perhaps a bit more imaginative and expressive than some, and certainly cheeky. This was the year when I made my first conscious choice to believe in Jesus Christ and begin a life as a follower of his Way.

If my dream was a kind of vision-dream holding out the prospect of a straightforward and glorious life full of beauty and wonder (and no problems) then it has failed. Life isn’t like that- at least in my experience. That doesn’t make it valueless.

Ever since that dream, I have felt drawn to mountains: photos or paintings, word-pictures in books of adventures, and even the black and white TV trying to do justice to a world inherently colourful. The first time I saw a real mountain was in my late teens when a group of friends travelled in a knackered old Commer minibus all the way to North Wales. Here we climbed through mist and rain up the slopes of Tryfan to the summit. Damp and weary we looked out and the clouds concealing Snowden unfurled.

The reality of mountains is far more awe-inspiringly wonderful than any dream.

In the same way, the reality of fulfilled faith will exceed my best hopes- even my best imagination. My faith isn’t built on that 12-year-olds dream, though sometimes I wish everything would go as smoothly as my first “flight…”

I dreamed I was flying.

The Apostle Paul made an obscure reference to “being caught up to the third heaven” (see 2 Corinthians 12 v2). Bible interpreters and scholars have been wondering about that ever since. Really, we don’t know what Paul meant or experienced: the most likely explanation is that Paul felt lifted into the very presence of God himself. (That ties in with the known beliefs of the period.)

Paul refused to boast about this revelation, even speaking in the third person as if it had happened to somebody else: and he even talks about being given “a thorn in the flesh” (v7) to keep him humble. Annoyingly, we don’t know what this thorn was either. Suggestions have ranged from some form of chronic illness right the way through to a crabby mother-in-law!

It seems the Corinthians were fascinated by visions and dreams, and Paul does his best to stop them from fastening onto an exciting tale. Paul uses his own experience to point them to an important truth. Whatever our knowledge, gifting, or experience, whatever our strengths or our weaknesses, we are called to be servants of Christ and to love others in every way we can.

When we are young, we often behave as if we were immortal, acting without regard to risks and dangers. Then comes that moment in life where the first serious illness, accident or loss invades our being. We suddenly must grow up. Christian faith isn’t a divine insurance policy against the unpleasantness of life. Knowing “God is with us” is not the same thing as saying that “only good things should happen to us.”

Since I started with my dream, I want to finish with a snapshot of my experience in Christian ministry.

As a newly-trained pastor I rather hoped the Kingdom of God would be demonstrated forthwith through me! I am glad that my first church was full of patient and kind Christians. During the 30 years of active ministry there were times of blessing, times of difficulty, and occasionally we all wondered where God had gone. Part of my life became learning how to deal with chronic illness, and how to develop a lifestyle that had some rhythm and grace evident in it.

Dreaming of flying is all very well, but there can be bumpy landings.

Without in any sense wanting to equate my life or ministry with that of the Apostle Paul, I think I have learned one of the lessons he did. Perhaps this will be an encouragement to some of you reading today: yes, “God is with us…” and the words of Jesus to Paul and the Corinthian church remain equally true now. Jesus said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (v9)

Don’t lose the wonder- Look, See, Pray

What will 2022 bring?

What am I hoping for?

Three days in- so far, so good. Yesterday I enjoyed the privilege of preaching in our local church, speaking about the difference Christmas makes to every New Year. Simply put, it’s the description of Jesus as Immanuel, “God is with us.” Simple words, but deep, deep meaning.

I don’t know what 2022 will bring. But I’m confident that God is with us- whatever will be. That, in turn, means I expect to keep a sense of wonder and hope every day.

The wonder of seeing the frosted leaves, the snowfall, the sunrises and settings… the first signs of snowdrops, crocii, and daffodils… cherry blossom and roses… Restless seas and cloud-paintings, seagulls stunt-flying, the field mice and squirrels…

Stormy days and dark skies, the Milky Way like a chandelier over the sea. Gentle dew and charming streams, trees standing bold before our wondering eyes.

People living in kindness, sharing love and community.

Change. I’m hoping for change in politics and public life, with integrity and compassion displacing greed and sleaze. Change in the ways people behave and believe, learn and persuade. Truth becoming important, with a reaction against shallow sound-bites, dodgy websites, and manipulative extremists.

Health. I’m hoping for an end to this pandemic, and for respect and gratitude to be shown to good medicine and good science.

Ecology: for responsibility from all of us, doing what we can to look after the planet we’ve been given, with hope of reversing some of the damage.

Some hopes, eh?

God is with us. With that fact to hold onto, we can have high hopes indeed! Don’t lose the wonder. Every wondrous thing we see inspires true hope. I won’t see everything on my wish list happen in 2022 – but God is with us, therefore NOTHING good is impossible (even if it will be difficult).

The first frosty morning may be the first day of wonder- and hope.