It’s Complicated – Look, See, Pray

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“It’s complicated” said the Wise old Owl.

When I was in my twenties, most questions had simple answers. Except for a few that I preferred not to think about- thinking is hard work.

Thirty years old and I was becoming wiser (and probably less aggravating). But I discovered more and more issues couldn’t be resolved with a simple pat answer. I remember one lovely guy who looked me in the eye and said “Yes or no?” Um….

Books of great length had been written about this particular “hot potato” and even they didn’t have a definitive answer!

Passing years have seen the number of “simple” questions get smaller. The battle became one of understanding enough of the complications to be able to set out a simpler solution which still did justice to the broader topic and stayed true to God as He has disclosed Himself and His ways.

When these questions apply to our faith and behaviour as Christian disciples, we want simple straightforward answers “like it says in the Bible…”

Trouble is that on some things Christians interpret and understand parts of the Bible differently.

Most of the big themes are clear enough. God has revealed Himself as Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer: also as the One who balances justice with mercy, judgement with grace.

Our “backdrop” to the human drama is vast and full of mystery yet illuminated by flashes of revelation. A better disciple and theologian than me spoke of “seeing as in a cloudy mirror… but one day we will see Him face to face.” (Thanks, Paul!)

In this area of theology we have all been shaped by our background, education, family, life experiences, and the unspoken assumptions that are built in to “our” culture and projected onto our view of society. Race, nationality, skin colour, gender- these all affect our assumptions about what is the natural order of things. Our society benefits when we will learn from each other, and can hold our principles with conviction whilst accepting difference exists.

So then- what about Covid-19 ? Is it God’s direct judgement on a sinful humanity? Or might it be a symptom of the broken fallenness of the world, that has consequences built in? Plagues have happened throughout history. Some, God says, are direct judgement against wrong: Moses passed on the command of God to “Let my People go!” with Pharoah’s refusal being met with the Plagues of Egypt. Some find that difficult but there is little room for wriggling. God said, it happened, and then by grace Israel was delivered through the Exodus.

Judgement is promised at the Return of Jesus Christ. That is a statement of faith based on the character of God and His promises. In many ways, “creation is groaning” waiting for that time of deliverance and glory.

My Grandma kept a tin of sweets on a shelf out of the reach of six-year-old boys (me!). When I managed to climb on a chair and sneak one out… she laughed and laughed when she saw my anguished face as I chewed a piece of (hot) crystallized ginger. “Be sure your sins will find you out!” she chortled.

However, my youthful errors aside, what about Covid-19?
Can we say confidently it is an act of direct judgement? Do we not risk presuming on God’s prerogative if we say that? There have been too many “prophets” willing to put words in God’s mouth- those who truly prophesy do so from humble hearts and a Spirit-given conviction.

We can say, I believe, that God has permitted our world to exist in such a way that sickness, natural disaster, war and famine are part of our reality. These ills should cause us to turn back to God; to pray for all those caught up in the crisis, and to proclaim their existence as “signposts” in a lost world that point us to the consequences of our separation from the Lord- OR draw us closer to Him to seek hope, mercy, healing and ultimately eternal life.

Like Owl said, it’s complicated.

Today I will rejoice that I am alive, I will give thanks that God is both my Sovereign and my Saviour, and I will seek to be as Christ-like as I can with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Lord, deliver us today from the evil of this virus- and may Your Spirit open the hearts and minds of all peoples so that we may love and worship at Your throne. May Jesus be acknowledged by every man, woman, and child as Lord and Redeemer, who reconciles us and will reconcile all things in due time. In the meantime, help us to be wise, loving, and gracious in what we say and how we live. Amen.

Living Water- Look, See, Pray

Walking in the Pyrenees in the midday heat, looking for a reason to stop… how glad my eyes became when this stream offered a shady rest and a good excuse!  Fast running water- needs a slow shutter speed to make it look realistic. Too fast, and every droplet will freeze in time, a spray of molten diamonds. Too slow, and the water will blur so much it will lose form completely.

Add the complication of high contrast between open sunlight and deep shadows. That’s got to be worth a few cool, quiet minutes in the shade to think about technique (and enjoy a bite of lunch). Hope the resulting photo pleases you!

Andorra is a tiny land-locked country between France and Spain. The mountains offer ski slopes in the winter, and great (steep) walking in summer. Such precipitous slopes run water off quickly, and the streams dash briskly down into the valley below. Even in high summer, the water was icy cold- refreshing for weary feet and dry tonsils.

It helped me understand the frequent image in the Bible- streams in the desert, wells and springs, life for the parched hills and thirsty pastures. The land of Israel and its neighbours know all about thirst and the value of pure running, living, water.

Isaiah the prophet brought a message of hope to a people in difficult times: “For I will pour water on the thirsty ground and send streams coursing through the parched earth. I will pour my Spirit into your descendants and my blessing on your children.”  – Isaiah 44:3 (Message)

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Mountain stream, Pyrenees, in Andorra

Later, Jesus stood in the middle of the Jerusalem worshippers and pilgrims: On the final and climactic day of the Feast, Jesus took his stand. He cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me this way, just as the Scripture says.”    John 7:37-38 (Message)

The nation who KNEW the value of water “in a dry and thirsty land” and who regularly witnessed the ritual use of water for cleansing (physical and spiritual) were instantly faced with a shocking fact. Jesus- the Son of God, the Messiah, the Christ- is claiming to be the fulfilment of all the Bible promises of Life, forgiveness, cleansing, purification… a prophetic and life-changing proclamation. With the best will in the world, the religious practices and traditions of Israel only partly satisfied the need. People were THIRSTY for revelation and hope, for redemption and rescue. Jesus says- “Come and drink.”

There is nothing quite as satisfying as pure, cool water when you are desperately thirsty.

Not just a drink, says Jesus: but Living Water will well up inside those who trust-and-believe: just as promised in the Old Testament.

Right at the end of the New Testament, in the Book of Revelation, the final visions show this River of Life running from the Throne of Almighty God:  Then the Angel showed me Water-of-Life River, crystal bright. It flowed from the Throne of God and the Lamb, right down the middle of the street. The Tree of Life was planted on each side of the River, producing twelve kinds of fruit, a ripe fruit each month. The leaves of the Tree are for healing the nations…”   Revelation 22:1-2 (Message)

To be thirsty, spiritually thirsty, is a deep privilege. Come to Christ- drink your fill, be re-born, be immersed in Holy Spirit life and power. Saint, sinner or seeker- come as you are and let the Living Water transform your life.  Come on, drink deep…

Lent: free download “Meditations”

Download from here:  lent meditations 2020

Designed for use on the Fridays in Lent, this collection of photographs and reflections guides a way through the journey towards Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

The meditations are accessible from the top menu of the Home page, or you can download the pdf file (free) to your device or to print out.

Like a rose Lent 2018

May the Lord guide and bless you in this time of spiritual renewal.

Richard

 

The Delicate Dance” – Look, See, Pray

“The delicate dance.” Whirling, waving, singing in the breeze. Humble grasses of endless variety grow almost anywhere round the world.

A carpet to walk on, a banquet to creatures great and small. Background colours of restful greens and brown, and all too easy to overlook. We cut it down to make hay, we give our civilised selves a never-ceasing summer of work with scythe or lawnmower. We take grass for granted.

Grass helps protect from soil erosion. It makes a perfect surface for sports and picnics. It helps regulate the atmosphere we breathe.

Our Bibles are full of references to grass; in the beautiful 23rd Psalm of the Good Shepherd, we read “He causes me to lie down in pastures of green grass; he guides me beside quiet waters.”

My photograph today comes from a lakeside in the Zillertal of Austria. A good long walk up the valley led to a gorgeous turquoise-coloured lake. Kindly souls had put a seat with a view across the water to a snow-clad peak. Here, in the peace and quiet, we took our rest, our lunch, and our pictures.

Dancing delicately in the mountain air, these grass seed-heads rustled and swayed to an unheard tune.

Sunshine was followed by gentle showers, and a little later by a brief but dramatic thunderstorm. Our day was enriched by these curious climatic changes. Tomorrow would see the delicate dance of the grass as an encore. The rain makes it all live. Soil is shallow on the hard rocks, and sun and wind dry the grass quickly. It is the living water that gives the life.

A verse to ponder from Deuteronomy, extolling the virtue and value of the Words and Love of God. Be refreshed.

“My teaching, let it fall like a gentle rain, my words arrive like morning dew, like a sprinkling rain on new grass, like spring showers on the garden.” – Deuteronomy 32:2 (Message)

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Faithfulness and Grace- Look, See, Pray

Today was a GOOD NEWS day- for me. I want to shout out “God is good!” which is, of course, true… but I must restrict myself a bit and say only that God has been good to me at this moment in time. This is not to be boastful or claim any special “holy” status, but because God is in His essential nature faithful and loving: and He gives grace not because “we deserve it” but because He CHOOSES to love the unfaithful.

I was diagnosed with bowel cancer this autumn. It was serious enough to require urgent major surgery, and our wonderful N.H.S. acted swiftly and effectively. Getting over the surgery has been painful and seems slow. But today I visited the oncologist about follow up treatment (chemotherapy). My expectation was six months of chemo.

Chemotherapy not required… the doctors think I am 85% likely to be clear of cancer; annual scans will look out for any possible regrowth. You can imagine the relief… the sense of getting your life back, the lifting of the gloomy shadow of fear and doubt.

Many people have prayed for me (I am truly grateful) and practical support and love has been showered on my life. I have felt a sense of God’s presence; and known other dark moments where faith felt like a mouse squeaking in the cellar waiting for the cat to pounce.

This evening I have sent the good news round to friends and family. I looked in the book of Psalms hoping to find a good “praise verse”… and I found this.

Psalm 91:14-16 (NLT)
The LORD says, “I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name. When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue and honour them. I will reward them with a long life and give them my salvation.”

God is faithful. I do love Him, I trust Him, and I need Him. It’s just that I’m not as faithful in my faith as He is. Do I have any right to say God has blessed me? No, if I am trading with God… “Hey, God, if you scratch my back… and I’ll try to be nice and be good…”

It doesn’t work like that.

I know my own weaknesses, and the things that trip me up. I wish I was 100% perfect but I’m not (yet).

Father God has reminded me this evening that He IS faithful, the One of eternal loving-kindness. He has also reminded me that GRACE is what is given when my faithfulness falls flat on its face. A namesake of mine, St Richard, was Bishop of Chichester from 1244 to 1253 and gave us a prayer that I treasure. It’s my faith-response to the gap between God’s faithfulness and my own.

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which you have given us, for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us. Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day. Amen.

God has been good to me- and I really want to love Him better, and be more like Jesus. I’m depending on His faithfulness- AND still on His grace. Left to myself, I can, do, and will fail. The reason God has “been good to me” today is that HE won’t take my weakness and failures as the last word. I’m proud of having a Father like that. My hope is that more and more of us will come to know and understand and experience that Fatherly Love.

 

Love of a Different Kind

I’m ready to enjoy Christmas. It will have a particular resonance this year.  For over thirty years I have celebrated a “professional” Christmas:  yes, I believe in the message and meaning of Christmas, but when my role was to enable others to understand and live Christmas it could become repetitive or stale. I’ve always tried my best, because I love Christmas and enjoy it myself!

This year is different. A couple of months ago I was brought up short when the doctor suggested some extra tests. In no time at all (well done the NHS) I was face to face with a surgeon who explained I had cancer in the large intestine… and then set out the risks involved in treatment. Stark truth!  The alternative would be no treatment, and sooner or later I would die.

Now then, I am not just a “professional” Christian, a minister who teaches others about faith. I really do believe and trust in the good news that Jesus proclaimed. It isn’t “just” a religion, it is a living experience that has demanded (and still does) an active obedience which has shaped the whole of my adult life.

But to be confronted with “This could kill you” makes things very real, very quickly.

Surgery went well, although the recovery took longer than expected, and now I am home in time for Christmas. The long, lonely & noisy hours on the ward shared with seven very sick men became a time to think about life, faith, and mortality. Helplessly subject to the regime of the hospital, it would be easy to despair. That way is dangerous. I am truly thankful that I kept hoping and trusting.  I wish I could say it was a deeply spiritual experience. Honestly, it was a dark road… but illuminated by shafts of light and gradually moving toward a clear sky and a hope-filled future.

The experience reminded me of a song I wrote 15 years ago. “Love of a Different Kind” tries to relate the first Christmas, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, to the rest of His life- and even to His death and resurrection. When we sing carols about the angels, the Star, the Baby, and those humbly obedient human beings (Joseph, Mary, the shepherds…) we are declaring that what the human race needed and needs is a love of a different kind. No ordinary affection, no pretty story, no fictional hero- but TRUE love. God proving that He is always involved in the life of this tiny planet set in a vast sea of stars. As Graham Kendrick memorably wrote, “the hands that flung stars into space” are the hands that were crucified.

Surely, after the year we’ve all had, the song of love to Man and peace on Earth is one we should all listen to with open hearts.  May we all have a memorably lovely Christmas.

 

When shepherds came, and angels sang “Glory to God!”
Who would have thought this was the night when history changed?
What can this mean? Love of a different kind!

The baby grew, as babies do, love in his heart.
No-one has seen a love like this- so is it a dream?
What does it mean? Love of a different kind!

The Light that shone in heav’n above is shining now.
The world is full of darkness yet hope lingers on.
What can it mean? Love of a different kind!

Two arms out-stretch’d, a crown of thorns, beginning or end?
The song is sung of love to man, and peace on Earth.
It’s not a dream! Love of a different kind.

A Saviour’s song, that fights the pride, which keeps us away:
But what a price to find the lost did Jesus pay!
Glory to God! Love of a different kind.

© 2004, Richard I. Starling.

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Light Breaks Through

Not a promising sort of day. Cloudy, showery, and cool. Then the light broke through. Dark clouds ripped apart, silver swathe across the sea horizon, and our boat trip suddenly became much more enticing!

That’s the thing about Light. It has immense power to overcome darkness. It is the light and energy of the Sun that powers the weather on the planet, not the clouds that shroud and dull our days. Sooner or later, Light breaks through.

It is less than two weeks to Christmas. The familiar Bible stories and Christmas carols will remind us of angels, of a mysterious Star, of a lamp breaking the darkness as a baby takes breath- and the cosmos celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ.

I was awake early, and sitting with a cuppa waiting for daybreak. Picking up a Bible, and turning to the Letter to the Philippians, I found myself marvelling at the words that Paul used to describe unity and Christlike-living, setting it against the background of the attitude of Jesus. Son of God, yet born in total humility, and living a selfless life of obedient faith. The Light broke through for me- THIS is the message of Christmas!

Philippians 2:1-14 (ANIV)
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed— not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence— continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Do everything without complaining or arguing…