That Loving Feeling…

Halfway through our worship service this morning I realised that I was feeling very happy and content. We were being led by musicians and singers from our youth group and they played well and sensitively.  Jamie engaged us in discovering who we are, and what God thinks of us, and my smile widened.

Please don’t jump to the conclusion that on the other weeks at church I have been miserable! Nothing could be further from the truth. Today was simply a special moment.

I didn’t just know my faith was true- I felt strangely comforted in my heart of hearts, the centre of my being.  Can I explain it? No, not really.  Can I depend on my feelings as a measure of my faith or the truth of Christian belief? No, my feelings can go up and down because of health, tiredness, weather or something that goes wrong and annoys me.

Are “loving feelings” good? YES! If my faith is only knowledge about God, or some hope of a better life after this miserable one… then something is wrong with me!  To know God is to love Him, and to experience REAL love is a distinctive way. Paul writes in Ephesians:

Ephesians 1:3-4 (Message)
How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He’s the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love.

God’s love is His divine choice. He has set his heart on us. Today was one of those moments where it seemed that he whispered in my ear… “You are loved, and chosen, and I wanted to remind you!”

That loving feeling may not stay forever. But God’s love WILL last forever. Chosen before He dug the trenches for the foundation of the Universe, he has set his heart on little old Earth and those amazing yet exasperating human beings. Jesus came to this world so that we can be reconciled to the Creator, Lover, Sustainer, Provider and Redeemer- the Lord of All. No wonder there was a loving feeling involved! Whatever tomorrow brings, and however this uncertain life unfolds… God has loved US so we can love Him.

That’s the best feeling and the deepest Truth I know. May God whisper love in your ear today!

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The cutest and most lovable Meerkat…

 

Eugene said “Slow Down…”

Eugene Peterson had a stated purpose to “change the pastoral imagination of pastors today,” to urge them “to slow down and to be present to their lives” so that they could help their congregations do the same. Eugene died this week.

There are some people I would love to have met. He is definitely one of them. Quite probably I would have been reduced to embarrassed mumbling and shamefaced excuses, because Eugene Peterson had a way of getting to the heart of big issues. That encounter would have exposed my shortcomings and excuses. Alongside that dread, I get the strong impression he would have been gracious and understanding: and would have done his best to help and encourage me. Peterson knew God and His ways: and he would have blessed me as I know he blessed many who did encounter him directly. He lived to bring Christ to many. His books helped me.

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I first read his book “Contemplative Pastor” at a time when the crazy pressures of ministry were burning out my soul. Complex problems needed solutions I couldn’t find, and rushing from A to B to X was grinding my heart to dust.

It wasn’t about losing faith, and there were blessings around in plenty. But… there was just too much of everything, and I needed help. Christian ministry is a calling that draws on the deepest part of the heart, and if we are not wise we can find that we are drying up on the inside. Preaching in the name of Jesus is a joy and a heavy responsibility. Pastoring people is a huge privilege and challenge. You get to share the whole gamut of human experience.

The emotional and spiritual cost of pouring yourself into the blender where real life mixes with heavenly Truth, and then trying to distil precious living words so others may draw closer to the Lord, is terribly high. Faced with the expectations of the congregation, the community, yourself, and what you think God expects- the spirit reels in shock and dread. I needed to learn that God is more gentle and patient than expected. He is also utterly Holy, amazingly gracious, and awesome beyond words.

There is a very unfunny “joke” about ministers only working one day a week. If people only knew how much that “joke” makes pastors want to throttle the jester! It is an act of grace to smile gently and refrain from applying the “right knee of fellowship.” (Let the reader understand!)

Most ministers I know work too long, too often, and too hard. It’s because we know that our words can be life or death. We don’t want to let anyone down. God called us, and we said “Yes.” It demands commitment of a high order.

“Slow down.” Recover the heart of your calling. Seek God for Himself; seek God because of love given and received. Seek God, because apart from Him we can do nothing.

Jesus took time out to be with his Heavenly Father. Jesus went into the wild places, the mountains, the lakeside. When He came back to the disciples and the crowds He knew His Father’s will- and obeyed it totally.

Reading “Contemplative Pastor” was refreshing if challenging. It was a lifeline to a weary soul because it put my hand back into the hand of Jesus. My mind was opened again to the dynamic rhythm of the Psalms and the Gospels. I re-learned the importance of retreat, of quiet, of silence and solitude. I discovered that there is a loving Father awaiting the “prodigal pastors” who run off to do God’s work for Him… and then find out they can’t and weren’t intended to. (I realise I have to be careful here- please don’t think I intended to draw a parallel between pastoring a church and tending the pigs!!!) 

Eugene’s life work taught many of us to slow down, not to be caught up in the folly of rushing, competing, or manipulating. He pointed me to Jesus again. Through Jesus, the Open Gate, I was able to come into the Presence of Holy Almighty God, Father, Son and Spirit.

One day I hope to thank Eugene Peterson. It will be a long queue!  Thank God for this fellow-servant, this deep well of Spirit-filled wisdom, and for the writings that still point to Jesus.

Oh yes- this advice to “slow down” doesn’t just apply to pastors. How is your rush-ometer doing? Seek God. Here is Eugene’s paraphrase of  Matthew 11:28-30 (Message)
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest.  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. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” 

Slowing down… sounds good to me!

 

 

Autumn’s days- why so sad?

Leaves are beginning to change colour. Some birds have already headed south for the winter. The annual influx of Russian starlings has started- soon we will see the mass murmurations as they flock together at dusk. Migrating wildfowl are joining in aerial ballet, and probing the sands at the local RSPB reserve. The poets are inspired by autumn’s glories: perhaps we can be too.

Why sad Oct 2014_00024Sheffield Park

“Why is it that so many of us persist in thinking that autumn is a sad season? Nature has merely fallen asleep, and her dreams must be beautiful if we are to judge by her countenance.” ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge

There is so much to see, so many photographs waiting for my hungry lens. As the year draws towards its end, it dons glad rags and starts to party!

Autumn is a time of change and fruitfulness: as John Keats wrote, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…”

The season reminds us of the importance of rest, and the necessary process of preparing for rebirth.

Some of my favourite sayings are found in the Bible.  Ecclesiastes 3:1, “For everything there is a season.”  In Ecclesiastes 3:11, “God has made everything beautiful in its time.”

Embrace the autumn. Rejoice in its splendours. Accept the natural rhythm and find peace in the quieting of the summer days. Let your thoughts turn in gratitude and thanksgiving for the time we are given and the gentleness of rest. Live in this moment, this season, instead of hanging onto the past or rushing impatiently into tomorrow. In the quiet, make space to seek out & find the beauty of NOW and the presence of God in the present.  Leave regrets behind, and use this season to prepare for the unknown future. Seek the dreams of peace and joy.

May sweet dreams and beautiful colours become a vision of what God can do in our lives and, through us, in our communities and world.

Galatians 6:9 (New Living Translation) So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.” 

We may be sad for a good reason. Yet there is hope in the changing seasons of life. Sweet dreams!

Countless, not pointless

I love walking along the beach at low tide. This morning was bright with silver light and blue sky. Calm weather meant the sea was just rippling in gently across the hidden life of the sand. Uncloaked and glistening, the miniature sand dunes gave up their secrets for a brief while- even as I watched the tide turned and the sea began to reclaim its margins, and hide its secrets again.

Sand ripples stood in stark relief as low sun-rays skipped from peak to peak. Evidence of sand worms was everywhere: cast like sculptures, and gulls probed, looking for breakfast while they could. Stranded seaweed sprawled sunburned, out of its element, mute witness to the storms that passed just days ago. This frond of abandoned oarweed curled, translucent as light glowed through its soft tissues. The colour made a strong contrast to the greyish brown sand, and the regularity of the patterns appealed to my eye.

Then I looked closely at the sand. I could see and feel the grains of sand: but I couldn’t count them. Billions of tiny pieces. The sand stretched as far as I could see in both directions. Tiny lives existed in every pool, every patch. Beyond my ken, but opened out for my wonder. I thought I’d share that wonder with you, though my words and photo do it scant justice.

Here are some words from the pen of the Bible’s best songwriter:

Psalm 139:17-18 (NLT) “How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered! I can’t even count them; they outnumber the grains of sand! And when I wake up, you are still with me!”

God’s love for us is as incalculable as totalling the sands of the seashore or the stars of the galaxies. Some moments we can see love more clearly. Pause, and think about that!

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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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Why me?

“Why me?”   Good question. We often ask it when life falls apart in some way. Life’s like that. Usually there is no easy answer to the question, and we don’t always like or want the harder answers. Sometimes there is no real answer at all, just the pain of it. Everyone knows this experience.

We could ask the same “why me?” question when good things happen- and the answer-choice would be much the same.

For over 45 years I have been given the enormous privilege of talking about (and on behalf of) God. Starting in Boys’ Brigade bible classes, doing school assemblies, youth clubs, and then as a pastor-preacher in churches.

This morning I spoke at a church near Portsmouth. They said nice things to me afterwards (which is always encouraging!).

A year ago I retired from full-time work as a pastor. I still do a bit of speaking, perhaps 8 times in this last year. Although I’ve been doing this for so long, I am still amazed that I have been given the privilege. It is an awesome responsibility to speak to others about God. Why me? There are many worthier and more capable people God could have sent. Why me? Answers on a postcard please!

I’m not alone in feeling like this. Most if not all preachers have times when they would willingly give up. Does my life match up to my words? Do I speak out of love and compassion? Do I know what I’m on about? Do I know God, or just know stuff about Him?

Paul the apostle wrote about this: Ephesians 3:8 (Message)
“When it came to presenting the Message to people who had no background in God’s way, I was the least qualified of any of the available Christians. God saw to it that I was equipped, but you can be sure that it had nothing to do with my natural abilities. And so here I am, preaching and writing about things that are way over my head, the inexhaustible riches and generosity of Christ.”

Today I simply want to thank the churches, schools, community groups and individuals who have been kind enough and patient enough to listen. Then I need to say a reverent “thank You” to God who has been willing to accept me, love me, and save me; then give me a purpose for living and speaking and writing. I still think “Why me?” but I appreciate the opportunities to see heavenly Love transform people’s lives- including my own. I’m not perfect, and won’t be in this lifetime. Jesus IS perfect and can even use an ordinary man or woman to do stuff that matters for eternity.

Can I ask for one thing? Pray for preachers, pastors, and the people in churches who dare to speak and serve in the Name of Jesus. Pray for them, appreciate them, encourage them, (and sometimes forgive them because they are human too). They may be feeling “yuk” OR “wow”…. or could be struggling with life and the “why me” moments. They speak because God has put a responsibility on their shoulders, and a fire in their heart. Please fan the flame. You will benefit too!

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Grass withers. Life goes on.

Cutting the grass is a thankless task. It grows back.

Watching an Austrian family haymaking under the Gampenbahn (cable car) cured me of moaning (except on really bad days). Operating on a 45-degree slope, 3,000 feet up an Alp, in blistering sunshine; they speedily and apparently cheerfully mowed the high meadow and then, working by hand, dragged the cut grass into piles so the sun could dry it as fragrant hay for the winter stock. It makes my few square feet of lawn seem very insignificant. And my complaining very wimpish. No more moaning for me.

We take grass for granted. Even in this hot summer, the grass has survived the near-drought. With a few splashes of rain, it greened up quickly and reached for the skies!

Grass is temporary. A perfect lawn is a joy to see, but a nightmare to maintain. Long grass in fields is cut off in its prime for silage or hay, or grazed remorselessly by farm stock.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA(Ornamental grasses, Eden Project)

It can be very attractive. These ornamental grasses are displayed at the Eden Project, in the wonderful conservation gardens set in a reclaimed Cornish quarry.

The “horsetail” grasses are really rather gorgeous when you look closely. Beauty has purpose- these waving tails are the seed-heads that offer some “immortality” to the grass.

When turned into hay, it is the mixture of seeds, flowers, stalks and herbs that make delicious cattle feed, sweet and fragrant.

Grass always dries up.

What can’t be used, eaten, or stored is thrown away, burned up, or composted. And have you ever smelled the ghastly pong of silage? No grass grows up wanting to be silage.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the writers of several books in the Bible use grass as an example or warning. Politicians and rulers become proud, even arrogant; some “make history” or at least a reputation before they go. Go they must. The world is cursed with very arrogant and loud people who have an inflated sense of their own importance, and not much perspective on how long “history” may be after their contribution has been reaped or discarded. Grass is probably one of the most widespread plant types across Planet Earth. Just like people are the most noticeable (and damaging) species of animal life. Grass withers. What stands eternal?

1 Peter 1:24-25 
As the Scriptures say, “People are like grass; their beauty is like a flower in the field. The grass withers and the flower fades. But the word of the Lord remains forever.” And that word is the Good News that was preached to you.

It is 2 o’clock in the middle of the night as I type. Sleep has evaded me so far, and rather than disturb sleeping beauty in the bedroom, I am thinking rueful thoughts about the grass I will have to mow later this morning. I suspect the neighbours might be ungrateful if I go and do it now… “Hark, sweet nightingale!  What noisy Flymo is this, larking about in the dark? Sweet motor, desist your whirling rotor that we may sleep in peace tonight.”

Hay-ho. Enough of such whimsy. But in these quiet dark minutes my thoughts turn to what is truly valuable, worthwhile, eternal. Not the grassy stuff, not even the beauty of the flowers, but the One who made it all, and who sustains life as we live it, and who has prepared a future glory and destiny that will outshine our best and hide our worst. The Word of the Lord… the Good News proclaimed in body, speech and action. Jesus who picked corn in the fields, enjoyed the beauty of field and majesty of mountain, and who is reconciling Creation and threshing out the weeds. The glory that is to come, so much more than we have yet seen. That will remain forever- and I’m looking forward to seeing what true beauty and REAL real life will be like. That which WON’T wither.

Sweet dreams! Sleep tight. When you awake, look for what is good, and true, and holy, and wonderful. Because that is what life is really all about. The “forever” stuff.

Words & photos (c) Richard Starling, 2018.