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.

Only an also-ran?

Cheetahs used to be an also-ran (if you’ll pardon the pun!) as far as I was concerned. Tigers are still my favourite big cat, but I have become much more fond of cheetahs. A simple reason. When we lived near Whipsnade Zoo, the cheetahs were more co-operative subjects- so I spent time photographing them. The other big cats were often sleeping or hiding out of sight. But the cheetahs had an accessible enclosure and often sat out in the open.

Their grace and beauty won me over. Their coat is lovely, and the expression in their eyes entranced me. Cheetahs look at the horizon ready to streak after a passing lunch. They seem to look through visitors with an expression of dignified distain. Obviously, we humans are not worth chasing… but we are welcome to give our adulation as is proper to ALL cats. Cheetahs pose to be admired by the passing plebs.

In this photo, the sun was burning through a misty morning, and just as the cheetah stirred, a gorgeous back-light highlighted its fur in pure gold. A much better picture than the hoped-for but dozing lion hidden in the long grass well away from my lens!

Someone asked me recently about getting to know God better. I don’t know any real shortcuts- patience and desire are key. One thing I have discovered… The more time I spend seeking out holy ways and knowledge, the closer I come to God. Perhaps I have found a way to “cheetah” after all… 

Much as I fell in love with cheetahs by default and opportunism, I have come to love Jesus Christ because He has put himself into my path by many small revelations and experiences. I have come to recognise His voice and ways by encounter rather than some lofty pietism which puts the object of faith out of reach. Too big, too distant, too important to be bothered with a mere human like me.

The truth is that God’s heart is set on us, and the Father sends the Son and Holy Spirit to draw us closer. His goodness and holiness are available to us through faith and obedience. Don’t forget the parable Jesus told about a “prodigal son” whose Father REJOICED in the rebel’s return. We are welcome in God’s presence because He has made a Way.

Two short scriptures to meditate on:

James 4:8 (TNIV) Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded… 

Proverbs 18:24 (TNIV)  One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.033ZSLfauna0316adj

Ruins, remembering, and restored hope

We saw a lot of history on holiday. Quite a bit of it was broken! Rome has been an important city for over 2,000 years: as a centre of civilisation, military power, and religious influence.

The “Pax Romana” – peace enforced by taxation and the Legions – shaped large swathes of modern Europe and Asia Minor. At its height, Rome wrote its story in large letters.

That legacy is attested by the remnants and ruins of a glorious and cruel past. Statues and temples to forgotten gods and heroes; the shell of the Colosseum which attracts hordes of tourists.

It is a monument to the failure of an Empire.

“Give them bread and circuses” was the bribe to a jaded populace of proud greed and restlessness. To keep the masses quiet, Caesars offered food and entertainment. On the surface, Rome was great and grand. But its policy of conquest eventually failed. Hordes of enemies invaded and drove the boundaries back and back until Rome fell.

The ruined Colosseum hosted the Games. The games degenerated into cruelty: gladiators fought to the death. Those not killed outright were at the whim of the people and the dreaded “thumbs down” signal which meant their death as losers.

Later it became the backdrop for the martyrdom of many Christians: Lions 5, Christians 0. Public executions became a way of feeding the blood-lust of the mob.

Rome fell. In its falling, much of civilisation was lost as the “Dark Ages” shrouded the Empire’s corpse.

The Colosseum stands as a tombstone for Rome’s glory.

As Rome declined, the Christian Church was spreading. Although itself fractured by disputes over doctrine, authority and culture, Christianity “absorbed” some of the best of Roman ingenuity. The Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and (for better or worse) dragged the church into the politics of Empire. The fall of Rome led to the division of Christianity: Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic and Celtic… later through revivals, reversals, and reform the Protestants emerged. A history of conflict mixed with a search for “the” truth of churchmanship.

Jumping to our own time, we can see monuments to both success and failure in politics and religion. We live in turbulent times where much is being shaken and disturbed, knocked down and rebuilt. “Christendom,” the establishment of Christianity within politics, is ending. The structures and denominations may be collapsing, but the Kingdom of God still stands. Millions of people throughout the world become followers of Christ every year: and the purpose of God is not defeated by our temporary struggles.

In the prayer of Jesus, there is a phrase worth contemplating whenever the future seems in doubt. Followers of Jesus still pray this regularly… “May Your will be done on Earth, AS IN HEAVEN.”

Almighty God is still the undefeated Sovereign; and the Kingdom of God stills grows. One day Jesus will be acknowledged as Lord and the merciful Redeemer. The glory and power belong to Him and is expressed through Christians who are helping build a legacy that will not fall. What is it?

LOVE. Love that is compassionate, freely given, and flowing out of hearts and minds transformed by the Spirit of Jesus.

Lord, may Your will be done in me, in us, today and always- until the King of Kings is crowned and Creation is restored. And then for eternity. Amen.