Sing boldly, sweet singer!
Let music ripple on the breeze
as smooth as cream,
as clear as crystal,
sweeter than nectar.
Elegant chorister, soloist divine!
Charm the sunlight with purity,
singing praise for the new day,
pitch perfect, delicious balm,
Nature's remedy for night's sorrow.
Though mouths be silent,
the blackbird sings!
Though heart be darkened,
creation's harmony persists
raising hope in the Light.
This new day is freshly made-
gifted with song and silence,
stirring my spirit,
my Father's blessing
to all who will listen- and love.
(c) Richard Starling 2021
A psalm worth reflecting upon today: Psalm 59:16-17
But as for me, I shall sing of Your strength; Yes, I shall joyfully sing of Your lovingkindness in the morning, For You have been my stronghold And a refuge in the day of my distress. O my strength, I will sing praises to You; For God is my stronghold, the God who shows me lovingkindness.
When looking at the end result, gardening is obviously so easy. This bed of astrantia and lavender just grew! You wish.
Behind every floral display, bag of apples, or immaculate lawn there is a story involving hours of effort and a measure of skill. Today I spent three hours weeding. It’s done, and so am I. My back aches, my knees creak, and the invading brambles have left little thorny souvenirs in my fingers.
The only evidence is the bare soil between the tidier plants. All the sweat and tear-drops have been swallowed by the thirsty soil.
I love gardening- hands in the soil, choosing plants, sowing seed, enjoying the colours and the birdsong. I feel part of Creation in a deeper way. And, often, I feel connected to God. There have been times over the years when knotty issues have been thought & prayed through over a trowel. Looking at the favourite roses, or photographing a choice specimen of rich colour and form, is in a way an act of praise and thanksgiving.
Gardening has parallels to the devotional life: it requires obedience, wisdom, stamina, faith, and discipline. In the same way, building a strong spirituality requires effort, willingness, and humility. Now, the New Testament uses the example of athletes racing as an illustration of discipleship. Runners don’t win accidentally, as a general rule! Personally, running races is a distant memory- but gardening is a current passion.
So then, a gardener’s instruction to Richard of Aldwick: “Dig the soil well, and weed it thoroughly, not letting the brambles take over. Choose plants wisely, and nourish them well- water the soil as necessary, and prune poor growth and dead wood. Wait patiently as God gives growth; enjoy sunshine and gentle rain, enjoy birdsong and give thanks at all times. Watch out for slugs and weevils, and remember to share the joy of your garden with all who pass by.”
God likes gardens- He first gave us one in Eden, and calls us now to be good stewards of this wonderful world. There’s a task for a lifetime!
Poets and saints find meaning and hope in the beauties of nature. The Celtic Christians of Britain, hundreds of years ago, described the world as God’s “Book of Creation” and found there rich stores of food for the soul.
In more recent times, this insight has been restored and many Christians find God still “speaks” with or without words- becoming aware of His Presence, we discover the wonder of mystery. Most of us know relatively little of the botany/biology that informs the experts; yet we still discover in “nature” a wonderful harmony of function and beauty.
It has been said that the one who breaks a thing to discover how it works has left the path of wisdom (JRR Tolkien). This poppy was “broken” when I took the photo, honest! In fact, the poppy is simply at the mid-point of its life: the passing of the petals heralds the growth of seeds that will be poppies in the future.
A short prayer:
Lord, may we see Life and Love in the changing of seasons. As flowers open, as bees labour in sweetness, as seeds are set for future blessing, may we recognise the Hand of God working, and hear again the words of Creation: “It is very good.”
Open our eyes to admire Your art, Your craftsmanship, Your generous spirit! Thank you for the riches given, for marvels to intrigue us, for knowledge to seek, and Love to find.
Worthy, O worthy are You Lord! The whole Earth is full of Your Glory. Keep us, O Lord, in Your heart and in Your Presence, evermore. Amen
"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.
“There’s nothing to see. Move on” said the small group of walkers who paused to see what I was looking at. Yet I spent a happy half-hour looking at this “nothing.” I had a reason.
Can you work out the missing element?
It is mid-October, about 4pm. Until 4.30pm. As I stood, leaning on the fence, everything was still. Scarcely a ripple on the water, very light breeze, and almost complete silence. So peaceful! I was content and stayed focussed on just being there.
Time is what the photo misses. It is frozen history, a moment that is past forever. But because I gave this scene time, I witnessed life. You, the reader, can’t see or hear this Life- you weren’t there, or you moved on too swiftly. Over beyond those reedy mudflats, two swans set off to a lakelet behind the North Wall of the RSPB Reserve. The place was so still, I heard the sound of the wind through the pinions of their wings, swooshing forcefully with every downbeat. An Oystercatcher swept by heading for the beach. Dunlins sprang up and dashed like a high-speed train inches above the water. Ducks passed by, a kestrel hovered spying on the mammal morsels she sought to invite for supper. The piping calls of wading birds echoed across the placid water.
Nothing to see? Rubbish! This scene just needed some time and attention.
So it can be with “hearing God” or even just trying to pray. We give a few moments, but we’re not tuned in. We see nothing of interest, hear nothing to take our attention. What if we invested more time? A day, a week, maybe an hour or two. Perhaps we would hear a gentle Voice of relieved Love- “At last! You can hear me!” – as our senses are sharpened and our attention made real.
I do not think there is any shortcut to hearing God. But giving time and attention is a great start.
God sometimes takes the initiative- He may call out to us, or communicate via a prophet, preacher or stranger. The Holy Bible is the record of what He has already said. Holy Spirit insight may be given in several ways. The Old Testament writers like Amos, Jeremiah, and the Chronicler point out that “If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me.” Jeremiah 29:13 (NLT).
2 Chronicles 15:1 (NLT) Then the Spirit of God came upon Azariah son of Oded, and he went out to meet King Asa as he was returning from the battle. “Listen to me, Asa!” he shouted. “Listen, all you people of Judah and Benjamin! The LORD will stay with you as long as you stay with him! Whenever you seek him, you will find him. But if you abandon him, he will abandon you.…”
Verse 8 tells us that King Asa “heard the words of the prophet and took courage.” Asa became a good king, faithful to God and to the people: he introduced vital reforms, and mostly did well. He sought God with all his heart. He gave time, attention, and obedience.
Perhaps you are “stuck” in a place or time where there is “nothing to see” and you are frustrated. The halls of heaven echo silence.
In that silence the Lord may speak. Wait. (We don’t like waiting, we live in an “instant” society.) Use the time, embrace the silence, cling on to the truth that God is the Revealer and Reconciler. Look for God wholeheartedly: don’t rush away despairingly. In the silence and in peace or turmoil- God will speak.
“Silent” and “Listen” have the same letters, just in a different order; and being silent is often the first step of listening. Start right here, right now.
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.
Back where we started… nearly. East Sussex to West Sussex, via the hills of England. As a child, it seemed hilarious that the local hill areas were called “Downs” instead of “Ups.” It’s still quite funny.
Many youthful hours were spent exploring the South Downs. Foredown, Southwick Hill, Truleigh Hill, the Devil’s Dyke, Lancing Clump, and Mount Caburn… There were favourite walks, and other walks when we kids were “persuaded” to enjoy a long hot slog across rural Sussex. We survived; maybe even thrived!
Later more competitive jaunts featured: including one ambitious navigation exercise eastwards from Brighton which proved interesting when a local farmer demolished a barn which was (unknown to him) supposed to be a crucial waymark that weekend. Teams disappeared in various directions as those groups lacking guidance and map-reading skills improvised. That was a long day.
Welsh mountains, the glorious Lake District, the Peaks of Derbyshire, the delights of Dartmoor, sunny Dunstable Downs- and now living in sight of the South Downs again. I have been privileged to live in beautiful places. Do I have favourites? Yes- all of them!
What started out as family walks to keep us occupied and use up our excessive energy gradually changed into a lifetime’s passion. After a while, I began to “read” landscapes. Their shapes and contours, the pathways, and the flora and fauna became a storybook. In time the countryside became a prayer-book: a favoured place to seek God, and to think through the ups and downs of decision-making and (even more important) the ups and downs of my own heart.
Look at the photo. Rounded contours form a shape painted by evening sunlight. Crops are growing, with the trails of tractors weaving patterns that give a sense of both movement and symmetry. Somehow the farmer overcomes the slopes to maintain straight lines. There is purpose in the landscape that rests on the very bones of the Earth. People pass through, changing the surface, but leaving the immense chalk mounds untouched.
How does that reflect our own lives? Our small ambition, even our great purpose, is acted out on a mighty stage. The hills represent the great unchangeable structure of the world- our greatest efforts and achievements, our human history there to be re-written by the next generation.
Climbing these hills is always laborious. The summits are never easily gained! Even the journey down-slope is hard on the knees- but the view from the summit, the sense of attainment, the awe that comes from being a very small creature in a huge, huge planet… THAT is a place for vision, for choices, celebration and encouragement. If you allow, it is a place for worship of the Most High God.
Perhaps, using the photo or your own memories, you can spend some moments of prayerful reflection on your own life, your ups and downs, and your faith. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God’s favourite “hill” and the promise that humanity WILL come to worship… why not now?
Isaiah 2:2 (New Living Translation) In the last days, the mountain of the LORD’s house will be the highest of all— the most important place on earth. It will be raised above the other hills, and people from all over the world will stream there to worship.
High in the Alps is a grassy slope, enriched with myriad flowers. Home to butterflies, bees, and the harsh cry of raven and eagle.
People come here in the winter to ski and make merry.
Summer is a quieter time, a few serious walkers striding out a strenuous path- and many ramblers, seeking rest and quiet in the vaulted cathedral of creation.
It is a “thin place” to those seeking God’s Presence. A long slow climb, or the near-silent flight of the cable-cars, then sitting, reflecting, prayers with or without words. Magnificent beauty, the grandeur of mountains already ancient before human footsteps wore pathways or eyes beheld the rich tapestry of an ever-changing display of light and shadow, sun and cloud. Above the treeline our perspective on the world changes. We can become open to wonder- if we so choose.
Far below in the valley, the roads are lines with ant-sized cars. Houses are tiny, the railway almost unnoticed. The noise of “civilisation” fades under the whistle of wind in the grass, the sawing rasp of grasshoppers, and the silence of stone.
It is quiet- no, it is peaceful. Maybe a storm will pass its wings overhead, the clang of cowbells may drift up from below… For those willing to sit, to wait, and to wonder, it becomes a grander Colosseum where stone walls stretch to the clouds and beyond: instead of a Man-place, it is a God-place. He is here. So are you.
What use will we make of this soul-restoring, humbling beauty? Will our restless heart demand attention- or will our spirit fall silent in the Presence of the Holy One?
God awaits our chosen response. The world is hushed.