Ups and Downs- Look, See, Pray

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.

Restlessness? – Look, See, Pray

St Anton am Arlberg

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.

The Lord is in this place.

Potential- Look, See, Pray

It has potential. This dahlia bud will develop into a glorious scarlet flower, which will be a bee-feeding station for several days, will attract insects to pollinate it, and eventually produce seeds for the future of dahlia existence.

Right now, it won’t win prizes. Interesting shapes, but unless you are a biologist or keen gardener it won’t attract a crown until the flower is in full-on-in-your-face-red mode.

If you judge this dahlia at this point, you’ll pass it over- despite its potential. Unless you are a photographer, in which case (like me) you will take its picture and marvel at the wonder of such a diverse and splendid Creation.

What will be grows from what is.

The principle applies in our spirituality too. Philippians 1:6 (NLT):  And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.

Once submitted to Christ, we have potential. That potential will take time and effort; and the direct assistance of Holy Spirit power. Just think. The Creator who designed dahlias and created the laws of physics that enable us to enjoy its colour also sees potential in US.

We are often too quick to judge, to criticise, or to dismiss. I am so grateful for people who saw potential in me: and to God Himself who placed that potential within me. I am deeply indebted to the people who kept on trusting, testing, and investing in me so that the potential began to turn into effective and attractive fruitfulness.

Today I sat in the shade of my palm tree and looked at the garden I am rebuilding. Obstacles have been removed, the soil is being improved, plants are settling in well and produce wonderful form and colour. It might not be at this stage without the pandemic! I have been isolating at home, and have been working dahlia, sorry, DAILY, with a plan, some tools, and a little knowledge. Now it is becoming rewarding and enjoyable- potential is being realised, and I love it.

As I sat there, mug of tea in hand, I prayed in thanksgiving and in humility. Grateful for potential fulfilled in me and in the garden God has given me to tend.

Jeremiah the prophet spoke to a people in exile (a bit like a terrible pandemic…) and it helped me remember my task. Plant a garden, and pray for the community.

Jeremiah 29:4-7 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

A situation with potential… What might God do with believers who settle into their community and seek blessing for that community! Rather than a selfish “Bless me, Lord” prayer, to mean wholeheartedly “Bless THEM, Lord.”

What God has begun in me- and in you- will be completed and fulfilled by God. Potential for hope, love, joy, healing, grace, mercy and peace. Thanks for letting me see this dahlia, Lord… and what it shows of potential for change, growth, and glory. Amen.

Reflection of Light – Look, See, Pray

Not every experience, photograph or person has to be outstandingly dynamic. Ordinary is good.

We have become addicted to the buzz of adrenaline. Bigger, better, faster, louder, brighter- and usually more expensive to us as “buyer” and to the ordinary person doing the producing. This is not, in my opinion, a “good thing.” We become greedy, and then dissatisfied when our latest “fix” doesn’t meet our expectations.

So today’s photo is distinctly ORDINARY. Reeds, grasses, water, colour, and a reflection. Not even a duck or dragonfly. It just IS. And that, my friends, is just fine.

Bellamy or Attenborough might get excited about the botany or biology. It’s a habitat but we don’t know for whom. Perhaps Ratty and Mole will pass by, messing about on the river…

Why have I bothered to post it? It won’t excite many people, naturalists apart.

Two theological reasons. First, the Creation narratives in the Bible record one amazing truth. God saw “That it was GOOD.” Everything that existed through the act of creation has divine approval. (We’ve made a mess of much of it, but that’s a story for a different day with different questions!)

Second, the actual reflection. What is it? Light. What we see as a reflection is the light coming back from our subject. Our Sun has flooded the atmosphere with light; it bounces off the grass, reeds and water. Our eyes receive that light and our brain interprets what we “see” in terms of what is there, that which is revealed by the light.

That’s the point, really. The photo is pleasant, colourful, and shapely in an ordinary sort of way. Ordinary things (and people) are GOOD… and defined by the Light they reflect.

My life actually gains its meaning not from my ego or experiences, but the quality and quantity of Light that I reflect. My ordinary daily “being” is defined by how clearly and accurately I reflect the Light of the World: which is of course one of the descriptions of Jesus Christ. I think I should pray next.

Hey, God, just a few words, if I may.

I know I’m pretty ordinary. I shall never be a Dad or grandad, but I love all my family. I’ll never play football for England, I’m not going to be the best preacher in the world, nor the best photographer. I can make the effort to be the best “me” possible- if You give me some help! – and I can stay as clean as possible, inside and out. Then I will reflect Your Light. It won’t make me famous, or rich, or really successful, ‘cos I’m ordinary, and I’m not sure I’d do well with too much fame or celebrity status. So please give me a Hand to be kind, decent, holy and a help to others: and let Your Light shine on me so I can reflect Your love accurately and well. Thank You for giving me a lovely wife to share my days, for allowing me to serve a bit in churches and the community, and giving me the wit and willingness to know that ordinary is good. Not just “good enough” but actually GOOD, the way You intended me to be.
I’m sorry I haven’t always managed to be “me” very well- and the regrets and repentances of my life are best left to Your grace-filled mercy. When those mistakes and sins have hurt other people, Lord, please comfort and heal them: and I trust Your promise about forgiving and being forgiven, so I also want to say that I forgive the people who have been less than kind or helpful to me.
All in all, Lord Jesus, please let me reflect Light all my days- and to enjoy You and Your gifts, always. Then I reckon You will look at the reflection I am, and say that’s good too. You will even see Your own Face reflected in me- and that’s the highest honour I could ever, ever have. Amen.

If any of that reflects who you are, or how you feel, reflect on that for a bit… and may God shine the Light of His smiling face on you too. God specialises in making the ordinary “good” and, in His eyes, special.

Grebe Expectations- Look, See, Pray

“Grebe Expectations,” a lesser known book of birds by Charles Dickens. (No, Richard, be serious!) “Grebe Expectations” is what I got when I photographed this Grebe at Pagham reserve. I packed my lens and headed for home, eager to see the bird immortalised.

“Big Disappointments” was the sequel. The grebe was too small, and my focus was not sharp. Yet I had a strange reluctance to bin it- the memory of sharing a few priceless minutes observing its world, trying to guess where it would surface after each dive… I was invested in Gregory Grebe’s existence.

So I played with the technology.. and the picture took a texture, a form that suggested Grebes without claiming to own one. A brushstroke filter added a touch of artistry. Then the poet’s muse dived in the lake…

More odious than ode, words took their place as I tried to capture a visual moment in solid prose, or poetry of a kind.

What is its worth as a photo, a poem, a thing? To me it is real, the securing of a past moment that touched my soul. No-one else may share my pride of creation: a daubing with doggerel, a whimsy whispering in the evening light.

There is, however, a parable in this Grebe.  A man went out to seek beauty, and finding a grebe fishing, prepared his camera for a trophy. Attainment did not equal inspiration, and a failure was clear to see. “Not good enough!” cried the critics. Shamed and blamed, the photographer told himself what he should have done.

But the colours enticed, and the grebe WAS there. So the creative urge did a surge, the program offered a new possibility, and a poem was born on a failed canvas.

Then the Great Artist looked and smiled, for His child had pinned a clumsy picture on the fridge door of Heaven, and smiled with tremulous eyes at his Father’s face. “It’s for You, Dad. I’m sorry it isn’t as good as I hoped…”

Smiles beamed from the Throne Room. “That’s fine, my boy- I made that Grebe for you, to fill your mind and soul with the wonder of Creation. And I love your picture, because you created it for Me.”

God of the second chance… Lord of the gracious heart. Father of the child who fails, and tries, and loves as best he can.

Truly, “Grebe Expectations” has given me a prayer of thankfulness tonight. May you see the beauty, the wonder in this world, and offer what you see to the Father who loves us.

Disappointments can be gateways to renewed joy!  Nice one, Gregory Grebe.Grebe artist 007Pagham 030518

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.

Secret and Sacred – Look, See, Pray

Deep down in the valley the trees hide their treasure. Down there a river flows, water brown from the peat washed off the moor. A track wanders between the trees with fallen leaves as a rustling carpet for dogs and kids to play in. Birds and secretive mammals watch carefully those who pass by: squirrels swear from their lofty seats and throw acorns to encourage departure.

If you go far enough, a graceful stone bridge arches the water so drovers and foresters can cross.

Go further, and find a stump or stone. Just sit in silence. No traffic sounds, no signal on mobiles, just the birds, the beasties and the breeze. Stay long enough, and a deeper stillness slips into your soul.

Far from distractions, the silence becomes comfortable. Only natural noises can be heard, forming a gentle background of peacefulness which allows the silence of the soul to bring rest.

The secret place becomes sacred. The signature of the Creator embellishes the quiet beauty with an invitation to inhabit the peace… and allow the Presence of Christ to open a chapter of awareness and grace in the Book of Life.

Words are important- but they are not the only speech. Silence is eloquent.MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

All it needs is a secret place where our heart can meet God’s faithful fathering. This is one such place. Have you found yours?

Here is a refuge, a sacred place of worship and reconciliation. Nearer, my God, to You.

Practice this sacred silence, and it becomes a peace within the soul, available any “when” and every “where.” God IS with us. We simply need to be aware- and engage.

Time to Reflect- Look, See, Pray

Getting away for a few days was great. Preaching a different church, meeting up with a bit of family and a couple of friends, using National Trust membership to enjoy a bit of culture, heritage, and beauty.

Now it has been time to reflect.
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I didn’t really notice the reflection of the lily in the water when I took the photo. The pond was beside a path through the woods, and time was limited. When I downloaded to the computer, and put it up on a bigger screen, I had a pleasant surprise. All the gorgeousness of the water-lily was repeated in a reflection.

Without slowing down to download, I would have missed it.

How typical of modern busy living. Tomorrow is Sunday, a day for putting God first, for offering worship, for taking a “sabbath” rest. It will be a time to reflect on faith and look more closely at how to live as fully as Jesus intended (John 10 v10).

I hope to see God a little more clearly.  To notice things I might miss in the rush, and in seeing them to be prompted in prayer and obedience.

May I invite you to make a time and space to reflect on the week just past? Time to “download” and take a proper look. It is a simple thing, and God may “speak” to you through silence, sight, or scripture. Beauty that may have passed us by could have another chance to share the heart of our Heavenly Father.

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Here is beauty- and beauty is God’s gift to a weary soul. Peace and grace be yours! Amen.

Psalm of the Rose- Look, See, Pray

Sing to the Lord a NEW song!  Let my whole being worship You!

Photographing a rosebud which survived the heavy rain this week inspired me to write my own Psalm. The sheer delicate beauty of roses always attracts me, and they make such striking images.

So here is my “Psalm of the Rose”….  I hope it inspires you to focus your attention on Almighty God for a few moments this morning.

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May the peace and grace of God keep you in eternal peace.

 

How lovely is this new day!
Everything in my soul rejoices.
Radiant Sun, warming my heart;
Gentle breeze, charming my skin.
Roses, arise! Declare the Creator’s joy.
Birds, sing anthems! Declare that God is good.
Let all that lives praise the Lord.
You, O Lord, are mighty, Your heart delights in us.
Let all that has breath sing praise to your Holy Name.                       (c) Richard Starling, 2019

Dusk on Fire – Look, See, Pray

“It’s just another sunset.”  Mighty God, you set the skies on fire tonight.

Molten gold and crimson blended in glorious blaze that turned the sea to liquid light. Lasting a few short minutes until dusk dimmed the display; and the balm of darkness hushed the world.

Who owns the “rights”? Who will package dusk as merchandise to make more gold?

Thrown with carefree abandon, the Artist of the Earth squanders another masterpiece for those eyes that see, the hearts that quiver, the souls that magnify God.

Wasted? Never a waste! Priceless extravagance of the Father’s heart, spent in celebration of Creation and salvation.

Rich beauty invested in moments of grace, as splendour wakes humility. Witnesses of the Glory Fire are touched by awe, moved by majesty, drawn closer by Love. A luminous moment of numinous awareness. Transcending mortality, the Light imprints joy on the soul of those who truly see.

Water, dust, air- and the rays of the distant Sun. Such a palette of pigment born from starlight and heaven’s light! Farewell to a day that was gifted by God! What will tomorrow bring? What rich new gift will speak the Love of eternity? Will we truly see?

O Lord of grace and mercy, help us to read the canvasses painted across sky and sea. Teach us to notice your Present Love proclaimed with a shout, a whisper, a sunset.

Look! See! The signature of God, the Name above all names. All Earth responds and praises the Three-in-One, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer of Life. May our thoughts, our prayers, and our longings echo the angel song. Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty! Heaven and Earth are filled with His glory.

Or was it just another gaudy sky? You must decide.