The peace of the green trees be ours and calm our thoughts tonight; The song of Creation bring harmony and help our minds to rest. Industrious insects garden our world, as birds bring an offering of music; the streams bring the waters of life, and a woodland symphony is born! Creatures large and small have their being in this cathedral canopied by trees. O Lord most High, O Lord most holy, thank you for this place. The joy of blue skies overwhelms us! Softness of raindrops caress our heads. Clouds of gentleness soothe our days, and may wholeness be our portion. (c) Richard Starling, 2021.
“It’s raining again” sang Supertramp, “you know it’s hard to pretend…”
A broken love, disappointment, bereavement, ruined plans, a pandemic… We know the feeling. The rain just goes on and on, and we try put a brave face on things even as we are dying inside.
A wise man once commented “There are no strong people.”
You may not agree completely, but anybody and everybody can be broken. As I write, there are brave people in Afghanistan feeling utterly desperate. Another earthquake hit Haiti last week, wreaking havoc once more. War in Yemen. Discarded people in Britain living on the streets, families using foodbanks to survive (in one of the wealthiest nations in the world!). Millions of impoverished ordinary human beings in every continent trodden down into the mud as the rains keep pouring down.
Even Jesus said “The poor will always be with you.” Sounds grim.
Every person’s own suffering is uniquely valid and equally heartrending: and ours is the first generation to experience at second-hand the tragedies of the whole world in real time. Super-fast communication means the “NEWS” lashes the ears and eyes of the planet within moments of disaster. The pace of information overload has increased exponentially over the last 100 years- we are so soaked in it that we have a phrase, “compassion fatigue,” to express our diminishing responses and our helplessness. Many do try to help, and astonishing generosity makes a difference sometimes: but against that, others with wealth and influence take a selfish view and wash their hands of the problems.
The rain just goes on and on, and we try put a brave face on things even as the world dies.
“The rain falls upon the just And also on the unjust fellas But mostly it falls upon the just Cause the unjust have the just’s umbrellas.” ~ Cormac McCarthy
But we are not without hope. The consistent message of the Bible is that God cares for all, has a special care for the poor and suffering, and WILL establish justice- with or without our help.
Pretending not to be affected by trouble is simply unreal and ultimately unsuccessful. Trying to solve all the world’s problems is beyond our scope- the best we can do is make a difference to this one… and the next one… and so on. My responsibility- and yours- must be to do what we can; and to be as trustingly obedient to God as we can. The Book of Revelation has a lovely phrase about special trees in a time yet to come: “and the leaves are for the healing of the nations.”
To love God, and to love God’s ways, is the only hope-filled life choice we can make: to love Him, and work with Him, and to recognise the scope of Jesus as Saviour, Redeemer, and Lord of all Creation that yearns to be reconciled- even as we run away from the Reconciler! When the rains fall, and fall, and fall… it’s time to fall on our knees and cry out to God for help. He will answer… even though we live through the cloudburst. There is hope.
This is what God is like- in a verse taken from a song of faith, thousands of years old. Hold on to this description of the Just and Holy God Eternal- which was lived out in the flesh by Jesus Christ.
Psalm 113:7 (NIV)
“He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap…”
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
A song on the radio… remember transistor radios?
"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.
Frost songs shiver
as sunshine emerges
from misty skies.
Robins, wrens, blackbirds chortle
happy sounds of being alive!
Nightly ice defeated.
Fluffed feathers form
Beady eyes twinkle, like black stars
sharply searching, seeking food,
frozen fast to end.
Such silver songs!
tinkling through air
and hope into a busy day.
Time for joy, sung thanksgiving,
God is to be praised.
Lord of heaven’s angel choirs
had no need of robin
or frosted joy.
For us they sing, yet to Him
they harmonise sweet music
that makes the careless care.
in frosty air, from gilded perch,
Lord, if on this morning banquet
I do not feed my hungry soul-
Forgive again, and make the robin sing.
(c) Richard Starling, 2021
Windhover, eye-sharp flight
waits… waits… until scurrying feet
betray voles to violence.
Seated on rising air, gnawing need
fierce nestlings, strong kestrel sons,
life the price for life.
Thrilled by hunter,
weeping for the small,
prey needing to pray,
furry squeak of death or life.
Hunter or hunted,
the eyes of God above see
no life is spent
but in the knowledge of the Highest.
Lord, we watch and marvel
As life exists hungrily
living on the edge.
Living on the edge…
where the blink of an eye
sees the meal taken
or the great escape!
Mysteries and miracles!
we shed tears for the dying,
watch the drama of life persist.
This, this is blood-real.
Only the Creator knows
rhyme or reason for now-
but the Story plays, life the price for life.
Have we enemies watching?
A life we take lightly,
open to be taken suddenly.
God watch over a life on the edge.
“Kestrel Hunt” (c) Richard Starling 2020
“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.