“My Father is the gardener” – Look, See, Pray

“My Father is the gardener” – Learning to Prune. Another life lesson from my garden…

Like many gardeners, I love roses with a passion. One word guaranteed to make a novice quail is PRUNING. Where to cut, when, how much, what type of rose, what if I get it wrong… Yet roses are generally quite tough plants, and can forgive errors. However, being informed and wise in pruning certainly gives the best results.

I think the variety may be ”Queen Elizabeth” but that’s a bit of a guess! They had been rather neglected- left to please themselves- and had become leggy and woody. In fact, they looked as if they might pop their clogs. Black spot and stem damage from wind rock meant they looked tired, and frankly, scruffy.

Last autumn I decided to be bold. Pruning secateurs plus some crossed fingers- and some rose fertiliser.

After three flowers last summer- strong new shoots, and clusters of beautiful pink roses (if slightly battered by the rain last week). Success! And the next pruning will clear the other old woody stems to make room for new growth. I’m a happy lil’ gardener.

Pruning seems counter-intuitive. Why cut back the little growth that was surviving?  Roses, like disciples, need to be trimmed, smartened up, given opportunities for new shoots and the joy of beauty.  If you asked the rose bush, it might well say “Stop! Don’t cut me- leave me alone, I’m OK really.”  It would be fibbing. For the gardener truly knows best.  Jesus used the concept of pruning to explain how our Father helps and trains us: John 15:1-2 (NLT)  “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.”

Gardens left untrained quickly become wild and only the strongest plants will thrive- by dominating the rest.

A heartfelt prayer: Lord, You know me best of all, and You want the best for me and the maximum fruitfulness from my life. Help me to trust that the pruning that disciples me will be a blessing to all the others who will appreciate MY roses! Please prune my life into peace and health, for You ARE my Gardener. Amen.

Planting in hope- Look, See, Pray

From the Garden- Lesson 2: Patience! Planting in hope… the basic optimism of gardeners.

This is a strange time in the garden- flowering is almost at its peak, but the cold wet Spring meant the wallflowers lasted longer than usual. I steeled myself to the horrid task of uprooting flowers that have given a long and bright burst of colour (I struggle with the ruthlessness of it, but it has to be done.)

Hidden in the mass of leaves and seed-heads were the rather scrawny anemones which I planted in hope several months ago. Anemone corms aren’t very impressive. Small, wrinkly, dark, dead-looking! On the packing was a glorious picture of floral splendour, but I hadn’t seen any signs of life yet. I wasn’t even sure they were where I thought I’d planted them.

Optimism is the belief that hope is worth it.  Hope is the expectation that what you plant is what you get later on.

Patience is the boring bit where you hold on to hope. My first gardening as a small boy was radishes and lettuce. Mum gave me a small bit of ground for “MY garden” and I eagerly did exactly what I was told. Next day, apparently, I was back on the plot digging them up to see if they were growing yet! Patience has improved… in fact, gardening is a brilliant way to learn patience.

Anyway, patience is paying off. The front garden now has anemones in whites, blues, and red.

In theory, they should be a good habit now. Having been planted, survived, and blooming they are perennials which should grow every year at the end of Spring.  Just like discipleship: the good habits and practices of prayer, worship, Bible reading, shared life and mission become a GOOD habit, a fact of life.

Paul writes about patience, endurance and hope-  it might be a letter about gardening!

Romans 5:3-6 (NLT) We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.

Deep Secrets from the garden- Look, See, Pray

“So long ago the Garden…” sang Larry Norman, when I was young, and referencing the oldest tale in the Bible. God created a Garden as the perfect home for humanity. I’ve just come in from my garden which is teaching me many lessons about living as a follower of Jesus Christ.

This rose has a history for me. I bought “Deep Secret” for my Mum: it’s almost-black buds open into a lovely deep velvety red rose with a glorious fragrance. She loved it!  It came from Woolworths (another name from the far past). Mum kept it and cared for it, and repaid the love by growing the rosebud I wore in my lapel on my wedding day. She also grew a cutting for me, so my garden in Derbyshire had a “Deep Secret.”

“Deep Secret” also featured in my new-build garden in Devon; and in the garden in Luton. Now back in Sussex, I went searching the garden centres until I found it again. This photo is from my front rose-bed today.

Retirement is offering me, for the first time ever, the opportunity to garden without needing to grab time from pressing agendas and obligations. My garden is a place to think, and to wholesomely sweat as I wage war against weeds and bugs; but above all a haven of peace and beauty. Having a garden gives responsibilities to mow the lawn, weed out the wrong plants, and share the blessing of beauty with the neighbours.

So I’m going to do a little series of reflections on gardens, me, and God.

The Garden of Eden is a story of love and tragedy. A perfect place, a new creation, a perfect relationship: all too quickly scarred and spoilt, and a breakdown of trust. What’s the “Deep Secret” of Eden?  Love doesn’t give up. God provides for human needs, and puts into motion the secret plan prepared before Time began.  See 2 Timothy 1:9  “For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time- to show us his grace through Christ Jesus.”

Life changes when we discover this precious “Deep Secret.” There’s a heavenly fragrance to enjoy…

Worth waiting for… Look, See, Pray

Waiting is worthwhile.

On Saturday, I posted a photo of this iris tightly furled and reflected on the value of patience.

Today it is fully open- and I love it.

Christian faith is built on the faithful and loving nature of God. In this age of “urgency” and hurry, it is important to remember that even though we have to wait for the final revelation of the perfect Kingdom of God, and may have to struggle with issues that take time to resolve, we CAN trust Him.

Here’s a truth to meditate on today: Hebrews 10:23 (Message)

“Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. He always keeps his word.”

I’m impatient- Look, See, Pray

This the first plant I added to our garden when we moved here. When it unfurls, an iris of glorious purple and white stands like a flag at the beginning of the path to the front door. Gorgeous!

My problem is this: the flowers only last for a short time, just a couple of weeks or so. Then I spent the next 50 weeks impatiently waiting for the next flowering. Gardeners get used to this trial of patience- we try to plant enough different varieties to give the garden something beautiful for as many weeks as we can.

In the winter we wait for snowdrops, crocus and daffodil; then the tulips and flowering cherry, the violas put up a grand fight against dullness, and gradually green leaves fill the trees and shrubs. Today I saw the first rosebuds are beginning to form. I’m anxiously waiting for the green shoots of bulbs and seeds, and the sprouting of some perennials who are hugging their mulch duvet and refusing to pop up. Don’t blame them really, I’ve felt the same this week! Digging up seeds to see if they have started growing is always a disaster. Trying to unfurl the iris before it is ready will be ruinous. Nothing for it but to learn patience.

The waiting is the hardest part of the journey.

So much of living involves waiting. We wait for the vaccines so life can be more normal. We wait for shops to re-open. I’m waiting for the dentist to call back to make an appointment to fix my damaged crown. Then of course it will be waiting in the dentist’s chair, the place where every minute lasts a month…

“Wait.”

Surely God would never say that? Well, if ever you are at a loose end waiting for something or someone- do a bible study on “waiting.” You may be surprised.

One specific example: we are in that period between Easter and Pentecost. Jesus, alive and resurrected, gives instructions to the disciples. Obviously, it was important to get going immediately with the task of proclaiming good news to the WHOLE WORLD. Delays? To be avoided at all costs! EXCEPT for the waiting…

Luke 24:49 (Message Translation)
“What comes next is very important: I am sending what my Father promised to you, so stay here in the city until he arrives, until you’re equipped with power from on high.”

Really? Wait??? Ah… there’s a reason. God’s promise will be fulfilled, and at just the right time, Holy Spirit power will come to change their lives and equip them for the hazardous future.

I’m impatient. Not as impatient as I was- but not as patient as I should be. Yet.

So then, Lord,

make me more patient

or at least, help me to fuss less and trust more.

I’m sure I could sort the world out by Christmas-

but then my previous attempts haven’t been

exactly successful.

So perhaps I will yield my will to Your Will,

my talents to your service,

and seek the Presence of Holy Spirit life within me.

Help me to rest in Your Love,

work in Your strength,

worship in Spirit and Truth,

and let You be God.

I’ll try not to nag, or scheme for my plans,

but You’ll need to help this impatient man.

A Prayer of the Impatient Heart

(c) 2021, Richard Starling, words and photograph

Turn Every Page- Look, See, Pray

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

Statues in Bronze- Look, See, Pray

Fountain at Ascott House, now National Trust.
So this is Pegasus, chained to Earth?  
Sculptor's whimsy, cast in bronze, 
connected to water and spitting in the wind. 
And standing silent, Neptune's nephew,
staring skyfull, whip in hand-
doomed to fixed gaze and colder heart.

Nightmare vision- Is this dragon, horse, or fish?
Or who is he, metallic ribcage, futile youth?
Perhaps the artist had bad dreams.
Who paid the bill for this eternal fountain?
Whose coin transmuted to statue?
Why is it here? Whose story is told?

Beside such immobile angst, grass glows
in sun beam, illuminating spray:
Vast pot holds tulips, markers of wealth.
'Tis a place where influence waned,
indulgent extravagance faced down tax- and lost. 
Now simply memory, bronzed.

God has placed eternity in our hearts-
we long to last, to survive, make a mark.
Generations fade as does our fame.
We build, we sculpt, we carve time
with stone or metal, even flowers-
so we are remembered, missed- perchance, loved?

Arc of water, droplets sinking swift
in pool lined with stone and lead;
vain refreshing of history's pages.
There is still living, and garden, and hope;
and we gaze blankly at a coded message
that says... I mattered once, and maybe still.

What memorial, engraved, will tell my tale?
I doubt a statue be raised for me!
Hush, my soul, pay that no mind.
Though I live as servant, and speak of grace
unless my heart beats compassionate love-
then my words fail, and pass to dust.

Here, then, Saviour of creatures and all,
be the Craftsman who shapes my life,
my deeds, and my sculptured heart.
Let Living Water shoot forth in peace
to cool the eyes and feet of pilgrims.
May I testify to Eternal Love! Let that be memorial enough.

(c) 2021, Richard Starling.

Sweet Flower- Look, See, Pray

Long ago
Far away
in the dark
a new beginning began.

Child of eternity
taking humanity
as Mary and Joseph
took responsibility.

Baby to cherish,
witnessed by angels
by shepherds
a Star.

The most fruitful harvest
comes from tender petals... Sweet flower.
The One true Saviour
embraced our frail shell.

It's done. 
Jesus is born in humble place
with gifts
gold, frankincense and myrrh
foretelling
a Cross in His future
and then
Resurrection.

This is Christmas. The beginning begins.


(c) Richard Starling, 2020

Hardy or Tender? Look, See, Pray

Hardy or tender? This has suddenly become the priority question for English gardeners. Frost is starting to turn our gardens into a killing zone. Colourful stars of the summer like dahlias and pelargoniums are quaking to their roots! Shrubs like this fuchsia have had a rude awakening… some must be rescued, others may survive- time will tell.

Hardy plants are so useful: year after year, through summer and winter, they survive almost anything the seasons send against them. Tough as boots, some of them.

Tender specimens can fall over at the first crystalline kiss of Jack Frost.

Both types have their beauty and distinctive contribution to make. Our British gardens are enriched by species collected from all over the world: but we have to learn about their needs, vulnerabilities, and how to place them to best advantage. And, of course, our native plants also have riches to add to our treasury of colour, form, and fruit.

The problem is this. A novice gardener has to learn (often the hard way!) and frequently is taught by the change of external circumstances. Winter is coming…

I suppose you could draw a parallel with people and organisations. This year has slapped our faces with a dangerous illness. We react to the new circumstances according to our essential nature- there is loss, hardship, courage, despair, and hope… When the new season begins, what will still be standing? What will re-grow? What is gone for ever?

From a church viewpoint, I have noticed a miracle! Nobody has said “We’ve never done it this way before…”

We have made use of Zoom, given thanks for broadband, tried to find new ways to care for each other, offer pastoral support, pray and worship, teach and encourage. Are those efforts perfect? No. But they are good. Do we miss meeting together? Of course.

We’ve never done it before… So let’s do it NOW! Let’s work together, challenge discrimination and injustice, let’s share love, compassion and sincere faith. Let’s change the things that were broken for something new and better!

Some church denominations (whose way of being church is based on a priestly, sacramental, and heirarchical theology) are pleading with the government for permission to meet in their church buildings. There is a clash between their way of “doing church” and the “love your neighbour by not giving them Covid-19.”

Other church fellowships are saying the Government “has no authority to tell us not to worship God.”

I understand their opinions and pain. Our year is blighted by frost! Yet I believe our response to the horrible change of circumstances could be more adventurous. It is an opportunity to live out our faith in different ways and discover that new methods can still be life-giving and worshipful. All of us should be observing sensible rules on distancing, using masks, maximising hygiene, protecting the most vulnerable- wherever we worship.

I miss not meeting with others: family, friends, church. I’ll queue up for the vaccines which can help restore “normal” life. But I really hope that we won’t just go back to the ways things were. Those ways are broken. Society is broken. Families are broken. The racism, poverty and injustice that afflicted too many should NOT be re-instated by default.

Jesus spoke of “new wine needing new wineskins.” New life can’t be contained in worn-out, brittle institutions.

He also said “My Father is the Gardener.”

May the Gardener tend us all, so that next year will be full of colourful flowers, strong plants, and a great harvest.

Memories- Look, See, Pray

Lewtrenchard Manor Gardens, Devon.

Birthday presents get trickier as you get older. So when I asked my wonderful wife what she would like for a “significant” birthday, I received a profound answer.

“Memories.”

Nothing like raising the stakes! Wisdom was applied… and we booked a short break at Lewtrenchard Manor in Devon. It was more expensive than our usual level of venue, but it was an experience to remember. It became a memory to cherish. This photo of the garden is my favourite; although it could have been a picture to remind us of the excellent restaurant, or the authentic antique furniture. Or the grandeur of the building… and so on.

Wrapping the gift was easy. Suitcase, overcoats, suit & posh frock, and off we went across Dartmoor and past Okehampton to our hotel. Did you know that the writer of the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” used to live in the Manor, and was Rector of the adjacent parish church? See, now you have a memory to hold on to as well!

It is still a lovely, precious memory. If one of us says “Lewtrenchard” we both sigh happily and recall the special moments of the Manor that weekend.

Most truly valuable things in our lives are memories, thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Stuff we acquire along the way fades or fails, or is replaced or upgraded. We can’t take any of it with us!

The things we do, and the people we become, are what matter most.

Jesus told us to “store up treasure in heaven” rather than amass wealth that could rust, ruin, or be stolen. It’s about priorities and values: when we choose to live according to the way of Christ, our lives have a deeper purpose and the things we “hold” in this life are to be used for the Kingdom of God rather than our selfish requirements. God, it seems, has a bias to the poor. I do wonder what it will be like for immensely rich people when God enquires about the way they used their wealth.

But then, although not well off, I and most of us in the wealthy West are ASTONISHINGLY rich compared to the majority of the world’s population. What will Jesus say to me when He looks me in the eye?

Love God, love your neighbour, and live a holy life (with His help) is a short summary of following Jesus. Being forgiven is not to be taken for granted; but definitely something for which to be thankful.

Sitting loose to our possessions is good advice. Making and storing great memories, and doing the things Jesus would do, these are the kind of “treasures” we should store.

My most precious memories are about love. The love of God, the love of my wife, my family and friends- and sometimes the love of a stranger. Memories are made of this.