Living Joy- Look, See, Pray

Grey, dull miserable… that’s just the BBC. Outside: add drizzling, damp, cool, windy weather. What a start to Wednesday.

Then the display of orchids on my windowsill changed the way I perceived the day. A white one with yellow and pink; yellow and purple with two sprays of blooms; and the purple and white-spotted one. Immediately, my mind shifted gear: and I wrote a few lines trying to capture in words what I was feeling. The shape and colour fascinated and inspired heart and soul: such exotic beauty lifted my spirits and restored joy to life. So, go find a flower!

The WAY we see is as important as WHAT we see. Our perception of life is determined by our focus and choices.

“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.” Henri Nouwen

So my view of today has been shaped by the vivid creative imagination of God, who thought about orchids- and I’m deeply grateful for living joy!

Fair beyond telling, 
shaped within dreams, 
imagination takes form: 
richly laid colour, 
subtle echoes of an angel’s wing-beats, 
the exotic orchid  
painted in living joy.             © Richard Starling 2022

Even better than any poem, and even more wonderful than an orchid, as we get closer to Good Friday & Easter Sunday we can focus on Jesus. The story of his final journey is full of rich teaching and memorable moments and records his determination to fulfil his mission, whatever the personal cost. Reading this story will change the way we see life- because Jesus changed the ending. How then shall we live?

“Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”   

Hebrews 12v2

Joy in January? Look, See, Pray

January… the crown of winter’s dreary days! It’s not all bad: but it is notoriously fickle and grey. Short daylight hours, cold, damp, and it’s time to get rid of the excess pounds after the Christmas extravagances. A true recipe for joyful living.

Can we renew our joy? Perhaps this picture can help.I’ve never seen a dull red tulip. None in the garden, so I’ve hunted this out from my photo albums. Gloriously scarlet, then an even brighter yellow inside. Just for added impact, starkly geometrical black stamens contrast violently in alien shapes. Looking more closely, speckles of black pollen give a mute testimony to the visit of an early bee. Do these specks spoil the bloom, or remind us of life and growth to come? Can you spot the aphid? I only noticed this today. A pest, or another little miracle of life?

A principle of photography is that the actual subject should be the most important thing in the photo. A common mistake is to make the subject too small. It is lost in the background, and the picture loses impact.

Getting in close makes a difference. This picture shouts “I’m a tulip!” in dramatic tones. It would be easy to walk past the flower beds, camera at head-height, and take a picture of some “nice tulips.” Beauty turned into a vague generalisation!

When we need to renew the sense of joy, the experience of lightness of spirit and being at peace in our world, a great way to start is to pay attention to the small things, the details, the abundance of life all round us. Attention given leads to awareness, appreciation, and a deep gratitude for the richness that is here.

This works in relationships: when did you last tell your partner or friend or colleague that you appreciate what they have done and what they add to your life?

It’s a vital part of faith, too. When you see that first snowdrop, or the daffs beginning to emerge, will you SAY “thank you” to God? Not just thinking it, but putting gratitude into spoken words- it releases a powerful surge of joy.

God is present in our world: and has compassionate love for His creation. Acknowledging His love and majesty “tunes us in” to the love-song God sings over us. In knowing this, we find renewed joy. It could start with a tulip… or with the hope of a psalm:

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

The Holy Bible: Today’s New International Version. (Ps 139:7–12). (2005). Zondervan.

Early one morning… Look, See, Pray

Woke up too early this morning! Made coffee, decided against vacuuming the carpet (too noisy, might wake up Juliet and the neighbours) so switched on the computer to carry on the sorting of my old photographs. That’s a LOOOOOOOOONG job… I didn’t get very far. I was distracted by this poppy.

The colours, the geometric precision, the intricate shapes… What would it look like if I played around with the pic in my editing software? In the “good old days” monochrome was king. Apart from any other consideration, keen (i.e., “real”) photographers could process black and white film at home, and remarkably skilfully too.

So let’s go monochrome.

Oh. Six choices… all giving very different results. This would have taken hours in the darkroom, using different chemicals, paper, filters, and much patience. One click for each choice… Not that one… no, too dark… not enough contrast… no… maybe… That it. That one, the “newspaper” setting. It brings out the patterns in a pleasingly abstract way. I like that… now, put side-by-side with the original colour image. Interesting! (To me, anyway).

I wonder what other people will think.

Hang on, this page is Look, See, Pray. Why the droning on about photo processing? Why abstract images of a long-dead poppy? (Perhaps Richard should have stayed in bed…)

So, then. It’s an old picture, I’ve seen it before. It brings back the memory of growing these poppies in Luton, of enjoying the vibrant colours, soft fragile petals, watching the bees foraging in these great big architectural blooms. That’s nice.

And now I can see it in another way, a fresh angle, a new insight. Ignoring the colour brings out the structure as a complex pattern- wonderful in its own right. I can study the flower in a new way, understand it better, more fully.

I wonder what would happen if I applied the same process to other familiar things… parts of the Bible… or the Lord’s Prayer… I’ve read that before, I’ve prayed the prayer countless times. Maybe there is more to discover. What have other Christians learned from this verse, or chapter, or book… what exactly do these words mean…

I mean, the Lord’s Prayer… what could be “new” there? Try this version from The Message:
Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are. Set the world right; Do what’s best— as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.

Compared to a version for primary school children:
Our Father in heaven, you are awesome! Show us who you are and how you want us to be. Make earth more like heaven. Please give us what we need to keep going each day. Help us when we are wrong and clean us up on the inside. Help us to let other people off and move on. Keep us from bad stuff. You’re in charge! You’re strong and powerful and always there. Forever! Amen.

Now it’s your turn. Find a familiar Bible passage, or pray the Lord’s Prayer as you know it best… then look for a fresh way to look at it, to understand it, to bring Truth home so it makes a difference to the way you live, behave, think, relate to others.

It might change the way you look at God, see Him, and the how-or-why you pray.

Look, See, Pray. There IS a reason for mucking about with an old poppy pic after all… May God’s Light and Truth shine on you in a fresh new way today.

October Roses- Look, See, Pray

Fewer rosebuds in the garden now October is here… the ones that survive the winds and rain are even more precious. Here is “Double Delight” which is blessed with a rich fragrance and creamy petals flushed with sumptuous raspberry pink. Gorgeous. Worth its place in any garden, in my opinion anyway.

Autumn chills and weather presage the coming of winter, when colour in the garden is rare and hard to find. Roses sometimes keep flowering into December- a lovely gift.

I have built two gardens from builder’s mudheaps- and restored two neglected gardens. Roses have ALWAYS been the plants that I use as the centrepieces of the borders. Despite the pain of thorns and the months of dormancy where roses are just aggressive sticks, I pay the price for their majestic colour, shape and scent willingly. The eruption of the new buds fills me with joy.

There are one or two strange gardeners who don’t like roses. Perhaps I’m biased, but I think they’re a lost cause!

The objects of our ambitions can take many forms. Some collect stamps, others strive for profit. Others are never satisfied, and cannot find contentment. What we choose to search for, to value, defines who we are. Jesus addressed this problem of identity and ambition, essentially by asking “Who are you?” and “What is your life purpose?”

Two questions that continue to nag at the heart of a society built on the acquisition of wealth and power… and with many people who want more than they have. So, rich or poor, powerful or not- what do we really want?

It seems people choosing wisely are as rare as rosebuds.

Jesus never said “Come to Me, and I will give you stress.” The offer He makes is “rest” – peace in a reconciled relationship with God.

How much do you think that’s worth?

Difference- Look, See, Pray

One white petal. It’s the only white petal on this dahlia in three years. Does it spoil the flower? Not in my eyes. I love the warm apricot and crimson shades of this dahlia: but the white stands out symbolising purity and innocence, and with a touch of sadness.

Appropriate for today.

As I looked at this beautiful flower through the camera lens, the difference of the one petal made me think about the tragedy of history and the need for peace and justice. So often we allow “differences” to become excuses. They’re different- so we can insult, exploit, fight, kill… Then those who have suffered hurt and loss seek vengeance… and the cycle of hatred fans flames again.

I am meditating on three Bible passages. The first is a “9:11” …. describing life for humans.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 (TNIV)
I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.

The second is taken from Matthew’s Gospel. These verses (from a King James Bible) were found at Ground Zero, and the page had somehow been fused to the rubble.

Matthew 5:38-39 (TNIV)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

My third verse is from the ancient prophecy of Micah, pointing out that our hope of true justice and peace is found in God, not the wisdom and folly of humanity. I have chosen the “Message” translation of this verse, because it catches the mood using very down-to-earth modern phrases.

Micah 4:3 (Message)
He’ll establish justice in the rabble of nations and settle disputes in faraway places. They’ll trade in their swords for shovels, their spears for rakes and hoes. Nations will quit fighting each other, quit learning how to kill one another.

A prayer:
Lord God, may that Day come soon. And until then, help all of us to be peacemakers, healers, forgivers, carers, and devoted to Love and Justice for all. Amen.

“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