Moody Blues- Look, See, Pray

It’s officially “Blue Monday.” Apparently this is the point in the year when everyone feels at their worst. There is no doubt that short daylight hours, Christmas credit card bills, coronavirus and 101 other things can combine into a swamp of depression and angst. We’ve all “got the blues.”

I see it as my job today to counterbalance the angst! Blue is beautiful, calming, inspiring and comforting. Blue is what we remember from holidays- I’m sure that when I was a kid, ALL school holidays were sunny– and blue is the colour we wear as part of the crowd as we strut our stuff in our blue jeans. Blue can be lovely.

My picture comes from Pagham Harbour, taken just after we moved back to Sussex. Look at that sky! I found this place where the RSPB has a bird-watching hide; as I arrived I noticed this cluster of people coming back from a bench on the shingle. They knew the tide was coming in- I didn’t. So I boldly went off to the left, found the hide- and hid. A kingfisher flashed past (never seen it since!) and I watched the waders and geese patrol the calm blue waters under fluffy well-behaved clouds. Heavenly.

On leaving the hide… I’d been cut off! The tide was very high, and the path was underwater. My inner “Corporal Jones” leapt into action- “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!”

No other route back to the car. I had to wait hours or take the plunge. The water came half-way up my shins, was pleasantly cool, and was no peril. It became part of my memory, and whenever I see this photo I think “blue-but happy” thoughts. A place of beauty, plus a kingfisher sighting. Brilliant!

It is easy to be overcome by our circumstances, and we wouldn’t be human if our moods and thought processes weren’t affected by pressure and pain. Now then, preachers are fond of pointing out that “Do not be afraid” occurs 365 times in English Bibles- that’s once per day. We get scared, we become depressed, overwhelmed and sad. Physical and emotional factors all play a part in that.

Here is an antidote to the blues. This ancient song of praise asks “Why are you feeling blue?” (my translation!) and offers hope from God. Trusting in Him makes the difference! Maybe when we enter the flood water it won’t be too deep after all…

Read these verses to yourself- God has not forgotten you.

Psalm 42:8-11 (NLT)
But each day the LORD pours his unfailing love upon me, and through each night I sing his songs, praying to God who gives me life. “O God my rock,” I cry, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I wander around in grief, oppressed by my enemies?” Their taunts break my bones. They scoff, “Where is this God of yours?”

Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again— my Saviour and my God!

Sunrise and Dustcarts- Look, See, Pray

Calm Sunrise on a Sussex Beach

Perfect sunrise. Flat calm on the sea. The only jarring note: a “Biffa” dustcart immediately behind me, chugging, grinding, beeping and banging as they collected the waste of the flats. Noise disturbed the peace, and tranquil thoughts disappeared.

What an illustration of human life! Beauty and banshee in the same space.

As soon as the truck drove round the corner, quiet returned- the most raucous sound the muffled screams of seagulls arguing by the tideline.

Our planet is stunningly beautiful: and we have spread ourselves across its surface, many races and cultures. At our best, humanity achieves glorious heights. At our worst, we pillage and spoil the garden we were given.

Yet God- whose glory is seen in the skies- has also undertaken the task of rubbish clearance, the recycling and removal of the dirt and waste. In a real sense, that dustcart is a symbol of the Good News. Clean slate, fresh beginning, thorough cleansing- achieved in the noises of anguish at the crucifixion. Jesus, the Saviour, Redeemer, rightful owner; our Heavenly Father waiting eagerly to welcome the returning prodigal. Holy Spirit, full of grace and purifying Fire, bringing reconciliation and renewal to our inner lives.

Schools teach in many ways- one is “compare and contrast” where two things are examined, and our understanding of both helps us grasp the meaning of each one.

Take, then, this photograph of the fulfilment of Psalm 19 v1. Look at the colours, sense the atmosphere, feel the cool of a winter morning and the gentleness of a quiet tide. Seek God in the peace. Now supply your own “dustcart disturbance”… remember the perils of Covid, the tensions of a hurting society, and the personal regrets over wrong choices, words, and actions. Watch as the Lord loads YOUR dustcart! Each bin emptied represents a sin, a hurt, a regret being dealt with and taken away. No longer burdened, but forgiven and cleansed, we can now look again at the beautiful skies and the love that surrounds us.

This is what God has done! Be thankful. Be still in God’s loving Presence..

“The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship.” Psalm 19:1 (New Living Translation)

Enjoy the gift of this day in peace and wholeness of spirit.

Songs of frost and sunshine- Look, See, Pray

Frost songs shiver
as sunshine emerges
from misty skies.
Robins, wrens, blackbirds chortle
happy sounds of being alive!
Nightly ice defeated.

Fluffed feathers form
miniature duvets
with wings.
Beady eyes twinkle, like black stars
sharply searching, seeking food,
frozen fast to end.

Such silver songs!
tinkling through air
squeezing music
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.

Sunshine sparkles
in frosty air, from gilded perch,
soul-light shimmers.
Lord, if on this morning banquet
I do not feed my hungry soul-
Forgive again, and make the robin sing.

(c) Richard Starling, 2021 

Jesus, do You watch the news? -Look, See, Pray

Watching the news… rioting in Washington D.C. instigated by the outgoing President. Shameful and graceless. How should we respond? As I struggled for words to pray, a song title popped into my mind: “Jesus, do You watch the news? Do You pray it’s not true?” Paul Field wrote this, asking the question on many lips in this dangerous world. The answer? Yes, Jesus IS fully aware- and involved in healing and reconciling.

To be honest, I find it hard to want anything other than Trump being arrested and either locked up or confined to a mental hospital. That appeals to the part of me that cries out for justice! Some of you may be horrified or angered by my statement… please read on. And if you are cheering my vengefulness, please read on because there is more to this!

For I am also aware that God moves in mercy (just as well for me!) and calls us to love our enemies not just our friends. As I puzzled over this, another of Paul’s songs jumped from my memory. This is a prayer I endorse as a prescription to any Christian saddened and troubled by these events. We may not agree on politics, and may see things differently, but I do hope we could all unite and truly “Go Peaceful… through the violence of these days.” We cannot control events- but we can ask the Lord to help us control our response- and pray as peacemakers not vigilantes. Peace to this world, Lord- come soon!

Go peaceful, In gentleness, 
Through the violence of these days 
Give freely, Show tenderness 
In all your ways
Through darkness, In troubled times
Let holiness be your aim
Seek wisdom, Let faithfulness
Burn like a flame
God speed you, God lead you, And keep you wrapped around his heart,
May you be known by love
Be righteous, Speak truthfully
In a world of greed and lies
Show kindness, See everyone Through heaven's eyes
God hold you, Enfold you, And keep you wrapped around his heart
May you be known by love
God speed you, God lead you, And keep you wrapped around his heart
May you be known by love
May you be known by love.

Song (c) Paul Field

Stay Strong- Look, See, Pray

God, make me like this tree- strong, scarred, but alive. The snow hides my imperfections, the wounds of living- but I cannot pretend I am still whole, hale and hearty. Have compassion on me!

Today the news is bad- the virus is out of control and we are again in lockdown, perhaps for weeks. We are despairing, grieving, and frightened for ourselves, our loved ones, for health & jobs, hospitals & schools, shops & vital services.

I am rooted in Your Love, O my God, knowing mercy and grace at Your hands, and I am daily trusting You can keep me through the storms of life.

“This too shall pass.”

Lord, the deeper my roots sink into Your Being, the stronger I remain- let me drink deep of grace. There will be Spring, new life for the world, for me. Help me to endure the cold wind, the sorrow, the storm.

Only in You do I put my trust, and You are faithful.

My God and my King, my Saviour and Friend, I shall stay strong- because You are my strength and shield.

When winds blow cold and fierce, lend me Your strength.

In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

A Lament for Lockdown, January 2021 (c) 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
a Cross in His future
and then

This is Christmas. The beginning begins.

(c) Richard Starling, 2020

The Ox and the Star- Look, See, Pray

It’s not every day you meet a gaur ox… six feet high, heavy enough to make me feel slender, those big, dark, placid eyes… and the ability to shove his tongue up his own nostrils. After a few minutes of staring at each other, the ox settled down and, once sitting comfortably, it seemed he was ready to tell me a story…
I often wonder what stories animals would tell if they could (Can’t help having an active imagination!) so my mind began to wander. I love stories. Once upon a time Gaur- he has to have a name, so why not?- listened to his great-great-great-Grandfather Muuuh telling an evening story as the herd chewed its cud and the ox-calves burped warm milky wind…

“Once upon a time, in a land far far away, our forebears lived in a hot hilly town where we worked so, so hard. Some days we ploughed the fields, or pulled up trees. Our owner fastened a heavy yoke on our shoulders and tied ropes to our harness so we could do what those weak men couldn’t do for themselves. We were proud of being strong, and brave, and stubborn- even more stubborn than those donkeys! And our deep voices drowned out those annoying brays- lightweights, those donkeys, can’t think they’d ever be much use…
Anyway, said Muuuh, they had an adventure! There’s one night that every ox remembers with pride. It went like this.
“It was a difficult plod back to the stable that evening. The roads were choked with people, and we had to barge our way through to get home. We were late for our hay- and on the journey we saw a bright Star shining, high in the darkening sky, so pretty.
Home in our pen at last, guzzling our hay, we were just getting ready to doze off and a frightful clatter made us jump! The door had been dragged open and a donkey clattered her hooves on the stones. In came a man and a very fat lady, looking weary and rather bedraggled. She cried out sharply. and grabbed at her stomach, and started breathing hard. The man put her down on a fairly clean bit of straw, and she shrieked! That’s when I realised. She wasn’t fat, she was about to have a calf!
It seemed to take a long time, with noises and tears and yells- then a different noise- a wail, a sobbing cry… Poor calf, I thought, can’t even moo. And it isn’t even trying to stand up, poor thing. That’s when, of all things, the woman wrapped some cloth round the young one, and PUT IN IN MY DINNER TROUGH, right on my soft sweet hay!
Cheek. I was going to have that for breakfast. The night seemed long and starlight shone brightly through the crack in the door. I stamped my hooves, then pricked up my ears… someone was coming. Several, in fact. The man met them at the door, and tried to send them away. But they talked quickly, urgently, and a caught a few words… Something about “angels” and visions and Light… then someone lost hold of some silly little lamb and for a few moments it was chaos. Then the man spoke again, and pointed at the woman, and the calf in the trough, and said “Sent by God… Love has been sent from Heaven to Earth…”
The new arrivals, who smelled of sheep, just smiled and fell on their knees… and the new mother smiled and nodded, and they all looked so happy. Later on the sun came up, and we went out to work, gently ruminating on what had happened.”
We oxen, said Muuuh, have always repeated that Story. Because if what those shepherds said is true, then it was the best night any oxen have seen. The mighty One who made us strong has changed the world with a little, crying, weak thing who the man called Jesus. Who knows what will happen next? It’s beyond any Ox to know… but look up at the sky tonight… Maybe we’ll see a Star…”

(c) Copyright Richard Starling 2020

Living on the Edge- Look, See, Pray

Windhover, eye-sharp flight
piercing through
waits… waits… until scurrying feet
betray voles to violence.

Seated on rising air, gnawing need
to feed
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
at diversity
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!
Not understanding,
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


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.

Flame fingers- Look, See, Pray

Flame-finger’d fronds
fight the creeping frost.
October gone, so winter’s eye
turns to leaves not yet vanquished in the cold.
How long to stay?
November gales shriek, laughing,
for summer is but memory-
and leaf-husks rattle at the roots.

Bold glow of orange, crimson stems,
holding remember’d warmth –
Clinging to shades of Spring gone by
when days were long and sap rose swift
in triumph and strength, now lost…
Can we hold till Christmas?
Or must yield to holly and captive firs
making merry at the wake of the season?

In restful peace we shall sleep,
careless of snow and icy dawns.
Deep in the earth our strength lies hidden
until lengthening days and warming Sun
bid us reach for the heavens
and sound the trumpet of daffodil’s Spring.
For now, whilst our flames can hold tight,
we give joy to the soul of those growing cold.

Prayers and poems grasp promises
that life and love and God
may seem to pause in winter’s chill yet
Renewed again, and rested, we shall stand.
Colours leaking to leaf-mould now
are never wasted, but shall return.
God speaks in colours!
Nature sings a symphony, music for the soul.

(Copyright Richard Starling, 2020)