Truth… the whole truth – Look, See, Pray

Great pic, isn’t it? Eagle Owl, Dartmoor, near Princetown. All my own work: could start a rush of twitchers heading for Devon!

Except this is a way of telling truth to mislead. It is an Eagle Owl, I did take the photo. So far, so good. It is Dartmoor in the snow- I took the photo. All true. So what’s the problem?

I combined the two pictures so the owl had a more “natural-looking” backdrop. I haven’t lied, but I wasn’t 100% accurate.

My intention matters. If I have just melded two photos for a better picture, that’s OK. Were I to present myself as a wildlife whizz, discovering Eagle Owls in Devon, then perhaps selling the image to a news agency in exchange for fame and fortune, that is unethical and dishonest. And WRONG.

“The camera never lies” says the old proverb. But it may mislead, even present corrupted truth (in other words, a LIE). This is a huge problem in journalism, advertising, politics… “Deep fake” pictures are created and used to destroy the victim’s reputation, or as the lever for blackmail. Bits of truth selected deliberately, then mixed into untruth. A complete rejection of integrity.

Unless we are careful to act with integrity, there is even a danger that “picking bits” of the Bible then jamming them together will mislead or misdirect people who are seeking God. This coming Sunday, I’m preaching at our church. I have a heavy responsibility to tell the truth truthfully: or I risk putting words into God’s mouth, or persuading people into misunderstanding. A stern warning from the New Testament: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. – James 3 v1

James points out the risk that teachers and preachers take on. Matthew’s Gospel records words from Jesus about the required heart-attitude, the integrity, of those called to serve through leadership and preaching. It must be real, and honest, and true- not a crafty construction of bits of truth. If I cannot preach out of humility and integrity, I should not preach at all.

“Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honour in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’ Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your Father. And don’t let anyone call you ‘Teacher,’ for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Matthew 23 v5-12

Please pray for me- and any other preachers and teachers you know.

A way in the wilderness- Look, See, Pray

Our journey towards faith always requires that we seek a way through the unknown, through mysteries that ask more questions than we can answer. But God WILL make a way. He always has.

Consider Joseph and Mary… a long walk to Bethlehem at what must have seemed a MOST inconvenient time. Pregnancy offers challenge enough! Wretched Romans, making life more difficult.

As if that wasn’t enough, there is a jealous king with homicidal intent who will be responsible for the death of children- so another journey as refugees finding shelter in Egypt. How ironic- Joseph working as a labourer in the land where Israel had been enslaved. Then after Herod’s death, a return from exile into the Promised Land: bringing the infant Saviour with them.

Angels, Magi, shepherds and fulfilled prophecies. That’s the way God made. The way of the unexpected, the foretold, the surprising, the spectacular, the ordinary, the unthinkable, the wonderful. One humble brave girl, one courageous, gentle and devoted husband. One Word spoken before the beginning of Time, echoing through the centuries until the End of Time. One Word enrobed in human flesh, one Love embracing and reconciling a lost world. God has made a way.

“See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland…”

– Isaiah 43 v19

This way, this Word, is what we celebrate at Christmas.

Remembrance Day

“Just over the ridge,” they said.

So we went.

Bayonets fixed and a feeling of dread
as fast as we can
we cover the ground
Rifles and cannon
ripping the field and smearing us red.

Another skirmish in nameless terrain-
so very important
to winning the war-
but nameless corpses
mark a small triumph bought with their pain.

Just over the ridge...

Not many came back.

Red poppies now flourish as memories fade
where courage and terror
stalked through the corn.
Respect for the fallen
of countless ridges where still bones are laid.

Remembrance matters.

Until peace heals.



(For Remembrance Day 11th November 2022    (c)  Richard Starling)

Jigsaw Bits- Look, See, Pray

This jigsaw was completed by a team of dedicated puzzlers at our drop-in cafe recently. After false starts, mistakes, and lots of co-operation, the job was done. Oh, the satisfaction of fitting the last few pieces in the right places!

Honesty compels me to say that not every word spoken over that puzzle was positive during the assembly process.

Making sense of life has similarities! The Bible gives an overview of what we should be like- and why we exist at all- but doesn’t always give precise indications of the next step.

So many things to fit in. So many bits looking the same- nearly.

I was looking at the prophecy of Ezekiel tonight- and struggling with it. There are sections that are far from easy to comprehend. (Even the straightforward bits are quite difficult.) Chapters 40-42 are a detailed description of the Temple. And I mean detailed. Then in chapter 43 comes a statement: “Then the spirit took me up and brought me into the inner courtyard, and the glory of the LORD filled the Temple.”

The design, the puzzle, is complete. Does that mean Ezekiel is now easy to understand? I wish!

“Then the Spirit took me up…” is a recurring theme through the prophecy. Perhaps this statement is key? Like finding all the edge pieces of a jigsaw. That’s something to work with, anyway.

I don’t think I could ever write a commentary on Ezekiel… that’s a job for wiser and better scholars. But I’ve found a grain of sense that applies to working out my faith in practice. My life is a sequence of plans & events, and the key is the Spirit “taking me up” and putting me in the place where God IS- the inner courtyard, the Holy of Holies- for THEN the glory of the Lord enters in.

Christians are described as the Temple of God- “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3 v16).

May the Lord take us up, place us in His Presence, dwell in us, and glorify Christ in and through us. May He complete the work begun in us- and then the jigsaw we are living will finally be perfect.

Shame in Tears? Look, See, Pray

Overnight rain has passed, memories of the storm still rumbling through our senses, and leaving teardrops caught in the alchemilla leaves.

Sparkling like crystals, these tears are for the passing of summer. It was the first of a wave of storms heading our way- and weakened by the drought, trees have fallen and the leaves of the survivors have been persecuted to the point of giving up. Autumn will seem short this year.

Many of us work hard to conceal our struggles and try to “be brave” by bottling up our feelings. Yet tears are a safety valve; crying is a reflex to help us process strong emotion, grief, and pain.

Charles Dickens makes this point: “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before–more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.” ― Great Expectations

We are improved by our tears! The apostle Paul made another point about the way our crying may help us let others know how much they are loved: “I wrote that letter in great anguish, with a troubled heart and many tears. I didn’t want to grieve you, but I wanted to let you know how much love I have for you.” – 2 Corinthians 2:4

Tears can even be a form of prayer. Having run out of words, having reached rock bottom, facing problems and sadness… what better way to express ourselves and communicate with God? There is even a verse in Psalms (Ps. 56 v8) that says the Lord “treasures” our tears as a keepsake of love.

Even Jesus wept at the passing of a friend. (John 11:35) After His tears came a miracle…

I wonder how the Lord values- and could use- OUR tears?

How to Flourish- Look, See, Pray

What does faith in God offer to the political debate that consumes the time and energy of the news media? Quite a lot!

When looking for leaders who will serve the people, we should look at character and attitude. As the Bible says, God looks at the heart not the outward appearance. May I suggest a meditation to form the basis of our prayers? The beginning of the Book of Psalms sets out a conditional blessing based on the essential choice to seek out goodness and godliness in place of selfish greed and ambition…

Let’s pray that the Lord will be at the centre of the situation: that we as a nation may know God and His ways. That is the way to mercy and blessing.

The Way of the Godly – Psalm 1:1-3

How blessed is the person who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers!

But their delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law they meditate day and night. Such a person will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season, and whose leaf does not wither. In whatever that person does, they will prosper.

Lurking Lions – Look, See, Pray

Lions in pictures, zoos and books… on the TV… or sleeping. These are all acceptable encounters with large predatory pussycats. But live, loose, and hungry- not so cute!

One zoo has a warning notice, roughly saying this: “Beware! A lion looks at you and sees meat.”

Warning notices exist for a reason. Danger!

And if you miss or ignore the sign… trouble awaits like a pouncing puss in a bad mood. Today I encountered a “computer lion” also known as – “Don’t do that, Richard. You’ll be sorry. Oops. Told you you’d be sorry!”

I missed the sign until too late. Hastily deleting unwanted emails before dashing off to a meeting, I discovered why “hastily” and “delete” should NEVER go together when computers are concerned. Hungry savage beasties lurk in wait for the unwary- and I had more bitten off than even the lion could chew.

Trying to delete one last email, the cursor sort of “slipped” (ahem) also spelt “You idiot, Richard!” – and I deleted the entire email folder.

All of it.

Gone.

Not there.

Aarrgh!

My fault, I suppose. Although a clearer, more helpful warning “Do you really mean to do that?” sign would have been a nice thing for the programmers to include…

Anyway, saving 30 seconds cost me three hours of panic and trying different ways to find and UNDELETE approximately 3,000 emails. It also tested my sanctification and verbal self-control. Saying “bother” in the face of calamity is unsatisfying at best, and aggravating at worst. BOTHER!

How often and how easily simple mistakes and bad choices can turn life into a carnival (carnivore?) of doom. Especially when we don’t pay attention and don’t look out for warnings.

Peter, the apostle and friend of Jesus, knew about mishaps and bad choices- and was apt to shoot off his mouth before engaging brain (I don’t think he’d have liked computers…). In 1 Peter 5 v8 he wrote wisely about something he’d learned the hard way.

“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”

To ruin your day takes a hungry lion. To really bother things up requires a computer. Or a spiritual enemy out for your blood.

So, Richard, be alert. Don’t let lions, computers, or anything else trap you.

(In case you were worried for me and my fading sanity, I have now recovered the emails from the server. My gibbering has eased. And my patience, tolerance, and self-control have been given a good gallop through the digital paddock. PLEASE don’t make the mistakes I have made- there isn’t always a happy ending!)

A Dying Rose- Look, See, Pray

Dying rose… “Raspberry Ripple” is melting away. Should I be sad?

Just one flower. It lived its life, shared its beautiful colour, and promises more roses next summer.

It’s unusual to post a photo of an imperfect failing flower. Yet many of us in Britain and beyond have been impacted by the passing of Queen Elizabeth- and Death is something we are thinking of and talking about. Hence a tragic rose…

Gardening gives frequent reminders of mortality! We do our best to tend our plants, experiment with new ones, and enjoy successes. The flip side is losing plants to pests, accident, old age, or frost. Our attempts to “control” a garden are destined to (at least) partial failure: and some of us provide the kiss of death to any green growth!

Death is the gateway at the end of a season or a life. It may be delayed, but cannot be cheated. But it can be overcome; and the fear of death need not hold us in its grip.

It is coming up for three years since I was diagnosed with cancer. The horrible moment when the doctor breaks the bad news and explains what (if any) treatment is possible… Then the haste to perform surgery. My surgeon walked me down to the operating theatre, meeting the highly competent team- and I wasn’t feeling scared. That day I fully understood the promise of Jesus of “a peace that passes human understanding.” I now have a nice big physical scar- but not emotional/spiritual ones.

Somewhen in the next two months I will be going for scans to check my health and (hopefully) confirm the cancer is gone. Watch this space…

There will be a day when time runs out for my body, one way or another! God’s promises will still hold good. “He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 25 v8)

In Revelation 21:4 is a vision of a perfect existence with God when the fears and tears of death will have lost all their power: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Our rose is dead- long live the Rose!

The final Word is from Jesus Himself: John 11:25-26

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?

It is truly a life-or-death question.

Who Knows? Look, See, Pray

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It wasn’t that we were “lost”, exactly… But reading and understanding the signs was tricky. To make it more urgent, an Alpine thunderstorm was heading our way: and we were up an Alp looking for the way back to Scheffau. Scheffau wasn’t on the signpost as a destination.

A little bit of guidance would be nice! By the way- we made it down OK.

“We spend too long in our life trying to figure out where God wants us to be … instead of just allowing God to do something with our life where we are.” (Author unknown)

Christians agonise over finding God’s guidance, and we worry so much that we don’t actually DO anything until we are certain of God’s Will. At the risk of upsetting some fellow believers, I’m going to say that when we live like that we may be getting it wrong!

Does God have a perfect plan for our lives?  Yes- but not necessarily in the way we think. Our life purpose is wrapped up in something much bigger: God’s purpose. Consider the Book of Esther in the Old Testament. Esther, the Queen, faces a dilemma. The Israelites are threatened with death. But for Esther to help, she has to take an enormous risk. Esther 4:14 is interesting. “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”

We usually quote the last part of the verse: note it says Who knows?” It’s a question. They weren’t sure. They knew God wanted to save the people- His larger purpose. They knew Esther had been told of the plot. But did they know for sure what Esther was supposed to do? Apparently not!

There will be times when you’ve gathered all the information, you’ve prayed as well as you know how, you’ve sought godly advice; what you are doing is not sinful … but there is something inside of you that’s still not sure. WE have to trust that if we are following God and seeking His purpose, HE will work out the rest! Don’t wait to be 100% convinced: just be 100% available.

Why Do I Climb? – Look, See, Pray

It’s a photo of an old smuggler’s route in the Pyrenees. A steep climb up from the valley leading to a magnificent view. Stunning!

Much social energy and ambition is poured into “being a success” or attaining “celebrity status.” It is the equivalent of climbing a mountain to be seen, to be able to boast. As David McCullough Jr pointed out, it is better to “Climb mountains, not so the world can see you, but so you can see the world.”

(By the way, getting to the mountain top by using the chairlift doesn’t entitle a name change to “Edmund Hillary”…)

Standing over such a panorama as this changes our inner perspective. At least, it should do (in my opinion, anyway!) because the rugged vast beauty suggests that we are not the centre of the universe. Even if we’d like to be.

One of the deep lessons of spending thirty years as a pastor has come from standing on the highest available hills overlooking the communities I served- and simply seeing the whole area spread out. Being there and consciously praying for the people was both humbling and inspirational. Doing this “mountain climbing” at twilight was especially moving. Lighted windows and lit street lamps twinkled below whilst the stars above began to sparkle, signposts of the immensity of the Galaxy. The number of lights spoke of the number of people- and the importance of reaching every person with the Light of the World. Jesus said “Go into ALL the world…”

I don’t think the church or community knew I was up there- and I’m glad. I wasn’t there to be seen. I was there to recognise the scale of God’s everlasting loving-kindness to everyone I could see, know, or imagine- and pray. My one regret is that I might have done this more often.

In one of the temptations of Jesus, the devil took Jesus to the highest point and offered Him “all of this- if you will worship me.”

Jesus answered him, “It is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’” (See Luke 4)

The highest places and attainments in this world are dangerous indeed- they can make us proud unless they keep us humble. It’s always worth asking ourselves how we’re responding to the “mountains” in our world. Jesus came to serve.