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)

Silent now- Look, See, Pray

We will Remember.

Silent now
Thunder of guns faded
no shouts or screams to remember
the ones whose footsteps lingered in muddy fields.

Nothing here
until poppy-seeds buried
come to flower in blood-soaked clay.
And poets, seeking to soften loss of so many, too soon,
Saw each petal, flower, and stem as soldiers standing to mourn.

Not just the fields
Warfare blights the deserts, the skies and sea.
Countless men, fathers, brothers, sons
Women, too, have paid with blood and sorrow
Children plucked from homes
communities shattered, bombed, derided-
Where is the Dove of Peace?

If only
all war were just
If only
war were no more.

Blood-red poppies
from the battlefields
tell the story of courage and loss.
We will remember
we will honour their memory
we will grieve their passing
and thankfully receive freedom,
not to be taken carelessly or held in scorn.

We will remember
the ones who never came home-
and those who came back changed and lost.
Blind and maimed, with empty eyes,
and shadowed thoughts.

We will remember.
A poppy worn in remembrance,
in hope of lasting peace,
a yearning for justice and fairness for all.
A poppy worn for what has been
and for what, we pray, may not come again.

Now for widow, orphan, refugee and victim
may there be hope of peace
of safety, of a home where war does not call.
May sword be re-cycled
and rifle laid aside
and tanks and planes and battleships
fall into disuse until they rust
and war shall be no more.

Then the blood-red poppy
shall be left to grow in peace.

We will remember.

(Copyright Richard Starling 10th Nov 2020)

I’ve done it again! – Look, See, Pray

I’ve done it again! Despite multiple failures, I’ve done it again. Will I ever learn?

A pleasant if wearying session in the garden, weeding out the really successful plants (weeds) and making room for the hopefuls for next Spring. I have planted crocus (crocii, crocuses, take your pick) once again. Not a good track record, never yet does the reality match my dream. So this year I’ve cheated. I have NOT planted any yellow ones- in my experience yellow crocus is just a salad bar for early slugs and naughty birds.

So then, purple, plus purple/white stripes, and pale lilac-colour. Cracked it! It was lovely to have my hands in the soil, pulling wicked weed roots, ripping out the dying marigolds, and making room for the greatest show on earth! 2021, Aldwick, West Sussex- the best display of crocus EVER.

This is being a gardener. It is a life of undying passionate optimistic HOPE. That which I have planted SHALL be floriferous, gaudy, and perfectly gorgeous. There, see, I’ve said it- again.

If only the RHS gave gold medals for dandelion or couch grass. Did you know couch grass has other names? “Twitch” or “scutch” or “Aarrgghhh.”

“Scutch” sounds like a loathsome skin disease… should I pray and command it to be healed, and never return?

Time for some better and more responsible theology, I think! The thing common to true gardeners is the kind of hope that carries on from year to year, always confident that this time the sweat will earn rewards of beauty, or stunning veg, or sumptious fruit. It is a lifestyle of hope despite hard labour and many discouragements.

Now I ache. All of me aches. Kneeling… not sure if getting down there is hardest, or getting back up… I gave the grass its final(?) cut for 2020, planted crocus and alliums, moved a couple of plants, put down mulch, pulled up this years’ crop of annuals, swept the path… and somewhere during all that I had a sudden sense of physical and emotional relief. Two reasons- first, I heard the very welcome news that “Scutch” Trump lost the election and may be composted in January: and second, the sheer joy of working with living, growing things of beauty and great potential. A surge of hope and confidence! Simply lovely. But I still ache.

We can live in hope, or shrivel in despair. Sheer hard graft may be essential (especially in the garden!) and doing the hard yards can be discouraging. Here are a few words from the Apostle Paul, addressed to the early Church. Hopeful words… when we sow/plant, we have hope of a harvest.

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” – Galatians 6:9 (ANIV)

“So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit.” – The Message.

Live in hope.

Nothing to See? Look, See, Pray

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.

Finding Hope – Look, See, Pray

Sunset over the Selsey Peninsula

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.

Blessed are the Grumpy – Look, See, Pray

I’ve been reading Tanya Marlow’s helpful little book “Coming back to God when you feel empty” which sets her story of serious personal illness against the story of Ruth & Naomi (Book Of Ruth).

Reality for many of us is that we have times of sadness, frustration, or annoyance. Try as we might to be “poster boy/girl” of perfection as Christ-followers, life persists in poking spanners in our plans. Perhaps we have been (badly) taught that a Christian should be always smiling, calm, successful and never cross. When you started your experience of Christ and His Church, were you issued with your SWEG? Mandatory a few years ago, the “Slimy Wet Evangelical Grin” divided the failures from the REAL people of faith.

Well, in “Ruth” we have a story set in dangerous days when Israel was mostly doing whatever they liked, and God had to keep sending leaders (Judges) to sort them out. Naomi gave up on God because a famine lasted too long; then went to Moab, where the Lord had forbidden Israelites to go. Tragedy followed- her husband died, her sons marry- but also die- and her sensible daughter-in-law skipped out. Naomi was understandably grumpy, and even told people she was called “Bitter.” The story has a brilliant and happy ending (read it, it’s quite short) and God uses Naomi, Ruth, and a man named Boaz to be part of the story that leads up to the Incarnation of Jesus.

Some of you are thinking “Grumpy?” Others are offended by the “SWEG” comment. Tough. Be real.

A surprising number of Bible characters get grumpy, and don’t grin like loons. The Bible tells it straight, warts and grumps included. Moses, Jacob, Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Nehemiah… the list goes on. Grumpy is real (although not something to aspire to).

The good bit is this. God understands. Especially when the mucky end of the stick comes our way, when others aggravate us, or persist in holding contradictory opinions, or when circumstances drop us in the swamp… God would rather have our honest grumps than insincere swegs.

Having gone through life with a passing resemblance to the warthog in the photo, I say passionately that we don’t have to pretend perfection. Praise and thanksgiving ought to be coming out of our heart and mouth regularly- but if you get a Warthog Day please know this: Blessed are the grumpy, for God still loves them and understands.

As a man whose character tends toward smiles and contentment, with a deep conviction that God has been good to me, I still get grumpy (even if I may not show it often). So with all my heart, I thank God for this truth: Blessed are the Grumpy.

Go on, smile for the camera, Mrs Warthog…

Warthog, Houston Zoo, Texas, USA

See www.tanyamarlow.com and her blog “Thorns and Gold” for more helpful and honest articles. https://www.facebook.com/tanya.marlow

Eye of the Beholder- Look, See, Pray

Cotswold Landscape

How do we decide what is beautiful? Here are two photographs, one a landscape taken in the Cotswolds. The other- an abstract view of beach huts in Bognor.

Beach Huts in Bognor Regis- rear view.

Which is more beautiful? I have no idea what you will say. Guessing, I think more people probably will prefer the landscape. It is the kind of rural scene that John Constable painted; dramatic skies, big trees, everyday scenes which (almost) idealise the English countryside.

Others may be drawn to the bright mix of colours, geometric shapes, and the abstract viewpoint which makes the onlooker interpret their own meaning in the image.

Things that may influence our choice will be very varied. Background, education, artistic gifting, training, what we expect a picture to be… Or what if colour-blindness affects us?

I discovered I loved John Constable’s paintings when I was about 14. A breakfast cereal company offered tokens: when a certain number were collected, I was sent a copy of “The Haywain.” Loved it! Then I acquired the “Cornfield”. Still the vouchers kept coming (a family of six gets through cereal quickly) and I rashly ventured out in a new artist… Turner’s “Fighting Temeraire.” It was different, yet familiar, and the colours and lighting… well, wow!

My art teacher at school taught us about the Impressionists. Initially, I was underwhelmed. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t recognise what I was looking at! He persevered with our youthful and developing brains, and Monet and Manet and Van Gogh entered our appreciation zone.

Then we came across Picasso. It just seemed WRONG.

Yet friends of mine loved his work. Strange world, odd people… How far can “art” go before it becomes no longer art? Is that even a reasonable question to ask?

Now, I have my preferences and my favourites, and I have learned to appreciate some art that seemed challenging at first. At least I have learned how to look. No doubt we all have different things that make us go “ahhh” and others that get the response “yuk.”

But when we look at a painting, a photograph, a sculpture, a tapestry, we have a moment in which we can learn, we can be stimulated, challenged, and inspired. Similarly we can read, or listen to music, or use our own creativity: that’s wonderful. These are all ways in which we interpret our world and find beauty in living. But why do we bother?

Because “beauty” is a soul-food. Beauty is one of the ways God touches our deep inner being; in nature, art, music, poetry we can experience an other-worldliness, even a transcendent “lifting” of our spirit into a moment of being God-present.

Here is an ancient expression of this: look at something you find beautiful, and read these words: “O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth! Your glory is higher than the heavens… When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers- the moon and the stars you set in place- what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?” (Psalm 8:1, 3-4, NLT)

Journey’s Blessing- Look, See, Pray

Some photographs are planned- some just happen. I waited at Bonehill Rocks above Widecombe-in-the-Moor for the setting sun to break through the cloud: then with little warning, a climber stepped into the light. The traveller was enshrined- his journey over the rocks and wild hills of Dartmoor has been immortalised.

We didn’t speak. He may not even know he was photographed. His evening was all exertion and the warm glow of achievement.

I regard this as a favourite photo. It tells a story- or lets YOU tell a story- about the silhouetted figure against the warm light. Dark clouds and solid granite frame the moment. What does it say to you?

A prayer for all who travel, who make pilgrimage:

“God bless the path you take, and the earth beneath your feet. May God bless your destination.”

May God guide you, protect you, and make your travelling a blessing to others when you arrive.

Ups and Downs- Look, See, Pray

Back where we started… nearly. East Sussex to West Sussex, via the hills of England. As a child, it seemed hilarious that the local hill areas were called “Downs” instead of “Ups.” It’s still quite funny.

Many youthful hours were spent exploring the South Downs. Foredown, Southwick Hill, Truleigh Hill, the Devil’s Dyke, Lancing Clump, and Mount Caburn… There were favourite walks, and other walks when we kids were “persuaded” to enjoy a long hot slog across rural Sussex. We survived; maybe even thrived!

Later more competitive jaunts featured: including one ambitious navigation exercise eastwards from Brighton which proved interesting when a local farmer demolished a barn which was (unknown to him) supposed to be a crucial waymark that weekend. Teams disappeared in various directions as those groups lacking guidance and map-reading skills improvised. That was a long day.

Welsh mountains, the glorious Lake District, the Peaks of Derbyshire, the delights of Dartmoor, sunny Dunstable Downs- and now living in sight of the South Downs again. I have been privileged to live in beautiful places. Do I have favourites? Yes- all of them!

What started out as family walks to keep us occupied and use up our excessive energy gradually changed into a lifetime’s passion. After a while, I began to “read” landscapes. Their shapes and contours, the pathways, and the flora and fauna became a storybook. In time the countryside became a prayer-book: a favoured place to seek God, and to think through the ups and downs of decision-making and (even more important) the ups and downs of my own heart.

Look at the photo. Rounded contours form a shape painted by evening sunlight. Crops are growing, with the trails of tractors weaving patterns that give a sense of both movement and symmetry. Somehow the farmer overcomes the slopes to maintain straight lines. There is purpose in the landscape that rests on the very bones of the Earth. People pass through, changing the surface, but leaving the immense chalk mounds untouched.

How does that reflect our own lives? Our small ambition, even our great purpose, is acted out on a mighty stage. The hills represent the great unchangeable structure of the world- our greatest efforts and achievements, our human history there to be re-written by the next generation.

Climbing these hills is always laborious. The summits are never easily gained! Even the journey down-slope is hard on the knees- but the view from the summit, the sense of attainment, the awe that comes from being a very small creature in a huge, huge planet… THAT is a place for vision, for choices, celebration and encouragement. If you allow, it is a place for worship of the Most High God.

Perhaps, using the photo or your own memories, you can spend some moments of prayerful reflection on your own life, your ups and downs, and your faith. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God’s favourite “hill” and the promise that humanity WILL come to worship… why not now?

Isaiah 2:2 (New Living Translation) In the last days, the mountain of the LORD’s house will be the highest of all— the most important place on earth. It will be raised above the other hills, and people from all over the world will stream there to worship.

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.