Look, a Snake! – Look, See, Pray

Beware the dread Timber Snake of Slindon Woods… lurking in nettles and fresh leaves, the mossy-headed monster speaks with forked twig.

Please, someone else, tell me you can see the snake! Or is my fevered imagination leading me astray? I’m certain there are at least two people who say “Snake!”

Me and whoever shoved the sticks right up “hiss” nose.

Human eyes and brain need to interpret the light if we are to see. Naturally enough, our brains are tuned to recognise potential dangers (like snakes) and so translate a passing likeness into a “threat” to evaluate. A similar process helps us to recognise faces of people we know and distinguish them from strangers.

Even more wonderfully, sometimes our minds are stirred into action because sight is turned into vision- a revelation of possibilities and opportunities.

Walking through the woods today with bluebells tinkling and the birds offering a Spring Chorale, the rest of the world receded and a sense of peaceful calm descended. It seemed as though we were in an open-air theatre for a matinee performance of new life.

Fallen trees are part of this cycle of renewal. Mosses, fungi and insects find homes, the old wood gradually breaks down and nourishes the next generation. The majestic columns enter into a new birth, and new saplings and fresh leaves are the flags that wave in celebration of life- and its Creator.

Some people talk of a “forest bath” which refreshes our spirits in the green and tender beauty. More than that: I believe it becomes a “forest baptism” when our hearts and spirits see the fingerprint of God. We are immersed in the holy Presence who is Love.

Romans 1:20 reads, “For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities- his eternal power and divine nature- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” Paul, here, is verifying the fact that we can see God’s hand in all of creation- if we have eyes willing to see.

Good Friday? Look, See, Pray

Even the elements of Creation paused in horror. How could this be happening? What measure of Love accepts crucifixion to redeem a lost world? What kind of people smash rough nails through ankles and hands, offer vinegar and insults, and mock the dying Man?

Darkness came upon the Land. Earth quaked. The dead, disturbed, disturbed the city.

A hardened executioner, expert in Death, trembled and murmured “Surely this was the Son of God.” So the skies grieved and the angels recoiled and the laughter of Hell reached a crescendo- then stopped, dead.

This corpse is like no other. Hell has no power; Greatest of Accusers, Satan, falls silent, dreading the next Battle. Already the smoky deceit of the Liar is being challenged, confronted by Christ. “Send guards to the tomb! Seal the stone, the biggest of Stones, over a gaping grave…” Jesus is dead… yet He refuses to bow down to the Deathmaster.

Let Caiaphas sweat, and Pilate dream nightmares of an Innocent, let Herod the Fox hear the Hounds of Heaven scenting the quarry. Even an Emperor, far off in Rome, cannot command the Christ. Though Jesus gave up his spirit, his story does not finish on the Hill of the Skull.

“For on the Third Day…” said Jesus, “I will Rise.”

New Words, Ancient Truth- Look, See, Pray

The most familiar words can become filled with greater meaning when they are placed in a new setting. As I looked at the photo taken in a remote fjord in Norway, the morning tranquility reminded me of that well-known Psalm “The Lord is my Shepherd.” So as I thought about the ancient truth of David’s song of faith, I tried to put it in my own words- not to “improve” it (!) but to make it personal. Perhaps my effort will bring ancient Truth alive through these new words.

There’s a path through the mountains
On the way to a promised land,
That leads beside the green fields
Where still waters quench my thirst.

God is my Guide, my provider for need.
God renews my life from within,
And teaches the way  for my steps,
So my soul honours His Name.

In desolate days not even Death cuts me off,
For God walks beside me and evil must flee.
He saves me, comforts and challenges me;
His love disciples my heart and mind.

The banquet of blessing scorns my foes,
Signs of Your grace overflow!
All You provide is good beyond measure,
To be near to You, the greatest of treasure.

From setting out, to coming home
I live in Your Presence, forever in peace.



Psalm 23-ish © Richard Starling, 2022

‘Ware Wolves! Look, See, Pray

Wolves… hunters, scavengers, feared – not one of the cuddly creatures! Their eerie howling strikes terror (and that’s just when they’re in a zoo!). Imagine being lost in the forest, or being stranded in the wild country, and hearing the howling gradually getter louder…

They hunt with great stamina. Wolves can run and run, wearing down the energy and the hope of their prey, finally moving in for the kill as their weakened target reaches the point of collapse.

In these photos of wolves in captivity, even they have scavengers! Crows and magpies harry the wolves, darting in with sharp beaks to grab a share.

We use the wolf as a metaphor when someone is in trouble… “the wolves are closing in…”

Society has invented our own form of wolf: the gaping jaws of the paparazzi lurking with cameras poised, the character assassins digging dirt and flinging it until mud sticks. Social media is abused so it can become an abuser of the innocent: though sometimes the dogged determination of investigators reveals the hidden secrets of the dirty and/or mighty. Once a story- true or false- hits the internet, it builds its own momentum and the fangs drip poison. Perhaps we should call this the “Daily Gnasher”? The scavengers are always lurking.

Position, status, or leadership is often sought for its benefits and advantages, or for the power to dominate, or even for the chance to bring good change. Motives can be mixed. The one guarantee is that people in the public eye are under constant scrutiny, and the wolves WILL gather, sniffing around, and will pounce at signs of weakness or failure.

This is why power has to be matched with accountability, privilege with responsibility, and ambition with character.

Pretence will be gnawed away, sooner or later, and the bare bones will be on display. This is why the Bible insists that CHARACTER is the necessary quality for leadership. “A good leader motivates, doesn’t mislead, doesn’t exploit. God cares about honesty in the workplace: your business is HIS business.” (Proverbs 16 v10-11)

There is an old saying that we should only elect leaders who DON’T want the job.

Of course, we all, everyone of us, make mistakes and get things wrong. But there is a huge difference between a good person failing and a wrong-hearted person savaging justice and truth. Now, I’m a dog person who loves and admires their loyalty and companionship. A mistreated or badly trained dog is bad news! The similarity of dog and wolf ought to warn us.

Bad leadership breeds unfairness, injustice. The gap between rich and poor gets bigger. A sad truth- Jesus foretold “the poor will be with you always.” (Mark 14 v7) Bad leaders sometimes start as well-meaning people who rot as greed or pride blights them.

Rot “at the top” will ruin a society, a business, an institution, a life.

The people of God are called to be watchers on the walls, heralds who warn of danger, and prophets who speak truth to power/wealth. When we hear the wolves howling, it’s time to speak up. AND it’s time for us to pray. Today, we could pray for Ukraine; pray for political leaders; pray about poverty and sickness and injustice, against racism and extremism and hate.

I think I hear carrion crows… and the wolves are howling… Stand up, speak up, and pray.

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.

Don’t lose the wonder- Look, See, Pray

What will 2022 bring?

What am I hoping for?

Three days in- so far, so good. Yesterday I enjoyed the privilege of preaching in our local church, speaking about the difference Christmas makes to every New Year. Simply put, it’s the description of Jesus as Immanuel, “God is with us.” Simple words, but deep, deep meaning.

I don’t know what 2022 will bring. But I’m confident that God is with us- whatever will be. That, in turn, means I expect to keep a sense of wonder and hope every day.

The wonder of seeing the frosted leaves, the snowfall, the sunrises and settings… the first signs of snowdrops, crocii, and daffodils… cherry blossom and roses… Restless seas and cloud-paintings, seagulls stunt-flying, the field mice and squirrels…

Stormy days and dark skies, the Milky Way like a chandelier over the sea. Gentle dew and charming streams, trees standing bold before our wondering eyes.

People living in kindness, sharing love and community.

Change. I’m hoping for change in politics and public life, with integrity and compassion displacing greed and sleaze. Change in the ways people behave and believe, learn and persuade. Truth becoming important, with a reaction against shallow sound-bites, dodgy websites, and manipulative extremists.

Health. I’m hoping for an end to this pandemic, and for respect and gratitude to be shown to good medicine and good science.

Ecology: for responsibility from all of us, doing what we can to look after the planet we’ve been given, with hope of reversing some of the damage.

Some hopes, eh?

God is with us. With that fact to hold onto, we can have high hopes indeed! Don’t lose the wonder. Every wondrous thing we see inspires true hope. I won’t see everything on my wish list happen in 2022 – but God is with us, therefore NOTHING good is impossible (even if it will be difficult).

The first frosty morning may be the first day of wonder- and hope.

Finding the Unexpected- Look, See, Pray

Seaweed on Aldwick Beach

I never know what I will find on the beach. Low tide is my favourite: as the sea retreats, the sand is sculpted into sinuous shapes by shifting waves. Shellfish leave their mark. Plants of strange forms and unexpected colours are there to admire- like this white “tree” standing out boldly against the sand and sky-painted rivulets.

Some tides bring in rubbish, old tins and perennial plastics. I suppose we might say the flotsam and jetsam of 2021 has largely been junk!

When the opposite happens, though, we have memories of beauty, love, courage, and service.

Concentrating only on the rubbish is unhealthy. Most people have found 2021 hard and hostile, and we’re glad to see the back of it. Whatever your experiences this year, will you try to find one (at least) moment of joy and life to remember- and give thanks God for that?

Looking ahead… no-one is master of tide or weather. But a simple prayer for us all:

“May you find life in unexpected places.”

Keeping our hearts, eyes, and ears open for those special life-affirming moments, we may meet a person, embrace an opportunity, fulfil a hope… and may the God of Hope grant you inner peace and an everlasting love.

There’s a verse in Ecclesiastes Ch. 3 that states “God has put eternity in our hearts.” May the year 2022 bring us hope, peace and joy- and may we find life where we don’t expect it.

A blessed New Year to you.

There is always hope- Look, See, Pray

Advent is the time leading up to Christmas. It’s a season to prepare for a celebration: God took on human flesh, declaring Love to this world by identifying with us. We ARE “in this together” which is a marvellous truth (especially when compared with the rather devalued meaning intended by many politicians when they say that!).

Odd contrast: the hope of Light and Life comes just when the days get short and the cold gnaws our bones. Everything is saying “time to moan, let’s endure it as best we can” and the shout comes from the heralding Angels – “Prepare the Way of the Lord!”

It’s often a dull season for photography. Apart from dramatic skies and snowy wastes, most other subjects are lurking out of sight in the warm- and the motivation of the photographer has gone into hibernation anyway.

So a memory will have to suffice. Imagine a pleasant late April day, perhaps early May; the bluebells are cheerily dancing the blues, and the bracken begins to unfurl hairy fronds. Look down at the signs of Spring: and a heart-shape presents itself as fronds entwine. Glossy fresh greens and gentle browns mark out the hope of new life.

I love Christmas. Not the busy shops, nor the crazy adverts, not even the mass attempt to double our waistlines in a week! Although that has some attractions, if we’re honest.

Christmas means HOPE. We can all do with some of that!

God, the Giver and Source of Life and Love, sings a song to make the stars shine brighter. In the darkened streets of Bethlehem, an Eternal Light begins to glow.

And every year, however dreadful, has a heartfelt message. “There’s ALWAYS hope.”

“For a child has been born—for us! the gift of a son—for us! He’ll take over the running of the world. His names will be: Amazing Counsellor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness.” Isaiah 9:6 (Message Translation)

Just what- or rather, whom- we need. There’s always hope. May Advent this year put the glow of hope in your soul- for God has set His heart on YOU.

Climbing Slowly- Look, See, Pray

The Alps near Sheffau, Austria

My imagination was fired up the first time I read “Lord of the Rings” when Gandalf and Bilbo talked about “the Road that goes ever on” leading to adventures and tall Mountains. I was 13. The tallest “mountains” I’d ever seen up till then were the South Downs in Sussex- but the story lit a fire in my heart. I so wanted to see mountains, REAL mountains… and follow the Road to somewhere…

Fast forward twenty years or so. My mountains grew taller: Dartmoor, the Lake District, North Wales, Scotland. Then the Alps. I was in dreamland! Real mountains!

Part of my heart is attached to Austria. My boot-prints marked the tracks and high Alpine meadows, and my eyes became dizzily drunk on the heady wine of pure air above the treeline.

Wise walkers don’t rush up mountains. Pace after pace, keeping on keeping on, with the expectation of a hot meal to sharpen the flagging spirits. Mountains are unforgiving of the careless, and unrelenting in their challenges. But the rewards are (almost) out of this world. Spectacular views, forests and flowers, snow and storms- sun and wind to redden the cheeks and give a healthy glow.

The longer the route, the more deliberate the planning; and the demands of exertion to your limits mean that success is valued highly! “We did it!”

I was reading an article today which referred to Maximus the Confessor, who helped the Church in the sixth century to work out the implications of Christian faith. You may never have heard of Max… but he is remembered for his careful and determined efforts to help Christ-followers become as much like Jesus as possible. His writings and his personal experiences weren’t full of miracles and spectacular change: Maximus spoke of the gradual, incremental changes that culminate in “the slow transformation of our own human existence into the image of the divine.” It is a process, a constant practice, a determined “following” on the Way of Christ- until we arrive.

It’s a long, slow, often difficult Road of adventure over the mountains: glorious views and visions, obstacles overcome, storms survived, weary feet and a heart on fire with the desire to reach the glorious end; lived with a passionate and thankful sense of worship and a knowledge of being Loved and sustained on the long Road.

If I had a fiver for every shortcut I’ve tried, every blind alley explored… and a tenner for every time I fell and skinned my knees and cut my hands and got up again… I’d be a millionaire. But I still wouldn’t be as richly rewarded as I am in looking back at the incremental changes in my character and faith, slowly adding to my understanding of God, building a Road towards the Mountain-Maker.

John the Disciple was known for love. A long life of following Jesus, of being His friend, and of teaching others what he had gained. He wrote these lovely words about climbing slowly alongside Jesus, and gradually becoming LIKE Him. With all the miles and mysteries, the promise is clear: God WILL transform us utterly. The Road is long- but we WILL meet Jesus, and know Him as we are known. Read this- then keep climbing slowly and growing steadily in hope.

1 John 3:2-3 (New Living Translation)
Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure.

A Road that goes ever on.

Headlong – Look, See, Pray

Headlong

Icy

Clean

I am the stream

Scouring the rocks

Cutting a path

Through the Arches of Time

Hemmed in

Icy

Strong

I am the Love

That purifies daily

Bridging the gap

Between mountain and sea

Hasty

Icy

Refreshing

I am the Craftsman

Sculpting all beauty

Making a signpost

To the Heavenly Face

Hopeful

Alive

Graceful

God planned my course

God counts my years

God gives us Life

© Richard Starling 2021