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

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?

A Dandelion Prayer- Look, See, Pray

I may never know what comes from a conversation, an act of kindness, a moment of generosity- or indeed from an angry word or unjust action. All I can do is choose how to live, how to speak- and to aim high.

Dandelions are a good example of seed sowing. The golden yellow flower cheers the heart, feeds the bees, and the plant is edible and nutritious. The wind takes the seed wherever it blows. In the right place, a valuable new plant grows. In the wrong place (my flower beds, for example!) it can be a wretched nuisance.

These seeds are fascinating- like tiny parachutes, the seed floats and is taken off to begin a new possibility. Once detached from the puffball, anything can happen.

A Dandelion Prayer:

Lord God, help my life to be a source of goodness and hope: may my deep roots grow in Your good earth. Then may justice, compassion, and kindness be the seeds I send into the world.

May my words be gracious, my attitudes positive, and my gratitude be contagious. Let my face know smiles and laughter, and share joy freely.

Help me keep my negative thoughts quarantined; my selfish impulses on a short leash; and please guard against any careless weeds or habits I may start growing that hurt or offend others.

May I remember that others aren’t worthless if they believe differently, or follow a path I might think is stupid. There but for God’s grace… and I must remember I have my own catalogue of poor choices and ridiculous actions, and therefore have little licence to judge!

O Lord, only You are Perfect: neither I nor those I meet today can ever proudly boast perfection- only Your salvation.

Lord, it is said that a weed is simply a plant in the wrong place. Please help my life sow good seeds that will grow a harvest of Love and Joy in the places and people You direct me to.

Finally, Lord, it is a fact that life is fragile and precious. Please use me to affirm the worth and beauty of the Life that You have shared with those I shall engage with this week. Wherever the Breath of Your Spirit blows the seeds You have given- may there be peace, wholeness, and Eternal Hope.

In the Name above all other names, please let my life sow the Love of Christ. Amen.


	

Woodland Prayer- Look, See, Pray

The peace of the green trees be ours
and calm our thoughts tonight;
The song of Creation bring harmony
and help our minds to rest.

Industrious insects garden our world,
as birds bring an offering of music;
the streams bring the waters of life,
and a woodland symphony is born!

Creatures large and small have their being
in this cathedral canopied by trees.
O Lord most High, O Lord most holy,
thank you for this place.

The joy of blue skies overwhelms us!
Softness of raindrops caress our heads.
Clouds of gentleness soothe our days,
and may wholeness be our portion.

(c) Richard Starling, 2021.

Shortcuts? Look, See, Pray

“Bowerman’s Nose, on Dartmoor. “Pastels on canvas” finish

Shortcuts are very tempting.

I used to dabble with painting before I became more interested in photography. Mostly, I used oil paint, pastels, or acrylics. Every now and then, I get the urge to “be arty.”

Now, though, I have a computer and I can take shortcuts. Instead of hours of work, constant practice, and achieving mastery of the medium- I can click a mouse button and select “Artistic Filters.”

Here is a picture I “art-ed” tonight.

One version is pretending a pastels finish on “canvas.” Another is a “watercolour” version; and the third is a JPG version of the original photo taken on real film about 20 years ago.

Watercolours… sort of…
Scan of the original photo taken on 6×4 film, Mamiya 645 camera

If I’m honest, none of them do justice to the film… or to the glorious Dartmoor landscape (Bowerman’s Nose, an ancient natural rock formation allegedly looking like a head with a prominent nose).

Shortcuts- they don’t always work out so well.

Growing as a Christian disciple is often long, slow, and painstaking. There are books and talks in plenty offering “perfection in 5 easy steps” – but none of them actually work out. Shortcuts can’t replace the time taken to develop relationship, to learn to depend on God, to discover deep truths from the Scriptures and Holy Spirit. Acquiring skills such as learning to pray, or to offer worship, or the arts of community (getting on with other believers without screaming too often!).

None of my pictures are a worthy substitute for visiting Dartmoor, walking through heather, listening to the wind hissing over the gorse… Sun on the face, and rain down the neck!

They may strike you as nice, possibly inspirational, or naff.

Bowerman’s Nose in the “I-can-touch-the-granite” sense is the best way to experience its reality.

I am learning- still learning after 66 years- that the authentic is worth seeking out. Taking time, making the journey, travelling with reliable guides and map: this is the best way, if not the SatNav approach of “Finding the Fastest Route.” To reach Bowerman’s Nose, you will explore Devon lanes, walk over wild and rugged land, and experience Dartmoor weather. Blisters are likely.

Jesus invites me to walk with Him; to be an apprentice, learning to imitate His life, accepting His authority, and choosing to obey. Shortcuts, though tempting, have sold me short.

Back, then, to the invitation of Jesus: Matthew 11:29 (Message) “Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.”

Greedy or Grateful? Look, See, Pray

Blue tit: parent and chick

Greedy or grateful? I’ve been editing some photos from the garden when we first put out some feeders.

This one makes me chuckle- the poor parent, looking worn out and scruffy, confronted by a very dapper fledgling in smart new plumage. The lunge and the recoil…

Is the adult saying “What’s the magic word? Cheep ‘please’ or you go hungry!”

OR perhaps it’s mealworms with menaces… “Look, you feeble old tit, hand over the dinner OR ELSE! I’ll put you in an aviary!”

Naturally, this musing is simply proof of my own decline into old age. I’m imagining things. At least my imagination still works. I can finally say I qualify for OAP discounts – and I have my Bus Pass to prove it.

If you will work with my whimsy, these birds could pose a question worth a little time. The choice of “greedy or grateful” cuts both ways. The parent could keep all the food and neglect Junior. Junior could grab everything available… or be grateful for the parent’s care. The young are often thoughtless and demanding, focussed on the need to grow and become strong- survival instinct, if you like. Parents shift to a different survival mode- ensuring the species continues, at the cost of their own comfort.

We can go further: what about God’s provision for us? Are we grateful? Do we remember that He took OUR survival seriously, and sent Jesus to embrace life and death for our benefit?

A final thought: assuming “gratitude” holds a place in our hearts, today is a very good day to remember and bless all those who have been parents/guardians, guides, tutors, providers and educators. Looking back over 66 years there are a HOST of people who have helped and encouraged me: and I’m grateful. There are also some I have been able to help, and it’s been a privilege beyond words.

God who watches over even the sparrows (& blue tits!) is watching over us today… and giving freely of love and grace. May we all be blessed in discovering and remembering such a love as this!

“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.

Bold Singer- Look, See, Pray

Sing boldly, sweet singer!
Let music ripple on the breeze
as smooth as cream,
as clear as crystal,
sweeter than nectar.

Elegant chorister, soloist divine!
Charm the sunlight with purity,
singing praise for the new day,
pitch perfect, delicious balm,
Nature's remedy for night's sorrow.

Though mouths be silent,
the blackbird sings!
Though heart be darkened,
creation's harmony persists
raising hope in the Light.

This new day is freshly made-
gifted with song and silence,
stirring my spirit,
my Father's blessing
to all who will listen- and love.

(c) Richard Starling 2021

A psalm worth reflecting upon today: Psalm 59:16-17

But as for me, I shall sing of Your strength;
Yes, I shall joyfully sing of Your lovingkindness in the morning,
For You have been my stronghold
And a refuge in the day of my distress.
O my strength, I will sing praises to You;
For God is my stronghold, the God who shows me lovingkindness.