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
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 foretelling a Cross in His future and then Resurrection. This is Christmas. The beginning begins. (c) Richard Starling, 2020
Walking in woodland is wonderful. If you move quietly and respect the life around you, the sights, sounds and smells are invigorating. They even prompt the human brain to produce the happiness hormones, and reduce stress levels.
This photo came from an early morning walk through dense woods in Buckinghamshire- I got lost. All the trees looked the same, and I took a wrong path. I was never in any danger: but being lost is unsettling and inconvenient.
I knew that if I walked in the general direction of the rising sun I should find my vehicle and the road home.
Gradually the light grew stronger and I could see the edge of the wood.I felt instantly better, and could confidently enjoy the woods again.
Luke 2 gives the narrative of Christmas. A favourite part is when angelic messengers awaken shepherds in the dark hills above Bethlehem: the Light of the Glory of God bursts into their quiet reality. A message of HOPE sends the men off to see the new-born child. No longer lost in the dark, their way becomes clear.
It’s almost Christmas Eve. I’m going to be reflecting on that holy Light that came to the world- because we sure do need some brightness and hope! Ponder these words and apply them to your own situation: Luke 2:14 (NLT) “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
Have a wonder-filled Christmas.
Windhover, eye-sharp flight
waits… waits… until scurrying feet
betray voles to violence.
Seated on rising air, gnawing need
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
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!
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? 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.
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)
“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.
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.
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.
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.