It’s Complicated – Look, See, Pray

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“It’s complicated” said the Wise old Owl.

When I was in my twenties, most questions had simple answers. Except for a few that I preferred not to think about- thinking is hard work.

Thirty years old and I was becoming wiser (and probably less aggravating). But I discovered more and more issues couldn’t be resolved with a simple pat answer. I remember one lovely guy who looked me in the eye and said “Yes or no?” Um….

Books of great length had been written about this particular “hot potato” and even they didn’t have a definitive answer!

Passing years have seen the number of “simple” questions get smaller. The battle became one of understanding enough of the complications to be able to set out a simpler solution which still did justice to the broader topic and stayed true to God as He has disclosed Himself and His ways.

When these questions apply to our faith and behaviour as Christian disciples, we want simple straightforward answers “like it says in the Bible…”

Trouble is that on some things Christians interpret and understand parts of the Bible differently.

Most of the big themes are clear enough. God has revealed Himself as Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer: also as the One who balances justice with mercy, judgement with grace.

Our “backdrop” to the human drama is vast and full of mystery yet illuminated by flashes of revelation. A better disciple and theologian than me spoke of “seeing as in a cloudy mirror… but one day we will see Him face to face.” (Thanks, Paul!)

In this area of theology we have all been shaped by our background, education, family, life experiences, and the unspoken assumptions that are built in to “our” culture and projected onto our view of society. Race, nationality, skin colour, gender- these all affect our assumptions about what is the natural order of things. Our society benefits when we will learn from each other, and can hold our principles with conviction whilst accepting difference exists.

So then- what about Covid-19 ? Is it God’s direct judgement on a sinful humanity? Or might it be a symptom of the broken fallenness of the world, that has consequences built in? Plagues have happened throughout history. Some, God says, are direct judgement against wrong: Moses passed on the command of God to “Let my People go!” with Pharoah’s refusal being met with the Plagues of Egypt. Some find that difficult but there is little room for wriggling. God said, it happened, and then by grace Israel was delivered through the Exodus.

Judgement is promised at the Return of Jesus Christ. That is a statement of faith based on the character of God and His promises. In many ways, “creation is groaning” waiting for that time of deliverance and glory.

My Grandma kept a tin of sweets on a shelf out of the reach of six-year-old boys (me!). When I managed to climb on a chair and sneak one out… she laughed and laughed when she saw my anguished face as I chewed a piece of (hot) crystallized ginger. “Be sure your sins will find you out!” she chortled.

However, my youthful errors aside, what about Covid-19?
Can we say confidently it is an act of direct judgement? Do we not risk presuming on God’s prerogative if we say that? There have been too many “prophets” willing to put words in God’s mouth- those who truly prophesy do so from humble hearts and a Spirit-given conviction.

We can say, I believe, that God has permitted our world to exist in such a way that sickness, natural disaster, war and famine are part of our reality. These ills should cause us to turn back to God; to pray for all those caught up in the crisis, and to proclaim their existence as “signposts” in a lost world that point us to the consequences of our separation from the Lord- OR draw us closer to Him to seek hope, mercy, healing and ultimately eternal life.

Like Owl said, it’s complicated.

Today I will rejoice that I am alive, I will give thanks that God is both my Sovereign and my Saviour, and I will seek to be as Christ-like as I can with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Lord, deliver us today from the evil of this virus- and may Your Spirit open the hearts and minds of all peoples so that we may love and worship at Your throne. May Jesus be acknowledged by every man, woman, and child as Lord and Redeemer, who reconciles us and will reconcile all things in due time. In the meantime, help us to be wise, loving, and gracious in what we say and how we live. Amen.

Time for What? Look, See, Pray

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I’m at a loose end. We are self-isolating, so not seeing people as normal, and not able to do all the things that usually fill the days.

It is even a step down from being “retired.”

Both good and bad. For thirty years I have been “on call” or “on duty” serving God as a local church minister. That’s an unusual way of life: I’ve been privileged to be alongside people in their best, worst, and most humdrum experiences.

Long hours. Emotionally intense. Having to NOT be just a “professional” Christian, but a real one with a life-giving faith. It’s impossible to nourish others if my own life is dry as dust.

Retirement has been great and I have been able to useful helping in church and community, within the restrictions of health. Now I’m limited to home and the internet. One possible response would be to hibernate and wait for the virus to run its course. That doesn’t sit comfortably with an up-and-at-it enthusiast (and I’m sure there will be plenty of others feeling the same way).

When I finish writing this, I will go out in the garden and take the time to REALLY look at the flowers, watch the birds, and maybe take some photos.

We have been given a GIFT of time.

Time to look, time for prayer, for reflection on life, for remembering family and friends. I have time to write. I have dug out my Q-Chord (electronic autoharp/synth) and started to practice – so I’ve been given a gift of music too. I have also received a gift of more time with Juliet (she is working from home) and that is precious.

So, am I at a “loose end” or I am unwrapping a gift that can enrich my life as a result of for the first time in memory HAVING TIME ON MY HANDS?

When all this over, and life resumes “normality”… will we have taken the time to look and decide what is really important and worth keeping? If we just go back to how it was, we will have missed an opportunity.

Of course this is a challenging time, and for many of us there may be grief and loss. Financial pressures are squeezing us all. Getting essentials to everybody is proving hard for Government and society generally. Some are being selfish so-and-so’s whilst others are being amazingly kind, generous and loving. We will need a great deal of kindness to heal the wounds of this plague. We don’t know what shape the future will take, but perhaps our choices of how we use our time can shape it for the better. This time IS a gift. It’s time IN our hands, not “on” them. We can use time or waste it.

May God’s peace keep you free from fear, and God’s Spirit give you courage and strength, and may the Son of God lead you in a new future of hope and wisdom.

Living Water- Look, See, Pray

Walking in the Pyrenees in the midday heat, looking for a reason to stop… how glad my eyes became when this stream offered a shady rest and a good excuse!  Fast running water- needs a slow shutter speed to make it look realistic. Too fast, and every droplet will freeze in time, a spray of molten diamonds. Too slow, and the water will blur so much it will lose form completely.

Add the complication of high contrast between open sunlight and deep shadows. That’s got to be worth a few cool, quiet minutes in the shade to think about technique (and enjoy a bite of lunch). Hope the resulting photo pleases you!

Andorra is a tiny land-locked country between France and Spain. The mountains offer ski slopes in the winter, and great (steep) walking in summer. Such precipitous slopes run water off quickly, and the streams dash briskly down into the valley below. Even in high summer, the water was icy cold- refreshing for weary feet and dry tonsils.

It helped me understand the frequent image in the Bible- streams in the desert, wells and springs, life for the parched hills and thirsty pastures. The land of Israel and its neighbours know all about thirst and the value of pure running, living, water.

Isaiah the prophet brought a message of hope to a people in difficult times: “For I will pour water on the thirsty ground and send streams coursing through the parched earth. I will pour my Spirit into your descendants and my blessing on your children.”  – Isaiah 44:3 (Message)

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Mountain stream, Pyrenees, in Andorra

Later, Jesus stood in the middle of the Jerusalem worshippers and pilgrims: On the final and climactic day of the Feast, Jesus took his stand. He cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me this way, just as the Scripture says.”    John 7:37-38 (Message)

The nation who KNEW the value of water “in a dry and thirsty land” and who regularly witnessed the ritual use of water for cleansing (physical and spiritual) were instantly faced with a shocking fact. Jesus- the Son of God, the Messiah, the Christ- is claiming to be the fulfilment of all the Bible promises of Life, forgiveness, cleansing, purification… a prophetic and life-changing proclamation. With the best will in the world, the religious practices and traditions of Israel only partly satisfied the need. People were THIRSTY for revelation and hope, for redemption and rescue. Jesus says- “Come and drink.”

There is nothing quite as satisfying as pure, cool water when you are desperately thirsty.

Not just a drink, says Jesus: but Living Water will well up inside those who trust-and-believe: just as promised in the Old Testament.

Right at the end of the New Testament, in the Book of Revelation, the final visions show this River of Life running from the Throne of Almighty God:  Then the Angel showed me Water-of-Life River, crystal bright. It flowed from the Throne of God and the Lamb, right down the middle of the street. The Tree of Life was planted on each side of the River, producing twelve kinds of fruit, a ripe fruit each month. The leaves of the Tree are for healing the nations…”   Revelation 22:1-2 (Message)

To be thirsty, spiritually thirsty, is a deep privilege. Come to Christ- drink your fill, be re-born, be immersed in Holy Spirit life and power. Saint, sinner or seeker- come as you are and let the Living Water transform your life.  Come on, drink deep…

Heron – Look, See, Pray

Herons arrived in my universe via the pages of “Tarka the Otter” as Henry Williamson described the world in words that conjured up visions and dreams, wild hopes of one day seeing otters, herons, salmon and so on.  I was young- Mum taught me to read before I went to school, and ever since I have devoured books like a hungry heron nabs frogs.

Getting a decent SLR camera gave opportunity to seek out these wonderful creatures and film them. It also began a life-time search of frustration in acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary to get good results. Lots of practice does help success!

This heron was in Regent’s Park, London, and was happy to ignore people unless they came very close. (I had a good telephoto lens with me and stayed at a safe distance.)

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Preening Grey Heron

I was able to observe for about 20 minutes and took photos of the heron preening itself, sharpening its fearsome bill, and hunting patiently for small fish and frogs.

It was the patience and preparation that impressed me. “My” heron was truly dedicated to hunting: it sought food with all its attention.

The things I see often become the starting point for spiritual reflection and prayer.

Watching this committed bird made me wonder about my own dedication to “seek out the Lord.”

Do I sharpen up? Take good care of myself? Wait patiently on God? Devote as much time to prayer as to photography?

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Heron sharpening & cleaning its bill

Am I as motivated to “feed” my soul with spiritual food, to make time to relate to God, set intimacy with the Holy Trinity as a life priority?

If not, why am I surprised when my spirituality seems stale or more of a vacant space than a heart-filling joy?

It also helps me to look at the heron and see how scrawny, leggy, and frankly weird it looks!

Yes, it is beautiful in its own way. It is also superbly equipped as a fishing-hunter, water-wader, and strong flier. But hardly classically cute!

So then… when the onlooker sees me living as a “spiritual being,” and thinks what an odd shape I am, what a strange haircut… nice strong legs, shame about the face…

Perhaps they will discover that I am gradually becoming a better “heron”,  learning God’s ways and learning to love and be loved. They may observe those moments of triumph when I connect with the Almighty! Or see how Jesus brings strength and comfort when I face struggles and pain.

Maybe they will see as I am learning to see- and find looking leads to praying.

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Will Eugene’s frogs-eye view lead to enlightenment before he croaks?

The Delicate Dance” – Look, See, Pray

“The delicate dance.” Whirling, waving, singing in the breeze. Humble grasses of endless variety grow almost anywhere round the world.

A carpet to walk on, a banquet to creatures great and small. Background colours of restful greens and brown, and all too easy to overlook. We cut it down to make hay, we give our civilised selves a never-ceasing summer of work with scythe or lawnmower. We take grass for granted.

Grass helps protect from soil erosion. It makes a perfect surface for sports and picnics. It helps regulate the atmosphere we breathe.

Our Bibles are full of references to grass; in the beautiful 23rd Psalm of the Good Shepherd, we read “He causes me to lie down in pastures of green grass; he guides me beside quiet waters.”

My photograph today comes from a lakeside in the Zillertal of Austria. A good long walk up the valley led to a gorgeous turquoise-coloured lake. Kindly souls had put a seat with a view across the water to a snow-clad peak. Here, in the peace and quiet, we took our rest, our lunch, and our pictures.

Dancing delicately in the mountain air, these grass seed-heads rustled and swayed to an unheard tune.

Sunshine was followed by gentle showers, and a little later by a brief but dramatic thunderstorm. Our day was enriched by these curious climatic changes. Tomorrow would see the delicate dance of the grass as an encore. The rain makes it all live. Soil is shallow on the hard rocks, and sun and wind dry the grass quickly. It is the living water that gives the life.

A verse to ponder from Deuteronomy, extolling the virtue and value of the Words and Love of God. Be refreshed.

“My teaching, let it fall like a gentle rain, my words arrive like morning dew, like a sprinkling rain on new grass, like spring showers on the garden.” – Deuteronomy 32:2 (Message)

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Secret and Sacred – Look, See, Pray

Deep down in the valley the trees hide their treasure. Down there a river flows, water brown from the peat washed off the moor. A track wanders between the trees with fallen leaves as a rustling carpet for dogs and kids to play in. Birds and secretive mammals watch carefully those who pass by: squirrels swear from their lofty seats and throw acorns to encourage departure.

If you go far enough, a graceful stone bridge arches the water so drovers and foresters can cross.

Go further, and find a stump or stone. Just sit in silence. No traffic sounds, no signal on mobiles, just the birds, the beasties and the breeze. Stay long enough, and a deeper stillness slips into your soul.

Far from distractions, the silence becomes comfortable. Only natural noises can be heard, forming a gentle background of peacefulness which allows the silence of the soul to bring rest.

The secret place becomes sacred. The signature of the Creator embellishes the quiet beauty with an invitation to inhabit the peace… and allow the Presence of Christ to open a chapter of awareness and grace in the Book of Life.

Words are important- but they are not the only speech. Silence is eloquent.MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

All it needs is a secret place where our heart can meet God’s faithful fathering. This is one such place. Have you found yours?

Here is a refuge, a sacred place of worship and reconciliation. Nearer, my God, to You.

Practice this sacred silence, and it becomes a peace within the soul, available any “when” and every “where.” God IS with us. We simply need to be aware- and engage.

Float like a butterfly? Look, See, Pray

“Useless flutterbys” in the words of a grouch. Dazzling flying jewels according to a fan.

Why do butterflies exist? Whatever the reason, I’m glad they bring their colourful aerial dances to the party. Something of a luxury item in an age of austerity.

I have an “inner butterfly” in my personality. I can be distracted, chase too many ideas at once, start more projects than I can finish…  Must be very frustrating for people who thrive on order and systems. Perhaps I should apologise!

On the other hand, wouldn’t the world be a sad place without butterflies?

Butterflies live on quite simple terms. They hatch from tiny eggs, tramp many jackbooted feet all over the plants they eat, enter a mysterious chrysalis- and emerge as delicate masters of flight, enjoying sunshine, and content to produce the next generation.

Our complicated technological/digital society worships productivity and efficiency. People or things that don’t contribute profitably are devalued and denied space. We even want to educate children without full access to art, music, nature-  maybe a few token lessons, but not the funding or staff to give the arts proper priority.

We are so busy with five-year plans, exams, and expecting schools to make up for the discipline and respect that (too often) isn’t given in home life. Three rootless generations struggle to find meaning.  We teach children to exist. Do we teach them to live?

It has become unfashionable to talk about BIG questions:  Who am I, where did I come from, why am I here, where am I going, what is a person truly worth…  We drain colour and vibrancy from life!  We substitute virtual reality through gadgets, games and apps. We entertain and amuse ourselves into stagnation and apathy. Bored and disillusioned.

O for the frivolity of a butterfly’s life!  An innocence with purpose.

Perhaps a short time of meditating on the purpose of our lives would be in order. Why do I spend my time, energy and resources as I do? What is really important? Have I yet discovered a God-given purpose that adds meaning and value to my days?

Ephesians 5:15 (NLT)
So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise.

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Unbeaten- Look, See, Pray

Gardening is in the blood of my family.  The appreciation of beauty was instilled early, together with the realisation that the gardener never has full control. Jobs take longer, pests invade, or the good old British weather trumps your hand.

In my mind’s eye, there is a rose bed out front. Problem is… the roses are out the back, in pots!

Clearing the overgrown shrubs and brambles takes longer than I hoped. Our clay soil also has a mind of its own- too boggy in winter, rock solid in summer.  Yet there is hope.

Last week the rain came lashing down. One of my “David Austin” roses, Boscobel, had just opened up before the apocalypse began.

Boscobel 002roses 0618Last year the rose looked gorgeous.

It has struggled this time round. Pot life doesn’t suit it well. Fewer flowers have bloomed.

This time the rain tried to dissolve the rose!

The petals became translucent, and the colour changed. Very strange to see.

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Gardeners are patient; and they don’t give up easily. I’m taking this semi-dissolved rose as a symbol of hope. The plant has survived. It has not been beaten.

Life lesson?  You are never beaten until you don’t get up anymore.

Life rarely turns out as we expect or “plan”… and life brings disappointments as well as triumphs. Quite a lot of the time living is just about keeping on going, doing the ordinary,  believing and trusting that God won’t let us go.

Prayer point:  Has there been a deluge on your rose recently? Something that has spoilt your dreams, rattled your cage, threatened your future security?

Make that the focus of your prayer. Trust the Lord to bring fresh growth, renew the damaged roses: and maybe even see something beautiful or insightful in the situation. My translucent rose has a magnificence of its own, even with its imperfection. Study the consequence of the storm, look for beauty in the moment. Rain affected the bloom- but the plant survives. Unbeaten.

Lord, whatever is going on right now, and however it looks in the middle of the deluge, may Your Spirit renew and keep me UNBEATEN.  The best IS yet to come. Amen.

 

 

On the Falling Tide- Look, See, Pray

Waiting, hoping, needing.
The glue-like mud clings heavily, like lead weights.
We watched the tide go out and the sparkling waters
became a twisting path to desolation.
How strange that, at the lonely times,
the little glory left behind causes disappointment
reminding us only of what we used to have.

Our vision is blurred by the mist of tears
and the plaintive whistle of curlew and gull
draws attention to what we have lost.

Surely the rhythmic tide will come sweeping back?
There are tides, and times, and seasons
but the turning point has delayed so long
that our dreams are ashes, scattered,
and heartache holds our spirit
in the grip of the vice of despair.
How long, O Lord, how long?

Who can tell the lonely ones with the ravaged hearts
that peace flows, like a river, towards the sea of grace?

How long, O Lord? When will mercy come?

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A lament over the state of the Church and the nations.

The last century has seen the tide retreat as faith is devalued, morality has divorced wisdom, and entertainment has become the opiate of a purposeless people.

As God’s people pray, we raise burning candles toward the sky, each one contributing a light to call upon the Light of the World.

If you read this far and your heart is stirred for the nation, please join in prayer: and if you wish, share this post on your timeline in the hope of others also crying out to Christ.

Lord, bring the tide of compassionate love over the mud and sorrow of these days. Amen. May true grace be with you.

 

Text and photos (c) Richard Starling, 2019

Surprised by Joy – Look, See, Pray

Supermarket shopping. As I drove home the sea was almost still; just enough of a wind ruffle to make the surface sparkle like stars.

Turned the corner to be confronted with a mass of creamy white blossom on a hedge.

I began to feel a strange surge of delight at what I was seeing. Joy sneaked up on my lips and cracked them into a smile. I felt GOOD about life and beauty and the cosmos.

Spring’s blessing continued to present itself in every garden, hedge, tree and sunbeam. How had I not noticed all this before? By the time I was home and unloading the car the inner joy was bubbling nicely. It was a lovely surprise. Ironically, I have been training myself to take notice, to look out for beauty and colour and gifts of grace. It still came as a surprise today!

C S Lewis, the author of the Narnia stories, the Ransom trilogy (and a whole shedload of books on theology, ethics, and Christianity) described his discovery of faith in a book called simply “Surprised by Joy.”  Moving from a position of non-belief, Lewis found himself overtaken by a joyful process that brought him to a passionate belief in Jesus Christ. Out of that change, he wrote extensively and became one of the best apologists and philosophers of the 20th century.

I photographed this rosebud when I arrived home. It is the first rose of the year in my garden. Bright red, beautiful, and another joyful surprise.

May your day be filled with joy, surprise, beauty- and God’s love.

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