Love with no Limit – Look, See, Pray

Um. Er, God, um… I’m having a little bit of trouble. With some Christians.

I read this piece from the New Testament, you see, where Paul tells them off about the way that church behaved and worshipped. It isn’t that I disagree with Paul, but… Love and all that – well, there are a couple of people I’m finding hard to love. Not even sure I like one of them!

Why? Well, they are wrong about….. Sorry, did You interrupt me? Oh. I interrupted… What were You saying? “I’m wrong about some stuff?” Never! I went to college and everything. What about what?

No, I don’t really want to talk about THAT. I’m embarrassed enough without You saying stuff. Can we change the subject, please? “You still love me, even though…” Well, of course You do. It’s Your job. Can we get back to the point, please. Sorry? “It’s not MY place to tell You your job!” Alright, alright. Point taken. I’m sorry.

As I was saying, these two bozos… er, sorry, gentlemen, they’re obviously wrong or deluded- or perhaps they’ve gone to the Dark Side… “Another clanger, Richard!” Oh, slip of the tongue, that isn’t in the New Testament. You know what I meant. Anyone can make a mistake! “Exactly.”

“You want me to go back and read it again?” Why? “I seem to have missed the point… ???”

But I was talking about them, you know, not very lovable… annoying, even. Daft as a brush!

“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal… If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing. Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out… Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance…

Oh. Well, when You say it like that… But… “Deal with your own faults before criticising them.”

I don’t want to. Surely I’m better than… Sorry? What? “Not the way Jesus sees me? Love doesn’t play favourites like that…” I need to listen some more? “Prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever!  Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture! But when full understanding comes, these partial things will become useless. When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.

So does that mean… “Definitely YES. I can’t go round behaving like an arrogant…” – Well, I didn’t mean to be. But aren’t they wrong? Oh dear- “You’ll tell them at the right time IF they’re wrong: just like You tell me when I behave badly…”

I guess I was having more trouble than I realised. Father God, can you help me to love better? To be patient and kind, and forgiving, and less of a …….. I think I’m just going to leave that there, God. Thanks for Your help. I think. Yeah, I suppose You’re right. Love. That’s You all over. Um, yes, this has been awkward- no, I’ve been awkward. And a bit wrong. It’s all about Love. Goodnight, Father.

“You can do better- when you let Me help… Love really matters.”

Potential- Look, See, Pray

It has potential. This dahlia bud will develop into a glorious scarlet flower, which will be a bee-feeding station for several days, will attract insects to pollinate it, and eventually produce seeds for the future of dahlia existence.

Right now, it won’t win prizes. Interesting shapes, but unless you are a biologist or keen gardener it won’t attract a crown until the flower is in full-on-in-your-face-red mode.

If you judge this dahlia at this point, you’ll pass it over- despite its potential. Unless you are a photographer, in which case (like me) you will take its picture and marvel at the wonder of such a diverse and splendid Creation.

What will be grows from what is.

The principle applies in our spirituality too. Philippians 1:6 (NLT):  And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.

Once submitted to Christ, we have potential. That potential will take time and effort; and the direct assistance of Holy Spirit power. Just think. The Creator who designed dahlias and created the laws of physics that enable us to enjoy its colour also sees potential in US.

We are often too quick to judge, to criticise, or to dismiss. I am so grateful for people who saw potential in me: and to God Himself who placed that potential within me. I am deeply indebted to the people who kept on trusting, testing, and investing in me so that the potential began to turn into effective and attractive fruitfulness.

Today I sat in the shade of my palm tree and looked at the garden I am rebuilding. Obstacles have been removed, the soil is being improved, plants are settling in well and produce wonderful form and colour. It might not be at this stage without the pandemic! I have been isolating at home, and have been working dahlia, sorry, DAILY, with a plan, some tools, and a little knowledge. Now it is becoming rewarding and enjoyable- potential is being realised, and I love it.

As I sat there, mug of tea in hand, I prayed in thanksgiving and in humility. Grateful for potential fulfilled in me and in the garden God has given me to tend.

Jeremiah the prophet spoke to a people in exile (a bit like a terrible pandemic…) and it helped me remember my task. Plant a garden, and pray for the community.

Jeremiah 29:4-7 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

A situation with potential… What might God do with believers who settle into their community and seek blessing for that community! Rather than a selfish “Bless me, Lord” prayer, to mean wholeheartedly “Bless THEM, Lord.”

What God has begun in me- and in you- will be completed and fulfilled by God. Potential for hope, love, joy, healing, grace, mercy and peace. Thanks for letting me see this dahlia, Lord… and what it shows of potential for change, growth, and glory. Amen.

Reflection of Light – Look, See, Pray

Not every experience, photograph or person has to be outstandingly dynamic. Ordinary is good.

We have become addicted to the buzz of adrenaline. Bigger, better, faster, louder, brighter- and usually more expensive to us as “buyer” and to the ordinary person doing the producing. This is not, in my opinion, a “good thing.” We become greedy, and then dissatisfied when our latest “fix” doesn’t meet our expectations.

So today’s photo is distinctly ORDINARY. Reeds, grasses, water, colour, and a reflection. Not even a duck or dragonfly. It just IS. And that, my friends, is just fine.

Bellamy or Attenborough might get excited about the botany or biology. It’s a habitat but we don’t know for whom. Perhaps Ratty and Mole will pass by, messing about on the river…

Why have I bothered to post it? It won’t excite many people, naturalists apart.

Two theological reasons. First, the Creation narratives in the Bible record one amazing truth. God saw “That it was GOOD.” Everything that existed through the act of creation has divine approval. (We’ve made a mess of much of it, but that’s a story for a different day with different questions!)

Second, the actual reflection. What is it? Light. What we see as a reflection is the light coming back from our subject. Our Sun has flooded the atmosphere with light; it bounces off the grass, reeds and water. Our eyes receive that light and our brain interprets what we “see” in terms of what is there, that which is revealed by the light.

That’s the point, really. The photo is pleasant, colourful, and shapely in an ordinary sort of way. Ordinary things (and people) are GOOD… and defined by the Light they reflect.

My life actually gains its meaning not from my ego or experiences, but the quality and quantity of Light that I reflect. My ordinary daily “being” is defined by how clearly and accurately I reflect the Light of the World: which is of course one of the descriptions of Jesus Christ. I think I should pray next.

Hey, God, just a few words, if I may.

I know I’m pretty ordinary. I shall never be a Dad or grandad, but I love all my family. I’ll never play football for England, I’m not going to be the best preacher in the world, nor the best photographer. I can make the effort to be the best “me” possible- if You give me some help! – and I can stay as clean as possible, inside and out. Then I will reflect Your Light. It won’t make me famous, or rich, or really successful, ‘cos I’m ordinary, and I’m not sure I’d do well with too much fame or celebrity status. So please give me a Hand to be kind, decent, holy and a help to others: and let Your Light shine on me so I can reflect Your love accurately and well. Thank You for giving me a lovely wife to share my days, for allowing me to serve a bit in churches and the community, and giving me the wit and willingness to know that ordinary is good. Not just “good enough” but actually GOOD, the way You intended me to be.
I’m sorry I haven’t always managed to be “me” very well- and the regrets and repentances of my life are best left to Your grace-filled mercy. When those mistakes and sins have hurt other people, Lord, please comfort and heal them: and I trust Your promise about forgiving and being forgiven, so I also want to say that I forgive the people who have been less than kind or helpful to me.
All in all, Lord Jesus, please let me reflect Light all my days- and to enjoy You and Your gifts, always. Then I reckon You will look at the reflection I am, and say that’s good too. You will even see Your own Face reflected in me- and that’s the highest honour I could ever, ever have. Amen.

If any of that reflects who you are, or how you feel, reflect on that for a bit… and may God shine the Light of His smiling face on you too. God specialises in making the ordinary “good” and, in His eyes, special.

Grebe Expectations- Look, See, Pray

“Grebe Expectations,” a lesser known book of birds by Charles Dickens. (No, Richard, be serious!) “Grebe Expectations” is what I got when I photographed this Grebe at Pagham reserve. I packed my lens and headed for home, eager to see the bird immortalised.

“Big Disappointments” was the sequel. The grebe was too small, and my focus was not sharp. Yet I had a strange reluctance to bin it- the memory of sharing a few priceless minutes observing its world, trying to guess where it would surface after each dive… I was invested in Gregory Grebe’s existence.

So I played with the technology.. and the picture took a texture, a form that suggested Grebes without claiming to own one. A brushstroke filter added a touch of artistry. Then the poet’s muse dived in the lake…

More odious than ode, words took their place as I tried to capture a visual moment in solid prose, or poetry of a kind.

What is its worth as a photo, a poem, a thing? To me it is real, the securing of a past moment that touched my soul. No-one else may share my pride of creation: a daubing with doggerel, a whimsy whispering in the evening light.

There is, however, a parable in this Grebe.  A man went out to seek beauty, and finding a grebe fishing, prepared his camera for a trophy. Attainment did not equal inspiration, and a failure was clear to see. “Not good enough!” cried the critics. Shamed and blamed, the photographer told himself what he should have done.

But the colours enticed, and the grebe WAS there. So the creative urge did a surge, the program offered a new possibility, and a poem was born on a failed canvas.

Then the Great Artist looked and smiled, for His child had pinned a clumsy picture on the fridge door of Heaven, and smiled with tremulous eyes at his Father’s face. “It’s for You, Dad. I’m sorry it isn’t as good as I hoped…”

Smiles beamed from the Throne Room. “That’s fine, my boy- I made that Grebe for you, to fill your mind and soul with the wonder of Creation. And I love your picture, because you created it for Me.”

God of the second chance… Lord of the gracious heart. Father of the child who fails, and tries, and loves as best he can.

Truly, “Grebe Expectations” has given me a prayer of thankfulness tonight. May you see the beauty, the wonder in this world, and offer what you see to the Father who loves us.

Disappointments can be gateways to renewed joy!  Nice one, Gregory Grebe.Grebe artist 007Pagham 030518

How can Christians pray in isolation?

Praying during lock down… we may have more time, but what can we do creatively as followers of Jesus who have a calling to be Good News to the world? St Paul wrote letters from prison- we can pray from our homes!

Jesus told Simon & Andrew (fishermen both) they would become evangelists- instead of catching fish, they would draw people to Christ. So- ideas for effective prayer that extends Holy Spirit power beyond our physical presence to those “out there”…

1. Think about four people per day.
A family member/close friend
A neighbour/work colleague
A Covid-affected situation- the NHS, emergency services, key workers, political leaders, shut-ins, school staff/students…
An international need/event

2. Pray for God’s wholeness blessing, the “shalom” peace of the Lord for those four. Pray that Kingdom life will touch them and draw them into the Holy Presence. Be specific if you know details; if not, trust that the Holy Spirit knows and can direct your prayer.

Numbers 6:24-27 (NLT)
‘May the LORD bless you and protect you.
May the LORD smile on you and be gracious to you.
May the LORD show you his favour and give you his peace.’
Whenever Aaron and his sons bless the people of Israel in my name, I myself will bless them.”

3. Give thanks to God that we can act as priests (like Aaron) and know that our prayer will become a blessing from God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then read the passage from Mark’s Gospel, and end by saying: “Lord, draw these people in Your Everlasting Arms, in Jesus’ Name. I trust in your reconciling grace and loving-kindness to them. Amen.”

Mark 1:16-18 (NLT)
One day as Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew throwing a net into the water, for they fished for a living. Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and followed him.

Time to endure- or use. Look, See, Pray

Quiet Prayer 029Bognor Beach1117

An almost deserted beach at Aldwick… the sun setting against dramatic clouds far beyond Selsey.

Many of us are isolated, or just with our family, and our days are a strange shape. We have time to endure- or use. Quiet is a gift that we may need to unwrap- modern life has so many distractions and the noise level is generally high.

I offer this photo and prayer as a focal point through which we may seek the Lord.

Look at the picture, and read the words over several times.

Take enough time to let your body relax, and your mind settle from the “inner noise” we all suffer from! Focus on Jesus, give thanks for the day and unexpected opportunity for prayer, then offer your worship and prayer for yourself and others who are of concern to you.

Peace and grace to us all today.

It’s Complicated – Look, See, Pray

wise old owl 0190Falconry2014_cropowl

“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

time to look edit cosmos

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.

River of Tears

Today – the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz & Birkenau, the infamous Nazi death camps. It is Holocaust Memorial Day: and we should never forget. Words are inadequate but they are all I have. This is my Lament for the Jews, Gypsies, cast-outs, unwanted, despised… all the victims of what happens when evil thoughts are let loose.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Tears unheeded
shed on concrete floors
wiped away by skeletal kids
Lungs choked
by noxious hatred
with genocidal solutions

Lest we forget
Holocaustal reminders
should make us cry
so our generations
never repeat killing
by decree of expediency

Camps of Death
liberated by shocked soldiers
to save the few
Too late for millions
we must never forget
Auschwitz and Birkenau

Never again
for God’s sake
and ours

And theirs, hid in a river of tears.

(c) Richard Starling, Holocaust Memorial Day, 27th Jan 2020

Faithfulness and Grace- Look, See, Pray

Today was a GOOD NEWS day- for me. I want to shout out “God is good!” which is, of course, true… but I must restrict myself a bit and say only that God has been good to me at this moment in time. This is not to be boastful or claim any special “holy” status, but because God is in His essential nature faithful and loving: and He gives grace not because “we deserve it” but because He CHOOSES to love the unfaithful.

I was diagnosed with bowel cancer this autumn. It was serious enough to require urgent major surgery, and our wonderful N.H.S. acted swiftly and effectively. Getting over the surgery has been painful and seems slow. But today I visited the oncologist about follow up treatment (chemotherapy). My expectation was six months of chemo.

Chemotherapy not required… the doctors think I am 85% likely to be clear of cancer; annual scans will look out for any possible regrowth. You can imagine the relief… the sense of getting your life back, the lifting of the gloomy shadow of fear and doubt.

Many people have prayed for me (I am truly grateful) and practical support and love has been showered on my life. I have felt a sense of God’s presence; and known other dark moments where faith felt like a mouse squeaking in the cellar waiting for the cat to pounce.

This evening I have sent the good news round to friends and family. I looked in the book of Psalms hoping to find a good “praise verse”… and I found this.

Psalm 91:14-16 (NLT)
The LORD says, “I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name. When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue and honour them. I will reward them with a long life and give them my salvation.”

God is faithful. I do love Him, I trust Him, and I need Him. It’s just that I’m not as faithful in my faith as He is. Do I have any right to say God has blessed me? No, if I am trading with God… “Hey, God, if you scratch my back… and I’ll try to be nice and be good…”

It doesn’t work like that.

I know my own weaknesses, and the things that trip me up. I wish I was 100% perfect but I’m not (yet).

Father God has reminded me this evening that He IS faithful, the One of eternal loving-kindness. He has also reminded me that GRACE is what is given when my faithfulness falls flat on its face. A namesake of mine, St Richard, was Bishop of Chichester from 1244 to 1253 and gave us a prayer that I treasure. It’s my faith-response to the gap between God’s faithfulness and my own.

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which you have given us, for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us. Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day. Amen.

God has been good to me- and I really want to love Him better, and be more like Jesus. I’m depending on His faithfulness- AND still on His grace. Left to myself, I can, do, and will fail. The reason God has “been good to me” today is that HE won’t take my weakness and failures as the last word. I’m proud of having a Father like that. My hope is that more and more of us will come to know and understand and experience that Fatherly Love.