I dreamed that I was flying- Look, See, Pray

Herring gulls over the English Channel

I dreamed that I was flying.

It still is a stunning memory. I glided above the tops of unknown mountains. Far ahead, the sun rose splendidly, and it felt as though I was being kept in the air by God himself. According to my memory, I was about 12 and this is the earliest dream that I have ever remembered. What a psychologist might say about an interpretation is best left to the imagination!

Enjoying a lovely childhood in a loving family, with few things likely to cause lasting trauma, I suspect that I was as ordinary as most 12-year-olds. Perhaps a bit more imaginative and expressive than some, and certainly cheeky. This was the year when I made my first conscious choice to believe in Jesus Christ and begin a life as a follower of his Way.

If my dream was a kind of vision-dream holding out the prospect of a straightforward and glorious life full of beauty and wonder (and no problems) then it has failed. Life isn’t like that- at least in my experience. That doesn’t make it valueless.

Ever since that dream, I have felt drawn to mountains: photos or paintings, word-pictures in books of adventures, and even the black and white TV trying to do justice to a world inherently colourful. The first time I saw a real mountain was in my late teens when a group of friends travelled in a knackered old Commer minibus all the way to North Wales. Here we climbed through mist and rain up the slopes of Tryfan to the summit. Damp and weary we looked out and the clouds concealing Snowden unfurled.

The reality of mountains is far more awe-inspiringly wonderful than any dream.

In the same way, the reality of fulfilled faith will exceed my best hopes- even my best imagination. My faith isn’t built on that 12-year-olds dream, though sometimes I wish everything would go as smoothly as my first “flight…”

I dreamed I was flying.

The Apostle Paul made an obscure reference to “being caught up to the third heaven” (see 2 Corinthians 12 v2). Bible interpreters and scholars have been wondering about that ever since. Really, we don’t know what Paul meant or experienced: the most likely explanation is that Paul felt lifted into the very presence of God himself. (That ties in with the known beliefs of the period.)

Paul refused to boast about this revelation, even speaking in the third person as if it had happened to somebody else: and he even talks about being given “a thorn in the flesh” (v7) to keep him humble. Annoyingly, we don’t know what this thorn was either. Suggestions have ranged from some form of chronic illness right the way through to a crabby mother-in-law!

It seems the Corinthians were fascinated by visions and dreams, and Paul does his best to stop them from fastening onto an exciting tale. Paul uses his own experience to point them to an important truth. Whatever our knowledge, gifting, or experience, whatever our strengths or our weaknesses, we are called to be servants of Christ and to love others in every way we can.

When we are young, we often behave as if we were immortal, acting without regard to risks and dangers. Then comes that moment in life where the first serious illness, accident or loss invades our being. We suddenly must grow up. Christian faith isn’t a divine insurance policy against the unpleasantness of life. Knowing “God is with us” is not the same thing as saying that “only good things should happen to us.”

Since I started with my dream, I want to finish with a snapshot of my experience in Christian ministry.

As a newly-trained pastor I rather hoped the Kingdom of God would be demonstrated forthwith through me! I am glad that my first church was full of patient and kind Christians. During the 30 years of active ministry there were times of blessing, times of difficulty, and occasionally we all wondered where God had gone. Part of my life became learning how to deal with chronic illness, and how to develop a lifestyle that had some rhythm and grace evident in it.

Dreaming of flying is all very well, but there can be bumpy landings.

Without in any sense wanting to equate my life or ministry with that of the Apostle Paul, I think I have learned one of the lessons he did. Perhaps this will be an encouragement to some of you reading today: yes, “God is with us…” and the words of Jesus to Paul and the Corinthian church remain equally true now. Jesus said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (v9)

True Contentment- Look, See, Pray

Holidaying in Malta was a new experience for us. Parts of the island were dusty and dry, filled with exotic plants like this agave with its fruits.

Thinking about that was helpful when I needed a group activity for some men at church on Tuesday. I came up with a reflective “game” called Desert Island Disciples. See below!

My idea was based on the observed discontent of so many. If one was stranded on a desert island, what would I miss? What would be “enough” for me to be contented? If everything that is “standard” in my life were taken away, what would I have left that was precious?

Paul’s words in Philippians 4 are heroically challenging. “I have learned to be content…”

The idea of the worksheet below is to explore what really matters to us. If all we are left with is God, is that enough? It should be, at least in the short term. The Book of Job asks and answers a very similar question.

So much of our lives is about being entertained and distracted. The industry is huge- think of the millions spent on making movies, selling sports cars, and merchandising cosmetics! Christians in the contemplative traditions have discovered something wonderful. If we are prepared to avoid or dismiss distractions, we can encounter the reality of the Living God in the space and silence we have chosen.

Have a go at answering the questions. You might find a treasure. If all else fails, you can smile at the piggy with dentures at the bottom! But I hope, that we may, like Paul and like Jesus, discover the freedom of simplicity and learned contentment. God bless you as you give it a go!

desert islands disciples

(Copyright 2019 Richard Starling)

“My Diary” by Thomas the Twin

Really, what could go wrong? Off to Jerusalem in the morning, going up to the city for the festival. Jesus is going to ride a donkey. I expect some will mock the “Teacher from Galilee” but that’s nothing new.

Jesus insisted, he said it was important to go this way.

If you ask me, we should have gone home instead. There’s trouble brewing, you mark my words. Perhaps if we can keep Jesus out of the crowds all the fuss will die down.

Somehow I don’t think that’s the plan. Jesus had a glint in his eye, and he’ll probably preach, so that will upset Caiaphas and the Temple crew. I don’t think Jesus minds stirring people up a bit. He tells some pretty pointed stories – and some folks even started saying “Messiah?” when they heard him.

It will be alright as long as the “Blessed is the King” song doesn’t catch on. That would really be the end.

I wish I hadn’t said that thing about going and dying with him…

Extract from the diary of Thomas, a friend of Jesus and a man of great faith… some of the time…

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(Words & photo Copyright 2019 by Richard Starling)

Beauty and Danger

Some of the most beautiful creatures are also among the most dangerous. Consider the sheer elegance of the big cats, sheer bulk of an elephant, or the toxicity of jewel-coloured tree-frogs. The speed with which this cheetah moved from dozing to alertness was impressive. Lunch was on the way and it would be unwise to get in the cheetah’s way!

Beauty conceals threats. Even the most lovely landscapes contain insects or reptiles that can hurt or kill. It isn’t a safe world. Domesticated animals are not entirely safe either. Come between a cow and calf and you will see how quickly a placid slow-moover can turn testy.

The most dangerous creature is humankind. We are the most inventive, most creative, exploitative, most co-operative & competitive tool-using killers ever. Humans can be casually cruel- and maliciously vicious.

psalm 121 v6-7 Cheetah 064whipsnade1212 edited crop2

Unsurprisingly the Bible contains praise for the beauty: and wisdom for the trials. One repeated theme is the promise of God’s protective justice. In particular the Psalms have songs that deal with perils, persecutions and promises. Psalm 121 is only short but it makes a great prayer when the dangers overwhelm the beauties.

If your world is not safe right now, there is only one sensible action. Reach out and trust God; commit your path to Him and look for His protection.

Psalm 121:1-8 (NLT)
I look up to the mountains— does my help come from there?  My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth! He will not let you stumble; the one who watches over you will not slumber. Indeed, he who watches over Israel never slumbers or sleeps.  The LORD himself watches over you! The LORD stands beside you as your protective shade. The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon at night. The LORD keeps you from all harm and watches over your life. The LORD keeps watch over you as you come and go, both now and forever.

Text & photograph Copyright (c) 2018  Richard Starling. Bible verses from New Living Translation (2nd Ed.)

Solitude

There are two kinds of solitude in the Bible. The good kind, where a person seeks God and in solitude discovers that the Lord Almighty is willing to engage with a sincere searcher.

Then the other solitude- the loneliness of exile, judgment and despair.

Owls feature only a few times in the Old Testament, and usually as a representation of the second kind of solitude. (This owl was in captivity… appropriately!)

zeph 2 v14 owl

The little-known message of Zephaniah is a message of judgment and encouragement with three major reminders:

  • 1) God is sovereign over all nations.
  • 2) The wicked will be punished and the righteous will be vindicated.
  • 3) God blesses those who repent and trust in Him.

It seems that solitude is an inevitable part of life. Either we willingly seek out God, or we risk being “quarantined” and watching all our accomplishments be overrun by the wild.

Listening to world news and international politicians is worrying. It may be an over-simplification, but society has discarded its faith-roots and fallen into a moral decay. This is not unique to our time. Human nature throughout history has been a rollercoaster of civilisation and collapse. Our ultimate and only hope is that the Sovereign Lord God will deliver us; Christ “ushered in” the Kingdom of God and we wait and work for its promise to reach fulfilment.

What should we do?  Pray with sincere hearts for our world and its leaders.

Secondly: decide personally whether we wish to choose solitude to discover God- or suffer the solitude of banishment. That could be considered the “naughty step” where we go to think about our conduct and attitude in the hope we might be forgiven and rescued.

Owls tend to be quite solitary creatures. They say owls are wise. What would they say privately in the ear of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and public servants?

Read Zephaniah in full- it is only short- and take in the promise of justice alongside the hope of mercy.

Blue Ice, Red Canoe

Courage- knowing the risks, and taking action anyway.

Visiting Glacier Bay is breath-taking.  Huge rivers of frozen time slide majestically to the sea and the ice displays the strata where debris has been compacted year after year. Noise from the constant stressing and shattering of the ice reverberates in the still air. Regular “calving” of icebergs from tiny to house-sized attract the wonder of onlookers.

Some get closer than others.

Red Canoe Blue Ice 219Glcr Bay July16editThis bold adventurer in a bold scarlet kayak glided through freezing ice-mush and milky water, getting an incredible view- and taking a considered risk. Too close, too bold, and tons of ice could crush the fragile craft.

As the ice rears above, the fissures reveal the deep clear blues of highly pressured, frozen snow that fell perhaps 200 years ago.

The canoeist experienced Glacier Bay in a far deeper way, and was certainly less warm and far less comfortable! I envy that experience.

I like to think that, if given the opportunity, I’d ship out on a kayak and experience this myself.

There’s a little joke about this… A canoeist wanted to go kayaking in Glacier Bay: but decided the chill factor was too extreme for comfort. So he installed a paraffin heater to keep the kayak warmer. Sadly, the paraffin leaked and the kayak caught fire… which goes to prove that you can’t have your kayak and heat it.

I really should apologise for that! Christianity is sometimes accused of being dull, humourless, and a soft option for people without the guts to face up to life. I disagree. To follow Christ takes courage. Believers can be criticised, ignored, laughed at, or even attacked. Living the way of Christ requires self-sacrifice, obedience, humility and a radically different set of values and purpose. We should stand out from the crowd.

Jesus sends us into a world that is beautiful and damaged, wonderful and terrifying. “Go into all the world… tell them…” Follow the Way of the Cross… love your neighbour, your enemy, even yourself. It is a challenge worthy of our best response and determination.

Jesus also said we would not be alone on the journey… He will be with us. Up for it? It will take courage, even with such a Friend. Courage is knowing the risks, and taking action anyway. Go on, be bold today!

Margerie Glacier 221Glcr Bay Starling small file

Of course it’s safe… he’s sleeping

“Is that wise?” followed by “Are you sure it’s safe?” mark interesting conversations between people who take very different views on risk.

This tiger was safely penned in at London Zoo.  He seemed perfectly relaxed and fast asleep; regular deep breathing with a hint of a snore-like rumble. His paws don’t seem quite so relaxed though… those look distinctly like claws to me. A little part of me would have loved to stroke that handsome head, run my fingers through that thick fur- to experience a tiger like an oversized kitten. Every now and then news breaks of someone who foolishly enters animal enclosures- bad endings. The zoo helpfully had signs up pointing out that the tigers viewed the spectators as food- just meat on feet.

dare to fly.jpgDanger has an appeal. Risk is enticing- the thrill of successfully negotiating the hazards and getting an adrenaline rush. It’s why the big cats are so popular, it’s why theme parks have terrifying rides, it’s why white-water rafting sells tickets.

It’s why maniacs like this bloke paraglide from mountains in Austria! The thrill is a huge reward.

We’re equipped with mental and physiological tools for assessing risk: and for weighing up the balance of fright to euphoria. My brain says “Do NOT jump off mountains- EVER.” But a little bit of me would love to know what it would feel like.

After the Resurrection of Jesus, lots of people were assessing risks. The authorities hoped Jesus was still dead. The disciples were being challenged by His re-appearance. Risks require response and (ideally) reward.

If Peter and John and the others saw only the risks, it would be madness to follow Christ. Unless, of course, HE really WAS alive. In that event, the rewards outweighed the risks… One of the best proofs of the truth of the Resurrection is the changed character of the disciples. Even at risk of death (several were martyred) they believed that Jesus had changed everything. Therefore Jesus was worth every risk. They changed the world.

Today, we seem to want to turn Jesus into a sleeping tiger instead of a roaring lion. If He sleeps, he is safe to approach, safe to follow. (Actually if Jesus sleeps, in other words stayed dead, it would be safe to follow Him- but pointless.)

Living, glorified, triumphant: this Jesus is not tame, nor dull, nor powerless. A living Christ who has won the victory over death and who brings the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth, this Jesus is worth every risk, every obedience, every decision to love.

Easter may be finished in the shops. It never finishes wherever there is one person, one church, one community, willing to take the risk of saying YES to Jesus.

Do you settle for a tame, safe tiger? Or get all your thrills in theme parks, wild sports, cheap relationships, horror movies, computer games, addictions and selfishness.

Get a life! Make a difference. Look for the Risen Jesus, and take a risk on Him.