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.

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?

Glimpsed in a Pool- Look, See, Pray

When you’ve seen one low tide… you look for a fresh angle to make a different photo!


This photo is the seafront houses reflected in a tide pool. It’s a glimpse, an interpretation of the reality in front of the lens. There is a contrast of the natural water course of sand/pebbles: and the partial, tantalising view of the buildings beyond. The picture “works” because it intrigues me.

John Bunyan’s classic “Pilgrim’s Progress” details the journey towards the Celestial City: with Pilgrim hindered or helped by people met and moral challenges encountered. Thousands of readers have been inspired on their own pilgrimage: they enter into the story.

Jesus also painted word pictures to inspire his audiences. “The Kingdom of God is like….” He used metaphors such as a mustard seed, a treasure, a magnificent pearl. These image-stories helped the listeners to discover truth for themselves, instead of “just” being told what to believe. Truth we determine ourselves sticks in our minds better.

So- “The Kingdom of God is like a city glimpsed in a tidal pool…”

We are rooted on the beach, we see the water, stones, the sand and seaweed. We can see something reflected… windows… walls… a flag pole? Or is it a streetlight? We need to look harder… We can only be sure if we get closer to the REAL image, not settle for an obscured partial view- which is upside down anyway! Well then, let’s walk up the beach to find the city. Then we’ll KNOW.

The 12 disciples had a privilege; they could ask Jesus to tell them more, to explain. We can read the New Testament for ourselves and study the insights of generations of followers. Do we really want to know, to understand?

Jesus often teaches us via stories, glimpses, visions, circumstances and life in general. Much of our heart-learning is gained on the journey. This is what changes us- it becomes Light on the inside and life that wells up within us.

The Kingdom is come among you. That is the reality: Jesus came to bring us the Kingdom where He will reign. One day we will see it clearly. If we want to.

When the tide came in on this beach, the glimpse vanished. Don’t leave the looking too late. Instead, let it become your vision.

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.


	

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.

Let no evil- Look, See, Pray

A peacefully sleeping Red Panda at the Cotswold Wildlife CentreO to sleep so soundly!

I had a really peculiar dream two nights ago. It involved places I lived in, but weirdly distorted… with odd shops and even more odd shopkeepers. Nothing was right! Even worse, it kept resetting… every time I got near the end of a street in Fishersgate, I dropped back to “Go” and started the journey again!

Very disturbing and frustrating until I eventually woke up and realised it was “just” a dream. Five o’clock in the morning is NOT my best waking up moment…

The details have faded now (thankfully). I’m not looking for an explanation or interpretation. Whatever poked my subconscious can go away, please.

Sleep is our refuge from the stresses and business of life. It is also the time we are most vulnerable because we are unaware. Time for a night-prayer, I think…





Heavenly Father, Protect us in our daily lives, night and day.

Let no evil draw near as we sleep.

Allow our minds to ramble safely,

processing events and memories

that may be significant- and, in peace,

may Holy Spirit life

renew and restore soul and body.

May the love and strength of Christ build up resources of grace

to equip us for the day to come.

Until that morning Glory greets

our awaking in our Eternal Home,

fill us with joy and love so we become signposts

pointing to the Lord and Saviour of all.

In the lovely Name of Jesus

we ask this bedtime boon.

Amen.

(c) Richard Starling, 2021

	

Coastal Shipping- Look, See, Pray

Timber barge off the coast of Vancouver

I was on holiday on a passenger ship full of comforts and luxuries. We passed this hulking load of timber, which seemed to be gliding effortlessly, towed by an ocean-going tug. Stacked tree-trunks… perhaps heading for a lumber yard, for housebuilding; or maybe to be pulped for paper. Who knows?

Trees that had stood for decades, now a dead weight.

I cannot imagine the weight of that timber- or the confusion in the lives of the distant animals and birds who once called them home. The more I look at this photo, the more ways of interpreting it come to mind.

Is this economic success, or ecological tragedy? Is it just dead wood, or the beginning of something beautiful and useful? Have replacement trees been planted yet?

How can a (relatively) tiny tugboat lead the barge safely across the channel? What if a storm blows up?

It’s a picture of effective leadership- go for it, tug! You’ve got this…

Or a picture of disconnection, of utilitarianism, of exploitation. A leader dragging a reluctant lump- if you don’t keep the tension in the cable, the barge will drift wherever the wind or tide decides.

This could illustrate politics, business, or even church leadership.

What do you see?

Does this scene show the value of a clear purpose, and the application of sufficient force/energy to achieve “success”? You could interpret it that way.

Think of the skill of the captain and crew on board the tug. Superb professionalism. It shows how important it is to use the right tools- imagine towing that load by paddling a kayak… Or what if you had left port without checking the weather forecast: a maelstrom instead of a blue silken mirror.

If the cable breaks… perhaps that represents the disaster that happens when communication breaks down.

Or irresistible momentum. They got the barge heading the right way- how will they stop it? Or navigate it to a safe unloading harbour? It’s tricking parking a caravan, never mind a floating behemoth like that!

The photo may remind some of you of the parables in the Bible about the tongue, small- but deadly if misbehaved.

Perhaps Paul talking about the way a horse can be controlled with a small bridle and bit. Or maybe the disciples in a boat on Galilee, scared witless by a sudden storm- as Jesus snoozed peacefully- then calming the storm with a word.

“A picture is worth a thousand words” says the old proverb. Perhaps this one needs a thousand words of its own! Every picture needs to be interpreted carefully. What assumptions and preconceptions do we bring to that interpretation?

What do you see?

Make a space in your day to look at the photo: and ask a question of God. “Lord, what meaning can You show me from this scene?”

Pictures are like stories- they open the INNER eye, unlock the imagination, chuck out yesterday’s stale bread and bake anew. Looking at an unfamiliar picture makes the brain stretch to encounter new possibilities. They can “accidentally” throw light on a hard problem you have agonised over for weeks!

It has to be worth asking the question.

What do you see? And what does it mean?