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?

Peachy! – Look, See, Pray

Peaches on sale at a Fruit Market, near the Spain/Andorra border

A rare treat as a child- tinned peaches with evaporated milk. Delicious!

Discovering FRESH peaches was a whole new experience. I still like the tinned ones, but fresh… yes please.

The market we visited on holiday was an adventure. Being on the border of Spain and Andorra, the stalls sold everything- and especially the stuff that was hard to get in one or the other place. A glorified swapping system! You bring your cloth to market, we’ll bring our fruit.

I was enchanted by fruit displays: the colour and size of these peaches was irresistible to my camera. The lens was drooling. The light contrast was tricky, very bright in the sun and very dark indoors; but the colours glowed and with a little bit of tidying up in the photo editor, a picture fit for a banquet. Can you (almost) taste the tangy sweetness of the juices as your teeth sink into that yellow-pink fruit?

That’s the test. It’s not just how good something looks. Does the taste match the promise? Bright colours and perfect shapes don’t guarantee anything. You have to put it to the test.

Jesus used this principle to help us distinguish between good and bad in people. Outward appearances, though important, are secondary. Carly Simon summed it up perfectly in the hit song “You’re so Vain” (if you’re too young to know Carly Simon, look her up on YouTube and have a listen.)

But it isn’t just about testing others. How do I measure up? When Jesus looks me in the eye, will that a positive or very embarrassing moment??? Hey, Lord- help me become sweet fruit, not sourplease!

Matthew 7:16-23 (NLT)
You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions. “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter.  On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws’.”

Final thought: the riper and sweeter the fruit, the more easily it is bruised. Perhaps when we are full of the love and grace of Jesus, we need to expect a bit of mistreatment. Love makes itself vulnerable for the sake of the ones who are loved. That’s exactly what Jesus did for us- and that’s good to remember during Lent. It will soon be Good Friday.

Living on the Edge- Look, See, Pray

Windhover, eye-sharp flight
piercing through
waits… waits… until scurrying feet
betray voles to violence.

Seated on rising air, gnawing need
to feed
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
at diversity
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!
Not understanding,
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


	

Flame fingers- Look, See, Pray

Flame-finger’d fronds
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)

Fading into Gold- Look, See, Pray

All changing… things becoming new.

After the stormy winds and rain, today started in frost and sunshine under a clear blue sky. The autumn is bringing its own changes- as hours of sunlight lessen, the leaves and grasses change colour. Warmer browns and orange shades compensate for the cooler air, and diamond dust is scattered generously with touch of icy breath.

Reeds catching the light are backlit with a golden glow. As the greens of summer fade, the Light transforms the park into a parade of golden sculptures that hiss and rustle in the breeze.

It has been a lovely day.

The affairs of humankind have been changing too. Election fever has raised the temperatures in the United States, sadly generating friction and heat but little light! At this point, the final result is undecided. People have been passionately campaigning and complaining, tempers are hot, and the world looks on in sorrow. How has democracy been reduced to petulant squabbles? Who decided it was OK to play games with truth?

Perhaps the dawn will bring clarity. Whichever party wins, the war of words is likely to continue for some time. Given a choice, my preference would be clear. But it isn’t my election, not even my country- so although the outcome matters greatly, I am an observer rather than a participant. People from across the divide will be sad, angry, confused, bitter. So what can I say or do?

I can be grateful and thankful for the blessings of a fine day; and I can choose to trust that the Sovereign Lord God Almighty is able to deal with tomorrow, the day after… and so on. One day at a time, I live in the love and grace of God- and I hope that the Light of the World will keep transforming me into golden Christlike beauty.

I cannot control the world, and shouldn’t try. It’s all in the divine Hand that holds us safely.

So, Lord, on that note:

Thank You for the blessings of this day, and I shall commit my way to You. I pray for the best possible outcome in all the changes, and ask You to bring truth, justice, and reconciliation wherever there is strife, disaster or sickness. Please, Lord, aid those seeking to combat Covid-19 with wisdom and compassion. Bless our hospitals and healthworkers, our key workers from cleaners to kings, and help us find the beauty among change and the uncertainty of our fragile lives. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Seriously, spiders? Look, See, Pray

I’m taking a risk here… will the photos of spiders prevent people looking at this post? Halloween last night- pumpkins lit up, fake webs, ghoulish costumes (and lots of little kids having fun and getting sweets).

Halloween and spiders have something in common. They can frighten us. Well, there is important information we need to know about what they represent. Scary stuff and Death are two important subjects we don’t talk about much. Halloween parties can take some of the sting out of sensitive and frightening topics: but it can be overdone, and become too scary! (The big emphasis on Halloween costumes has come over from the USA and I think it can be overdone.) Did you know, from the Middle Ages, builders of castles and cathedrals adorned them with gargoyles in order to scare away evil and prevent the devil entering. Same principle.

Historically, Halloween is a weekend when Christians have celebrated the triumph of Christ over death- and Sunday is “All Hallows Day” when we remember with thanks all those we have loved and lost. The assurance we hold is that Death itself is NOT the final ending. Perhaps we should take a little time today to give thanks for the lives of those special ones we miss and still grieve over.

Spiders are scary (to many people). They are small, fast, creepy and look strange & alarming! I woke up once to see a large black wolf-spider on my pillow, an inch from my nose, and walking away from my face… Ugh!!! Their habit of building cobwebs has been responsible for loads of humans suddenly doing intense aerobic exercise as we try and get rid of that stuff all over our face!

But most spiders are harmless to humans, and won’t or can’t bite us (mostly). A few, like the Black Widow and tarantula can give a nasty bite- and I’m told Australia has a few doozies– but we still have a strong reaction to all spiders.

Experts tell us that spiders do an amazing job of pest control, including chomping enormous numbers of mosquitoes. I am all in favour of that. Go spiders!

Dare I suggest that if we take a closer look we might find how wonderful they are? Consider their ability to manufacture such fine, tough silk. Enormously strong. The engineering ability of a spider to design and built those webs with such precision. Now, I do agree with all those who say that’s fine when it’s not in my house…

Rather like using Halloween masks, our fright needs to be faced in a “safe” way. Survival instincts kick in whenever there is a risk of pain or death, the inner alarm system goes off and we respond to the perceived threat. There are scary things in the world. We are afraid.

We can scare fear away by facing the scary. Death need have no power over us; Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, and we live in Him. Spiders might be creepy, and you may never “like” them, but they do an amazing job for us controlling the populations of flies, midges, mosquitoes and the like. See, spiders have their good side too.

Fear, out of control, is cripplingly destructive. But we don’t have to live in fear. God doesn’t play “Trick or Treat” on us. God is love. And if you don’t want to look at the spiders, read this instead: 1 John 4:18 (Message) There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.

God is forming us with love. Out with the ghouls, and fill your soul with love instead of fear.

Nothing to See? Look, See, Pray

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.

Finding Hope – Look, See, Pray

Sunset over the Selsey Peninsula

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.

Blessed are the Grumpy – Look, See, Pray

I’ve been reading Tanya Marlow’s helpful little book “Coming back to God when you feel empty” which sets her story of serious personal illness against the story of Ruth & Naomi (Book Of Ruth).

Reality for many of us is that we have times of sadness, frustration, or annoyance. Try as we might to be “poster boy/girl” of perfection as Christ-followers, life persists in poking spanners in our plans. Perhaps we have been (badly) taught that a Christian should be always smiling, calm, successful and never cross. When you started your experience of Christ and His Church, were you issued with your SWEG? Mandatory a few years ago, the “Slimy Wet Evangelical Grin” divided the failures from the REAL people of faith.

Well, in “Ruth” we have a story set in dangerous days when Israel was mostly doing whatever they liked, and God had to keep sending leaders (Judges) to sort them out. Naomi gave up on God because a famine lasted too long; then went to Moab, where the Lord had forbidden Israelites to go. Tragedy followed- her husband died, her sons marry- but also die- and her sensible daughter-in-law skipped out. Naomi was understandably grumpy, and even told people she was called “Bitter.” The story has a brilliant and happy ending (read it, it’s quite short) and God uses Naomi, Ruth, and a man named Boaz to be part of the story that leads up to the Incarnation of Jesus.

Some of you are thinking “Grumpy?” Others are offended by the “SWEG” comment. Tough. Be real.

A surprising number of Bible characters get grumpy, and don’t grin like loons. The Bible tells it straight, warts and grumps included. Moses, Jacob, Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Nehemiah… the list goes on. Grumpy is real (although not something to aspire to).

The good bit is this. God understands. Especially when the mucky end of the stick comes our way, when others aggravate us, or persist in holding contradictory opinions, or when circumstances drop us in the swamp… God would rather have our honest grumps than insincere swegs.

Having gone through life with a passing resemblance to the warthog in the photo, I say passionately that we don’t have to pretend perfection. Praise and thanksgiving ought to be coming out of our heart and mouth regularly- but if you get a Warthog Day please know this: Blessed are the grumpy, for God still loves them and understands.

As a man whose character tends toward smiles and contentment, with a deep conviction that God has been good to me, I still get grumpy (even if I may not show it often). So with all my heart, I thank God for this truth: Blessed are the Grumpy.

Go on, smile for the camera, Mrs Warthog…

Warthog, Houston Zoo, Texas, USA

See www.tanyamarlow.com and her blog “Thorns and Gold” for more helpful and honest articles. https://www.facebook.com/tanya.marlow

Eye of the Beholder- Look, See, Pray

Cotswold Landscape

How do we decide what is beautiful? Here are two photographs, one a landscape taken in the Cotswolds. The other- an abstract view of beach huts in Bognor.

Beach Huts in Bognor Regis- rear view.

Which is more beautiful? I have no idea what you will say. Guessing, I think more people probably will prefer the landscape. It is the kind of rural scene that John Constable painted; dramatic skies, big trees, everyday scenes which (almost) idealise the English countryside.

Others may be drawn to the bright mix of colours, geometric shapes, and the abstract viewpoint which makes the onlooker interpret their own meaning in the image.

Things that may influence our choice will be very varied. Background, education, artistic gifting, training, what we expect a picture to be… Or what if colour-blindness affects us?

I discovered I loved John Constable’s paintings when I was about 14. A breakfast cereal company offered tokens: when a certain number were collected, I was sent a copy of “The Haywain.” Loved it! Then I acquired the “Cornfield”. Still the vouchers kept coming (a family of six gets through cereal quickly) and I rashly ventured out in a new artist… Turner’s “Fighting Temeraire.” It was different, yet familiar, and the colours and lighting… well, wow!

My art teacher at school taught us about the Impressionists. Initially, I was underwhelmed. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t recognise what I was looking at! He persevered with our youthful and developing brains, and Monet and Manet and Van Gogh entered our appreciation zone.

Then we came across Picasso. It just seemed WRONG.

Yet friends of mine loved his work. Strange world, odd people… How far can “art” go before it becomes no longer art? Is that even a reasonable question to ask?

Now, I have my preferences and my favourites, and I have learned to appreciate some art that seemed challenging at first. At least I have learned how to look. No doubt we all have different things that make us go “ahhh” and others that get the response “yuk.”

But when we look at a painting, a photograph, a sculpture, a tapestry, we have a moment in which we can learn, we can be stimulated, challenged, and inspired. Similarly we can read, or listen to music, or use our own creativity: that’s wonderful. These are all ways in which we interpret our world and find beauty in living. But why do we bother?

Because “beauty” is a soul-food. Beauty is one of the ways God touches our deep inner being; in nature, art, music, poetry we can experience an other-worldliness, even a transcendent “lifting” of our spirit into a moment of being God-present.

Here is an ancient expression of this: look at something you find beautiful, and read these words: “O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth! Your glory is higher than the heavens… When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers- the moon and the stars you set in place- what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?” (Psalm 8:1, 3-4, NLT)