That Loving Feeling…

Halfway through our worship service this morning I realised that I was feeling very happy and content. We were being led by musicians and singers from our youth group and they played well and sensitively.  Jamie engaged us in discovering who we are, and what God thinks of us, and my smile widened.

Please don’t jump to the conclusion that on the other weeks at church I have been miserable! Nothing could be further from the truth. Today was simply a special moment.

I didn’t just know my faith was true- I felt strangely comforted in my heart of hearts, the centre of my being.  Can I explain it? No, not really.  Can I depend on my feelings as a measure of my faith or the truth of Christian belief? No, my feelings can go up and down because of health, tiredness, weather or something that goes wrong and annoys me.

Are “loving feelings” good? YES! If my faith is only knowledge about God, or some hope of a better life after this miserable one… then something is wrong with me!  To know God is to love Him, and to experience REAL love is a distinctive way. Paul writes in Ephesians:

Ephesians 1:3-4 (Message)
How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He’s the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love.

God’s love is His divine choice. He has set his heart on us. Today was one of those moments where it seemed that he whispered in my ear… “You are loved, and chosen, and I wanted to remind you!”

That loving feeling may not stay forever. But God’s love WILL last forever. Chosen before He dug the trenches for the foundation of the Universe, he has set his heart on little old Earth and those amazing yet exasperating human beings. Jesus came to this world so that we can be reconciled to the Creator, Lover, Sustainer, Provider and Redeemer- the Lord of All. No wonder there was a loving feeling involved! Whatever tomorrow brings, and however this uncertain life unfolds… God has loved US so we can love Him.

That’s the best feeling and the deepest Truth I know. May God whisper love in your ear today!

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The cutest and most lovable Meerkat…

 

Weeds of humble splendour- Look, See, Pray

A weed is a plant growing in the wrong place. What if we valued them for what they give instead of judging them by our desire?  Plants make this planet breathe- and some flourish in harsh places that would be desolate without them. At the edges of the salt marsh, tough plants make a margin of life. Their gaily waving flowers add charm to the landscape, provide food for insects and birds, and carry a promise of life now and for tomorrow.  A poem that just might be a prayer…  a weed that might be a hero.

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Photo and text copyright Richard Starling, 2018.

Tick Tock – Look, See, Pray

The Reflectionary

Time is our tyrant. We have a limited life span, and from the beginning of life on the Earth, the Sun and Moon have marked our passage. Success and failure, laughter and tears: experiences to savour, and others to lament.

Not content with Day and Night, humanity has tried to control Time by measuring it. Monolithic stones and sundials, seasonal feasts, plans for agriculture and building. Thus entered the diary, the “to do” list, the deadline, and the delight of “rush hour.”

We even invented clocks. Tick, tock, ceaselessly marching towards the unknown and condemning every Present moment to become the Past.

In the U.K., the clocks will change this weekend: we will have an extra hour to sleep, and then all the evenings will grow shorter and darker until the turning of the year. But if we are willing, we can still find golden moments of timeless awe, of…

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Eugene said “Slow Down…”

Eugene Peterson had a stated purpose to “change the pastoral imagination of pastors today,” to urge them “to slow down and to be present to their lives” so that they could help their congregations do the same. Eugene died this week.

There are some people I would love to have met. He is definitely one of them. Quite probably I would have been reduced to embarrassed mumbling and shamefaced excuses, because Eugene Peterson had a way of getting to the heart of big issues. That encounter would have exposed my shortcomings and excuses. Alongside that dread, I get the strong impression he would have been gracious and understanding: and would have done his best to help and encourage me. Peterson knew God and His ways: and he would have blessed me as I know he blessed many who did encounter him directly. He lived to bring Christ to many. His books helped me.

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I first read his book “Contemplative Pastor” at a time when the crazy pressures of ministry were burning out my soul. Complex problems needed solutions I couldn’t find, and rushing from A to B to X was grinding my heart to dust.

It wasn’t about losing faith, and there were blessings around in plenty. But… there was just too much of everything, and I needed help. Christian ministry is a calling that draws on the deepest part of the heart, and if we are not wise we can find that we are drying up on the inside. Preaching in the name of Jesus is a joy and a heavy responsibility. Pastoring people is a huge privilege and challenge. You get to share the whole gamut of human experience.

The emotional and spiritual cost of pouring yourself into the blender where real life mixes with heavenly Truth, and then trying to distil precious living words so others may draw closer to the Lord, is terribly high. Faced with the expectations of the congregation, the community, yourself, and what you think God expects- the spirit reels in shock and dread. I needed to learn that God is more gentle and patient than expected. He is also utterly Holy, amazingly gracious, and awesome beyond words.

There is a very unfunny “joke” about ministers only working one day a week. If people only knew how much that “joke” makes pastors want to throttle the jester! It is an act of grace to smile gently and refrain from applying the “right knee of fellowship.” (Let the reader understand!)

Most ministers I know work too long, too often, and too hard. It’s because we know that our words can be life or death. We don’t want to let anyone down. God called us, and we said “Yes.” It demands commitment of a high order.

“Slow down.” Recover the heart of your calling. Seek God for Himself; seek God because of love given and received. Seek God, because apart from Him we can do nothing.

Jesus took time out to be with his Heavenly Father. Jesus went into the wild places, the mountains, the lakeside. When He came back to the disciples and the crowds He knew His Father’s will- and obeyed it totally.

Reading “Contemplative Pastor” was refreshing if challenging. It was a lifeline to a weary soul because it put my hand back into the hand of Jesus. My mind was opened again to the dynamic rhythm of the Psalms and the Gospels. I re-learned the importance of retreat, of quiet, of silence and solitude. I discovered that there is a loving Father awaiting the “prodigal pastors” who run off to do God’s work for Him… and then find out they can’t and weren’t intended to. (I realise I have to be careful here- please don’t think I intended to draw a parallel between pastoring a church and tending the pigs!!!) 

Eugene’s life work taught many of us to slow down, not to be caught up in the folly of rushing, competing, or manipulating. He pointed me to Jesus again. Through Jesus, the Open Gate, I was able to come into the Presence of Holy Almighty God, Father, Son and Spirit.

One day I hope to thank Eugene Peterson. It will be a long queue!  Thank God for this fellow-servant, this deep well of Spirit-filled wisdom, and for the writings that still point to Jesus.

Oh yes- this advice to “slow down” doesn’t just apply to pastors. How is your rush-ometer doing? Seek God. Here is Eugene’s paraphrase of  Matthew 11:28-30 (Message)
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest.  Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” 

Slowing down… sounds good to me!

 

 

Just a yellow rose- Look, See, Pray

One rose… different faces. They say “the camera never lies…” but you may not recognise its truths! 059August11crop This is one rose, with one photograph edited in different ways. The camera sensor digitally records the light falling and being reflected back from the rose. The first picture is the camera’s best effort at realism.  

 

The second picture shows what the computer program can do to try and make the photo look more like what the eye actually sees.

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My THIRD photo is intriguing. The software has attempted to process the image by bringing ALL the digital information “to the surface.” I didn’t expect this result.
The program has “found” blue light reflected in the shadowy parts of the rose.
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It is ONLY the information “recorded” by the sensor… the blue IS present- but normally filtered out.
Questions and beliefs may seem simple at first sight. There is usually more complexity waiting to be discovered and explored.
Look, see, pray. This is what I am discovering to be realistic: as I look, I learn to see more. The more I see, the more I engage in “conversation” with God through thought and prayer.
What I see is what I pray: what I think about is what I become.
Thank God who created a world of such beauty and variety. May I become more like God in character and motive; and in action.

Sleepless hunter

Chronic pain is something doctors and patients hate because it is hard to treat and often has a cause that has some element of mystery. Some of you may know that I had to retire early because of the “invisible illness” fibromyalgia. I am truly grateful to the NHS for all they have done to help me cope, and for the techniques and medications that help keep the pain under control.

But the illness may flare up at any time.

The photograph is of an owl prowling, flying just above the ground with those flame-orange eyes fixed on food. There is a grace and magnificence about the hunter at work, and yet a primal fear of the merciless efficiency of the predator.  Owls change from total stillness to silent flight in a moment; they are looking for the weak and vulnerable. Their hunting instinct never sleeps.

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This week my “sleepless hunter” has been fibromyalgia, suddenly sinking talons again into muscle and bone. Without warning, like the silently swooping owl, it strikes efficiently. For no apparent reason symptoms flare into life as the wings fan the dormant sparks into fire. It has been a reminder that I can’t take it for granted that the more relaxed life of a retired minister will always keep my hunter away.

Today’s post is a plea to us all: please keep your eyes and ears open so we can support and encourage those who are ill, especially for those who suffer the “invisible illnesses.”  It seems easier to care for the ones in hospital, or carrying a limb in plaster. The ones who may look OK on the outside aren’t noticed. Please pray for the people you know with MS or ME, fibro and COPD, with chronic pain or with mental illness.

Tomorrow I may be feeling better again. Or not. Good days are treasured but not guaranteed. Here’s one of my favourite psalms about the God who guards our lives: the “sleepless hunter” faces an unsleeping Guardian. Truly and reverently I say: Thank God.

Psalm 121:1-8 (Message)
I look up to the mountains; does my strength come from mountains? My strength comes from GOD, who made heaven, and earth, and mountains. He won’t let you stumble, your Guardian God won’t fall asleep. Not on your life! Israel’s Guardian will never doze or sleep. GOD‘s your Guardian, right at your side to protect you—  Shielding you from sunstroke, sheltering you from moonstroke. GOD guards you from every evil, he guards your very life. He guards you when you leave and when you return, he guards you now, he guards you always.

 

Birds of a feather

A recent visit to photograph the migratory birds did me good. Fresh air, seeing lapwings, chatting to others watching the displays- all good. Watching the aerial dance has made me think of various friends, colleagues and ministry partners I’ve had the privilege of working with. And, of course, a wonderful wife and a great wider family.

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The members of the churches I have been privileged to serve- I’d have been pretty lonely without their love, time, and support.

Some who were in church leadership teams- I want to say publicly that I was enormously blessed by their quality and attitudes.

Other colleagues of different denomination but similar heart. Others in regional groups, and national teams. Staff in schools, hospitals and funeral directors… the list goes on.

I won’t mention names but I do want to say “thank you all.” Also to those who have taught me, encouraged me, and put me straight when I needed that correction.

I am humbled by the way I have been part of the process of helping others to discover and follow their life-calling, and to see how God uses them to to things I couldn’t do.

To you all I offer the blessing prayer of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 (NLT)
Now may the God of peace make you holy in every way, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again. God will make this happen, for he who calls you is faithful.

Thanks for being part of my migration through this world!

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