Three days in- so far, so good. Yesterday I enjoyed the privilege of preaching in our local church, speaking about the difference Christmas makes to every New Year. Simply put, it’s the description of Jesus as Immanuel, “God is with us.” Simple words, but deep, deep meaning.
I don’t know what 2022 will bring. But I’m confident that God is with us- whatever will be. That, in turn, means I expect to keep a sense of wonder and hope every day.
The wonder of seeing the frosted leaves, the snowfall, the sunrises and settings… the first signs of snowdrops, crocii, and daffodils… cherry blossom and roses… Restless seas and cloud-paintings, seagulls stunt-flying, the field mice and squirrels…
Stormy days and dark skies, the Milky Way like a chandelier over the sea. Gentle dew and charming streams, trees standing bold before our wondering eyes.
People living in kindness, sharing love and community.
Change. I’m hoping for change in politics and public life, with integrity and compassion displacing greed and sleaze. Change in the ways people behave and believe, learn and persuade. Truth becoming important, with a reaction against shallow sound-bites, dodgy websites, and manipulative extremists.
Health. I’m hoping for an end to this pandemic, and for respect and gratitude to be shown to good medicine and good science.
Ecology: for responsibility from all of us, doing what we can to look after the planet we’ve been given, with hope of reversing some of the damage.
Some hopes, eh?
God is with us. With that fact to hold onto, we can have high hopes indeed! Don’t lose the wonder. Every wondrous thing we see inspires true hope. I won’t see everything on my wish list happen in 2022 – but God is with us, therefore NOTHING good is impossible (even if it will be difficult).
The first frosty morning may be the first day of wonder- and hope.
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.
January. 31 weeks days in January and it already seems longer. I’m getting square eyes- not from watching the TV, but gazing out of the window hoping for sunshine or snow. Don’t mind which! There have been too many grey rainy days- if 2021 had a warranty, I’d send it back to be adjusted.
There are good moments, of course. This photo reminded me of those crisp frosty days when icy layers encase the grass and twigs, painting the landscape in white lace. This particular photograph catches the precise time when sunlight touches the ice and brings it to thaw point: opaque crystals melt into pure globes that fill with light. Grasses flex themselves and as the droplets fall the magic of the moment is gone. But the hope lingers on…
Every winter comes to a thaw. Even in Narnia, the Wicked Witch could not overcome the Spring!
Be encouraged! This winter will pass. Right now, we can look for the thaw and for the floodwaters to drain. Tiny snowdrops make a delicate prayer of thanks. As days pass by, more daffodils are daring to show off “sunshine on a stick” as the sluggard tulips pull the duvet up for “just a few minutes” or perhaps weeks!
Passing through difficult times is always a trial. Keeping our eyes open to notice the thaw points is medicine for the soul. Take time to appreciate them- if we gloss over them, and dash onwards in drab, soul poverty will strike.
Difficult times can become an invitation to seek God. Many who have chosen this path can echo the words of the Psalmist- and have found a “thaw point” in their deepest heart-yearnings.
“Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found. Surely when the mighty waters rise, they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.” (Psalm 32 v6-7)
God, make me like this tree- strong, scarred, but alive. The snow hides my imperfections, the wounds of living- but I cannot pretend I am still whole, hale and hearty. Have compassion on me!
Today the news is bad- the virus is out of control and we are again in lockdown, perhaps for weeks. We are despairing, grieving, and frightened for ourselves, our loved ones, for health & jobs, hospitals & schools, shops & vital services.
I am rooted in Your Love, O my God, knowing mercy and grace at Your hands, and I am daily trusting You can keep me through the storms of life.
“This too shall pass.”
Lord, the deeper my roots sink into Your Being, the stronger I remain- let me drink deep of grace. There will be Spring, new life for the world, for me. Help me to endure the cold wind, the sorrow, the storm.
Only in You do I put my trust, and You are faithful.
My God and my King, my Saviour and Friend, I shall stay strong- because You are my strength and shield.
When winds blow cold and fierce, lend me Your strength.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
A Lament for Lockdown, January 2021 (c) Richard Starling
Hardy or tender? This has suddenly become the priority question for English gardeners. Frost is starting to turn our gardens into a killing zone. Colourful stars of the summer like dahlias and pelargoniums are quaking to their roots! Shrubs like this fuchsia have had a rude awakening… some must be rescued, others may survive- time will tell.
Hardy plants are so useful: year after year, through summer and winter, they survive almost anything the seasons send against them. Tough as boots, some of them.
Tender specimens can fall over at the first crystalline kiss of Jack Frost.
Both types have their beauty and distinctive contribution to make. Our British gardens are enriched by species collected from all over the world: but we have to learn about their needs, vulnerabilities, and how to place them to best advantage. And, of course, our native plants also have riches to add to our treasury of colour, form, and fruit.
The problem is this. A novice gardener has to learn (often the hard way!) and frequently is taught by the change of external circumstances. Winter is coming…
I suppose you could draw a parallel with people and organisations. This year has slapped our faces with a dangerous illness. We react to the new circumstances according to our essential nature- there is loss, hardship, courage, despair, and hope… When the new season begins, what will still be standing? What will re-grow? What is gone for ever?
From a church viewpoint, I have noticed a miracle! Nobody has said “We’ve never done it this way before…”
We have made use of Zoom, given thanks for broadband, tried to find new ways to care for each other, offer pastoral support, pray and worship, teach and encourage. Are those efforts perfect? No. But they are good. Do we miss meeting together? Of course.
We’ve never done it before… So let’s do it NOW! Let’s work together, challenge discrimination and injustice, let’s share love, compassion and sincere faith. Let’s change the things that were broken for something new and better!
Some church denominations (whose way of being church is based on a priestly, sacramental, and heirarchical theology) are pleading with the government for permission to meet in their church buildings. There is a clash between their way of “doing church” and the “love your neighbour by not giving them Covid-19.”
Other church fellowships are saying the Government “has no authority to tell us not to worship God.”
I understand their opinions and pain. Our year is blighted by frost! Yet I believe our response to the horrible change of circumstances could be more adventurous. It is an opportunity to live out our faith in different ways and discover that new methods can still be life-giving and worshipful. All of us should be observing sensible rules on distancing, using masks, maximising hygiene, protecting the most vulnerable- wherever we worship.
I miss not meeting with others: family, friends, church. I’ll queue up for the vaccines which can help restore “normal” life. But I really hope that we won’t just go back to the ways things were. Those ways are broken. Society is broken. Families are broken. The racism, poverty and injustice that afflicted too many should NOT be re-instated by default.
Jesus spoke of “new wine needing new wineskins.” New life can’t be contained in worn-out, brittle institutions.
He also said “My Father is the Gardener.”
May the Gardener tend us all, so that next year will be full of colourful flowers, strong plants, and a great harvest.
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.
Gentle giants showing their age… Beech trees responding to another warmer season. In just a few short weeks they had received a bright green makeover, and paraded their party togs with pride.
It was still and quiet in the wood. Footsteps crunching through last year’s leaves and the infrequent song of the birds were the only real sounds.
Something about the strength and dignity of these old Lords of the Forest held my attention.
Pitted and scarred by the experience of the years; damage from insect, storm and time has marred the beech bark. One tree already uprooted, perchance victim of an unnoticed tragedy? Who knows when or why it fell? Younger saplings will make their takeover bid in due time. For now, these mighty beeches stand, adding leaf-mould every autumn and hosting the harbingers of Spring after every winter’s cold tale. In their summer prime, the canopy of green provides shelter, food and pleasure to all life that passes through the wood.
At first sight, these are just old trees, marked by the ravages of time. Spend time here in the wood, and listen, and the story of persistence and fruitfulness will be told again. Ravaged? Maybe.
Badges of honour, I would say. They have grown where they were planted, they have done their part in the long story of the years- they have outlasted many humans- and they have given away their seed with generous purpose.
Here’s a thought. As I look back over the last thirty or so years of sharing in Christian community, I have seen a marvellous selection of strong, dignified, generous people. Marked by the passage of time, wounded and pained by failures and successes, they still stand firm on their faith foundation. Old? True enough… but wise, and patient, and persistent. Love has brought them this far, and the future holds no dread. Kindly endurance gives backbone to their “forest” and the long tale of their years encourages the next generations. Blessed are those whose roots dig deep into the rich soil of Eden’s distant cousin. Blessed are those who drink deep of the Water of Life and share their fruitfulness. To them is promised a Spring with no more Winter.
Living life to the full means risking the scars and inheriting the Kingdom. Give thanks for the giants we have known, honour them in our prayers, observe their example. A well-wrinkled face is a portrait of love lived with a smile in the heart. Alleluia!
Camellias have a tough time in British winters. They often set bud early, and can flower from January onward. Luscious blooms glow gorgeously in the low-angled sunlight, and the bushes bring vibrant colour to dark days.
Then the snow comes, and the frost bites. Today’s pictures were taken in the garden just a few hours apart. A beautiful golden evening led into a freezing cold night and a smattering of fine snow. Harsh conditions for a delicate-looking flower. Despite the cold, the plants survive. Blooms may turn brown and drop (always a sad sight) but the bush fights on. Next year it will flower again.
A life lesson from camellias. Keep on with the struggles- as a wise person once said “This too shall pass.” We can’t “give” a bush human qualities, but if vegetation can keep going, surely so too can we- or at least, we can try.
We can choose to exercise trust.
God shows himself to be good, holy, and loving. The supreme revelation of His character is seen in the character and actions of Jesus.
Now then: Jesus may have lived perfectly but He still struggled with the “winter” of hostility. Warm words and appreciation turned to damning lies and yells of hatred. The truly Beautiful was scarred, betrayed, judged unfairly, and executed brutally.
On the third day… Resurrection!
Even more wonderful, Jesus overcame the power of Death for all. Because He died and rose, we have a hope that is everlasting.
When all seems lost, when the fight is on, the frost is biting… remember the faithfulness of God.
Hold onto what you know. This too shall pass. We may have questions, doubts, tears. But we still have hope- the confident expectation that Jesus will do as He has promised.
Apparently next Monday, the 21st January, is called “Blue Monday” because the scientists have calculated that is when we are most miserable after Christmas: we are short of cash, overloaded with calories, and regretting the resolution to join the gym.
Try this instead- go and look for a camellia, or snowdrops, or an early daffodil. Gaze at it, appreciate it, value it- and take it as a marker of hope. Remind yourself to actively choose to trust God’s love and faithfulness, His compassion and mercy.
May the God of hope grant peace, joy, and eternal blessing to you today.