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?

Worth waiting for… Look, See, Pray

Waiting is worthwhile.

On Saturday, I posted a photo of this iris tightly furled and reflected on the value of patience.

Today it is fully open- and I love it.

Christian faith is built on the faithful and loving nature of God. In this age of “urgency” and hurry, it is important to remember that even though we have to wait for the final revelation of the perfect Kingdom of God, and may have to struggle with issues that take time to resolve, we CAN trust Him.

Here’s a truth to meditate on today: Hebrews 10:23 (Message)

“Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. He always keeps his word.”

I’m impatient- Look, See, Pray

This the first plant I added to our garden when we moved here. When it unfurls, an iris of glorious purple and white stands like a flag at the beginning of the path to the front door. Gorgeous!

My problem is this: the flowers only last for a short time, just a couple of weeks or so. Then I spent the next 50 weeks impatiently waiting for the next flowering. Gardeners get used to this trial of patience- we try to plant enough different varieties to give the garden something beautiful for as many weeks as we can.

In the winter we wait for snowdrops, crocus and daffodil; then the tulips and flowering cherry, the violas put up a grand fight against dullness, and gradually green leaves fill the trees and shrubs. Today I saw the first rosebuds are beginning to form. I’m anxiously waiting for the green shoots of bulbs and seeds, and the sprouting of some perennials who are hugging their mulch duvet and refusing to pop up. Don’t blame them really, I’ve felt the same this week! Digging up seeds to see if they have started growing is always a disaster. Trying to unfurl the iris before it is ready will be ruinous. Nothing for it but to learn patience.

The waiting is the hardest part of the journey.

So much of living involves waiting. We wait for the vaccines so life can be more normal. We wait for shops to re-open. I’m waiting for the dentist to call back to make an appointment to fix my damaged crown. Then of course it will be waiting in the dentist’s chair, the place where every minute lasts a month…

“Wait.”

Surely God would never say that? Well, if ever you are at a loose end waiting for something or someone- do a bible study on “waiting.” You may be surprised.

One specific example: we are in that period between Easter and Pentecost. Jesus, alive and resurrected, gives instructions to the disciples. Obviously, it was important to get going immediately with the task of proclaiming good news to the WHOLE WORLD. Delays? To be avoided at all costs! EXCEPT for the waiting…

Luke 24:49 (Message Translation)
“What comes next is very important: I am sending what my Father promised to you, so stay here in the city until he arrives, until you’re equipped with power from on high.”

Really? Wait??? Ah… there’s a reason. God’s promise will be fulfilled, and at just the right time, Holy Spirit power will come to change their lives and equip them for the hazardous future.

I’m impatient. Not as impatient as I was- but not as patient as I should be. Yet.

So then, Lord,

make me more patient

or at least, help me to fuss less and trust more.

I’m sure I could sort the world out by Christmas-

but then my previous attempts haven’t been

exactly successful.

So perhaps I will yield my will to Your Will,

my talents to your service,

and seek the Presence of Holy Spirit life within me.

Help me to rest in Your Love,

work in Your strength,

worship in Spirit and Truth,

and let You be God.

I’ll try not to nag, or scheme for my plans,

but You’ll need to help this impatient man.

A Prayer of the Impatient Heart

(c) 2021, Richard Starling, words and photograph

A good reflection? Look, See, Pray

Reflections in the Fjord at Olden, Norway

Forty eight years. Where have they gone? If you’re doing the maths, that’s 1973. 29th April to be precise- the day I was baptised as a follower of Jesus Christ. 48 years today.

My Dad conducted the ceremony, three baptisms that evening: baptism by full immersion as believers and disciples. All three of us were baptised at our own request because we had received the grace of God and responded in faith & trust. Our public testimony marked us out as people who had encountered the love of God and who now intended to follow Him as obediently and sincerely as we could, with the help of the Holy Spirit working in us.

How much I have learnt. How much have I succeeded? Good question!

I hope that my faith in Christ has been clearly reflected throughout my life. Have I been perfect? Far from it. But I have learnt that forgiveness is given when needed, and that purpose has also been a consequence of my faith.

The proverb written on the photo was taken on a very still early morning, approaching the mooring at Olden in the Norwegian fjords. The reflection had a gorgeous clarity, a detailed copy of the sleeping village. Our ship was moving so slowly we hardly disturbed the surface. My hope is that the reflection I have left in the passing years has had that same clarity: people watching my life, hearing my words, judging my actions and attitudes OUGHT to be able to discern a true picture of what Christian living is about.

Storms and squalls have stirred up the waters at times. Interacting with other people isn’t always calm and straightforward. But I’ve been grateful for companions on the journey, including those who have knocked off my rough edges and/or helped me learn lessons I had hoped to avoid! My apologies and regrets to those who may not be glad we met. I wish I could have been better able to navigate some of those troubled seas.

A reflection is never PERFECT. Even in a quality mirror, there will be slight distortions and some of the light is reflected away. Sadly there are times when my reflection of Jesus has been distorted or incomplete, and some of the Light of the World has bounced off my imperfections. I hope you will forgive my shortcomings.

But I REALLY, REALLY hope that my representing of Jesus has been good enough to help others see Him more clearly. As my namesake, St Richard of Chichester, prayed:

Thanks be to you, my Lord, Jesus Christ,

For all the benefits that you have given me;
For all the pains and insults you have borne for me.

O, most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know you more clearly;
Love you more dearly;
And follow you more nearly,

Day by day.

Richard of Wyche, also known as Richard of Chichester, was born at Wyche (Droitwich), Worcestershire, England. He was orphaned when he was quite young. He served as Bishop of Chichester for the last years of his life and this “Prayer of Gratitude” is his memorial.

So Easy? Look, See, Pray

Astrantia & Lavender

When looking at the end result, gardening is obviously so easy. This bed of astrantia and lavender just grew! You wish.

Behind every floral display, bag of apples, or immaculate lawn there is a story involving hours of effort and a measure of skill. Today I spent three hours weeding. It’s done, and so am I. My back aches, my knees creak, and the invading brambles have left little thorny souvenirs in my fingers.

The only evidence is the bare soil between the tidier plants. All the sweat and tear-drops have been swallowed by the thirsty soil.

I love gardening- hands in the soil, choosing plants, sowing seed, enjoying the colours and the birdsong. I feel part of Creation in a deeper way. And, often, I feel connected to God. There have been times over the years when knotty issues have been thought & prayed through over a trowel. Looking at the favourite roses, or photographing a choice specimen of rich colour and form, is in a way an act of praise and thanksgiving.

Gardening has parallels to the devotional life: it requires obedience, wisdom, stamina, faith, and discipline. In the same way, building a strong spirituality requires effort, willingness, and humility. Now, the New Testament uses the example of athletes racing as an illustration of discipleship. Runners don’t win accidentally, as a general rule! Personally, running races is a distant memory- but gardening is a current passion.

So then, a gardener’s instruction to Richard of Aldwick: “Dig the soil well, and weed it thoroughly, not letting the brambles take over. Choose plants wisely, and nourish them well- water the soil as necessary, and prune poor growth and dead wood. Wait patiently as God gives growth; enjoy sunshine and gentle rain, enjoy birdsong and give thanks at all times. Watch out for slugs and weevils, and remember to share the joy of your garden with all who pass by.”

God likes gardens- He first gave us one in Eden, and calls us now to be good stewards of this wonderful world. There’s a task for a lifetime!

“Dear Diary…” – Look, See, Pray

Monday- the day after Resurrection Day. I wonder if John, the “beloved disciple”, started making notes? If John kept a diary…….

Dear Diary,
I’m so happy I could burst! I hardly dared believe at first. Those dear, dear women, so excited, so scared, so certain. Then so out of breath, racing Peter to go and see for myself. I just couldn’t bring myself to go in. What if he was still there, dead? What if he wasn’t?

Not sure which thought was scarier!

Somehow, deep down, I knew it… and when Peter went in, his cry of astonishment gave me the courage to see for myself. Just the linens there, Jesus was gone. Such a strange day- what are you supposed to do when the dead friend isn’t there? Go for breakfast? Find some wine? Hide?

Mary of Magdala told us “I have SEEN the Lord!” She said Jesus spoke to her, I must check with her later exactly what Jesus talked about. Someone should write it all down so we don’t forget.

Anyway, we got together last night, the gang and me. Except Judas, of course… and Thomas. Don’t remember why Thomas was missing, I must ask him. He really missed out! We were all pretty jittery- so we locked ourselves in. Don’t suppose that would have stopped the guards if they turned up, but it felt a bit reassuring.

HE came in. No warning, door still locked, and looked at us- bunch of frightened rabbits that we were!

“Peace be with you.”

Immediately, the fear melted into the most wonderful joyous amazement! Laugh, cry, shout, fall down- I can’t really remember what I did- but it was glorious. The Marys all cried- there were tears of joy in my eyes, I can tell you. His Mum, well, sort of MY mother now, that’s going to take some getting used to! But I will look after her, I will, it’s the last thing Jesus asked of me. But if he’s alive again, erm, a dead man walking, no, no, a LIVE man talking! What happens next?

“Receive the Holy Spirit…”

I have a funny feeling feeling we haven’t heard the last of this.

How to explain this? A dead man taken down from that awful, hideous cross, hurriedly buried in solid rock, guards and all… now we don’t have a tomb to grieve at, the Cross is empty, and Jesus saying and doing stuff I can’t get my head round yet. How can I tell Thomas all this- what’s he going to think? Will he even believe us? I wish Jesus could have told him personally, Thomas will probably think we’re hysterical and imagining things.

Well, diary of mine, it’s getting late. I don’t know if I’ll get off to sleep tonight, but the oil in the lamp is pretty low, I’ve got some more, but I’m too tired.

It’s the eyes, you know. Those lovely eyes that look right inside and burn with a holy love. He looked right at me… he smiled, a little smile just for me, and he knew EVERYTHING I was thinking and feeling, and the sorrow and joy in his heart made me shiver and go hot all at once. All my worst fears, and my biggest hopes, they were reflected in his eyes. You know, it’s going to be alright.

There will be some shocked faces in Jerusalem in the morning. Will anyone believe us? “I have come that you may have life, REAL life…” That quote will be useful, I know it will. Real life.

REAL life. That’ll get me going in the morning. I wonder if Jesus will be back tomorrow… or the day after?

REAL… real life. It’s REAL.

(c) Richard Starling, Easter Monday 2021

Sonrise – Look, See, Pray

Some things speak for themselves. Few people seriously doubt that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure- the evidence is too compelling. The crunch question has always been this: is Jesus still dead?

The closest eyewitnesses tell their stories plainly. Millions of lives have been changed for the better through faith in the one who came back from the dead. Those who had most to gain by disproving the Resurrection never succeeded. His body was gone from the tomb- and many witnesses risked their lives by testifying to meeting Jesus. And, honestly, who will die for a lie?

If Jesus has been raised from death, then at the very least he deserves a sincere investigation of the evidence.

I wish that Christians had always lived up to their beliefs and principles. But that is rather the point: we aren’t perfect- but we can be forgiven. We can live with a worthy purpose and a renewed love. We can live in healing communities of learning and accepting each other, and we can share in the task of mercy and rescue of the whole human race. Ultimately it isn’t about us. It is about Him.

So, is Jesus still dead?

Your answer to that question makes all the difference in the world.

Bleak hill- Look, See, Pray

Only a hill. What more can be said?

But this bleak hill could tell a story…
Uncounted years of sunshine and rain,
stone cracking, wind blowing,
history made and forgotten, footprints lost,
memories murmured by melancholic men
thinking of one hill,
three crosses,
and one Saviour.

God painted a canvas of mercy weaved into pain.
Red blood, black flies, darkest sky
and a crown with sharpest spikes
on the head of the gentlest of Men,
on the Hill they called the Place of the Skull.
How apt indeed, place for solving
inconvenient truth and inconvenient men!

Three victims there, and two deserved to die-
the Other, here for a reason greater
than the spite of conspiracies, jealousies,
and fear.

We call it Good Friday, this saddest of days,
when Death bit the bullet
and swallowed itself.
Hate did its worst- He breathed his last,
the cry resounding from heaven to hell
as Jesus tore open a doorway to Life.

The longest Friday.
A few heroes, a broken hearted mother,
rough soldiers, cruelly efficient,
with onlookers weeping or carping-
then gentle, sorrowful hands
a cool palace of bedrock
for the King of all Kings.

All hope seems suspended.
The planet on pause-
so much in the balance,
who weighted the scales?
Poets and prophets speak pictures
and the critics complain,
veiled hints and becomings
unclear to their minds.

One hill,
three crosses,
and one Saviour.

And Sunday is coming.

(c) Richard Starling, Good Friday 2021.

Turn Every Page- Look, See, Pray

Poets and saints find meaning and hope in the beauties of nature. The Celtic Christians of Britain, hundreds of years ago, described the world as God’s “Book of Creation” and found there rich stores of food for the soul.

In more recent times, this insight has been restored and many Christians find God still “speaks” with or without words- becoming aware of His Presence, we discover the wonder of mystery. Most of us know relatively little of the botany/biology that informs the experts; yet we still discover in “nature” a wonderful harmony of function and beauty.

It has been said that the one who breaks a thing to discover how it works has left the path of wisdom (JRR Tolkien). This poppy was “broken” when I took the photo, honest! In fact, the poppy is simply at the mid-point of its life: the passing of the petals heralds the growth of seeds that will be poppies in the future.

A short prayer:

Lord, may we see Life and Love
in the changing of seasons.
As flowers open, as bees labour in sweetness,
as seeds are set for future blessing,
may we recognise the Hand of God working,
and hear again the words of Creation:
“It is very good.”

Open our eyes to admire Your art,
Your craftsmanship, Your generous spirit!
Thank you for the riches given,
for marvels to intrigue us,
for knowledge to seek,
and Love to find.

Worthy, O worthy are You Lord!
The whole Earth is full of Your Glory.
Keep us, O Lord, in Your heart
and in Your Presence, evermore. Amen

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.