Living Joy- Look, See, Pray

Grey, dull miserable… that’s just the BBC. Outside: add drizzling, damp, cool, windy weather. What a start to Wednesday.

Then the display of orchids on my windowsill changed the way I perceived the day. A white one with yellow and pink; yellow and purple with two sprays of blooms; and the purple and white-spotted one. Immediately, my mind shifted gear: and I wrote a few lines trying to capture in words what I was feeling. The shape and colour fascinated and inspired heart and soul: such exotic beauty lifted my spirits and restored joy to life. So, go find a flower!

The WAY we see is as important as WHAT we see. Our perception of life is determined by our focus and choices.

“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.” Henri Nouwen

So my view of today has been shaped by the vivid creative imagination of God, who thought about orchids- and I’m deeply grateful for living joy!

Fair beyond telling, 
shaped within dreams, 
imagination takes form: 
richly laid colour, 
subtle echoes of an angel’s wing-beats, 
the exotic orchid  
painted in living joy.             © Richard Starling 2022

Even better than any poem, and even more wonderful than an orchid, as we get closer to Good Friday & Easter Sunday we can focus on Jesus. The story of his final journey is full of rich teaching and memorable moments and records his determination to fulfil his mission, whatever the personal cost. Reading this story will change the way we see life- because Jesus changed the ending. How then shall we live?

“Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”   

Hebrews 12v2

New Words, Ancient Truth- Look, See, Pray

The most familiar words can become filled with greater meaning when they are placed in a new setting. As I looked at the photo taken in a remote fjord in Norway, the morning tranquility reminded me of that well-known Psalm “The Lord is my Shepherd.” So as I thought about the ancient truth of David’s song of faith, I tried to put it in my own words- not to “improve” it (!) but to make it personal. Perhaps my effort will bring ancient Truth alive through these new words.

There’s a path through the mountains
On the way to a promised land,
That leads beside the green fields
Where still waters quench my thirst.

God is my Guide, my provider for need.
God renews my life from within,
And teaches the way  for my steps,
So my soul honours His Name.

In desolate days not even Death cuts me off,
For God walks beside me and evil must flee.
He saves me, comforts and challenges me;
His love disciples my heart and mind.

The banquet of blessing scorns my foes,
Signs of Your grace overflow!
All You provide is good beyond measure,
To be near to You, the greatest of treasure.

From setting out, to coming home
I live in Your Presence, forever in peace.



Psalm 23-ish © Richard Starling, 2022

Who’s Watching? – Look, See, Pray

That feeling of being watched… slightly creepy, feeling judged…

As I photographed busily the usual cute furry creatures in the wildlife park, that prickling sensation in the back of my neck made me look round…

A parade of eagle owls unblinkingly watching me. Possibly admiring the technique, maybe checking the camera gear was suitably serious-looking… perhaps working out how many portions I would make for lunch!

A “parliament” of owls. That’s the collective noun – a more accurate term might have to be found to reflect current times. A society of overwatch and data-harvesting, the tendency of keyboard warriors to viciously condemn victims, the gutter press and paparazzi: and where Parliament used to be a symbol of stability and good governance it is too often reduced to buffoonery.

Perhaps a “critique” of Owls? Cos everyone’s a critic.

It’s easy to become paranoid about being watched. Those owls have SHARP talons and a viciously efficient razor-beak; and many folks who watch critically are too intent on finding a mistake and so miss the true message!

“They” are watching. Don’t panic- I’m not advocating the “conspiracy theory” response to life. Yes, our lives are too easily an open book- but if we whinge about our “privacy right” why are we all on Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat/Instagram/etc etc???

Mind you, the things that Amazon and Facebook reckon I’m interested in suggest the intelligence of these watchers is low. As a wise person said, it’s not necessary to assume malignant intent behind an action when it’s easily explained by incompetence!

Good news: there IS a Watcher. And a GOOD one. God watches over us; and longs to bring reconciliation and hope. Since God knows us from the inside out, He knows us well- and longs to help us become the best fulfilment of His holy purpose.

This Watcher is not there as our critic or an angry judge. He is the Lord of Love and justice, mercy and peace- everything, in fact, that we long for.

So when you feel “watched” and worried- reflect on these words that remind us that God is still in charge. Psalm 103 v19-22:

“The LORD has established His throne in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all. Praise the LORD, you His angels, you mighty ones who do His bidding, who obey His word. Praise the LORD, all His heavenly hosts, you His servants who do His will. Praise the LORD, all His works. Everywhere in His dominion. Praise the LORD, my soul.”

Elephants and a Bridge- Look, See, Pray

What am I photographing? Is it a famous Dartmoor bridge? Perhaps it’s the River Dart. Yes …. but… No. It’s the Sun.

“Eh?” I hear. “But the sun isn’t in the picture!”

Correct- but the Sun is too bright, too big, too awesome. No earth-bound camera can cope with that challenge. All we can do is record the effect of the Sun, showing how the light changes our perception of the world. Reflected by the stone and water inside the arch, light glows out. We just KNOW that if we looked through the arch, we’d see the sun (or be dazzled by it, anyway!).

When we say “What is God like?” we’re doing theology. Our problem is trying to explain and describe the gloriously indescribable- we lack the words to speak, and the mindpower to comprehend. Our best insight comes from the self-revelation of God’s true essence in the person of Jesus Christ. (Since it’s Lent, it is a great time to think about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.)

Imagine describing an elephant to someone who has never seen one. Ask two friends to draw a picture, one starting from above, and the second person working from the feet upwards.

The picture might look like the one below: and it’s a brain teaser! How many legs does an elephant have? Of course you know… but the drawing may make you rather confused.

Now, the conclusion of Christian theologians is that Jesus is the Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Three-in-One. How will you explain the Trinity? Tricky… our best efforts are incomplete. How do you “explain” Jesus as both human and divine? With difficulty. If you start from the top, the God-ness of Jesus, you will understand quite a lot. If you start from below, the human-ness of Jesus you will understand a whole lot more.

But the picture isn’t perfect, or without mystery. It’s like the “legs of an elephant” picture… and it’s the best we can do. So if someone understands a bit differently, perhaps it’s just because they’re seeing from a different angle. We can still be friends, and still follow the path of Jesus.

Jesus said “I am the Light of the world.” All our theology, and all our debates, are trying to describe the effect of Light in a world in shadow. Our God is too big, too strong and too Mighty to capture in our “brain-cam.”

He is LIGHT. In a dark time in a suffering world, it’s the Light that keeps us alive, still hoping, still trusting, May the Light shine on you! 

Shared Wisdom- Look, See, Pray

Seeking wisdom in the Tree Cathedral, near Whipsnade.

The Tree Cathedral is a wonderful place to visit, pray, and think. I used to live fairly close, and always found it a sympathetic destination! When there, I could walk among the trees and it seemed as if God were easier to reach. Did you know that trees are mentioned in the Bible more than any living thing other than God and people? There’s a tree on the first page of Genesis, the first Psalm, the first page of the New Testament, and the last page of Revelation. 

In the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, a collection of proverbs describe wisdom as a character, as if wisdom is really a person rather just “knowing stuff.” Encyclopaedias are stuffed with facts, but until facts are learned and put into practice the book isn’t much use to anyone.

“Wisdom is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed” Proverbs 3:18

“Do you lack wisdom? Ask for it!” said James (see James 1 v5). If our natural inclination is to “go it alone” there is no-one to check with- “Am I right or wrong?” Gaining wisdom is best done as a shared quest, life done as a rhythm of personal thinking and shared conversation. Part of my calling as a pastor and theologian has been to explore, learn, and develop in both knowledge and wisdom: and it has always been a journey with companions (and done in the context of including God and the scriptures along the way).

Then my vocation is to share what I have discovered, and try to do so in words that make things clearer and easier to grasp for other people.

This morning I came across a blog post that succeeds in that aim: so I’m sharing a snippet of wisdom! Question: how well do you understand the Holy Trinity? “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is the form of words we use to describe God. But what does that mean?

Mike Higton, theologian at the University of Durham, set himself the challenge of explaining the Holy Trinity in words of one syllable:

“So there is God, the one to whom we pray, the one to whom we look, to whom we call out, the one who made the world and who loves all that has been made. And then there is God by our side, God once more the one with whom we pray; God in the life of this man who shares our life, this man who lives the life of God by our side, and who pours out his life in love for us. And then there is God in our hearts, God in our guts, God one more time, the stream in which we dip our toes, the stream in which we long to swim, the stream which filled the Son and can fill us too, and bear us in love back to our source.

Link to the full blog post: click here: The Trinity explained in words of one syllable | Psephizo

God: the to whom, and with whom, who is also within. You may or may not feel qualified to write a book of theology now, but I suspect you have a better appreciation of the Holy Trinity- and you have gained wisdom as a result. Wisdom shared by Mike Higton, me, and now you. And next time someone asks us “What about the Trinity, then?” we may feel wise enough to pass on what we have discovered.

Wisdom is for sharing! Here’s a prayer you may like to use:

O Lord our God,
help us to know you when we pray.
Help us to know you as the one to whom we pray;
help us to know you as the one with whom we pray;
help us to know you as the one in whom we pray.
Help us to know you, and to love you,
and to live our lives for you,
one God in three,
Holy Trinity. Amen.

‘Ware Wolves! Look, See, Pray

Wolves… hunters, scavengers, feared – not one of the cuddly creatures! Their eerie howling strikes terror (and that’s just when they’re in a zoo!). Imagine being lost in the forest, or being stranded in the wild country, and hearing the howling gradually getter louder…

They hunt with great stamina. Wolves can run and run, wearing down the energy and the hope of their prey, finally moving in for the kill as their weakened target reaches the point of collapse.

In these photos of wolves in captivity, even they have scavengers! Crows and magpies harry the wolves, darting in with sharp beaks to grab a share.

We use the wolf as a metaphor when someone is in trouble… “the wolves are closing in…”

Society has invented our own form of wolf: the gaping jaws of the paparazzi lurking with cameras poised, the character assassins digging dirt and flinging it until mud sticks. Social media is abused so it can become an abuser of the innocent: though sometimes the dogged determination of investigators reveals the hidden secrets of the dirty and/or mighty. Once a story- true or false- hits the internet, it builds its own momentum and the fangs drip poison. Perhaps we should call this the “Daily Gnasher”? The scavengers are always lurking.

Position, status, or leadership is often sought for its benefits and advantages, or for the power to dominate, or even for the chance to bring good change. Motives can be mixed. The one guarantee is that people in the public eye are under constant scrutiny, and the wolves WILL gather, sniffing around, and will pounce at signs of weakness or failure.

This is why power has to be matched with accountability, privilege with responsibility, and ambition with character.

Pretence will be gnawed away, sooner or later, and the bare bones will be on display. This is why the Bible insists that CHARACTER is the necessary quality for leadership. “A good leader motivates, doesn’t mislead, doesn’t exploit. God cares about honesty in the workplace: your business is HIS business.” (Proverbs 16 v10-11)

There is an old saying that we should only elect leaders who DON’T want the job.

Of course, we all, everyone of us, make mistakes and get things wrong. But there is a huge difference between a good person failing and a wrong-hearted person savaging justice and truth. Now, I’m a dog person who loves and admires their loyalty and companionship. A mistreated or badly trained dog is bad news! The similarity of dog and wolf ought to warn us.

Bad leadership breeds unfairness, injustice. The gap between rich and poor gets bigger. A sad truth- Jesus foretold “the poor will be with you always.” (Mark 14 v7) Bad leaders sometimes start as well-meaning people who rot as greed or pride blights them.

Rot “at the top” will ruin a society, a business, an institution, a life.

The people of God are called to be watchers on the walls, heralds who warn of danger, and prophets who speak truth to power/wealth. When we hear the wolves howling, it’s time to speak up. AND it’s time for us to pray. Today, we could pray for Ukraine; pray for political leaders; pray about poverty and sickness and injustice, against racism and extremism and hate.

I think I hear carrion crows… and the wolves are howling… Stand up, speak up, and pray.

Joy in January? Look, See, Pray

January… the crown of winter’s dreary days! It’s not all bad: but it is notoriously fickle and grey. Short daylight hours, cold, damp, and it’s time to get rid of the excess pounds after the Christmas extravagances. A true recipe for joyful living.

Can we renew our joy? Perhaps this picture can help.I’ve never seen a dull red tulip. None in the garden, so I’ve hunted this out from my photo albums. Gloriously scarlet, then an even brighter yellow inside. Just for added impact, starkly geometrical black stamens contrast violently in alien shapes. Looking more closely, speckles of black pollen give a mute testimony to the visit of an early bee. Do these specks spoil the bloom, or remind us of life and growth to come? Can you spot the aphid? I only noticed this today. A pest, or another little miracle of life?

A principle of photography is that the actual subject should be the most important thing in the photo. A common mistake is to make the subject too small. It is lost in the background, and the picture loses impact.

Getting in close makes a difference. This picture shouts “I’m a tulip!” in dramatic tones. It would be easy to walk past the flower beds, camera at head-height, and take a picture of some “nice tulips.” Beauty turned into a vague generalisation!

When we need to renew the sense of joy, the experience of lightness of spirit and being at peace in our world, a great way to start is to pay attention to the small things, the details, the abundance of life all round us. Attention given leads to awareness, appreciation, and a deep gratitude for the richness that is here.

This works in relationships: when did you last tell your partner or friend or colleague that you appreciate what they have done and what they add to your life?

It’s a vital part of faith, too. When you see that first snowdrop, or the daffs beginning to emerge, will you SAY “thank you” to God? Not just thinking it, but putting gratitude into spoken words- it releases a powerful surge of joy.

God is present in our world: and has compassionate love for His creation. Acknowledging His love and majesty “tunes us in” to the love-song God sings over us. In knowing this, we find renewed joy. It could start with a tulip… or with the hope of a psalm:

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

The Holy Bible: Today’s New International Version. (Ps 139:7–12). (2005). Zondervan.

I dreamed that I was flying- Look, See, Pray

Herring gulls over the English Channel

I dreamed that I was flying.

It still is a stunning memory. I glided above the tops of unknown mountains. Far ahead, the sun rose splendidly, and it felt as though I was being kept in the air by God himself. According to my memory, I was about 12 and this is the earliest dream that I have ever remembered. What a psychologist might say about an interpretation is best left to the imagination!

Enjoying a lovely childhood in a loving family, with few things likely to cause lasting trauma, I suspect that I was as ordinary as most 12-year-olds. Perhaps a bit more imaginative and expressive than some, and certainly cheeky. This was the year when I made my first conscious choice to believe in Jesus Christ and begin a life as a follower of his Way.

If my dream was a kind of vision-dream holding out the prospect of a straightforward and glorious life full of beauty and wonder (and no problems) then it has failed. Life isn’t like that- at least in my experience. That doesn’t make it valueless.

Ever since that dream, I have felt drawn to mountains: photos or paintings, word-pictures in books of adventures, and even the black and white TV trying to do justice to a world inherently colourful. The first time I saw a real mountain was in my late teens when a group of friends travelled in a knackered old Commer minibus all the way to North Wales. Here we climbed through mist and rain up the slopes of Tryfan to the summit. Damp and weary we looked out and the clouds concealing Snowden unfurled.

The reality of mountains is far more awe-inspiringly wonderful than any dream.

In the same way, the reality of fulfilled faith will exceed my best hopes- even my best imagination. My faith isn’t built on that 12-year-olds dream, though sometimes I wish everything would go as smoothly as my first “flight…”

I dreamed I was flying.

The Apostle Paul made an obscure reference to “being caught up to the third heaven” (see 2 Corinthians 12 v2). Bible interpreters and scholars have been wondering about that ever since. Really, we don’t know what Paul meant or experienced: the most likely explanation is that Paul felt lifted into the very presence of God himself. (That ties in with the known beliefs of the period.)

Paul refused to boast about this revelation, even speaking in the third person as if it had happened to somebody else: and he even talks about being given “a thorn in the flesh” (v7) to keep him humble. Annoyingly, we don’t know what this thorn was either. Suggestions have ranged from some form of chronic illness right the way through to a crabby mother-in-law!

It seems the Corinthians were fascinated by visions and dreams, and Paul does his best to stop them from fastening onto an exciting tale. Paul uses his own experience to point them to an important truth. Whatever our knowledge, gifting, or experience, whatever our strengths or our weaknesses, we are called to be servants of Christ and to love others in every way we can.

When we are young, we often behave as if we were immortal, acting without regard to risks and dangers. Then comes that moment in life where the first serious illness, accident or loss invades our being. We suddenly must grow up. Christian faith isn’t a divine insurance policy against the unpleasantness of life. Knowing “God is with us” is not the same thing as saying that “only good things should happen to us.”

Since I started with my dream, I want to finish with a snapshot of my experience in Christian ministry.

As a newly-trained pastor I rather hoped the Kingdom of God would be demonstrated forthwith through me! I am glad that my first church was full of patient and kind Christians. During the 30 years of active ministry there were times of blessing, times of difficulty, and occasionally we all wondered where God had gone. Part of my life became learning how to deal with chronic illness, and how to develop a lifestyle that had some rhythm and grace evident in it.

Dreaming of flying is all very well, but there can be bumpy landings.

Without in any sense wanting to equate my life or ministry with that of the Apostle Paul, I think I have learned one of the lessons he did. Perhaps this will be an encouragement to some of you reading today: yes, “God is with us…” and the words of Jesus to Paul and the Corinthian church remain equally true now. Jesus said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (v9)

Early one morning… Look, See, Pray

Woke up too early this morning! Made coffee, decided against vacuuming the carpet (too noisy, might wake up Juliet and the neighbours) so switched on the computer to carry on the sorting of my old photographs. That’s a LOOOOOOOOONG job… I didn’t get very far. I was distracted by this poppy.

The colours, the geometric precision, the intricate shapes… What would it look like if I played around with the pic in my editing software? In the “good old days” monochrome was king. Apart from any other consideration, keen (i.e., “real”) photographers could process black and white film at home, and remarkably skilfully too.

So let’s go monochrome.

Oh. Six choices… all giving very different results. This would have taken hours in the darkroom, using different chemicals, paper, filters, and much patience. One click for each choice… Not that one… no, too dark… not enough contrast… no… maybe… That it. That one, the “newspaper” setting. It brings out the patterns in a pleasingly abstract way. I like that… now, put side-by-side with the original colour image. Interesting! (To me, anyway).

I wonder what other people will think.

Hang on, this page is Look, See, Pray. Why the droning on about photo processing? Why abstract images of a long-dead poppy? (Perhaps Richard should have stayed in bed…)

So, then. It’s an old picture, I’ve seen it before. It brings back the memory of growing these poppies in Luton, of enjoying the vibrant colours, soft fragile petals, watching the bees foraging in these great big architectural blooms. That’s nice.

And now I can see it in another way, a fresh angle, a new insight. Ignoring the colour brings out the structure as a complex pattern- wonderful in its own right. I can study the flower in a new way, understand it better, more fully.

I wonder what would happen if I applied the same process to other familiar things… parts of the Bible… or the Lord’s Prayer… I’ve read that before, I’ve prayed the prayer countless times. Maybe there is more to discover. What have other Christians learned from this verse, or chapter, or book… what exactly do these words mean…

I mean, the Lord’s Prayer… what could be “new” there? Try this version from The Message:
Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are. Set the world right; Do what’s best— as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.

Compared to a version for primary school children:
Our Father in heaven, you are awesome! Show us who you are and how you want us to be. Make earth more like heaven. Please give us what we need to keep going each day. Help us when we are wrong and clean us up on the inside. Help us to let other people off and move on. Keep us from bad stuff. You’re in charge! You’re strong and powerful and always there. Forever! Amen.

Now it’s your turn. Find a familiar Bible passage, or pray the Lord’s Prayer as you know it best… then look for a fresh way to look at it, to understand it, to bring Truth home so it makes a difference to the way you live, behave, think, relate to others.

It might change the way you look at God, see Him, and the how-or-why you pray.

Look, See, Pray. There IS a reason for mucking about with an old poppy pic after all… May God’s Light and Truth shine on you in a fresh new way today.

Don’t lose the wonder- Look, See, Pray

What will 2022 bring?

What am I hoping for?

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.