Beauty and Danger

Some of the most beautiful creatures are also among the most dangerous. Consider the sheer elegance of the big cats, sheer bulk of an elephant, or the toxicity of jewel-coloured tree-frogs. The speed with which this cheetah moved from dozing to alertness was impressive. Lunch was on the way and it would be unwise to get in the cheetah’s way!

Beauty conceals threats. Even the most lovely landscapes contain insects or reptiles that can hurt or kill. It isn’t a safe world. Domesticated animals are not entirely safe either. Come between a cow and calf and you will see how quickly a placid slow-moover can turn testy.

The most dangerous creature is humankind. We are the most inventive, most creative, exploitative, most co-operative & competitive tool-using killers ever. Humans can be casually cruel- and maliciously vicious.

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Unsurprisingly the Bible contains praise for the beauty: and wisdom for the trials. One repeated theme is the promise of God’s protective justice. In particular the Psalms have songs that deal with perils, persecutions and promises. Psalm 121 is only short but it makes a great prayer when the dangers overwhelm the beauties.

If your world is not safe right now, there is only one sensible action. Reach out and trust God; commit your path to Him and look for His protection.

Psalm 121:1-8 (NLT)
I look up to the mountains— does my help come from there?  My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth! He will not let you stumble; the one who watches over you will not slumber. Indeed, he who watches over Israel never slumbers or sleeps.  The LORD himself watches over you! The LORD stands beside you as your protective shade. The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon at night. The LORD keeps you from all harm and watches over your life. The LORD keeps watch over you as you come and go, both now and forever.

Text & photograph Copyright (c) 2018  Richard Starling. Bible verses from New Living Translation (2nd Ed.)

Prayer with our Senses

Praying with our senses makes sense. Why limit communication to words?

That which we may see, hear, taste, touch, or smell can be a direct route to God’s Presence. Some of us may lack one or more of these senses: I lost my sense of smell forty years ago, and I would dearly love to enjoy the perfume of a rose again. Those who are blind, or deaf, or otherwise restricted can still use the senses we enjoy. If we are made in the image of God, do you not think that our appreciation of a sunset, a symphony, a meal, a fragrance and a texture is a gift from God to His children?

God created a world that is sensual, physical, and beautiful. Allow yourself the treat of a sensual prayer. Go and find something to enjoy with your senses; remember who is responsible for the existence of what you enjoy. Then with whatever means seems most appropriate, make it prayer.

This is a short prayer I penned after enjoying cherry blossom, photographing it, thus thinking God’s thoughts after Him as a tribute of worth. Lord, these blossoms are GOOD, and gorgeous, and offer the hope of future fruit. What a great God You are. Amen.

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Photograph & words (c) 2018, Richard Starling

Finding the way… a thought for Holy Week.

The National Trust looks after the beautiful beeches at Dockey Wood, part of the Ashridge Estate. Every year the wood floor is swamped by a flood of bluebells: it’s almost as if the tide has come in! Beautiful blue at ground level, and if you time the visit carefully, a glorious green of fresh new leaves adorns the mighty trees.

A couple of years ago I visited early in the morning, well before breakfast and was rewarded with a lovely soft luminosity as the sunlight filtered through the mist. Sounds were hushed- even the birds sang sotto voce.

There are clearly marked main pathways through the wood. I was taken by this view where there was no path… but the avenue of trees led the eye towards the edge of the woods. Soft mist shrouded the visual details- and a distant bleating travelled down through the trees from an unseen field of ewes with their newborn lambs. Beauty led to a promise of more beauty- but the route wasn’t clear. It was a precious moment of beauty and hope. Let’s use this a guide and as a metaphor for Holy Week.

As Holy Week unfolded, Jesus and his followers were on a journey that only Jesus really comprehended. The disciples knew only that they should follow Him. The crowds of residents and pilgrims in the city saw something, someone, of Beauty and Life, but could not see clearly where this week would end. Gentle illumination guided them forwards with both uncertainty and hope: and many who expected Jesus to do what they wanted became disappointed and frustrated.

Misty 0038bluebell Spring14In the bluebell wood, as the day ended and the darkness gathered its gloomy curtains, the pathway became harder to discern. Likewise, in Jerusalem, the charm and ethereal loveliness gave way to a confusing maze of broken hope- and fear. To be lost in the woods in foggy darkness has no charm, and brings much apprehension. Where should we go? Which way?

Fear is often expressed emotionally as anger and hatred. Holy Week, which began with such high hopes, became darker and more threatening. Night began to fall and people lost their way. The ending was unjust and brutal.

But one person kept to the Way… in fact, He was the Way- and the Truth, and the Life. His journey into the dark marked out a trail where footsteps and blood led to a Cross- a Tree of Death- but then onward to a fresh Sonrise, a Resurrection of Life.

This week- take the journey with Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. See the beauty and the hope of the Way- and walk into the gloom in their company. They will lead us through the Dark and out into the New Day. We best appreciate the Light when we have been in darkness and have felt lost and alone.

May God guide us through, and bring us safely to Easter Sunday when we can celebrate Joy and see our Way ahead. Bless you.

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Snow hope?

Two outbreaks of snow in mid-March is quite unusual. The “Beast from the East” and its smaller cousin, the Lesser Beast, have been and are now almost gone. In my part of Sussex the snow was an inconvenience rather than a major threat- but we’re still happy to see the thaw.

I remember years ago- probably 40 years ago- that a small group of keen friends decided it would be OK to go camping at an early Easter. Despite the forecast, we went anyway; taking a group of about 25 teenage boys. We had proper gear, and a small marquee to cook in. We had a whale of a time! Snow that is two inches thick on the tents is quite good insulation.

One unforgettable memory: I was cooking breakfast. There is nothing like the smell of frying bacon to get people up on a cold morning. I sat in my big greatcoat, on one of those fold-up camping chairs with metal tubing as the frame, and set the big frying tray on the gas burners in front of me. Sizzling is such a satisfying sound. Slurping tea from my big orange mug, I stirred the bacon thinking “What a great job…”

Strangely, the bacon seemed to be getting taller and harder to reach. This became puzzling as I couldn’t reach the pan to stir the bacon! Looking down, I discovered the chair frame was sinking six inches deep into the mud. Oh the joy of roughing it!

One reason we went camping was to share our Christian faith with the young men in the group. We drank tea, and shivered in the marquee, and talked. We sang a bit- trying to play guitar wearing gloves is tricky- and described what Christianity was all about. Our focus was on Jesus, and since it was Easter, the cross and resurrection were central. Several of those young men decided to become Christians. I wonder where they are now…

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Our message was one of hope. A better love, freely given by Christ, leading to a better way of life. A purpose and a challenge. Some answers, but also loads of questions to wrestle with throughout life. Some truth revealed, some mysteries left open. My photo is of a snowdrop near to home. It survived the first cold blast, and was poking out of the snow that came this weekend. Snowdrops are a sign of hope: winter is leaving.

Psalm 62:5 (NLT)
“Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him.

That’s a good Bible verse to ponder on a chilly day. Patience and hope often go together. Soon it will be full Spring and we will celebrate life. Let’s remember to look for the signs and reminders that life is stirring- and the Life-Giver is still faithfully loving us all.

Time to celebrate!

Somehow the idea has grown that God is serious and dull. This really points the finger at the human worshippers of God- we have made a bad mistake if people look at us and see God only as boring or threatening.

Reverence does matter: but it is possible to be joyfully reverent. We don’t always have to be sombre to be holy. There are times to be serious, and we shouldn’t treat Jesus as our “best mate” and go round whipping up shallow emotional responses. But we SHOULD be rejoicing when we remind each other of what the Lord has done.

The book of Leviticus in the Old Testament is not exactly light reading. There is history and detailed instruction as to how Israel should behave and believe. It may surprise us that in Leviticus the Almighty God tells His people to party! Go on, read it.

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Willows in Spring plumage!

When Israel came out of slavery, they spent long years as travellers. Food & water were sometimes scarce, or just monotonous “manna”. They lived in tents and shelters made from skins and branches.

God looked after them.

By the time the book of Leviticus was written, the nation was getting used to the idea of a new permanent home.

It was a challenging but exciting era; and they needed to remember all of their past. So, what did God tell them to do? Cut leafy branches, collect willows, and PARTY for seven whole days. “Rejoice” in God’s presence. Remember the deliverance from Egypt. Remember the tough days in tents and booths, and rejoice in the NOW of celebration and blessing.

I don’t think it a coincidence that the first public miracle in the life of Jesus was… wait for it… to change water into wine!  To help a wedding go with a swing, laughter, some good food and loads of dancing.

Life is tough. We all know that. Yeah, well, life is tough- but God is good! (cue the song by Randy Stonehill). When the willows burst out with their fluff-ball buds, and the sunshine warms our shoulders, and remember that God has got us out of many troubles… it’s time to party. What, for seven days? We’re out of the habit!

We invite people to “come to church” for an hour or so, and we sing and pray and listen and preach… for an hour or two. I wonder what our neighbours would say if we invited them to join in a week-long big bash of celebrating and rejoicing? Whatever that would be like, it wouldn’t be dull or boring. The message of Jesus is called GOOD NEWS on purpose.

Enjoy the Spring that is bursting out in daffodils and pussy willows. Every time you see some, let it be a reminder that God looks after us. Think back over what He has done- and start partying!

Worth Looking

Went out again this afternoon on my e-bike. Riding against a headwind seemed likely to be challenging, but hey, that’s why it has a battery. I ended up taking a couple of detours (one on purpose!) that worked out well. First I came across a lovely bank of crocus clumps.

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Then my “accidental” detour took me the longer way round- but on the way came within 10 feet of a resting buzzard, and a bit later a fishing heron flapped out of the ditch beside me. To crown the detour, skylarks serenaded me as I worked out how to get from C to B without going via Chichester or back to A.

A quiet ride into the Bersted Brooks Nature Reserve gave me time to reflect and listen to robins and blackbirds singing. It was great.

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Going home was really easy. The wind was behind me, and the ground was pretty flat. By the time I reached home, a mug of hot tea was VERY welcome.

Most of the today’s route is one I use quite a bit to access the main shopping areas. Usually the car is necessary! Carrying big bags on a bike is not too clever.

The difference today was amazing. Usually my eyes are occupied with traffic, and the 30 mph speed limit is quite fast enough to mean I miss a lot of detail in the surrounding countryside. Oh good, you say! Keep your eyes on the road !!!

Today was worthwhile- I could stop and look. There was time for a few photos. I could apologise in person to the heron and the buzzard for disturbing their lunch. The skylark choir received the attention their melody deserved. The sights and sounds were simply beautiful. It was truly worth looking.

The things I see and hear are triggers for remembering the big picture, for taking a wide perspective on life, for allowing my mind and spirit to sort stuff out and see what is truly important. Having more time to do this is a privilege: and I wonder, if I had made more time to do this, would my life and ministry have been better balanced and more fruitful? We are surrounded by the crushing pressure of “busy” and find ourselves being shaped from the outside. Surely that is the wrong way… the core of life WITHIN should shape me and take priority over the world’s patterns.

It all tied in rather well with what Jamie was preaching this morning. Time to look, to see, and to pray… my ride reinforced what God was getting across to us in church. We like to put structures and rituals in place, and end up serving them instead of letting God mould us from the inside out. Look and learn. Listen and learn. Live the life we are meant for.

Thank you, God, for a second chance. It was worth the second look.

Romans 12:1-3 (NLT)
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice- the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.

Happy Surprise

Loved this young Meerkat… it’s the gentle smile as his/her head & paws stick out from the shelter. It reminds me of those community moments where people hang out to catch up. Resting on a half-door, a gate or a fence, it is just lovely to chat about everything and nothing. Meerkats are very curious creatures, and happily watch the watchers. They find pleasure in the happy surprise of a new face, a new food, a new game. They’re fun.

Now stick my head in a box, or a set of stocks. (Use your imagination rather than DO it…)

This is Maltese hospitality… well, historical tourist feature. Juliet and I couldn’t resist.

Anyway, take the smiles and work with me for a minute…  Today I had a surprise smile on my face. An unexpected joy!  I recently bought an e-bike:  bicycle with an electric motor and battery. Today the sunshine meant it was time to try it out. Sunshine along the beach in Bognor, so the waves gleamed, the gulls soared, and Richard smiled.

Some of you may know I had to take early retirement because of fibromyalgia (for more about that illness, see the “Invisible Illnesses” article on my blog). The problem with that illness is you need to keep active, but pain and stiff joints can make movement difficult and very uncomfortable. Walking is slow and short distance, even with a stick. Swimming can help in warm water. Sports and even gentle movement/stretching exercise can be impossible. Anything that puts “impact” into exercise is a no-no. Treadmill, stepper, cross-trainer, walking/jogging… all are a BAD idea.

Enter the e-bike. Taking advice from the dealer about upright posture, gear set-up, handlebars, etc., I tried out the recommended machine. Astonishingly, my back did NOT hurt. My hips and knees didn’t object. My shoulders felt fine. So I took a flyer, and bought one. Today I rode it for the first time properly- and it was the most fun I’ve had in months! Bognor Regis is blessedly flat, but even so a four-mile round trip would have been unthinkable before. I used to cycle a lot, and played football & cricket. The e-bike doesn’t do it all for you- there is still good aerobic exercise- but the power takes the strain off and gives an “insurance policy” that the bike can get me home if I am totally cream-crackered and run out of muscle energy.

Today is the most and best exercise I’ve been able to take for three years. And I don’t hurt. I’m so happy I didn’t even mind going to the dentist at 5pm (though I have to go back next Weds too… ). So I shall be scaring the natives of Bognor on sunny days, doing my impression of a low-flying Zeppelin, gradually getting fitter and helping shed some pounds. Did I tell you I’m excited, happy, and raring to go?

Anyway, I’m finishing my day on a high. I’m grateful to the genius who stuck a motor on bicycles. I’m grateful for sunshine and flat ground for a first flight. And I glad that meerkats look cute and put smiles on faces. In fact, it isn’t hard to finish today with joy in my heart and thanksgiving to God for a really good one. They won’t all be good days. But you can tell me to remember to say “On yer bike!” regularly to myself, and to share the smiles around when the best days come. I think I may sleep better tonight too.

Lord, watch over me, my loved ones, and the people I meet. And please share a bit of grace and peace to everyone who goes through the mill because of some rotten illness. May there be happy surprises to balance out the tougher times. Amen.

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