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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Meerkat

 

There will be Thorns- Look, See, Pray

There will be thorns… A perennial “weed” in my new garden is proving troublesome. Brambles are growing through the established shrubs- we even had a few decent blackberries in the autumn!  The previous owner of the house had become too frail to keep up with the gardening. It doesn’t take long for the brambles to grow and many other weeds to thrive.

Careful gardeners wear strong gloves. There will always be thorns, or splinters, or sharp stones… So it is the whole of life. For every flower, there is a weed; for every rose there will be thorns. I’d love to jump straight to the glorious Resurrection of Jesus- but there are a list of lessons to learn. Peter, John, James and Thomas all struggled with what Jesus began to teach on the road to Jerusalem. There will be stones in their shoes and thorns in their feet before they experience the deepest joy of meeting the Risen Christ.There will be thorns Lent 2018

Mark 8:31 (NLT)
Then Jesus began to tell them that the Son of Man must suffer many terrible things and be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but three days later he would rise from the dead.

Lent gives us time and opportunity to consider the reality of being a Christian disciple.  Most of us would welcome some assurance that our life is safe and secure. We may even start to believe that all trouble should pass us by- after all, did not Jesus promise to bless us and keep us? Yes, on the Way of the Cross. Discipleship means sharing the sufferings of Christ: they will come to those who faithfully witness to the Good News of the Kingdom.

Challenge those wishful thoughts of an easy road, today, as a Lent meditation.  Jesus suffered literal thorns- the crown of mockery- in order to fulfil His purpose of bringing in the Kingdom of God. He warned that we too would face trouble and even persecution because we follow the Way of the Cross.  He also warned that we might suffer as a consequence of our own faults and sins. So… how shall we respond?

Although we do not welcome the “thorns”- troubles and pain- can we, will we, accept thorns as a fact of our reality instead of blaming God?  Secondly: can we think of some “gardening” we need to do in our souls to pull out the brambles and weeds that are spoiling our walk with the HOLY Christ? Gardens that are well-tended have fewer nasty surprises. Some troubles and suffering will come to us. If we allow dark corners and overgrown tangles of self-centredness, pride, or impure thinking, that is where the thorns will grow.  We can, with care and Spirit-led humility, avoid the self-inflicted scars that afflict the unwary.

Thank You for the honesty of Jesus who warned us of the cost of discipleship. Lord, grant me patience and the spirit of humble repentance. Amen.

 

Credits: Quotation from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
Photographs copyright © Richard Starling, 2018

Finding Wisdom on the Beach

It will be officially Spring on 1st March. Someone should let the weather know. We have snow forecast this week; a cold north-east wind is bringing Siberia to Sussex.

Despite the plunging temperatures, I am finding a benefit of living near the sea. It is a great place for wandering, pondering, and clearing the mind. I’m not the only one. This guy was walking towards the sunset as the tide pulled back. I’ll never know who he was. He was searching the sand and the breakwaters. I don’t know if he found anything, or even what he was looking for.

When I wander with my teeth chattering and my fingers freezing I find a sense of peace. Even when the ice or gales make for uncomfortable walking, the beach offers a myriad of interesting things. The tracks of seabirds, the colonies of shellfish, the patterns in the sand: the light picks out different features. Breaking waves and the sound of water retreating across the sands, with a chorus of gulls plaintively calling. Why do gulls sound so alone?  Sunset skies dye the wet sand in glorious technicolour. The Sun, the Moon, and sometimes the stars, shimmer their fractured reflections across the restless waters. It’s so beautiful. It has become a holy place for me.

Day or night, it helps me to sense the closeness of Almighty God: all this is His, and still He cares for His children. God makes Himself known in and through this world. People of faith have known this for centuries. The prophet Amos spoke of this: “It is the LORD who created the stars, the Pleiades and Orion. He turns darkness into morning and day into night. He draws up water from the oceans and pours it down as rain on the land. The LORD is his name!  Amos 5:8 (NLT)

I find myself taking opportunities to detour down to the beach. The long way home from the shops, the bank, our church. Ten minutes in the morning after dropping Juliet at school. An hour with the camera, looking for new ways to record the wisdom of God’s self-revelation in Creation. Time to reflect and pray for people and situations; time to filter out all the inner noise and confusions, the anger and irritations of an imperfect life.

Maybe tomorrow I will get to chase snowflakes into the sea. Perhaps the frost will laminate the pebbles. And just maybe, the quieting of my soul will allow the wisdom of God to touch my mind and change my heart. It is wise to search: to search is to find.

The Lord is His Name!

An Obvious Symbol

Some things are obvious. So are some people, and their legacy stands out clearly. High above the valley of the Stubaital in the Austrian Tyrol stands a stainless steel Cross. It is anchored in concrete, and supported by steel hawsers to resist the savage winds and storms that strike the Alps. This cross can be seen for miles and miles; there is a pathway from the Schlick cable-car, and walkers can sit and gaze out over a glorious panorama.

It is an obvious symbol of the Christianity that has influenced Europe for untold generations. The cross cannot be missed. People may ask for an explanation or reflect on its message- but if they come here, they cannot miss it.

Today another obvious symbol, a 99 year-old preacher, has died. Billy Graham spent his entire adult life pointing to Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. His words were clear, his character transparent, and his reputation unsullied. Billy Graham preached to more people than anyone else in history; untold numbers of people were challenged about their life-purpose and their need for the forgiving and accepting love of God. Many who are now Christians were converted under Billy’s ministry.

His faith and assurance have been a wonderful witness to God’s grace. Billy once said:  “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.” – Billy Graham

Billy Graham has been a man I admire greatly, whose courage and obedience to the Lord make him a hero in my eyes. His whole life was spent shining the Light of Jesus Christ to anybody he could reach, anywhere he could go.

I thank God for Billy Graham. I will try to let my light shine just as boldly and as obviously as I can. I hope others will take courage from Billy’s example of active faith.

Rest in peace- and Rise in Glory!  For Billy Graham and for us: a blessing of peace, guidance, and hope.

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Celtic Christian stone Cross on Dartmoor, near Moretonhampstead.

Frost that chills the Soul

Frost that chills the soul Lent 2018The period from now until Easter is known as Lent. It is traditionally a time to consider our hearts as a preparation for the festival that follows.

In the U.K., Lent fits into the transition between winter and Spring. The weather changes daily. Yesterday was gale and driving rain; today is gloriously and warmly bathed in sunshine. A few days ago we had a sharp frost. I took this photo of frost-encrusted bramble leaves before the rising sun melted the icing. Frost enhances the shape and pattern of each leaf, and adorns it with a delicate sculpture of tiny ice crystals. Beautiful… but bitterly cold.

Taking this shock of icy cold as a starter, imagine what the Twelve felt like as Jesus spoke boldly and confrontationally about the true cost of discipleship. As He spoke, I suspect that a frost chilled their souls… “What have we let ourselves in for?”

Reflect on the following Bible passage- Mark 8:34-38 (NLT)

Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Immediately after this came the Transfiguration. After that, Good Friday looms. Then will come Resurrection.

Lent reminds us that before we get to the glory and celebration, first comes the frost that chills our souls. Only when we fully understand the cost can we fully enjoy Resurrection Life.

Take the time to feel the chill… and then embrace the hope.

Heavy weather

There’s always heavy weather. As the south-westerly gale brought the breakers crashing against Portland Bill, one feature stood out. Pulpit Rock stands four-square against the elements, unshakeable and solid. The conditions were, in typical British understatement, “bracing.” A few of us had braved the rain and gales to stand in awe at the ferocity of the sea. One brave soul climbed to the top of Pulpit Rock (using the carved footholds) and looked out to sea. Then, shortly afterwards, a small lobster fishing boat lurched into view, rolling and plunging in alarming fashion. The photo cannot do it justice!

I expect the crew thought it was a normal February day’s work. I thought “I hope they didn’t have greasy bacon for breakfast!”

Behind us stood one large and two smaller lighthouses, put there to warn and guide passing ships. The rocks of Portland Bill are hard and dangerous. Sailors must be warned, and if that fails, rescued.

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I feel rather like the climber. If the Rock represents my faith in God, much of my time for over 30 years has been spend on a solid foundation- looking out for and encouraging those going through the storms. The wind buffets me, but I am safe above the raging seas. Part of my responsibility has been to watch over and pray for the ones caught up in the storm.

I haven’t always succeeded. May God forgive me, and bless the ones that I failed.

Even when I have faithfully kept to my task, I can claim no credit for the help given, or even for the rescue of those caught in the heavy weather of life. What can I say to people, or even pray to God, when:

  • A much-loved child is ill, or is being bullied.
  • When work is so hard and the rewards are too few.
  • When the BBC News has only bad news and stark warnings.
  • Their diagnosis is serious, possibly even terminal.
  • A couple have reached the end of a marriage and want only to divorce.
  • God seems distant, and the storm is too strong.
  • At the graveside when deep love collides head-on with deep grief.

I have no easy answers.  I have learned some lessons, though.

  • Being there matters more than what I say.
  • God can do things that I cannot do. It doesn’t all depend on me (thank goodness!).
  • For me to stand on the Rock of truth means I am seen, a witness and herald, and recognised as one who depends on God. Then my faith in Jesus brings comfort to those who struggle to hold onto their own belief and trust in the crisis.

There will be stormy days.  Being caught at sea is dangerous. But our call is to go to those in peril, whatever the risk or cost. This is the motivation for Christians to go to wild places, and to look for those in danger of drowning; to give up their own hopes and ambitions so others might find solid ground on which to stand. Even standing on the rock can be cold and hazardous. That at least we can do!

Remember there are things that cannot be achieved without risk. Someone has to sail the boats. Who are you going to call? Who is watching out for you? Here’s a prayer of trust:

O LORD, I have come to you for protection; don’t let me be disgraced. Save me and rescue me, for you do what is right. Turn your ear to listen to me, and set me free. Be my rock of safety where I can always hide. Give the order to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.   Psalm 71:1-3 (NLT)

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Focus on the crocus!

Today has been good. Cold, but sunny- so I went for a walk round the green spaces near home.  At last, Spring is nearly here. Crocus blooming, a few daffodils waving merrily, snowdrops nodding.

It isn’t just the flowers that cheered me up. It was being able to go for a walk (or slow ramble, if you like). I set no records for distance or number of steps- but I did get out for a walk. That’s a win in my book.

Focus on the crocus! A simple thing, but gorgeous.

Seeing simply in a complicated world is a great discipline to learn. I could have stayed home in the warm, but I ventured out and in the simplicity of spring flowers I sensed the joy of God!  I didn’t sort out any problems, or solve a world crisis. But I was aware of God, and He is able to look after everything beyond my scope. As someone put it, as Christians we “are in sales, not management.”  We are walking adverts for grace and love- God must handle the big stuff.  If me walking round with a smile on my face and a prayer in my heart made any difference to anyone I met, that’s all I can take credit for. All because of a crocus or two.

Today- focus on ONE simple delight. Be grateful, and thank God. Leave the rest to Him.