Juggling Otters – Look, See, Pray

1973. That’s the year I was as damp and as happy as this lil’ juggling otter.

Why? Because the 29th April 1973 was the day I publicly acknowledged Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour through believer’s baptism. For those who may not know, Baptist Christians are baptised by full immersion on their profession of faith, repentance, and committed obedience to God. Imagine a pool about 3 metres x 2 metres and about 1.5 metres deep. My Dad was the pastor who joyfully baptised me and two friends on 29th April 1973. So it’s an anniversary.

Here I am stuck indoors while it rains. I want to celebrate! Celebrating may have to be limited to baking some naughty but nice condensed milk biscuits. I’ll share some with you, if you like, as long as you can tell me how to WhatsApp them across.   My inner otter also approves of my diet, since I’m having salmon for dinner to balance the biscuits!

Forty-seven years ago. 47. Yes, nearly fifty years, and I have the silvery-white beard to prove it. Doesn’t seem possible! I don’t look old enough (and some might say “or behave well enough” but I am a work in progress).

Any regrets? No. Some bruises and sadnesses, some questions still without answers, some hard lessons, but no regrets. Happy about it? Oh yes! So many joys, memories, friends, experiences. My life has been shaped forever by that Sunday evening dunking. I cannot imagine having lived any different life than being loved by God and finding out how to love Him back.

Why the rather tenuous connection with a juggling otter photo? Well, I wanted to mark the anniversary with something joyful, fun, and irrepressible. That pretty much spells “otter.” They play enthusiastically, work with dedication, love generously, and move with graceful elegance (which is where the similarity stops. I am about as graceful as a T-Rex on skis).

Some people give the impression that being a Christian is dull, serious, goody-goody, and possibly hypocritical. It has been my intent to disprove that theory! I can be serious when necessary. But I love to laugh, tell jokes, play and sing… in fact doing the things that Jesus did. Really important things are learned through laughter… and some only learned through tears. Jesus talked about giving us LIFE IN ABUNDANCE.

That otter… totally focussed on the moment, juggling a stone, full of the joy of being alive!

Me too. I love otters, dolphins, hummingbirds, swallows and pretty much anything that looks happy as it goes about living each brand new day. The promises I made 47 years ago are still binding: and that gradually-growing relationship with Jesus is the reason I am smiling.

I’m far from perfect. Jesus is working on that. So, perhaps, are you. Thank you to my family, my friends, my fellow-believers, and those I have served with and worked alongside. Too many to name, but not forgotten.

Finishing with an anniversary “joke” of sorts: If ever my love for God and for my neighbours should grow cool, I know I can simply ask the Lord to ……. make me a little ‘otter.

Be blessed on my anniversary day! Be blessed on your special days too.

Faithfulness and Grace- Look, See, Pray

Today was a GOOD NEWS day- for me. I want to shout out “God is good!” which is, of course, true… but I must restrict myself a bit and say only that God has been good to me at this moment in time. This is not to be boastful or claim any special “holy” status, but because God is in His essential nature faithful and loving: and He gives grace not because “we deserve it” but because He CHOOSES to love the unfaithful.

I was diagnosed with bowel cancer this autumn. It was serious enough to require urgent major surgery, and our wonderful N.H.S. acted swiftly and effectively. Getting over the surgery has been painful and seems slow. But today I visited the oncologist about follow up treatment (chemotherapy). My expectation was six months of chemo.

Chemotherapy not required… the doctors think I am 85% likely to be clear of cancer; annual scans will look out for any possible regrowth. You can imagine the relief… the sense of getting your life back, the lifting of the gloomy shadow of fear and doubt.

Many people have prayed for me (I am truly grateful) and practical support and love has been showered on my life. I have felt a sense of God’s presence; and known other dark moments where faith felt like a mouse squeaking in the cellar waiting for the cat to pounce.

This evening I have sent the good news round to friends and family. I looked in the book of Psalms hoping to find a good “praise verse”… and I found this.

Psalm 91:14-16 (NLT)
The LORD says, “I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name. When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue and honour them. I will reward them with a long life and give them my salvation.”

God is faithful. I do love Him, I trust Him, and I need Him. It’s just that I’m not as faithful in my faith as He is. Do I have any right to say God has blessed me? No, if I am trading with God… “Hey, God, if you scratch my back… and I’ll try to be nice and be good…”

It doesn’t work like that.

I know my own weaknesses, and the things that trip me up. I wish I was 100% perfect but I’m not (yet).

Father God has reminded me this evening that He IS faithful, the One of eternal loving-kindness. He has also reminded me that GRACE is what is given when my faithfulness falls flat on its face. A namesake of mine, St Richard, was Bishop of Chichester from 1244 to 1253 and gave us a prayer that I treasure. It’s my faith-response to the gap between God’s faithfulness and my own.

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which you have given us, for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us. Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day. Amen.

God has been good to me- and I really want to love Him better, and be more like Jesus. I’m depending on His faithfulness- AND still on His grace. Left to myself, I can, do, and will fail. The reason God has “been good to me” today is that HE won’t take my weakness and failures as the last word. I’m proud of having a Father like that. My hope is that more and more of us will come to know and understand and experience that Fatherly Love.

 

Love of a Different Kind

I’m ready to enjoy Christmas. It will have a particular resonance this year.  For over thirty years I have celebrated a “professional” Christmas:  yes, I believe in the message and meaning of Christmas, but when my role was to enable others to understand and live Christmas it could become repetitive or stale. I’ve always tried my best, because I love Christmas and enjoy it myself!

This year is different. A couple of months ago I was brought up short when the doctor suggested some extra tests. In no time at all (well done the NHS) I was face to face with a surgeon who explained I had cancer in the large intestine… and then set out the risks involved in treatment. Stark truth!  The alternative would be no treatment, and sooner or later I would die.

Now then, I am not just a “professional” Christian, a minister who teaches others about faith. I really do believe and trust in the good news that Jesus proclaimed. It isn’t “just” a religion, it is a living experience that has demanded (and still does) an active obedience which has shaped the whole of my adult life.

But to be confronted with “This could kill you” makes things very real, very quickly.

Surgery went well, although the recovery took longer than expected, and now I am home in time for Christmas. The long, lonely & noisy hours on the ward shared with seven very sick men became a time to think about life, faith, and mortality. Helplessly subject to the regime of the hospital, it would be easy to despair. That way is dangerous. I am truly thankful that I kept hoping and trusting.  I wish I could say it was a deeply spiritual experience. Honestly, it was a dark road… but illuminated by shafts of light and gradually moving toward a clear sky and a hope-filled future.

The experience reminded me of a song I wrote 15 years ago. “Love of a Different Kind” tries to relate the first Christmas, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, to the rest of His life- and even to His death and resurrection. When we sing carols about the angels, the Star, the Baby, and those humbly obedient human beings (Joseph, Mary, the shepherds…) we are declaring that what the human race needed and needs is a love of a different kind. No ordinary affection, no pretty story, no fictional hero- but TRUE love. God proving that He is always involved in the life of this tiny planet set in a vast sea of stars. As Graham Kendrick memorably wrote, “the hands that flung stars into space” are the hands that were crucified.

Surely, after the year we’ve all had, the song of love to Man and peace on Earth is one we should all listen to with open hearts.  May we all have a memorably lovely Christmas.

 

When shepherds came, and angels sang “Glory to God!”
Who would have thought this was the night when history changed?
What can this mean? Love of a different kind!

The baby grew, as babies do, love in his heart.
No-one has seen a love like this- so is it a dream?
What does it mean? Love of a different kind!

The Light that shone in heav’n above is shining now.
The world is full of darkness yet hope lingers on.
What can it mean? Love of a different kind!

Two arms out-stretch’d, a crown of thorns, beginning or end?
The song is sung of love to man, and peace on Earth.
It’s not a dream! Love of a different kind.

A Saviour’s song, that fights the pride, which keeps us away:
But what a price to find the lost did Jesus pay!
Glory to God! Love of a different kind.

© 2004, Richard I. Starling.

Love different kind 018Austria2013nikon

Clouds or Sun? Look, See, Pray

It has been a day of drama and turmoil with emotions and divisions hitting the headlines. Opposing viewpoints divide families, communities, and a nation. Issues of trust and accusations of underhand tactics are sprayed about with little thought of long-term consequences.

Whatever your personal opinion on the current events, I hope you can join me in a prayer that God may bring wisdom, mercy and compassion to us all.

LSP mercy 277beach 17 10 19adj

Lord, in stormy skies and stormy words we are overwhelmed. Please help us to seek justice, mercy, and reconciliation. May Your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.

Amen.

Unbeaten- Look, See, Pray

Gardening is in the blood of my family.  The appreciation of beauty was instilled early, together with the realisation that the gardener never has full control. Jobs take longer, pests invade, or the good old British weather trumps your hand.

In my mind’s eye, there is a rose bed out front. Problem is… the roses are out the back, in pots!

Clearing the overgrown shrubs and brambles takes longer than I hoped. Our clay soil also has a mind of its own- too boggy in winter, rock solid in summer.  Yet there is hope.

Last week the rain came lashing down. One of my “David Austin” roses, Boscobel, had just opened up before the apocalypse began.

Boscobel 002roses 0618Last year the rose looked gorgeous.

It has struggled this time round. Pot life doesn’t suit it well. Fewer flowers have bloomed.

This time the rain tried to dissolve the rose!

The petals became translucent, and the colour changed. Very strange to see.

wet_rose_010mygarden0915small

Gardeners are patient; and they don’t give up easily. I’m taking this semi-dissolved rose as a symbol of hope. The plant has survived. It has not been beaten.

Life lesson?  You are never beaten until you don’t get up anymore.

Life rarely turns out as we expect or “plan”… and life brings disappointments as well as triumphs. Quite a lot of the time living is just about keeping on going, doing the ordinary,  believing and trusting that God won’t let us go.

Prayer point:  Has there been a deluge on your rose recently? Something that has spoilt your dreams, rattled your cage, threatened your future security?

Make that the focus of your prayer. Trust the Lord to bring fresh growth, renew the damaged roses: and maybe even see something beautiful or insightful in the situation. My translucent rose has a magnificence of its own, even with its imperfection. Study the consequence of the storm, look for beauty in the moment. Rain affected the bloom- but the plant survives. Unbeaten.

Lord, whatever is going on right now, and however it looks in the middle of the deluge, may Your Spirit renew and keep me UNBEATEN.  The best IS yet to come. Amen.

 

 

Surprised by Joy – Look, See, Pray

Supermarket shopping. As I drove home the sea was almost still; just enough of a wind ruffle to make the surface sparkle like stars.

Turned the corner to be confronted with a mass of creamy white blossom on a hedge.

I began to feel a strange surge of delight at what I was seeing. Joy sneaked up on my lips and cracked them into a smile. I felt GOOD about life and beauty and the cosmos.

Spring’s blessing continued to present itself in every garden, hedge, tree and sunbeam. How had I not noticed all this before? By the time I was home and unloading the car the inner joy was bubbling nicely. It was a lovely surprise. Ironically, I have been training myself to take notice, to look out for beauty and colour and gifts of grace. It still came as a surprise today!

C S Lewis, the author of the Narnia stories, the Ransom trilogy (and a whole shedload of books on theology, ethics, and Christianity) described his discovery of faith in a book called simply “Surprised by Joy.”  Moving from a position of non-belief, Lewis found himself overtaken by a joyful process that brought him to a passionate belief in Jesus Christ. Out of that change, he wrote extensively and became one of the best apologists and philosophers of the 20th century.

I photographed this rosebud when I arrived home. It is the first rose of the year in my garden. Bright red, beautiful, and another joyful surprise.

May your day be filled with joy, surprise, beauty- and God’s love.

Joy surprise Rose edit 006gdn 110519

Veiled in White

White water cascades over this rugged cliff in a Norwegian fjord. Constant streams of cold abrasive water, wrestling with the solid rock, and gradually carving a pathway that might one day become a new valley.

Life cannot exist without water. Yet in the wild outdoors, water is an agent of change and trial. The endless roar of this waterfall gradually numbed the senses, until wind caught spray and woke those same senses up again with shocking cold. But it was fascinating to be there, to watch and experience, and to enjoy raw power in the eternal conflict.

It’s a picture of life and faith. We need solid rock to stand on, and living water to enliven us in the daily struggles and conflicts.

This psalm speaks of the contrast: trouble weaves patterns through circumstance, and hope sounds a clear rallying cry- God IS with us!

Psalm 42:7-11 (TNIV)
Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me— a prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?”  My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?”

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.

Norway25th_1102Take courage in the everlasting sign of the rainbow. This photo was taken a few hours later as a squall passed. The rainbow rested briefly across the broken mountainside as late sunlight basted the slopes with warm light.

Sometimes we simply need to do what the psalmist suggested. Even when things are hard and conflict steals our assurance… “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.”

There is hope and peace eternally.

May the Almighty Lord God bless your soul with peace this day. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.