Grasping at Straws? Or sharing hope?

I’ve been thinking about life in this world where so much is chaotic and painful. Feeling deeply grateful that faith in Christ reminds us that we can have a hope that transcends the weight of the news, politics, homelessness and lovelessness that bombards our senses every day.
 
Every year the farmer sows in hope of a harvest. Those seeds experience dirt, cold, heat, rain, drought, storms, bugs, light and darkness. Yet still they grow and bring comfort and sustenance… after being bashed, threshed and baked! They give life to others: and some seeds who avoid the baker will be re-sown for the harvest the year after. Life wins!
 
Quote from Henri Nouwen: “Our mortal bodies, flesh and bones, will return to the earth. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says: “Everything goes to the same place, everything comes from the dust, everything returns to the dust” (Ecclesiastes 3:20). Still, all that we have lived in our bodies will be honoured in the resurrection, when we receive new bodies from God.
What sorts of bodies will we have in the resurrection? Paul sees our mortal bodies as the seeds for our resurrected bodies: “What you sow must die before it is given new life; and what you sow is not the body that is to be, but only a bare grain, of wheat I dare say, or some other kind; it is God who gives it the sort of body that he has chosen for it, and for each kind of seed its own kind of body” (1 Corinthians 15:36-38). We will be as unique in the resurrection as we are in our mortal bodies, because God, who loves each of us in our individuality, will give us bodies in which our most unique relationship with God will gloriously shine.”
 
Love wins.
Those who hold to this hope can make a difference in this life for those who are desperate for any harvest. Nations with wealth have responsibility to help those who have nothing. A real hope of eternity surely leads to working towards positive change.

Rule of thirds

Rules. Useful? Or annoying? Discuss…

According to the “rules” often given to artists and photographers, pictures that have the subject matter divided into thirds will work. And if particular subjects of interest are placed on or near the intersection points along the horizontal and/or vertical “thirds”  the human brain finds this pleasing.

020beach 0618ed1This photo is taken with foreground, middle ground (sea) and sky divided into thirds. There is a single buoy near the left-side intersection point- and the eye seems drawn to this quite small object. So the photo obeys the rules. But do you LIKE it? Would you want to put it on your wall?  It reminds me of the rather bland “inoffensive” art frequently hung in not very expensive hotels.

It does a job and doesn’t upset the punters. Is that enough?

Just following the rules may not be enough for greatness. We can tend towards liking a rule-based religion (especially if the rules we know about aren’t too challenging!). Jesus lifted the bar. “If you love someone who helps you and is a friend, what good is that? Love your enemy… do good to those who hate you…”  Now that presents a challenge.

The story of the traveller robbed by highway bandits makes a vivid point. The religious-rules people walked by just so they didn’t have to touch a possibly dead body (strict rules in Judaism about that). An outsider from a despised group rescued the victim, cared for him, and provided for convalescent treatment… Not according to the rules, but out of compassionate love.

We could do with a bit more of that going beyond the “rules” to care. Refugees and asylum seekers, immigrants, deprived people, those with disabilities, and people down on their luck- what they NEED is to be given human dignity, compassionate support, and practical help.

Jesus said that when we love them, we love him.  Going on from that, and paraphrasing what Jesus said, when we oppress the needy and poor, we might as well knock another nail through his hands.

Maybe then our lives will paint beautiful pictures, not limited to the basic “rules”.

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So here’s something that is simply beautiful, a flower just to inspire us. It doesn’t go against the rules or natural laws, it transcends them- and hopefully gladdens the heart. Its beauty comes from within itself.

I’d like to think I could be beautiful from the inside too. I think Jesus would like that- a lot.

 

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.)

Solitude

There are two kinds of solitude in the Bible. The good kind, where a person seeks God and in solitude discovers that the Lord Almighty is willing to engage with a sincere searcher.

Then the other solitude- the loneliness of exile, judgment and despair.

Owls feature only a few times in the Old Testament, and usually as a representation of the second kind of solitude. (This owl was in captivity… appropriately!)

zeph 2 v14 owl

The little-known message of Zephaniah is a message of judgment and encouragement with three major reminders:

  • 1) God is sovereign over all nations.
  • 2) The wicked will be punished and the righteous will be vindicated.
  • 3) God blesses those who repent and trust in Him.

It seems that solitude is an inevitable part of life. Either we willingly seek out God, or we risk being “quarantined” and watching all our accomplishments be overrun by the wild.

Listening to world news and international politicians is worrying. It may be an over-simplification, but society has discarded its faith-roots and fallen into a moral decay. This is not unique to our time. Human nature throughout history has been a rollercoaster of civilisation and collapse. Our ultimate and only hope is that the Sovereign Lord God will deliver us; Christ “ushered in” the Kingdom of God and we wait and work for its promise to reach fulfilment.

What should we do?  Pray with sincere hearts for our world and its leaders.

Secondly: decide personally whether we wish to choose solitude to discover God- or suffer the solitude of banishment. That could be considered the “naughty step” where we go to think about our conduct and attitude in the hope we might be forgiven and rescued.

Owls tend to be quite solitary creatures. They say owls are wise. What would they say privately in the ear of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and public servants?

Read Zephaniah in full- it is only short- and take in the promise of justice alongside the hope of mercy.

Tears in a bottle

“You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.”  Psalm 56:8 (NLT)

When I was about six or seven, I came home from school to proudly present Mum with a string bag. It was made of a loose-weave cloth that I had carefully “decorated” with stitched patterns. I didn’t think much about it, except when I needed string and that’s where it was kept, hanging up in a cupboard.

Mum still had that bag when I was in my late 40’s.

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Mum valued that old bag much more than it was worth. But she was strangely proud of all her family- her heart was big enough for kids, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She loved us all and had a store of “treasures.”

There was a bigger store of treasures that she she kept in her heart. Memories of triumphs, tragedies, laughter and tears. Mum carried them all, offering support, a listening ear, and cake when we came home.

The verse from Psalm 56 first came to my attention at a “Mainstream” conference where about 300 pastors and church workers gathered to worship and be encouraged. Early January in Derbyshire… exhausted by the Christmas workloads… wanting to hear from God and in some cases desperately needing to know God loved and accepted us.

We were praying at the end of an evening session. Words of encouragement, challenge and comfort were being shared as the Spirit prompted us. Words came into my mind: “God cares for you, every tear is precious, and He collects them in a bottle.” I didn’t realise they were from the Bible- but they made an impact on me, reflecting my spiritual need at that quite difficult time in my ministry. The words spoke to my heart, and maybe to others as well.  I couldn’t forget them, and later tried to find if anything like that was in Scripture. Computers have uses- and my Bible program obligingly pointed out Psalm 56.

Lamenting his sufferings, the psalmist cries to God for mercy and justice- and finds comfort and restored hope in discovering that the Lord cares deeply- He stores our tears as precious as jewels. We bring our “stringbag” best efforts, and Almighty God KEEPS them as things of huge value.

Wolf lamb 012whipsnade1212Quite a number of family and friends have been having rough times. Two have been brought to my attention today, several last week, and still others recently. I am finding hope in this psalm-verse: God IS with us and cares for us. Sufferings are not a cause for shame or despair. Even though we may not understand why pain comes, or why some prayers don’t get answered in the way we hope, our heavenly Father treats those tears as precious. Jesus knew the pain of loss- He wept. The Spirit within us groans- Romans 8 v26-27 tells us “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”

Think on this- God loves us MORE THAN a parent loves a child. OUR Father in heaven stores up treasures. Remember- diamonds are basically carbon that has been put under intense pressure. Maybe our sufferings produce valuables too. I think that Father has lots of stringbags and bottles stored in His House- because He is Love, ultimate Love. Some are yours, and some are mine. I’m glad.

It’s so ANNOYING!!!

It’s so frustrating. I’d even go so far as to say ANNOYING. I want to be cross. Grrrr…
 
I am quite a peaceable bloke. I don’t often want to kick things (or people) but I could make an exception in this case. Am I allowed? Aren’t I supposed to be nice? Even meek?
 
Hang on. Peaceful waterfall photograph… Steaming stroppy writer. What’s going on?Norway25th_0258cropQ
 
I am trying to get one of the big energy suppliers to do the decent thing (well, I do believe in miracles!). It’s proving difficult. I’m glad it’s not my supplier: but they really are the limit. For the umpteenth time I have been writing a friendly… er, no, a polite letter that is expressing frustration and anger at the way the company are trying to bully a customer and avoid responsibility for the company’s own failings. I hope this one works. Two pages of A4, typed politely and logically and OBSTINATELY and making some forceful points to a Jobsworth. Next letter goes to the Managing Director and Ombudsman.
 
The waterfall reminds me of the power of persistence. Water carves through the rock by refusing to stop flowing. It doesn’t give up.
 
It’s also calming. Remembering the day, standing and watching the beautiful curtain of white brushing across the surface of the cliff.
 
It reminds me of God’s patience too. His love has been gradually wearing down my resistance over the last fifty years- job not done yet, but this boulder is getting shaped by the power of love.
 
Why post this on a page about prayer? Because too often we Christians don’t know what to do with our anger, frustration and angst. What we should do is include it in our communion with Christ, as part of our prayer. To be quite honest I don’t feel like being particularly holy. I am raging at an injustice and the attempt to cover it up. But if I don’t express it in my praying, the turmoil of my mind will infect my spirit with unease, and my “prayer” would be a sham. Hey, Lord, I’m worked up about this!
 
I know I am in good company. Many of the great men and women in the Bible get hacked off and stroppy, and their prayers get real. God doesn’t smack then down for insolence or impiety.
 
Perhaps the value of the prayer is that it may change ME. No way can I ask God to strike down the offenders! Someone important said “LOVE your enemies.” I suppose my prayer is about needing strength to persist in fighting injustice… but not to become bitter or unjust myself. And not to yield to the temptation to kick some butt.
 
If only prayer was a simple formula of words. The One who offers Living Water wants to purify my heart, cleanse me of my annoyance, and teach me forgiveness. My heart is pretty hardened in this instance. Lord, please persist in wearing me down so I can forgive those who trespass against me and my “client” … and learn how to be justly, righteously, passionate about even the hardest boulders in life’s path. Teach me patience and persistence.
 
Persist. Living Water, flow through me. Amen.