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.

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.

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Weeds of humble splendour- Look, See, Pray

A weed is a plant growing in the wrong place. What if we valued them for what they give instead of judging them by our desire?  Plants make this planet breathe- and some flourish in harsh places that would be desolate without them. At the edges of the salt marsh, tough plants make a margin of life. Their gaily waving flowers add charm to the landscape, provide food for insects and birds, and carry a promise of life now and for tomorrow.  A poem that just might be a prayer…  a weed that might be a hero.

weeds of humble splendour

Photo and text copyright Richard Starling, 2018.

Deep, deep calm

One bonus of being chauffeur for my wife going to school- I can go home via the beach and sit quietly watching the beautiful world go by. Today was glorious. Gorgeous blue water, almost flat calm, as the tide was beginning to come in.Ocean Love txt 413Glcr Bay July16edit.jpg

It reminded me of a different sea, on the other side of the world, where wavelets barely disturbed the surface of the Pacific. Majestic mountains were the backdrop that day. God’s presence was the link. On both occasions I could sit and think, gaze and breathe, and be transported into an awareness of Almighty God: being quiet, and just listening.

As I watched the water I found myself thinking about the deep, deep calm of the ocean. Depths that I can never know: life I will never see. The sheer abundance of water was awe-inspiring. I could take a ship and sail all round this amazing planet; I would see different aspects of the ocean. There would be raging storms, whales breaching, dolphins leaping for fun… and so much more.

Today was calm. Deep, deep peace.

Love, vast as the ocean, is found in the Father heart of God. I invite you to find or make a time to be quiet and receive calm peace, loving acceptance and reassurance that the God who made heaven and Earth truly is the Love and the Lover of the world.

On a busy, maybe crazy day, take shelter in the deep, deep calm of the Lord your God.

Reaching for the sky!

“Reaching for the sky…” using a wide-angle lens at ground level, pointing straight up. A different view of the trees: they become abstract forms of line and colour, and the tree-tops seem so much higher.

0004May 2012 general-edTrees grow upwards to seek the sunlight. They compete for light because light gives life. It sets off the chemical “factories” in the leaves; we call this process photosynthesis. Leaves receive energy from the light, triggering the absorption of water & carbon dioxide; producing glucose and releasing oxygen. The tree “feeds” on light as well as the earth-minerals gathered by the roots.

I want to be a tree! (Sorry, I just remembered early drama at primary school.)

More seriously, our human life in a sense should be like the trees. We are earth-bound, yet we have high aspirations. We need the physical “food” but also the “energy” of true Light. God is Light – and we reach for the light. We are both physical and spiritual beings. Our bodily needs must be met, or we die. Our spiritual needs likewise. We must be rooted AND reach out to the non-physical. A verse in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes always grabs my attention… “God has planted eternity in our hearts…” It’s why humans cannot ultimately be satisfied with physical treasures and experiences. We aspire to something higher. Humans ask the question “Why do I exist?”

This is why. We have a hunger, a need, a desire, to be significant. God designed us this way so we don’t settle for what is good, but press on to that which is BEST. We have an inner homing beacon tuned in to God. Go on, reach for the sky… the stars… and beyond.

“God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.” – Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NLT)