Heron – Look, See, Pray

Herons arrived in my universe via the pages of “Tarka the Otter” as Henry Williamson described the world in words that conjured up visions and dreams, wild hopes of one day seeing otters, herons, salmon and so on.  I was young- Mum taught me to read before I went to school, and ever since I have devoured books like a hungry heron nabs frogs.

Getting a decent SLR camera gave opportunity to seek out these wonderful creatures and film them. It also began a life-time search of frustration in acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary to get good results. Lots of practice does help success!

This heron was in Regent’s Park, London, and was happy to ignore people unless they came very close. (I had a good telephoto lens with me and stayed at a safe distance.)

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Preening Grey Heron

I was able to observe for about 20 minutes and took photos of the heron preening itself, sharpening its fearsome bill, and hunting patiently for small fish and frogs.

It was the patience and preparation that impressed me. “My” heron was truly dedicated to hunting: it sought food with all its attention.

The things I see often become the starting point for spiritual reflection and prayer.

Watching this committed bird made me wonder about my own dedication to “seek out the Lord.”

Do I sharpen up? Take good care of myself? Wait patiently on God? Devote as much time to prayer as to photography?

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Heron sharpening & cleaning its bill

Am I as motivated to “feed” my soul with spiritual food, to make time to relate to God, set intimacy with the Holy Trinity as a life priority?

If not, why am I surprised when my spirituality seems stale or more of a vacant space than a heart-filling joy?

It also helps me to look at the heron and see how scrawny, leggy, and frankly weird it looks!

Yes, it is beautiful in its own way. It is also superbly equipped as a fishing-hunter, water-wader, and strong flier. But hardly classically cute!

So then… when the onlooker sees me living as a “spiritual being,” and thinks what an odd shape I am, what a strange haircut… nice strong legs, shame about the face…

Perhaps they will discover that I am gradually becoming a better “heron”,  learning God’s ways and learning to love and be loved. They may observe those moments of triumph when I connect with the Almighty! Or see how Jesus brings strength and comfort when I face struggles and pain.

Maybe they will see as I am learning to see- and find looking leads to praying.

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Will Eugene’s frogs-eye view lead to enlightenment before he croaks?

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.

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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.

Edge of the Storm- Look, See, Pray

Stormy weather- we are on the edge of this storm. To the West and North of us the conditions have been atrocious. Down here, some light damage: roof tiles, tree branches, and localised floods. The bad part is wondering if the storm will get worse.

I suspect quite a lot of people in Britain feel caught on the edge of another huge storm- politics are proving to be exciting (in a bad way). Parliament is ripped apart by the divisive issue of Brexit. Parties are split, the Cabinet is divided, and feelings are running high. The eventual outcome remains unknown, and the way forward is unclear. Trust is being trampled and everyone is blaming “the other lot.”

Fear not! I am not going to launch my political views (as good as they may be, or seem to be to me).

When life has storms, where do we go for help? I hope to encourage you to pray today that God’s will shall be done, here on Earth as it is in heaven.

A little-known prophetic book in the Bible has an author with a name almost as long as the prophecy! Zephaniah means “God has hidden/protected me.” Biblical names, especially in the Old Testament have descriptive meaning. Zephaniah spoke for God in a time where corruption and injustice were rife; and his message is uncompromising. Almighty God stands for justice and integrity, and we are called to stand with Him. Dreadful consequences are spelled out clearly- but at the end there is a comforting hope. Humanity is not left alone- God still cares for us, even though He may need to challenge and correct us. The storm that threatened Zephaniah’s audience became a whirlwind and their troubles became rooted in exile under unfriendly power.

Yet there is still hope. Please read this verse slowly and carefully, and take from it the eternal Truth of God’s Love and mercy. While we still have breath, we can turn to God. Turning to Him lifts the edge of the storm away from our shoulders. The promise in reinforced in the New Testament, where Jesus is titled “God who is with us.”

Zephaniah 3:17 “For the LORD your God is living among you. He is a mighty saviour. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.”

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Do not fear the storm- trust the Saviour who brings calm. Lord, may Your will be done. Amen.

Eugene said “Slow Down…”

Eugene Peterson had a stated purpose to “change the pastoral imagination of pastors today,” to urge them “to slow down and to be present to their lives” so that they could help their congregations do the same. Eugene died this week.

There are some people I would love to have met. He is definitely one of them. Quite probably I would have been reduced to embarrassed mumbling and shamefaced excuses, because Eugene Peterson had a way of getting to the heart of big issues. That encounter would have exposed my shortcomings and excuses. Alongside that dread, I get the strong impression he would have been gracious and understanding: and would have done his best to help and encourage me. Peterson knew God and His ways: and he would have blessed me as I know he blessed many who did encounter him directly. He lived to bring Christ to many. His books helped me.

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I first read his book “Contemplative Pastor” at a time when the crazy pressures of ministry were burning out my soul. Complex problems needed solutions I couldn’t find, and rushing from A to B to X was grinding my heart to dust.

It wasn’t about losing faith, and there were blessings around in plenty. But… there was just too much of everything, and I needed help. Christian ministry is a calling that draws on the deepest part of the heart, and if we are not wise we can find that we are drying up on the inside. Preaching in the name of Jesus is a joy and a heavy responsibility. Pastoring people is a huge privilege and challenge. You get to share the whole gamut of human experience.

The emotional and spiritual cost of pouring yourself into the blender where real life mixes with heavenly Truth, and then trying to distil precious living words so others may draw closer to the Lord, is terribly high. Faced with the expectations of the congregation, the community, yourself, and what you think God expects- the spirit reels in shock and dread. I needed to learn that God is more gentle and patient than expected. He is also utterly Holy, amazingly gracious, and awesome beyond words.

There is a very unfunny “joke” about ministers only working one day a week. If people only knew how much that “joke” makes pastors want to throttle the jester! It is an act of grace to smile gently and refrain from applying the “right knee of fellowship.” (Let the reader understand!)

Most ministers I know work too long, too often, and too hard. It’s because we know that our words can be life or death. We don’t want to let anyone down. God called us, and we said “Yes.” It demands commitment of a high order.

“Slow down.” Recover the heart of your calling. Seek God for Himself; seek God because of love given and received. Seek God, because apart from Him we can do nothing.

Jesus took time out to be with his Heavenly Father. Jesus went into the wild places, the mountains, the lakeside. When He came back to the disciples and the crowds He knew His Father’s will- and obeyed it totally.

Reading “Contemplative Pastor” was refreshing if challenging. It was a lifeline to a weary soul because it put my hand back into the hand of Jesus. My mind was opened again to the dynamic rhythm of the Psalms and the Gospels. I re-learned the importance of retreat, of quiet, of silence and solitude. I discovered that there is a loving Father awaiting the “prodigal pastors” who run off to do God’s work for Him… and then find out they can’t and weren’t intended to. (I realise I have to be careful here- please don’t think I intended to draw a parallel between pastoring a church and tending the pigs!!!) 

Eugene’s life work taught many of us to slow down, not to be caught up in the folly of rushing, competing, or manipulating. He pointed me to Jesus again. Through Jesus, the Open Gate, I was able to come into the Presence of Holy Almighty God, Father, Son and Spirit.

One day I hope to thank Eugene Peterson. It will be a long queue!  Thank God for this fellow-servant, this deep well of Spirit-filled wisdom, and for the writings that still point to Jesus.

Oh yes- this advice to “slow down” doesn’t just apply to pastors. How is your rush-ometer doing? Seek God. Here is Eugene’s paraphrase of  Matthew 11:28-30 (Message)
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest.  Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” 

Slowing down… sounds good to me!

 

 

Multi-tasking… and Pentecost

Buzz word multi-tasking. (Ewe can do it, Mum! Quickest conversion of grass to milk by any sheep, ever. Poor ewe.)

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It’s a multi-tasking weekend. Collected relative from hospital, home for observation after she had dental surgery under general anaesthetic. We both survived, so far. Went to Sainsburys… strangely quiet. Cup Final day and a wedding happening somewhere.

Finished preparing sermon for preaching tomorrow morning- feeling thoughtful about Paul’s words to the Philippians. Fixed Flymo. Used Flymo. Trimmed strimmer. Used strimmer. Chomped salad. Wished for steak and kidney pudding.

Commented on Royal wedding sermon, wondered if I could just play that at church… Made FB comments on a couple of good shaggy dog jokes I posted earlier… wondered if Thor, the neighbour’s cat, liked said jokes. He put nose in the air and went home for tea.

Wonder how the disciples of Jesus felt on the day before Pentecost. I expect they were busy, multi-tasking, doing ordinary life stuff and hiding away in case Pilate or Caiaphas got stroppy.

They agreed to meet for worship, doing the waiting Jesus had insisted on… “I wonder if anything special will happen at church, Thomas?” … “Doubt it, Andrew…”

What if Holy Spirit power turns up… Life might get exciting. “Doubt it,” said Thomas.

A prayer for Pentecost:

Almighty and Sovereign God, we need some Holy Spirit presence and power if we are to do what Jesus told us to do. Churches all round the world will be celebrating Pentecost.

Please be there in our worship; equip us to serve, to preach, to love, to witness, to care, to pray & praise. Fill us with the unimaginable gift of grace, just as you did with Peter, Thomas and the rest. Give us boldness as Your Spirit fills us, so the world may hear Good News in their own language and culture. By Your power, touch the heart of everyone who heard Bishop Michael Curry proclaim Love- let Love live in them, transform them, and transform us too.

Lord, renew our minds by Your Spirit. Help us to think, act, and speak like Jesus. Help to respond as living sacrifices, giving up our multi-tasking lives to be single-minded, holy, and full of compassion and grace. May Pentecost power and presence make us anew- to live for Your glory, with eternal hope and confident assurance, even when the doubts creep in.

Jesus, send us in the power of Your Spirit, to be Good News in the world so that Your Kingdom comes, just as You promised.
Amen.

 

Photo & words (c) Richard Starling

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.

Every day is a gift

Every day is a gift.
Every day is an adventure.

Help me, O Lord, to grasp the new day with courage and faith.

Open my heart as well as my eyes so I may recognise You.

May every new moment, new sight, new friendship, excite me.

May my soul rejoice and worship, because You are with me.

Should the gift feel heavy, or the adventure seem too frightening,
Remind me that You will ALWAYS be with us,
on good days and the difficult ones too.

Come, O Holy Spirit, touch my life and my lips
so I may praise God my Father wholeheartedly,
and love my fellow pilgrims as Christ has loved me.

This gift is what I can give to You:
the obedience of love and the trust of my heart,
the thoughtfulness of my mind,
the determination of my will to subject myself to You.
For You are my everything since You gave all for me.

Such grace, mercy, and joy lead me always back to You
even when I have wandered and strayed.
As a prodigal child, I seek Your faithful forgiveness,
As a wayward one who should know better
I place my life into Your welcoming arms.

Bless the Name of the Holy Three-in-One,
the True and Living God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Amen.

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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.