I’ve noticed that a number of you are turning to these poems as we approach Easter. Thank you for reading them, and I do hope they are helpful to you as you begin to meditate on Good Friday, and prepare for sharing that time with others – families, groups and congregations. Please do feel free to use and share them, saying where you found them. I love to hear about that.
Below the poems, you’ll find some links to other posts on this blog that you might find helpful too.
Father forgive them, for they know not what they do
We don’t know what we do, from the careless word that starts a fire of anger, to the careless killing of a butterfly – who knows what wide effects, what winds and rains, begin and end with just one death?
We walk in darkness, so often, and so often, we close our eyes, we do not wish to know. And Jesus, seeing this, that his life would end with angry shouts, with fearful washing of hands, with indifferent playing of dice, Knowing all this, even so, he bore our lawful unthinking violence, our blundering disregard for consequences. Another would pay for our actions.
Yet as the ripple of our acts flows out, through the world, who knows where, so too, now, flows forgiveness, following on, spreading and transforming, watering dry ground, lifting burdens and carrying them away.
Truly I say to you today you will be with me in paradise
Even as he hung upon the cross, even with blood from that false crown running down, not wiped away, he saw the two men at his side,
One joined in mocking with the priests and soldiers, speaking from his pain, and one did not, this second kept his eyes on something else – a hope.
A hope the one he looked on was a king, and of a kingdom where such things as crosses are not lifted up, a hope, even, of an end to death and pain – this pain, this death.
And, ah, his king begins to speak, of paradise. What a world to gift him dying there. A word of such sweetness, freedom, peace. See – clear water flowing, and flowers, hear the sound of birds, the lazy buzz of insects, the flutter of their wings.
What a word, at your end, to hold to, to capture our beginning, once again. But even more than this, to be with him, beside the king, seen and known, held in the loving gaze of one who hung up on the cross. Might this, even this, be paradise?
Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother
And still he sees, looks down towards the one who bore him, bearing this, the pain – not her own pain – worse, the pain of watching one you love twisting on those wooden beams, the nails piercing her own flesh too.
The time has come when all the treasure of her heart is broken open, scattered, lying in the dirt. What use to hold in mind the words of angels, the wealthy gifts brought by the wise, what preparation Simeon’s warning, when now she sees his agony with her eyes. But she is not alone, his friend sees too. John, who writes it down, bears witness, even here, even so. They turn their gaze upon each other and see each other with new eyes – a mother, and a son. Gifting them each other – his one last act of love, this giving, from an empty cup. This task of care can be ours too, to behold each other in our pain, and in our sorrow, walk each other home
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
You felt your generous heart forsaken, you felt the absence of the one who helps, who was beside you, in the beginning, who knew you from before first light.
We know too well the sparseness of your isolation, without light, and companionless, in the darkness of our own long night. And yet, within our dark, we find you there, Find you have waited for us long days, and years, while our poor eyes have grown accustomed to the dark, have learned at last to see you through our tears. So as you know our pain and feel it, you break our separation with your own. Help us see the forsaken all around us, invisible and in darkness, but seen by you. May we seek each other in the dark, May we have courage to cry out, like you, and so be found.
The well is deep, and you have nothing to draw with. Where now that living water? Where is that spring within you, gushing up to fullness of life? Do you remember, now, the woman by the well? Your deepening talk of thirst and water, as now, again, you humbly ask another for a drink – this time, a sponge of sour wine?
Do you remember too, as the taste dries on your lips, that wedding feast, where water changed to finest wine? The richness and fullness of that beginning soured to this cold bitterness.
You are our source, the spring of all our rivers and still you thirst like us, need help to drink. And so give us this grace, that as we do for the least of these, we may know we do for you.
May we see you in each thirsty face.
It is finished.
All things come to an end. Even pain like this, Even the anger and the cruelty of a crowd, of us all, even the certainty of those so certain of God they hang a man upon a tree. Even the punishment and scapegoating even violence, even death. The work is done. It has all been borne. You have poured out your love, your life. You have carried our sorrows, suffered under our iniquities.
Your head bowed now, you sink into the final pain of nails, your body bears no more, having borne all. The work is done.
Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit
There is darkness now, deep darkness, over the face of the deep, and no hovering like a brooding bird, instead, the temple curtain torn in two, from top to bottom, and the Holy of Holies empty.
God is not found there, but here, with this dying man on a tree, He calls out father, and talks of hands, and we remember what his own hands have done, how many were healed by their touch, raised up and restored from cruelty and death, and now, he too will be held in loving hands, a reconciliation beyond our grasp, a trust even at this moment of last breath.
Dying, he taught us to die, dying he brought us life. May we be reconciled, may we know at our end, the comfort of those hands.
Last month we took a few days to visit Norfolk, staying by the Wash. UK viewers of Winter Watch and others may have seen some awe-inspiring film of one of the UK’s greatest wildlife events – sometimes called the Snettisham Spectacular. Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to see it for yourself. We decided we’d go and try and catch this sight, when a very high tide drives the birds off the mix of saltmarsh and water, into the air in huge flocks, and down into lagoons cared for by the RSPB. Their website (linked above) will help you get a taste of what its like, as well as some information about when these high tides happen.
Of course, there are never any guarantees with nature, but we got up very early and went to Snettisham in the dark, on a cold February morning, full of anticipation. I’d decided on flasks of coffee – which turned out to be an excellent idea! It was the most moving experience, deeply awe-inspiring, to see a landscape so full of life, and the wildness behaving freely as it should. I am sure that there have been times when there were more birds, and more wild, here, but it was nonetheless a glimpse of a more beautiful world, the world closer to how it should and can be.
You may also be aware that this precious landscape is vulnerable, and a new development could have a huge impact. If you want to find out more about that, you could begin here.
I wanted to try and capture the beauty of what we saw, and also the depth of experience that aroused in us and the others perhaps who were gathered there, and so this poem recounts the journey through the dark, and into the dawn-light of this beautiful sight.
Out in the Wash-marsh, the dark-before-dawn, we walked uncertainly, deeper in, listening warily for water sounds, mud sounds, as we heard, out on our right, the loudness of bird and tide. Restless, growing, imminent.
The path seemed so long in the dark, unknowing and unseeing as we were. On and on until at last we came out of hedge-shadows and reed rustles, out on the open bank of shingle, with a chill wind blowing, with the dark softening into the grey of mist and ice-fret, as out of the greyness emerged a gathering crowd, moving, looking, watching that density of black birds emerging too, out there on the mudbanks and sandbanks, crowding as the water was rising, All prickling with anticipation, all readying for flight.
Through a lens you could see the black backs of oystercatchers, tens of thousands, all facing one way, bright beaks aligned like many compasses.
And further out, paler knots, rippling over the shrinking land, their voices sounding together as water lapped and lapped ever deeper, full of fish washed in on this rapid tide, followed by the hungry seals, heads up, and hunting.
The bird noise grows, and the waders begin their great lift, A few at first, tip toed, up and down like dancers performing the perfect jete. Then, as waves pour over their islands and there is no room for all these birds,
They lift and stay lifted, from the edges, like a great cloth, swirling now above fast running water rilled with small waves.
And then the oystercatchers begin to pour like dark smoke, like sentient smoke, as one, all to the right, pour down into the lagoons behind us.
While the knots, catching the rising light, rise too, turning pale now, loud with cries and loud too with wings, like a great crowd running joyously, like a shining cloud swirling in the wind but with mind, with being, with will, a great pale creature rustling and winding through the air over us, close and low, and then down in a whispering snake’s head behind.
And again, and again, rise up more swirls of birds, faster and wider by the tens of thousands, of wings all together, birds turning together, a miracle of unity,
As wings beat like hurried feet as more people rush to look up, and the waves take more and more ground from under us all.
And I cannot tell you what joy, what exultation – And I write from longing to tell you what joy, what exultation, we humans, standing, feel in this wide and wild abundance, this wild and wide abandon. This deep unity, this wide-wild-eyed seeing into the communion of things.
As a sudden sound is added even to all this loud crescendo, like thunder, like jets,
The rise and beating of great wings – pink footed geese beyond number, beyond measure,
filling the sky with clouds of moving birds, spinning fast now into great skeins that wind over the deep distance, loud and louder bright on the dawn,
Bright with the wonder of wings lifting, Bright in this new, steady, giddying light. A light that washes through us all A light that holds us all As dawn breaks us wide open.
I hope this gives you a glimpse of how beautiful a sight it was, and how transformative.
Yesterday evening I had the great privilege of reading this poem to open a series of talks organised by the Woodbridge Climate Action Centre. Local friends, tickets are free, and are going fast. The series is called Regenerating Living Landscapes, Working with Nature.
It is possible that a recording of last night’s event may become available. If it does, I’ll make sure there’s a link to it here.
19th May Note: As you can see from the list above, tonight is the last talk in the series. Once again I’m delighted to have been asked to read something, and the poem I’m going to read is A Good Place, which is also on this blog. As usual, click through to read it.
Hello again! Thank you so much for joining me here. I’ve been taking a break from blogging, if not from writing, for a few winter months. But as the days are lengthening and the sap is rising I’m emerging from winter hibernation by the fire.
Yesterday, for #International Women’s Day, I joined some of the wonderful women and men who make our small town such a special place. We’d been invited by Counsellor Caroline Page, who organised the very special gathering despite seriously failing health. There was cake and poetry, an old wind-up gramaphone, and Suffragette colours – a celebration of women who had lived in the town in years gone by as well as those we know and love today. It was full of life and joy and friendship. Many people shared, and I hope to be able to put a link up in time to more details about the poems and stories that we read and heard together.
That morning, I’d been watching the pigeons in the trees in front of our house – a remnant of an ancient hedgerow we’re gradually restoring – and took inspiration from their eagerness and their clatter. So although this is not a poem about women, it’s a poem about life, for all of us I hope, and the awaking of spring. It was my contribution to the feast.
I’m sharing it as part of my inclination to awaken and to clatter, to be hungry for spring and for life. I hope you enjoy it.
Pigeons in the blossom – Early March
Now that the cherry plum is blossoming – hedgerows white and frothy, flowers pale, bark dark –
pigeons come through the grey sky, clattering as they land opposite my window, their collars brighter than the blossom where they perch and peck.
Sometimes one, often more – armfuls – they balance across the scrubby tree like vintage decorations, nodding their blushed heads hungrily, pecking so many buds.
The top of the tree is almost stripped bare – no fruit high up then, no precarious balancing on shaky ladders in the summer to come.
Lower, thinner, branches are tested again and again by fat feasting pigeons, hungry for rich bitterness.
I feel inclined to join them, to taste that blossom too. I know the hunger for spring, bone-cold and weary as I am. And I am coming to see their wisdom as I too feel the urge to awaken and to clatter, to feast on life with its bright blossom, its green buds, again and again.
Pigeons seem to be a bit of a theme. Not the most popular bird, I know, but I do enjoy watching them. I do hope to be an equal opportunities appreciator of nature, and to celebrate all the creatures who share this patch of garden wild.
Here’s a few more poems, if you’d like to read on.
It’s getting close now…. Last night was the longest night. We’re in that pivot moment when darkness seems to have claimed the Northern Hemisphere, but we know that in just a few days, if we look, we’ll see that the days will lengthen, by moments to begin with. And some say that the first day when it’s possible to see that growing light is Christmas day itself..
And I want to give my attention to the story, to let the wonder of it seep through me. There are still things to do, but those things are joyful. After the last few years when covid stopped us gathering, gatherings can happen. And that is so good.
Christmas always holds a mixture of joy and sadness, of gains and losses. Mindful of these, I will hold on to the wonder of love being born among us, even though the circumstances could hardly have been less promising – for circumstances are never quite what we hoped, and there’s the lesson. To look deeper than circumstance. To make a courageous decision to hold on to hope, and peace, and joy, and love, even though. For these qualities are real, and true, and enough. These things are golden strands, woven through the dark fabric.. It is where they can be found. And the One who is coming will light the way, and scatter the darkness, and hold out a helping hand.
I’ll hold on to the message of “Love came down at Christmas”, and light my candles in the fading light, and watch the rain clouds sweep across the sky, rain falling on all of us, just the same.
Perhaps later, the skies will clear, and we’ll see the stars.
You can find out more about the candle ring, and the words around it, here.
The Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, had ordered a census throughout the whole empire, when all the people would be counted, and taxed. The orders spread along straight Roman roads, and were proclaimed first in the white marble cities and ports, and then in the towns and villages of the countryside.
Even quiet Nazareth heard the news, and Mary and Joseph began to gather together their belongings, ready to travel to Bethlehem. That was Joseph’s family home: he was descended from King David, of Bethlehem. They set off south on the crowded road, for the whole empire was travelling. But, for Mary, the journey was especially hard, and the road seemed never ending. It was nearly time for her baby to be born.
At last they came to Bethlehem, but it was not the end of their troubles. The city was noisy, bustling, and heaving with crowds, and Joseph searched anxiously for somewhere quiet for Mary to rest – her pains were beginning, and the baby would be born that night. The inn was already full of travellers, and the only place for them was a stable. There, among the animals, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him up tightly in swaddling bands and laid him in a manger full of hay. Then, she rested next to the manger, smiling at the baby’s tiny face.
There were shepherds who lived out on the hills nearby – the same hills where King David had once watched over the flocks, long ago. The sheep were sleeping in their fold under the shining stars, while the shepherds kept watch. Their fire flickered and crackled, and the lambs would bleat for their mothers, but they were the only sounds. All was peaceful. All was well.
Suddenly, right there in the shepherd’s simple camp, appeared and angel of the Lord, shining with God’s glory and heaven’s brightness. The shepherds gripped each other in terror, their skin prickling with fright. “Don’t be afraid, I’m bringing you good news – it will bring joy to all people!” The shepherds listened, awestruck, their faces glowing with the angel’s light. “This is the day the good news begins, and this is the place. In the town of David, a saviour has been born. He is Christ, the Anointed One, the one you have been waiting for. And this is the sign that these words are true: you will find a baby wrapped tightly in swaddling bands, lying in a manger.”
The shepherds watched as light was added to light, voice to voice, until they were surrounded by a dazzling, heavenly host of angels, all praising God and saying “Glory! Glory to God in the highest, And on the earth be peace!”
And then, in an instant, the angels were gone, and the shepherds were left in dark night shadows, listening to the sound of a distant wind. But their eyes still shone with heaven’s light. “Let’s go and see for ourselves!” they called to one another as they raced over the dark, rocky fields to Bethlehem. There, they found Mary and Joseph, and, just as the angel had said, they found the baby wrapped tightly in swaddling bands and lying in a manger. They saw him with their own eyes, and spread the angel’s message to all they met. “The Promised One has come! The Christ, the Anointed One, has been born!” The angel’s words were on everyone’s lips that night in Bethlehem. And, as the shepherds made their way back to their sheep, bursting with good news, Mary kept their words safe, like treasures, in her heart.
It’s getting closer to Christmas. Unusually, this fourth sunday in Advent falls exactly a week before the day itself. And it’s cold here in the East of England, with a biting wind driving down from the north. And once again, the news is as bleak as the weather. So, what treasure might we find buried in the cold hard ground of this time? Are there signs of a different way of being, of living, getting ready to uncurl and grow?
The word, the theme, for the week to come is Love. And we remember the old carol….
Love came down at Christmas Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love Divine, Love was born at Christmas, Star and Angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead, Love Incarnate, Love Divine, Worship we our Jesus, But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token, Love shall be yours and love be mine, Love to God and all men, Love for plea and gift and sign.
There is a mystery we can enter into as we draw close to the year’s midnight, in this darkness where something hopeful and joyous is emerging. And the sign of it is love. Simply love: the token and the gift and the sign. As we approach Christmas, we can reaffirm that gift of love. We can consider what it might mean this week, for us, to live from a place and awareness of love. If Love came down at Christmas, what would that look like for me, at this time? Can we accept the gift and sign of this love? Can we receive it and allow it to change us, so we too are part of the new growth of this silent, midwinter spring?
As ever, this Sunday has it’s readings. Here’s the one from Isaiah 7..
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” Then Isaiah said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
And where that word – Immanuel – is translated as God with us.
It’s a profound promise. That God is with us. Even when we are unsure what we mean by God, even when we lose sight of what might seem clear in clear daylight, maybe we can come to know that we are held and accompanied in love. This, to me, is increasingly the heart and core and hope I hold onto. That God is indeed with us. And it is good to become alive to this in the bleak midwinter – as Christina Rosetti also wrote.
Recently some friends and I were discussing “God comes to you disguised as your life,” as Paula D’Arcy put it. The many ways we can find this “God with us” in all kinds of places – unexpected, joyful and difficult places alike. What if we could shift our hurry to categorise things as good or bad, this or that, and let them be, and wonder what they might teach us? Of course, we need to challenge injustice, work to make things better, but all of that begins with a clear-sighted seeing how things actually are – just the things themselves, viewed with compassionate curiosity. The gospels are full of hardship and difficulty, and love, companionship and healing. I am increasingly valuing the questions and uncertainties in the story – where things that seem bad, are turned to the good, and that which seems good, turns out to be less so. We can see instead how these things might work towards love, friendship, wholeness.
Some years ago I attempted a paraphrase of the beginning of John’s gospel. I thought I’d share it with you today.
It started with the Word, who was there before the dawn of time – before the earth, the waters, the stars – there with God, was God. For in the beginning, there was simply nothing else.
But then, the Word began to work. When the Word spoke, the universe spun into song, and all things came into being. Without the Word there was only empty blankness.
For the Word, the universe burst into life like a desert after rain. This was the Word’s work – unleashing life and light – glorious and radiant, warming our lives like the sun in spring.
This is the light which shines through our darkness – cold, smothering darkness where nothing can grow. And the darkness draws back at its touch, not understanding a light that cannot be put out.
Then, the Word, source of life and light, came into the world he made, but the world hid its face in its hands. It did not recognise him. He reached out to his people, and they turned away.
Yet to all who welcome him, believed in him, he held out his hands to give them such a gift – to know that they are a child of God, Born of God.
So the Word, the One who was there from the beginning became flesh and blood and chose to make a home with us in this fragile, changing world.
He came with open hands to bless, brimming over with words of truth. He has unlocked Heaven’s storerooms and poured down gift after gift for us.
We saw his glory with our own eyes – we saw him shining with life and light, we saw the very One who came to us from the Father.
For no one has ever seen God. But this Jesus, the One and Only, who was there at the beginning, has made God known.
Ely Cathedral’s powerful statue of Mary, by David Wynne
As we approach the third sunday of Advent, the word we turn to is Joy. And, as part of that turning to joy, many also remember Mary. In particular, her response to the angel’s message when she was invited to participate in this story of “God-with-us”… but more on that later.
As I look at this statue, I find Mary’s stance compelling. It is open and powerful, it feels like a “yes” which accepts and trusts what will be, even if it is beyond the mind’s understanding. Pictures of Mary often show her looking more afraid, more passive. This work captures a moment of glorious, positive choice. But there is something else. The slight downward tilt of her head seems to acknowledge the difficulties caught up in this acceptance, and the enormity of that choice. There is awe and vulnerability here too – vulnerability captured in that bare foot peeking out.
Among the fields and vineyards of Nazareth, in Galilee, lived a girl named Mary. She was soon to be married to Joseph, a carpenter, who could trace his family back to David, the shepherd king.
Then, one day, astonishing news burst into Mary’s quiet, hopeful life. The angel Gabriel came to her with a message. “God is with you, Mary!” Mary gasped, and fell to her knees. “Don’t be afraid. God smiles on you!” The angel spoke the astounding words gently, lovingly. “You will have a son and name him Jesus. He will be called great – the Son of the Most High God! The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and his kingdom will never end!”
For a moment there was silence, as Gabriel’s words filled the air – and Mary’s mind. “But how can this be, as I am not yet married?” Mary asked. “God’s Holy Spirit will enfold you. Your child will be holy. Even Elizabeth, from your own family, is going to have a child, despite her age! She is now in her sixth month. So you see, nothing is impossible with God!”
Mary raised her eyes to Gabriel’s face. “I am God’s servant. Let it be as you say.” And the angel let her alone, her mind spinning with the strange words.
Then Mary thought of Elizabeth. “The angel knew all about her – I must go to her.” She got ready, and set off quickly for Elizabeth’s home in Judea to the south, near Jerusalem.
As soon as she arrived at the house, she hurried to Elizabeth and took her hands. At the sound of Mary’s voice, the baby leaped inside Elizabeth, and the Holy Spirit filled her. She understood at once what had happened to Mary.
“You are blessed among all women, and blessed is your unborn child!” she said. “Why have I been so honoured? Why should the mother of my Lord God come to visit me?” Elizabeth laughed, and put Mary’s hand on her belly. “You see how my child leaps for joy at the sound of your voice?”
Then, Mary speaks out extraordinary words, which in turn echo the words of Hannah when she said goodbye to her long-awaited son, Samuel (I Samuel 2) . You can read Mary’s words – the Magnificat – in my version here, and also more about Mary and Elizabeth’s time together.
It strikes me how deeply Mary entered into uncertainty, with her acceptance despite her questions – “how can this be?” She is setting out on a path that will cause her pain, but the angel’s words focus on a bigger picture, an unknowably big picture. There is a vision of what will be, the good that will come from her choice. There is tenderness and reassurance here as she asks the question, honouring her uncertainty, the impossibility of comprehending what this may mean. And there is also a gentle, tactful suggestion of a path to be taken. A path to her cousin Elizabeth – who is also caught up in this great bursting through of hope and joy into a world marked with difficulty and pain. And that path will bring her companionship with someone who will believe her, and will support her, and to whom she can offer love and encouragement in turn.
Sometimes, during Advent, we are also reminded of John the Baptist – Elizabeth’s son – and his question to Jesus when he was in prison: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” You can read the account here. What I love about this reading is the way Jesus reassures John in a way he will understand, echoing the prophet Isaiah. There is a tenderness and deep compassion here too. We can almost hear an echo of their mothers’ relationship in this question, this uncertainty, and this reassurance. Jesus then goes on to speak to those listening who may, we presume, be shaken by John’s question – or critical of him for doubting. The compassion of Jesus’ response can reassure all of us. It is hard for us to understand, and doubt and question and uncertainty are here embraced and not feared.
So our focus on joy is one where joy can be experienced despite our frailties and uncertainties. It does not come with knowing the answers, having things all neatly wrapped up, but in the courage to enter into the mysterious life of something beyond and greater than ourselves. Perhaps here is the only place it can be found.
We mentioned Isaiah above. Here is part of the passage paired with the reading about John in the Church of England readings for this week. You can read it all here.
The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.
Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way.
Once again, we have a vision of how the world could be, restored and flourishing. A highway through the wetlands bursting with life, and even those who lack strength and steadiness will walk it.
And I call to mind COP15, the biodiversity conference currently taking place in Montreal. When so much of the beautiful life of our world is diminished, we so need this vision of restoration and abundance. We need this vision of life and joy, of a better way of being in the world. And then we need to walk into it.
We thank you for being born among us, sharing with us what it is to be human. we thank you for showing us a way to live, full of grace and truth. Light up our path, and let us walk with you.
It’s the first of December, we’re entering into Advent proper now. This post is in preparation for the second Sunday of the season, and for many the theme of the week is Peace, following on from Hope last week. Tree stumps also feature.
Once again, we are engaged in a radical practice of seeing what could be alongside what is. As with the thoughts on Hope, we’re not trusting to wishful thinking, or pretending real obstacles to peace don’t block our way.
They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace.
Says Jeremiah . And I’m sure we all know the distress of having some deep issue dismissed, and peace proclaimed when what that means is people keeping silent about weighty matters. That is no peace. We are in search of something much more radical.
How to hold on to some kind of centre, some kind of Peace, in the midst of all that surrounds us? Whether that’s deep matters of justice, distress, and hurt, or our more daily concerns of lists and duties and timetables and so many forgotten-to-do-in-time things? How to hold on to a centre, and to peace, in the midst of loss, and loneliness, and Christmas pasts? This Sunday, the second of Advent, the theme of peace is much needed.
Once again, readings for this week turn to the prophets. A longer meander through the section of Isaiah we read from below will reveal much that preceeds the talk of peace. There are words which seek to uncover injustice and untruth, addressing past conflicts and wrongdoings. This isn’t peace which seeks to bandage over matters that need deeper healing, this is peace as a result of a long process of radical transformation. It’s a vision of the dream of God for the world. Of the growth and new life possible in things which seem beyond hope of greening.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 11: 1-2, 6-9
I am very struck by the image of the tree stump – cut down, presumed dead, or unproductive – springing back into life. We see again the hope in even the most hopeless situations, the determination of life. Many have looked back at these words of Isaiah and seen the coming of Jesus in them. In the shoot springing up, and in the little child who will gently lead. Born into most unpromising circumstances – homeless (at least temporarily), under enemy occupation and the cruel rule of a local puppet tyrant – there is a deep promise of peace and hope in the coming of Jesus. This new growth will take a suprising form. This dream of a new world will grow under the surface, in hearts and lives. Appearences are deceptive.
Even my beautiful dead cotoneaster, picture at the top of this post, harbours life. Although the plant itself hasn’t sprung up from dead roots, other things have. Birds perched in the branches, dropping seeds, and now the light has reached the ground, things are growing. And the dead wood is a haven for so many small creatures. I wrote about the tree here.
And deeper, and further into the prophecy, we have the harmony of all creatures, including humans, living at peace. We have an ecology of plenty and playfulness, of trust and abundance. As we meditate on the possibilities of peace, and the world as it may be, can we catch a vision of what that might be like? As we see the number of trees, the whole landscapes and ecosystems, that have been lost, how might these words speak into that situation with hope, justice and peace?
You might consider writing down your own vision for how such a just, peaceful, restorative, abundant world might appear. You might wish to pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” from the Lord’s Prayer. What comes to mind as you pray that bold and transformative prayer? And as we pray, so we seek to live. How might we live this week in response to this vision, this dream, this prayer?
And as we do so, we could turn to this week’s gospel reading. Trees come up here, too….. John the Baptist, preparing the way for the ministry of his cousin Jesus, speaks of knowing trees by their fruit. What their lives produce.
Under the white heat of the sun, far from shade, the murmuring crowds gathered. Some had walked through city streets, others through fields and vineyards, but all had come out into the stony, dusty Desert of Judea to see one person. It was John, son of Zechariah, who stood by the river Jordan.
John was no polished performer – he looked wild, dressed in rough clothes of camel hair held together by a leather belt. He was thin, eating only the locusts and wild honey he could find in the desert. But his words were full of power, full of life and holiness. He called out in a loud voice “Repent! Turn your lives around and come back to God! His kingdom is near. Come and be washed clean!” And many came forward, full of sorrow for the wrongs they had done, and John baptized them in the River Jordan.
There some among the religious leaders who came and joined the crowds to look holy in front of everyone else – they thought they were good enough already, and had no real need to change. “You snakes!” the Baptist spat: “We can tell what you are like by what you do – just as you can tell a tree by its fruit. Don’t think you can fool anyone with show-religion!”
But most who came were hungry for a new beginning. For John taught them to hope. In his words, they caught a glimpse of something beyond their everyday lives. They understood that John the Baptist was preparing the way for something, or someone, astonishing. “I baptize you with water, for repentance. But you wait. There is one coming after me who is so much greater. I am not even fit to carry his sandals for him. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire – a baptism that will wash you inside out.”
In Luke’s Gospel, we get an insight into what this preparation for the one who is to come might look like in practice
“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” …..
We remember the Advent traditions of giving – not just to friends and relations, but to others as they have need. What John the Baptist is calling people to, to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God, looks a lot like sharing, like generosity of spirit, as we are able. Perhaps this is a way towards Peace. As our readings take us closer to Christmas, to the birth of the one who we have been waiting for – springing up like a new shoot – we will find a clearer focus on the Prince of Peace who is to come, and the way of peace he walked.
Perhaps we can make time to keep our eyes open for signs of new growth in the winter gloom, when all seems cold. Are there shoots appearing? Are there signs of new life? Can we pursue peace by looking for justice, and by sharing as far as we are able? We can share kindness, and patience, and perhaps a smile to cheer someone’s day. Perhaps we can do more than that. If we have the choice to simplify things for ourselves, we may find we have a little room to share with others. Might that be a path to a more peaceful Christmas?
Wherever you are in your Christmas preparations today, may you know Peace.
This photo is of an apparently dead, flailed hazel hedge near where I live. Despite this treatment, it has put out some new growth. How many years it’ll withstand such an onslaught, I don’t know. But I am heartened to see the new shoot growing up from a very unpeaceful process. You can read more about the hedge here.
As a small stone, dropped in a pool, sends ripples to its furthers edges, help us know our small actions of love and kindness can do great good. … Help us do the good things we can, trusting you will use them.
As the days have grown darker, and colder, I’ve been thinking about Advent, and hope. Traditionally, Hope is the theme of the first Sunday of the season, the first Sunday of the Church year too. Autumn seems to have been long, and restorative, and I’m not quite ready for winter. But here we are, nonetheless. And winter has its consolations.
I think there is wisdom in the old practices of having Advent as a time of quiet, reflective, waiting – a little like Lent before Easter. It’s so at odds with the flashing lights and loud shops and busyness, that understanding, but we can perhaps catch moments where those wintering practices are possible, and might help us….. pools of quiet light where we can breathe and think.
I’m also intrigued by the more medieval practice of putting yourself in the place of the people of Israel as they waited, not quite knowing what they were waiting for. Of not naming Jesus and Christmas, but instead allowing what we long for to be recognised and owned and prayed and worked for. In our context we join so many people throughout history who have felt the future to be shifting and uncertain, and who have longed for a kinder, gentler and more beautiful world. Taking some time to know and feel what we lack, what kind of world and lives we desire, might help us too face a troubling future with some courage and determination.
So Hope is a good place to begin.
Ah, hope. I’ve been turning over in my mind what it means to nurture hope in a world which seems increasingly unstable in climate and economics and culture. I’ve settled, for now, on making a distiction between hope and optimism. So, for me, I’m thinking of optimism as an opinion that things will work out. Something tied to outcomes. I see hope as a stance, an attitude of the heart and spirit, that it’s always worth looking for what brings life, for what is good. It does not require us to be naive about the dangers and difficulties around and within us. We are called to be as wise as serpents, and as gentle as doves – Matthew’s gospel.
Nonetheless, it’s worth working as if the world-as-it-could/should-be is here, emerging amongst us, small as the signs and growth may be. Not a glib avoidance strategy that it’s all fine, really, it’s all going to be fine…. but as a deliberate and courageous stance, holding on to a vision of how things could be. With the cost of living crisis bringing fear and hardship, and with the climate noticiably more unstable, we need courageous hope that’s prepared to work to refashion things around us in defiance of what we see. There is real power in such acts.
The picture of the bulbs and the bookmark at the top of this post relates to an action I took with some friends in our local high street to coincide with last year’s COP. We handed out bulbs and bookmarks, and encouraged people to think about ways they could plant hope. You can read more about that here.
As Advent begins, we re-read the words of the prophets together. They often spoke into desperate, unpromising circumstances with a mixture of a vision to hold in our hearts, and actions for our hands to do. Those actions can be prophetic themselves, speaking out and making plain God’s dream for the world – a beautiful, hopeful vision strong enough to withstand hard times – brave enough to choose to be born to a poor family, who sheltered in a stable, and had to run from a murderous tyrant. This is how hope was offered to the world, in the infant Jesus.
During this Advent series, I’ll share with you some extracts from my books. Here’s something from The Bible Retold , as the retelling of the Hebrew scriptures comes to an end, and we look forward..
As the walls were rebuild, so were the people. For God was building them into a new kind of kingdom. Isaiah the prophet wrote: “This is how to truly serve me: unbind people who are trapped by injustice, and lift up those who are ground down. Share your food with the hungry, and clothe the cold – that is how to live in the light!”
The people listened to his words of bright hope. “There is much darkness in the world, but your light is coming! All nations will be drawn to you, and they, too, will shine!” ….
“A child is born to us, a son is given. Authority will rest on his shoulders, and his names will be Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His kingdom, his peace, will roll across the lands, and he will reign on the throne of David for ever.”
We give thanks for the work that is being done right now, in our communities, to clothe, and feed, and seek justice. May we have the courageous vision to join with that work of light.
The days are dark, Dear God, give us your true light.
The days are dark, Dear God, give us your true life.
The days are dark. Dear God, give us your true love.
From Prayers and Verses
The Advent Candle Ring is from the good people at The Chapel in the Fields It gives me great pleasure to know that the oak at the base was once a lectern, and the lighter wood on top a dining table. The words written around it are from the ancient chants, the “O” Antiphons. These chants came into being when people did not call for Jesus to come at Christmas, but instead used names from the Prophets – like Emmanuel, God with us – to name their hopes. The first few centuries of the Christian Era saw these great prayers, the “O” Antiphons, sung during Advent, calling on Christ to come now, and to come again. You can listen to the old chant, and read Malcolm Guite’s sonnet, and much more, here.
This coming week, let’s hold on to hope, look for signs of the life of God breaking through, and see where we can be part of that move towards a more beautiful, loving, hopeful world.
From the top photo…..
I made my bookmark with a stamp by the lovely Noolibird.
I’m really pleased to be part of Transition Woodbridge’s Wildlife Corridors project. You can read more about Transition Woodbrige here, and Wildlife Corridors here.
We’re a group of all sorts of people from about the town who are seeking to make it a bit more wildlife friendly, and learning and sharing as we go. So below, you’ll find a little story about one of our hedges which I wrote for the group’s newsletter. We’re beginning to do more of this – passing on our often falterning steps towards a different way of thinking about our gardens. Here, our hedge had a beetle problem, and we tried a gentler and more natural approach to the plague of viburnum beetles than we might have done in the past. We’re delighted that the hedgeline is gradually becoming much more beautiful, diverse, and better for a wider range of creatures than simply the dreaded viburnum beetle!
After the account, you will find a poem drawing on this same hedge, and its story of renewal.
A hedge story – from pest control to native beauty.
It was a thin strip of dark green, between drives and walls. Our viburnum hedge joins what’s left of the original roadside hedgerow with holm oak and wild cherry plums to the network of gardens and trees behind. A narrow corridor of life, but with precious winter flowers for the bees, and just occasionally, a wren or a bluetit nested there. It was part of the planting we inherited.
A few years ago, it began to sicken dramatically. Viburnum beetle. It looked devastated, and I had my doubts if it would recover. We consulted the RHS website, cut away the worst of it, and scraped out some of the soil underneath where the grubs overwinter. As I did so, I felt the poverty of the soil – it was grey, had no structure, with no visible worms or other minibeasts. So we piled on the homemade compost and autumn leaves. We also decided to enrich it more permanently with native plants – for as it was, it could not renew itself, and the long strip of monoculture was an easy target for the dreaded beetle.
I bought some bare rooted spindle from Botanica and interspersed these with hazel that the squirrels had kindly planted around the garden. In the autumns to come, I’m hoping for a blaze of butter yellow hazel, with bright red leaves and pink/orange berries from the spindle. All to fall to the ground and feed it.
It’s limped through this year’s drought, but we’re getting there. It’s drawn in so many more creatures already. The insects are returning. The soil has worms, and frogs and mice make their way along it. At night bats hunt over it, and by day, the dragonflies. Many plants are finding their way there, each making their own contribution. At first, it was mustard garlic. Now, there’s purple toadflax, birdsfoot trefoil, various bedstraws and all manner of other plants. Butterflies and caterpillars, bees and hoverflies, and a healthy range of beetles are making a home here.
There’s a trellis separating our neighbour’s drive from this hedge and, in consultation with them, we’ve planted garden seeds and cuttings – vetch and perpetual sweet peas to improve the soil, honeysuckle, roses and jasmine. Again, I hope that next year it will be truly beautiful.
And as for the beetle attack… there have been a few nibbled leaves in the last two years, but nothing more than that. And, if some of the original plants die, there is plenty of life to take advantage of the light and air they leave. We have moved from a dark monoculture to a diverse and increasingly native abundance, with so much more food for all life. The viburnum still gives flower at a time of year when the natives are quiet, and deep cover too for plants and animals and birds. But the natives are making their presence felt now, and bringing so much beauty, diversity and abundance. It’s becoming a joy, and an example of how gentle care can slowly move a garden to something far more alive. I’m watching what it’s doing with real delight. What will be next?
And now the poem…..
Green ink 1 Hedge
And the garden now is my poem. So this hedge, this long line of joy and work, rhymes its meanings back and forth, carries them through seasons, through drought and cold by bird and frog and bee. Carries deep memory of the land, of wood and hedgerow, orchard and field, and deep hope too, for what may be, and what is becoming. And growing.
For joy and work wrought it, and renewed it, planted these saplings of spindle and hazel that will be red and gold as leaves fade in late sun, fade to such an illuminated brightness.
And I see what may be, what are, sweet rose cuttings unfolding, and growing, as honeysuckle twines, and jasmine – tiny, with tiny leaves – grows now in warmth, and sweet peas begin their work of rising up from hard coiled seeds.
All this abundance given freely by the garden and gathered, and tended, and shared, as she freely gives more – wind-blown seeds and bird- carried berries filling the earth to overflowing, as together we make a line of such richness and beauty, thought and imagining, sibilant as the wind whips through it, sounding like words spilling on the page. These words. This page.
I would write in green, I have written in green, working with all this life. Patient, resting in its waiting, and growing, and fading, ending, and beginning again. And again. This long line of green.