Walking, as we do, along paths and lanes, we pass many hedgerows, and the remains of many hedgerows. It grieves me deeply when I see one that has been shredded and flailed by harsh machines, so full of open wounds. This year, we walked past one such act of destruction on the very last day of February, the last legal day. Birds were scattering at the sound of the machines. It grieves me that this seems the best way, perhaps the only way, many landowners can manage their hedges. I expect it grieves them too. I expect they would rather live more harmoniously and gently with their land.
Having been deeply unsettled by the sight so many times, I thought I’d listen to that sadness and unease. I find it is reminding me of our deep connection to our places, and that what we do to them, we are doing to ourselves also. There is one particular remnant of a beautiful hedge I pass often. I have a practice now of turning aside towards it, and, absurd as it may sound and often feels, I give it my attention. I ask forgiveness, I bless the hedge. I often do this within my own heart, but sometimes, when the lane is quiet, I speak out. The result of this purtubation, and practice, is the poem below.
Beneath the poem, I am posting some pictures of a contrasting hedge, which makes my heart sing. Transition Woodbridge are doing wonderful work in our town, planting and tending. Something better is possible.
The flailing of the hazel hedge
In years past, walking this lane now, in that time of late-winter-early-spring, this hedge was hedgerow, all yellow swinging catkins and small birds, all leaves ready to burst, crinkled like the corners of smiles.
This year, at each passing, I stop now, and turn aside the ninety degrees to face it, to face what we have done. It is a body-blow, it is desecration.
Flailed and fractured, long open wounds split down through the grey wood towards the shocked, gasping root.
It is my practice now to cross towards it, lay my open palms on its open splinters, and speak –
I ask forgiveness, we have brought destruction on you, beautiful hedge, home of so much life. I am sorry that in our world this violence seemed prudent, necessary, economic. Can you forgive us? For we have abandoned our place of life-nurture, of life-tending.
I hope for better, I look at the small buds. Will they burst this year? Will this be the year when the flailing is final, finally enough, and this rill of beauty and cheerfulness dies?
I go on my way, head bowed, chastened, we do not know what we do.
In beautiful contrast, we have this…..
In writing this poem, I was drawn to imagery from the Bible, and I have kept the imagery where it grew, as it seem appropriate to the immensity of what we are doing to the natural world. The poem speaks of a kind of anti-burning-bush, where Moses turned aside to the holy. I was reminded of the words of the incomparible Wendell Berry – “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places”.
There is also a gentle allusion to the words Jesus spoke from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It seems that most of the time, we do not understand the wrong we are doing, and need such forgiveness. As I am writing this in Holy Week, these words are very present to me. There is a poem on that theme among those in this post: Poems – Seven Sentences from the Cross. You can read a retelling of Good Friday here.
Last year, I gathered together some links for poems, readings and prayers here on my blog. All of them, on the theme of the road to Easter, are included in this revised post. I’ve also added some links to additional material. You will find sections for different days, with links included. I’ve noticed that quite a few people have been looking at Holy Week and Easter posts, and I’m really grateful for the interest. Thank you for joining me here. I hope you find this update helpful. I’ve also been contacted by some churches in the USA asking if they can use my poems in their online services. I am very happy to share my writing in this way. It really helps me if you acknowledge my authorship, and this blog as the source. It is a real encouragement if you feel able to post a comment about how you have used the material, and also how it went. I do love reading those!
I really didn’t think, when I gathered this stuff together last year, we’d still be keeping these holy days at home, or on zoom, or in very small gatherings, this year. But, as we are, I hope you find what follows useful. At the end, I share a link to a poem I posted for last Easter Sunday, which deals with the themes of being shut away. I wonder if this second strange Easter season may continue to give us some new insight into the isolation and separation recorded in the Gospel accounts.
This season of Holy Week and Easter is filled with realism and hope. It looks darkness, despair, violence and loss full in the face, unflinchingly. And then, it shows something new and good arising. It shows us a strange, unsettling hope for new life. It shows this hope birthed in a tomb. I think our recent collective and solitary experience may help us understand more deeply.
Perhaps we can focus on an inner journey, something quieter, more contemplative. As we do so, we may find, as many have before, that we get to a place of deeper connection, more grounded truth, fuller love. We may find new meaning in Jesus’ teaching and example – how he let things fall away, how he found himself alone, how he loved and forgave even so.
Please feel free to use any of the resources you find helpful, and to share them, saying where they are from.
The links will take you to blog posts where you will find extracts from my books, too. The books include:
You may have local bookshops open – if you do, they can order these for you. Otherwise, they are available wherever you usually do your online bookshopping. The links above take you to Bookshop.org, which supports local bookshops in the UK.
The Retold thread of my blog gives you sections from my book, “The Bible Story Retold in Twelve Chapters”, and “Prayers and Verses” that sits alongside it. They are good for all ages, and have been used in all age worship, Messy Church, and care homes alike.
The House at Bethany, the Raising of Lazarus
Many spend time with this Gospel story in Holy Week. It’s a story that means a great deal to me. You can find some links below.
Other Holy Week stories – You can find these in Chapter 11 of my retelling – both editions: The Bible Story Retold, and The Lion Classic Bible, which share the same text. The second of these has lovely illustrations by Sophie Williamson.
Prayers and Verses also has a section in Chapter 11 called The Road to Good Friday, which you might find useful.
Maundy Thursday – The Last Supper, Jesus washes their feet.
Last year, I wrote a series of poems for Good Friday, which were used in a number of churches near where I live. It was a great honour to be able to do this. I put together a recording and posted it on Youtube, and there’s a link to that below. I also compiled a suggestion for a Good Friday Meditation, with links to music and the poems. It’s all here, I hope it helps!
Next week, all being well, the rules will change here in England. We’ll be able to have someone local in the garden again. Having all this time with no human visitors has made me thing about who I’m tending this garden for. It’s been rather nice to leave aside my imaginary visitor who might critisize my rather haphazard and untidy methods, and just go with what I want, and what the garden seems to do. I hasten to say that my dear friends who came and sat with me last year, when inside was out of bounds, are always delighted to be here, and say no such thing! The critic is internal, and I am seeking to encourage her or him not to worry, to look at what is beautiful instead.
I’ve changed my emphasis this year. Previously, I was being quite purist about going for british native plants, wildflowers, and I still do try for those first. However, that did leave a long gap in the latter half of the year when there wasn’t much for the insects, so now I’m going for abundant life – plants and a style of gardening that encourage insects, birds, any other wild creatures that are happy to be here. I am protecting tender things from the muntjac, but the deer is welcome just the same. You can read about my planning for later in the year in my poem, Dreaming of Flowers.
Hospitality, then, in my garden, is the largely hidden from human eyes at the moment. It is fairly unconcerned about what other people might think. It is simply what I, and the wildlife, like. This winter, I’ve done other things to shelter nature. I’ve put up a couple of bird boxes, and made a bee hotel, and had piles of cuttings where ladybirds overwinter. I might write about those later. For now, I’m just rejoicing in a few of the flowers.
Hospitality Lockdown III
Alone in the garden. Mild. The early insects stir, hum, fly slowly towards the flowers I have planted – startling yellow aconites, the shrub honeysuckle, primroses, crocus – oh, those two together, the purple and the yellow, how they shine, how they bend their impossibly thin pale stems as they follow the sun, as they accept the weight of bees.
This garden is still a welcoming place. Cut off from friends, from human hospitality, from tea and laughter, from human notice of these opening buds, even now the garden hosts such a banquet.
It sustains and rejoices so many – the hoverflies, like this one, resting in the yellow aconite all this time as I write.
I have spread a table here, welcoming all this life, and together with all these, I receive the early warmth, I rest in the fragrance of flowers.
Just to add – today, I saw the first male brimstone butterfly visiting the primroses. So exciting!
A few days ago, a minister from a church in Canada got in touch with me to ask if they could use this poem in their worship on Sunday. That’s such a joy, when words take flight and find a new home, a new place to settle. Of course, I said they could.. I reread the poem, and I think it does have something to say in our difficult and strange times.. So I am sharing it again, in case it is of help to you reading it today.
Many churches and people will be turning to the story of Noah this first Sunday of lent, so it may help those who are considering this ancient, and I find quite difficult, passage.
If you too would like to use it in your online worship, please do, just acknowledge me and this blog.
This poem emerged slowly, over weeks, as they sometimes do. I let it sit for a while in the cold and the dark of our late winter. Looking at it again, I haven’t been quite sure whether it’s come to a place of rest, but I feel that now’s the time to let it fly and see if it finds a place to settle.
I’ve always found the story of Noah quite disturbing and unsettling, and although I feel I have made some peace with it now, it’s often these troubling places that drive you to engage with the original story in a different way. This one in particular feels that there are depths to be plumbed, sunk into, with an imaginative and almost intuitive reading, which is what I sought when I did my retelling for Lion
The rains swamped valleys and plains, and crept up the sides of the mountains, until all was swallowed up in black, endless water. As they drifted helplessly over it, Noah and his family knew that all living things left behind on the land had been drowned. They were alone on the ark. When, after 40 days, the rain finally stopped, the silence was as cold as the waters.
Noah’s family loved their precious cargo of animals: the only other living, breathing creatures left on the earth. They fed them, and cared for them. As they did so, a wind blew, and the waters began to sink slowly down. Then, one day, they heard the keel of the ark beneath them scraping and shuddering. The ark juddered to a halt, for it had struck the top of a mountain.
Every day they scanned the horizon, longing for land, and after many weeks they saw distant purple mountains breaking free of the water. Noah waited 40 more days, then set a raven free. It criss-crossed over the waves, looking for somewhere to perch. But there was nowhere.
A week later Noah tried again, sending out a dove. It came back with an olive twig. Noah held the bird tenderly in his hand, hope rising within him.
A week later he sent the dove out again. This time, it did not come back. It must have found somewhere to perch. At last, the flood was drying up! Noah’s face broke into a wide smile as glistening land slowly emerged and dried.
The image of releasing the birds from this narrow, confined space stayed with me, drawing on my memory of Emily Dickinson’s wonderful poem Hope, which is well worth having by heart for difficult times.
I thought of the raven, how it is a carrion bird, associated with death. Although reading the symbolism of such a long-ago story is best done humbly, I do wonder if Noah’s releasing of this bird first suggests he was expecting there to be carrion around, that it was a bird released into a imaginative landscape of death, not life. And yet we find, later, there was now something green and growing, something to sustain and anoint and bless – the olive – and that the world that was emerging from all that destruction was peaceable, and hospitable, a place of the dove and the olive. It is a new beginning.
We are not there yet, though, at the moment of this poem. We are at that point of wondering if we dare hope. Wondering if it is worth the costs of hope. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves it’s good to look for signs of hope, even when all seems lost. It takes courage, and discipline, and persistence. But learning to read the signs in our own landscapes, shifting our focus up and out, can begin to lift us. And we can find that, astonishingly, green growing things are appearing.
Can I let hope fly, send out birds
to brood and hover
over the chaos,
like Noah, with the raven,
and the dove?
For too long, there
has been nothing
on the horizon,
no fixed point
on the Earth’s
How would you ever know
if the water was falling,
So can I now find courage to
cup birds in unsteady hands –
and throw them upwards
one by one?
To let fly a dark hope
even though there is
nowhere for it to rest,
even though it returns
like a gift
that comes back unopened.
Can I try again
in case something
living and growing has
pierced this water,
until finally a gentle bird
does not return.
Until, at last,
there is somewhere
other than this poor boat
for it to land.
May I have such birds to release.
May I let them fly, like Noah,
with the raven, and the dove.
Lord, purge our eyes to see
Within the seed a tree,
Within the shroud a butterfly.
Till, taught by such we see
Beyond all creatures, thee
And harken to thy tender word
And its “Fear not; it is I”
O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us.
Basil the Great
I was chatting to a friend the other day – via screens, of course – and we were mulling over what Lent might look like this year. We were thinking that so many of us have given up so much, and experienced various levels of loss and renunciation over the past year, that we wondered if we could reframe our thinking about Lent. Maybe this year we need something more plainly hopeful, and nurturning of new growth. This ties in with what I have been drawn to doing this late winter season, which is contemplating the parable of the sower, with its hopeful scattering of seed, its false starts, disappointments, failures, and as the seasons roll on, hope and fruitfulness.
So I thought I’d share with you some mediations drawn from the parable as we go through Lent, and find our way through this season of preparation for Easter in our strange new pandemic world. Other nature parables may find their way in too.
Firstly, here is the parable, from my retelling.
Once, when Jesus was surrounded by a crowd of eager listeners, he told them this story.
“One dry, bright day, when the wind was still, a farmer went out to sow seed. He took handfuls of grain from the flat basket he carried and, with a flick of the wrist, scattered seed, hopeful for its growth. But some of the seed fell on the path, where the passing of many feet trampled it, and the birds swooped down and ate it. Some fell on dry rock. After the soft rains, it swelled and sprouted. But then it withered, for its roots could find no water. Some landed among the thorns, which grew so fast that they soon smothered the tender new shoots. But some landed on good soil, where it grew up, and ripened. When the time was right, the farmer came back and harvested a crop from it, a hundred times more than was sown.”
After the crowds had gone, and Jesus was left with the disciples, they asked him “What does that story mean?” And Jesus answered:
“The seed is the word – God’s word. The seed that fell on the path is like the seed that falls in some hearts – it’s snatched away by the devil before it takes root, before those people begin to believe. The seed that falls on the rocks is seed that falls where there is little depth – at first, God’s words bring joy to those people, but there are no roots, and when trouble comes their faith withers away. The thorny places are like hearts choked up with worry, with riches and pleasures. There’s no space for God’s word to grow. But some seed does fall on good soil – the word takes root in hearts that are ready, and they hold on to it. In time, the word gives a rich crop in people’s lives, and they are fruitful.”
As we’ve been in enforced separation, and isolation, and solitariness, I’ve felt my need for conneciton more than ever. I’ve become increasingly aware of our interdependence, interbeing even, our bonds to the whole order of things as well as to other humans. The soil is our hearts, we read, so can we find our way back to a deeper understanding of soil, and our own natures?
Last year, before the lockdowns began, when we could still travel and meet and share, I gave a talk at my old college on this parable. I’d been thinking about how Jesus invites us to consider the flowers of the field, and the birds of the air, and to learn of God from them. Aware of how much damage humanity has done to the wildflowers and the birds, I was struck by what meanings we might learn now.
Here is a small extract:
But in this story, Jesus invites us to see ourselves as soil. Our hearts are soil. Often here we rush into wondering what kind of soil we are, whether we are good soil or bad soil – whether we measure up to some fruitfulness criteria, or not.
I’d like to linger awhile, though, with this ancient and unattractive idea that we are simply soil. I feel it may hold a glimmer of hope. Our language teaches us that humans are humus, made of the same stuff as earth. And from the Hebrew Genesis story – Adam is the one formed from the earth, and the earth is Adamah: dark clay. Ash Wednesday reminds us of this in the context of our sin and death. Today, I want to think of how it relates to our growth, our life. We are brothers and sisters of the earth, made of the same stuff. Can we see ourselves, and the earth, like that?
If we can, we might catch at something important, an antidote to what ails us. Perhaps the crisis we have wrought upon the life of Earth may have its root in seeing ourselves as too separate, too superior to listen to the soil, and the birds, and the weeds.
We can learn much from soil, and we can begin with a simple truth: soil is precious, and it is being lost and degraded – possibly like the human heart. Possibly both need a more tender and wise handling than they are getting in our culture. Soil, whether it is under our feet, or our own hearts substance, can be improved, tended, nurtured back to health.
This Lent, I feel drawn to practices that are nurturing and hopeful, rather than austere. Even so, there is another way of looking at Lent which may be part of this hopefulness. Maybe our ancient practices of restraint, and simplicity, may have wisdom we need in our current difficulties.
In times gone by, Lent was a lean time of year, as the winter was ending. It was a time when the world was waking up to life, when eggs were laid and young were born and cows produced milk again. Without some restraint, this fragile new life would not have had a chance to develop. Humanity chose to wait until the fullness of spring, after Easter, before relieving the winter’s hunger. This calls to mind the ancient Hebrew practice of the year of Sabbath. As well as having a day, once a week, when people refrained from economic and agricultural activity, there were also whole years when the land was permitted to rest, and the people dependend on what the land produced. These times of rest for the land were an important practice for God’s people, nurturing their awareness of their dependence on God. For land was less a possession to be used, more as a gift to be shared for the blessing and feeding of all. Perhaps we can look again at this quiet, gentle living with the land. Perhaps as we enter Lent, we can consider whether there are ways in which we can practice restraint for a season, to ensure the future flourishing of the land, and of the earth. To see restraining our desires as a spiritual discipline is something we can turn to once again.
As we face the degradation of ecosystems, and the loss of so much life, we can construct a form of Lenten fasting to protect and nurture the Earth, to bless the earth and all its communities of being. We are already engaged in abstaining from our pleasures and normal lives to save the lives of others, perhaps more vulnerable that us. We know how hard and necessary it is. Perhaps we can learn from this experience, and gently, kindly, nurture other Lenten practices of simplicity to promote the flourishing of all.
And so, as we reflect on the possibility of new growth as the deep snow melts, of spring and hope and lengthening days, I’d like to share with you this reflection as I put myself in the place of the sower, walking over the land. I am brought up sharp by hearing how degraded our soil has become, how future harvests are threatened by the thinning out of the complex life of the soil. I am greatful that the soil I have here is good, and that a careful spade will unearth many myriad of living things. So this reflection has meandered away from the parable, drawing on my own awareness of how dependent we are on the soil. I hope to continue to share these snatches of meditation with you as we go through Lent. I hope you will join me.
A blessing for the soil.
I bless the soil I walk on I bless the richness of the life I can neither see nor understand.
I give thanks for the fruitfulness of the earth. I give thanks for the falling and rising of green things. I greet the creatures, many legged, single celled, that do the work of life-from-death. May we protect and cherish this foundation. May we nurture good soil. May it be sheltered by plants, free from rocks and thistles.
May we learn in humility what it needs.
More on Ash Wednesday – Remember you are dust. This year, we have all had cause to think of our frailty. To know that we, and those we love, are fragile beings. The words of the traditional Ash Wednesday service have a new and sadder resonance this year.
If you’d like to follow my book, Jesus said I am, for Lent, you can find out more here. There’s lots of material on this blog.
Note, 25th March. This note is by way of apology. I was intending to make this a series running through Lent this year, and haven’t done so. I had a commission for New Daylight – I haven’t done anything for them before, and it took me a little while to get into the groove. That series of meditations will be published next year, also on parables. I wrote on the relationship rather than nature parables, and I couldn’t quite get my head around doing both things! I’ll tell you more about the New Daylight work nearer the time.
The Sower keeps calling to me though, there’s more to explore, and I’ll find a way of doing that with you in due course. Thank you for your patience!
On some maps, especially old ones, part of the wood near where I live is called Maidens Grove, or Maidens Grave. I can’t help wondering what was the fate of the maiden, and how long ago her story may have been told. It feels ancient to me, something passed down and down until it was forgotten – but perhaps not by all, perhaps someone knows the tale, still, and still tells it.
At some point this land seems to have been used as a quarry, and there is an abrupt slope down to the bottom of the wood, which I like to reach via a steep and narrow path through an arch of holly bush – it has the air of a portal, an entrance into a different world. And down here, it is different. The soil and the plants are darker and denser, and the land is crossed by streams. It’s here I gather the ransoms, wild garlic, when they emerge. It’s here I look for snowdrops. The paths are thick mud. You need to think about how the weather was a few days previously to guage how robust your boots need to be, and the trees sometimes suffer from the unstable ground, even though more sheltered from the wind.
The trees that fall are left where they fall, food for so many creatures, giving back to the soil.
And so, down here in Maidens Grove, or Grave, I came across a new loss, a huge straight tree pulled out of the ground. The image of it wouldn’t leave me alone. I’ve been trying to find a way of writing about the vastness of the losses we are all facing with the pandemic, and the desperate sorrow of each one of those losses. This poem isn’t it, nowhere near, but something of the sadness of the time seeps into it. I don’t want to look for signs of hope, for the new life that might come, and yet in the wood at least I found myself noticing such signs, by hopeful reflex, and began wondering if I could accept that they were there, even by the grave of a great tree.
Poems this lockdown aren’t coming so easily. You can read about the very gentle, informal project here. I will continue to share them with you as they emerge. Shared experiences are hard to come by, and I am encouraged to find that we can find connection here, on line, and I hope that with this poem, we can take a walk in the woods, wherever you may be spending this difficult, winter lockdown. So thank you for your time, and your company. I hope we can all find hope, in due season.
Here, down in the sheltered hollow of Maiden’s Grove, or Grave, dark paths of deep mud are laid across with sticks, marks of the care and kindness of those who have walked this way before.
Here, these paths are edged with the first signs of ransoms emerging, pale and curved, beckoning in all this darkness.
Here, as the small stream cuts slowly, year by year, through layers of gravel and clay, a great tree lies fallen, stretched back into the heart of the wood, green with ivy only, blocking the water’s flow.
Its fall has splintered many branches, and about it, other trees stand wounded, open, half felled by this great fall. I feel the moan and the crash of it, its life-roots darkly upended,
but here, the deep bowl its roots have left is already filled by the seep of water, black with an ash grey sheen, where a few of last year’s leaves float, overshadowed by this great spread of root and earth.
The bowl is new in this old, shifting landscape, not yet softened by new growth –
and yet so soon, so soon, its surface pits and circles with movement below, stirred by some creatures who have found it, already, already made it a home.
This dark bowl seems a spring from which the stream flows now, a source, a beginning, down, over stones and branches and spoilheaps of mud to here, where I stand, where the dark path crosses.
Around it, a tangle of brambles and a scatter of birds, and unseen, a creep of creatures comes to this place, the tree’s root-grave, sprung open,
rolled away by a mighty wind, so full of life, already, and already that life begins its work, softening, decaying, and now,
I am allowing myself to wait, to wait and see who will come here, what will rise again here, in Spring.
This new lockdown, I am writing in my notebooks again, letting what emerges, emerge. You can read about the Lockdown Poems here – their immediacy, their rootedness in my place.
Once again, I have begun writing what I see, and what is before me in this moment. Whereas the earlier poems, starting in March, are largely written outside, this one is about looking out. Beginning to write is a revealing thing. As I proceeded, I felt that what I was exploring was that sensation of being stuck inside – looking out, but not with longing. I am looking out at a world that is far from inviting. Cold, wet, and darkening as it is. Once again, that small moment, that everyday feeling of watching the rain, seemed to unfold and reveal a wider and deeper difficulty. Not so much of being stuck inside, but of not wanting to venture out into a world that seems alarming, potentially dangerous, as we face the terrible acceleration of the pandemic’s spread. It is truly terrible, the grief that is echoing around our closed rooms, the potential for harm in each interaction.
But venture out I will – the natural world still offers its hospitality and welcome, however cold and dark it seems. The garden and area around still see me tramping about for exercise and refreshment. I had a new waterproof coat for Christmas, which is making all the difference to how I feel about being outside just now – at least from the point of view of the weather. The pandemic is a different matter. My venturing is limited now, circumscribed and circumspect. I notice an increasing tendency to some anxiety at the thought of “out”. That anxiety is well founded. I am listening to it, and taking what precautions I can. As we all are.
It will not always be so, though. We will emerge. For now, the balance and relationship between inside and outside has shifted, profoundly connected to the natural world as we are. We can feel cut off from the winter, we are certainly cut off from each other. But even now, there are tiny wonders to be seen out there, small hopes and shifts, if we can raise our eyes and look.
Inside. Outside Lockdown III
Inside, looking out, through golden light to cold grey, through glass and warm air and stillness, to where the cold wind shudders the trees.
Outside, the curved seedpods of the tree peony drip with ice rain, glittering
While candlelight and lamplight are reflected in the glass, and glow orange in the darkening grey garden.
And a tumble of birds comes, and goes, comes, and goes, chattering endlessly on the feeders that sway in the sharp wind
And if I hold my nerve, and hold the gardener’s gaze, even from here I can see that fuzz of green on the ice-furzed soil – Herb Robert, violets, the tissue-paper yellow of wet primroses, and the soft spears of bulbs just beginning. Bluebells. Cerise gladioli.
Outside seems far away. A different air. A different light. But soon my boots will be on my feet, and my coat wrapped about me, and I will feel that frost, and the cold wind, and I will feel the ice rain again.
To keep our spirits up, a reminder of what is to come.
Today, I’m sharing with you an extract of my retelling of the Story of the Magi – the Wise Men. Today is the day we celebrate their arrival, and their gifts. You can read a previous year’s bog post here – where I write of how so many different people came to know about the birth of Jesus in so many different ways. How attentiveness can lead to the joy of finding a King, a hope, even in the most unpromising circumstances.
Today, I’ve been mulling over the ways we can fail to see. In this story, people fail to see – or see and profoundly miss the point. There is Herod, insecure in all his power and wealth, seeing only a challenge to him personally. Unaware, as they all are, of how this is a different kind of king altogether, he responds with fear, and manipulative cruelty. He knew of the birth, but could not see beyond his own enclosing neediness. His sight turns inward. And then there are the experts in the law. They knew, too, in the sense that they pored over the scrolls and could give and answer to Herod’s questions, but they don’t seem to have done anything good with that knowledge. On the contrary, they share their knowledge with Herod, and so contribute to the terrible sequel to this story. They did not seek out the new Messiah as far as we are told – I wonder why not? Were they so caught up with their own study of the scriptures that they did not step outside to see what new work of God was opening so close by? Were they so caught up in the service of Herod, or at least their influence with him, that they could not see outside the wealth and power of that palace? Were they afraid?
We don’t know. What we can see, throughout the Christmas stories, is how God is at work in places and in people you would not expect. And, if we look to the religious experts, and those in power – Herod and these experts in scripture – we find they are so full of their own power, their own position, they are unable to see this glorious new thing.
But let’s not stay in Herod’s court. Let’s journey in strange and wise company, looking to the star to guide us. Let’s enter the house where the child Jesus and his mother are, and lay what we have before this most extraordinary of kings. Let us open our eyes to the unexpected, and look for God to be at work.
They Followed a Star
Far away from Jerusalem, in a land to the east, wise men looked up at the clear night skies above the desert and saw a star rising. For years they had studied the movements of the stars and planets, and they had never seen anything like this before. They unrolled their charts and plotted its path. “This means a new king has been born to the Jews!” they said to each other, as they gave hurried orders to their servants to prepare for a journey. When these strangely dressed foreigners arrived in Jerusalem, they began to ask “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” Troubled rumours spread through the city, for there had been no proclamation of any birth. King Herod the Great’s advisors approached him nervously. “Your Majesty, strangers from the east have arrived in the city. They are searching for a child who they say has been born King of the Jews. They saw a sign in the heavens!” Herod caught his breath, and turned white with fear. He had been given that title himself by the authority of Rome, building palaces and the great Temple to spread his fame. What kind of king was coming to challenge him? Then he asked his advisors “Where is the Messiah, the Anointed One, to be born?” The scholars unrolled the scroll of the prophet Micah, and read out loud: “Bethlehem will no longer be the least important of the towns. For from it will come a leader who will rule my people Israel like a shepherd-king.”
“Bethlehem, eh?” murmured Herod. He gave orders for the wise men to be invited to the palace. He listened to their tale of the star with keen interest, nodding and smiling as if he were delighted at the news. He told them all about Bethlehem. “Go and find the child, then please send a message so I can join you in your worship. What wonderful times these are!” Herod hid his crooked smile. As the wise men set off from the cool marble and mosaics of the palace, they looked up at the sky once more. And there was the star, guiding them to Bethlehem. They followed, and found the child with his mother, Mary. She was astonished to receive such guests – who bowed low, and spoke of her son with reverence, and unwrapped precious gifts to lay at their feet.
She unclasped the caskets one by one. The first shone, it was full of gold. The second opened to a rich, sweet smell. “The smell of the Temple,” Mary murmured to herself. It was frankincense, used in worship. The third contained an earthy, dark, resin. It was myrrh, more valuable than gold, used in burials, and for healing. Mary looked up at her visitors, and thanked them for these extraordinary, extravagant gifts as the smell of the incense and the myrrh hung in the air about them.
The wise men did not send word to Herod in Jerusalem, for that night, they were troubled in their dreams about him. They paid attention to the warning, as they had to the star. So they slipped away, avoiding the city, to cross the desert once more.
Here in England we are back in lockdown – I think it’s Lockdown III, depending on how you count the November one. It’s exhausting, and so difficult for so many, with all the chopping and changing. It’s dreadful to watch the numbers of sick and dying rising every day, and to hear of the hardships lockdown brings too. It’s relentless. I am so grateful to the science and health professionals who are working so hard to both tend the sick and find ways of overcoming the virus. I am so grateful for the promise of the vaccines. I only hope we can get them delivered quickly and effectively.
In the first lockdown, I wrote snatches of poems which often started from times of quiet, seeking stillness in the garden. You can read about that here. How much of that I’ll do at this time of year I don’t know. What this lockdown will bring we can’t say. But I find myself drawn again to the gentle changes of weather and season, plants and flowers, as a way of steadying myself, and marking the passage of time, and connecting with something beyond myself which gives glimpses of hope.
In the November lockdown, or circuit-break, I’m not quite sure what name to give it, I indulged the gardener’s delight of ordering and planting bulbs for the spring, and began dreaming of flowers – I found myself waking with planting schemes forming in my mind. I needed something to look for beyond the shortening of the days, the closing in of the weather, and the uncertainty surrounding Christmas. I found it was effective. It was someting within my control, something I could do to introduce an element of hope and change and the promise of beauty. It gave me physical work, too, which in turn helps with sleep.
And yesterday, the notebook came out, and tentative jottings began to emerge.
So I don’t know whether this will become a regular practice, but, as in the first lockdown, I thought I’d share with you whatever it is that comes up, and see if that connects with you, who are kind enough to share your time and attention with me here. I hope we can peep outside, and see something that lifts us. I hope we can receive the gifts this dark season gives, and perhaps bring a few sprigs of green inside. We can plant hope, even here.
So this poem, which might be the first of a new series of Lockdown poems, draws on the earlier planted hope, and receives encouragement and delight from seeing new things spring up. I also wonder – what this time? What might I do during this lockdown? Of course, there is no necessity for there to be anything, it is enough to live in these strange days, but, I am wondering what there might be that is within my scope and power to do, to begin, to dream of….
Dreaming of flowers Lockdown III
Each morning, now, as the sun nudges fitfully up, I do my rounds of the garden,
sometimes under a wide umbrella, walking with as much grace as I can muster, careful not to trample the sodden, spongy ground.
I am looking for fingers of crocus, ready to spread, and snowdrops, grey-green in the dark soil. I am looking for what I planted, and for what has inched in patient drifts through the waiting ground.
And there, and there, I begin to see. Each day, I hope, a few more, and a little taller.
On better nights, I dream of flowers now, and wake to think of flowers. Red and purple and orange, spread like velvet, loud with bees. The hard knots of bulbs I planted in fistfuls by November’s shrinking light – in a fury of hope, in defiance of the narrowing circle of my life, of our lives – they will awaken.
They are beginning to do their work now, this time, within me, locked down once more, they are beginning to push up from the cold dark depths, beginning to green in this faintest, tentative, stretching of the light.
And what this time? What will I do that could push through the darkness with green spears of hope, could fill my dreams with the scent of life?
This is a strange New Year’s Eve. It’s disconcerting to think how little we anticipated what this year would bring at it’s beginning. It throws our attempts at planning and new resolutions into all kinds of disarray, if we try to look ahead. So I’m attempting to leave the future where it is today. I’m trying to look deeper, at some of the lessons this year of a long pause, a long hesition. I’m noticing that there are things I can take forward…. the things I miss and therefore know their worth, the things I don’t miss as much as I expected. Knowing the value of community, connection, kindness more keenly, I’ll look for ways to nurture them in these new days. Knowing how the natural world has sustained me this year, I’ll be looking to continue to deepen my appreciating, and active care.
The poem I’m sharing with you today was written at a previous New Year. We nearly missed the foot ferry between Southwold and Walberswick while out on a long winter’s walk with our family. It ran till sunset – and sunset was upon us. It speaks of a happier time, when family could stay, when the foot ferry was open, as well as The Bell Inn at Walberswick. Today, husband and I did a long bright blue walk along the River Deben’s bank downstream from the creek, as far as you can now before the breach. It was beautiful, full of birds and ice. Little flags of ice clung on to the reeds after high tide and flashed in the sun. But I did remember this Walberswick walk, and the strange feeling of being suspended between the two shores, the two closed gates, in the hands of the ferryman whose course was sure even though it seemed to slant so across the water.
It helped me thinking about today, where I feel suspended between two shores. This year, the new shore seems further away, and harder to know. We are not used to feeling quite this adrift, and uncertain. Trust, hope, faith, love – and action drawn from these – are important now. But so is sitting with the uncertainty, with the not knowing where we are going and what we are doing. Perhaps in this space we can dream of a shore with warm, welcoming lights, with togetherness, with hope. Perhaps we may find we can be such a shore for each other, and keep lights of hope and welcome burning in the long cold nights.
I’ve shared with you another poem about winter walking along this shore, and a murmuration of starlings. You can read that here.
Crossing the Blyth at sunset, at the turn of the year.
We walked fast towards the ferry – nearly too late – and saw the ferryman on the other side, the gate closed behind him. But we waved, and he came, his blue boat a long wide curve across the river.
Behind him the setting sun, the treeshapes black against the orange sky, How beautiful it is. He helps us on board, offering me his hand with nautical courtesy, and then shuts the gate firmly behind us.
So we thank him, and our blue boat begins to churn those golden waters rippling with a fast tide, as we seem to hang for a time between those two closed gates, between those two jetties, in neither one space, nor the other. We are somewhere else instead, where all is gold, where darkness lies behind, where the lights of the houses and the wide-open pub are ahead of us, lights that warm with the hope of welcome.
We are suspended for a while in this Adnams-blue boat with the diesel and the saltsmell and the cry of the birds, bathed in light, trailing an ice hand in water the same colour as the light. Here we are. This moment. Between two moments. How beautiful it is.