This week, I had the great privilege of spending a day at Otley Hall listening to some of Malcolm Guite’s most recent poems, to be published soon in Parable and Paradox . This collection on the sayings of Jesus is full of personal response and deep scholarship. Those of us who were there had time to reflect on all the wisdom and beauty outside, which always helps my thinking! It was an astonishingly good experience, and several new poems ended up among my jottings – they still feel quite tentative.
Here is the first.
Trying to listen to God
There is all this that speaks –
the electric green grass,
the cowslips and fritillary lilies –
I know I am to consider them,
consider it all.
The song the trees sing today –
their tender beauty
like the beauty of a child –
will not be repeated tomorrow.
Today is the day to hear it.
There is all this
and stories too –
The Kingdom is like this, like that –
slipping past the guard of ego
they work their slow growth
Seeds that crack the
the grey concrete,
soften the callouses our own
stories have worked.
For there is all that too –
the stony weights,
the things that choke.
How does good soil get to be
I wonder, as I am shaken,
as my ground is cleared.
One of this Sunday’s readings is an account of a healing, stopping short of the controversy that follows. Retellings have to be more concise, so my version below sketches it out – another example of people missing the point. The religious leaders were so concerned about policing sabbath observance, making sure law was kept, that they overlooked the astonishing things that were right before their eyes – healing, and mercy.
What Jesus says in response outrages his listeners, and as we reach the end of the exchange we come to one of those extraordinary phrases of Jesus that stop you short, and stay with you, changing the way you see things.
He is doing what he sees the father do…
If we pay attention to what Jesus does, we might learn something of God’s heart.
It’s helpful to remember that the Greek word we translate disciple – mathetes – means both pupil and apprentice. I am drawn to the idea of apprenticeship – of watching and making fumbling first attempts to imitate. It is an adventure, and I am still working out what it means.
The extract below is from my retelling, The Bible Story Retold, published by Lion. Also available here and your local bookshop.
One sabbath, Jesus was in Jerusalem. He came to the pool of Bethesda, which means “House of Mercy”. The pool, with its steep steps, was surrounded by covered colonnades. Under their shade lay many who were sick, waiting to enter the water when it welled up, for they believed that the water could heal them. Jesus went and sat down by one man, and asked him “Do you want to be healed?”
“Sir, there’s no one to help me down into the pool. I’ve been an invalid for 38 years. How can I reach the water?”
So Jesus said, “Just get up! Take your mat and walk away!” – and he did so.
Some teachers of the Law stopped him. “What do you think you’re doing, carrying a mat on the sabbath? Don’t you know that’s work, and forbidden?” And the man told them what had happened. How angry they were at Jesus – a sabbath-breaker, they called him.
“My Father is always at work, so I, too, am working!” Jesus said. The teachers of the Law gasped, shocked. He was talking as if he were God’s equal!
“I don’t do anything by myself,” Jesus went on. “I see what my Father is doing and do the same!”
I hope it helps. If you wish to use this reading, please say where it is from.
Today’s reading (Acts 10) is strange and beautiful. It is no accident we start with an account of Cornelius the Centurion’s vision – we see first that God is at work among people considered outsiders, people who did not follow the rules. It is after the angel appears to the Roman that Peter has his vision, and that vision challenges his idea of the centrality of the Law. To begin with, he saw a temptation to be resisted. It took time to see that God was inviting him to a more inclusive, more generous understanding. God is expanding the categories, again and again. The Spirit is moving, freely. It was hard for Peter to keep up – but he sees what God is doing, and his response, in the end, is to accept these new brothers and sisters.
The extract is from The Bible Story Retold
If you would like to use it, please feel free, mentioning the source.
Cornelius the centurion had been watching the galleons sail in and out of the white marble port of Caesarea. Every day these great ships came and went, to and from the rest of the wide Roman empire. He and his family did not follow the Roman gods or Roman ways. They were faithful, prayerful, and generous to the poor. As Cornelius turned away from the bright sunlight, he saw something even more dazzling – a vision of an angel. The vision spoke.
“Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come before God as an offering. Send men to Joppa and tell them to bring back someone called Simon Peter. He is staying at the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.”
Cornelius did just that.
As his men were approaching Joppa, Simon Peter the fisherman was praying on the flat roof. There he had a vision. He saw a huge white sheet let down before him. Inside it were all kinds of animals that the Law of Moses said not to eat.
“You’re hungry, so eat!” said a voice.
“No!” Simon Peter replied. “I’ve never eaten anything unclean in my life!”
This happened three times, and each time the voice answered
“Don’t call anything unclean that God calls clean!”
Just then Cornelius’s men arrived, asking for Simon Peter, and the voice said, “I’ve sent men to find you. Just go with them, don’t hesitate!” So he went with them.
When Simon Peter went into Cornelius’ house, it was the first time he had entered the home of a Gentile, a non-Jew, where “unclean” food was served, and the Law of Moses was not followed.
“Why did you want to see me?” Simon Peter asked, looking around at the crowd of family and friends Cornelius had invited. Then Cornelius told him the vision of the angel.
“So it’s true! God really has no favourites,” Simon Peter replied. “He wants everyone to follow him!” And he began to tell them about Jesus.
While he was still speaking, the Holy Spirit came, filling Cornelius, his friends and family with joy, and they spoke in different tongues as the disciples had at Pentecost. Simon Peter and the other Jews who had come with him were stunned that God had given the same gift to the Gentiles. And Simon Peter baptized them. “God accepts them, and so will we!” he said.
I am sure that all of us who are have responsibility for a little bit of land know what it is to turn your back for a while, then find it is growing with such glorious, irrepressible speed that you have no hope of getting it back to whatever plan you had. If, like me, you have a secret preference for wildflowers and woods, it can be hard to pull things up. I keep the runaway primroses and bluebells – but runaway trees! Much as I love a wood, I have to remove them. The tension, wanting but not wanting order, is something I explore in this small poem. I also touch on the more-than-reality of fairy tales, so often expressing some of the deeper workings of our spirits.
Pulling up trees
How quickly this place becomes a wood!
Last year, while I was sleeping,
seeds fell and grew, fell and grew, and now
as the year wakes, these small brown sticks
are all topped with leaves –
miniature sycamore, tiny ash.
How easily they pull up from the damp earth –
one long strong root, going deep,
and side filaments that resist, then
Such destruction –
I am the giant of my fairy tale.
Open lawns of grass, clusters of flowers –
bluebells and primroses – would be
swallowed up in a dense picket of saplings,
so close the squirrel and the bird
would find it hard to move,
the deer’s path would
no longer be straight –
my garden a wood
that grew while
I was sleeping.
Photo: The Good Shepherd, Rosanne Kellar, Exeter Cathedral
One of the most striking things about the Exeter sculpture is it’s height: the plinth is tall, so as you stand before it the shepherd is reaching down to you, as if ready to help you up. In front of it, I instinctively grabbed the hand offered to me.
This is a Sunday when many Christian traditions reflect on The Good Shepherd – the model of humble and compassionate leadership that Jesus provides for us (John 9 and 10).
Here is my retelling from The Bible Story Retold.
“When the shepherd comes to the sheepfold, and calls out to his sheep, they’ll follow him because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger. The shepherd will keep them safe from the wolves that howl at night because he loves his sheep. The shepherd leads them to green pasture, and will never abandon them when danger comes – unlike someone hired, who is working for money. The shepherd will lay down his life for his flock.
“I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep, and my sheep know me. They recognise my voice and follow me. And I will lay down my life for them. Some of my sheep are far away – I’ll call them, too, and they’ll come. They will be one big flock, with one good shepherd.”
Yet the religious leaders argued over who Jesus was. “The man’s mad!” said some, while others were less sure. “How can a madman open the eyes of the blind?”
Please feel free to use this reading if it is of help, saying where it is from.