The faith of a Roman

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This Sunday’s readings include a story from Luke’s gospel, of faith in an unexpected place.  The Romans were an occupying force in Israel, and a centurion was a military officer enforcing Roman rule.  It is good to see how Luke records this example of God being at work in unexpected people.  In that category we find not only the Roman centurion – but also  the Jewish elders.  They can recognise that this man, an “unclean” gentile, outside their own people and laws, is “worthy”.  Often the religious leaders seem narrow, legalistic, small-minded even, but not in this instance.  They see something good, and they speak it.  The centurion’s support of their synagogue might be genuine interest in their faith, it might be good politics, but he is honoured whichever it is.

It is good to look about, and see God at work in unexpected people.

Below you will find my telling, in an extract from The Bible Story Retold
If it is of help to you, please feel free to use it, saying where it is from.
The gospel reading is Luke 7:1-10

 

The centurion stood with his hands behind his back, watching his most loyal servant’s dry lips as they moved without sound.
“That’s enough!” he said to those who were trying to coax him to drink, and they slipped back, away from the couch.  For a moment the centurion leaned down, his ear close to the man’s mouth, but his breath was growing fainter.  He was near death. The centurion strode out to the courtyard and looked up at the road.  He saw Jesus in the distance, with his followers behind.  Quickly, he spoke to the Jewish elders who stood by the gate, and they turned and walked towards Jesus.

“Rabbi,” they said “we come to see you at the request of the Roman centurion stationed here.” The crowds watched Jesus carefully – what would he do?  For the Roman soldiers were an occupying force.  They were the enemy. “As you know, this Centurion has treated us kindly, paying for our synagogue.  Now his servant is very ill, and he asks for you to heal him.”  Jesus did not hesitate.  He quickened his pace into Capernaum. As he came close to the army garrison, the centurion’s friend came out with a message. “Sir, the centurion sends you this message: ‘Please don’t trouble to come into my home. Just say the word, and my servant will be well.  I’m a man of authority.  I give orders, and they are obeyed.  I know you, too, are a man of authority – at your command, the illness will leave.’”

Jesus stopped, and turned around to those following.  “Do you hear that?” he asked “I haven’t found such faith in all of Israel!”  Then, as the friend returned to the garrison, they all heard shouts of joy, and laughter.  For the servant had been healed.

The ‘Mary, at your feet’ poems – Three

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Artist – Frank Wesley

This is the third and final ‘Mary, at your feet’ poem, which tells of an evening in Bethany, at the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus.  Jesus is there, too.  They are holding a feast to celebrate Lazarus coming back from the dead, and, it being near Jerusalem, they are joined by many others.

I found some spikenard on line, the closest I could find to nard, the rare perfume Mary pours over Jesus, and burnt it as I meditated on the story.  It is pungent and earthy, an intense fragrance.  As I meditated, I remembered all the times that Jesus had told stories of the Kingdom involving feasting, and banquets, and how he left us a shared meal to remember him. This particular banquet, celebrating a man coming back from the dead, seems like that.

I thought of Mary giving something so costly out of love, I thought of the other story of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-50).  And I remembered that Messiah means anointed one, and that the only earthly anointing Jesus receives is like this, at a feast, in an outpouring of love and gratitude.

This poem, too, was read at the Alive festival 2014, and I used it as a starting place for prayerful writing with a group of people.  We burned spikenard, and imagined ourselves into the story.  Some beautiful work resulted.  People were able to connect with times when their life had been restored to them in some way, with times they were grateful, and wanted to pour our love and thanksgiving.  For others, they felt they were outside, looking in at the feast.
In this poem I see the doors wide open, like the gates of the city in the book of Revelation (21:25).

You can read the first poem here
and the second one here

 

Mary, of Bethany, at your feet a third time

And so you come once more to Bethany,
and share a meal with Lazarus,
a resurrection feast,
foreshadowing, foreshining
all those kingdom feasts you told of:
wedding banquets with long tables
set wide with good things,
with room enough for all,
welcome at your table.

Now, in Bethany, the house is ablaze with light,
shutters and doors thrown open,
all wide open with joy unspeakable,
music, laughter, dancing, wild thanksgiving
for one who was dead is alive again,

And all night, while crowds pour in from Jerusalem,
the feast goes on, and on,
as Mary enters now, cheeks glistening with joy,
past her brother at your side, back from the grave.

She kneels at your feet again,
pours out extravagant nard,
scandalous anointing of your warm, living feet,
unbinds her hair and lets it flow like water
over them, wiping them in such reckless
and tender thanksgiving.
Fragrance fills the room, the house, the night,
as more people pour from Jerusalem to you,
to you, who comes to us in our weeping,
who shares our bread with us,
and brings us to such joy as this.

 

John 12:1-11

 

 

The ‘Mary, at your feet’ poems – Two

Lazarus

Lazarus, by Jacquie Binns, with her permission.

We come to the second in the ‘Mary, at your feet’ sequence.  This, too, was read at the Alive festival, 2014.  It contains a bigger reversal than a poem can hold – from death to life, for it draws on Mary’s response to the death and raising of her brother Lazarus.

Martha went out to meet Jesus when he finally arrived, and their exchange is sorrowful and powerful and contains words of life and hope.  Mary stays inside, and when she finally goes to Jesus, we feel the depth of their mutual grief. In John’s gospel, where we find this account, the raising of Lazarus plays a crucial role in the events that lead to the crucifixion – the themes of death and life, life from death sound like a returning motif in a piece of music. Here, standing by Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus weeps with Mary, in the company of many who also grieve there.  And then, everything changes.

I am very grateful to Jacquie Binns for permission to use this photograph of her work. She is a textile artist and sculptor of rare vision, and it was an honour to meet her a few years ago, when I saw this piece. It is haunting and breathtaking.  I was particularly struck by the whiteness of the bindings, the light and whiteness seem so cold.  The set plaster holds the fabric grave-clothes in this one moment when the viewer sees Larazus for the first time, before we begin to know the power of what it is we see.

You can read the first poem in this sequence here.

 

Mary, sister of Lazarus, at your feet a second time

She sits in the shuttered room,
the room where her brother had laid,
dying, dead, the messengers sent out
returning empty, with no reply,
like prayers that bounce  off ceilings
or stick to the roof of the mouth,
choking with sorrow.
When you stay by the Jordan
that shuttered room is where Mary stays.

This is her shadowed valley, the dark forest of her path,
foreshadowing yours, it is all foreshadowing you.
The room where her brother had laid,

how can she ever leave it now?

But leave she did, at last, when you called for her,
she came quickly, running, trailing darkness behind
her weeping.  Mary, once more at your feet,
and when you saw her weeping, you wept too.

You know us in our grief.  You come to us, call to us.
In our darkest, most shuttered places,
your spirit moves, breaks with ours.
Death lay heavy upon you, too, and all the sooner for
this, what you do now, standing before that tomb.

For now, you who are Life,
Word made warm and beating flesh,
and weeping,
call Lazarus out,
You, who are life, and will rise,
call out one who is dead from the cold tomb.
You watch as they run to free him from the graveclothes,
pull darkness from him, calling in strange bewildered delight,
and you see Mary’s face as she sees now,
her brother, who was dead, once more in light,
astonished, seeing your glory, part of your glory,
as she weeps again, is weeping again
breathless with joy.

 

John 11:1-50

You can read the third poem here

 

 

The ‘Mary, at your feet’ poems – One

 

Two years ago, in May, I was thinking about the three times Mary of Bethany was at Jesus’ feet.  One story is recounted in Luke, the other two in John, where they are a part of the extraordinary Lazarus narrative.  I wanted to explore them more, and I did so in what turned into a series of three poems.  I read early versions of these poems at a local Christian festival, Alive, and as the time of year comes around again, I find I am remembering them, and going back to those thoughts.  I share the first one with you today, and the others will come in their own time, over the next week or so, as I continue to turn them over in my mind.

This first one draws on the story in Luke’s gospel where Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary, and Mary sits at his feet.  I have not referred to Martha directly, except for in the title.  I do feel her lack. I wonder, in particular, what happened next.  Maybe there are some poems to write about her, too.

There is so much to ponder in this story, but what caught my attention was how hard it is for us to be still, to be.  We are so distracted, so pulled by so many things. We can end up  feeling that those things are what define us. That it is what we do, or think, or believe, or  how people view us that makes us who we are. Just being doesn’t seem enough, but our efforts to be more or different or better than we are can be life-sapping.
Acceptance can be hard to accept!

In writing this poem, I hoped to create a place of stillness. The kind of place where contemplative prayer begins.  A place where we can open up a little to love, and light. A place where we know we are welcomed.

The photograph is taken in the Chapel of St Peter on the Wall, Bradwell on Sea, Essex.

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Mary, sister of Martha, at your feet for the first time

You came in search of rest
away from the road,
that bright, shadeless road,
where so many came,
and you gave so much.

You came and sat down
in the cool room,
the shutters pulled
against the heat,
and Mary sat, too,
and it was enough.
Just sat, quietly, at your feet,
her face turned up to
yours as she listened.
And you saw how the light
fell across her,
as if for the first time.

And this is what you want,
what you long for.
Not the elaborate
preparations we would make,
not ourselves swept and
scrubbed to perfection,
our acts and our
thoughts impeccable
in lifeless rows,
but to be,  here in this light,
to be, here at your feet,
Luke 10:38-42

 

You can read the second poem here

and the third one here

When the Holy Spirit Danced With Me in My Kitchen

Anthony Wilson

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When the Holy Spirit Danced With Me in My Kitchen

the first thing I noticed was his arms,
thick and hairy like a bricklayer’s
with a tattoo of an anchor
as Churchill had.

‘Coming for a spin?’ he grinned,
in an accent more Geordie than Galilee,
and he whirled me
through tango, foxtrot and waltz
without missing a beat.

‘You’re good,’ I said.  ‘Thanks,’
he said, taking two glasses to the tap.
‘You’re not so bad yourself,
for someone with no sense of rhythm
and two left feet.’
He gave me a wink.

‘It’s all in the waist.
The movement has to start there
or it’s dead.’

‘You’ll find it applies to most things,’
he went on, grabbing the kettle.
‘Writing, cooking, kissing,
all the things you’re good at,
or think you are.’
He winked again.

‘You don’t mind me asking,’ I said,

‘but why are you here?’

‘I thought it…

View original post 299 more words

The Spirit Comes

Andrea Skevington

bible retold cover

We celebrate Pentecost this weekend, and the story continues its extraordinary movement outwards.  Last week, it was Ascension, when the disciples were still thinking in terms of their own people, and Jesus showed them an ever widening perspective (Acts 1:6-8).
Now, we see how God continues to open and include.  It seems that all those gathered together (1:14-15) were part of the great outpouring of the Spirit, and the impact on the listeners suggests God was at work beyond even those.  The barriers between us of race, gender, nationality, language, youth and age, are being broken down, moving us towards a deep unity (Col 1:17, Gal 3:28). No wonder the whole house was filled with a great sound! This is powerful and much needed work.

We notice how the barrier of language is overcome.  We notice that God’s priority is not to change the listeners so they can understand, but…

View original post 458 more words

The Spirit Comes

bible retold cover

We celebrate Pentecost this weekend, and the story continues its extraordinary movement outwards.  Last week, it was Ascension, when the disciples were still thinking in terms of their own people, and Jesus showed them an ever widening perspective (Acts 1:6-8).
Now, we see how God continues to open and include.  It seems that all those gathered together (1:14-15) were part of the great outpouring of the Spirit, and the impact on the listeners suggests God was at work beyond even those.  The barriers between us of race, gender, nationality, language, youth and age, are being broken down, moving us towards a deep unity (Col 1:17, Gal 3:28). No wonder the whole house was filled with a great sound! This is powerful and much needed work.

We notice how the barrier of language is overcome.  We notice that God’s priority is not to change the listeners so they can understand, but change the words (and the speakers) so people can hear – directly, in a way that makes sense to them as they are.
The words are an overflow of joy.

Below is my version of the story, from The Bible Story Retold

If you wish to use it this weekend, please do, saying where it is from.  I hope it helps.

 

From the fields it came: the first sheaf of barley cut for that year’s harvest.  It was carried high through streets crammed with visitors, and on to the Temple. And then the priest offered it to God, giving thanks for the good land, and for the gift of harvest. For that day was the celebration of the first fruits.  It was Pentecost.

Meanwhile, the disciples were all together, waiting.  Then, suddenly, it began.  It stared with sound – a sound like the wind – but this was no gentle harvest breeze.  This was a shaking and a roaring: a sound of power, whooshing and howling about the house, rattling every door and shutter.  The sound seemed to come down from heaven itself, and filled the house as the wind fills sails.  Then, the disciples watched wide-eyed as something that looked like fire came down, and tongues of flame peeled off it and rested on each of them without burning them.  All of them were filled, for the Holy Spirit had come.  And as it happened, their tongues were loosened, and they began to speak as the Spirit gave them words.  These words were not Aramaic, their own language, but in languages that were unknown to them.
A crowd had gathered by the house because of the extraordinary sound, but then they heard voices. There were pilgrims in Jerusalem from all over the known world, and they recognized the words the disciples were speaking.
“He’s talking Egyptian!” said one.
“That one’s talking my language,” said a visitor from Crete – and the same was true for all.  Each person heard God’s praises in their own tongue.
“What can it mean?” they asked each other.  But others among the crowd joked that the disciples had been drinking.
The Twelve heard what they were saying, so Simon Peter stood up to speak to the crowds.
“Listen, I’ll tell you what’s happening.  We’re not drunk! It’s too early in the day for that! This is God’s promise come true.  Do you remember what one of the prophets wrote long ago?
I’ll pour out my Spirit on everyone – young and old.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
young men will have visions, and old men dreams.
All who follow me – men and women – will
be given my Spirit, and there will be wonders!

Bless you this weekend, and always.

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Contemplative Prayer – The Cloud of Unknowing

One of the joys of working for Quiet Spaces is that the meditations you write months ago seem to come back when you need them.  So this morning, the latest edition arrived in the post, reminding me of a prayer practice that had slipped away.

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For this issue, packed with good things, I wrote a series of meditations and explorations of The Cloud of Unknowing. The 14th century text is an extraordinarily rich resource for anyone interested in contemplative prayer. It feels very necessary and timely to me right now, and with the Archbishops’ initiative for a week of prayer before Pentecost, I am finding it helpful  to look again at this way of praying.
The Cloud seeks to remind us that God is above our knowledge, but accessible in love. It asks us to wait, to lose our discomfort with “unknowing”, to be prepared to be in what can feel like a cloud.  We are often afraid of mystery, and sometimes prefer knowing to loving, so this type of prayer calls for humility, and patience with ourselves.  It seems to deepen our ability to connect.

Here is my first suggestion to begin – it may help if you are following the week of prayer.

You may wish to establish a pattern for contemplative prayer.  For example (you could)  turn off technology, find a place, light a candle, do some steadying breathing.  Begin with this verse:

“My soul thirst for God, for the living God.  When can I go and meet with God?”
Psalm 42:2

Calm your mind.  Let go of thoughts. Focus your loving attention on God, who is always present. Stay in the stillness, the silence, for as long as you can.  When your mind wanders, try again.
“Lift up your heart to God with humble love”
The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 3

This act of prayer begins with the act of lifting up your heart, and directing your loving attention, to the source of love.

The Cloud of Unknowing is well worth reading. It is broken into small sections, which helps slow down the process and make it less about mastering a technique, or gaining knowledge, and more about entering into presence.
Penguin classics have an excellent version, and you can also access an online version here

 

 

Glad

It’s easy to see why the English  discuss the weather – on Monday, I lit a fire, and today is warm enough to throw open the doors.  A day when you can slow, and breathe, and see.

I am typing this looking out of the window you see in the picture below, looking to the place you are looking from.  The gardeners among you may notice it is a picture taken a little further into the summer, when the hollyhocks, which are babies now, grow tall.  It’s all there, waiting.

Below are a few small lines I hope will cheer your day, wherever you are.

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Glad

How little, some days,
it takes to make the heart glad.

A line full of dry washing,
a mother blackbird’s beak,
heavy with worms,
sweetness rising in the grass,
a breeze shot through
with the scent of flowers,

these are enough,
yes, enough.

 

 

 

Wind, and weather

This is my second response to the wonderful Quiet Day at Otley Hall with Malcolm Guite.
While  Trying to listen to God grew out of the day’s content, this next came from the distractions. While we were listening, and looking out at the garden full of delicate spring flowers, the weather had an agenda of its own, bringing swift and sudden bursts of snow and hail.  With the north wind came this very small verse.

 

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Wind

Who knows what the wind brings?
These clouds cross the blue sky
full of rain
and hail
and snow,
as the birds sing,
as the flowers grow.
They come if I say yes
or no –
can I say Yes to the wind?