Sunday Retold – Zacchaeus and the tree



This week’s Sunday Retold follows the Gospel reading set for many churches this week: Luke 19:1-10

A story about climbing trees, and looking up – among other things!

Jesus is making his way towards Jerusalem for the last time – and people still don’t understand.  They are still claiming him as theirs, and keeping out people they consider not good enough.  This man was a tax collector – a collaborator with the Roman invaders, and it would seem a cheat. We don’t know what has drawn him to Jesus, what has made him so determined to catch a glimpse of this teacher despite the hostility he faced, but we do know that Luke’s account of Jesus’ life pays attention to the way Jesus included, accepted, those who were outside – outside what was considered respectable, righteous, good.  He welcomed those others called sinners.  Perhaps the tax collector had heard this.  Perhaps there was something magnetic, attractive, full of life about Jesus.  Perhaps Zacchaeus had heard he healed people.

Here, again, we see it happening.  Jesus looks up.  He sees the unexpected – a wealthy man in a tree.  Trees contain all kinds of riches! When I read this story, I am reminded of the Genesis 3  story – where trees are important, and Adam and Eve hide in the greenery.  Perhaps there are echos here….

We see that Jesus did not berate Zacchaeus with all his cheating thieving treacherous ways, he did not confront him with his sin, he asked this man for hospitality.  He called out his goodness, he treated him as worthy, he accepted him.  If the disapproval of others had the power to make him make amends, there was disapproval enough in Jericho to do it.  He did not need to be reminded of what was wrong, but of what was right.  Jesus reminded him of his essential, elemental goodness.  He treated him as good, with kindness and respect.  He did it publicly, in the face of criticism.  He sat down with him, shared food with him.  The table is a powerful place of deep sharing.  Jesus uses the image of a banquet, a feast, again and again to show us what the Kingdom of God is like.

And see what sharing a table did for Zacchaeus – it gave him the courage to turn his life upside down, to change everything. We can imagine what it must have been like to have Jesus there, next to him, willing him on!

How good it is to know that Jesus shows us what God is like – like this.  We need not be afraid, we need not hide.  God reaches out to find, to love those people who are rejected, who perhaps reject themselves.   God’s power is at work to transform, to change lives, to make new- for all.


The gospels are full of encounters between Jesus and individual people, as well as crowds and groups.  When I read the conversations Jesus has with individuals, I can’t help noticing that each one is different.  He has no formula – he deals with each person as they need. Each one is precious.

You might like to use the picture above, with the trees and the fence, as a way into prayer. What do you see?
Think about the story of Zacchaeus.  Can you remember a time when someone just accepted you as you were?  What was that like?
Have you been in a situation where you have accepted someone else like that, or seen it happen?  What was that like?
Has sharing food with someone been a memorable experience for you?  What happened?
In this story, what did God’s saving power do?  Is there more than one way of answering that?

Here is an extract from The Bible Retold
If you would like to use any of my material, you are welcome to do so, saying where it comes from.

Jesus made his way steadily towards Jerusalem. On his way he passed through Jericho, with its date palms and fragrant balsam trees.  Crowds poured out to see him, and to see the blind beggar who had been healed by the roadside.

“What’s all the commotion – come away from there and get on with your work!” Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of the region, called out to his assistants.  They scurried back to their work, and the quiet clink of gold coins.  But Zacchaeus could not concentrate – the joy of the crowd had unsettled him.   He swept neat heaps of gold into his purse and went out.

The sounds got louder and louder.  The crowds were calling out for Jesus.  Zacchaeus tried to catch a glimpse of the Teacher, but he could not, for he was a short man, and the people would not let him through.  He ran on ahead and shinned up the stout trunk of a sycamore fig tree, sliding out along one of the branches that shaded the road.  Then he waited, watching Jesus getting closer, as he talked and laughed with the people.  Suddenly, quite close to the tree, Jesus stopped, and looked up.   Zacchaeus gasped, and tried to hide among the leaves.  Everyone was looking now.
“Zacchaeus, isn’t it?” Jesus said “You’d better hurry down from there.  I’d like to stay at your house today!”  So the chief tax collector swung down, rubbing green smears from his fine robes.  They set off together, and Zacchaeus threw open his doors to Jesus and his friends, beaming with joy.

But, the crowds were spitting with anger “Did you see that? He’s gone to be a guest of that thief, that collaborator with the Romans!”

Zacchaeus stood up before them all, and spoke to Jesus. “Look, Lord, right now I’ll give half of everything to the poor! And if I’ve cheated anyone, I’ll pay them back four times over!”
Jesus answered “God’s power is at work in this house today – the power to rescue and to change.  This man, too, is one of God’s children.  For the Son of Man came to seek, and to save, those who have lost the way to God!”

And some prayers from Prayers and Verses
to help us pray through this wonderful story

Grant me to recognise in others, Lord God,
the radiance of your own face.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 1881-1955

Help me, Lord Jesus, learn who you are.
Help me learn as I try to love, and forgive,
and help others as you did.
Thank you most of all for loving me just as I am.

Jesus told us:
You are blessed when you know how poor you are inside,
for then you are open to God and his ways.
You are blessed when you are sad,
for then you will feel a loving hand on your shoulder.
You are blessed when you are gentle and humble;
you will see all of earth’s good things, there for you.
You are blessed when you hunger for what is right;
you will be satisfied.
You are blessed when you live generously and kindly,
for you will be treated with kindness, too.
You are blessed when you are wholeheartedly good;
nothing will stand between you and God.
You are blessed when you work for peace;
you will be called one of God’s children.







Photo – Clive Timmons


When I walk, I often take a notebook, and sit and watch.  Watch isn’t quite the right word – it is more of an opening yourself up, a forgetting yourself and becoming lost in what you see before you.

This poem records a moment of change, when, with a rising wind, the birds began to fly.
I wondered what it was that moved them.  Whatever it was, it moved me, too.  I got up, and walked on.



Light on grey mud, grey water,
clouds high and thin.
By the edge of the river
redshanks probe thick
cold with their long beaks.

The wind breathes
over the flowing tide,
ice breath that mists
the watersheen.
And the birds begin to lift,
first the northernmost, then
up like a piece of loose lace,
flashing dark and light from
opening wings.

They circle and cry, raising
long mudsplattered legs,
wingtips close now, wheeling
the air into many breezes.

And what moved them, and what
tied them?  That pull, the breath
of wind over the water. That nudge,
seeing open wings all about them.

That longing  to fly


The Little Christmas Tree – in stock!

christmas tree


This is the very first story I wrote after leaving school – and it is still such a favourite.  It is a Christmas fable of kindness and gentleness, beautifully illustrated by the very talented Lorna Hussey.

Last year, a new edition was issued, with very festive sparkles.  These don’t show up on the photo, but they are glittering away on my shelf as I write.

You can ask your bookshop to get it for you, if it’s not in stock, or you can order it online.
Amazon UK
Amazon USA

Last Christmas, the book sold well in the USA, so thank you very much for your support!


October 21st










This poem is a product of my not-quite daily practice – of simply writing to fill up the page.  It is a discipline learned from Julia Cameron’s invaluable The Artists Way, where she advises Morning Pages – filling up three A4 pages every day.  You are not attempting to “write” or do anything creative, you are just getting to the end of the pages.  In the process, all sorts of interesting things will happen, but that is not your concern.  You are learning to silence your inner editor, getting it to turn the other way while you are in the first tentative stages of creating.

Once you have got used to simply writing, and not reading or thinking about what we have written, after a few weeks of filling up pages, you can begin to go back and look at what you have written.  Sometimes, amidst all sorts of moaning and lists and thinking on the page, you find you have the beginnings of something.  Sometimes, it is like mining ore.  Once your inner critic learns to leave you alone, you find all sorts of things emerge, like this.

One of the things I often find myself doing is describing what I see around me.  This is what I did.  To honour the process, I have called the poem by the date, rather than giving it a subject.  It is a record of this moment, this sitting in the garden wrapped against the growing cold, writing.



October 21st

How lovely the light is, low and golden,
falling in sheets through low, golden trees.

And the birds sing now, this morning,
in a song sharpened by last night’s frost,
the first – cold, clean, white.

The red roses are scentless with ice,
petals rolled to elegant, sugared points.
And above them the tall, brown seedheads
rattle gently in a gentle breeze.

I will cut them back, but not yet.

They hold this moment, now,
in their full, dry cups, swaying
between summer’s fallen petals,
and spring’s sharp green.
And coiled inside their
tiny black seeds are
flowers without number,
scattering in the icy breeze.

Sunday Retold – Jacob wrestles

The next installment of Sunday Retold , with the readings Genesis 32:3-31  and Luke 18:1-8
An ancient, strange, and powerful story from Genesis.
My retelling , from The Bible Retold, follows:

For there it was, gnawing away at the back of Jacob’s mind: the memory of how he had cheated his twin brother, and how Esau had been angry enough to wish him dead.  He could hardly expect Esau to give him a happy homecoming after so long.  Jacob thought hard about the best thing to do.

He sent this message ahead of him: “A message to Esau from his servant Jacob.  I’ve been staying with our uncle Laban, and haven’t been able to get away until now.  I’ve prospered – with flocks and herds, and been blessed with wives and children.”  When the messengers returned they told him “Esau is on his way to meet you – with four hundred men!” Jacob blanched.   It was worse than he feared.  Quickly, he divided up his camp.  “Esau won’t get them both!” he thought to himself.  And he prayed to God, asking for help.  He also prepared presents for Esau.  They were some presents!

Two hundred female goats, and twenty male goats
Two hundred ewes, and twenty rams
Thirty camels with their young
Forty cows and ten bulls
Twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys.

Each had a servant in charge of them.  He sent them on ahead, one after another,  to meet Esau with a rich procession of gifts – peace offerings.  Then, he took his wives and children and helped them back across the ford, to keep them safe.  That night, he wrestled with a stranger, not letting him go until he received a blessing from the man who came from God.  And the man called him Israel, which means God-wrestler.

Then, as the cool dawn began to warm, he saw Esau and the four hundred men coming towards him,  He bowed down seven times, but his brother ran to him and held him, weeping.  Esau had forgiven him, and welcomed him and his family with open-hearted love.  “Seeing your face was like seeing God smiling at me!” Jacob said.

Please feel free to use my material if it helps you, saying where it comes from.

The Genesis story is part of the ongoing family saga of Jacob and Esau, which, in itself, fits into a longer pattern of favouritism and rivalry, feuding and dysfunction.  Here, the twins are about to meet again after a long separation.  Jacob had run from Esau, whom he had wronged, and it seems he has felt the weight of that wrong ever since.  He had stolen from his brother, taken his identity and his blessing, hidden his true self in his brother’s clothes.  What would happen now they were going to meet again?

Jacob’s generosity is driven by fear, by self-interest, but nevertheless, it reveals his intent – his intent is for peace, for reconciliation if that is possible.  Perhaps, in his relations with Laban’s family, he has come to appreciate the advantages of harmony and fair dealings. After the experience of his wedding night, he now knew what it was like to be deceived with false clothing. The onslaught of gifts he sends out, each one with a servant and a message, foreshadow the relentless wresting with God that follows in the night. He does not give up trying to show his brother his good intent, he does not wait for an answer before he sends the next gift, he keeps on suing for peace.  He seems to adopt the same approach in the night vision that follows.  All night long he wrestles, he will not stop until he gets a blessing.

Maybe he thinks God is like the angry brother he has wronged.  Maybe he thinks God needs wrestling.  Perhaps, thought, this prayer is more about changing him than about changing God. He stole a blessing, and now he is fighting for one. He is still in the mindset of struggle and fight. Perhaps he still thinks there is only one blessing to be had between him and his brother, perhaps he still needs to grasp that God is generous, and has enough to go round.

He is seeking to obtain a blessing in his own right from God – and he does. Did he need to fight? Maybe he did, but I do not think God needed him to.  I think he found it hard to accept from God, after all he had done. Sometimes it takes us a long time  before we come to see the truth about our situation, our selves, before we are ready to receive the blessing.  God is not a reluctant giver, and even they give eventually.  God longs to bless, but sometimes, it is hard for us to receive.

Take some time to contemplate picture below.  What do you notice?  Might you use this picture to help your prayers?


Jacob Wrestles by Jack Baumgartner

Notice the way the hands pull back the curtain, or the night.  What do you notice about them?
There are many references to Jacob’s past. You can read the story by flicking back in Genesis – perhaps back to 25:21.  Notice, even before they are born, how the brothers wrestle.
Can you make out who Jacob is wrestling here?  Might the uncertainty be important?
The figure Jacob wrestles grips his heel – might the artist see this story as going back to the beginning of the trouble?
What do you make of the tumble of ladders behind?

Jacob's ladder

Sophy Williams, fromThe Lion Classic Bible

Jacob and Esau found reconciliation in the end, and Jacob was reminded of this night for the rest of his life by the damage to his hip.  Both brothers were blessed as a result of this determination to put things right.
Are there people we can work to be reconciled with?  Are there family disagreements we can pray for the courage and strength and wisdom to help end?
Do we dare ask for a blessing?

Some prayers for our families, and prayers of blessing, from Prayers and Verses

O Loving God,
May you bless our family,
may you keep us safe from harm,
may you protect us from anger that
leads to quarrels and unhappiness,
may you help us to forgive each other.
As we go out into the world,
may we bring with us your love and your peace.

Dear Lord,
help us to be honest and kind.
Help us to be our true selves.
Help us not to do things for our
own gain, but to work
together, and learn to put each
others’ needs before our own.

May God make safe to you each steep,
May God make open to you each pass,
May God make clear to you each road,
And may he take you in the clasp of his own two hands.
From Carmina Gadelica

Wherever you go,
May God the Father be with you.
Wherever you go,
May God the Son be with you.
Wherever you go,
May God the Spirit be with you.

May the Lord bless you,
may the Lord take care of you;
May the Lord be kind to you,
may the Lord be gracious to you;
May the Lord look on you with favour,
may the Lord give you peace.
From Numbers 6:24-26


Not only but also




This poem emerged from another solitary walk.  My feet beat against a hard path, and as I walked somewhere quiet, and beautiful, these words – and this pattern of words – began to emerge.
I had been thinking about the ways we sometimes speak of God, the things we tend to see God in, the images and symbols we use, and the things we tend to overlook.  I had been wondering why we pick the things we do, and what might happen if we looked at other, less promising subjects, and wondered if they too could tell us something about God.  What would we see if we looked differently?
It was a kind of walking contemplative practice,  one that I find fruitful.
By the time I got home the words were beating their own footsteps in my head, and I picked up some scrap paper, and wrote this:


Not only in these things
is the Glory of God to be found.

Not only these, but also
in the curved world bending itself
to a newly opened eye,
and the longing that clouds its closing.

Not only in the high and echoing hills
where rocks raise themselves
beneath the shutterfast
night and day of heaven,
but also in the long grey
half-light when dawn will not break.

Not only in the hands of the potter,
but in the cracked rim of a dropped bowl,
and in the one who could not hold it.

Not only in the mystery of words
and the fullness of music and
the pull of a brush through paint,
but in the fragments of self
we leave and find daily –
folded among shirts, and papers,
and hands on a still lap.
Not only in the bright beauty of stars,
but also in the black strangeness of the
space between.

Not only in the white smoke of the waterfall,
but also in the dustsmell of first drops after drought.
Not only in the green fluidity of the forest
or light through a new leaf.
Not only light but shadow
not only sea but dry stones
not only abundance but desert.
Not only
but also.

The photos above are of the Preseli Hills in West Wales, with a view of Carn Ingli – the Hill of the Angels – and also Mwnt beach, a departure point for ancient pilgrims to Ireland.

Sunday Retold – Naaman and the river


It’s time for the next Sunday Retold, and this week’s readings include the story of Naaman from Aram.
You can find all the readings following these links:

2 Kings 5: 1-3, 7-15;2 Timothy 2.8-15; Luke 17:1-19.

The story of Naaman is rich in so many ways.  Reading it alongside the Luke passage – the healing of the ten lepers – brings two aspects into particular focus:  how we view those not of our tribe, or group, or belief system; and the practice of gratitude.

It’s easy to favour people who are like us, who are part of our group, whatever that may be. It’s easy too for us to slide into hostility, a feeling of superiority, a certainty that we alone are right.  In both of these stories, we see God not limited by our categories and barriers, but working in the lives of two people who were regarded as outsiders, enemies even.

Naaman was leader of the armies who were fighting against Israel – as clear an enemy as you could imagine.  Yet, he was a human being with a secret need, and a secret fear – of leprosy, which would have put an end to his military career, and made him an outcast.  That the enemy of God’s people should be stricken in this way might be something to  rejoice over – but not for the young slave he had captured.  She had reason to ill-wish her master, but she did not.  She conspired to bless him instead.  It was three servants, or slaves, who play a key role in this story.  They are the ones who move the narrative forward, who nudge the powerful towards right action.  The general does well to listen to the one who apparently has no power.

Naaman, who arrived in great power and pomp, causing a diplomatic incident, was not greeted by the prophet in the way he expected – but by a servant.  He was asked to take off his robes, his armour, his signs of status, and expose his vulnerable flesh.  He had to wash in a foreign river, when he had fine waterways of his own. He would have to bend down, bow into the water.
And then, he was healed, and then, what ripples flowed out from that action. The fates of nations hinged on this act which began with the words of a slave-girl.

One of the ripples was gratitude.  And that is the theme of the Gospel story.  The gratitude of one who was not part of Israel, had a different theology, different worship practices.  Nonetheless, he sought and found healing with Jesus, and was the only one of the ten who returned to say thank you.  The nine who were on home territory did not.  Perhaps the foreigner could teach us something, here.

Gratitude is a powerful and life-affirming discipline – and it is a discipline.  Gratitude sometimes flows naturally, but most of the time, we need to remind ourselves to be thankful.  We are so used to problem-solving, that we only see the things we think are broken, and cease to see what is good.  When we do, things shift.  Gratitude to God and to others can transform things – and not just for us, but for those around us, too.

And, to pick up the earlier theme again, perhaps we can consider how to bless those we think of as not like us, how to break down hostility – even if we find it in our own hearts – and do good to others.  Perhaps, like Namaan, we can also learn to receive good from the foreigner, the one we might regard as of low status.

What would the world be like if more of us lived out these two disciplines – blessing the other, and gratitude?

The following extract is from The Bible Retold

Please feel free to use these extracts if they help you, saying where they are from.

  NAAMAN FROM ARAM (2 Kings 5)

The little Israelite slave-girl was brushing out the hair of her mistress – the wife of Naaman, whose armies had captured her and brought her to Aram.
“My lady, why are you sad?” she asked.
“My husband the general’s skin is growing worse.  It must be leprosy.” She replied, weeping.
“If only my master would visit the prophet of Samaria – he would be cured!”  So Naaman went in great state, with his horses and chariots, attendants and guards, through enemy territory to Elisha’s house.  But Elisha did not go to greet his mighty guest.  He sent a slave with a message “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and you’ll be healed.”  Naaman shook with fury.
“What kind of service is this from a holy man?  I expected prayers and the laying on of hands!  But he just sends this puny messenger!  I could have washed at home!”  And he turned on his heels to leave.  But his servant intervened
“My lord, if the prophet had asked something hard of you, would you not have done it?  So why not do this simple thing?”  And so Naaman did.  He washed in the Jordan seven times, and as he came out into the bright sunlight, he looked down at his skin.  It was smooth, perfect, like that of a child.  Beaming, he rushed back to Elisha, opening his treasure chest. “Now I know that the God you serve is the true one.  Nothing else comes close.” “That is reward enough – you may keep your gold!” Elisha replied.  And Naaman went home, telling everyone of God’s great goodness.


And, from Prayers and Verses

May we learn to appreciate different points of view:

To know that the view from the hill is
different from the view in the valley;
the view to the east is different from the
view to the west;
the view in the morning is different from
the view in the evening;
the view of a parent is different from the
view of a child;
the view of a friend is different from the
view of a stranger;
the view of humankind is different from
the view of God.

May we all learn to see what is good, what is true,
what is worthwhile.


O God, help us not to despise or oppose what we do not understand.
William Penn 1644-1718

The olive tree I thought was dead
has opened new green leaves instead
and where the landmines tore the earth
now poppies dance with joy and mirth.

The doves build nests, they coo and sigh
beside the field where corn grows high
and grapes hang heavy on the vine,
and those who fought share bread and wine.


Lord, because you have made me, I owe you the whole of my love;
because you have redeemed me, I owe you the whole of myself;
because you have promised so much, I owe you all of my being.
I am wholly yours by creation: make me all yours, too, in love.

Anslem, 1033-1109

May we enter into God’s conspiracies of blessing this week.
Keat’s Autumn is on my mind at the moment, with the wonderful phrase, “conspire to bless”!


Sharing again for National Poetry Day. Writing this poem moved me from hurry and worry to spaciousness, to the time between the ticks of the clock. I hope it restores you, too.

Andrea Skevington


overflowing flowers.jpg

Hurry.  I am ill suited to it – especially as the days grow hot.  I wrote this poem as a kind of rebellion against the feeling that my time was constrained, not my own, running away from me while I seemed to have none of it for the important things.

So I snatched time, and wrote.  As I wrote, as I paid attention to what was around me, I felt the time slow.  I felt myself breathe again. I felt the hard shells of the seconds soften, crack, and open like the seeds in the ground – become things of infinite possibility again.  I realised that, although my home is not the manor described in the poem, there are ways in which it is.  I can inhabit my days as if they were timeless, spacious, connected.  By slowing, by paying attention, by breathing, I found what I needed.  Most of…

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Now, as the days of darkness come


As many days as I can, I walk by the River Deben near my home.  Sometimes I walk with someone, but often I walk alone.  Alone, the experience is different, opened up differently.  It  becomes a quiet form of prayer – one which begins with an openness, a question
– Hello, what is there that I need to notice today?
Alone becomes companionable, the openness becomes openness to one who is always there.
I look at the birds of the air, among other things, although, this day, it was more the birds of the water.
It seemed to me as I watched the cormorants that the growing darkness of the season was maybe something I needed to dive into, under the bright surface, that there was treasure even here, even here.

If you wish, you can listen  to the poem.



Now, as the days of darkness come

Now, as the days of darkness come,
I see the slick oily surface of the water,
low light skims it like bright stones,
as the geese arrive in broken, twisted skeins.

And there is the egret
in its startling whiteness,
probing the mud,
and a pair of cormorants,
dark as pitch,
forming their strange low circles.
Then, as I watch, they slip down beneath
the bright surface, into hidden water.
And I, too, I hold my breath,
while they are hidden, in wonder
at the unexpected airiness of their bodies,
sustaining them, in that cold water, for so long.