Poem – Like Noah’s raven, and the dove

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.

Here is the link to the Canadian Church website. https://www.st-matthias.ca/https://www.st-matthias.ca/

Amyrosemoore

Artwork by Amy Rose Moore

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.

From The Bible Story Retold

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.

You can listen to the poem here: https://andreaskevington.podbean.com/e/poem-like-noah-with-the-raven-and-the-dove/

Like Noah’s raven, and the dove

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
endless circle.
How would you ever know
if the water was falling,
or rising?

So can I now find courage to
cup birds in unsteady hands –
raven-black,
dove-white –
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
and 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”
Christina Rosetti

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

From Prayers and Verses

Ash Wednesday – a blessing for the soil, and some thoughts on the parable of the Sower.

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.”

From The Bible Story Retold

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 WednesdayRemember 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.