Christmas Retold – some readings as we draw near to the day.

It’s getting close now….
Last night was the longest night. We’re in that pivot moment when darkness seems to have claimed the Northern Hemisphere, but we know that in just a few days, if we look, we’ll see that the days will lengthen, by moments to begin with.
And some say that the first day when it’s possible to see that growing light is Christmas day itself..

And I want to give my attention to the story, to let the wonder of it seep through me. There are still things to do, but those things are joyful. After the last few years when covid stopped us gathering, gatherings can happen. And that is so good.

Christmas always holds a mixture of joy and sadness, of gains and losses. Mindful of these, I will hold on to the wonder of love being born among us, even though the circumstances could hardly have been less promising – for circumstances are never quite what we hoped, and there’s the lesson. To look deeper than circumstance. To make a courageous decision to hold on to hope, and peace, and joy, and love, even though. For these qualities are real, and true, and enough. These things are golden strands, woven through the dark fabric.. It is where they can be found. And the One who is coming will light the way, and scatter the darkness, and hold out a helping hand.

I’ll hold on to the message of “Love came down at Christmas”, and light my candles in the fading light, and watch the rain clouds sweep across the sky, rain falling on all of us, just the same.

Perhaps later, the skies will clear, and we’ll see the stars.

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You can find out more about the candle ring, and the words around it, here.

From The Bible Retold

The Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, had ordered a census throughout the whole empire, when all the people would be counted, and taxed. The orders spread along straight Roman roads, and were proclaimed first in the white marble cities and ports, and then in the towns and villages of the countryside.

Even quiet Nazareth heard the news, and Mary and Joseph began to gather together their belongings, ready to travel to Bethlehem. That was Joseph’s family home: he was descended from King David, of Bethlehem. They set off south on the crowded road, for the whole empire was travelling. But, for Mary, the journey was especially hard, and the road seemed never ending. It was nearly time for her baby to be born.

At last they came to Bethlehem, but it was not the end of their troubles. The city was noisy, bustling, and heaving with crowds, and Joseph searched anxiously for somewhere quiet for Mary to rest – her pains were beginning, and the baby would be born that night. The inn was already full of travellers, and the only place for them was a stable. There, among the animals, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him up tightly in swaddling bands and laid him in a manger full of hay. Then, she rested next to the manger, smiling at the baby’s tiny face.

There were shepherds who lived out on the hills nearby – the same hills where King David had once watched over the flocks, long ago. The sheep were sleeping in their fold under the shining stars, while the shepherds kept watch. Their fire flickered and crackled, and the lambs would bleat for their mothers, but they were the only sounds. All was peaceful. All was well.

Suddenly, right there in the shepherd’s simple camp, appeared and angel of the Lord, shining with God’s glory and heaven’s brightness. The shepherds gripped each other in terror, their skin prickling with fright.
“Don’t be afraid, I’m bringing you good news – it will bring joy to all people!” The shepherds listened, awestruck, their faces glowing with the angel’s light. “This is the day the good news begins, and this is the place. In the town of David, a saviour has been born. He is Christ, the Anointed One, the one you have been waiting for. And this is the sign that these words are true: you will find a baby wrapped tightly in swaddling bands, lying in a manger.”

The shepherds watched as light was added to light, voice to voice, until they were surrounded by a dazzling, heavenly host of angels, all praising God and saying
“Glory! Glory to God in the highest,
And on the earth be peace!”

And then, in an instant, the angels were gone, and the shepherds were left in dark night shadows, listening to the sound of a distant wind. But their eyes still shone with heaven’s light.
“Let’s go and see for ourselves!” they called to one another as they raced over the dark, rocky fields to Bethlehem. There, they found Mary and Joseph, and, just as the angel had said, they found the baby wrapped tightly in swaddling bands and lying in a manger. They saw him with their own eyes, and spread the angel’s message to all they met.
“The Promised One has come! The Christ, the Anointed One, has been born!” The angel’s words were on everyone’s lips that night in Bethlehem. And, as the shepherds made their way back to their sheep, bursting with good news, Mary kept their words safe, like treasures, in her heart.

And from Prayers and Verses . The first of these is a poem I wrote in primary school.

The dawn is breaking, the snow is making
everything shimmer and glimmer and white.

The trees are towering, the mist is devouring
all that is in the reaches of sight.

A bell is ringing, the town is beginning
slowly, gradually, to come to life.

A candle is lighted, and all are excited,
for today is the ending of all man’s strife.

O God,
be to me
like the evergreen tree
and shelter me in your shade,
and bless me again
like the warm gentle rain
that gives life to all you have made.

Based on Hosea 14:4-8

The Little Christmas Tree

christmas tree

Please feel free to use any of the material that you find helpful, saying where it is from.

Have a peaceful and joyful Christmas, and thank you so much for giving your time to read this blog

Love – the fourth Sunday in Advent, and a poem based on John 1.

It’s getting closer to Christmas. Unusually, this fourth sunday in Advent falls exactly a week before the day itself. And it’s cold here in the East of England, with a biting wind driving down from the north. And once again, the news is as bleak as the weather. So, what treasure might we find buried in the cold hard ground of this time? Are there signs of a different way of being, of living, getting ready to uncurl and grow?

The word, the theme, for the week to come is Love. And we remember the old carol….

Love came down at Christmas
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Christina Rosetti
1830-94

From Prayers and Verses

There is a mystery we can enter into as we draw close to the year’s midnight, in this darkness where something hopeful and joyous is emerging. And the sign of it is love. Simply love: the token and the gift and the sign. As we approach Christmas, we can reaffirm that gift of love. We can consider what it might mean this week, for us, to live from a place and awareness of love. If Love came down at Christmas, what would that look like for me, at this time? Can we accept the gift and sign of this love? Can we receive it and allow it to change us, so we too are part of the new growth of this silent, midwinter spring?

As ever, this Sunday has it’s readings. Here’s the one from Isaiah 7..

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying,  “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”  But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.”  Then Isaiah said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals that you weary my God also?  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

And where that word – Immanuel – is translated as God with us.

It’s a profound promise. That God is with us. Even when we are unsure what we mean by God, even when we lose sight of what might seem clear in clear daylight, maybe we can come to know that we are held and accompanied in love. This, to me, is increasingly the heart and core and hope I hold onto. That God is indeed with us. And it is good to become alive to this in the bleak midwinter – as Christina Rosetti also wrote.

Recently some friends and I were discussing “God comes to you disguised as your life,” as Paula D’Arcy put it. The many ways we can find this “God with us” in all kinds of places – unexpected, joyful and difficult places alike. What if we could shift our hurry to categorise things as good or bad, this or that, and let them be, and wonder what they might teach us? Of course, we need to challenge injustice, work to make things better, but all of that begins with a clear-sighted seeing how things actually are – just the things themselves, viewed with compassionate curiosity. The gospels are full of hardship and difficulty, and love, companionship and healing. I am increasingly valuing the questions and uncertainties in the story – where things that seem bad, are turned to the good, and that which seems good, turns out to be less so. We can see instead how these things might work towards love, friendship, wholeness.

Some years ago I attempted a paraphrase of the beginning of John’s gospel. I thought I’d share it with you today.

Beginning

It started with the Word, who was there before the dawn of time –
before the earth, the waters, the stars – there with God, was God.
For in the beginning, there was simply nothing else.

But then, the Word began to work. When the Word spoke,
the universe spun into song, and all things came into being.
Without the Word there was only empty blankness.

For the Word, the universe burst into life like a desert after rain.
This was the Word’s work – unleashing life and light –
glorious and radiant, warming our lives like the sun in spring.

This is the light which shines through our darkness – cold, smothering darkness
where nothing can grow. And the darkness draws back at its touch,
not understanding a light that cannot be put out. 

Then, the Word, source of life and light, came into the world he made,
but the world hid its face in its hands. It did not recognise him.
He reached out to his people, and they turned away.

Yet to all who welcome him, believed in him, he held out his hands
to give them such a gift – to know that they are a child of God,
Born of God.

So the Word, the One who was there from the beginning
became flesh and blood and chose to make a home
with us in this fragile, changing world.

He came with open hands to bless, brimming over
with words of truth. He has unlocked Heaven’s storerooms
and poured down gift after gift for us.

We saw his glory with our own eyes – we saw him shining
with life and light, we saw the very One who came to us
from the Father.

For no one has ever seen God. But this Jesus,
the One and Only, who was there at the beginning,
has made God known.

Gaia at Ely Cathedral

Thank you for joining me in these readings and ponderings.
May you have a blessed, peaceful and loving time as we draw close to Christmas.

Joy – the third Sunday in Advent

Ely Cathedral’s powerful statue of Mary, by David Wynne

As we approach the third sunday of Advent, the word we turn to is Joy. And, as part of that turning to joy, many also remember Mary. In particular, her response to the angel’s message when she was invited to participate in this story of “God-with-us”… but more on that later.

As I look at this statue, I find Mary’s stance compelling. It is open and powerful, it feels like a “yes” which accepts and trusts what will be, even if it is beyond the mind’s understanding. Pictures of Mary often show her looking more afraid, more passive. This work captures a moment of glorious, positive choice. But there is something else. The slight downward tilt of her head seems to acknowledge the difficulties caught up in this acceptance, and the enormity of that choice. There is awe and vulnerability here too – vulnerability captured in that bare foot peeking out.

Here is the story, from my book The Bible Retold

Among the fields and vineyards of Nazareth, in Galilee, lived a girl named Mary.  She was soon to be married to Joseph, a carpenter, who could trace his family back to David, the shepherd king.

Then, one day, astonishing news burst into Mary’s quiet, hopeful life.  The angel Gabriel came to her with a message.
“God is with you, Mary!” Mary gasped, and fell to her knees.  “Don’t be afraid. God smiles on you!” The angel spoke the astounding words gently, lovingly. “You will have a son and name him Jesus.  He will be called great – the Son of the Most High God! The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and his kingdom will never end!”

For a moment there was silence, as Gabriel’s words filled the air – and Mary’s mind. “But how can this be, as I am not yet married?” Mary asked.
“God’s Holy Spirit will enfold you.  Your child will be holy.  Even Elizabeth, from your own family, is going to have a child, despite her age! She is now in her sixth month.  So you see, nothing is impossible with God!”

Mary raised her eyes to Gabriel’s face. “I am God’s servant. Let it be as you say.” And the angel let her alone, her mind spinning with the strange words.

Then Mary thought of Elizabeth. “The angel knew all about her – I must go to her.” She got ready, and set off quickly for Elizabeth’s home in Judea to the south, near Jerusalem.

As soon as she arrived at the house, she hurried to Elizabeth and took her hands.  At the sound of Mary’s voice, the baby leaped inside Elizabeth, and the Holy Spirit filled her.  She understood at once what had happened to Mary.

“You are blessed among all women, and blessed is your unborn child!” she said. “Why have I been so honoured? Why should the mother of my Lord God come to visit me?” Elizabeth laughed, and put Mary’s hand on her belly. “You see how my child leaps for joy at the sound of your voice?”

Then, Mary speaks out extraordinary words, which in turn echo the words of Hannah when she said goodbye to her long-awaited son, Samuel (I Samuel 2) . You can read Mary’s words – the Magnificat – in my version here, and also more about Mary and Elizabeth’s time together.

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It strikes me how deeply Mary entered into uncertainty, with her acceptance despite her questions – “how can this be?” She is setting out on a path that will cause her pain, but the angel’s words focus on a bigger picture, an unknowably big picture. There is a vision of what will be, the good that will come from her choice. There is tenderness and reassurance here as she asks the question, honouring her uncertainty, the impossibility of comprehending what this may mean. And there is also a gentle, tactful suggestion of a path to be taken. A path to her cousin Elizabeth – who is also caught up in this great bursting through of hope and joy into a world marked with difficulty and pain. And that path will bring her companionship with someone who will believe her, and will support her, and to whom she can offer love and encouragement in turn.

Sometimes, during Advent, we are also reminded of John the Baptist – Elizabeth’s son – and his question to Jesus when he was in prison: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” You can read the account here. What I love about this reading is the way Jesus reassures John in a way he will understand, echoing the prophet Isaiah. There is a tenderness and deep compassion here too. We can almost hear an echo of their mothers’ relationship in this question, this uncertainty, and this reassurance. Jesus then goes on to speak to those listening who may, we presume, be shaken by John’s question – or critical of him for doubting. The compassion of Jesus’ response can reassure all of us. It is hard for us to understand, and doubt and question and uncertainty are here embraced and not feared.

So our focus on joy is one where joy can be experienced despite our frailties and uncertainties. It does not come with knowing the answers, having things all neatly wrapped up, but in the courage to enter into the mysterious life of something beyond and greater than ourselves. Perhaps here is the only place it can be found.

We mentioned Isaiah above. Here is part of the passage paired with the reading about John in the Church of England readings for this week. You can read it all here.

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
    the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus,  it will burst into bloom;
    it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
    the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
    the splendor of our God.

 Strengthen the feeble hands,
    steady the knees that give way;
 say to those with fearful hearts,
    “Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
    he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
    he will come to save you.”

 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
    and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
    and streams in the desert.
 The burning sand will become a pool,
    the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
    grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

 And a highway will be there;
    it will be called the Way of Holiness;
    it will be for those who walk on that Way.

Once again, we have a vision of how the world could be, restored and flourishing. A highway through the wetlands bursting with life, and even those who lack strength and steadiness will walk it.

And I call to mind COP15, the biodiversity conference currently taking place in Montreal. When so much of the beautiful life of our world is diminished, we so need this vision of restoration and abundance. We need this vision of life and joy, of a better way of being in the world. And then we need to walk into it.

We thank you for being born among us,
sharing with us what it is to be human.
we thank you for showing us a way to live,
full of grace and truth.
Light up our path, and let us walk with you.

From John 1

From Prayers and Verses

Peace – the second Sunday in Advent – a shoot springing up from a stump.

It’s the first of December, we’re entering into Advent proper now. This post is in preparation for the second Sunday of the season, and for many the theme of the week is Peace, following on from Hope last week. Tree stumps also feature.

Once again, we are engaged in a radical practice of seeing what could be alongside what is. As with the thoughts on Hope, we’re not trusting to wishful thinking, or pretending real obstacles to peace don’t block our way.

They dress the wound of my people
    as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say,
    when there is no peace.


Says Jeremiah . And I’m sure we all know the distress of having some deep issue dismissed, and peace proclaimed when what that means is people keeping silent about weighty matters. That is no peace. We are in search of something much more radical.

How to hold on to some kind of centre, some kind of Peace, in the midst of all that surrounds us? Whether that’s deep matters of justice, distress, and hurt, or our more daily concerns of lists and duties and timetables and so many forgotten-to-do-in-time things?  How to hold on to a centre, and to peace, in the midst of loss, and loneliness, and Christmas pasts? This Sunday, the second of Advent, the theme of peace is much needed.

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This beautiful Advent ring is from The Chapel in the Fields,  and you can read more about it, and the words on it, here.

Once again, readings for this week turn to the prophets. A longer meander through the section of Isaiah we read from below will reveal much that preceeds the talk of peace. There are words which seek to uncover injustice and untruth, addressing past conflicts and wrongdoings. This isn’t peace which seeks to bandage over matters that need deeper healing, this is peace as a result of a long process of radical transformation. It’s a vision of the dream of God for the world. Of the growth and new life possible in things which seem beyond hope of greening.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
 The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
 The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
 They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 11: 1-2, 6-9

I am very struck by the image of the tree stump – cut down, presumed dead, or unproductive – springing back into life.  We see again the hope in even the most hopeless situations, the determination of life. Many have looked back at these words of Isaiah and seen the coming of Jesus in them. In the shoot springing up, and in the little child who will gently lead. Born into most unpromising circumstances – homeless (at least temporarily), under enemy occupation and the cruel rule of a local puppet tyrant – there is a deep promise of peace and hope in the coming of Jesus. This new growth will take a suprising form. This dream of a new world will grow under the surface, in hearts and lives. Appearences are deceptive.

Even my beautiful dead cotoneaster, picture at the top of this post, harbours life.  Although the plant itself hasn’t sprung up from dead roots, other things have.  Birds perched in the branches, dropping seeds, and now the light has reached the ground, things are growing. And the dead wood is a haven for so many small creatures. I wrote about the tree here.

And deeper, and further into the prophecy, we have the harmony of all creatures, including humans, living at peace. We have an ecology of plenty and playfulness, of trust and abundance. As we meditate on the possibilities of peace, and the world as it may be, can we catch a vision of what that might be like? As we see the number of trees, the whole landscapes and ecosystems, that have been lost, how might these words speak into that situation with hope, justice and peace?

You might consider writing down your own vision for how such a just, peaceful, restorative, abundant world might appear. You might wish to pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” from the Lord’s Prayer. What comes to mind as you pray that bold and transformative prayer? And as we pray, so we seek to live. How might we live this week in response to this vision, this dream, this prayer?

And as we do so, we could turn to this week’s gospel reading. Trees come up here, too…..  John the Baptist, preparing the way for the ministry of his cousin Jesus, speaks of knowing trees by their fruit.  What their lives produce.

Here it is, from my version in The Bible Retold.

Under the white heat of the sun, far from shade, the murmuring crowds gathered.  Some had walked through city streets, others through fields and vineyards, but all had come out into the stony, dusty Desert of Judea to see one person.
It was John, son of Zechariah, who stood by the river Jordan.

John was no polished performer – he looked wild, dressed in rough clothes of camel hair held together by a leather belt.  He was thin, eating only the locusts and wild honey  he could find in the desert.  But his words were full of power, full of life and holiness. He called out in a loud voice “Repent! Turn your lives around and come back to God!  His kingdom is near.  Come and be washed clean!”  And many came forward, full of sorrow for the wrongs they had done, and John baptized them in the River Jordan.

There some among the religious leaders who came and joined the crowds to look holy in front of everyone else – they thought they were good enough already, and had no real need to change.  “You snakes!” the Baptist spat: “We can tell what you are like by what you do – just as you can tell a tree by its fruit.  Don’t think you can fool anyone with show-religion!”

But most who came were hungry for a new beginning.  For John taught them to hope.  In his words, they caught a glimpse of something beyond their everyday lives.  They understood that John the Baptist was preparing the way for something, or someone, astonishing.
“I baptize you with water, for repentance.  But you wait. There is one coming after me who is so much greater.  I am not even fit to carry his sandals for him. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire – a baptism that will wash you inside out.”

In Luke’s Gospel, we get an insight into what this preparation for the one who is to come  might look like in practice

“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” …..

Luke 2:9-11

We remember the Advent traditions of giving – not just to friends and relations, but to others as they have need.  What John the Baptist is calling people to, to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God, looks a lot like sharing, like generosity of spirit, as we are able.  Perhaps this is a way towards Peace.
As our readings take us closer to Christmas, to the birth of the one who we have been waiting for – springing up like a new shoot – we will find a clearer focus on the Prince of Peace who is to come, and the way of peace he walked.

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Hope, and Peace

Perhaps we can make time to keep our eyes open for signs of new growth in the winter gloom, when all seems cold.
Are there shoots appearing? Are there signs of new life?
Can we pursue peace by looking for justice, and by sharing as far as we are able?
We can share kindness, and patience, and perhaps a smile to cheer someone’s day.  Perhaps we can do more than that.  If we have the choice to simplify things for ourselves, we may find we have a little room to share with others.
Might that be a path to a more peaceful Christmas?

Wherever you are in your Christmas preparations today, may you know Peace.

This photo is of an apparently dead, flailed hazel hedge near where I live. Despite this treatment, it has put out some new growth. How many years it’ll withstand such an onslaught, I don’t know. But I am heartened to see the new shoot growing up from a very unpeaceful process. You can read more about the hedge here.

As a small stone, dropped in a pool, sends ripples to its furthers edges,
help us know our small actions of love and kindness can do great good.

Help us do the good things we can,
trusting you will use them.

From Prayers and Verses

On the subject of trees, Eden online bookshop has a few copies of my children’s picture book available….

Hope – the first Sunday in Advent

As the days have grown darker, and colder, I’ve been thinking about Advent, and hope. Traditionally, Hope is the theme of the first Sunday of the season, the first Sunday of the Church year too. Autumn seems to have been long, and restorative, and I’m not quite ready for winter. But here we are, nonetheless. And winter has its consolations.

I think there is wisdom in the old practices of having Advent as a time of quiet, reflective, waiting – a little like Lent before Easter. It’s so at odds with the flashing lights and loud shops and busyness, that understanding, but we can perhaps catch moments where those wintering practices are possible, and might help us….. pools of quiet light where we can breathe and think.

I’m also intrigued by the more medieval practice of putting yourself in the place of the people of Israel as they waited, not quite knowing what they were waiting for. Of not naming Jesus and Christmas, but instead allowing what we long for to be recognised and owned and prayed and worked for. In our context we join so many people throughout history who have felt the future to be shifting and uncertain, and who have longed for a kinder, gentler and more beautiful world. Taking some time to know and feel what we lack, what kind of world and lives we desire, might help us too face a troubling future with some courage and determination.

So Hope is a good place to begin.

Ah, hope. I’ve been turning over in my mind what it means to nurture hope in a world which seems increasingly unstable in climate and economics and culture. I’ve settled, for now, on making a distiction between hope and optimism. So, for me, I’m thinking of optimism as an opinion that things will work out. Something tied to outcomes. I see hope as a stance, an attitude of the heart and spirit, that it’s always worth looking for what brings life, for what is good. It does not require us to be naive about the dangers and difficulties around and within us. We are called to be as wise as serpents, and as gentle as doves – Matthew’s gospel.

Nonetheless, it’s worth working as if the world-as-it-could/should-be is here, emerging amongst us, small as the signs and growth may be. Not a glib avoidance strategy that it’s all fine, really, it’s all going to be fine…. but as a deliberate and courageous stance, holding on to a vision of how things could be.  With the cost of living crisis bringing fear and hardship, and with the climate noticiably more unstable, we need courageous hope that’s prepared to work to refashion things around us in defiance of what we see.  There is real power in such acts.

The picture of the bulbs and the bookmark at the top of this post relates to an action I took with some friends in our local high street to coincide with last year’s COP. We handed out bulbs and bookmarks, and encouraged people to think about ways they could plant hope. You can read more about that here.

Little Free Pantry at St Andrew’s Church, Melton

As Advent begins, we re-read the words of the prophets together.  They often spoke into desperate, unpromising circumstances with a mixture of a vision to hold in our hearts, and actions for our hands to do.  Those actions can be prophetic themselves, speaking out and making plain God’s dream for the world – a beautiful, hopeful vision strong enough to withstand hard times – brave enough to choose to be born to a poor family, who sheltered in a stable, and had to run from a murderous tyrant.  This is how hope was offered to the world, in the infant Jesus.

During this Advent series, I’ll share with you some extracts from my books.  Here’s something from The Bible Retold , as the retelling of the Hebrew scriptures comes to an end, and we look forward..

As the walls were rebuild, so were the people.  For God was building them into a new kind of kingdom.  Isaiah the prophet wrote: “This is how to truly serve me: unbind people who are trapped by injustice, and lift up those who are ground down.  Share your food with the hungry, and clothe the cold – that is how to live in the light!”

The people listened to his words of bright hope.  “There is much darkness in the world, but your light is coming!  All nations will be drawn to you, and they, too, will shine!”
….

“A child is born to us,
a son is given.
Authority will rest
on his shoulders,
and his names will be
Wonderful Counsellor,
Mighty God,
Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.
His kingdom, his peace,
will roll across the lands,
and he will reign on the
throne of David for ever.”

We give thanks for the work that is being done right now, in our communities, to clothe, and feed, and seek justice.  May we have the courageous vision to join with that work of light.

From Prayers and Verses

Scatter the darkness from before our paths.

(Adapted from the Alternative Service Book)

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The days are dark,
Dear God, give us your true light.

The days are dark,
Dear God, give us your true life.

The days are dark.
Dear God, give us your true love.

From Prayers and Verses

The Advent Candle Ring is from the good people at The Chapel in the Fields
It gives me great pleasure to know that the oak at the base was once a lectern, and the lighter wood on top a dining table.  The words written around it are from the ancient chants, the  “O” Antiphons. These chants came into being when people did not call for Jesus to come at Christmas, but instead used names from the Prophets – like Emmanuel, God with us – to name their hopes.  The first few centuries of the Christian Era saw these great prayers, the “O” Antiphons, sung during Advent, calling on Christ to come now, and to come again.
You can listen to the old chant, and read Malcolm Guite’s sonnet, and much more, here.

This coming week, let’s hold on to hope, look for signs of the life of God breaking through, and see where we can be part of that move towards a more beautiful, loving, hopeful world.

From the top photo…..

I made my bookmark with a stamp by the lovely Noolibird.

The plastic free bulbs are from Farmer Gracy

And the table is from Hannah Dowding Furniture

Wildlife corridors – a hedge story, and a poem.

I’m really pleased to be part of Transition Woodbridge’s Wildlife Corridors project. You can read more about Transition Woodbrige here, and Wildlife Corridors here.

We’re a group of all sorts of people from about the town who are seeking to make it a bit more wildlife friendly, and learning and sharing as we go. So below, you’ll find a little story about one of our hedges which I wrote for the group’s newsletter. We’re beginning to do more of this – passing on our often falterning steps towards a different way of thinking about our gardens. Here, our hedge had a beetle problem, and we tried a gentler and more natural approach to the plague of viburnum beetles than we might have done in the past. We’re delighted that the hedgeline is gradually becoming much more beautiful, diverse, and better for a wider range of creatures than simply the dreaded viburnum beetle!

After the account, you will find a poem drawing on this same hedge, and its story of renewal.

A hedge story – from pest control to native beauty.

It was a thin strip of dark green, between drives and walls. Our viburnum hedge joins what’s left of the original roadside hedgerow with holm oak and wild cherry plums to the network of gardens and trees behind. A narrow corridor of life, but with precious winter flowers for the bees, and just occasionally, a wren or a bluetit nested there. It was part of the planting we inherited.

A few years ago, it began to sicken dramatically.  Viburnum beetle. It looked devastated, and I had my doubts if it would recover. We consulted the RHS website, cut away the worst of it, and scraped out some of the soil underneath where the grubs overwinter.  As I did so, I felt the poverty of the soil – it was grey, had no structure, with no visible worms or other minibeasts. So we piled on the homemade compost and autumn leaves.  We also decided to enrich it more permanently with native plants – for as it was, it could not renew itself, and the long strip of monoculture was an easy target for the dreaded beetle.

I bought some bare rooted spindle from Botanica and interspersed these with hazel that the squirrels had kindly planted around the garden. In the autumns to come, I’m hoping for a blaze of butter yellow hazel, with bright red leaves and pink/orange berries from the spindle. All to fall to the ground and feed it.

It’s limped through this year’s drought, but we’re getting there.  It’s drawn in so many more creatures already. The insects are returning.  The soil has worms, and frogs and mice make their way along it.  At night bats hunt over it, and by day, the dragonflies. Many plants are finding their way there, each making their own contribution.  At first, it was mustard garlic.  Now, there’s purple toadflax, birdsfoot trefoil, various bedstraws and all manner of other plants.  Butterflies and caterpillars, bees and hoverflies, and a healthy range of beetles are making a home here.

There’s a trellis separating our neighbour’s drive from this hedge and, in consultation with them, we’ve planted garden seeds and cuttings – vetch and perpetual sweet peas to improve the soil, honeysuckle, roses and jasmine.  Again, I hope that next year it will be truly beautiful.

And as for the beetle attack… there have been a few nibbled leaves in the last two years, but nothing more than that. And, if some of the original plants die, there is  plenty of life to take advantage of the light and air they leave.  We have moved from a dark monoculture to a diverse and increasingly native abundance, with so much more food for all life.  The viburnum still gives flower at a time of year when the natives are quiet, and deep cover too for plants and animals and birds. But the natives are making their presence felt now, and bringing so much beauty, diversity and abundance. It’s becoming a joy, and an example of how gentle care can slowly move a garden to something far more alive. I’m watching what it’s doing with real delight. What will be next?

And now the poem…..

Green ink 1
Hedge

And the garden now is my poem.
So this hedge, this long line of joy
and work, rhymes its meanings
back and forth, carries them through
seasons, through drought and cold
by bird and frog and bee. Carries
deep memory of the land, of wood
and hedgerow, orchard and field, and deep
hope too, for what may be, and
what is becoming. And growing.

For joy and work wrought it,
and renewed it, planted these
saplings of spindle and hazel
that will be red and gold as
leaves fade in late sun, fade
to such an illuminated brightness.


And I see what may be, what are,
sweet rose cuttings unfolding, and
growing, as honeysuckle twines,
and jasmine – tiny, with tiny leaves –
grows now in warmth, and sweet peas
begin their work of rising up
from hard coiled seeds.
 
All this abundance given freely
by the garden and gathered,
and tended, and shared,
as she freely gives more –
wind-blown seeds and bird-
carried berries filling the earth
to overflowing, as together we make
a line of such richness and beauty,
thought and imagining, sibilant
as the wind whips through it,
sounding like words spilling
on the page.
These words. This page.

I would write in green, I have
written in green, working
with all this life. Patient, resting
in its waiting, and growing, and fading,
ending, and beginning again.
And again. This long line of green.  

Poem: On Looking Up

This is a poem, in two parts, drawing on my morning practice of yoga in the garden. It’s patchy at this time of year, depending on rain, and sometimes cold, but there are some mornings where you catch a break in the changing weather, and know why this is a good way to begin.

I took no photos at the time, being lost – or found – in the moment, and so I include for you here some other pictures filled with light, and dark, hoping they will fill your eyes with something good. This morning, as I breathed in the light and the air, I was aware of gratitude rising within me, gifted to me. I know that American friends are turning their attention to Thanksgiving at this time of year, and so, even as winter begins its approach, I am reminded to hold on to the practice of gratitude in darkening days.

I wasn’t sure quite where to go with this poem. There were two things – the experience of suddenly becoming aware of the beauty of the sky – and that beauty itself. So I’ve noodled around with it until it sits in two parts. So, this is where it is at the moment.

On looking up

So this is how it was, this morning:
Early, feet bare on cold grass,
I raised my head, stretched my arms,
and as I did so, I remembered
to look up – to open my eyes wide.
I remembered to took up
and breathe in deep and full,
breathe in that cool
morning air, early,
before the smell of  
road runs through it.

Or maybe, it was more like this:
Raising my head, stretching
my arms, breathing deep of
the cold clear air,
my mind beginning to
steady and settle,
my eyes opened –
all at once – to the strange
dazzling luminosity of the sky.
And that sight filled me
as surely as the cold air.
For a moment, hands high,
my smile broke open
as wide as my gaze,
open as it was to this sky.

Sky as dizzying,
vertiginous depth, and falling. 
Sky, too, as ever-present wonder,
and catching. I do not know
which it was, but I know
that the beauty of it
fills me, nourishes me,
changes me.
And I am thankful.

******

For in looking up, I saw
the sky’s unknowable
dizzying depths,
its many layers, its films
of light moving across each other,
and for a moment I held
a cool breath in wonder,
and in looking, and what felt
like falling.

Highest, or deepest, the moon,
partial and pale, and floating
beyond the crumpled
white-blue linen of high clouds
and new sky. And below,
moving fast across them,
hurried and bright, the rapid
soft pink and orange of clouds
blowing in from the north.

And holding up my gaze
with each deepening breath
I see, below the clouds,
how the dark lines of birds
begin their overflight.
Gulls, risen from their
night-roost on the river,
coming inland to forage
in harrowed field,
overflowing bins,
wherever they find
what they need.
And below them,
the crowd of starlings,
chattering, still holding
a loose shape
of past murmurations,
trailing after from their
hushing reedbeds.

Each layer of sky
lower, closer, faster,
sliding against each
other in wild reckless
beauty as my body fills
with north wind,
lungs as cool as
fresh water on
a summers day.
The morning beginning
at one with these things,
with joy in these things,
with yes to these things,
with thankfulness for
all these daily
wondrous things.

River Poem: Homecoming

The River Deben at dusk.

The river is quieter in the summer – at least, it’s quieter for birds. It is busy with us humans loving and enjoying sailing and swimming and rowing and all the other things which bring us onto and into the river. There’s been much going on too about protecting the river, and I was part of an event a little while ago where we celebrated and spoke up for our river, which is the lifeblood of the town and its people, as well as all the other communities of creatures within and around it. You can read a little more about all this here if you would wish.

Photo by Lorraine Ruth Leach, Save the Deben

But, this is a poem about those birds, mainly the waders, who are far away to the north all summer. It’s so good when begin to return, as they do now and all through the shortening days. The lowlands of the east are a haven for so many migrating birds, and many are working to protect and enhance the wild places that shelter them. Just this week, the Suffolk Wildlife Trust have announced very exciting plans for rewilding part of the Deben’s watershed – Martlesham Wilds. You can read about that here.

Over the long and beautiful days of summer, I miss the winter birds – the godwits and the lapwings and the curlews and the redshanks, and so many others. I feel so honoured to live in a place blessed by their presence, by their return year after year. It’s so precious, and precarious. So here is a poem that rose up as I leaned on the flood defences, and watched the sky and the mud, and greeted the homecoming birds.

Homecoming

Oh, the waders are returning –
swooping now over the water,
their wings and tails flashed
with white against the slow dark
shimmer of river and mud.

How good to see them again,
to hear them again,
their plaintive calls
rising like long echoes of
winter, of the far north
where they have been
all summer long.

The godwits have their heads
down now, probing river-mud
for worms – again and again,
hungry, windblown,
wings aching with effort
of flight across open,
chilling seas, exhausted
and home at last, jabbing and
jabbing with their strong beaks
for worms that have been
quiet all summer, deep down,
low with heat and drought.

How I have missed them,
with their cries and angled flight,
and as the days darken,
it feels now as it does
when old friends return,
and we share a table together,
feasting and talking long
into the gathering night,
together, and content.

Mary, at your feet – the first time

A few years ago, in May, when everything was rich and green, I was reading in my garden, imagining myself into the story of Mary and Martha as told by Luke.  I was thinking of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, how that was an expression used elsewhere in the New Testament for receiving teaching as Paul did from Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).

I could not recall reading this story in the other gospels, but as my memory searched, I remembered how John writes of this family.  Into my mind came powerful pictures of Mary at Jesus’ feet in those stories – firstly I  imagined her as she ran to Jesus after her dear brother Lazarus had died, and I saw her in black speaking from her knees before him. I heard her voice as heartbroken, perhaps with an edge of disappointment, or even accusation.  Then, I thought of the feast they had to celebrate Lazarus’ renewed life, and how once again Mary was at Jesus feet, this time in extravagant thanksgiving.

Such different occasions, with such different emotion about them, but all springing from the depth of love and relationship between Mary and Jesus.  She shows Jesus, and us, who she is and how she reverberates with the sadness and joy of her life.  She comes across to me as a rich and spontaneous character, fully alive.  So in some ways it is strange that we celebrate her, in Luke’s story, for her stillness.  How hard it is for us to sit and listen, and I suspect it would have been hard for Mary too, had it not been the desire of her heart, had not that stillness have been active, charged with love.

It is a good poem to read for Sabbath rest.  It reminds us that all are welcome at the feet of Jesus, and that it is a high good to be as we are and receive.  I do not always desire this as Mary seemed to.  My mind is often scattered by worries and things which, in the end, are of little value. 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!

I am attempting to learn to be still, and that love, however thin it may be on our side, is enough.

God’s love is enough.

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.

I read early versions of these poems at a local Christian festival, Alive, and as the festival 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.

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

IMG_0366.JPG

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

Edit: 19th July 2022

The last stanza of this poem was quoted by the inspirational Diana Butler Bass in her Sunday Musings this week.  If you don’t know her work, I’m finding it’s helping me a great deal. She combines deep scholarship with passionate lived experience.  You can find a link to this work, and her reference to my poem, here.

Sunday Musings – by Diana Butler Bass – The Cottage

https://dianabutlerbass.substack.com/p/sunday-musings-e24

I’m so delighted to have one of my poems included in the wonderful Diana Butler Bass’ blog. I love her work and am currently feeling quite excited! It’s almost like I’m participating in the Wild Goose Festival from my rather hot garden.

Here’s a link to the whole poem – the first of a series.

The ‘Mary, at your feet’ poems – One

I was thinking of the small, wind-carried seeds that now fill the meadow patch of our lawn, and how we never know where our words will blow to, how they will land, or what future flowers they may bear.

Edit: 19th July.
I’ve just listened to Diana Butler Bass’ sermon on All the Marys. Wow. It’s extraordinary. Some astonishing new scholarship and some powerful rethinking of the Mary and Martha texts. I’ll do some pondering, and find out more, but here it is. If you have access to Substack, listen and be astonished.
What if this is a valid interpretation?

https://dianabutlerbass.substack.com/p/all-the-marys?utm_source=podcast-email&utm_medium=email#details


Peter the Rock, Mary the Tower.