Sunday Retold – The Sower and the Seed 16th July 2017

Part of the Sunday Retold series, based on the readings some churches follow, with passages from my books The Bible Story Retold and Prayers and Verses.

This week it’s

Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23,  the Parable of the Sower

Please feel free to use any of my material that helps you, saying where it is from.

The Sower (van Gogh)

The Sower  Vincent van Gogh

 

“Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.  So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:

 

       “I will open my mouth in parables,

        I will utter things hidden since the

             creation of the world.”

 

Matthew 13:34-35″

I love this small commentary from Matthew’s gospel – it opens up for us all kinds of insight into Jesus’ storytelling.   Things hidden since the creation of the world are spoken out – spoken out in stories.  How extraordinary is that!

Matthew’s reference takes us right back to the beginning – perhaps we can wonder what these things hidden from the beginning are.  Perhaps Jesus is unlocking meaning, and truth, showing us a natural world which is also a mirror in which we see our own experience, and a window into the mind of God.  These parables, parables of the kingdom, reveal things about the nature of God, of the kingdom Jesus tells us is near, very near, and even within us.  Things which have been hidden, up till the moment the stories begin.

Story works, as we know, very differently on the mind and heart from rational argument.  We remember stories, they stay with us, working deep in our imaginations.  Many of us remember this one – the parable of the sower.  It draws from lived experience – or it did, before so many of us ended up so far away from the rhythms of planting, and growing, and eating.  You could even say that the story itself is, in some ways, alive.

Stories reveal their meaning slowly, over time.  The words of God can grow, unfolding within our own hearts, like the secret growth of the seeds.  Not fast food for the soul, but a banquet – it takes time.

But, why didn’t he just say what he meant? we can ask.  Not every meaning can be spoken out like that, for a start.  There are different kinds of meaning. Perhaps Jesus didn’t want people simply to agree with his point of view, or perhaps he knew they weren’t ready to hear…. not all at once.  Perhaps he wanted to hold out a possibility even  to those whose hearts had been calloused by the hardness of life – the possibility they could be transformed by a new way of seeing the world. Metanoia, the Greek word usually translated repent, means to change your thinking – change your mind in a deeper sense than we usually mean it – change the whole orientation of how you see and understand things.  Even if they could not hear the meaning when they heard the story, the story would stay with them, ready to reveal meaning when the time was right.

As we read it, it can help to set to one side what we think we know of what it means – to allow our rational thinking mind to be stilled, for a while, and to respond with the heart, with the imagination.

Stories can help us make sense of our lives, they open us up to a deeper kind of reality and truth.   When we are ready.  It takes time.  Don’t rush to an explanation.

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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 Retold

 

So, I don’t want to say too much – just these few things.
I love the way the sower is generous – it is the nature of the sower to scatter the seed.  Seed is light, it lands lightly on the earth.  It speaks to me of an abundant, overflowing God, who gives, but does not impose the gift.

Secondly, I wonder about the soil.  We tend to respond to this parable individually – thinking about the state of our own hearts.  And Jesus’ interpretation points us that way. Maybe, in our communities, we can also ask what things make this soil in this place good, or poor?  Are there rocks we can remove, is there compost we can dig in, are there thistles we can pick before they set seed?  What stands in the way of  people being able to receive – for new life to thrive with them?  Is there anything we can do about it?
And, of course, we can ask the same questions of ourselves, and our lives.
We can engage in soul gardening.

Then, I have been wondering about what this word might be.

What are the seeds that Jesus is speaking of?

What did Jesus mean when he talked of the word, and of Good News?

As we read the gospels, these are good questions to hold in our minds.

Often, Jesus spoke of the good news of the kingdom of God, which is much closer than we think.  If I wonder what it is like, as well as looking at the parables, I often think – it is like the presence of Jesus – what he said, and did, how he lived, what he showed.

Transforming.

Isaiah 55:10-13English Standard Version (ESV)

10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
    and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12 “For you shall go out in joy
    and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
    shall break forth into singing,
    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
    instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall make a name for the Lord,
    an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

This is one of the other readings given, to be read alongside the Parable of the Sower.  It is worth spending some time reading it slowly,  meditating on it.

Speaking of meditating, you might like to look at the second of the Van Gogh pictures.

Notice the figure is in darkness.  Who has been a sower into your life?  Who has brought love and hope, new growth, life itself?  Can you thank them, or give thanks for them?
Are there ways you can sow good things into the lives of others – with a light generosity?
Notice the way the sun hangs over the sower’s head – does it remind you of anything? make you think anything?
How do you respond to the use of colour in the picture?
Can the light of love and goodness warm what you do today?
How do light and dark interact in the growing of a seed?

Can you nurture new life in yourself and others today?
Can you connect with living growing things?

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The Sower – Vincent Van Gogh

Help me to be patient as I wait for your kingdom
and your righteousness:
as patient as a farmer who trusts that the rains
will come in their season,
and that the land will produce its harvest.
Keep my hopes high.
Help me to pray to you and to praise you.

The Lord is good to me,
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need,
The sun, the rain, the appleseed.
The Lord is good to me.
Attributed to John Chapman, planter of orchards 1774-1845

We can do no great things,
Only small things with great love.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta 1910-1997

from Prayers and Verses

 

May the God of growth and new beginnings bless you and all you love today.

 

Poem – Treasure, Hidden. Of perseverance and hope.

 

 

 

 

Treasure, Buried

Each morning I find
small divots in the lawn,
dug neatly, completely.

Sometimes, the squirrel
comes while I am there –
both of us, quiet –
and with an arched back
and a bright eye
she digs.

Does she ever find her
hazelnut?
I don’t know.
I haven’t seen.

I do know I find
a seedling growing
unexpectedly somewhere,
sometimes,
and wonder –
was it her?

I push the divots
back into the lawn.
Each day there are more,
and more.

We value persistence,
the squirrel and I,
we value hope.

Poem – Morning Yoga Practice June 2017

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There has been much grief in the UK this week, met with an outpouring of love, and courage, and kindness.  These sudden losses shock us, remind us of our fragility, and the fragility of those we love.  The moments of national grief catch up our own more private losses, bring to mind what has gone before, and can take us deeper into questions – and the capacity to endure the space between the question and anything like an answer.

After reading Malcolm Guite’s reflections on being so close to the terrible events at London Bridge on Saturday night, I too have had these words of Shakespeare on my mind.

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days?

Asking questions seems a good response to the depths,

I am returning to my practice of writing freely, recording what draws my attention.  This morning it was this.

 

Morning yoga practice  June 2017

I bend on the grass,
look up at the bending gladioli
dancing cerise with their
graceful arches

as June’s north wind
rocks the branches,
as the air fills with
white petals –
blossom, roses –
that fall.

Why is it all so fragile,
this beauty?
why does it all slip
through my fingers?
I stretch, stretch out my
heart, and my love,
sending it both near,
both near and far away.

 
Restore them dear Lord,
Make them whole,
may they see
this life this beauty,
as the petals fall about me
in a cold blaze,
life and beauty ripped away,
yet carried on this June wind,
yet landing softly on this
green earth.

The Deadline Approaches – I AM book

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I have been working on a book for BRF for nearly a year now, and my deadline is approaching!

This means I’ll have less time to share things with you good people over the next month,  but I hope to be able to post a little something from time to time when I can.

Instead, I shall be sitting at my writing table – it’s a lovely ’60s pine one that was my family kitchen table before being passed on to me.  Many meals have been eaten off it, and veggies chopped and pastry rolled.  It also bears the marks of art projects and homework frustrations which I could sand down, but really don’t want to.

The view from the table is the picture you see here – it’s a little distracting.  Although I haven’t had my camera ready to take pictures, so far today I have seen blackbirds, a robin, and even, briefly, a kestrel at the birdbath. I think the kestrel is watching for smaller birds…..

Today, I am revising a chapter on Jesus’ saying “I AM the bread of life”, thinking about the crowds that were fed by the side of the lake, and what it might mean to be nourished by God.  It is a wonderful thing to be able to do, and it is also wonderful to be able to stretch my legs and think outside, with all that beauty and life around.

Thank you for your patience, and I’ll try to post something soon!

A parable for Earth Day

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Today is Earth Day, when we remember the great gift and joy of our common home.  I am sharing with you again a story I wrote in response to the anger and grief I was feeling at the way we so often despoil and desecrate it, with no thought beyond our immediate gains.
The good news is that another way is possible, a way of gentleness, inventiveness, the pursuit of our mutual flourishing. The rapid growth of clean technologies, the identification of the benefits of being in a natural environment for body and mind and spirit alike, are just two ways in which this hope is coming to be realised.

However you are marking Earth Day, may it be a day of joy for all the good things we have received.

The parable of the good craftsman

Once there was a craftsman who had two children. As you might expect, he had built a beautiful house out of seasoned wood, with wide windows that looked out over his lush green fields, his flocks and herds.  He had made fine, carved furniture for his house, and he had smiled when he made it, and said, “That’s good!”  He had made beautiful plates and cups and jugs out the red clay near his house, he had smiled when he made those, too, and said, “That’s good!”  He had made a sheepfold to keep his flocks safe, and smiled, then, too.  In fact, all that was around him was good and flourishing and abundant, and as he looked at it all, he laughed out loud and said, “That is all so good!”

The day came when he needed to go on a journey, as the people in these stories often do.  He thought, “My children are old enough to be left in charge now.  They have watched what I did, some of the time, and I have told them how good it is.”  And so he left, and the children looked around, and they, too, saw that it was good.  So good, in fact, that they started to think how much it was all worth.  So they sold the furniture, and the plates and cups and jugs, for a fortune.  They were made by a master craftsman, after all.  The plastic ones they bought to replace them were good enough. They looked at the lush green fields and thought, “We could rear more animals in pens.”  So they did: twice as many, three and four times even, the poor creatures.  They sold the pasture they no longer needed, and a factory and a car park grew there, large and grey and ugly.  The water from the well their father had dug became bitter, but they bought water in bottles with all the money that they had made.

Then, the time came for the father to return.  As he drew near the house, he noticed the trees along the road were withered and dying, and his smile left him.  He came across a bird trapped in plastic that blew across the fields, and he set it free.  Then, near the house, he found a thin child sitting by the side of the road.
“What is the matter?” he asked.
“I drank water from the stream that flows from over there, by that factory.  It tasted bad. Now I’m sick.”  The father gave the child water from his own flask, and picked up the child to take home. He had herbs for medicine there.

But when he got even nearer, he could see that the factory was on his own land, and that where his own fields should be was all noise and smoke.  He could see the plastic rubbish spilling over from his own front garden, from where the flowers and the vegetables and the herbs had been.  He saw his own children, with grey, indoor faces, and said, “what have you done?”
“Father, we are so pleased to see you!  Come inside, we will bring you the accounts and you will see what we have made!”
“That is not the kind of making I intended you for!” replied the father. “And see, see this child, poisoned! How will you enter that in these books of yours?  What have you done with all that I have made – do you not know that I love it all?”

Some prayers from the first chapter of Prayers and Verses

Lord, purge our eyes to see
Within the seed a tree,
Within the glowing egg a bird,
Within the shroud a butterfly.
Till, taught by such we see
Beyond all creatures, thee
And harken to thy tender word
And hear its “Fear not; it is I”.
Christina Rosetti 1830-94

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 c330-379

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1772–1834

A Poem for the road – Returning

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This week, the first full week of Lent, I have been thinking about pilgrimage, journeys, wandering in a wilderness, being unsure of the way and the destination.  I have been following Malcolm Guite’s wonderful Word in the Wilderness anthology of poetry, and I turned back to this poem of mine I had written a few years ago, and looked at it through the eyes of the wanderer in the desert.

The poem was written for the Alive Festival, which used to run here in Suffolk.  We were looking for something for our Sunday morning gathering, something which spoke of our sense of longing for home. Something that would help with the journey.  As I was searching, these words began to circle in my mind  They would not leave me alone.  I had to walk them out, pacing restlessly until the poem below took its form.

It draws from many of the stories in the Bible which help us make sense of our life’s journey.  This one, in particular, takes imagery from Genesis 3 which many churches had read this last Sunday, and are thinking about this week.  Of course, it is full of the homesickness of exile, which runs through many of the Hebrew scriptures, and the discomfort of the wilderness, which we are remembering now, at this time of year.   The poem cycles round to images drawn from the very end of the book of Revelation  All these images flowed together, as part of a larger, arching story.
I read this poem that morning at the Alive festival, set to  astonishingly beautiful music – Arvo Paart’s Spiegel im Spiegel , played then by Andrew Lord and Jonathan Evans.  The music still moves me to tears.

I hope this poem helps you today, as you walk, whether the way seems hard, or gentle.  May you come to a place of home.

 

Returning

We left the garden long ago,
Do you remember, though,
still, the trees heavy with fruit,
and how sweet it was?
To stretch out your hand was to be blessed.
Do you remember the cool waters of that deep river
silver with fish, alive and shining in the splashing sun?
And the flowers, bending and bending with the
weight of bees, the low hum of the land
that flowed with milk and honey?
He walked with us then, in the garden.

We have been wanderers for so long
in strange lands, wanderers looking
for a place of shelter, a place to lay down
the heavy loads we gathered at the gate,
when we left the garden. The pain we bear
so hard to bear for it is borne alone.

Our songs dried on our lips, the echoes of the
garden growing distant, and small:
the rhymes of the children playing in the apple tree,
the laughter and the ease of love,
hope’s courage    failing as the long dry road
wound through high and rocky passes
where nothing grows.

The path home is long, but that it what it is,
the path home to the garden,
to return to that place so distant
it has become the place of dreams.
And the gate stands before us,
terrible and splashed with blood,
the gate love made to bring us home.
And the gate is always open,
and beyond, beyond the Tree grows strong,
its green leaves fresh and full of light,
And the river flows deep and wide,
Deep, and wide, and always.
And you know the voice,
you have heard the voice say
Come, all you who have been thirsty for so long,
Come and lay your burdens down,
rest, and drink from these bright waters.
I am your home, your refuge, your song.

You can listen to the poem  here

 

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Poem: Aldeburgh Beach, January

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Photos taken at Dunwich Heath beach, a little along the coast, by Peter Skevington

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I love the North Sea in winter – its wild brown, its keen winds.  The coast is unstable here, lumps of WWII concrete, of building materials, and old fragments of glass  are thrown onto the shore.  The pebbles hiss in the breaking waves.  The waves in turn sound like a vast heartbeat.

The wind blows you alive, if you wrap up warm!

The photos above were taken this Christmas holiday, with my husband and son, as we stood on the beach and let the waves chase us.  We were not far, here at Dunwich, from Aldeburgh, where I went with a dear friend for a walk on a different day.

I am so grateful for my friends, and my family.  It is so good to be able to spend time with people you can be real and true with.  I feel very blessed to be able to count quite a few people as those whose company is as free as solitude, but enriched by their unique ways of seeing and being and insight.  The poem below attempts to capture something of my walk with one of these dear people, and I hope it can also say something bigger about the power of friendship.

I have been reading Bandersnatch, a Christmas gift from my son, which explores the relationships which formed the basis for the Inklings group, including Lewis and Tolkien, and it has clarified for me how much I need the encouragement and shared thinking and being a close group of friends can provide.  Our differences can give new vision and perspective, our mutual support can get us through difficulties that are too much for us alone.

Thank you to all my friends, and may you, reading this, have such sources of goodness in your life.

Aldeburgh Beach – January

We stood there, friends, on the beach,
facing into the east wind,
being blown full of cold,
icy and alive,
by a wind strong enough to lean on.

We stood on a cliff of pebbles
new thrown up by storms,
near the edge,
where stones rattled down,

while the sea, high and brown,
roared and crashed,
mist and foam flung
with the generosity of joy,
into our faces.
Our lips were salt with it.

In the sound of the wind we brought
our heads close enough to speak –
of the breath of God, alive,
breathing into us,
the glory of God in the brown shining.
The power of each small thing,
each small thing,
as the spray and the pebbles
danced wild around us.

Advent – a poem

 

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As we are close to the darkest time of year, it’s good to go and snatch what moments of light we can find.  Sometimes, I have to sit still, in the face of the cold wind, and allow my eyes to be open, just looking, before I begin to see the hope, the life, the turning of light’s tide.

We need the light now.

 

 

Advent

Now, at the turning of the tide,
when the days shrink small,
and night seeps through shadows,
the river flows with palest light.

Now, when light and life seemed frail,
and failing, the tide turns, water returns,
eddying and rippling the  slow, chilled, flow,
a river new filled with salt, with wide sea.

And the white gulls dive, and lift their heads,
and rise, quicksilver water
pouring off their opening wings,
beaks full of flailing, silver fish.

And here, on these grey banks,
flowers are open again: stems
split and burst with green leaves and
yellow petals, new touched with life.

 

 

November Sowing

 

 

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We have a couple of small veggie patches in our garden.  Maybe, when the garden was planned and the trees were smaller, they were in the perfect place.  Now, they are rather shady, and need just the right weather for things to thrive.  Leaves will grow, though, and sometimes surprisingly.

There are often some seeds left over by the end of the season, and sometimes, I feel inclined to plant anyway.  Maybe, with a mild winter, and some protection, they’ll get a head start in the spring, before the trees are in full leaf.  As I was planting, I thought about all the times when it can feel too late, hopeless.  When we can feel too old to start something, or as if we have blown our chances.  Whatever it was we dreamed of, it can seem like there isn’t enough warmth for our dreams to grow.  It can feel like planting in November with chilly fingers.

I love the defiance of November sowing.  What is wasted by taking a chance, anyway?  A few leftover seeds… and who knows? Come the spring, my veggie patch may be full of little green plants.  I may have good things to eat, and to share.

 

It is not too late!

 

 

 November Sowing

I planted seeds today, scraping my fingernail
into the corners of old packets:
cavolo nero, romanesco, mizuna –
such names – exotic, full leaved, sharp.

I sowed them where I sowed before,
under tall trees thick and damp with falling leaves,
remembering how spring was baked dry,
and summer was pitted with rain, lightless.

But now, today, this low slanting sun is warm.
Now, in this out of season sowing
with leftover seed, I am surprised
to find myself hopeful, joyful
even, at this extravagant gesture.

I know full well that they may never grow,
But maybe, just maybe they will.
Each day is a day for sowing,
it is not too late.

 

 

 

From Prayers and Verses

Help me to be patient as I wait for your kingdom
and your righteousness:
as patient as a farmer who trusts that the rains
will come in their season,
and that the land will produce its harvest.
Keep my hopes high.
Help me to pray to you and to praise you.

 

Selworthy Green

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We’ve recently come back from a very tranquil holiday in Exmoor, at Selworthy Green.  Thatched cottages stand around the Green, while a little lane winds alongside towards the church.  It has views out over a valley to the moors, but itself is sheltered in beautiful, steep woodlands.  The cottages were built for pensioners, who were responsible for maintaining the woodland paths.  The tiny cottage where we stayed was home to the maid who took care of them.

Our first full day was bright and clear, and we spent all of it outside walking from our quiet base in the Green.  As the sun was beginning to go down, we sat at its highest point, and watched the light change over the hills.  My notebook came out, and I wrote this first:

 

Selworthy Green

Green is the colour of a stillness,
the kind of stillness
that is round and full
with a whole bellyful of life

like those apples over there,
clustered in shining handfuls
on the branch,
and the yellow green of the ash behind,
and behind that the olive of the holm oak,
and above and beyond that
the black green of the tall pines.

Breathe its sweetness,
its clearness,
as easy to a fragile body
as an oxygen mask
but with all this, all this, too.
You can’t take a breath,
can’t live,
without such gratitude
to the trees.