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.

Note, 25th March. This note is by way of apology. I was intending to make this a series running through Lent this year, and haven’t done so. I had a commission for New Daylight – I haven’t done anything for them before, and it took me a little while to get into the groove. That series of meditations will be published next year, also on parables. I wrote on the relationship rather than nature parables, and I couldn’t quite get my head around doing both things! I’ll tell you more about the New Daylight work nearer the time.

The Sower keeps calling to me though, there’s more to explore, and I’ll find a way of doing that with you in due course. Thank you for your patience!

Poem: Maidens Grove/Grave – Lockdown III

On some maps, especially old ones, part of the wood near where I live is called Maidens Grove, or Maidens Grave. I can’t help wondering what was the fate of the maiden, and how long ago her story may have been told. It feels ancient to me, something passed down and down until it was forgotten – but perhaps not by all, perhaps someone knows the tale, still, and still tells it.

At some point this land seems to have been used as a quarry, and there is an abrupt slope down to the bottom of the wood, which I like to reach via a steep and narrow path through an arch of holly bush – it has the air of a portal, an entrance into a different world. And down here, it is different. The soil and the plants are darker and denser, and the land is crossed by streams. It’s here I gather the ransoms, wild garlic, when they emerge. It’s here I look for snowdrops. The paths are thick mud. You need to think about how the weather was a few days previously to guage how robust your boots need to be, and the trees sometimes suffer from the unstable ground, even though more sheltered from the wind.

The trees that fall are left where they fall, food for so many creatures, giving back to the soil.

And so, down here in Maidens Grove, or Grave, I came across a new loss, a huge straight tree pulled out of the ground. The image of it wouldn’t leave me alone. I’ve been trying to find a way of writing about the vastness of the losses we are all facing with the pandemic, and the desperate sorrow of each one of those losses. This poem isn’t it, nowhere near, but something of the sadness of the time seeps into it. I don’t want to look for signs of hope, for the new life that might come, and yet in the wood at least I found myself noticing such signs, by hopeful reflex, and began wondering if I could accept that they were there, even by the grave of a great tree.

Poems this lockdown aren’t coming so easily. You can read about the very gentle, informal project here. I will continue to share them with you as they emerge. Shared experiences are hard to come by, and I am encouraged to find that we can find connection here, on line, and I hope that with this poem, we can take a walk in the woods, wherever you may be spending this difficult, winter lockdown. So thank you for your time, and your company. I hope we can all find hope, in due season.

Maiden’s Grove/Grave

Here, down in the
sheltered hollow
of Maiden’s Grove,
or Grave,
dark paths
of deep mud
are laid across
with sticks,
marks of the care
and kindness
of those who have
walked this way before.

Here, these paths
are edged with the
first signs of ransoms
emerging, pale and
curved, beckoning
in all this darkness.

Here, as the small stream
cuts slowly, year by year,
through layers
of gravel and clay,
a great tree lies fallen,
stretched back into
the heart of the wood,
green with ivy only,
blocking the water’s flow.

Its fall has splintered many branches,
and about it,
other trees stand wounded,
open, half felled by this great fall.
I feel the moan and the
crash of it,
its life-roots darkly upended,


but here,
the deep bowl its
roots have left
is already filled by
the seep of water,
black with an ash grey sheen,
where a few of last year’s
leaves float,
overshadowed
by this great spread
of root and earth.

The bowl is new
in this old, shifting
landscape,
not yet softened by
new growth –

and yet so soon, so soon,
its surface pits and circles
with movement below,
stirred by some creatures
who have found it, already,
already made it a home.

This dark bowl seems a spring
from which the stream flows now,
a source, a beginning,
down, over stones and branches
and spoilheaps of mud
to here, where I stand,
where the dark
path crosses.

Around it,
a tangle of brambles
and a scatter of birds,
and unseen,
a creep of creatures
comes to this place,
the tree’s root-grave,
sprung open,

rolled away by a mighty wind,
so full of life,
already, and already
that life begins its work,
softening, decaying,
and now,

I am allowing
myself to wait,
to wait and see
who will come here,
what will rise again here,
in Spring.

In a few weeks, the ransoms will be up and fragrant and ready to eat.

Poem: Inside, Outside. Lockdown III

This new lockdown, I am writing in my notebooks again, letting what emerges, emerge. You can read about the Lockdown Poems here – their immediacy, their rootedness in my place.

Once again, I have begun writing what I see, and what is before me in this moment. Whereas the earlier poems, starting in March, are largely written outside, this one is about looking out. Beginning to write is a revealing thing. As I proceeded, I felt that what I was exploring was that sensation of being stuck inside – looking out, but not with longing. I am looking out at a world that is far from inviting. Cold, wet, and darkening as it is. Once again, that small moment, that everyday feeling of watching the rain, seemed to unfold and reveal a wider and deeper difficulty. Not so much of being stuck inside, but of not wanting to venture out into a world that seems alarming, potentially dangerous, as we face the terrible acceleration of the pandemic’s spread. It is truly terrible, the grief that is echoing around our closed rooms, the potential for harm in each interaction.

But venture out I will – the natural world still offers its hospitality and welcome, however cold and dark it seems. The garden and area around still see me tramping about for exercise and refreshment. I had a new waterproof coat for Christmas, which is making all the difference to how I feel about being outside just now – at least from the point of view of the weather. The pandemic is a different matter. My venturing is limited now, circumscribed and circumspect. I notice an increasing tendency to some anxiety at the thought of “out”. That anxiety is well founded. I am listening to it, and taking what precautions I can. As we all are.

It will not always be so, though. We will emerge. For now, the balance and relationship between inside and outside has shifted, profoundly connected to the natural world as we are. We can feel cut off from the winter, we are certainly cut off from each other. But even now, there are tiny wonders to be seen out there, small hopes and shifts, if we can raise our eyes and look.

Inside. Outside   Lockdown III

Inside, looking out,
through golden light
to cold grey,
through glass
and warm air
and stillness,
to where the
cold wind shudders the trees.


Outside, the curved seedpods
of the tree peony
drip with ice rain,
glittering

While candlelight
and lamplight
are reflected in the glass,
and glow orange in
the darkening grey garden.

And a tumble of birds
comes, and goes,
comes, and goes,
chattering endlessly
on the feeders
that sway in the sharp wind

And if I hold my nerve,
and hold the gardener’s gaze,
even from here I can see
that fuzz of green
on the ice-furzed soil –
Herb Robert, violets,
the tissue-paper yellow
of wet primroses,
and the soft spears
of bulbs just beginning.
Bluebells.  Cerise gladioli.

Outside seems far away.
A different air.
A different light.
But soon my boots
will be on my feet,
and my coat wrapped about me,
and I will feel that frost,
and the cold wind,
and I will feel
the ice rain again.

To keep our spirits up, a reminder of what is to come.

Poem – Dreaming of Flowers, Lockdown III

Here in England we are back in lockdown – I think it’s Lockdown III, depending on how you count the November one. It’s exhausting, and so difficult for so many, with all the chopping and changing. It’s dreadful to watch the numbers of sick and dying rising every day, and to hear of the hardships lockdown brings too. It’s relentless. I am so grateful to the science and health professionals who are working so hard to both tend the sick and find ways of overcoming the virus. I am so grateful for the promise of the vaccines. I only hope we can get them delivered quickly and effectively.

In the first lockdown, I wrote snatches of poems which often started from times of quiet, seeking stillness in the garden. You can read about that here. How much of that I’ll do at this time of year I don’t know. What this lockdown will bring we can’t say. But I find myself drawn again to the gentle changes of weather and season, plants and flowers, as a way of steadying myself, and marking the passage of time, and connecting with something beyond myself which gives glimpses of hope.

In the November lockdown, or circuit-break, I’m not quite sure what name to give it, I indulged the gardener’s delight of ordering and planting bulbs for the spring, and began dreaming of flowers – I found myself waking with planting schemes forming in my mind. I needed something to look for beyond the shortening of the days, the closing in of the weather, and the uncertainty surrounding Christmas. I found it was effective. It was someting within my control, something I could do to introduce an element of hope and change and the promise of beauty. It gave me physical work, too, which in turn helps with sleep.

And yesterday, the notebook came out, and tentative jottings began to emerge.

So I don’t know whether this will become a regular practice, but, as in the first lockdown, I thought I’d share with you whatever it is that comes up, and see if that connects with you, who are kind enough to share your time and attention with me here. I hope we can peep outside, and see something that lifts us. I hope we can receive the gifts this dark season gives, and perhaps bring a few sprigs of green inside. We can plant hope, even here.

So this poem, which might be the first of a new series of Lockdown poems, draws on the earlier planted hope, and receives encouragement and delight from seeing new things spring up. I also wonder – what this time? What might I do during this lockdown? Of course, there is no necessity for there to be anything, it is enough to live in these strange days, but, I am wondering what there might be that is within my scope and power to do, to begin, to dream of….

Dreaming of flowers  Lockdown III

Each morning, now,
as the sun nudges fitfully up,
I do my rounds of the garden,

sometimes under a wide umbrella,
walking with as much grace
as I can muster,
careful not to trample the
sodden, spongy ground.


I am looking for fingers of crocus,
ready to spread,
and snowdrops, grey-green
in the dark soil.
I am looking for what I planted,
and for what has inched
in patient drifts through
the waiting ground.

And there, and there,
I begin to see.
Each day, I hope,
a few more,
and a little taller.

On better nights,
I dream of flowers now,
and wake to think of flowers.
Red and purple
and orange, spread
like velvet, loud with bees.
The hard knots of bulbs
I planted in fistfuls
by November’s shrinking light –
in a fury of hope,
in defiance of the
narrowing circle
of my life, of our lives –
they will awaken.


They are beginning
to do their work now,
this time, within me,
locked down once more,
they are beginning
to push up from the
cold dark depths,
beginning to green
in this faintest, tentative,
stretching of the light.

And what this time?
What will I do that
could push through
the darkness with
green spears of hope,
could fill my dreams
with the scent of life?



A poem for New Year’s Eve – Crossing the Blyth at sunset, at the turn of the year

All the photos in this post were taken by my husband on a wild and stormy day at Walberswick.

This is a strange New Year’s Eve. It’s disconcerting to think how little we anticipated what this year would bring at it’s beginning. It throws our attempts at planning and new resolutions into all kinds of disarray, if we try to look ahead. So I’m attempting to leave the future where it is today. I’m trying to look deeper, at some of the lessons this year of a long pause, a long hesition. I’m noticing that there are things I can take forward…. the things I miss and therefore know their worth, the things I don’t miss as much as I expected. Knowing the value of community, connection, kindness more keenly, I’ll look for ways to nurture them in these new days. Knowing how the natural world has sustained me this year, I’ll be looking to continue to deepen my appreciating, and active care.

The poem I’m sharing with you today was written at a previous New Year. We nearly missed the foot ferry between Southwold and Walberswick while out on a long winter’s walk with our family. It ran till sunset – and sunset was upon us. It speaks of a happier time, when family could stay, when the foot ferry was open, as well as The Bell Inn at Walberswick. Today, husband and I did a long bright blue walk along the River Deben’s bank downstream from the creek, as far as you can now before the breach. It was beautiful, full of birds and ice. Little flags of ice clung on to the reeds after high tide and flashed in the sun. But I did remember this Walberswick walk, and the strange feeling of being suspended between the two shores, the two closed gates, in the hands of the ferryman whose course was sure even though it seemed to slant so across the water.

It helped me thinking about today, where I feel suspended between two shores. This year, the new shore seems further away, and harder to know. We are not used to feeling quite this adrift, and uncertain. Trust, hope, faith, love – and action drawn from these – are important now. But so is sitting with the uncertainty, with the not knowing where we are going and what we are doing. Perhaps in this space we can dream of a shore with warm, welcoming lights, with togetherness, with hope. Perhaps we may find we can be such a shore for each other, and keep lights of hope and welcome burning in the long cold nights.

I’ve shared with you another poem about winter walking along this shore, and a murmuration of starlings. You can read that here.

Crossing the Blyth at sunset, at the turn of the year.

We walked fast towards the ferry –
nearly too late –
and saw the ferryman on the other side,
the gate closed behind him.
But we waved, and he came,
his blue boat a long wide
curve across the river.

Behind him the setting sun,
the treeshapes
black against the orange sky,
How beautiful it is.
He helps us on board,
offering me his hand
with nautical courtesy,
and then shuts the gate
firmly behind us.

So we thank him, and our blue boat
begins to churn those golden waters
rippling with a fast tide,
as we seem to hang for a time
between those two closed gates,
between those two jetties,
in neither one space, nor the other.
We are somewhere else instead,
where all is gold,
where darkness lies behind,
where the lights of the houses and
the wide-open pub are ahead of us,
lights that warm with the hope of welcome.

We are suspended for a while
in this Adnams-blue boat
with the diesel and the saltsmell
and the cry of the birds,
bathed in light, trailing
an ice hand in water
the same colour
as the light.
Here we are.
This moment.
Between two moments.
How beautiful it is.

Poem: November Trees – twilight

I wrote this when it was darkening fast – by the end I could not see the marks my pencil was making in my notebook. Darkness comes so early now, but that change into night is beautiful, and, if we can take a moment to notice it, has things to teach us too.

So I have no photo of this moment, but am offering you others from autumn, and hope that you will have a chance to look out of the window, or walk through darkening paths, and see the trees as they settle for the winter, and the birds as they settle for the night.

November trees – twilight

It grows dark.
The trees are black lines
against a yellow sky
which shines, illuminating
through a net of ink,
and the last birds drift
overhead to their roosts
by the river,
and the last birds murmur
and settle in those darkening
trees,

And quiet sadness
creeps like frost across the grass,
as the last flowers
bow their rimy heads.

And suddenly, the question –
What are we to do?
seems a different kind of puzzle.
Not one to solve, but
one to lay down,
in its many pieces,
on the cold grass,
slowly, in wonder.

All this before me knows
what to do, and does it.
Rooted, patient,
receiving the weather like
weather –
whatever comes, comes.

From this place, it will act
when action stirs it with
the unsettling brightness
of spring.  When the ink
stirs once more with green sap.


Until then,
the cold trees will
net the light,
and wait, and deepen,
the darkness will spread
as I am learning to be
grateful for this breath,
to watch this red leaf
spin on a thread of
spiders web,
to feel the cold
sting me alive.

Retold: The plagues of Egypt – Exodus

Sitting alongside my series of poems drawn from Exodus, I’m sharing retellings from my book, The Bible Story Retold. I hope this gives some shape and context to the poems, which are free meditations, drawing on what has come up as I’ve spent time in prayer with the stories. This, on the plagues, is a companion to the most recent poem, Stone Heart/Let Go.

This is a hard story. The journey to liberation for the Hebrew people passes through great difficulty. The new beginning comes after a terrible ending. It is a story of the stubborn refusal of Pharaoh to let go, to release the people. It is the story of catastrophies piling up, one on another, or of a cascade of difficulty. Some of the Hebrew scholarship I’ve looked at in researching this section of the story invites us to consider how we can usefully refect on this section as environmental disaster, where exploiting the land and labour leads to these terrible consequences. One of the traditions of Hebrew scholarship is that of midrash, where different ways and levels of reading the story are held, each one having some light to shine for us. So there are, of course, other ways of seeing things, but for me, now, this one is speaking, and illuminating a path to action..

What if we, as individuals and as a culture, let people go, released them, allowed people to do something as apparently unproductive as to journey into the wilderness, and worship? What if we acknowledged that God desires justice, and mercy, and humble walking? I wonder what that would mean for us. Perhaps there is some hope for us, as we find ourselves at a time when difficulties mount up, when things are falling apart,that this could be a turning point, part of the process necessary for things to change.

It’s a long extract, so I’ll leave it to say what it says. You can find the Exodus account from Chapter 7 to Chapter 12, if you would like to read the original. I hope to write about the last plague, but now doesn’t seem the right time. Now, I’m turning my attention to Advent, and hope. When I do write the end of the Exodus series, I’ll share it with you here, and put together a post to help find all the Exodus material together.

Ten Blows for Egypt

Moses and Aaron warned Pharaoh of the terrible things that would happen if he did not set the slaves free, but he would not listen. And so, it began.

First, they spoke to Pharaoh by the Nile as he went down to bathe. Moses and Aaron stood by the banks of the river and said, “This is what our God says: you must free our people to go to the wilderness. If you won’t listen, the river will become blood red, undrinkable, stinking. Egypt will be thirsty.”

Pharaoh turned away and carried on toward the bathing place. Then Aaron raised his staff and brought it down on the water with a mighty splash. The water swirled, thickened, and reddened, like blood, and gave off a foul smell. Fish floated gasping to the surface and died. But Pharaoh’s magicians could change water too, so he simply went back to the palace, unimpressed. He would not let the people go.

Second came the frogs. Once again Moses and Aaron warned Pharaoh, and once again he ignored them. So Aaron went around the land, stretching his staff over the Nile and all of the pools and ditches. They heaved and swarmed with frogs. The frogs came up into people’s houses, hopping on beds, clustering together on the plates.

Pharaoh was disgusted. “Yes, yes, I’ll let them go!” he said, and Moses prayed to God, and the frogs died. The Egyptians swept them into festing heaps. But then Pharaoh changed his mind.

Third came the gnats. There was the warning, and the refusal, and then gnats rose up in clouds like the dust of the destert. All people and animals were covered with bloodsucking insects. There was no relief. Pharaoh’s magicians had never seen anything like it; “This is God’s doing,” they warned him. But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and stubborn. He would not let the people go.

Fourth came the flies. “Go and confront Pharaoh on his way to his bathing place. Tell him he must let my people go. Warn him of what will happen next – the air will be thick with flies. But they will not come to Goshen, the place where my people live.” God’s words were clear, but Pharaoh did not listen. Soon the air was loud with buzzing, and every surface was crawling with flies – all the food was speckled and black. Only Goshen was free from them.

“Go on, then,” said Pharaoh. “Go to the wilderness.” But then he changed his mind.

Fifth came the animals. Moses and Aaron warned Pharaoh, but his heart was as hard as ever. All the livestock sickened and died; all the cattle, the sheep, the horses that pulled the chariots, and the traders’ camels – all dead. Only the animals in Goshen were spared.

Sixth came boils. The warning was ignored once again, and Moses threw soot up in the air right in front of Pharaoh. The soot blew onto the people, and they were covered with red, pus-filled boils. The boils spread, but Pharaoh remained as hard and cold as stone.

Seventh came hail. “This is what God says,” Moses told Pharaoh. He’s warning you: ‘You’re still building your kingdom on the backs of my people. You do not recognize my power, and so you will see more of it. I will send hail. Get everything under cover, for nothing will survive.'”

Pharaoh’s servants heard these words, and some hurried to hide their families and animals. Then the sky boiled with clouds and shuddered with angry thunder, and the hail come down. Huge white hailstones bounced on the earth, smashing everything. Nothing could survive in the open – and the crops were pummelled to a sodden pulp. But in Goshen, the sky stayed clear.

Eighth came locusts. When Pharaoh’s court heard the terrible warnings, they said, “Why don’t you listen to these men and let the slaves go? Can’t you see that the whole country is being ruined?” But Pharaoh’s stony heard would not soften, and so a terrible army of locusts marched across the ground, hungrily devouring everything that had been smashed by the hail. Not a tree, not an ear of grain, was spared.

Ninth came a heavy, suffocating darkness. The air was thick and hard to breathe. Such was the darkness that for three days and nights no one could leave their homes. All sat and talked in whispers under its weight. except in Goshen, for there was light in Goshen.

Tenth was death. Terrible, terrible were the warnings that God gave, heavy with the knowledge that Pharaoh would not listen, for his heart was set against God and the Israelites.

“This is it: get ready. After the tenth blw, Pharaoh will beg you to leave,” God said. And so Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and warned him of the grief that would crush Egypt if he did not let the slaves go.

“This is the final message from God, your last chance to change your mind. Listen now to God’s last warning: ‘Every firstborn son will die. From Pharaoh’s son to the son of the lowest slave woman who grinds the grain by hand, no one will be spared if you do not spare my people. When this terrible thing happens, all our people, courteirs and servants alike, will beg on their knees that you let my people go.'”

Pharaoh listened in stony silence. He would not relent

From my book, “The Bible Story retold in twelve chapters”.

You can buy the book online, for example at

Eden

Bookshop.org

The Little Christmas Tree – some ideas for 2020

Last year, I shared with you how my children’s Christmas book had taken on a new resonance as we considered the need to protect our wild spaces – the home of so many beautiful creatures. The story is set in a wood, and the characters are the woodland animals. You can read more about it in last year’s post here. As we’ve been in lockdown, many of us have experienced a closer bond with nature, realising how important the natural world is to us. In simple ways, we can deepen that bond. I am finding it helps to care for the creatures I share my garden with – in the last few weeks I’ve built – or assembled – a hedgehog house, and put up a new bird feeding station. It gives me joy to watch the birds through my window, even as I’m typing away here.

This year, the story’s themes of kindness and hospitality, of gentleness and welcome, matter greatly. At a time when so many people in our community are facing loneliness and hardship, considering how we can best help when our usual practices of hospitality are not possible is very important. For instance food banks, and our Little Free Pantry, are a good way of giving and sharing if we can. A reverse advent calendar, where you add something to a box for every day leading up to Christmas, can be a way of sharing.

So that’s a couple of ideas that draw on the themes of the book. They might be appropriate for Advent this year, things we can do as individuals, households, or maybe schools. I’d like to share with you some ideas from other people, too…

I’m finding it’s really hard to think about Christmas this year – what might be possible, and what might be wise. It’s hard to think of not seeing those we love as we would wish, and it’s hard not being able to plan ahead. But we can begin. I am greatly encouraged that people are making plans, and beginning to get in touch and share how they’d like to use my books this year.

Here is the sparkly paperback edition

I’ll share something else about The Little Christmas Tree here, and then, an idea for another book another day!

The first idea comes from Janeene Streather, who makes engaging Youtube videos using BSL. Her videos are for the deaf community, their families, and schools – many of whom integrate some BSL into their classrooms and assemblies. You can find a link to her channel here.

She would like to make a BSL video of The Little Christmas Tree, as part of her series of stories for children. Once again, I’ll post more details when I have them. I hope to share the link with you, so you can easily watch Janneene.

For all of us, we are used to being able to visit schools, or churches, or share our work with communities in other ways, and are unable to do so this year. But we can share here.

Please do use these ideas and resources, acknowledging the source. If you’d like to use my book, I’d love to hear your ideas from you, and share them on here if you’d like me to.

If you’d like a copy, you may well be able to order through your local bookshop even if it’s closed. Alternatively, there are the usual online places. I’m particularly excited about this new venture, though, and commend it to you….

Bookshop.org is a new enterprise which supports local bookshops while selling online. It’s applying for B corporation status in the UK, which means it operates to high ethical standards and makes a positive contribution to communities. You can read a newspaper article about it here.

If you follow this link, you’ll find my book The Little Christmas Tree on sale there.

You can also find it on Eden bookshops, and all the other online shops.

Note and Correction:

In an earlier version of this post, I shared an idea for an outside nativity. I’d got my wires crossed and thought it was using The Little Christmas Tree. It will be using another of my books, The Bible Story Retold. You can read all about that here. Apologies for the muddle!

Poem: One and Many

This week, as the darkness and the weather continue to close in, and the news is full of sadness and anger, I’ve been doing something I have never done before – as so many of us are.

I’ve been participating in an online retreat, by zoom, with the Community of Aiden and Hilda, which should have been at Lindisfarne – Holy Island. I’ve never been to such a retreat before, and had not planned to go, but I was encouraged by a friend to try, and dip my toes into those North Sea waters from further south. The week’s subject is The Way of Three, exploring the Celtic love of Trinity.

Celtic prayers and blessings are full of references to this threefold presence of God – not as inscrutable doctrine, but as a deep way of experiencing God, and indeed, all things. Its participatory, and dwells in the dance of interconnection. I have had a growing awareness of this other way of seeing, and just begin to explore it in the chapter on the True Vine in my book, Jesus said “I Am” – finding life in the everyday. You can read a little from that chapter here.

It’s a beautiful and wise retreat, full of welcome and love. I am so glad I joined. On the morning of the second day, I woke with a really strong sense of how everything is bound together, held together in love, and how our new understandings of interconnectedness in ecology and physics and computing and economics are opening our eyes to a new way of seeing and being in the word. As we see reality as interconnected, it gives us a picture, a frame, to help us see God as participating in a dance of love. We find it hard to open up our understanding of God, and these new ways of looking at the world can work as metaphors, helping us picture what is hard to comprehend. What was, at least to me, a doctrinal puzzle, from a perspective of separateness, is now something liveable, relevant, and joyful. It’s taking me a while to find a way of articulating and knowing more deeply this sense, but in the meantime, here is a poem, which I wrote that morning – the day before yesterday. I hope it helps.

One and many

In my garden, I greet the birds
as they slow to land, and hop amongst
the plants, and the feeders.

I greet too the plants,
arriving more slowly still.
I work with what is.
I seek to welcome what grows,
and as things come to the end,
I thank them for their presence,
their work in the garden.

This space is encircled with green,
protected,
so the sharing and flourishing
is open, free.
And within, and without,
all is joined together
in the air, the light, the
rain, and the soil,
the pale threads, deep, deep
in the dark earth that join
under fences and hedges.

Sometimes, I look and see
this bird, this tree,
and flower, and butterfly.
And then my eyes widen,
my focus shifts
and I see the whole,
bound together
in all that is.
I see one loud
singing green,
and that glorious,
and that, welcoming me.

Be the eye of God dwelling with you,
The foot of Christ in guidance with you,
The shower of the Spirit pouring on you,
Richly and generously.

Taken from Wise Sayings of the Celts

This morning, I watched and listened to this beautiful piece by David Whyte – another blessing.

And a quote from today’s notes….

Maximus the Confessor (6th century theologian):
“To contemplate the smallest object is to experience the Trinity:
the very being of the object takes us back to the Father;
the meaning it expresses, its logos, speaks to us of Logos;
its growth to fulness and beauty reveals the Breath, the Life-giver.”

Plant Hope #PlantHope

Over the summer, I had some dreams of what I might do come the autumn. I wasn’t too foolhardy in my dreaming, I knew that the pandemic was likely to bite back by winter, but I wasn’t anticipating it being quite so soon, or feel so much like tipping into darkness and confusion.

One of my dreams was to “do something” by way of creative protest in support of the environment, something small and local that would perhaps offer hope, and a touch of beauty. I had dreamed of a creative, peaceful presence in my town’s shopping street, giving out bookmarks and daffodil bulbs, encouraging people to #PlantHope. Somehow, I never quite got to the place where I felt brave enough to do it on my own, and I miss the collective gatherings where we can encourage and support each other to do things together. I miss church community, I miss other communities too of friends and likeminded people.

But I am thinking, it’s not too late to start something. And, as local people, and people far away, join me on this blog, I thought I’d share the idea with you, and see what happens. Release it, or plant it, and see what grows.

As the seasons are turning, I’m suprised to find how urgently I’m seeking to prepare for winter, and plant for spring. As news from the pandemic, the economy, the natural world feels grim, I am looking to the natural world to help me through this coming time, as it helped in the spring with the Lockdown Poems. And so the idea of #PlantHope began to grow in my mind. Maybe some would like to pick up the idea of giving out bulbs, observing social distancing. Maybe we can also all do some hopeplanting, or planthoping, in our gardens or windowsills, seeking to nurture and care for something green and growing over the winter, and into the spring.

A reminder not to give up. A reminder that nature is resillent, relentless in its capactity to grow and flourish in even the most difficult situations. It only needs a little light, a little water, and some hope.

Shall we give this a go? Shall we plant hope?

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

Part of my intent to Plant Hope is to try to support independent traders and businesses doing their best to be sustainable, where that’s possible.