Poem: The space in between – Exodus poems 8

Photos of the River Deben, dusk – an in-between time.

Welcome to this continuing series of poems drawn from the ancient account of Exodus. I’m finding some common ground with current events, and much wisdom, in that story. It’s an account, from the perspective of the slaves, of their journey to freedom from the Egyptians. Both Hebrew and Egyptian suffer on that journey.

It’s taking me a little time to come to meditating on the plagues that beset Egypt. In many ways, it seems to raw, too close in the time of pandemic and climate upheaval, as well as a challenge of interpretation. What does it mean, to speak of God acting in these ways?

If you’d like to read more about the story so far, you can do so here.

For now, I feel I am standing on the brink of the time of plagues. Still in the space in between, between the request Moses makes – Let my people go – and the beginnings of the consequences for Pharaoh of his stony and cruel response. But I’m nearly there. Watching the news yesterday evening, I felt like I was watching something like it beginning to unfold in real time. The pandemic is accelerating once more, beginning to break away from attempts to manage it, and many are now enduring the related sorrows of environmental destruction with Atlantic hurricanes, wildfires, and difficulties with harvest. In response, we have the understandable political upheavals that arise at a time of fear and uncertainty. On Sunday, in the UK, we watched David Attenborough’s remarkable programme on Extinction, which helped us see a little more clearly how these different elements are related, related to our lack of care for the Earth, and for each other. Even those of us who live in what we may regard as a developed country, with a tradition of plentiful resources, can see this does not protect us from the common fate. Being a great and long-lasting empire did not protect the Egyptians. We are all connected.

In some ways, this gives me hope, as we can work together on deep-level solutions to all of these, by seeking to love and tend the earth, and to act with justice and mercy towards all – all creatures, all humans. It gives me hope that we will not be stony-hearted in the face of all this difficulty, not turn to fear, but instead, to compassion, justice, mercy, and the pursuit of the welfare of all. And where we cannot work together, we can take small steps ourselves. Jesus offers abundant life, God’s call is to live with peace – shalom, justice and mercy.

For now, we are in a space in between, where there is time – but we too are faced with questions about where we will stand at this moment, and also, how we will respond to the call for justice and freedom, just as Pharaoh was.

May we, this day, seek to live within God’s shalom, within abundant life, and justice, and mercy, for ourselves and for all.

The space in between  – Exodus poems 8

You stood in the space
in between
palace and shanty,
power and poverty,
ease and despair,
slavery, and freedom.

Knowing the language
of both, being
of-them but
not-of-them both,
you stand, now,
and with such reluctance,
such unquenchable fear,
in this dark no-mans-land,
this swirling God-space

You make in
the court of Pharaoh
as you ask for mercy,
and freedom.
It is holy ground,
where you speak
with the voice
of the silenced,
speak with the very
voice of God, but
no-one takes off
their shoes.

You spoke to power,
and it paid no heed.

And so, YHWH,
breath, life, being,
I am that I am,
will stretch out a hand
in justice.
What follows will be
strange justice,
A steady unfolding of
consequence,
stretched out like darkness
over the dark land.

Poem: On fire, but not burned. Exodus poems 5

IMG_0988This next in a series of poems drawn from the story of Exodus circles again around the mystery of the burning bush.  Like all these poems, it draws on my meditations on the Hebrew scripture held in one hand, and an awareness of our current situation in the other.  I am exploring what this ancient story may have to tell us at this critical and bewildering time.

This poem takes the delightful idea that maybe there are burning bushes all around us, and moves us to a consideration of what the voice from the burning bush said to Moses, and what that may mean for us if we are on the look out for revelation, and hope, as we go about our daily business. It follows on from Holy ground, barefoot – an earlier poem in the series.

This poem touches on an episode from the gospels, where Jesus is revealed in brightness on a mountain in the presence of Moses, and Elijah.  The two stories are deeply connected. You can read about the Transfiguration here, if you would like to. It is the time of year when some churches celebrate the Festival of the Transfiguration, and my link will lead you to a beautiful blog from the Iona Community, “This new light”.

If you would like to read the story of the burning bush, you can do so in my earlier post, here. If you do, you will also find some fragments of writing by others which helped inspire this meditation.

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On fire, but not burned  Exodus poems 5

Do angels speak
from every bush?
Whispering in the
rustle of leaves,
perhaps,
the low hum of insects –
or louder, clearer,
more insistent.
Was that holy fire
for one place,
one purpose,
or might it
happen –
could it happen –
everywhere?

The bush on the hill
of Horeb was aflame,
we read of it –
worth turning aside
from the work of tending
sheep, or finding water,
turning aside to see.

But I glimpse, too, a deeper
Transfiguration,
unveiling,
peeling back an ordinary
moment to reveal
depth, and warmth,
brightness,
and truth.

I catch a glimpse,
a hope, of
each living thing
with a heart of life-fire,
not of burning,
not of perishing,
but of God-fire growing,
giving, sustaining, all.

Maybe, angels still speak,
louder, clearer,
telling us
to take off our shoes,
for the very earth is holy.

Telling us
of a God who has talked
with our ancestors,
those who walk behind us
speaking old wisdom
we tend to forget.

But most of all
these living flames
speak of affliction,
they spark forth
in suffering,
roused by
the pain of all things,
of a suffering people,
they call to the work of
deliverance

through
the body of one
who will listen to
this voice,
who will turn aside
to gaze on
holy flames.

Retold: Moses, the rescuer

 

candles_flame_in_the_wind-otherI’ve been sharing with you an emerging series of poems drawn from the first chapters of Exodus, in the Hebrew Scriptures.  I am finding they help give me a way of thinking about our own difficult time.  Sitting alongside those, I’m writing some posts which tell the story in prose, drawing on my book, The Bible Story Retold.

This next fragment falls in between two more well-known stories – On the banks of the Nile, and The Burning Bush. You can read these by clicking on the titles.

It’s a powerfully revealing fragment.  It shows Moses, perhaps becoming aware of the injustice his people were facing, taking violent – indeed fatal – action to defend them. This character trait of rescuing, or establishing justice, is further revealed in his actions defending the young women at the well – but this time, the incident ends with being received into Jethro’s family, and marrying one of those young women.  There seems to have been some progress in how Moses uses his impulse to defend and rescue.  It’s so easy, in rising up to oppose injustice, to become a mirror – demostrating the same behaviour as that which we might oppose.  Part of this narrative’s purpose is to show us different ways good ends can be accomplished.  And they begin with a change in us, a change in how we see, and understand the world.  This one will begin with a powerful encounter with the mysterious I Am of the burning bush.

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I explore this a little more in the poem, Moses, and the Burning Bush, which you can read here.

Now, back to the prose narrative……

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From Exodus 2-4

Moses never forgot his own people.  He could not walk among the carved colonnades of the royal palace without shuddering, for they had been built by the slave laour of his brothers and sisters.  Then, one day, at one of the great building sites, he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite, and anger rose in him.  He came to the defence of the slave, but killed the Egyptian, and gave him a hurried burial in the sand.

“So this is how he repays our kindness to him!” roared Pharaoh when he heard the news. “We brought him up as one of our own, and now he’s fighting against us, on the side of those lazy slaves!”  When Moses saw Pharaoh’s anger, he ran to the desert, the land of Midian, fearing for his life.

He came to a well and sat down, gasping and exhausted.  Soon, seven young women arrived to water their sheep.  But some shepherds tried to drive them away and take the water for themselves.  Moses came to the girls’ rescue, and helped them water their flocks.  The young women returned to their father Jethro, a wealthy herdsman, and told him what had happened.  Jethro welcomed his daughers’ protector into his family.  Moses married one of the girls and cared for Jethro’s flocks.  He learned the ways of the wilderness: where to shelter from a sandstorm, the best paths through the high places.

Then, one day, as the sheep grazed on the slopes of Mount Sinai…….

This is where the story moves to the moment of the Burning Bush.

And from Prayers and Verses

O God,
How long must I call for help before you listen?
How can you let this wrongdoing go on…
all the fighting and the quarrelling?
Wicked people are getting the better of good people;
it is not right, it is not fair!

I will wait quietly for God to bring justice.
Even in the middle of disaster I will be joyful,
because God is my saviour.

based on the book of Habakkuk

 

This post draws on the Sunday Retoldseries.

Poem: Moses and the Burning Bush – Exodus Poems 4

I have continued to turn the Exodus story over in my mind, as one that may help us as we think about the multiple, colliding crises we face. I am finding it illuminating, as we consider how we might move out from the situation we find ourselves in, to the possibility of a more hopeful future. These meditations are forming the basis of a series of poems. If you would like to read the stories, you can do here.

You might like to read the other poems so far, and you can find the links here.

Poem: Pharaoh’s daughter, and the child. Exodus poems 1

Poem: God saw – and God knew. Exodus poems 2

Poem: Holy Ground, barefoot. Exodus poems

In this latest poem, I wonder what it must have been like for Moses, who started out so full of hope and promise, who so wanted to defend his people, to right wrongs, that he responded force against force, and killed a slavemaster. In fear, he ran, ran away from all he had known, he built a new life away from Egypt. Did he remember his brothers and sisters, did he despair of this system of oppression that he had been unable to change? It must have seemed so powerful, so resistant, too cruel to those he loved to even hope for freedom.

I wrote about Moses, and this encounter with God, in my book, Jesus said, I am – finding life in the everyday. You can read a little more about that, and some extracts, here, if it interests you.

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Walking down from Golden Cap, in the sunset dust of Storm Ophelia

What do we do, when it seems we’ve lost our chance to work for a more beautiful world? What do we do, when it all seems too fixed, too permanent ant, too big and powerful for us to make a difference?

Maybe we can see things differently, maybe our eyes can be opened to deeper truths, as the old ones crumble before us, and something new – something that was always there – begins to emerge.

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Moses and the Burning Bush

You stood on that dry mountain,
eyes narrowed against wind
and sand, scanning
the bright horizon,
looking for threat, or grazing
for those sheep.

Were you content to be a shepherd
now, Prince of Egypt?
Were you reconciled to this life
smaller than your dreams?
Did you think it was all too late,
too late to do anything
to help your brothers,
to help your sisters,
the slaves,
to reclaim your people?

Shepherd, with the bleating
of the flock about you,
did you dream still,
under the strong sun,
of what-could-or-should-have-been?
Did a new world seem impossible?
Or were you breathing
in this moment,
with the dust smell,
and the sheep smell,
and the plants thick with resin?

It was no dream,
what happened next,
no could-or-should-have-been,
that burning bush –
crackling, smoke smell,
burning, but not consumed.

In that moment you took
off your shoes, and learned a
name for God that is no name,
I am what I am.
I will be what I will be.

In a moment,
your reality peeled open,
revealing fire within,
the truth within,
giving you back
the discomfort of hope,
giving you back
your people,
and your way.

Poem: Red Leaves – Lockdown Poems 3

I’ve been spending time with my notebook, while we’ve been in lockdown.  Usually, the words come from what’s going on around me, grounding myself in my ground.  I am aware how fortunate I am to have sight of new leaves, as here, but I hope these small verses give you a place where your imagination can connect with the spring, wherever you are.

They are just moments as they come.

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The subject of this poem springs from the story of Moses and the Burning Bush, which you can read about here.

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A moment in the garden, shared with you.

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Red leaves   lockdown 3
Oh, the sun through those red leaves,
shiny and shining,
And here, too, the smokebush,
just kindling to red flame,
before the leaf-smoke thickens,
as the sun’s light strengthens.
You can almost feel them growing,
as you bask in their cold fire.

It’s all holy.
All this good earth.
As my knees feel the
softness of grass,
and the air smells so of green,
and of the damp warming soil,
and grass, and primroses.

Yes.  This place.
Yes.  This time, even this.

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Holy Week at home – Some readings, poems, and Good Friday resources here on my blog.

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As we approach Easter, many people take time to focus on the journey Jesus makes towards the cross.  Our usual practices at this time are those of meeting together, and remembering together.  We can’t do that this year.  Instead, as we stay inside, for love of each other, we will have to do things differently.

Perhaps we can focus on an inner journey, something quieter, more contemplative.  As we do so, we may find, as many have before, that we get to a place of deeper connection, more grounded truth, fuller love.  We may find new meaning in Jesus’ teaching and example, of letting things fall away, of finding himself alone, of allowing.

In case it helps, I’ve gathered together some of the blog posts here that you might find help.  I will add to it as more things occur to me, and as I write and update more.

Please feel free to use any of the resources you find helpful, and to share them, saying where they are from.
A little explanation about  Easter Retold

The Retold thread of my blog gives you sections from my book, “The Bible Story Retold in Twelve Chapters”, and “Prayers and Verses” that sits alongside it.  You can get hold of these through the internet, and maybe your local bookshop if they take orders for delivery.  It’s good for all ages, and is used in family services and care homes.

The House at Bethany, the Raising of Lazarus

Many spend time with this Gospel story in Holy Week.  It’s a story that means a great deal to me.  You can find some links below.

Sunday Retold – Lazarus raised from the dead

Here you will find the readings, and some things to ponder, as well as one of my Mary at your feet poem.  If you would like to focus on the poetry, you could go here:

The ‘Mary, at your feet’ poems – Two

The ‘Mary, at your feet’ poems – Three
This last also contains a contemplative prayer/writing exercise.

There are readings, things to do, things to reflect on, in the I Am series which draws on another of my books.

Jesus said, I Am – for Lent. Chapter 5, the Resurrection and the Life

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Artist – Frank Wesley

 

Other Holy Week stories – You can find these in Chapter 11 of my retelling – both editions:  The Bible Story Retold, and The Lion Classic Bible, which share the same text.  The second of these has lovely illustrations by Sophie Williamson.

Prayers and Verses also has a section in Chapter 11 called The Road to Good Friday, which you might find useful.

Maundy Thursday – The Last Supper, Jesus washes their feet.

Retold –
Retold: Maundy Thursday

Poem- Poem: Jesus washes Judas’ feet.

We also find two of the great I Am sayings in this narrative:
Jesus said, I Am – for Lent. Chapter 6 – I am the way, the truth and the life.

Jesus said, I Am – For Lent. Chapter 7, Vine

Later in the evening, when Jesus is arrested, there is a further I Am moment:

Lent: Jesus said I Am …… Holy Week, I am he – Jesus betrayed

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Jesus Washing the Feet of his Disciples, 1898 (oil and grisaille on paper) by Edelfelt, Albert Gustaf Aristides (1854-1905) chalk and grisaille on paper 58×47 © Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden Finnish, out of copyright

Good Friday

Retold: Good Friday Retold

Now, we come to the new poems I’ve written for Good Friday – based on the seven sentences Jesus spoke from the cross. I’ve put them together with some readings, music, and art, to give you a Good Friday Meditation.  I’ve recorded the readings and poems, and they should appear on YouTube, on Good Friday, under my name.  I’ll post the links here when that happens

The poems themselves: Poems – Seven Sentences from the Cross

The meditations: A Good Friday Meditation – including 7 new poems

And I’ll add the YouTube material here.

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Angus Dei  Francisco de Zurbaran

 

Easter Sunday

A simple retelling: Retold: Easter Day!

If you are following in my books of Bible retellings and prayers, Chapter 12 moves us into New Life.

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Thank you for joining me.  I hope you find these things help.
Keep safe and well.
Bless you.

Jesus said, I Am – For Lent. Chapter 7, Vine

This post – for Holy Week – is the next in the series based on my book, Jesus said, I am – finding life in the everyday.

It’s also Palm Sunday, when we think of the crowds laying down palm leaves. This year, such crowds seem very far away from our experience, as we are isolating at home.  It’s a time when churches often fill with people, or process with branches.  This year, we can’t do that.  Instead, some are making palm crosses, or gathering greenery, to decorate their doors as a sign in participation in this time.  It’s part of how we are all adapting to our situation, and finding ways of connecting, and marking times corporately.  These things help.

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My Palm Sunday leaves.

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Back to another growing thing, to the Vine.

I do not have a vine in my garden, but I have so many other plants that are just opening up to new life.

I have been planting seeds.  My veggie beds, rebuilt a few years ago by my son and a friend, have not been productive in the past, but this year, there are signs of hope.  There are a few little shoots coming up, and raspberry canes beginning to grow.  I hope that we’ll have fresh salad leaves before too long.

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I’ve also been thinking of the wisteria, and the corkscrew hazel, in the light of this reading which tells of vines and gardeners.

This year, the wisteria is covered in long purple buds, and will soon be heady with scented flowers.  Last year, my gardener worked hard to cut back the unproductive growth, to focus the plant’s attention on the buds of  this year’s flowering.

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The corkscrew hazel requires less skilled intervention – I can manage to tell which stems are coming up straight, and need removing so the wild disarray of the corkscrew can grow freely.

These moments of intervention  are part of what happens here – I also love the wild flowers – or weeds, I love to watch what happens, what grows of its own accord. It is a hospitable place.  I love the rhythm of managed and wild.  I love the crowds of birds, the insects, the butterflies and bees that seem to thrive here.

This year, many are noticing and valuing the gradual creep of spring, the morning birdsong, the clearing skies, in a way they haven’t before.  These small joys are opening up to us, and we find they are deeply satisfying.  If we have a windowbox, or a garden, or a view, the subtle changes we see bring us joy.

Our Father is a gardener, we read.

John 15:1-17

Once again, we will just touch on some of the themes this image opens up for us.  There is always more.  Here are a few things, offered for your reflection – and some suggestions of how we might live inside this  song of the vineyard.

There is a way of seeing the overarching narrative of the Bible that looks like this: three gardens – the garden of Eden in Genesis, the garden tomb of the resurrection and the garden city of Revelation.  If we hold this narrative in our minds, we see a story of flourishing, of hope, of new growth despite the winters we encounter.  Gardens and their gardeners are a theme that runs through the whole Bible text.  Gardens are both beautiful and necessary, a sign of a settled life, a sign of peace and security, a promise of plenty.  And within the garden, the vine winds and trails its way through scripture, a sign of the people of God in both testaments, their frailty and fruitfulness, their need of a gardener to bring out their best flourishing, their provision of fruit and, more especially, wine to gladden the heart, wine soon to be poured out.

We are invited to be part of this fruitfulness and flourishing.  We are invited to be part of something bigger than ourselves, joined to others as well as to Jesus. We are invited to participate, and to contribute, to give and to receive.

As Jesus and his friend walked in the dark past vineyards, the image of the vine was real, fragrant, touchable.  This song was no distant allegory.  It was before them.  What would they have glimpsed, in the thin light?

A winter vineyard looks as dead as dead can be.  The bark flakes and pulls away.  But, here, in the spring, buds would have been bursting out.  What appeared dead was returning to life, throwing out tendrils, leaves, maybe blossoms.  They knew the importance of the vine, and the care and wisdom needed to tend it and make it fruitful. Passover required the drinking of four cups of wine…. Their blood was warmed with wine as they walked through the chill of night.

…..

And in the spring, sap runs through its veins like blood – it pours through, swelling the hidden buds.  This is a kingdom vine.  The way life flows through it is like the way the Spirit will sustain Jesus’ followers after he has gone.  The vine is loved and cared for by the Father.  God alone is the gardener of this vine.

 

Remain

To a group of people who will soon be scattered in the darkness, who will abandon him, Jesus talks of remaining, abiding.  He talks to them, assuring them they are already connected to the vine, already clean.  What will happen does not change that for them  He says this first, at the beginning of the song.  All else that follows is held within the certainty that they are part of the vine.

Here is the melody of the song, and this is what we need to treasure – that we are also part of this vine, the sap flows through us.

The heart of it all is remaining in Jesus, as Jesus remains in the Father; remaining because of love, so that joy may be complete.  We may not understand, but we an hold open the possibility of this love and grace and belonging.

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Fruit

We have talked about abiding, remaining, but the purpose of the vine is the fruit and the purpose of the pruning is to increase the vine’s capacity to bear fruit.  As Jesus continues his song of the vineyard, we see this fruit linked to a circular pattern of love – it begins with the Father for the Son, flows from the Son to humanity, who are then, for the second time, commanded to love in their (our) turn. The outcome of all this is joy – Jesus’ joy will be in us and our joy will be complete.

Love, joy… from there, we are naturally drawn to another mention of fruit in the New Testament – the fruit of the Spirit.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  There is no law against such things.
Galatians 5:22-23

The branches attached to the vine have the life of the Spirit flowing through them.  There is beauty in a fruitful vine, with its leaves, blossom and, in time, the ripening fruit.  Our lives, filled ith the flow of the Spirit, can have such beauty.  The life of Jesus, flowing through us, is transformative.  Maybe Jesus is telling us here how the Spirit works, how our lives can be part of something greater.  Connection to the soure of all life and love leads to flourishing.  We are not isolated, purposeless, lonely individuals.  We are part of the something greater, and we can live out our lives fruitfully.

Reflection and Response

Further Study

Read the account of the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12). Reflect on the symbolic meaning of the empty jars used for religious cleansing, here filled with fine wine at a wedding.
……

Colossians 1:15-20.  How does this image of Christ connect with your thoughts on the vine? How do all things hold together in Christ?

Prayer and Meditation
Lectio divina
meditation – rooted and grounded in love
Read Ephesians 3:14-16, asking God to speak to you by drawing your attention to a word or phrase.  Read the passage out loud, slowly, twice, leaving silence between and around the readings.  See where your attention snags, what strikes you, and ponder that.  If you are with others, hold a time of silence, then share your words or phrases.

Read again.  On the last reading, be alert to anything that applies to you or your situation directly, any place where the Holy Spirit may be moving or guiding you.  Thank God for what you have learned.

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Now remain in my love.  John 15:9

 

When you dwell on the idea of all being connected, and held together in Christ, does that help as you navigate this world in which we are more physically separate than we would wish?

Have you ever experienced anything that felt like pruning?  What happened? What was that like?  Offer any loss, any gain, through that process to God in prayer.  Be alert to signs of new life that may emerge.
Our lives are seriously curtailed at present.  Might there be, even in this real difficulty, some space where something new and better might emerge?

 

How can we connect in a time of disconnection? How can we show solidarity, and offer help, when the normal means of being together are not available for us?

Life and service

Connection and community
Take some time to connect with people in your community.  Be on the lookout today, this week, for ways you can build connection with those around you.  It can be as simple as taking a few minutes to speak to a neighbour, smiling at a passer by or something more.

ways you might be part of making a stronger community.  Ideas could include:

  • using local shops
  • walking or cycling where you can.
  • with others, notice the needs in your community, and finding ways to bless and reach out – the elderly or housebound may require help, or young families, etc.
  • litter picking the streets around you, or clearing snow or leaves as appropriate

……..

Care for a garden, or a piece of land near where you are.  Collaborate with others to enrich and bless growing and living things nearby.

Further reading – I recommend Richard Rohr’s book, The Divine Dance – the Trinity and your Transformation

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The Rublev icon

 

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Jesus said, I Am – for Lent. Chapter 6 – I am the way, the truth and the life.

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This Lent, under the shadow of coronavirus, we are all giving up more than we anticipated.  Some of us are staying inside, perhaps feeling anxious, while others work to care for the sick, and to provide food and essential services for us all.  It’s a time when we need to find new ways of supporting each other, and connecting, as we thought about last week.

As we’re staying indoors at present, I thought I’d share with you some photos taken as we walked the Norfolk Coast Path a couple of years ago.  It’s good to remember beautiful places we’ve been to in the past, and share them, and think about good things we’ll do, with such gratitude, again soon.

I did hear an excellent idea, especially if you have children who are missing their friends and their favourite activities….. Take a large jar, and write down on pieces of paper the names of people you want to see, and things you want to do, as they come to mind and you miss them.  Make it colourful.  You’ll then have a beautiful jar to look at, and a collection of things to really look forward to doing as you pull them out of the jar, one by one, when we are outside again.

We are keeping each other safe, keeping our vulnerable people and our medical people safe, by giving up our going out and doing things.  This is a real act of love.

Back to our Lent series.  Once again, these familiar stories and words of Jesus seem to take on an added depth of meaning as we consider them from inside – inside our homes, inside this strange time we are living through.  Thank you for joining in.  I hope that, by reading and praying together, we may be aware of all that connects us.

As we enter the traditional season of Passiontide, drawing closer to the Cross, we enter too, in our reading, an intense dialogue between Jesus and his friends, in which Jesus seeks to explain the terrible thing that is going to happen.  To prepare them, and to show them the necessity for it.

We will touch on the themes of Way, Truth and Life here, and seek to work them into our days.
We are continuing this Lent series drawing on my book, Jesus said, I am – finding life in the everyday.

John 13- 14

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Jesus knows that the time when he will be abandoned and betrayed by his friends, and then crucified, is getting close now.  Knowing this, despite this, he loves them to the end.  Knowing that the Father had put all things into his hands, he strips and kneels and washes their feet.  He gives them bread.  In doing so and by what he says, he tries to prepare his friends for what will come – must come.  He does so with sadness and compassion.  These are dark and difficult words.  But, there is more.  There is also a vision of love, service and life itself – the way of the Spirit, the Comforter. It offers them a way they can live when Jesus is no longer with them  They do not want to see ahead to such a time.  This next ‘I am’ saying is part of all this preparation – showing them a way forward – a way that will endure.  Jesus is that way.  He will remain that way, even after.

We are not there yet, though.  We need to stand back a little and see more clearly

 

The towel

Jesus gets up from the table, strips off his outer clothes, wraps a towel around his waist and kneels to wash his friends’ feet.  This is part of the way ahead – the way of love and service.  It is an instruction for how they are to live when he is gone.  They are to imitate this act – and a concrete task can help us through a difficult time.  It is hard for them to receive it.  This kneeling and washing, acting like a humble servant, is part of the self-emptying way that Jesus is following, a small foreshadowing of the self- emptying of the cross.  The way of love and life passes through the darkness of death.

………

Glory

No wonder it was hard to grasp.  This is what glory looks like: tying a towel around your waist, a friend leaving to betray you with the taste of bread still in his mouth, being lifted up on a cross.

What might it mean for us, to know there is glory even here?

This encounter between Jesus and Judas – as he washed his feet, as he shared bread with him – has given me much to think about.  I wrote about it here.

However much they did not understand, his friends did seem to grasp that he was going to leave them.  That this leaving would be for their good – that it would bring them the greatest good  – was beyond them.  The loss of Jesus could not be but terrible in their eyes.

And so, he tries to frame it for them.

Something profoundly essential is happening – terrible as it is – that will ultimately work for the good.

This is the only way.

A spacious home

Jesus gives them a picture of what the good will be – a picture of the host going on ahead to prepare rooms, or dwelling places. This is why he must leave, to unlock the door, to get things ready, to open and air the rooms.  It is a large and spacious illustration, one that would conjure up Middle-Eastern principles of hospitality and welcome…..

There is an expansion in these pictures, and a deep sense that Jesus will go to considerable pains, even to the loss of his life, to bring home the sheep, to make a place in the Father’s house.  Images of hospitality abound in the other three gospels, for the kingdom – images of banquets and wedding feasts and wide tables. Here, we find these: a large and hospitable house, a generous sheepfold.

It is entirely understandable that Thomas replies, “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”  Now is the ‘I am’ moment: “I am the way, the truth, and the life”.  Can we think of a person as a destination? For that is what we are invited to do. ….

As we seek to walk along the way of love and service, we walk along with Jesus.  We remember that the earliest name given to Jesus’ people was not Christians, but followers of the Way.  We walk with Jesus, and with each other, on this path.  That is the way.

It is Jesus who is Way, Truth and Life all. That begins to shift us to a different way of understanding what these things might be.

The reality behind it all, the reality we can trust, is love.  That is why Jesus goes on ahead through what we cannot, and then comes back for us again.

The way of love is not soft, comfortable or secure.  It will take Jesus to hell and back.  It will take him to the very worst that can be done to a human being. This is the way that humanity will see God’s outstretched arms, and be liberated to enter abundant, overflowing life.  Jesus is making the way.

Way, truth and life are here.

“In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” John 1:14

Reflection and response

John often has parallels, patterns in his Gospel.  You might like to think about Mary kneeling to anoint Jesus’ feet (see last week’s post) and Jesus kneeling before the disciples.  You can use the pictures in each post to imagine what it would have been like to be there. You might like to think about what they have in common.

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Further Study

Exodus 12:1-28
Consider more deeply these themes of the Passover: slavery and servanthood; a meal overshadowed by death and departing. Do these help your reading of the last supper?

I am struck by the fact that the Passover celebrates liberation from slavery, and this newly formed Passover – the Last Supper – includes a command to imitate the actions of a slave – washing feet – in free loving generosity.

It might be worth opening our minds to consider how often the plagues we see in the Hebrew Scriptures are seen as connected to oppression, inequality and injustice. That’s a big theme, and a diversion from our current study, but it may be worth noticing as we consider what kind of world we want to help make when we do emerge from our time of isolation.

 
How do you respond?

Creative Response

Foot washing
You will need: water, washable pens, paper, kitchen paper.

Imagine Jesus kneeling before you to wash your feet.  Imagine you are there, in that upper room. What do you feel at first? What do you feel at the end? You might like to paint your response.

You could use washable pens on your hands, remembering things that do not fit with the command to love.  Then dip your hands in water and watch them become clean.

Thank Jesus for his loving sacrifice and his example.  Thank him for the gift of forgiveness.

Remember a time when someone offered you love, and practical service. What was that like? Remember a time when you did the same for someone else.

Think of what it means to be a leader like this.  Where do you have opportunities to lay aside status and simply serve?

 

Life and Service

Love
In every situation today, take this as your starting point: how can I best love and serve this person, these people?

My Father’s House
Think about times you have received hospitality, and given it.  What stays in your mind?
Can you expand your current practices of hospitality – even a small step?

For both of the above, we will need to adapt in our current circumstances, and consider acts of service and hospitality even that make space for people, hold patience when people are stressed or afraid, considering new forms of hospitality and connection online.

And below, we will all need to use the option for those who have difficulty getting about.  We can think of ways of doing a virtual pilgrimage with friends, perhaps sharing places that have meant something to us online, and describing the experience.

We can also plan what we would like to do when the time is right.

Pilgrimage

You may wish to go on a journey with a spiritual purpose and particular destination in mind.  You could travel far or go on a walking tour of local places of worship and ancient holy sites. You could use maps and photos to imagine yourself on such a journey if mobility is an issue.  You can go with friends, or alone.

Take a look after the photos for another suggestion for walking the way….

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These three are taken on a walk near Wandlebury Ring in Cambridgeshire.

Labyrinth

Make a labyrinth.  It could be a large one in the garden, temporary and marked with twis or stones, on a roll of paper or old sheet for indoors, or a small one on paper you could walk with your finger.  Walk it prayerfully, becoming aware of the presence of Jesus with you and you make your way.

Have a look online for suggestions and resources.  This might be a good project for self isolation.

Truth

In the current state of our news and social media, I think this response below is particularly relevant.  I would add to it now, as we are all empowered to generate our own content, and to share stories….. what are we spreading?  Is it true, loving, kind? Does it promote understanding or division?

It is also worth considering how much news we consume.  It is important to be well informed, but we can so easily be sucked into relentless news coverage which leaves us feeling passive and afraid.

 

Truth

Be on the lookout this week for where and how you learn about the world.  Look at your news sources.  Consider how you listen to more personal news from friends and colleagues.  Whom do you trust and believe? If you do not already do so, consider fact-checking, and reading and viewing things from perspectives that differ from your own.  What do you find out?

Be particularly alert to this question: does this presentation of the facts encourage love and peace between people, or fear, hatred and hostility?
Does it help or hinder me in loving God and loving others?

 

Thank you for reading.

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

If you’d like a copy of the book, you can ask your local bookshop – some are taking phone orders and delivering, or order online.

Here are a few suggestions:

The publishers, BRF

Amazon

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Bless you.  Thank you for joining me, and with each other, in this walk.

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Jesus said, I Am – for Lent. Chapter 5, the Resurrection and the Life

Welcome back to this Lent series, based on my book Jesus said, I Am – finding life in the everyday.

We come to this chapter at an extraordinary time, the time of coronavirus, when so many are praying anxiously, concerned for their loved ones, maybe separated from their loved ones. This chapter, dealing with the death and rising of Lazarus, may reveal new treasures for us at this time.  As many of us have stepped back from our spiritual communities,  I hope our reading and praying together helps.  We are evolving and strengthening other ways of being community.

As we walk through John’s gospel, getting closer to Easter, and the cross, we see the days grow longer.  There is an inbuilt hope in this season of spring.

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John 11- 12:8

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Let us return to the gospel story.  As we follow it through, it is worth being on the watch for the flowering of the themes sown in the prologue, at the very beginning, where John talks of light and life, the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness not overcoming it. We see in this story of Lazarus the beauty of that light and life breaking through, and also the power and depth of the darkness.  If we are alert, we will also see the other great themes of the gospel: seeing the glory, grace and truth of God in the life of Jesus, and an invitation to belief.  All these things open and flourish in the account of Lazarus, Martha and Mary.

This is an extraordinary and profound passage of Gospel, so rich and deep.  We’ll just look at a few aspects of it here on the blog – aspects that I hope will give some nourishment,  or encouragement, or consolation – and also ways of living it out, living in the light of this bursting out of life and hope in a place as dark as the grave.  No details are wasted with John, and the slow introduction to this story has lessons for us too.

Messages and prayers

While he is by the Jordan, a desperate message arrives saying that Lazarus, his [Jesus’] beloved friend, is very sick.  And he does not respond. For all of us who have prayed for healing for someone we love, or for the resolution of some terrible situation, we send our messages to God, and then, sometimes, nothing happens.  This experience of silence is one all of us who have prayed encounter.

And yet, and yet, we pray……

When I don’t know how to pray, I ask God to accompany me, to be with me and to be with the one I am praying for.  I find myself expanding my prayer – for others I know in similar circumstances, and then for those I don’t know.  I pray for the support that is there, or that it may be there.  I ask if there are things I can do to be part of the solution.  That is what, in practice, I do.  Even when I don’t know how to pray, or why I am praying, I find that I do.

 

The death and raising of Lazarus, this journey to the grave and into life, foreshadows the Easter story in all its brightness and strangeness.  Also, in a very real and practical sense, the raising of Lazarus precipitates Jesus’ arrest and all that follows.

So, while Jesus was waiting, was he coming to terms with what was going to happen and seeking the Father? John’s gospel is very full of the bond between the Father and the Son.

Prayer is nothing less than oneing the soul to God.  Julian of Norwich

Prayer propels him into action, as it does now. …. We are not dealing here with a Saviour who is indifferent to the suffering of the world, but who is preparing to enter into it more fully than we can imagine.

And, we know, that Jesus does come, and the two sisters speak to him in their fresh raw grief.
I wrote a sequence of poems about this Mary, and the second one speaks of that moment.  You can read it here.

 

Lazarus

Lazarus by Jaquie Binns

 

Lazarus needed to be released from the grave-clothes, but maybe there were other kinds of letting go he needed now.

This story shows us the hard journey into new life Lazarus and his sisters went through, and the possibility, and power, of resurrection.

Practise resurrection

What would it mean to be a resurrection people – to participate with Jesus in making things new, to be part of the new heavens and new earth, to pray and work for his kingdom to come now, on earth, as it is in heaven? Is it possible to go deeper than believing in resurrection, to begin to practise it, to live as if it were the way things were meant to be?  In any experience of darkness, perhaps we can take courage from this story to enter into it, to not be afraid, to know there is a way out on the other side.  Even in darkness, we can look for signs of life.

The line ‘Practice resurrection’ [is]from the poetry of Wendell Berry.

You can see a performance of  Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

by Wendell Berry following the link.
I wonder how much of a manifesto it might be for these strange times, and our hopes for the times to come.  (A link to my previous post, a Poem for a time of isolation)

 

Once Lazarus is restored to them, they throw a party to celebrate this resurrection power, and to thank Jesus for their brother and their friend.

Feast

One thing resurrection means, in this story of Lazaus, is an extravagant feast and an extravagant anointing…..

Now, this is a ‘Jesus’ uprising – of feasting, a celebration of an empty grave. The feast, the open house, is an image of the kingdom we have come across elsewhere in the gospels, in Jesus’ parables of wedding feasts and banquets, of the hospitality of the Father’s house.

As the feasting continues, Mary enters. In an extravagant act of thanksgiving, a prophetic act too, she pours out precious perfume and anoints Jesus’ feet.  She unbinds her hair, an undressing, a vulnerability, as she gives the most precious gift the house can offer – a jar of nard.  This act of kneeling has its later echo: as Jesus kneels to wash his disciples’ feet.  I wonder whether Jesus was remembering this act of Mary’s when he knelt before his friends.

Maybe, for those of us who are missing Mothers day, or birthday parties, or even their own weddings, because of coronavirus isolation, we can think and begin to plan the kind of joyful gatherings we’ll have, the kind of reuniting with loved ones, when this situation has passed.

This feast as recorded by John, and this kneeling, is the subject of the final of my poems for Mary.  You can read that here.

 

Reflection and response.

Greening

You will need: a dry twig and a vase or jar, paper cut into leaves, green pencils or felt-tip pens, cotton.
Music suggestion: Hildegard von Bingen (perhaps Antiphon, Caritas Habundant in Omnia

Think of people and situations in need of new life – of healing and restoration and new beginnings.  Write them down on the leaves, colouring them in with green. Ask for the Spirit of life to be given them.  Tie them to the dry twig, giving thanks for new life.

Is there something you could do to support or cheer a sick person, or someone caring for a sick person? Or is there a seemingly dead situation that could be open to new life?

Alternatively, you can pick a budding twig to watch unfold, visiting it each day and praying as above, or cutting it and putting it by a light place in your home. Celebrate the hope of new life coming from something that looks as if it might well be dead.

There are many community groups, and individuals, who are gathering together – often virtually – to help and support those around them – cooking meals, arranging deliveries, making calls – showing love in a way which respects the increased personal boundaries we need at the moment.  If you are feeling anxious, or helpless, in the face of the current situation, there may be something you can do to bring hope or help to someone else.  You can be part of the movement to bring new life to dark places.

 

Practice resurrection

Ask God whether there are ways you could ‘practise resurrection’. God delights in using the flawed, the old and the cast aside, like Moses or Abraham….. Ask Jesus to bring his resurrection life into yours now, to breathe into the dead and dark places.  Similarly, ask him to do the same for those you love and for your community.

Ask, too, where you could be part of this process of making all things new, bringing new life.

Start simply – renew an old, thrown-away object: restore a piece of furniture, reuse old fabric for a sewing project, plant vegetables in a neglected place, make compost, use broken plates for mosaic, make something beautiful out of what has been cast aside.

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Wells Cathedral – you can read about it in Lent: Jesus said, I Am….. Week 3, Light

 

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

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Jesus said, I am – for Lent. Chapter 4, the Shepherd and the Gate.

Hello again, and thank you for joining me on this walk through Lent, thinking about what it means to live in the light of the I am sayings, to go deeper into following the Good Shepherd.

We continue to follow my book.

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Leadership is once again under the spotlight, as we face another global crisis.  This time, a pandemic.  One of the things I have been noticing is that leadership, in some places, is emerging.  People and organisations are taking decisions to protect the old and the vulnerable, even as there is confusion about what to do for the best, and as there are differences among politicians as to how to interpret the science.

Maybe, as you read this, you are restricting your social engagement.  Maybe you normally attend a place of worship, or a community gathering, and are foregoing that for the sake of others, or your own health. One of the differences between this outbreak, and ones in the past, is that our isolation can be less total, that we can meet virtually, and reach out to support each other in difficulties, even when we cannot touch each other.

How to express love and community in a time when touch is problematic, when meeting is difficult or impossible for some, presents real challenges.  But thinking about how we can best support those in our communities – whether physical or on line – gives us an opportunity to perhaps do better, and be more imaginative and thoughtful, than we have before. We can build a slower, gentler, and possibly even more connected and compassionate, way of being community.

This week, we are thinking about the kind of leader Jesus was, especially to those excluded by those people who claimed religious authority.  We hold in mind the woman taken in adultery, and the man born blind, both of whom were part of our earlier reflection on Light.

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SNM128510 Jesus Washing the Feet of his Disciples, 1898 (oil and grisaille on paper) by Edelfelt, Albert Gustaf Aristides (1854-1905) chalk and grisaille on paper 58×47 © Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden Finnish, out of copyright

As we think of the loving actions of Jesus in the picture above, we remember that we can move beyond just knowing how he demonstrated his care , to hearing the invitation to do the same, too.
It is an invitation to a way of life. And one that involves touch, and washing.  It takes some thinking through, how this might look at a time like the present, but such a meditation on the passage below might help us.

 

 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.  Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.  If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.   John 13

 

It’s hard not to immediately call to mind the opposite of this – examples of poor leadership we may have experienced, both personally and as communities and societies – leadership which seems self-interested, and disconnected from the pain and difficulties people experience.  And we do need to acknowledge those things, and bring them into the light.

Poor leadership, or bad leadership, is very destructive of our common good, our communities, the prospects for our young people, the welfare of the vulnerable. We need good shepherds.

But, as ever, Jesus invites us to examine our own lives and ways of doing things, to think about whether we are acting as good shepherds or not, in our own sphere.

 

 

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Just about all of us have responsibilities for others in some form or other, and as citizens and members of our communities we have especial responsibilities to the young, and the vulnerable.  And so, as we consider the Good Shepherd, and less good shepherds, we can hold in mind those ways our actions and our words have an impact on others, and how we can care for and nurture one another.  We are both sheep and shepherd, just about all of us, in different ways, and at different times of our lives.  We can be cared for, and care, in our turn.

John 9:35-10:31

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This saying follows on from the one before – ‘I am the light of the world’. The setting, as we saw in the previous chapter, is the Feast of Tabernacles.  The atmosphere is hostile, argumentative, challenging to Jesus….
This good shepherd story is an answer to these questions and challenges that have been rolling on over several chapters of our reading.  Jesus often responds to questioning with a story.  Stories speak to the whole person..

Once again, Jesus has a double audience for this story – the man who has received his sight, and doubtless others outside the synagogue, and the religious leaders who threw him out.  This one story, one image, of the Good Shepherd, will have been heard differently by these two groups.  Just think, the man who had received his sight, and been thrown out of fellowship, was sought out by Jesus.  He is like the lost sheep in the other gospels.  It is so good to know that this is what the Good Shepherd does – he finds one who has been rejected.  Jesus not only healed him, but later comes to restore him, care for him, include him.

Of course, all those who listened to him on both sides will have been used to hearing scriptures that talked about good and bad shepherds.  They will have know the words of Ezekiel  on the subject, as well as holding dear the memory of David, the shepherd king.

“You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” Ezekiel 34:4

Jesus clearly draws on a shared knowledge of this prophecy to confront those who challenged him.  They know that the prophecy continues, saying that God himself will search for the sheep, as Jesus searched for the one who can now see.  God will gather those who are lost and scattered, and will feed them with good pasture.  God will be their shepherd, will bind up the injured, will strengthen the weak.  They will be fed with justice.  And Jesus claims this role, the role of the good shepherd, for himself.

When we can be cared for by God, the power and importance of human leaders – tyrants, emperors, Pharisees – is hugely diminished. And it sets a high bar for those human leaders, those who would be a shepherd of a flock.  That nourishing, self-giving, gentle leading of the good shepherd is our standard.

Can we follow this shepherd, and learn to nurture in our turn?

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The church at Selworthy Green, with Exmoor in the distance

So, we turn, briefly, to the gate.

There is a twofold task that Jesus undertakes for us.  One is to keep us safe, to be the gate.  The other is to lead us out.  …… The shepherd would lie across the gap in the circular sheepfold at night, protecting the sheep both from wild animals and sheep-rustlers.  Jesus keeps the sheep safe……..

We need safety and refuge.  We need sanctuary.  We need to lie down and sleep in safety.  And then, as the shepherd gets to his feet and calls us out of the fold, we need to continue to find our safety in the presence of the shepherd as we step out into the new light of morning.

If God made the world, and all things hold together in Christ, we know that the shepherd knows what he is doing when he leads us out.  He knows all about the dark valley, and will not abandon us there, but it is not all dark valley.  It is also green pasture, flowing water and the kingdom coming on earth as in heaven.  Abundant life is such a marvelous promise……

 

Reflection and Response

Take some time to look at the picture through the doorway above, and to reflect on on Jesus being a gate, or a door.  Sit quietly, and open your heart and mind in prayer.
What catches your attention?
How do you feel when you look at it?
Does it remind you of anything?
Can you imagine yourself walking through that landscape?
As you go out and about in your ordinary days, or as you feel drawn to a new adventure in life and faith, what does it mean to listen out for the voice of the shepherd, and to follow the Good Shepherd?  Where may he be leading you?

How comfortable can you be with not being sure about that?
Take time to commit your days and your ways to following.

Prayer for the beginning of the day:
Good Shepherd, you know what lies before me today.
Help me to hear your voice, and remain close to you.
Guide me beside still waters, keep me at peace.
Nourish me with your presence, let me have enough to give.
Let me follow you this day, and always.

Prayer during the day:
Good Shepherd, let me see you ahead of me,
and know which way to go.

 

Good Shepherd
Write down ways in which you have some leadership and/or influence with others.  Each of our lives touches others; we all make ripples in our ponds.

Ask God to help you learn to be a good shepherd in these situations, and to follow the good shepherd.

Write down any action or insight that comes to you. Resolve to follow it this week.

Listen/hear
Remember a time when you felt really listened to, and a time when you did not.  What was the impact of both occasions? Resolve to be a more attentive listener this week.  Give your full attention to whoever is talking to you.  Seek to understand them, really hear them, rather than putting your own point of view across.

 

A link to Malcolm Guite’s sonnet on the gate

If you’d like a copy of the book, you can ask your local bookshop, or order online.

Here are a few suggestions:

The publishers, BRF

Amazon

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Thank you for your time and attention, for walking this way together.