Poem: Jacob’s Ladder

 

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One of the loveliest spots in my home is the window seat.  In the winter, the radiator does its work through the wood, and it is warm and snug.  At this time of year, as you sit you are surrounded by flowers, and every day you see something new opening.

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This poem is a poem of waking up. To begin with, the life of the world seems far away, on the other side of glass.  Gradually, though, I begin to see.

 

Jacob’s Ladder

Sitting on the window seat, in this box of light,
I drink warm, bitter coffee, my mind waking slowly from  sleep.

There is a fly buzzing against the glass, black and slow,
not getting through.  On the other side is the cool sun,
the flowerheads and flowerbuds swaying in the breeze,
their stems crossing and crisscrossing  in straight green lines,
Making rhomboids, diamonds of the brightness.
And so I sit here, as if among the flowers,
not feeling the breeze, not catching the scent.

There are the bright, tissue paper flames of poppies,
and the soft deep pinks of the columbine,
dove among flowers,
And the euphorbia – black with bees –
their green flowers full of sweetness.

But there, suddenly, are the tall spikes of Jacob’s ladder,
new dazzling white, startling, perfect.
They must have opened early while I slept.
Those flowers – small, spread out skirts
of pure white, anthers gold with pollen,
the delicate deep ring of purple veins –
drawing you deep to the green-dark heart of the flower,
curled, mysterious, where the heavy bee probes
for nectar as sweet as the honey yet to come.

Angels ascending and descending,
ascending and descending
as the stiff green stems are swaying,
are still swaying in the cool breeze.  The day begins.

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The name of this plant calls to mind the story of Jacob in Genesis, which is also a story of coming to see, of waking up.
Here is my retelling from The Bible Retold, the text shared by The Lion Classic Bible

Jacob went alone, travelling unitl it was dark.  Shivering in the chill of the desert night, he took a stone for a pillow, and lay down to sleep.  As Jacob slept, a dream came to him.  He saw a ladder, with its feet on the ground, stretching up and up to heaven.  In his dream, he watched as God’s bright angels travelled up and down in between heaven and earth.  And in his dream, God himself was there.
…….
Jacob woke with a jolt and looked around.  He was alone.
“God was here and I didn’t know it!  This place is the gate of heaven!” he said  Then he took the stone he had slept upon and set it up as an altar to God. He poured oil on it as an offering, and worshipped there.

You can read the Genesis story here

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Sophy Williams’ beautiful illustration from The Lion Classic Bible

 

Help us, like Jacob, dream of angels.
Help us, wherever we wake,
to know that you are there, too.
Help us to see with new eyes.

Poem for Pentecost, and some readings

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Wind and fire – two of the ways people have tried to describe the Spirit.

As we approach Pentecost Sunday, I am sharing with you some readings and a poem.  Please feel free to use them if they help you, saying where they are from.

Firstly, a reading from my book The Bible Retold

 

From the fields it came: the first sheaf of barley cut for that year’s harvest.  It was carried high through streets crammed with visitors, and on to the Temple. And then the priest offered it to God, giving thanks for the good land, and for the gift of harvest. For that day was the celebration of the first fruits.  It was Pentecost.

Meanwhile, the disciples were all together, waiting.  Then, suddenly, it began.  It stared with sound – a sound like the wind – but this was no gentle harvest breeze.  This was a shaking and a roaring: a sound of power, whooshing and howling about the house, rattling every door and shutter.  The sound seemed to come down from heaven itself, and filled the house as the wind fills sails.  Then, the disciples watched wide-eyed as something that looked like fire came down, and tongues of flame peeled off it and rested on each of them without burning them.  All of them were filled, for the Holy Spirit had come.  And as it happened, their tongues were loosened, and they began to speak as the Spirit gave them words.  These words were not Aramaic, their own language, but in languages that were unknown to them.
A crowd had gathered by the house because of the extraordinary sound, but then they heard voices. There were pilgrims in Jerusalem from all over the known world, and they recognized the words the disciples were speaking.
“He’s talking Egyptian!” said one.
“That one’s talking my language,” said a visitor from Crete – and the same was true for all.  Each person heard God’s praises in their own tongue.
“What can it mean?” they asked each other.  But others among the crowd joked that the disciples had been drinking.
The Twelve heard what they were saying, so Simon Peter stood up to speak to the crowds.
“Listen, I’ll tell you what’s happening.  We’re not drunk! It’s too early in the day for that! This is God’s promise come true.  Do you remember what one of the prophets wrote long ago?
I’ll pour out my Spirit on everyone – young and old.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
young men will have visions, and old men dreams.
All who follow me – men and women – will
be given my Spirit, and there will be wonders!

 

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And in response, some prayers from Prayers and Verses

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours, no feet but yours…
Yours are the feet with which he is to go
about doing good,
and yours are the hands with which he is to
bless us now.
St Theresa of Avila 1515-82

 

Pentecost

Spirit of God
put love in my life.
Spirit of God
put joy in my life.
Spirit of God
put peace in my life.
Spirit of God
make me patient.
Spirit of God
make me kind.
Spirit of God
make me good.
Spirit of God
give me faithfulness.
Spirit of God
give me humility.
Spirit of God
give me self-control.

From Galatians 5:22–23

When I’m retelling stories from the Bible, I often spend time before them quietly, sinking into the story, wondering what it would have been like to have been there, to have seen and heard and felt…..  As well as the retelling, this poem emerged from that process of contemplation.

SPIRIT

How would it feel, then, to live
in that God-shaken house?
To feel the wind,
like the very breath of life,
like the stirring of the
deep before time,
gusting through these small
daily rooms, clattering and pressing
against doors and shutters,
not to be contained?

How would it feel to look up, eyes
dried by wind-force,
and see fire falling, flames bright
and crackling, and resting with
heat that does not burn on each
wondrous head?

To be blown open
lock-sprung
lifted
with wild reckless joy
as words tumble out into
the clear singing light?

It would feel like this,
it feels like this,
and it is still only morning.

 

 

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This post draws on the series Sunday Retold

 

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Poem: Sheringham Park Pigeons

 

 

 

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The Norfolk coast is such a beautiful and fragile place.  We walked there again,  close to cliffs that seemed to be sheering away into heaps of sand.  I tried to keep the recommended five meters from the edge.  I am not afraid of heights, but I was afraid of these cliffs.

Living in East Anglia we are very aware how precarious we are, with the power of the North Sea beside us, with the ground under our feet seeming sandy, and uncertain.  I feel the threat of that sea driven by north winds, rising as the ice melts.  These places, and the creatures that live there, like the sand martins, like us, are in uncertain times.  And although it may be tempting to despair of what is happening to our world, what our systems of greed have done and are doing to the world, I feel our sense of beauty and fragility offers us a note of hope, too.  The sorrow for what we have lost, and what we are losing – all those precious creatures, plants, places – can bring us to our senses, can help us wake up, and treasure what is close, what greets us every day with a soft, green welcome.

Sheringham Park is full of bright colour in spring – first the azaleas, then the rhododendrons.  There is a tower you can climb to look over the tops of these extraordinary banks of pink, and purple, and red.

What caught me, though, what filled me with wonder, what made me feel a part of this place, was a beech tree, and some pigeons.  The startle as they all flew away made me feel that moment, and that place – a sense of awe, of connection, of being one with a place.
It seems such a small thing in the face of potential global catastrophe – to love a place, to be awed by such ordinary things as a beech tree in new leaf, as a crowd of pigeons.  I wonder if it is such a small thing, though.  I wonder if that sense of love and connection can open us to another way of being in the Earth – humbled by its hospitality, aware we have gifts to offer in return, walking softly.

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Sheringham Park Pigeons

 At the top of the ridge –
from here the land slopes to the sea –
from the top of the tallest beech tree
singing with new green,
shining with life,
the pigeons fly
away in clattering waves,
circle after circle of them.

My steps disturbed them,
although my shoes are soft.
How could there be so many,
crashing through the blue air
in tens, in hundreds it seems,
in circles that grow wider and wider
their flights the spokes of a wheel.
And here, this smooth old grey trunk
its very centre.
Where I stand,
the very centre.

Poem: Jesus washes Judas’ feet.

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

Why did Judas do what he did?

 

We can’t know, of course.
Can we seek to imagine what motivated something so terrible?
Might it help to do so?

It is a truly terrible thing to betray a friend, but maybe Judas was expecting a very different outcome.  Maybe.

Maybe he  thought there was a good to be served by doing what he did. He must have felt he had a reason. Maybe he was trying to force Jesus’ hand, make him reveal and initiate the Kingdom in a dramatic burst.  Maybe, an idealist, he was disillusioned with small progress, maybe the way things were turning out was not what he expected or felt he signed up for.

Having wondered this, having thought, too, how well Jesus knew Judas, and that he knew what Judas was intending to do, I imagined that instead.  I wrote a response.

Here it is.

 

Jesus washes Judas’ feet.

That moment, when you knelt before him,
took off his sandals, readied the water,
did you look up?  Search his eyes?
Find in them some love, some trace
of all that had passed between you?

As you washed his feet, holding them in your hand,
watching the cool water soak away the dirt,
feeling bones through hard skin,
you knew he would leave the lit room,
and slip out into the dark night.

And yet, with these small daily things –
with washing, with breaking and sharing bread,
you reached out your hand, touched, fed.
Look, the kingdom is like this:

as small as a mustard seed, as yeast,
a box of treasure hidden away beneath the dirt.
See how such things become charged,
mighty, when so full of love. This is the way.

In that moment, when silence ebbed between you,
and you wrapped a towel around your waist;
when you knew, and he knew,  what would be,
you knelt before him, even so, and took off
his sandals, and gently washed his feet.
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This is a picture that was in display at the Chapel of the Holy Innocents, Norwich Cathedral.  It shows the Jesus being betrayed, and healing, at the same moment.
I write about it in the last chapter of Jesus said, I am – finding life in the everyday
You might like to read the gospel story in John 13

Lent: Jesus said I Am….. Week 6, The Way, Truth, and Life

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The photos in this post were taken last year, as the very short spring warmed up suddenly into summer.  We were walking the Norfolk Coast Path, which was my first long distance path – flat, and easy to navigate with the sea on one side.  It took us through many lovely, varied landscapes and small settlements.

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It helps to have an image in your mind when thinking about the Way, as we are this week.

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.

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Jesus Washing the Feet of his Disciples, 1898 (oil and grisaille on paper) by Edelfelt, Albert Gustaf Aristides (1854-1905)

© Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden
Finnish, out of copyright

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 them – 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.
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?

 

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.

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In the current state of our news and social media, I think this one 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?

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, or order online.

Here are a few suggestions:

The publishers, BRF

Amazon

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Poem: The green of rose leaves

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The progress of the rose – some, taken last year.

The roses that ramble through the silver birch give me great joy – I love to watch them as they grow and get ready to flower, and then fill the trees with startling beauty. I’m waiting for them, I can almost anticipate their scent …..

but not so much as I don’t love the spring as it is now, today.

Sometimes, we just need to look long enough to see it.

The invitation remains.

How do we respond?

 

 

The green of rose leaves

I watch the long arching branches
of the rambling rose bend in the breeze,
noticing how the leaves lighten,
like a colourchart of
pea green,
like a Deco lithograph.

So dark by the stem,
and look, how vibrant
by the tight bud –
with its white flower
to come.

Today, I can sit here,
and do this.
Today, I give my attention
to the spring,
which warrants it.

It has been here all along,
calling with the blackcap’s
fluid, full-throated voice,
it was here,
all this green,
saying
“Look, look……”
and asking me now,
“So, are you going
to join in?”

Poem – Pulling down trees

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Last year was hard on a beautiful tree in our garden – the late snow, followed by drought, killed a cotoneaster that gave us shade in the summer.  The bees loved its blossom, and the birds came in late winter for the berries. We had fieldfares and redwings hungrily stripping it when the fields froze.  And another tree too, a cedar, that was rather cramped in, died in the drought.  It had lovely grey green leaves, and was a favourite perch of the pigeons who watch for food.

So this poem is a tribute, a thank you, to the trees.  I was intending to write about both, and gave it the title I did because I pulled on the rope that brought down the cedar, but it was one tree that ended up filling the space.  I’ve kept the title, in a kind of echo of another poem, Pulling up trees , as it seemed to work for this one too.

The garden looks so different without them, and I couldn’t bear to have the cotoneaster taken out completely right away.  I wanted something to remember it, and some time to adjust to the loss of it.  I’ve been thinking of replacing it with an apple tree or two, to echo the shape, and the bark, and the blossom and fruit.  I still may plant an apple, but, on clearing around the base, we found there was already something new growing, ready to take advantage of the light and the open space.  So, we’ll see.  The garden has its own plans.

 

Pulling down trees

Dark now, the chainsaws growl on
under lights, taking down
the spreading tree I loved,
with its blossom and berries,
its deep shade in summer.
Full of birds it was,
its arched branches
chattering with life.

They leave the dead trunk behind,
for now, for remembrance,
for that wild rose to climb.

Tomorrow, when the sun rises,
I will see how bare the sky looks
without it,
how wide, how open the space.
How light.
And I will see, too,
at the base, sheltering, a
bending sapling,
holm oak,
already growing.
Such a gift,
always,
there is a gift.

 

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Poem – Throwing sticks for the Black Dog

Today is the day some call Blue Monday – the most depressing day of the year.
Here in Suffolk, though, we have had some sunshine, and the frost has sparkled, so it’s less gloomy here – at least meteorologically – than it has been for weeks.

I thought I’d share this poem with you.  Churchill called his depression his Black Dog, and it seems a good name for it.  I have tried to express the care and nurture we wish we could give ourselves, and those we walk with, when we notice the Black Dog is beginning to sniff around.  Those gentle nudges towards the things that used to bring life and joy, in the hope that they will again. I hope that has quite a different feel to injunctions to pull up your socks, or whatever.  It’s more a hope of holding on to the capacity to notice what does you good, and to keep on doing that, even when you don’t feel the good being done.

I hope it is a simple and gentle hand to hold.

The Blurt Foundation offers compassionate support resources online, as do many other organisations.

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Throwing Sticks for the Black Dog

When I’m walking, I pick up sticks,
they feel rough and dry in my hand.
I have been collecting them for a while,
just in case.

And that black dog, well, can you see him?
Is he walking with us –
sloping through the undergrowth?
Or there, breathing at our heels?

I will throw some sticks.
Maybe he will turn playful,
maybe he’ll run after them
and not come back.  Maybe.
Maybe he’ll leave us alone for a while.
I can try.
Here are a few I have gathered:

Beauty, any sort of beauty
that takes you unawares
so the mind halts in its circling tracks.
Green beauty of growing things,
beauty that comes from the human
heart and mind –
words that build castles in the air.
Look, there they are!

Light, and the patterns it makes
through these leaves,
and darkness, when it is soft,
when, awake at night,
sitting by an open window,
I hear the owl – can you hear it?

Movement and prayer, together,
if movement and prayer remain possible.
Good food, that grows in the earth,
its colours and smells as I chop, chop.
Friendship, and kindness –
either given, received, or witnessed.
Love.
The memory of good things past,
the faintest trace of hope for
good things to come.
For good things may come.

And so, I carry this armful of sticks,
ready to throw – ready to give away –
like this,
and this,
and this.

 

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Here is a link to my poem Sorrows

Poem – Crow, on the lawn

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My first home-attempt at lino cut

 

Here is the second poem I have written about the crows who have increasingly appeared in my garden.  You can read the first, and something of the background, here.

It’s a small story, but not small for the crows.  It intrigues me to think that, as I go about my daily life, noticing or not noticing the lives around me, so many creatures are living fully, experiencing – well, we can’t know what, but what we see leads me to suppose that there may be some more commonality of experience than we tend to assume. I am trying to notice more, to see more of that commonality we share, creatures of earth that we are.

I still remember the blackbird who stood guard, in what looked like a vigil of grieving.  You can read that poem here.

I have seen various birds of pray above the garden – kestrels, a buzzard, and, greatly to my delight, a red kite.  I have seen the kestrel in pursuit of a pigeon through the trees here, and the pigeon got away.  It gives me great pleasure to see these magnificent birds, and to know that the land is healthy enough to sustain them.  But I have also seen feathers on the lawn, and blamed the neighbourhood cats.  I know now it isn’t always the cats.  And on this occasion, I saw the aftermath of the grim event.  I hope this poem honours the community of crows.

I do not know how long these crows will stay.  I think they need taller trees than the ones in my garden.  I shall keep watch, and see what they do as they search for a home.

 

Crow, on the lawn

And through the window
I see a sleek small grey bird,
with a yellow-rimmed eye,
with a curved beak,
that stands on the belly
of a crow lying on its back.
Its black flight feathers are
curled up, ruffling in the breeze
as if it lives.

And the hawk pulls on the flesh
of the crow until what remains
is light enough to carry

And then it flies,
with a low, slow flight,
leaving behind
ruffles and pom-poms
of black feathers,
a strange mourning.

Later, though, I see two
crows flying fast and straight
across the sky, intercepting
the curved, grey shape of the hawk.
They circle it close,
cawing, chasing, harrying.

And the hawk has not returned,
and the crows above me
fly in slower circles now,
and the black feathers
still tumble across the lawn.

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