I feel this is the ending of this sequence of poems, on how the Hebrew people escaped their slavery in Egypt. This poem is a dark sister to the opening one of the sequence, which you can read here. If you have been following this blog, you may see that this last has been a long time coming. It’s been hard, thinking of this last and terrible plague, when the oldest sons of the Egyptians died overnight. I’ll write a post telling the story, with links to the passages, another day.
We normally explore this story from the point of view of the Hebrew slaves, and how they shared the first passover meal, and escaped their slavery. For now, I felt drawn to continue my exploration of these ancient stories from a slightly different place – the place of the Egyptians. As we are beginning to wake up to the ways in which we have exploited the good Earth, and its good people, I have wondered whether we are more like the Egyptians in this story than we would care to admit. I wonder if, as climate disruption and pandemic unfold, we can find some resonance in this story of disasters rolling over the land, one after another.
And of course, this is the worst -the death of the children. It is hard to face up to the possibility that we are leaving a hard future for those who are young now, but that is what we are doing. And we have seen our young people rise up in school strikes, and action to protect their places, seeing that they will pay the price for much of the seemingly endless growth we have attempted. This taking and holding, building and amassing wealth now, seems to rob the future. These thoughts troubled me as I considered the death of the children in this final plague. Of course, there are other meanings, deep and true, but find that I need to consider this one.
There is also a clash of world views – the view of the Egyptians, of empire, wealth, might, and the view of the slaves, who seek freedom, community, worship of God, a different way. In the end, the slaves find their freedom, and the opportunity for living out a different way. As the story of Exodus shows us, there is much hard learning on that road. But, for those who despair of our current difficulties, thinking power and might are bound to win, they may find that power and might carry the seeds of their own destruction, and that hardness of heart will not triumph.
There is no triumph in the Exodus, but there is an exodus. There is an escape from a system that seemed invincible for 430 years. It was not. The world shifted for those slaves at least, and they had the chance of something better. When we, from our place at the beginning of the twenty first century, look back at the systems of thought, and money and power that have dominated for a similar length of time, it’s hard to imagine that they might shift. But I think they are. The shifting is painful, and, as we tend to resist, more painful than it might be. But, perhaps an exodus into a different type of common life is possible. Many of the books of law in the Hebrew scriptures explore what that may be, and they include some radical ideas, for example relating to debt, and land, and these seem radical even now. But that is for another day. For now, we have this hard story, and a costly freedom.
The tenth plague – Exodus poems 11
Is this what it takes for your hand to unclasp? Your dearest thing, your dearest one, taken, even as you chill your heart to the warning?
The cold hand of your son now lies still. Do you hold it, and weep over it?
Your way ahead barred, flooded by grief, the future stolen as the young lie lifeless.
Lie still, bound by your hardness of heart, a fearful echo of those slave-babes cast in the Nile – lost into bloodied waters.
Yet now, in this darkness, when each hard drawn breath is a shock, even now, you cannot let go, you chase them still in fear and rage and grief with chariots and swords, as if more death would fill the chasm broken open in your land.
And as the sea of reeds rolls back, rolls back and floods over all your might, your chariots and swords, as those who were slaves turn back and watch from higher ground, all your grandeur runs through your clenched hands like water.
For they stand now, on the other side, out of your grasp at last, with a wild dance, with song and tambourine, in this hard and desperate aftermath of horror, life pulled up from the swirling waters, standing at last in a new and strange freedom.
Walking, as we do, along paths and lanes, we pass many hedgerows, and the remains of many hedgerows. It grieves me deeply when I see one that has been shredded and flailed by harsh machines, so full of open wounds. This year, we walked past one such act of destruction on the very last day of February, the last legal day. Birds were scattering at the sound of the machines. It grieves me that this seems the best way, perhaps the only way, many landowners can manage their hedges. I expect it grieves them too. I expect they would rather live more harmoniously and gently with their land.
Having been deeply unsettled by the sight so many times, I thought I’d listen to that sadness and unease. I find it is reminding me of our deep connection to our places, and that what we do to them, we are doing to ourselves also. There is one particular remnant of a beautiful hedge I pass often. I have a practice now of turning aside towards it, and, absurd as it may sound and often feels, I give it my attention. I ask forgiveness, I bless the hedge. I often do this within my own heart, but sometimes, when the lane is quiet, I speak out. The result of this purtubation, and practice, is the poem below.
Beneath the poem, I am posting some pictures of a contrasting hedge, which makes my heart sing. Transition Woodbridge are doing wonderful work in our town, planting and tending. Something better is possible.
The flailing of the hazel hedge
In years past, walking this lane now, in that time of late-winter-early-spring, this hedge was hedgerow, all yellow swinging catkins and small birds, all leaves ready to burst, crinkled like the corners of smiles.
This year, at each passing, I stop now, and turn aside the ninety degrees to face it, to face what we have done. It is a body-blow, it is desecration.
Flailed and fractured, long open wounds split down through the grey wood towards the shocked, gasping root.
It is my practice now to cross towards it, lay my open palms on its open splinters, and speak –
I ask forgiveness, we have brought destruction on you, beautiful hedge, home of so much life. I am sorry that in our world this violence seemed prudent, necessary, economic. Can you forgive us? For we have abandoned our place of life-nurture, of life-tending.
I hope for better, I look at the small buds. Will they burst this year? Will this be the year when the flailing is final, finally enough, and this rill of beauty and cheerfulness dies?
I go on my way, head bowed, chastened, we do not know what we do.
In beautiful contrast, we have this…..
In writing this poem, I was drawn to imagery from the Bible, and I have kept the imagery where it grew, as it seem appropriate to the immensity of what we are doing to the natural world. The poem speaks of a kind of anti-burning-bush, where Moses turned aside to the holy. I was reminded of the words of the incomparible Wendell Berry – “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places”.
There is also a gentle allusion to the words Jesus spoke from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It seems that most of the time, we do not understand the wrong we are doing, and need such forgiveness. As I am writing this in Holy Week, these words are very present to me. There is a poem on that theme among those in this post: Poems – Seven Sentences from the Cross. You can read a retelling of Good Friday here.
Last year, I gathered together some links for poems, readings and prayers here on my blog. All of them, on the theme of the road to Easter, are included in this revised post. I’ve also added some links to additional material. You will find sections for different days, with links included. I’ve noticed that quite a few people have been looking at Holy Week and Easter posts, and I’m really grateful for the interest. Thank you for joining me here. I hope you find this update helpful. I’ve also been contacted by some churches in the USA asking if they can use my poems in their online services. I am very happy to share my writing in this way. It really helps me if you acknowledge my authorship, and this blog as the source. It is a real encouragement if you feel able to post a comment about how you have used the material, and also how it went. I do love reading those!
I really didn’t think, when I gathered this stuff together last year, we’d still be keeping these holy days at home, or on zoom, or in very small gatherings, this year. But, as we are, I hope you find what follows useful. At the end, I share a link to a poem I posted for last Easter Sunday, which deals with the themes of being shut away. I wonder if this second strange Easter season may continue to give us some new insight into the isolation and separation recorded in the Gospel accounts.
This season of Holy Week and Easter is filled with realism and hope. It looks darkness, despair, violence and loss full in the face, unflinchingly. And then, it shows something new and good arising. It shows us a strange, unsettling hope for new life. It shows this hope birthed in a tomb. I think our recent collective and solitary experience may help us understand more deeply.
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 – how he let things fall away, how he found himself alone, how he loved and forgave even so.
Please feel free to use any of the resources you find helpful, and to share them, saying where they are from.
The links will take you to blog posts where you will find extracts from my books, too. The books include:
You may have local bookshops open – if you do, they can order these for you. Otherwise, they are available wherever you usually do your online bookshopping. The links above take you to Bookshop.org, which supports local bookshops in the UK.
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. They are good for all ages, and have been used in all age worship, Messy Church, and care homes alike.
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.
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.
Last year, I wrote a series of poems for Good Friday, which were used in a number of churches near where I live. It was a great honour to be able to do this. I put together a recording and posted it on Youtube, and there’s a link to that below. I also compiled a suggestion for a Good Friday Meditation, with links to music and the poems. It’s all here, I hope it helps!
A few days ago, a minister from a church in Canada got in touch with me to ask if they could use this poem in their worship on Sunday. That’s such a joy, when words take flight and find a new home, a new place to settle. Of course, I said they could.. I reread the poem, and I think it does have something to say in our difficult and strange times.. So I am sharing it again, in case it is of help to you reading it today.
Many churches and people will be turning to the story of Noah this first Sunday of lent, so it may help those who are considering this ancient, and I find quite difficult, passage.
If you too would like to use it in your online worship, please do, just acknowledge me and this blog.
This poem emerged slowly, over weeks, as they sometimes do. I let it sit for a while in the cold and the dark of our late winter. Looking at it again, I haven’t been quite sure whether it’s come to a place of rest, but I feel that now’s the time to let it fly and see if it finds a place to settle.
I’ve always found the story of Noah quite disturbing and unsettling, and although I feel I have made some peace with it now, it’s often these troubling places that drive you to engage with the original story in a different way. This one in particular feels that there are depths to be plumbed, sunk into, with an imaginative and almost intuitive reading, which is what I sought when I did my retelling for Lion
The rains swamped valleys and plains, and crept up the sides of the mountains, until all was swallowed up in black, endless water. As they drifted helplessly over it, Noah and his family knew that all living things left behind on the land had been drowned. They were alone on the ark. When, after 40 days, the rain finally stopped, the silence was as cold as the waters.
Noah’s family loved their precious cargo of animals: the only other living, breathing creatures left on the earth. They fed them, and cared for them. As they did so, a wind blew, and the waters began to sink slowly down. Then, one day, they heard the keel of the ark beneath them scraping and shuddering. The ark juddered to a halt, for it had struck the top of a mountain.
Every day they scanned the horizon, longing for land, and after many weeks they saw distant purple mountains breaking free of the water. Noah waited 40 more days, then set a raven free. It criss-crossed over the waves, looking for somewhere to perch. But there was nowhere.
A week later Noah tried again, sending out a dove. It came back with an olive twig. Noah held the bird tenderly in his hand, hope rising within him.
A week later he sent the dove out again. This time, it did not come back. It must have found somewhere to perch. At last, the flood was drying up! Noah’s face broke into a wide smile as glistening land slowly emerged and dried.
The image of releasing the birds from this narrow, confined space stayed with me, drawing on my memory of Emily Dickinson’s wonderful poem Hope, which is well worth having by heart for difficult times.
I thought of the raven, how it is a carrion bird, associated with death. Although reading the symbolism of such a long-ago story is best done humbly, I do wonder if Noah’s releasing of this bird first suggests he was expecting there to be carrion around, that it was a bird released into a imaginative landscape of death, not life. And yet we find, later, there was now something green and growing, something to sustain and anoint and bless – the olive – and that the world that was emerging from all that destruction was peaceable, and hospitable, a place of the dove and the olive. It is a new beginning.
We are not there yet, though, at the moment of this poem. We are at that point of wondering if we dare hope. Wondering if it is worth the costs of hope. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves it’s good to look for signs of hope, even when all seems lost. It takes courage, and discipline, and persistence. But learning to read the signs in our own landscapes, shifting our focus up and out, can begin to lift us. And we can find that, astonishingly, green growing things are appearing.
Can I let hope fly, send out birds
to brood and hover
over the chaos,
like Noah, with the raven,
and the dove?
For too long, there
has been nothing
on the horizon,
no fixed point
on the Earth’s
How would you ever know
if the water was falling,
So can I now find courage to
cup birds in unsteady hands –
and throw them upwards
one by one?
To let fly a dark hope
even though there is
nowhere for it to rest,
even though it returns
like a gift
that comes back unopened.
Can I try again
in case something
living and growing has
pierced this water,
until finally a gentle bird
does not return.
Until, at last,
there is somewhere
other than this poor boat
for it to land.
May I have such birds to release.
May I let them fly, like Noah,
with the raven, and the dove.
Lord, purge our eyes to see
Within the seed a tree,
Within the shroud a butterfly.
Till, taught by such we see
Beyond all creatures, thee
And harken to thy tender word
And its “Fear not; it is I”
O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us.
Basil the Great
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.”
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 Wednesday – Remember 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!
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?
This post is a follow up from yesterday’s on ideas for using my children’s picture book, The Little Christmas Tree, this year for Advent and Christmas. You can read that post here.
I’ve also been contacted by another person who’d like to use my retelling of the Bible this Christmas. My old friend Rev Jenny Tebboth of Chalfont St Giles has had a lovely idea for involving families in an alternative crib service out of doors, which should be possible even if there are restrictions. Jenny has very generously given me permission to share the outline of her idea, in case it is of any help to another community trying to plan Christmas activities…. It’s well worth thinking about if you are puzzling over what to do for a crib service, or nativity of any sort.
It’s like a treasure trail…..
“Families will work through the story in six scenes round the village, read part of the story at each scene, pray and listen to a carol – ending behind the inn for hot chocolate.”
I’m so excited to think that my retelling will form the framework for such a lovely idea. The book is in twelve chapters, and Chapter 8 is mainly the birth and early life of Jesus, so there is a good flow of narrative for the six scenes. It’s a very exciting and innovative way to do a socially distanced Christmas adventure. Being out in the cold of winter will be a powerful way of entering into the Nativity story imaginatively, and offers something new and memorable to do to feel involved in Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter, and the birth of Jesus. It’s a beautiful idea, and I look forward to hearing more about it. I’ll post an update when I know more.
If you’d like to read more of my Christmas Retold, you can do so on a previous blog post, here. There, you’ll also find some prayers from my book, Prayers and Verses, and some beautiful pictures.
Here’s some of the story, though, to give you an idea:
At last they came to Bethlehem, but it was not the end of their troubles. The city was noisy, bustling, and heaving with crowds, and Joseph searched anxiously for somewhere quiet for Mary to rest – her pains were beginning, and the baby would be born that night. The inn was already full of travellers, and the only place for them was a stable. There, among the animals, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him up tightly in swaddling bands and laid him in a manger full of hay. Then, she rested next to the manger, smiling at the baby’s tiny face.
There were shepherds who lived out on the hills nearby – the same hills where King David had once watched over the flocks, long ago. The sheep were sleeping in their fold under the shining stars, while the shepherds kept watch. Their fire flickered and crackled, and the lambs would bleat for their mothers, but they were the only sounds. All was peaceful. All was well.
Suddenly, right there in the shepherd’s simple camp, appeared and angel of the Lord, shining with God’s glory and heaven’s brightness. The shepherds gripped each other in terror, their skin prickling with fright. “Don’t be afraid, I’m bringing you good news – it will bring joy to all people!” The shepherds listened, awestruck, their faces glowing with the angel’s light. “This is the day the good news begins, and this is the place. In the town of David, a saviour has been born. He is Christ, the Anointed One, the one you have been waiting for. And this is the sign that these words are true: you will find a baby wrapped tightly in swaddling bands, lying in a manger.”
From The Bible Story Retold in Twelve Chapters
If you’d like a copy of The Bible Story Retold, 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 Bible Story Retold on sale there. It may be they don’t have many copies, so….
You can also find it on Eden bookshops, and all the other online shops.
Once again, it’s so good to hear and share these ideas. If you’d like to use any of my material, I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like, I can share what you plan to do on this blog nearer Christmas. You are very welcome to use my material whether you get in touch or not. Please do acknowledge where it’s from, and that will be good.
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.
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.”
It’s half term here in the UK, and there’s a huge row going on about how to provide for those children and young people who are entitled to free school meals – will they go hungry this week? It breaks my heart that there are so many children who are at risk of hunger in our country, and that we don’t seem to be able to get our response together in time for this short holiday – after all, we knew it was coming. One of the things this crisis continues to do is to reveal things that may have been hidden, or we may have overlooked. Child poverty is one of these, and it’s an affront to us all that we aren’t, as a society, doing better to look after our kids and their families.
Of course, we need to look at long term, systemic solutions which genuinely help families to live good lives, but that long term thinking doesn’t help much if you or your child can’t sleep for hunger, or the fear of hunger. And so, we see once again the kindness and generosity of so many individuals and businesses – many themselves close to the edge – doing all they can to make sure children in their area have enough to eat.
In the light of this national effort, St Andrews Little Free Pantry is a small offering of love and care for and by the community in Melton, Suffolk. It may be just what someone needs, though, to help them through this time. Small, local things can make such a difference. Anyone can come along and take what they need, no questions. So, although I’ve been writing about the free school meals situation, I do want to emphasise that the pantry is available for all, whatever your reasons for visiting. You can just come along, and take what you need.
It’s stocked by donations, and anyone can bring food or toiletries along. Just leave them in the lobby of the church rooms, or by the rectory door.
It’s a little tucked away, so I took some photos so you can see where to go beforehand, that might help.
St Andrew’s Church, Melton, Suffolk.
To the right of the church is this little lane. Follow the sign to the Rectory, which has a paper sign directing you to the pantry.
When you get to the Rectory drive, turn sharp left – it’s fine to cut across the end of the drive – and you’ll see a little path leading down the side of the church rooms.
The door is to your left, and the pantry shelves are just inside.
You will see it’s open every day this half term week, 9-5. Normal social distancing applies. Just come along, and take what you need, leave what you can.
You can read more about the Little Free Pantry here.
I’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.
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.
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……
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.
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.