I’m very grateful for the interest people have been taking in my poems based on Bible stories. Thank you. I’m sharing this one again, as it may help in people’s preparation for, and celebration of, Pentecost. Both poem and reading show the way that the Spirit can burst through our shut away places and times, taking the ordinary and transforming it. I hope you find some encouragement here.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
Sitting in one of my sitting-and-thinking spots in the garden, sometimes something catches my eye which brings me joy. In my last post, One hundred and ten years, I talked about the primroses in the garden, and why it mattered to me that they spread. We could have lost them with the blitz of herbicides in the previous century, and their modest presence is still not guaranteed.
Here is a poem then, that draws on their growing brightness in my spring days. Now, we’ve had some warmth, and they are beginning to retreat under the cover of later plants, but here is how I love to see them. Soon, their fine seed will begin to fall again, down over the sleeper into the waiting lawn. I thought about that experience of falling, and how so many things that feel like an end may not be such an ending, after all.
We’ll mow around them, and let them make their way across, amongst the speedwell and the forget me nots that are also growing there.
Some days, something as simple as the way the primroses tumble over the wooden sleeper to the grass below is enough.
It’s enough to see they fall and are caught, nestled between strong grasses, resting on good earth.
Enough that once there, they soften and grow. Enough that they unclench their green fists into open hands as they spread slowly, and ever wider, across the grass like cold, yellow butter.
They fall. They are caught. They find a welcome, a green place, all they need.
May our fallings be so caught. May we, after all, come to rest in some new, surprising place where we flourish.
May we find that what feels like a falling is, after all, a running over, an overflowing, down, to some place we had not known before. And may that running over be enough.
I am delighted to see how even the tiniest glimmer of sun brings out clouds of insects in the garden. I love the way the spring flowers are hungrily visited by bees. I do what I can to encourage butterflies. It cheers me when they come, but sometimes, I remember reading in novels, and poems, of an abundance that I can hardly imagine. It fills me for a kind of nostalgia for something I didn’t know, but nonetheless miss. I feel its lack. I remember as a child hearing older people talk about primroses and cowslips as flowers that were abundant in their youth, but had all but vanished from the countryside. No doubt, these memories are what is behind my cherishing them, and watching them spread through the garden.
So, although it warms my heart to see the growing abundance in our lightly disordered patch of nature, I’m aware of shifting baselines – I know the natural world I experience is diminished compared to that which our ancestors saw and knew. I sometimes feel the presence of a ghost landscape behind what I see – a landscape of what had been. To the best of my knowledge, my place was once an orchard, and my mind’s eye can almost see it, alive in a way I can only dream of.
I was reminded of a book I loved as a child, Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, where the garden, as it was, becomes visible, even though it had been destroyed and built over. At least here, in this place, there is hope that some of the abundance there was can return, as much as it is within my power.
One hundred and ten years
Despite this cold there is a shimmer of life in the air above the beds, where bluebells begin their opening.
Tiny flies, and larger, and bees, and the occasional, beautiful, butterfly – look, just there!
I watch them in awe, all these tiny specks of life. Each small thing part of The garden’s constant dance, each with their own irreplaceable steps.
I wonder what it was like, over a hundred years ago now, before the house was built, when all this was orchard. Did butterflies rise in clouds as you walked through the long grass? Could you lie down and hear the hum of many bees in the blossom above? Could you doze in the scent of wildflowers, the hum and scratch of insects?
Perhaps, like Tom’s Midnight Garden, that place is still here, in the shadows. Sometimes, I can almost glipse it, as transient as dawn mist.
And perhaps, I hope, it is becoming less ghostly, more embodied, humming in this shimmer of life in the air. Growing stronger, growing more certain, after so many years.
Yesterday was Earth Day, and, as I have before, I wanted to mark it. I’m a little late, but here is a poem that has been circling my mind, and troubling me, for a couple of weeks now. I heard this question – or something like it – on a podcast, and it rather took my breath away. I do spend time attempting to answer questions such as – What can I do to limit the harm I am doing? or, Is there anything regenerative that I could attempt?, or What can I do about all this plastic in my life?.
The more philosophical question, of what makes a good life, in this time when we are waking up to the way ecosystems are fraying and dying, is harder to attempt. Yet these phrases came to me, and I think there is power in the question. There is some liberation, too. It doesn’t focus on all the things I’m not doing, or are unable to do. Neither does it reassure me by looking at what everyone else isn’t doing either. So the poem is not a list of tasks, but something closer to a way of being, which will, naturally, lead to tasks, and to action.
In some ways the question is offensive. And in the places it rubs against you, there is something to be explored. And perhaps, in finding our own answers to the question, we may find the dying receeds, and the living has more hope and space. But that is not the point just for the moment, just as we approach this question. The point is, to face up to what we are doing, and then find a way of living within that knowledge. It’s quite a task. But I feel there is some merit in the attempt.
I was encouraged that yesterday the virtual Climate Conference that President Biden convened made some positive announcements. As we seek to move from goals to a change in the way we live, maybe this question helps.
The question arose on a Nomad podcast which centred around an interview with Gail Bradbrook, of Extinction Rebellion. It is well worth listening to. You can find a link to it here.
May we live well. May that wellness include all living things.
What might it mean, to live well on a dying Earth?
Who knows? The worst kind of foolishness, of absurdity to even try. And yet, something sparks, something kindles, at the question. And so, knowing the absurdity, these words come….
To be tenderhearted, though afraid.
To know that each small thing matters. That even though it is not enough, such calculation is not your task.
To tend the tender plants, and see their flourishing. To feed birds. To stop on your way and talk to friends, and those you barely know, to stand with them in their griefs, to laugh within their joys.
To be compassionate to all, beginning with yourself.
To do those things you have found within your power to do. To also do those things your heart whispers. And both, without measuring outcomes.
To act as if you have hope, even if you do not.
To act boldly when you feel the call to do so, but with gentleness and grace.
To look for beauty, and joy, and love. To travel through despair and let its darkness dissolve about you, having held you.
To grow food for yourself, and for all those you share your place with.
To stand in awe under the song of the songbird. To be merciful to the worms and the beetles and the spiders,
To – again and again – say yes to life, and to joy.
Say yes to all that is good, while there is so much that grieves you, and leaves you despairing.
To know a more beautiful world is already here, and yet coming, and still beyond our grasp,
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!
Next week, all being well, the rules will change here in England. We’ll be able to have someone local in the garden again. Having all this time with no human visitors has made me thing about who I’m tending this garden for. It’s been rather nice to leave aside my imaginary visitor who might critisize my rather haphazard and untidy methods, and just go with what I want, and what the garden seems to do. I hasten to say that my dear friends who came and sat with me last year, when inside was out of bounds, are always delighted to be here, and say no such thing! The critic is internal, and I am seeking to encourage her or him not to worry, to look at what is beautiful instead.
I’ve changed my emphasis this year. Previously, I was being quite purist about going for british native plants, wildflowers, and I still do try for those first. However, that did leave a long gap in the latter half of the year when there wasn’t much for the insects, so now I’m going for abundant life – plants and a style of gardening that encourage insects, birds, any other wild creatures that are happy to be here. I am protecting tender things from the muntjac, but the deer is welcome just the same. You can read about my planning for later in the year in my poem, Dreaming of Flowers.
Hospitality, then, in my garden, is the largely hidden from human eyes at the moment. It is fairly unconcerned about what other people might think. It is simply what I, and the wildlife, like. This winter, I’ve done other things to shelter nature. I’ve put up a couple of bird boxes, and made a bee hotel, and had piles of cuttings where ladybirds overwinter. I might write about those later. For now, I’m just rejoicing in a few of the flowers.
Hospitality Lockdown III
Alone in the garden. Mild. The early insects stir, hum, fly slowly towards the flowers I have planted – startling yellow aconites, the shrub honeysuckle, primroses, crocus – oh, those two together, the purple and the yellow, how they shine, how they bend their impossibly thin pale stems as they follow the sun, as they accept the weight of bees.
This garden is still a welcoming place. Cut off from friends, from human hospitality, from tea and laughter, from human notice of these opening buds, even now the garden hosts such a banquet.
It sustains and rejoices so many – the hoverflies, like this one, resting in the yellow aconite all this time as I write.
I have spread a table here, welcoming all this life, and together with all these, I receive the early warmth, I rest in the fragrance of flowers.
Just to add – today, I saw the first male brimstone butterfly visiting the primroses. So exciting!
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!