The sower, the seed, and the soil. A talk at Girton College Chapel.

 

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Last Sunday, I had the enormous privilege of speaking at Girton College Chapel. Malcolm Guite, the chaplain and poet, invited me to speak.  I’d been for the 150th anniversary celebrations last year, and Malcolm is continuing to invite Old Girtonians back this year too.

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It was so good to be back, and in the chapel which was good to me as a student.  It’s a beautiful, safe, nurturing space, and it also has a superb acoustic, which means that at evensong, you feel immersed in the roll of the music.  The choir are excellent, well worth hearing, and it was particularly good to have music by another Old Girtonian, Rhiannon Randle.  Her new work, Our Burning World, was performed on Monday.  You can read about it on her website linked above.

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One of Vincent van Gogh’s astonishing paintings of The Sower

Malcolm very generously gave me some flexibility to talk about what was on my mind, and I decided to follow where my thoughts, readings and prayers are taking me and talk about one of the parables.  I’ve been particularly drawn to Jesus’ parables of the natural world, curious to find out how he noticed to the flowers of the field, the birds of the air, and the work of tending soil for food.

Having driven to Cambridge through the tail end of a storm, it seemed very appropriate to be speaking from a parable of the soil. It is good to return to the gospels for wisdom, especially as humanity seems to be on the brink of a crisis in our relationship with the rest of creation.

Malcolm has kindly published the text of the talk on the College Website.  You can read it
here.

My thoughts on the parables are gradually taking shape into something, I hope it will be another book.  Sometimes, I know that there is some treasure to be dug, but I’m not sure what it will be until the digging is well underway.  So, I shall return to my digging, and see what good things I unearth along the way.

 

If you’d like to read more about seeds and sowing, you can look elsewhere on my blog, as below.

Sunday Retold – The Sower and the Seed 16th July 2017

November Sowing

Sunday Retold – Small Seeds, from Luke 17

 

Jesus said, ‘I Am’ Finding life in the everyday. Readings for Lent

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Last year, I shared with you some suggestions for how to use my book – Jesus said, ‘I Am’ –  for Lent reading.  I know that individuals and groups, including groups of churches, did so, and I thought it would be good to share these resources again this year, with a few additions and amendments.  I hope you find it helpful.

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I’ve made a couple of tours round the garden this morning, checking the emerging plants after another weekend of major storms, and it astonishes me how well these fragile early plants have survived.  The blackthorn blossom, in particular, tissue-paper thin, has withstood an absolute pounding.   The birds are very busy on the feeders, and singing, and popping in and out of the thicker shrubs looking for nest sites.  The days are stretching out now, and it feels good to be outside, for a little while at least!

Lent is on the way with the lengthening days, and some of you may be looking for some reading, or a spiritual practice, for this time.  Many people seek to deepen their prayer, and commit to some physical discipline, and would like some company and support along the way. My book might be what you are looking for.

Each chapter begins with a short reading from John’s account of the life of Jesus, which is followed by some reflections, and then proceeds to offer suggestions for further study, and prayer, and creative response, as well as possible practical and community actions. You may be part of a small group or spiritual community, who might like to read it together.  If you might follow it on your own, I intend to publish a little something every week on this blog so that we can take this walk together, and keep each other company here.

 

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It might help you to see how it would work, so, below you’ll find a suggested calendar of how we could proceed – although of course it’s entirely up to you.  Each week I’ll post some readings and suggestions for things to do here on this blog.

Getting Started: Chapter 1, Moses and Abraham.  This is a shortish introductory chapter – you could fit it in this week, or as an extra piece of reading as Lent begins.

The woman at the well: week beginning Sunday 23rd February 2020.  Ash Wednesday is 26th February this year.

I am the bread of life: week beginning 1st March.

I am the light of the world:  week beginning 8th March.

I am the good shepherd, I am the gate for the sheep: week beginning 15th March.

I am the resurrection and the life: week beginning 22nd March.

I am the way, the truth and the life: week beginning 29th March.

I am the true vine: week beginning 5th April, Holy Week.

I am he: Maundy Thursday, 9th April, or another day this week.

It seems to fit well, I hope you agree.
If you want to find out a bit more about the book, there are extracts elsewhere on the blog, for instance here and here.

You can order the book from any bookshop, or online.
Amazon
Waterstones
and all the usual places.

This could be good!

 

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Poem – Red Kite/Y Barcud

 

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Photo by Gracie Oneil

Like many of us in the UK, I’ve been watching David Attenborough’s Seven Worlds, One Planet which is full of so much beauty, and also heartbreakingly poignant as an awareness of the danger so many creatures and systems of life face seeps through the glory we are watching.  The Earth is so very good.

I wonder if you can remember the first time you became aware of extinction – that humans were causing an animal, or a plant, to be threatened?  It’s a very powerful moment for many, as it was for me.  My own creature was a bird of prey, the red kite, which, of course, I had never seen.  I remember the tears I cried as a child on hearing its story.  Below are a couple of links to video clips where Charles Eisenstein talks of the sense of loss we can experience, and how we respond.

Charles Eisenstein Horseshoe Crabs

Charles Eisenstein Passenger Pigeons

In my own case, the kites have made a welcome return, spreading far beyond the places in Wales where they have been nurtured and protected.  Someone, some people, took time and effort, engaged in research and action, to bring these beautiful birds back from the brink of extinction.  There is hope, just, for so many.

 

Red Kite /Y Barcud

A warm Sunday afternoon,
I lay on the grass, sleepy,
watching the few light clouds
against the blue,
when, suddenly, a swift shadow
passed over me.

A red kite – wide, graceful wings,
forked tail turning and turning to
catch the wind – the wind that
ruffled my own hair.
I stood, in wonder, and whooped,
in joy.  Here she is, at last!
She has been gone all my life.

And sadness I felt as a child
came back to me then,
when I had listened to the story
of the red kites – large and graceful,
that glided over the hills and forests
of Wales

And were hunted – perhaps all gone.
Perhaps every one. Never seen.
Shot. Trapped. Poisoned
by chemicals spread on the land,
sickening the whole web of life.

I remember I wept for them then,
ashamed. How could we?
Make a creature, with a name,
unknown, gone forever,
as if it had never been.
Make a myth out of a living
breathing thing.

Since then, I have looked up,
looked up at the sky,
waiting for them to return.
I have watched them spreading east,
now, all my life, and, at last,
at long last they are here.
I wept again.  I wept for the loss, and the joy.

May you be safe here,
Y Barcud,
May you thrive, and be blessed,
May your young fly in these skies,
May the morning sun rise on your wings.

The first Little Free Pantry in the UK!

Some good news from this corner of Suffolk…..

I’d like to share with you an article hot off the press at the Melton Messenger – the local parish magazine. I’ve tweaked it ever so slightly for the internet. In it, I talk about our open, freely accessible community food project, which we hope will be a sign of love and welcome, as well as practical help, to anyone who wishes to participate by either receiving or giving. Anyone is free to use the pantry, with no questions asked.

It’s such a simple idea, maybe it’s something you, or a community you belong to, could consider? It might be very welcome in the run-up to Christmas, and in the leaner days that follow. In the article is a link to the Little Free Pantry website, which is full of delightful and helpful things.

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Sharing the Harvest – New Community Food Project Launched!

We’re delighted to tell you that St Andrew’s new community food project is now up and running!

It’s a Little Free Pantry – a set of shelves in the Church porch which are freely accessible. Anyone can leave some tins, and anyone can take some. The ethos of the project is:

“Take what you need, give what you can”.

We are quite excited to be able to announce that we have successfully registered our shelves with the Little Free Pantry movement. It is now, officially, the first in the UK! You can find out more about the movement, and see St Andrew’s Melton on the map, at their website: http://mapping.littlefreepantry.org/

Back to the launch….. it was at our Harvest Festival. The Church was looking beautiful, decked out with orange autumn flowers, and wheat, and apples. It smelt as good as it looked. During the first hymn, as we gave thanks for the harvest, we all brought up our gifts of tins and packets and gave them to Rev Paul, who piled them on the altar. Later in the service, we joined hands to pray a blessing on the shelves, and for all who would use them. The shelves were stacked with the tins that had been brought. The surplus will go to the Salvation Army’s food bank. It felt that we were participating in something very ancient – giving thanks for, and sharing, the Harvest – in a way that was new to us, visibly opening our Harvest Thanksgiving to whole parish.

For we hope that Melton neighbours will want to join in. It’s a way we can all participate in the generosity of Harvest, whether we are giving, or receiving. We hope it will be a year-round sign of God’s love in a very practical, daily-bread way – with tins of beans, and soup, and such. We hope it will help to strengthen the sense of community in Melton. It’s so good that we can keep the Church and its garden open and accessible to the neighbourhood, and we hope this project will be a further sign of welcome, and of the inclusive community we are seeking to build here.
As people are free to take and leave when they like, the stocks may be variable, but we’ll do our best to keep an eye on things and make sure the shelves aren’t empty!

So, why not come along and take a look? Why not come along and join in?

Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can change the world — Howard Zinn

We have a tradition of sharing produce in the congregation – many people have productive gardens with gluts of tomatoes and apples. We now have a basket above the shelves where we can extend that sharing to all our neighbours – subject to the vagaries of harvest and weather!

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If you’d like to think some more about Bread, and hunger, you might like to read my Lent post on “I am the bread of life”, here.

A lament – I hear the song of the Earth #EverybodyNow

I’m posting a series of pieces as my small way of joining Extinction Rebellion’s protests this week and next.

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This is something I wrote for myself, in the summer.  I was thinking about what I wanted to say in what may become my next book, I was thinking of what was on my heart, and I gave my heart some space to speak.  What came was this – I’ve tweaked it a tiny bit, and it may well turn into something else in time – this, though, was a felt rather than thought expression of my growing sadness as I attempt to follow those words from Job –

But ask the beasts, and they will teach you,
the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you:
or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.

Job 12:7,8

I have called it a lament for now.  I am not sure what to call it.  I have tried to resist my natural urge to say something soothing, and, as in the parable I shared on Monday, let the piece be what it is.  Lament is powerful, and important.  We need to give space to it, and then in time we may find we can move through it, knowing what we love, what we risk losing, empowered by it to act, to cherish, to tend our beautiful Earth.

 

I hear the song of the Earth

I hear the song of the Earth –
so good and green,
in June, when the whole world sings,
and the fledgling birds walk fearlessly,
and the young badger sits on the grass.
I hear the song so poignantly
so ebbingly,
at the great green flood tide of the year.
For I hear within the bassnote of loss
of grief of absence,
of all the creatures
that are not,
are no more.
I hear the clatter
of plastic as it
rattles through
the web of life.

I hear the whales
that have thrown themselves
ashore as I wonder
what would they sing
if they still could.

I hear the forests burning
and splintered, the roar of
the orang-utan
fighting the gripper that
tears down the tree.

I hear silence, absence,
the butterflies I do not see
and the hedges that are gone.

The Earth cries out
and these are not birthpangs

Or if they are they are pangs
for our waking, awakening,
coming to our senses
and listening to the teaching
of the plants and the animals,
The water and the air.

It may or may not be too late.
we may or may not be able
to turn away from destruction.

That is no longer the point for me.
The point is that my voice must join
with the cry of the beached whale,
and the turtle laying her eggs
in trash,
and the hare chased by dogs,
and the young albatross
with a belly full of plastic.

That is my task, as a
being on the Earth.
my task is to feel the Earth’s pain,
and speak, and speak,
And cry out in a tongue we understand.

And so, I sing a song of the Earth,
in winter, when life ebbs.
I remember the good, and the green,
the fledgling birds and the young badger,
the butterflies and the hedgerows full of blossom.
I will sing of them still.

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Otley Hall Quiet Day – the vine, and other growing things.

Last Saturday I had the enormous privilege of leading a Quiet Day for St Mary’s Church of Woodbridge, based on I am the vine.  I’m afraid I wasn’t taking photos, just giving my attention to what was going on around me.

The gardens are so beautiful, as ever, and it was particularly good to see several vines growing and entwined, with small grapes forming.  They were forming a tunnel, you could walk through the vine, almost grafted in.

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A photo from earlier in the year from Postcard from Suffolk

It was so good to sit by the water, and watch the fish and the dragonflies.

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Here is a picture from an earlier visit, in spring.

One of the things we talked about was how Jesus’ I am saying – I am the vine – gives us a way of seeing ourselves as deeply connected.  We talked of many things – how we can deepen that connection to God, and each other.   We talked about everything holding together, ourselves and everything else, in Christ.  We read about that in Colossians.

We used poetry to help us towards prayer, and contemplation, including Malcolm Guite’s sonnet, set to music here by St Brides.

I can’t help thinking today, about our connection to this good green earth.  It is precious and beautiful, and we are only just beginning to learn how it does hold together, interconnected, and mutually dependent, as we are watching with horror as the Amazon burns, and Siberia too.  We know how ancient woodland in our own land has been cut down, or is under threat.

May we find our way home to tending for this beautiful world.

May we take inspiration from the song of the vine.

You can read some more about the vine, from my book on the I am sayings, here.

God, source of all light and life,
help us to see your hand at work
in the beauty of creation.
Help us to know that, in you,
the whole earth is holy ground.

O Lord,
Your greatness
is seen
in all
the world!
Psalm 8:9

From  my collection of prayers, Prayers and Verses

 

You might like to read A parable for Earth day.

 

 

Poem- Spider

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Photo – Matthew Ling

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Yesterday, I took part in a Poetry Workshop led by Beth Soule of the Suffolk Poetry Society

It was held in the Bank Arts Centre, Eye, which really used to be a bank.  I loved the solid mahogany, looking prosperous and dependable, hung with colourful pictures and full of new life.  The food we had was delicious, and the company stimulating as ever.  There is something very special about writing companionably with others, supporting each other.  It was good to be reminded of that!

The theme of the day was “They toil not” – spinning and weaving – and Beth gave us such a rich feast of material that, as we read our work to each other, we saw what ideas had been stimulated and encouraged.
My mind was turning over a poem by Walt Whitman as I came to write this:

 

Spider

Growing in a hidden place,
until the day those long, many jointed
legs begin to flex, and stretch,
and take you out
into the autumn light,
where gnats wail,
and flies buzz slowly

Until, balancing on the end
of the brown buttons of hollyhocks
you throw out your lines.
Where will they land?
You throw again across cool air,
beyond sight of your many eyes,
throw again until something

catches, some connection
holds fast, at last,
and you go into your unknown
along a trail
you have already laid for
yourself to follow,
familiar under your delicate feet.

 

It’s not the first time spiders have caught my attention.

Spiders – September

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Another poem from the workshop can be found here

I went to the workshop with my friend Tracy Watson-Brown, and her poem is here: Spider

Poem – Today, July 19th

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It’s been a busy few weeks.  I’ve had the enormous privilege of speaking at the 150th Anniversary Festival Service for my old college, Girton.  It was such a special service, and the choir filled the red brick chapel with marvelous sound.  How good to celebrate 150 years since the college’s small beginnings – the small beginnings of women’s higher education in this country.  It was so good to be able to contribute to a diverse and joyful weekend. A huge thank you to Malcolm Guite for inviting me to speak.

What with that, and this – this, and that, I have rather lost my daily rhythm of writing, and today I thought I would try again.  Just to sit with a notebook and begin, and see where my pencil took me.

It didn’t take me very far at all.  It kept me right where I am.

 

Today, July 17th

Today is a day of butterflies –
white against the deep greens,
the purples,
tumbling over the lavender –
intoxicated.

Today the hard nubs of
apples wait for their
slow ripening,
and the last of the buttercups
shimmer faintly.
Tomorrow, and yesterday,
yesterday, and tomorrow,
but now,

Today, is a day for hollyhocks,
frilled and pastel,
full of large fat bees,
while the young newts
hide there, under the red
watering can,
and the sky turns white,
and the swifts fly high,
and my eyes fill with
limpid light.
It is enough.

 

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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.

The Alde Valley Festival – a glimpse of a more beautiful world.

I don’t know how I have managed to miss this astonishing festival in previous years – it’s not far from where I live, but tucked away in the network of lanes between routes to other places.

Perhaps that’s one reason why, going down the drive laced with cowparsley and buttercups, it felt like we were slipping into another world – a world we are losing and a new one we are finding.  There are ribbons tied in trees, and sculptures, and everyday objects that look like they have been placed with transforming love and care.  You feel yourself relaxing, and being lifted, and filling with wonder, even as you arrive.

Jason Gathorne-Hardy writes in the programme

The farm sits within a landscape that has been planted and cultivated for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. Small areas of farm parkland and pastures [known locally as pightles] are enclosed by hedges of hawthorn, crab apple, blackthorn, field maple, hazel and elm.  This grassy landscape is punctuated by free-standing trees: oak, ash and poplars tower above the hedgerows……

White House Farm is a truly remarkable place.  They have been running this festival since 2011, using their working farm buildings as workshop space, studio space, and exhibition space.  This year’s theme is Florabundance.

As you meander through the farmyards, directed by handwritten signs on wood, you find open doors to peer behind, revealing breathtaking beauty.  There is so much, but I’ll just pick out a few details among a true abundance.

 

In the lamb nursery room – which is used as such earlier in the season – laid out on white tops, were the most exquisite bronze vegetables, fruit and seeds. Alice-Andrea Ewing had cast them from produce during her residency at the farm.  The beauty of the natural forms coupled with the weight and seriousness of bronze gave them an extraordinary presence, as if we could see and feel everyday things as truly wonderful.

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The combination of old farm buildings and small cubes of art gallery white really charged ordinary food with a sense of the artist’s reverence, such as with these pears, and medlars.

 

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I loved the way the whole place was so hospitable.  There were were toys and picnic tables and clues to adventures outside – and inside the lovely Suffolk chairs, old and new, were often beside piles of books that, if you felt inclined, would send you on the trail of other adventures – of friendships and connections between the artists and those who had gone before, and the places they love, and their mutual “cross pollination”.   The Benton End trail was a joy to follow – especially the connection with the iris paintings we would come to later.

I loved the transformation of the everyday, the desire to honour simple planting and growing, that was evident everywhere.  In particular, Tessa Newcomb with works “The onions continued to be elegant”, “The last moment of the Year, 2018”, and a whole barnful more….. and Ruth Stage’s limpid winter light, again in pictures of the farm and nearby walled garden.

It was the corrugated old threshing barn that held the largest and most breathtaking works though.  Jane Wormwell’s large canvasses of detailed corners of her garden, and tangles of hedgerow brambles, were remarkably powerful and moving.  These huge flowers put me in a better perspective.  The main exhibition space was given over to Jelly Green’s iris paintings.  This is why we had come – the publicity material had small snatches of them, and I really wanted to see them in real life with all the thickness of the paint and vividness and aliveness of the colours.

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Some of these were flowers cultivated at Benton End by Cedric Morris, who taught Maggi Hambling, who taught Jelly Green.

The vivacity, the joyfulness of the paintings was breathtaking.  I could have spent much longer there.

There is a tiny chapel in one of the barns, with a cross on the table before an animal feeding trough, a manger.  The walls have small pictures of refugees, and brick-sized scriptures alongside.  It was a good place to stop, to breathe, to pray.  The whole place is full of a deep sense of presence, of connection, of goodness, of life.

We walked through the bluebell wood, following the winding path, slowly, breathing deeply, letting the colour and the scent fill us.

 

More from Jason Gathorne-Hardy

It is easy to believe that we, as humans, can control our environment: that we dictate the terms on which we live on this planet. But that notion of power over of all that we survey is probably a mistake.  Plants give us oxygen to breathe, clean water to drink and the raw materials for shelter, food, medicines, comfort and rest.  To borrow a phrase, ‘we live in their world’. We have lost a lot of biodiversity in the past two hundred years.  Locally, this is made abundantly clear by referring to George Crabbe’s plant list for Framlingham and District in the early C19th…….
The Exhibition also seeks to honour their presence in our gardens and landscapes and celebrate the importance of plants in our lives – alongside natural pollinators and seed carriers – through the work of selected guest artists.  Implicit in this is a positive and hopeful story: that the diversity of flora and fauna that we once lived with…. in whose world we lived…. may once again become abundant and resurgent…. which is something to celebrate!

 

What a joy it was to come home, and to see that the irises in our own garden were beginning to open.

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If you live in Suffolk, the exhibition is open for one more weekend – the Late May Bank Holiday.  The tea in the farmhouse is very good too!