Poem – First Taste

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The first day of Spring, the first day of Lent –  this year, the first of March marks many beginnings.  I was struck today, as I pulled weeds out of the cool, damp earth, and listened to the birds singing, how strange it was to be entering a season of giving things up, setting things aside, going into the wilderness, when all around is bursting, expansive, beginning.  This is a strange time for dust and ashes, when my hands are covered in the richness of earth, my nose full of the smell of new green.  It feels like holding onto winter.  I am abandoning the patience winter requires, racing ahead in my imagination to new life.

While turning Ash Wednesday over in my mind, I think I shall try to see how this deliberate setting aside may be of some use in understanding the three temptations that Jesus faced at the end of this time  and the role it all plays in preparing for Easter. Self-examination, sharing in some measure of deprivation or self-denial, at a time when hope is bursting out a around us, may help us understand the way of Jesus better.  If we are to love God and love all people, then might this deliberate self-giving, setting aside power, plenty, self interest, really help us do that better?  I am holding questions in my mind, seeing if living things out might help with the answer.

So, this poem hasn’t quite let go of the darkness of winter, but marks the first taste of something new.  The woods near my home are beginning to overflow with ransoms –  to young to fill the place with the smell of garlic, still fresh and very vibrant.  I love foraging, and seek to do it sustainably as a good guest in this beautiful wood.  So, I pick some leaves, and taste.  It is good to feel so connected with the spring, with living growing things.  It feels like a kind of thanksgiving for the winter past, a form of prayer.
I dress my wintery beetroot soup with the leaves, and hold both seasons in my mouth together.  They taste full and sweet and sharp.  A good taste for Ash Wednesday

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FIRST TASTE

This winter has been long,
so long.  The grey sky,
the darkness, have
pressed down on us
like a grindstone,
leaving these woods dusted
with dull ice.

But now, today, the trees
are black and slick
buds shining with water,
snowdrops and aconites
bright against the dead leaves.
And there, there, the ransoms,
so vividly green, are uncurling.
I stop and pick one soft new
leaf, and bite,
sharper than lemons,
stronger than garlic,
fresh and new.
The first taste of spring
rolling round my mouth for hours

 

Epiphany Retold – Looking out for stars

Part of the Sunday Retold series, with my version of the reading Matthew 2:1-12

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

Last time, I shared with you the story of Christmas Retold – Escape to Egypt, where we read of the terrible suffering that resulted from Herod’s fear and jealousy and love of power.  This time, I have been thinking smaller, more hopeful, something that might help today, and tomorrow, and the next.  We need to see the darkness, and the light.

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Epiphany – the new season we enter on 6th January – can mean  a sudden encounter with God, an intuition into the heart and meaning of things, a burst of enlightenment, an event which shows things as they really are at their deepest level.  As a season, it covers some key turning points in the story of God wooing us, seeking us, expanding our always limited understanding as much as we can bear at any time.  As such, it carries on from the Christmas narratives well.  After all, the good news here is that God has come, God is with us. The Message tells John’s words like this:
The Word became flesh and blood,
    and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
    the one-of-a-kind glory,
    like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
    true from start to finish.
John 1:14

So, how might we see this glory?  How might we experience this generosity and truth now?

One of the things that always strikes me about the Christmas narratives, including this one, is the great variety of ways they record people receiving a revelation, an epiphany, from God.  There are dreams, visions of angels, and here, a star.  There are other ways God seems to be at work.  Elizabeth feels the child growing in her womb, and then feels the child dance.  Simeon and Anna, too, are prompted and moved.  In each case, the way the person senses, or hears, or experiences the promptings of God seems to be appropriate for them.  The gospel writers seem to have slightly different emphases in how they record what these revelations from God are like – it is hard to talk about.

I remember once standing at the front of church and trying to give an account of what had felt a real encounter with the love of God, and been very aware that my words were so inadequate.  I remember too how, many years ago, our church hosted firemen and their families from Chernobyl, following the terrible nuclear accident, and gave them a holiday by the sea.  One of the firemen wrote a song.  I wish I could remember it all, but the meaning of it, as far as I can recall, was –

I long to tell you about the love of God, what it is like to know the love of God, but my song cannot hold the meaning.  It is like, when I go home from here, I will try to tell people about the sea, how wild and salty and cold it is, and all I have to show them is a bucket of murky water I have carried away with me.

All our words cannot carry the full meaning, but they can hint at it, stir up a hunger for such love and depth of encounter, and reassure each other that we are not alone when we think there is more than the surface, more than “getting and spending” (Wordsworth)

As we enter a new season, maybe it will help to look at the stories we encounter of epiphanies, of experiencing a revelation, a seeing clearly, noticing how varied they are.  Perhaps God is seeking to gain our attention, and maybe that happens differently for different people at different times.  It is easy to think there is a way we should do it, but it seems that God is unconstrained, generous, abundant.  We need to be open.

My own experience of encounters with God, with new insights, is varied. I sometimes have little epiphanies in prayer and worship, reading the Scriptures moves me to a place where I can go deeper, but  I also hear through nature, through poetry, through art, and – perhaps most especially – through the love and kindness of people around me, including strangers I encounter.  It’s worth looking, I think, as we go about our days, doing our normal things, expecting that maybe our lives have something to teach us, to tell us about the love of God and the love of neighbour.  Our lives can speak to us like parables, and they can contain moments of transforming beauty and clarity, that open us up to something far bigger than we can comprehend.

These Magi, probably Astrologers – we do not know how many, or what gender they all were – do not have a straightforward time of it trying to find the new king.  God is not always found the places we expect.  Who would look for a king in a small town away from centres of power and wealth?  God tends to surprise us all by being in the small, the outside, the unexpected, the unimportant places.   I chose the Witz picture (between the two extracts below) because it places the family in a fairly ordinary setting.  Traditionally, they sit in the ruins of a Greek or Roman temple, showing how the old beliefs are crumbling and dying as something new and glorious takes place.  This one is quite an early example of a more small-scale setting, but even so, it is rich in meaning and symbol.  You might like to take some time to look at it carefully.

Herod’s palace was a desolate place to look for this new king. This child would indeed be a king of a different type. We can see, too, that although Herod used the scribes and the scriptures to find out information, he used that for his own ends.  It did not lead to encounter, or worship, or knowing God. There is a lesson here, too.

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As we look out for our own moments of epiphany, it might be worth looking for treasure buried in the dirt (Small Seeds, from Luke 17), and for unexpected people, such as a young girl, or an old widow, or a carpenter.  Epiphanies can burst in on us whatever we do, but my experience is that small, daily steps towards seeing God work their slow transforming changes in us, and that for these, we need to be open, we need to engage in a  quiet, contemplative way of praying and seeing as we live out our lives.  And then, in that new light, we find our lives begin to change, we better learn love, and compassion, and patience, and joy.  As we begin a new year, I am turning my attention to this way of thinking and being.

The Magi were doing what they did – studying the stars.  And they noticed something.

There may be stars out there that would guide us, if we looked.

What might your stars be?

From The Bible Retold

They Followed a Star

Far away from Jerusalem, in a land to the east, wise men looked up at the clear night skies above the desert and saw a star rising.  For years they had studied the movements of the stars and planets, and they had never seen anything like this before.  They unrolled their charts and plotted its path.
“This means a new king has been born to the Jews!” they said to each other, as they gave hurried orders to their servants to prepare for a journey.
When these strangely dressed foreigners arrived in Jerusalem, they began to ask “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” Troubled rumours spread through the city, for there had been no proclamation of any birth.
King Herod the Great’s advisors approached him nervously.
“Your Majesty, strangers from the east have arrived in the city. They are searching for a child who they say has been born King of the Jews.  They saw a sign in the heavens!”  Herod caught his breath, and turned white with fear. He had been given that title himself by the authority of Rome, building palaces and the great Temple to spread his fame.  What kind of king was coming to challenge him?
Then he asked his advisors “Where is the Messiah, the Anointed One, to be born?”  The scholars unrolled the scroll of the prophet Micah, and read out loud:
“Bethlehem will no longer be
the least important of the towns.
For from it will come a leader
who will rule my people Israel
like a shepherd-king.”

“Bethlehem, eh?” murmured Herod. He gave orders for the wise men to be invited to the palace.  He listened to their tale of the star with keen interest, nodding and smiling as if he were delighted at the news.  He told them all about Bethlehem.  “Go and find the child, then please send a message so I can join you in your worship.  What wonderful times these are!” Herod hid his crooked smile.
As the wise men set off from the cool marble and mosaics of the palace, they looked up at the sky once more.  And there was the star, guiding them to Bethlehem.  They followed, and found the child with his mother, Mary.  She was astonished to receive such guests – who bowed low, and spoke of her son with reverence, and unwrapped precious gifts to lay at their feet.

She unclasped the caskets one by one.  The first shone, it was full of gold.  The second opened to a rich, sweet smell.  “The smell of the Temple,” Mary murmured to herself.  It was frankincense, used in worship. The third contained an earthy, dark, resin.  It was myrrh, more valuable than gold, used in burials, and for healing.  Mary looked up at her visitors, and thanked them for these extraordinary, extravagant gifts as the smell of the incense and the myrrh hung in the air about them.

The wise men did not send word to Herod in Jerusalem, for that night, they were troubled in their dreams about him.  They paid attention to the warning, as they had to the star.  So they slipped away, avoiding the city, to cross the desert once more.

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The Adoration of the Magi, by Konrad Witz

And from Prayers and Verses

Gifts

Lord Jesus,
The wise men brought you gold:
Let us use our riches to do good.

The wise men brought you frankincense:
Let our prayers rise like smoke to heaven.

The wise men brought you myrrh:
Let us seek to comfort those who are sad and grieving.

Let there be little Christmases
throughout the year,
when unexpected acts of kindness
bring heaven’s light to earth.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.
Christina Rosetti 1830-1894

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
Christina Rosetti 1830-1894

From Frederick Buechner:
“Listen for Him

The question is not whether the things that happen to you are chance things or God’s things because, of course, they are both at once. There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak — even the walk from the house to the garage that you have walked ten thousand times before, even the moments when you cannot believe there is a God who speaks at all anywhere. He speaks, I believe, and the words he speaks are incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys. We cannot live our lives constantly looking back, listening back, lest we be turned to pillars of longing and regret, but to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music. Sometimes we avoid listening for fear of what we may hear, sometimes for fear that we may hear nothing at all but the empty rattle of our own feet on the pavement. But be not affeard, says Caliban, nor is he the only one to say it. “Be not afraid,” says another, “for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” He says he is with us on our journeys. He says he has been with us since each of our journeys began. Listen for him. Listen to the sweet and bitter airs of your present and your past for the sound of him.”

~ from The Sacred Journey and Listening to Your Life

Sunday Retold – Naaman and the river

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It’s time for the next Sunday Retold, and this week’s readings include the story of Naaman from Aram.
You can find all the readings following these links:

2 Kings 5: 1-3, 7-15;2 Timothy 2.8-15; Luke 17:1-19.

The story of Naaman is rich in so many ways.  Reading it alongside the Luke passage – the healing of the ten lepers – brings two aspects into particular focus:  how we view those not of our tribe, or group, or belief system; and the practice of gratitude.

It’s easy to favour people who are like us, who are part of our group, whatever that may be. It’s easy too for us to slide into hostility, a feeling of superiority, a certainty that we alone are right.  In both of these stories, we see God not limited by our categories and barriers, but working in the lives of two people who were regarded as outsiders, enemies even.

Naaman was leader of the armies who were fighting against Israel – as clear an enemy as you could imagine.  Yet, he was a human being with a secret need, and a secret fear – of leprosy, which would have put an end to his military career, and made him an outcast.  That the enemy of God’s people should be stricken in this way might be something to  rejoice over – but not for the young slave he had captured.  She had reason to ill-wish her master, but she did not.  She conspired to bless him instead.  It was three servants, or slaves, who play a key role in this story.  They are the ones who move the narrative forward, who nudge the powerful towards right action.  The general does well to listen to the one who apparently has no power.

Naaman, who arrived in great power and pomp, causing a diplomatic incident, was not greeted by the prophet in the way he expected – but by a servant.  He was asked to take off his robes, his armour, his signs of status, and expose his vulnerable flesh.  He had to wash in a foreign river, when he had fine waterways of his own. He would have to bend down, bow into the water.
And then, he was healed, and then, what ripples flowed out from that action. The fates of nations hinged on this act which began with the words of a slave-girl.

One of the ripples was gratitude.  And that is the theme of the Gospel story.  The gratitude of one who was not part of Israel, had a different theology, different worship practices.  Nonetheless, he sought and found healing with Jesus, and was the only one of the ten who returned to say thank you.  The nine who were on home territory did not.  Perhaps the foreigner could teach us something, here.

Gratitude is a powerful and life-affirming discipline – and it is a discipline.  Gratitude sometimes flows naturally, but most of the time, we need to remind ourselves to be thankful.  We are so used to problem-solving, that we only see the things we think are broken, and cease to see what is good.  When we do, things shift.  Gratitude to God and to others can transform things – and not just for us, but for those around us, too.

And, to pick up the earlier theme again, perhaps we can consider how to bless those we think of as not like us, how to break down hostility – even if we find it in our own hearts – and do good to others.  Perhaps, like Namaan, we can also learn to receive good from the foreigner, the one we might regard as of low status.

What would the world be like if more of us lived out these two disciplines – blessing the other, and gratitude?

The following extract is from The Bible Retold

Please feel free to use these extracts if they help you, saying where they are from.

  NAAMAN FROM ARAM (2 Kings 5)

The little Israelite slave-girl was brushing out the hair of her mistress – the wife of Naaman, whose armies had captured her and brought her to Aram.
“My lady, why are you sad?” she asked.
“My husband the general’s skin is growing worse.  It must be leprosy.” She replied, weeping.
“If only my master would visit the prophet of Samaria – he would be cured!”  So Naaman went in great state, with his horses and chariots, attendants and guards, through enemy territory to Elisha’s house.  But Elisha did not go to greet his mighty guest.  He sent a slave with a message “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and you’ll be healed.”  Naaman shook with fury.
“What kind of service is this from a holy man?  I expected prayers and the laying on of hands!  But he just sends this puny messenger!  I could have washed at home!”  And he turned on his heels to leave.  But his servant intervened
“My lord, if the prophet had asked something hard of you, would you not have done it?  So why not do this simple thing?”  And so Naaman did.  He washed in the Jordan seven times, and as he came out into the bright sunlight, he looked down at his skin.  It was smooth, perfect, like that of a child.  Beaming, he rushed back to Elisha, opening his treasure chest. “Now I know that the God you serve is the true one.  Nothing else comes close.” “That is reward enough – you may keep your gold!” Elisha replied.  And Naaman went home, telling everyone of God’s great goodness.

 

And, from Prayers and Verses

May we learn to appreciate different points of view:

To know that the view from the hill is
different from the view in the valley;
the view to the east is different from the
view to the west;
the view in the morning is different from
the view in the evening;
the view of a parent is different from the
view of a child;
the view of a friend is different from the
view of a stranger;
the view of humankind is different from
the view of God.

May we all learn to see what is good, what is true,
what is worthwhile.

 

O God, help us not to despise or oppose what we do not understand.
William Penn 1644-1718

The olive tree I thought was dead
has opened new green leaves instead
and where the landmines tore the earth
now poppies dance with joy and mirth.

The doves build nests, they coo and sigh
beside the field where corn grows high
and grapes hang heavy on the vine,
and those who fought share bread and wine.

 

Lord, because you have made me, I owe you the whole of my love;
because you have redeemed me, I owe you the whole of myself;
because you have promised so much, I owe you all of my being.
I am wholly yours by creation: make me all yours, too, in love.

Anslem, 1033-1109

May we enter into God’s conspiracies of blessing this week.
Keat’s Autumn is on my mind at the moment, with the wonderful phrase, “conspire to bless”!

Sunday Retold – Small Seeds, from Luke 17

Sunday Retold

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This coming Sunday’s gospel reading – Luke 17:5-7 – talks of tiny amounts of faith, faith as small as a seed, which can accomplish so much in the world. A little context is helpful here.  The verse before talks of the necessity to forgive someone, and to keep on forgiving them.   On hearing this, the disciples ask for their faith to be increased.

It is a hard task to forgive, and maybe the disciples think they need vast amounts of faith to be able to do it. These verses are difficult to understand, to see how they hang together. Perhaps Jesus’ answer suggests that, if they have any faith at all, it is enough.  His story of the servant and the master may follow on from the same train of thought.  The work of forgiveness is an everyday necessity for the follower of Jesus.  Everyday work does not require special equipment, or a special reward.  Perhaps, if we are thinking about our life of faith in terms of reward, of payment, we have misunderstood something.

The Lord’s Prayer (11:1-4),  has already been recorded in Luke – forgive us, as we forgive. There, we begin to see how the flow of forgiveness works.  We need forgiveness, and  we need to forgive.  Our own forgiveness is not a static thing, a prize to be acquired.  Neither is forgiveness conditional, but, I believe, Jesus describes a process.   This is how it works – as a flow of forgiveness.  As we join in, seeking to pass on what we receive, we become more like Jesus.  He forgives, and so we are freed to. We find the courage and humility to ask for, and give, forgiveness. We both receive and give.  It is hard work for us, but it is the work we must do every day – like the work of the servants.

Seeds have tremendous capacity coiled within them.  Small as they are, they contain all that is needed for a new plant to grow.  It is all there, already.  Jesus often uses seeds to talk about the life of the kingdom.  They seem a perfect illustration.  So small, so unassuming, they need to fall to the ground and break.  Then we see that they are in fact  breaking open, bursting with new life, with a shoot and a root and a leaf ready to unfurl.

In The Bible Retold , I have the slightly longer version of the mustard seed from Matthew’s gospel.

“How shall I tell you about God’s kingdom?  It’s like a man who digs down in the earth and plants a tiny mustard seed – it’s so small that a puff of wind could take it out of the palm of his hand.  Yet it grows and spreads into the largest plant in the garden, with branches where the birds can come and shelter.”

And here are some extracts from Prayers and Verses  to help us pray through this gospel reading.  We think of the smallness of the seeds of kingdom life in our own lives and the life of our community, and of the patience needed to wait and tend their growth.  We remember the seeds with gratitude, aware of their potential.  We think too of our own need for forgiveness, and remember it before we condemn another.

Help me to be patient as I wait for your kingdom
and your righteousness:
as patient as a farmer who trusts that the rains
will come in their season,
and that the land will produce its harvest.
Keep my hopes high.
Help me to pray to you and to praise you.

 

The Lord is good to me,
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need,
The sun, the rain, the appleseed.
The Lord is good to me.
Attributed to John Chapman, planter of orchards 1774-1845

I told God everything:
I told God about all the wrong things I had done.
I gave up trying to pretend.
I gave up trying to hide.
I knew that the only thing to do was
to confess.

And God forgave me.

Based on Psalm 32:5

We remember also that there are no small things in the kingdom.  Apparently small things have tremendous power.  They are enough.  What small things can you do today?

We can do no great things,
Only small things with great love.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta 1910-1997

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant.” Robert Louis Stevenson

 

With thanks to my homegroup – a small group who meet and pray and read gospels and sometimes cry and always laugh together. Sowers of seeds, all.

The ‘Mary, at your feet’ poems – One

 

Two years ago, in May, I was thinking about the three times Mary of Bethany was at Jesus’ feet.  One story is recounted in Luke, the other two in John, where they are a part of the extraordinary Lazarus narrative.  I wanted to explore them more, and I did so in what turned into a series of three poems.  I read early versions of these poems at a local Christian festival, Alive, and as the time of year comes around again, I find I am remembering them, and going back to those thoughts.  I share the first one with you today, and the others will come in their own time, over the next week or so, as I continue to turn them over in my mind.

This first one draws on the story in Luke’s gospel where Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary, and Mary sits at his feet.  I have not referred to Martha directly, except for in the title.  I do feel her lack. I wonder, in particular, what happened next.  Maybe there are some poems to write about her, too.

There is so much to ponder in this story, but what caught my attention was how hard it is for us to be still, to be.  We are so distracted, so pulled by so many things. We can end up  feeling that those things are what define us. That it is what we do, or think, or believe, or  how people view us that makes us who we are. Just being doesn’t seem enough, but our efforts to be more or different or better than we are can be life-sapping.
Acceptance can be hard to accept!

In writing this poem, I hoped to create a place of stillness. The kind of place where contemplative prayer begins.  A place where we can open up a little to love, and light. A place where we know we are welcomed.

The photograph is taken in the Chapel of St Peter on the Wall, Bradwell on Sea, Essex.

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Mary, sister of Martha, at your feet for the first time

You came in search of rest
away from the road,
that bright, shadeless road,
where so many came,
and you gave so much.

You came and sat down
in the cool room,
the shutters pulled
against the heat,
and Mary sat, too,
and it was enough.
Just sat, quietly, at your feet,
her face turned up to
yours as she listened.
And you saw how the light
fell across her,
as if for the first time.

And this is what you want,
what you long for.
Not the elaborate
preparations we would make,
not ourselves swept and
scrubbed to perfection,
our acts and our
thoughts impeccable
in lifeless rows,
but to be,  here in this light,
to be, here at your feet,
Luke 10:38-42

 

You can read the second poem here

and the third one here