Poem for Pentecost, and some readings

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

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

Firstly, a reading from my book The Bible Retold

 

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

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

 

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And in response, some prayers from Prayers and Verses

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

 

Pentecost

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

From Galatians 5:22–23

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

SPIRIT

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

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

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

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

 

 

Acts 2 1-4
This post draws on the series Sunday Retold

 

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Retold: Good Friday

A simple reading and prayers for this Holy Friday

from my books  The Bible Retold and Prayers and Verses.

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

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Cano Alonso

THE ROAD OF TEARS, AND THE PLACE OF THE SKULL (Luke 23:26-49)

Jesus stumbled under the heavy wooden cross, weak from his beating, and so the soldiers seized Simon, a visitor from Cyrene in north Africa, and gave him the cross to carry.  Jesus followed slowly over the rough, hard road.

A large crowd followed, and among them were many women, sobbing.  He turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me. You and your children will know enough pain.”

Two other men were led out to be crucified with Jesus at Golgotha, the Place of the Skull: one on his left, and one on his right.  So Jesus was nailed to the cross, and a sign was hung above him, saying: “This is the King of the Jews.”
From the cross, Jesus spoke slowly, painfully. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

But some among the crowd sneered “Save yourself if you are God’s Chosen One. You saved others!”

The soldiers joined in, as did one of the men being crucified. But the other said, “Don’t you fear God, at the hour of your death?  We are guilty, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  He turned his head towards Jesus.  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!”

And Jesus answered “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

Then, a deep darkness came over the land, and the shadows spread and joined together.  In the Temple, the curtain that hid the holiest place was torn in two.  “Father, take my spirit!” Jesus called in a loud voice, and then his head fell forward, and his breath stopped.

The Roman centurion at the foot of the cross said, “Surely this was a good man.”  And many of the crowd were overcome by sadness, and turned away.  But those who knew him, men and women, stayed, and kept watch.

THE TOMB  (John 19:38-42, Matthew 27:57-61)

Joseph of Arimathea, a secret follower of Jesus, went to see Pilate. “I request permission to bury Jesus,” he said, and Pilate gave him the body.  So Joseph and Nicodemus, the man who had visited Jesus at night, took Jesus away.  Nicodemus had brought a great weight of spices – myrrh and aloes – and together the two men prepared Jesus’ body with the spices and wrapped it in linen.  Then they carried him to Joseph’s garden tomb, cut into the rock, and there they laid him. They rolled the stone over the entrance, shutting out the last red rays of light. Then they turned, and walked away. But Mary Magdalene, who had been healed by Jesus, and the other Mary, stayed and kept watch in the chill of the deepening shadows.

 

 

Lord Jesus, who died upon the cross:
You know this world’s suffering,
You know this world’s sorrowing,
You know this world’s dying.

In your name, Lord Jesus, who rose again:
I will work for this world’s healing,
I will work for this world’s rejoicing,
I will work for this world’s living.

 

Jesus, who walked to the cross,
be with us when we feel abandoned.

Jesus, who walked to the cross,
be with us when we face danger.

Jesus, who walked to the cross,
be with us when we are suffering.

When sorrow threatens to defeat us,
Jesus, who rose from the dead, be with us.

 

Come, O Joy:
Let heaven break into my dark night of sorrow
like the early dawn of a summer morning.

 

Bless you this Easter

lamb of god

Angus Dei by Francisco de Zurbaran

Sunday Retold – The Woman at the Well

Part of the  Sunday Retold  series, based on the readings some churches follow week by week.:

This week we’re looking at

John 4:1-42

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

This is a powerful and extraordinary story early on in John’s Gospel, one of the important conversations he has with just one person that are recorded for us.  It is a story I have turned over in my mind for a few years, and at present it forms the basis for a chapter I am writing in my next book on the I AM sayings  – not one of the classic seven I know, but I have been exploring a little beyond those, and find this story too interesting and too significant to overlook.  What follows are some of my reflections as I prepare this chapter, a very early share before I have gone through my editing process.  I hope you find it helpful.  I hope it gives you living water.

 

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Mural by  Emmanuel Nsama

 

At a time when our politics is increasingly divided and divisive, where people divide each other into categories, and make some lesser than others, this is a particularly relevant conversation.

John the Evangelist is preparing us for this story very carefully, for it is profoundly counter-cultural. Jesus stops to rest near the plot of ground that Jacob gave his son Joseph.   Jacob’s other name was Israel – one who wrestles with God.  We are going back to Israel’s common spring, common source, at Jacob’s well.  We are being reminded of a time long ago, before the time when and the Jews and Samaritans became peoples who saw themselves as separate.    It is a place that holds meaning and memory for Jews and Samaritans – of their common father, and their common salvation story.  John is placing us on common ground……

 

I think it is no coincidence that John begins this story by setting it against an atmosphere of potential conflict – between cousins, between related nations.  We see Jesus acting out his mission to be a peacemaker, a reconciler.  “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” Eph 2:14.  Jesus himself is common ground,  and his presence changes things.  If we look carefully at how we are prepared for this encounter, we can see that we are being led away from conflict, towards reconciliation, to inclusion, and to hope…….

And so, as Jesus waits for the disciples to find food, as he waits by the well in the heat of the day, a woman approaches.  We can only imagine what it must have been like for her, in a culture where a woman could be divorced “for any and every reason”.  We often think of her as one utterly disgraced in her community, having to visit the well at such a time.  That may well be so.  It is a highly plausible explanation.  Her multiple husbands are hardly a marital model, but, we must remember that at this time divorces were easy for a man to come by, and early death not uncommon.  However her situation came about, she had most certainly known her share of tragedy and disappointment.  She may have known deep shame and disgrace.  If we are thinking in terms of barriers and divides, she has many to cross.

And yet she, like everyone else, gets thirsty, and needs water to drink, and water to wash with.  She is as human as everyone else.  So often, we do not see people like this.  So often, we make quick judgements, build fences, wonder about people’s worthiness, and in our own pride and insecurity, seek to feel superior, safe, chosen, righteous in some way.  Not so Jesus.

His question bursts through all our categories and barriers in its gentleness, its humanity.  It is a question that changes everything for this woman, and for her community.
“Will you give me a drink?”

It is not just that he recognises her thirst, but that he humbly admits his own.  He speaks, not to rebuke a sinful woman, not to point out what she needs to do to straighten out her life, but to make himself vulnerable before her, and to call out her goodness.  For this is what the question does. It recognises her goodness.  It recognises and awakens this truth about her – that she is made in the image of God, she is a God-bearer in the world.  That image can be buried beneath layers of hiding, of shame, buried under words of condemnation that have been spoken over a person, it can be twisted by hatred and fear and darkness, but it is always there, and Jesus sees it.
If we have  come across the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 this question opens up others – the thirsty person before us, asking us for water, for help, is Jesus.  How do we respond?  Do we give?

 

samaritan-woman

She does not know who is speaking to her. Of course not!  Neither does she know the gift of God.  But Jesus is revealing both of these things to her.  Jesus is the greatest gift. And he has living water.  We are diving deeper now.  We know that in John, there is often an association between water and Spirit.  Jesus’ previous encounter with Nicodemus (Ch 3) touches on that…. and it is such a beautiful counterpoint to this one.  Here we have a woman, an outcast, a Samaritan, in the heat of noon – there we had a man, a Pharisee, member of the ruling council, at night.
This water that Jesus gives, it can become a spring in us, as indeed the Spirit in us is a spring, bubbling and welling up to life.

 

From The Bible Retold

LIVING WATER 

It was hot when the woman went to get water from the well, near her home town of Sychar in Samaria.  As she drew near, she saw a Jewish man sitting there, in the shade.  She hesitated a moment, nervous of this stranger.  For the Jews and Samaritans had been enemies for centuries, since the time of the exile.  “But,” she thought, “I must have water,” and she carried on walking to the well.

The man was Jesus.  He had left Jerusalem and was making his way back to Galilee.  His disciples were buying food, leaving him to rest from the burning sun. He looked up at the woman.
“Will you give me a drink?” he asked, with a thirsty smile.   Jews and Samaritans never ate or drank together: it was against all the laws and customs.
You, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan for a drink?” She was so startled she nearly dropped her water jug.
“If you knew who I was, you’d ask me, and I would give you real, life-giving water!”
“How can you get water?  You have nothing to hold it in!”
“If you drink from the well, you’ll be thirsty again.  If you drink the water I offer, it will become like a clear spring within you, bubbling over with eternal life!”
“Sir, I would like that water!”  she replied.  But Jesus questioned her about how she lived, and amazed her by revealing her secrets: things she had kept hidden, for shame.  Could this man be a prophet?
She ran back to town, telling everyone.  They invited Jesus and the disciples to stay, and he taught them for two days.

The people of the town said to the woman, “Now, we don’t just believe in Jesus because of what you said.  We’ve heard the truth for ourselves!”

 

“The well is deep”  What does that mean for you?

Meditation suggestion:

Pour out a large jug of water, and set it before you, together with a glass or glasses.
Consider the water, and ask yourself what you thirst for right now?  Try to allow honest answers to rise in your mind, and note them.  Are there places in your life that feel dry and unproductive? What would bring them life?

 

Take a look at the photographs drawn from different cultures.  How do you respond to them?
You might like to place a picture reminding of of this story above a place where you wash, or your kitchen tap.

 

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Detail of stained glass at Gloucester Cathedral, above the place in the cloisters where the monks washed.

 

This is what God says

“I myself will look for my people and take care of them in the same way as shepherds take care of their sheep.

“I will bring them back from all the places where they were scattered on that dark, disastrous day.

“I will lead them to the mountains and the streams of their own land, so they may make their home amid the green pastures.

I shall be their God, their Good Shepherd; they will be my people,  my flock.”

From Ezekiel 34

From Prayers and Verses

 

May your week be bubbling up with life-giving water

Sunday Retold – The Presentation at the Temple

Feb 2nd is Candlemas – the official end of Christmas.  This year, for the first time, I have left out my nativity scene till now, with the Wise Men arriving late, at Epiphany and then standing near the front, clustered around the manger with their camel.  I think I shall keep the season like this again – starting later, running later.  It has helped in the quietness of January, the cold and the fog, to hold the story of Jesus coming into the darkness a little longer.

The season ends with many remembering Jesus being brought to the Temple, which you can read about in Luke 2:22-40

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Presentation at the Temple -Bellini

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Simeon and Anna – Rembrandt

There are many striking things about this story.  Firstly, there is the contrast of age and youth – Rembrandt, in this picture painted in his own old age, captures that so well.  Look at Simeon’s hands, unable to cradle the baby naturally, but instead open in a kind of frail prayer.   Also marked in this picture is the light – the contrast with Simeon is again striking, as his eyes appear sightless.  For this is about Jesus being the light to enlighten all people.   This is the way the Glory returns – not to a grand building, but in a person – a child of poor parents, at that.

At this moment, at this time, when we are thinking much about the plight of refugees , when there is so much despair and anger and confusion in our politics and national life, it is good to remember that Jesus comes to show another way, to be a light to lighten us all. He will break down the things that divide us from each other,  and perhaps then, we will see clearly. (Eph 2:14)
Not that, suddenly, everything is going to be all right, all light, though.  There is pain in the path ahead – pain for the young mother who will see the suffering of her child.  When all she can do is watch.  There is a place in this story for all who watch the suffering of those they love. This hope is not all blithe and sunny, it knows the path will be hard.

Whether we are old, and despair that we will never see what we hope for, or young, and see the future slipping into chaos, we remember the power of light to overcome darkness.  Of hope.  There is a better way.  There is a path of love, and hope and peace.  It turns its back on violence as a solution to problems, but that does not mean it will not suffer violence.  The path is costly.  It leads to the cross. It will pierce Mary’s heart.
The way is down and through. (John 13:3-4)

What do you hope for?

What light do you need?

 

From The Bible Retold

Mary and Joseph took the newborn Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, as God’s Law required.  They gave thanks for him with an offering of two doves.  Now, in the city at that time were two people who had been waiting for the Anointed One.  The first, Simeon, held on to God’s promise that he would see the Messiah before he died.  And on the very day that Mary and Joseph came, he was moved by the Holy Spirit to go to the Temple.  He went straight up to them, took Jesus in his arms, and said, “Now I can leave this life in peace, for my eyes have seen God’s plan to save all people, God has sent his light to everyone, even to those far away from Israel.  This light will shine on us and fill us with his glory.”   He spoke to Mary, too, of the pain that would pierce her own heart in years to come.

The second person was Anna, bent with age, but always worshipping, and always praying.  The Temple was her home.  As Simeon was speaking, she came up and praised God, knowing Jesus was the one they had all been waiting for, the one who would set them free.

 

From Prayers and Verses

Grant me to recognize in other men, Lord God,
the radiance of your own face.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin   (1881-1955)

Help me, Lord Jesus, learn who you are.
Help me learn as I try to love, and forgive,
and help others as you did.
Thank you most of all for loving me just as I am.

 

Even if it is not your practice to keep the old festivals, this feels to me like a time when it is good to light a candle,  and know that the darkness will not put it out.

 

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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 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

 

Christmas Retold – Escape to Egypt

Part of the Sunday Retold series – for the first Sunday of the Christmas Season.The readings many churches will be following this week are Matthew 2:13-23 and  Isaiah 63:7-9
Today, 28th December, is also the day the church remembers those who suffer in the Matthew story – the children who are killed at Herod’s order, and all those who weep for them.

It is one of the hardest stories to read in the gospels – that of Herod’s terrible plan to put to death all the tiny boys in Bethlehem.  It calls to mind Pharaoh’s instructions that all the newborn boys should be killed, and that calling to mind is no accident  (Exodus 1).  Matthew’s account is full of reference to the earlier story. The family run to Egypt, across the wilderness, later to retrace the journey, like a second Moses.  All these elements of Israel’s suffering and saving are bound up in the life of this fragile child. More than that – the trials and difficulties of all people are bound up in this one life.

Once again, we see that our saccharine, shiny, perfect hopes for Christmas are very wide of the dark realities of the original tale.  Our nice Christmas card illustrations and nativity plays lack the shadows that we see in older , and contemporary, works of art.

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Adoration of the Magi, Jan De Bray

This painting is quite unsettling, for all its gold and beauty. It’s centre is the gaze – what emotions does that gaze convey?- between the child and the old man bowed before him. The Magi came to bring gifts, and we rightly honour them for that, but, but…. They are framed by a military helmet and spears visible in silhouette in the background, and the face staring out at us from the foreground. This visit of the Magi brings in its wake betrayal and death..  The involvement of Herod was a catastrophe for Bethlehem.

The involvement of the powerful continues to be a catastrophe for so many caught up in conflict.  Peace on Earth seems slow in coming.  We have been able to watch heartbreaking phone footage from inside Aleppo as it fell, we have see the trauma of children displaced, we have heard the weeping of mothers for whom no comfort is possible.   In the face of such pain, what can we do?

There are clues to answers, but it is not easy, or glib, or superficial.  Firstly, I think we can see a glimmer in the fact that these birth narratives of Jesus do not pretend that all is well, that all became well with this birth.  Jesus and his family went through the trauma of becoming displaced, their lives were under threat.  They had a time in Egypt, and found there a place of refuge.  Places of refuge are possible.
The distress of those who remained is not glossed over.  Their pain is very real.
Any account of Christmas joy which makes us feel that our pain, our losses, our difficult circumstances are out of place in the season is a mistaken, damaging untruth.

There are lessons here, too, about the betrayal of the weak by the strong. The magi were not so wise about power, when they went to the palace.  Asking the powerful for help did not go well. It did not go well for the people of Bethlehem, or the soldiers who were sent to do that terrible work.  Herod remains above this cowardly deed.  Those who suffered for it, either at the hand of the soldiers, or because their hands are soldiers hands, were not.

We can, in democracies, hold our leaders to account, not allowing them to remain distant from consequences, and we absolutely must do so, but we should not be surprised when those who seek worldly power act in ways which are worldly and powerful, when they look to their own interests ahead of those of their people.  In those circumstances, we must join in with the cry of the mothers against those who abuse power. The voice of the mothers is the one we hear in Matthew.  These are the cries that God hears (Exodus 3:7).   Simeon’s words to Mary, that a sword will pierce her own heart, will have their time for fulfillment (Luke 2:33-35)

We can know, too that this great promise of God with us is no empty phrase.  That God should take such risks to share the darkness of humanity is extraordinary.  This is the heart of the Christmas story, the astonishing revelation.  That Jesus came, emptied of power, stooped down to the level of the lowest, the most vulnerable.  Endured the worst that humanity could dish out, suffered affliction with us, and transformed and redeemed it.  For people of power did not kill him now, but they will, in time.

It is the testament of many who have undergone dark times that they have seen, sometimes years later, that God was with them. A God who walks in the dark with you, is  very different from who sits distant on a throne.  We are not, in truth, alone.  That however low you can fall, “underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deut 33:27).

The reading from Isaiah placed alongside this dark and terrible tale shows this, too:
And he became their Saviour.
 In all their affliction he was afflicted,
    and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
    he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

There are unexpected sources of comfort and help.  There is light, even in the darkest night.

We can remember too, how Job’s fortunes seem to have been restored – they were restored, like this – people came and offered him comfort, and offered him gold.(42:11).
There are many who are offering comfort and resources.  We can look for ways of joining them.
When the darkness seems most dark, it can steel our determination to offer light, and hope, in the many small and not-so-small ways that we can.

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Picture from Lifeline Syria

ESCAPE TO EGYPT (Matthew 2:13-18)

Every day Herod asked “Well?  Is there any message for me from Bethlehem?”

And every day his attendants bowed as they answered. “No, Your Majesty, there is no message.”

Herod’s plan to be rid of this rival king was failing – and so another thought, chilling and terrible, began to circle in his mind.
Back in Bethlehem, God spoke to Joseph.  An angel came to him in a dream.
“Get up now, Joseph! This minute!  Take the child and his mother and run for Egypt.  Herod is out hunting for the child – he wants to kill him!”

And so, under cover of night, Mary and Joseph bundled their belongings together, and slipped away from the town, carrying the sleeping child.  They started out on their journey through the wilderness to Egypt.

After they left Bethlehem, great sorrow overtook the town. Herod’s soldiers came and killed all the little boys under two years old.  The mothers turned away from those who tried to comfort them, and wept bitterly for the loss of their children.

You may wish to use either or both of the pictures above as a prompt to meditation.  Open your heart and your eyes before them, and ask – God, what are you drawing my attention to here?  What do I see?  How can I live more fully in love of God and my neighbour in the light of that seeing?

And some prayers to help us find words for ourselves, and others, when in such dark places,   from Prayers and Verses

Lord, watch over refugees, their tired feet aching. Help them bear their heavy loads. May they find a place of rest,  may no fears awake them. May you always be their guide, and never forsake them
*

Lord God, Who saw the hunger and loneliness of Ruth and Naomi, and brought them to a place of plenty, and gave them a home, help us when we are lost and hungry; and help us to reach out a hand to those in need.

*
Dear God, We pray for the casualties of war: for the young and the old, for the parents and the children; for the birds and the animals, for the fields and the flowers; for the earth and the water, for the sea and the sky. We pray for their healing.
*

We thank you, Lord God, that you hear the prayers of people who carry heavy burdens. Thank you that the prayers of the slaves in Egypt were answered. Help us to pray for those whose lives are hard.

*

Dear God, Give us the courage to overcome anger with love.

*

This is what God says:

“I myself will look for my people and take care of them in the same way as shepherds take care of their sheep.

“I will bring them back from all the places where they were scattered on that dark, disastrous day.

“I will lead them to the mountains and the streams of their own land, so they may make their home amid the green pastures.

“I shall be their God, their Good Shepherd;
they will be my people, my flock.”

From Ezekiel 34

*

Dear God, We have arrived at this, our new home, feeling as lost as windblown seeds that are dropped upon the earth. Let us put down roots here where we have landed, and let our lives unfold in your love and light.
*

When we find ourselves somewhere strange, and new,
help us to pray for the place, and the people,
help us to work for their good

*
O God, Settle disputes among the nations, among the great powers near and far.
FROM MICAH 4:3

*
Dear God, Take care of those who live in war zones: Afraid of noise, afraid of silence; Afraid for themselves, Afraid for others; Afraid to stay, afraid to go; Afraid of living, afraid of dying. Give them peace in their hearts, in their homes and in their land.

*

Who, then, can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble do it, or hardship or persecution or hunger or poverty or danger or death?
Romans 8:35
*

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is discord, union; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy.

ATTRIBUTED TO ST FRANCIS OF ASSISI (1181–1226)

Readers in Suffolk may have a particular interest in this organisation, which is well worth supporting for all.
Suffolk Refugee Support

Most of the major relief charities work with refugees.  Among the many charities who do good work are:
Refugee Action
Red Cross
Oxfam
Medecins Sans Frontieres

Please feel free to use any of my material you find helpful, saying where it is from.

Sunday Retold -from The Road of Tears and the Place of the Skull – 20th November

 

 

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This week’s readings include
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

The next in the occasional series Sunday Retold

Please feel free to use anything that is of help to you, saying where it is from.

For one person hanging on a Roman cross to say to another  -” remember me when you come into your kingdom” – as if this was not the end, as if the story still goes on, is astonishing.  No wonder that this man is remembered for his faith.  To be in the midst of pain and suffering of such unimaginable magnitude and yet to have hope, to try to look  to something beyond,  is too much for most of us to comprehend. Perhaps, though, it could encourage us in our own dark places to cultivate hope, and a deeper sense of deeper purposes.

The Colossians reading puts this exchange in a bigger, more cosmic, context.  Something world-changing is being accomplished in this terrible moment.  The reconciliation of all things is underway.  A new kind of life and kingdom is possible, is emerging, is beginning even here.  Signs of it are springing up in the most unpromising seeming ground.

Is there light in the darkness?  Is there hope in impossible things?  The Luke reading draws our attention to a lone voice calling out for hope when all around are voices of anger and despair.  He is just one person -but that one person is heard, and his voice echoes through the centuries.  Who knows the impact this exchange had on those who witnessed it.

One voice, speaking for the kingdom.  One voice, speaking for something bigger than the current moment.  One voice,asking for hope, believing in hope.  Never doubt the courage or the power of one voice speaking out above the chorus of anger, mockery and despair.

Could that voice be yours? Are there situations where your hope is needed?

You might like to use the pictures above to lead you into prayer.  What do they say to you?

From The Bible Retold

Two other me were led out to be crucified with Jesus at Golgotha, the Place of the Skull: one on his left, and one on his right.  So Jesus was nailed to the cross, and a sign was hung above him, saying: “This is the King of the Jews.”
From the cross, Jesus spoke slowly, painfully.”Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
But some among the crowd sneered, “Save yourself if you really are chosen by God.  You saved others!”
The soldiers joined in, as did one of the men being crucified with Jesus. But the other said, “Don’t you fear God, at the hour of your death?  We are guilty, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  He turned his head towards Jesus. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!”

And from Prayers and Verses

Dear God,
May I welcome you as my king:
King of peace,
King of love,
King in death,
King of life.

Jesus, who walked to the cross,
be with us when we feel abandoned.

Jesus, who walked to the cross,
be with us when we face danger.

Jesus, who walked to the cross,
be with us when we are suffering.

When sorrow threatens to defeat us,
Jesus, who rose from the dead, be with us.

Come, O Joy:
Let heaven break into my dark night of sorrow
like the early dawn of a summer morning.

 

Photos by my husband Peter Skevington, with thanks.
Top – marshes by Porlock, Exmooor.
Bottom – the view from Selworthy, Exmoor.

 

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Sunday Retold – Zacchaeus and the tree

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This week’s Sunday Retold follows the Gospel reading set for many churches this week: Luke 19:1-10

A story about climbing trees, and looking up – among other things!

Jesus is making his way towards Jerusalem for the last time – and people still don’t understand.  They are still claiming him as theirs, and keeping out people they consider not good enough.  This man was a tax collector – a collaborator with the Roman invaders, and it would seem a cheat. We don’t know what has drawn him to Jesus, what has made him so determined to catch a glimpse of this teacher despite the hostility he faced, but we do know that Luke’s account of Jesus’ life pays attention to the way Jesus included, accepted, those who were outside – outside what was considered respectable, righteous, good.  He welcomed those others called sinners.  Perhaps the tax collector had heard this.  Perhaps there was something magnetic, attractive, full of life about Jesus.  Perhaps Zacchaeus had heard he healed people.

Here, again, we see it happening.  Jesus looks up.  He sees the unexpected – a wealthy man in a tree.  Trees contain all kinds of riches! When I read this story, I am reminded of the Genesis 3  story – where trees are important, and Adam and Eve hide in the greenery.  Perhaps there are echos here….

We see that Jesus did not berate Zacchaeus with all his cheating thieving treacherous ways, he did not confront him with his sin, he asked this man for hospitality.  He called out his goodness, he treated him as worthy, he accepted him.  If the disapproval of others had the power to make him make amends, there was disapproval enough in Jericho to do it.  He did not need to be reminded of what was wrong, but of what was right.  Jesus reminded him of his essential, elemental goodness.  He treated him as good, with kindness and respect.  He did it publicly, in the face of criticism.  He sat down with him, shared food with him.  The table is a powerful place of deep sharing.  Jesus uses the image of a banquet, a feast, again and again to show us what the Kingdom of God is like.

And see what sharing a table did for Zacchaeus – it gave him the courage to turn his life upside down, to change everything. We can imagine what it must have been like to have Jesus there, next to him, willing him on!

How good it is to know that Jesus shows us what God is like – like this.  We need not be afraid, we need not hide.  God reaches out to find, to love those people who are rejected, who perhaps reject themselves.   God’s power is at work to transform, to change lives, to make new- for all.

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The gospels are full of encounters between Jesus and individual people, as well as crowds and groups.  When I read the conversations Jesus has with individuals, I can’t help noticing that each one is different.  He has no formula – he deals with each person as they need. Each one is precious.

You might like to use the picture above, with the trees and the fence, as a way into prayer. What do you see?
Think about the story of Zacchaeus.  Can you remember a time when someone just accepted you as you were?  What was that like?
Have you been in a situation where you have accepted someone else like that, or seen it happen?  What was that like?
Has sharing food with someone been a memorable experience for you?  What happened?
In this story, what did God’s saving power do?  Is there more than one way of answering that?

Here is an extract from The Bible Retold
If you would like to use any of my material, you are welcome to do so, saying where it comes from.

Jesus made his way steadily towards Jerusalem. On his way he passed through Jericho, with its date palms and fragrant balsam trees.  Crowds poured out to see him, and to see the blind beggar who had been healed by the roadside.

“What’s all the commotion – come away from there and get on with your work!” Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of the region, called out to his assistants.  They scurried back to their work, and the quiet clink of gold coins.  But Zacchaeus could not concentrate – the joy of the crowd had unsettled him.   He swept neat heaps of gold into his purse and went out.

The sounds got louder and louder.  The crowds were calling out for Jesus.  Zacchaeus tried to catch a glimpse of the Teacher, but he could not, for he was a short man, and the people would not let him through.  He ran on ahead and shinned up the stout trunk of a sycamore fig tree, sliding out along one of the branches that shaded the road.  Then he waited, watching Jesus getting closer, as he talked and laughed with the people.  Suddenly, quite close to the tree, Jesus stopped, and looked up.   Zacchaeus gasped, and tried to hide among the leaves.  Everyone was looking now.
“Zacchaeus, isn’t it?” Jesus said “You’d better hurry down from there.  I’d like to stay at your house today!”  So the chief tax collector swung down, rubbing green smears from his fine robes.  They set off together, and Zacchaeus threw open his doors to Jesus and his friends, beaming with joy.

But, the crowds were spitting with anger “Did you see that? He’s gone to be a guest of that thief, that collaborator with the Romans!”

Zacchaeus stood up before them all, and spoke to Jesus. “Look, Lord, right now I’ll give half of everything to the poor! And if I’ve cheated anyone, I’ll pay them back four times over!”
Jesus answered “God’s power is at work in this house today – the power to rescue and to change.  This man, too, is one of God’s children.  For the Son of Man came to seek, and to save, those who have lost the way to God!”

And some prayers from Prayers and Verses
to help us pray through this wonderful story

Grant me to recognise in others, Lord God,
the radiance of your own face.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 1881-1955

Help me, Lord Jesus, learn who you are.
Help me learn as I try to love, and forgive,
and help others as you did.
Thank you most of all for loving me just as I am.

Jesus told us:
You are blessed when you know how poor you are inside,
for then you are open to God and his ways.
You are blessed when you are sad,
for then you will feel a loving hand on your shoulder.
You are blessed when you are gentle and humble;
you will see all of earth’s good things, there for you.
You are blessed when you hunger for what is right;
you will be satisfied.
You are blessed when you live generously and kindly,
for you will be treated with kindness, too.
You are blessed when you are wholeheartedly good;
nothing will stand between you and God.
You are blessed when you work for peace;
you will be called one of God’s children.

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Sunday Retold – Jacob wrestles

The next installment of Sunday Retold , with the readings Genesis 32:3-31  and Luke 18:1-8
An ancient, strange, and powerful story from Genesis.
My retelling , from The Bible Retold, follows:

For there it was, gnawing away at the back of Jacob’s mind: the memory of how he had cheated his twin brother, and how Esau had been angry enough to wish him dead.  He could hardly expect Esau to give him a happy homecoming after so long.  Jacob thought hard about the best thing to do.

He sent this message ahead of him: “A message to Esau from his servant Jacob.  I’ve been staying with our uncle Laban, and haven’t been able to get away until now.  I’ve prospered – with flocks and herds, and been blessed with wives and children.”  When the messengers returned they told him “Esau is on his way to meet you – with four hundred men!” Jacob blanched.   It was worse than he feared.  Quickly, he divided up his camp.  “Esau won’t get them both!” he thought to himself.  And he prayed to God, asking for help.  He also prepared presents for Esau.  They were some presents!

Two hundred female goats, and twenty male goats
Two hundred ewes, and twenty rams
Thirty camels with their young
Forty cows and ten bulls
Twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys.

Each had a servant in charge of them.  He sent them on ahead, one after another,  to meet Esau with a rich procession of gifts – peace offerings.  Then, he took his wives and children and helped them back across the ford, to keep them safe.  That night, he wrestled with a stranger, not letting him go until he received a blessing from the man who came from God.  And the man called him Israel, which means God-wrestler.

Then, as the cool dawn began to warm, he saw Esau and the four hundred men coming towards him,  He bowed down seven times, but his brother ran to him and held him, weeping.  Esau had forgiven him, and welcomed him and his family with open-hearted love.  “Seeing your face was like seeing God smiling at me!” Jacob said.

Please feel free to use my material if it helps you, saying where it comes from.

The Genesis story is part of the ongoing family saga of Jacob and Esau, which, in itself, fits into a longer pattern of favouritism and rivalry, feuding and dysfunction.  Here, the twins are about to meet again after a long separation.  Jacob had run from Esau, whom he had wronged, and it seems he has felt the weight of that wrong ever since.  He had stolen from his brother, taken his identity and his blessing, hidden his true self in his brother’s clothes.  What would happen now they were going to meet again?

Jacob’s generosity is driven by fear, by self-interest, but nevertheless, it reveals his intent – his intent is for peace, for reconciliation if that is possible.  Perhaps, in his relations with Laban’s family, he has come to appreciate the advantages of harmony and fair dealings. After the experience of his wedding night, he now knew what it was like to be deceived with false clothing. The onslaught of gifts he sends out, each one with a servant and a message, foreshadow the relentless wresting with God that follows in the night. He does not give up trying to show his brother his good intent, he does not wait for an answer before he sends the next gift, he keeps on suing for peace.  He seems to adopt the same approach in the night vision that follows.  All night long he wrestles, he will not stop until he gets a blessing.

Maybe he thinks God is like the angry brother he has wronged.  Maybe he thinks God needs wrestling.  Perhaps, thought, this prayer is more about changing him than about changing God. He stole a blessing, and now he is fighting for one. He is still in the mindset of struggle and fight. Perhaps he still thinks there is only one blessing to be had between him and his brother, perhaps he still needs to grasp that God is generous, and has enough to go round.

He is seeking to obtain a blessing in his own right from God – and he does. Did he need to fight? Maybe he did, but I do not think God needed him to.  I think he found it hard to accept from God, after all he had done. Sometimes it takes us a long time  before we come to see the truth about our situation, our selves, before we are ready to receive the blessing.  God is not a reluctant giver, and even they give eventually.  God longs to bless, but sometimes, it is hard for us to receive.

Take some time to contemplate picture below.  What do you notice?  Might you use this picture to help your prayers?

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Jacob Wrestles by Jack Baumgartner

Notice the way the hands pull back the curtain, or the night.  What do you notice about them?
There are many references to Jacob’s past. You can read the story by flicking back in Genesis – perhaps back to 25:21.  Notice, even before they are born, how the brothers wrestle.
Can you make out who Jacob is wrestling here?  Might the uncertainty be important?
The figure Jacob wrestles grips his heel – might the artist see this story as going back to the beginning of the trouble?
What do you make of the tumble of ladders behind?

Jacob's ladder

Sophy Williams, fromThe Lion Classic Bible

Jacob and Esau found reconciliation in the end, and Jacob was reminded of this night for the rest of his life by the damage to his hip.  Both brothers were blessed as a result of this determination to put things right.
Are there people we can work to be reconciled with?  Are there family disagreements we can pray for the courage and strength and wisdom to help end?
Do we dare ask for a blessing?

Some prayers for our families, and prayers of blessing, from Prayers and Verses

O Loving God,
May you bless our family,
may you keep us safe from harm,
may you protect us from anger that
leads to quarrels and unhappiness,
may you help us to forgive each other.
As we go out into the world,
may we bring with us your love and your peace.

Dear Lord,
help us to be honest and kind.
Help us to be our true selves.
Help us not to do things for our
own gain, but to work
together, and learn to put each
others’ needs before our own.

May God make safe to you each steep,
May God make open to you each pass,
May God make clear to you each road,
And may he take you in the clasp of his own two hands.
From Carmina Gadelica

Wherever you go,
May God the Father be with you.
Wherever you go,
May God the Son be with you.
Wherever you go,
May God the Spirit be with you.

May the Lord bless you,
may the Lord take care of you;
May the Lord be kind to you,
may the Lord be gracious to you;
May the Lord look on you with favour,
may the Lord give you peace.
From Numbers 6:24-26

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