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’ – for Lent. Getting started

 

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Here in the UK, our late winter weather seems brutal.  This is not what we expect for February, and many people are beginning this season with the heartbreak of seeing their homes flooded.  This Lent, the Archbishop is encouraging us to take seriously the call to tend and care for the living earth.

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We are all increasingly aware of the fragility of the natural world, as well as its beauty, and the response sections of my book pick up these themes and give some practical suggestions for ways we can move towards greater connection, and greater care, of the living earth.  I am so glad to hear various groups, churches, and groups of churches are going to use my book as guide through Lent, and, if you would like to follow, you can find a suggested programme here.

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Each week I’ll share with you a little from the relevant chapter.  This week, it’s from the first – I am: Moses and Abraham.  It’s short, so I hope you’ll be able to find time to read it together.  If not, we’ll begin next week with The Woman at the Well.

Moses and I Am
Exodus 3:1-14

 

John’s gospel looks back to Moses’ ancient story, recording for us how Jesus called himself by this name – “I am”.  This name, which emerged from a burning bush so long ago, is one of the most identifiable features of John’s account. It resonated with his early readers and listeners in Greek Ephesus, and it stirs our imagination even today, millennia later.  Before we go deep into John’s account, and explore why that may be, we will look back to Moses’ story and see what we understand of this earliest “I am”.

…….

Nothing is wasted in God’s economy.  God used the rubbish – and the good – in Moses’ upbringing and his life as a shepherd.  He became ideally suited to his task.  As well as his circumstances and experience, God used his character; in this case, a sense of justice and an indignation at bullies.  What must have felt like failure and a downwards path was the place where Moses encountered God.

We do not know if he was seeking God when God appeared.  We do know that he was in the middle of his everyday, working life, and that God did something strange to arrest his attention, awaken his curiosity, draw him nearer.  Attention and curiosity can guide you, can awaken you to God in the burning bushes we pass every day.

Moses certainly didn’t seem to looking for a job, let alone a great mission.  It is easy to read his rather thin excuses and wonder why he spent so long arguing.  His unwillingness to respond seems to come from uncertainty.

Moses is uncertain about himself, and he is uncertain about God.

“Nothing is wasted in God’s economy” – can we live from this realisation?  Can we acknowledge that even very difficult things can be fuel for something better?
Can we work to eliminate wasteful ways of living?

And from the Reflection and Response section

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God.
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

As you start your day, pray for open eyes to see where God may be at work, or may be seeking to catch your attention today.  Set off with open eyes, a camera and a notepad.  Record anything that draws your attention.  At the end of the day, mull over what you have recorded in prayer.  What did you see?

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If you’d like a copy, you can ask your local bookshop, or order online.

Here are a few suggestions:

The publishers, BRF

Amazon

 

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Thank you for joining me in your reading.  There is more to come…..

The Little Christmas Tree – I’ve been thinking ….

I was checking availability of my Christmas book, and was very pleased to see that Amazon had rustled up a few more copies, when I looked at the cover, and started thinking…..

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I was thinking of how much more I know now about how precious woodland is to all the life of the planet.  The story came to me years ago now. I have always loved woods, but this year the urgent necessity of protecting the natural world – and forests in particular – has really come home to many of us.  Including me.

And so as I read this simple story again, I read it with a deeper awareness of the peril all us creatures face, and how vital it is that trees remain to shelter the creatures of the wood – and indeed all of us, one way or another. The kindness, the interconnection, the sanctuary provided by one small fir tree  provides safety for all the other creatures in the storm.  That kindness is blessed by the smaller stars of Christmas night, and the angels who fill the sky with their songs.

Now, as well as a tale of Christmas night, and Christmas itself, I see it as a story of hope for all of us who are trying to feed and shelter nature over the winter – in our own gardens, or in the wider countryside. A story of hope for all of us who are trying to do small and simple things to make the world safer and better for all its inhabitants – whether it’s reducing plastic, or taking the bus. These small acts matter, the Little Christmas Tree shows us.  They matter a great deal.

I hope that children, and their parents, will feel that message of hope, and the love of natural places, running through the words and beautiful pictures of this storybook.

 

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You can, of course, ask your local bookshop to order you a copy, or order one from any number of online book places.

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 Little Christmas Tree – some copies still available!

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In case you were interested in a copy of my Christmas children’s book, it’s available at the moment, although stocks are quite low.  You should be able to order it from your local bookshop, or online – for instance at Eden Books , Waterstones or Amazon.

Here’s some pictures to give you an idea of Lorna Hussey’s beautiful illustrations.  I took the pictures in my garden – the book is clearer and lovelier.
This is how it begins……

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Here is the wood, and the little Christmas tree……

 

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Here are some foreign language editions – I don’t think you can get any of these in the UK!

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Poem – Poldhu Cove #EverybodyNow

I’m carrying on with this season of posting work which speaks of Earth’s beauty, and at times my sadness as that beauty, the very life of the Earth, is under threat.   As the Extinction Rebellion protests continue in London and elsewhere, I hope that some of these short pieces with help remind us of the astonishing loveliness, variety and vulnerability of the systems of earth and ocean, forest and animal that nurture us all.

We need to reconnect, to feel again a love and delight in the goodness of it all.  All the good earth.  I hope what I am sharing with you today, words and pictures, will help.

Today, I am sharing with you a poem wrote on a Cornish beach just over a week ago, some of the time sheltering under a towel from the rain, all of the time completely in awe of the vast waves.  While we were in Cornwall, we discovered the work of the extraordinary photographer Mike Lacey, whose work captures the beauty and the power of the sea.  His work is well worth exploring, and supporting.  All the pictures on this post are his.  His work shows you what, in the words of my poem, I wish I could show you.

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Poldhu Cove

I wish I could show you
the turquoise water,
rolling and rising high above,
rolling from the wide sea
into the dark arms of this cove,

With its little stream crossing the beach,
sandy, dune-grassy,
with piles of grey shingle, lined with quartz,
and the crosswaves that meet there
at the stream bed as the water rolls
back from the rocks that welcome it.

I wish you could feel how warm the water is, here,
where it’s shallow, and the longing,
and the fear, to go out deeper.
And I wish I could show you the light folded into
those great waves, like glass as they rise above you,
above the line of the horizon,
as you feel, with a strange joy,
your smallness, your body’s softness,
how easy it would be to be tumbled in this light
overturned in this water,
upended –

And the cold wind prickling the skin of your
outstretched arms,
open to welcome this Atlantic, nonetheless,
as your damp hair whips,
as you are part of all this,
knowing your place,
feeling your place.

 

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This is one of the poems I have uploaded onto the lovely Places of Poetry map. If you are in the UK, why not see what’s been added where you are?

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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Poem – The wings of Gabriel’s Wood #EverybodyNow

Today I’m sharing another poem to mark Extinction Rebellion’s actions in London and elsewhere.
There’s a long tradition of poetry helping us to see both more clearly and more deeply – it can help us linger on those moments of beauty and connection with the natural world that remind us of our proper place, and inspire us to love and to act.

This poem was a scrap in my notebook for some time.  It describes the experience of entering Gabriel’s Wood on the Golden Cap (Dorset) estate in the path of the remains of a hurricane.  The living things that gathered there seemed less disturbed by my presence while seeking shelter from the coming storm.  We had a commonality of purpose, and a connection.

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The Wings of Gabriel’s Wood

Far above the wood fly buzzards –
I can see four,
or five –
young who have grown
and ready to fly,
their thin cries
carry on the wind.

They are harried by crows,
dark, gyring to keep moving
as the wind booms in the trees,
as their feathers twist.

Entering under the dome of trees,
into a loud stillness, I join
pheasants who are sheltering,
and a tiny wren who skirts
the ground like a mouse,
and fat pigeons picking up acorns
that clatter like hail,
and warblers who snatch notes,
not risking a song.

The wood is full of wings,
folded, sheltering.
And I too take my shelter here,
a creature, too, before the storm,
in this loud wood,
among the falling leaves.

Poem – The Cave and the Quarry #EverybodyNow

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Gibsons Cave and Summerhill Force by David Allen

Here is a poem, part of a series of posts that mark the Extinction Rebellion protests which are drawing our attention to the damage we are doing to the world around us.

It’s about a walk in Teesdale, in the North East of England, which I did with my husband.  We followed rivers upstream, past waterfalls.  This one, with its legends of runaways hiding behind the water, caught my imagination.  In the North East, you don’t go far without stumbling across remnants of past industries, and here it was a quarry.  These places can be desolate, they can remind us of the costs of changing the way we live for those whose livelihoods, whose families, depend on the way things are.  They remind us of the importance of imagining new ways of living, that promote dignity and independence, as well as creativity and sustainability.

What struck me here, though, and elsewhere, was the power of nature to return and to thrive even in places that seem wrecked and spoiled.  Whatever political and social difficulties we may face in times of transition, living things will come back to desolate places, given half a chance.

“For there is hope for a tree,
if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease.
Though its root grows old in the earth,
and its stump dies in the ground,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth branches like a young plant”
Job 14:7-9

May it be so.  May the trees that we have cut down sprout again, may the scars we have cut into the earth be healed, may the land sustain us, and all living things.

And so, this poem is one of hope, of the return of life, of seeing things anew.

 

The Cave and the Quarry

We followed the valley down –
Down from Gibson’s cave,
where the river poured over
a high lip of rock,
undercutting a dark, hidden place.

It stayed in my mind, that place –
What would it be like to stand there,
behind the falls,
to look at the world
through that fast, cold, brown, water?
Would it wash your eyes to
see things you hadn’t seen?
Was it an enchanted place?

It seemed so, for, walking back,
we saw an old quarry
we had not seen before,
dark, and hidden –
and now we walked by
strange hillocks –
spoil-heaps sprouting trees
like ancient burial mounds,
where crowds of small birds
bounced through the air,
landing on ledges of rock
that once were sharp, fractured.
Now, moss dripped off everything,
and there was a sign
that promised flowers,
for it asked us not to pick them,
and we wondered – what flowers would come?

And I thought as we walked down the
path that carts carrying stone had made –
how long did this take?
How long before the green
and the birds and the
trees crept back into their place?

How strong, how eager, life is.
Water, and greenness,
flowers, and small birds,
moss and grass,
they soothe our scars,
they make the dead come back to life,
we need only step back,
step back and say “yes”.

Everybody Now – a parable to mark the beginning of Extinction Rebellion’s week of action

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All around the world, people are taking to the streets to draw our attention to the terrible destruction spreading over our home, the Earth.

It grieves me to learn of so many living things, plants and animals, that are on the brink of being lost from creation for ever.  It grieves me to read of the native European trees, like the ash, and the chestnut, that are now getting closer to dying, of British native mammals whose numbers are diminishing rapidly.

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But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
    the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
 ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
    and the fish of the sea will declare to you.

Job 12: 7,8
It is time to listen.  What will we learn?

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Peaceful, imaginative and creative protest can help us wake up.  It can be a revelation, a prophetic voice showing the impact of human greed, and the poverty of our love for our neighbours.  We are not free from the consequences of our actions.

Much of my work draws on a depth of love for the natural world, and so this week I hope to post, and re-post, some pieces which speak into our current crisis, in my own small act of protest.  And so, I begin by reposting this parable.

 

The parable of the good craftsman

Once there was a craftsman who had two children. As you might expect, he had built a beautiful house out of seasoned wood, with wide windows that looked out over his lush green fields, his flocks and herds.  He had made fine, carved furniture for his house, and he had smiled when he made it, and said, “That’s good!”  He had made beautiful plates and cups and jugs out the red clay near his house, he had smiled when he made those, too, and said, “That’s good!”  He had made a sheepfold to keep his flocks safe, and smiled, then, too.  In fact, all that was around him was good and flourishing and abundant, and as he looked at it all, he laughed out loud and said, “That is all so good!”

The day came when he needed to go on a journey, as the people in these stories often do.  He thought, “My children are old enough to be left in charge now.  They have watched what I did, some of the time, and I have told them how good it is.”  And so he left, and the children looked around, and they, too, saw that it was good.  So good, in fact, that they started to think how much it was all worth.  So they sold the furniture, and the plates and cups and jugs, for a fortune.  They were made by a master craftsman, after all.  The plastic ones they bought to replace them were good enough. They looked at the lush green fields and thought, “We could rear more animals in pens.”  So they did: twice as many, three and four times even, the poor creatures.  They sold the pasture they no longer needed, and a factory and a car park grew there, large and grey and ugly.  The water from the well their father had dug became bitter, but they bought water in bottles with all the money that they had made.

Then, the time came for the father to return.  As he drew near the house, he noticed the trees along the road were withered and dying, and his smile left him.  He came across a bird trapped in plastic that blew across the fields, and he set it free.  Then, near the house, he found a thin child sitting by the side of the road.
“What is the matter?” he asked.
“I drank water from the stream that flows from over there, by that factory.  It tasted bad. Now I’m sick.”  The father gave the child water from his own flask, and picked up the child to take home. He had herbs for medicine there.

But when he got even nearer, he could see that the factory was on his own land, and that where his own fields should be was all noise and smoke.  He could see the plastic rubbish spilling over from his own front garden, from where the flowers and the vegetables and the herbs had been.  He saw his own children, with grey, indoor faces, and said, “what have you done?”
“Father, we are so pleased to see you!  Come inside, we will bring you the accounts and you will see what we have made!”
“That is not the kind of making I intended you for!” replied the father. “And see, see this child, poisoned! How will you enter that in these books of yours?  What have you done with all that I have made – do you not know that I love it all?”

Some prayers from the first chapter of Prayers and Verses

Lord, purge our eyes to see
Within the seed a tree,
Within the glowing egg a bird,
Within the shroud a butterfly.
Till, taught by such we see
Beyond all creatures, thee
And harken to thy tender word
And hear its “Fear not; it is I”.
Christina Rosetti 1830-94

O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us.
Basil the Great c330-379

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1772–1834

 

#EverybodyNow