Poem: Holy Ground, barefoot. Exodus poems

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Cockle spit near the Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, Essex

We come to the third poem I’ve written drawing on the early chapters of Exodus, the Bible’s second book. I intend to go back and write more – in particular about the burning bush – so I’m holding off formally numbering this one for now.  However this exploration proceeds, I’ll make sure numbers on the poems work with the story in Exodus, so they can be read together.

I was drawn to write from this foundational story as it begins at a mighty civilisation’s turning point – a time of divided peoples, of injustice, inequality, and exploitation.  The world we are in right now seems to be at a turning point, where things cannot go on as they have been.  I’ve been seeing echoes, and warnings, and hope, in this story from long ago.

For this poem, I have continued the theme of God saw, and God knew, from the previous poem, which you can read here.  I have progressed the story to when Moses stood before the burning bush, and took off his sandals, for the ground is holy.

You can read more from the Exodus text here.

Some things struck me, in addition to the themes I’ve explored before.  The first is, the matter of holy places, and temples.  For those of us who have a practice of corporate worship, most gather in a set-aside space.  Not all – there are many gatherings in homes and coffee shops and dance studios and woods where people, together, are open to the divine.  Now, we cannot gather, and our relationship with these places is changed, as well as our relationship with our worshiping communities.  Although I know, as the poem explores, that God has no need of temples, I find that maybe I do.  I include two photos here from the ancient chapel of St Peter-on-the-wall, founded in the seventh century.  And the wall of its name, the wall it is on, is Roman, so its history is very long. There is real peace in that space.  I find my spirit soothed by such places.  And I am finding, as the poems on this blog show, that I connect deeply with the divine in nature, too.  I am increasingly barefoot, on holy ground.  This seems a very deep and helpful truth, especially now.  It gives me hope.

A little tentatively, I have been thinking about gods and idols as I’ve been reading Exodus, and wondering what our equivalents might be. As I’ve been mulling over our economy, the systems that drive our lives that seem bigger than any of us, I have reached for the ancient language of idol.  I have found the word Mammon comes to mind, and it says something significant for our times.  I’ve mentioned it briefly before, in my blog post on The company of bees. As a modern person, I’m aware I’m dipping my toes into something that may stir up ideas of superstition, and that I don’t really understand what these concepts of idol and god meant to those whose culture they belong to.  But I do know that now, as ever, there are forces bigger than us, which we don’t seem to control, in our daily lives.  We call them economics, or big corporations, or debt. The ancient stories suggest they have feet of clay, and can fall.  They are human constructs, agreements and stories we hold in common about how the world works and what matters, they may become more…. but they are not laws of physics, and we can, through collective effort, change them.

I wonder what that might look like in our current world, where these systems, or machines, or idols, seem to be demanding the sacrifice of life to their ends.  We can see that in some places with the response to coronavirus.  We can definitely see it in how we contine to destroy ecosystems and drive creatures to extinction.  Are these things really more important than life? Can we decide to do better?

Here, in this poem, I look at how the enslaved Hebrew people were forced to build temples to gods who didn’t hear them, or help them.  I wonder how many people, in today’s economies, might feel they are doing something similar, as they are made to serve the demands for more, and faster, and cheaper.

This poem, though, only touches on these things.  It turns to something more hopeful, a promise of the deep reality of the glory of God in all things,  and carries echoes Isaiah 11, and our deep hope – of the dream of God, of the kingdom we pray will come. It circles back to the beginning, to considering a holy place, where we are safe, and heard. Even when there are no places of worship available to us, these things are true.

We can be grounded in the earth, in the depth of our connection to God, and to all.

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Inside the chapel (660-662 AD), looking out.

 

Holy Ground, barefoot.   Exodus poems 3

This people had no temple,
no worship-place.
This people built temples
for others,
for gods they dreaded,
rising in terrible power
over them, having
no regard for
their misery.

They prayed under
the weight of their burdens.
They cried out in
the unprayer of pain,
and God, having no need
of temples, heard,
as God always hears.
And God, leaning to the
brokenhearted, saw,
as God always sees.

For the very earth is holy.
The ground under our feet.
Take off your shoes and feel it,
feel the dry-ground-powder
and the sharp stones,
the infinite tiny beings
that call the earth home.

 
Take off your shoes.
Know you are part of
all this, part of the
the glory that fills
all things, as the waters
fill the seas.
You will be heard,
wherever you are.
You can listen,
wherever you are.
You are home.

Poem: God saw – and God knew. Exodus poems 2

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River Deben

This is the second poem I’ve written on these themes, drawing from the Exodus account of the life of Moses.  It carries with it many of the things that struck me as I was writing the first, Pharaoh’s daughter, and the child.  I have been thinking about how one group of people can be pitted against another, in fear, in believed superiority, and how, in this story, small acts of love and compassion begin the unravelling of this separation, and injustice. In particular, I have been turning over in my mind the idea that the unjust law of the Egyptians – all the Hebrew baby boys should be thrown into the River Nile – is so evil that it carries within it the necessity and means of its own overturn.  That this ark of rushes holding the baby Moses is one of the seemingly small means that begin the overthrow of an unjust system is fitting.

Once again, there are echos of the Gospel stories that tell of the beginning of Jesus’ life.  Tbe improbability, the vulnerability of a baby, cradled in less than ideal circumstances – a basket in a river, a manger in a stable – being so vital to the outworking of God’s love, challenges us in to how we think change for good might be accomplished.  Here, the urgency and reckless hope of a mother’s love, meets the compassion of a princess, and undermines an economic and political system which was cruel, and seemingly all-powerful. May we remember this, as we work for a more beautiful world.

My last post retells the story, and gives you links to the Bible passages.

But for this poem, what struck me was a few small verses at the end of Chapter 2.

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help…. God saw the people of Israel – and God knew.

Once again, this story of emnity between groups of people, of inequality and injustice, carries warning and hope for our current situation.

What happens to any of us happens to all of us. What would happen if we thought that might be so?

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Moon over the marshes at Walberswick.

 

God saw – and God knew   Exodus poems 2
During these many days,
the king of Egypt died –
that man who thought
himself a god, having
a god’s power of life
and death –
and God saw, and God knew.

Those living between walls
of cool marble,
dressed in linen,
making offerings to the gods,
those who floated down the Nile
while others laboured –
They thought, being rich,
being mighty, they had
the ear of God.
And God saw, and God knew.

During these many days,
those oppressed cried out –
those forced to labour,
those whose race was
feared, then despised.
They cried out,
and did they dare hope
that God saw, and God knew?

God saw and listened long.
Endlessly.  Through
many days, through
incessant lamenting,
God saw, and God knew.

So, I stand and ask, why?
why so long, those many days?
And will not soothe
myself with “perfect timing”,
or “plan”.  Under the
slavemasters’ whip,
such words sting.
And yet, God saw,
and God knew.

I lower my gaze.
Caught in the reeds,
there is a dark basket,
black as pitch,
that desperate hopeless hope,
that boychild cast by his mother
into the Nile, a loving reversal
of a cruel law –

and within that law’s dark heart –
an ark of reeds and pitch
woven tight of love –
with fists curled,
was one who would
overturn that cruelty.
A tiny child.
crying, hungry,
and alone.
And God saw,
and God knew.

Poem: Pharaoh’s daughter, and the child. Exodus poems 1

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The banks of the Deben, high tide

As I was coming to the end of writing the Lockdown Poems, a couple of things were tugging at my attention.  One was the thought of doing a series of poems on the I Am sayings, revisiting some of the prose and prayer from my book.  The other was the huge sweep of the cry for justice that is circling the world – the cry for racial, environmental, and economic justice.  One of the things the coronavirus crisis has done has been, as we’ve said before, to reveal painful things – to draw back the veil and show aspects of society that many of us have been fortunate enough to be able to overlook.

As I was looking at the origins of the I Am sayings – Moses’ experience with the burning bush – I was deeply struck by the relevance of the Exodus story  to our current world situation.  I would encourage you to read Exodus Chapters 1-3 to start with, if you can, and see what strikes you.  Many things opened up for me, and I intend to explore them imaginatively and prayerfully, inhabiting the story, and asking for wisdom. I hope I’ll return to the I Ams again, but for now, these matters seem too pressing to ignore.

We can see how the story of Exodus progresses.  It begins with forgetfulness.  Forgetfulness of the way Joseph, ex-slave, ex-prisoner, had saved the country from famine with his vision and good management, forgetfulness of how we are all interconnected, and bring gifts to our situation.  The Egyptians forgot, and were afraid.  Their enslavement of the Hebrew people is told as an act of weakness, not strength.  How that fear led to justifying the terrible law for the slaughter of baby boys – there are echoes of the Gospel here, where the baby boys of Bethlehem were killed, and Jesus’ family escaped to Egypt.  At the time of Exodus this was the known world’s richest and most powerful empire, and the process of unravelling that power and wealth seems to be begun within that unjust law. So contrary to all that is good and right in human relations was it, that it carried the seeds of its own undoing. And maybe that sheltering of the infant Jesus was, knowingly or unknowingly done, a kind of restitution.

In this story of Exodus, I’m powerfully struck how the action of one young woman changed nations. Her compassion was the point of turning. That is not to say that we measure our small acts of kindness by their global impact, or only do them if we feel there will be some kind of payback, but that this story reveals the hidden power of compassion, and can offer encouragement to us to not think better of our moments of better feeling, but to act on them – to reach out and help, offer what we can.  What those feelings and acts accomplish is, in many ways, not our business. We can offer them, release them, and what happens happens.  If we praying people, we can simply offer them to God, with no thought of future benefipayback. They can cease to be our own. Of course, we can try to be mindful of unintened negative consequences, but we seek to act from love and goodness independent of outcome for ourselves. For Pharoah’s daughter, if she survived to the time of the plagues and freedom for the slaves, this mercy to Moses may not have seemed such a good act after all.

The other thing which struck me forcibly was the fact that she acted from a place of safety, and privilege.   She did something that would have brought swift punishment if someone else had done it.  She seems to have used her safety almost without thought of the consequences, to help this one child.  We don’t know any surrounding information – what her attitude to her father’s law was before, or after.  All we know is this one thing about her. This one act.  Maybe it can encourage us to listen to one another, in different circumstances, to speak of our difficulties when we experience them, and to speak and act for others when they cannot do so for themselves.
And here is another thing our current crisis has revealed – deep wells of compassion and community, the capacity of people to act to help and support people they know, and don’t know.  The veil drawn back has shown us good, too. There is hope in this deeper reality.

The ending of this poem carries an echo of William Blake’s The Divine Image, which is incredibly apt for our current situation. It was published in 1789, and carries its message of equality in language of the time.  It’s a powerful read.

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There are major shifts happening in the world right now, and I am attempting to listen, to keep my mind open, to pray, and to understand, and to act.

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Taken from Exodus Chapter 2

 

Pharaoh’s Daughter, and the child.  Exodus poems 1

You named him Moses,
drew him out of
that small ark,
a precious cargo.
Out of the Nile-reeds,
where crocodiles wait,
out of the flood and the snakes
and the hum of mosquitoes,
out of the sentence of death
your father had passed.
In that moment, your heart responded,
the moment when you heard him cry
hungry, closed in the dark
and the silence
of his pitch-black basket,
in a moment, you reached out your hand,
and touched – not a slave-child,
but simply a hungry one, alone.

From your place, at your father’s side,
standing in his love for you,
you saved one small life
from his fearful stony heart’s rage,
from the might of law and empire.

Marvellous princess, you did more.
You paid a slavewoman wages,
you acted with justice and mercy,
you saw a child, and not an enemy.

And so you are remembered,
you are thanked by generations
yet unborn
For an act of kinship with one
from a feared race,
as golden Nile-waters
swirled and eddied and
rippled outwards, outwards
from the place where you stood,
shining in the light of dawn.
Mercy bore, in you,
the beauty of a human face.

Poem: Snake, not in the grass

Since my series of Lockdown Poems came to an end, my new notebook is filling up with different things…. I’ll share more with you another day, when I’ve worked up something more shareable, perhaps more complex.

This, though, was what happened yesterday, and I wanted to share it with you now.  If anything, it’s an unlockdown poem, reflecting the impact that increased traffic has had on one creature.  Once again, I feel pulled in different directions.  I am glad our local businesses are cautiously open again, but I miss the quiet roads and the space for nature.  I wonder how many creatures had become used to safely crossing, and have lost the habit of caution.

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The road earlier in the Spring, quiet in lockdown.

I am not particularly keen on snakes.  I don’t recall seeing a grass snake in this area before, and certainly I’ve never seen one in or so close to the garden..  That the first one I have a chance to look at closely should be dead saddens me.  It has troubled me, and I still can’t shake the image from my eyes. We can hold more than one impression – I am a little afraid of this snake, but I see its beauty, and feel its loss.

Our garden continues to be full of life.  The newts are back sheltering under the red watering can, and there are small frogs among the strawberries – I hope they are growing larger on the slugs.  Maybe this snake was on its way to our small sanctuary, and didn’t make the crossing.  Maybe I’ve run over things myself, and not even noticed – I must have done.

This one dead creature seems to be weighty with significance, so, as ever, I have explored that with words.

 

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Grass snake from Animalia on Pinterest

 

 

Snake, not in the grass

There’s a coil of something
long, with a faint gleam,
on the road by our drive.

A prickle crosses my neck.
The heat rising from tar
brushes my legs as
I take a slow step nearer.
Silver underside, dark stripes.
Snake.

Its tail is flat,
its pale interior exposed
to this drying sun,
It doesn’t move.

Its shape is burned
in my mind.
I can’t forget it,
can’t settle.
Such beauty,
such strangeness,
dead.

The road must not be
its resting place,
unnatural with the
hardness of cars
and the smell of tar.
Its long fluid form,
its pale green and grey,
the strip of yellow brightness
by its intelligent head,
these things call for
softness, and respect.

I do what I can do.
Not enough.
Scoop it as tenderly
as I can with my
cautious spade,
and lay it in the long grass
where I try to grow wildflowers.

 

I am so sorry this was your end,
beautiful creature,
beneath wheels,
you, the first snake seen here,
in this place.
It’s a strange welcome,
but welcome you are.
May you rest in this pale
dry grass,
be part of this land,
thank you for your life,
your part in the life
of this place.
We are the poorer
for your loss.

Poem for Pentecost, and some readings

Sharing again some readings, prayers and a poem, for Pentecost.

I gave a variation of this reading for  St Edmundsbury’s service, Catching the Fire.  You can watch the whole thing here.

Andrea Skevington

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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…

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Poem: Two Trees – Lockdown poems 5

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The next poem that came from this Lockdown is a little different from the others at first glance.  Once again, it was emerged on the page, and has had minimal tweeks.  I was intrigued to find it there.  Its subject is the trees in the Garden of Eden, and it asks tentative questions about human nature, and the human experience, which they raise for me.  I have wondered before why the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was prohibited, when so many religious systems seem very preoccupied with such knowlege.  I have wondered too how Jesus’ warnings against judging help us understand that, and balanced those warnings with the image of knowing a tree by its fruit, as he advises us to do.

I find it helps to allow the images – of trees, and fruit – to grow in our minds, and see what kind of shoots emerge. This is not a theological exploration, but a poetic instinct. Here,  I have been asking questions of myself, in a kind of uncertain echo of a chatechism, and allowed the questions to be there, partially or inadequately answered.  What if there is a choice, moment by moment – the fruit of the knowlege of good and evil, the fruit of life?  Might that have something to say to us as we seek to choose life, again and again?  Can we say yes to life, moment by moment, even in these moments?

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I don’t have two trees growing in the centre of my garden, but I do have this tree, whose early morning shadow delights me.  I hope you can make it out. The early light was tricky.  I thought I’d offer it to you to see if it might help give another image to add to the trees in this poem – a growing tree and its shadow.

 

 

Two trees – lockdown 5

Two trees grow in the midst of the garden; the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.   paraphrase from Genesis 2:9

What if we stand
in the middle of the garden,
choosing the wrong tree,
moment by moment,
again and again?
There they both grow –
tall, beautiful,
pleasing to the eye,
laden with fruit.

And we are drawn to one,
not the other, at least at first.
Wanting power to say things are
this, or that, the illusion of
control, wanting to judge,
wanting to be right.

Do we need to lay all that
hollow fruit aside in order
to eat from the tree of life?
I think so, yes,
Maybe empty-handed is better.

And what if we had made
a different choice
from the beginning?
Chosen that other tree,
unprohibited,
free.
What indeed!
And yet we did not,
and ever since, we have
hungered for its fruit.

And can we choose differently
now, each day, each moment?
I think so, yes, I think that we can
set down the fruit that
sours and spoils,
and choose life
again, and again,
and again.

Jesus said, I Am – for Lent. Chapter 5, the Resurrection and the Life

Welcome back to this Lent series, based on my book Jesus said, I Am – finding life in the everyday.

We come to this chapter at an extraordinary time, the time of coronavirus, when so many are praying anxiously, concerned for their loved ones, maybe separated from their loved ones. This chapter, dealing with the death and rising of Lazarus, may reveal new treasures for us at this time.  As many of us have stepped back from our spiritual communities,  I hope our reading and praying together helps.  We are evolving and strengthening other ways of being community.

As we walk through John’s gospel, getting closer to Easter, and the cross, we see the days grow longer.  There is an inbuilt hope in this season of spring.

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John 11- 12:8

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Let us return to the gospel story.  As we follow it through, it is worth being on the watch for the flowering of the themes sown in the prologue, at the very beginning, where John talks of light and life, the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness not overcoming it. We see in this story of Lazarus the beauty of that light and life breaking through, and also the power and depth of the darkness.  If we are alert, we will also see the other great themes of the gospel: seeing the glory, grace and truth of God in the life of Jesus, and an invitation to belief.  All these things open and flourish in the account of Lazarus, Martha and Mary.

This is an extraordinary and profound passage of Gospel, so rich and deep.  We’ll just look at a few aspects of it here on the blog – aspects that I hope will give some nourishment,  or encouragement, or consolation – and also ways of living it out, living in the light of this bursting out of life and hope in a place as dark as the grave.  No details are wasted with John, and the slow introduction to this story has lessons for us too.

Messages and prayers

While he is by the Jordan, a desperate message arrives saying that Lazarus, his [Jesus’] beloved friend, is very sick.  And he does not respond. For all of us who have prayed for healing for someone we love, or for the resolution of some terrible situation, we send our messages to God, and then, sometimes, nothing happens.  This experience of silence is one all of us who have prayed encounter.

And yet, and yet, we pray……

When I don’t know how to pray, I ask God to accompany me, to be with me and to be with the one I am praying for.  I find myself expanding my prayer – for others I know in similar circumstances, and then for those I don’t know.  I pray for the support that is there, or that it may be there.  I ask if there are things I can do to be part of the solution.  That is what, in practice, I do.  Even when I don’t know how to pray, or why I am praying, I find that I do.

 

The death and raising of Lazarus, this journey to the grave and into life, foreshadows the Easter story in all its brightness and strangeness.  Also, in a very real and practical sense, the raising of Lazarus precipitates Jesus’ arrest and all that follows.

So, while Jesus was waiting, was he coming to terms with what was going to happen and seeking the Father? John’s gospel is very full of the bond between the Father and the Son.

Prayer is nothing less than oneing the soul to God.  Julian of Norwich

Prayer propels him into action, as it does now. …. We are not dealing here with a Saviour who is indifferent to the suffering of the world, but who is preparing to enter into it more fully than we can imagine.

And, we know, that Jesus does come, and the two sisters speak to him in their fresh raw grief.
I wrote a sequence of poems about this Mary, and the second one speaks of that moment.  You can read it here.

 

Lazarus

Lazarus by Jaquie Binns

 

Lazarus needed to be released from the grave-clothes, but maybe there were other kinds of letting go he needed now.

This story shows us the hard journey into new life Lazarus and his sisters went through, and the possibility, and power, of resurrection.

Practise resurrection

What would it mean to be a resurrection people – to participate with Jesus in making things new, to be part of the new heavens and new earth, to pray and work for his kingdom to come now, on earth, as it is in heaven? Is it possible to go deeper than believing in resurrection, to begin to practise it, to live as if it were the way things were meant to be?  In any experience of darkness, perhaps we can take courage from this story to enter into it, to not be afraid, to know there is a way out on the other side.  Even in darkness, we can look for signs of life.

The line ‘Practice resurrection’ [is]from the poetry of Wendell Berry.

You can see a performance of  Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

by Wendell Berry following the link.
I wonder how much of a manifesto it might be for these strange times, and our hopes for the times to come.  (A link to my previous post, a Poem for a time of isolation)

 

Once Lazarus is restored to them, they throw a party to celebrate this resurrection power, and to thank Jesus for their brother and their friend.

Feast

One thing resurrection means, in this story of Lazaus, is an extravagant feast and an extravagant anointing…..

Now, this is a ‘Jesus’ uprising – of feasting, a celebration of an empty grave. The feast, the open house, is an image of the kingdom we have come across elsewhere in the gospels, in Jesus’ parables of wedding feasts and banquets, of the hospitality of the Father’s house.

As the feasting continues, Mary enters. In an extravagant act of thanksgiving, a prophetic act too, she pours out precious perfume and anoints Jesus’ feet.  She unbinds her hair, an undressing, a vulnerability, as she gives the most precious gift the house can offer – a jar of nard.  This act of kneeling has its later echo: as Jesus kneels to wash his disciples’ feet.  I wonder whether Jesus was remembering this act of Mary’s when he knelt before his friends.

Maybe, for those of us who are missing Mothers day, or birthday parties, or even their own weddings, because of coronavirus isolation, we can think and begin to plan the kind of joyful gatherings we’ll have, the kind of reuniting with loved ones, when this situation has passed.

This feast as recorded by John, and this kneeling, is the subject of the final of my poems for Mary.  You can read that here.

 

Reflection and response.

Greening

You will need: a dry twig and a vase or jar, paper cut into leaves, green pencils or felt-tip pens, cotton.
Music suggestion: Hildegard von Bingen (perhaps Antiphon, Caritas Habundant in Omnia

Think of people and situations in need of new life – of healing and restoration and new beginnings.  Write them down on the leaves, colouring them in with green. Ask for the Spirit of life to be given them.  Tie them to the dry twig, giving thanks for new life.

Is there something you could do to support or cheer a sick person, or someone caring for a sick person? Or is there a seemingly dead situation that could be open to new life?

Alternatively, you can pick a budding twig to watch unfold, visiting it each day and praying as above, or cutting it and putting it by a light place in your home. Celebrate the hope of new life coming from something that looks as if it might well be dead.

There are many community groups, and individuals, who are gathering together – often virtually – to help and support those around them – cooking meals, arranging deliveries, making calls – showing love in a way which respects the increased personal boundaries we need at the moment.  If you are feeling anxious, or helpless, in the face of the current situation, there may be something you can do to bring hope or help to someone else.  You can be part of the movement to bring new life to dark places.

 

Practice resurrection

Ask God whether there are ways you could ‘practise resurrection’. God delights in using the flawed, the old and the cast aside, like Moses or Abraham….. Ask Jesus to bring his resurrection life into yours now, to breathe into the dead and dark places.  Similarly, ask him to do the same for those you love and for your community.

Ask, too, where you could be part of this process of making all things new, bringing new life.

Start simply – renew an old, thrown-away object: restore a piece of furniture, reuse old fabric for a sewing project, plant vegetables in a neglected place, make compost, use broken plates for mosaic, make something beautiful out of what has been cast aside.

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Wells Cathedral – you can read about it in Lent: Jesus said, I Am….. Week 3, Light

 

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

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Jesus said, ‘I Am’ – for Lent. Chapter 3, Light

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Mike Lacey Photography.

Welcome, and welcome back if you are following this Lent journey with me.  Whoever you are, I hope you find something that helps here.  We are now beginning week three by my schedule, and turning our attention to Jesus, the light of the world.  We’ll be continuing to draw on my book, Jesus said, I am – Finding life in the everyday

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“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all peoples.  The light shines in the darkness, and darkness did not overcome it.” John 1:3-4

 

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The days grow longer – each day, we are tipping a little more from darkness to light. I’m watching the plants respond to that light. I even have a few tiny seedlings coming up in my veggie patch.  At this time of year, the connection between light and life is clear, and fills us with hope.

Life and light.

It is often a good idea, particularly in John’s gospel, to look at the first mention, first use of a word or idea.  And often the roots of his themes are found in his opening words, the prologue.  But that prologue in itself carries echoes of something earlier, it takes us back to the very beginning of Genesis, where light is the first form spoken into being.

It starts with light. The things that live and grow on the Earth, our home, all depend on  light.  We cannot live without it.

And so when Jesus says he is the light of the world, we have a sense that these words are life-giving, momentous.  They speak of something we need every day, and yet the physics of light  – what light is – is hard for most of us to grasp.

“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” John 1:9.

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As the gospel stories are told, we hear Jesus saying I am the light of the world twice, and both times it’s at a turning point for someone, a moment which changes everything for them.  So once again we see that something that seems perhaps high and exalted, beyond our understanding, is revealed in the deep reality of our lived experience.

Jesus first says, “I am the light of the world”, in a very dark place.  The setting was the Feast of Tabernacles, or Booths, when the huge candlestick was lit at the temple, and the light from it was seen in Jerusalem’s streets……..

They [the religious leaders] seem to be policing the celebrations while Jesus is teaching in the temple, an eager crowd listening to him.  The religious leaders bring a woman before Jesus, caught in adultery, and ask Jesus if she should be stoned as the law demands.  The woman, whose life hangs in the balance, doesn’t seem to be of much concern. At this this challenge, Jesus does something remarkable. He shows us a different way of seeing, a different way we can think about the law.

The law can be used to judge and condemn another, or it can be used to throw light on our own hearts and motives.

“”Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”” John 8:7

…….

with the stones lying on the ground, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” for the first time. It is an active sentence – of following and walking, and even the light is the light of life.

It is easier to walk forward, into new life, when we can see the way.

The second time Jesus said it is better known – and that’s in a conversation before the man born blind.

“It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.  We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” John 9:3-5

We see some parallels between this story and that of the woman who was not stoned – in both cases, people seem most concerned about pointing the finger, apportioning blame.  Jesus does not do this.  He sees with clear-sighted compassion, not naively, but looking with the light of love, and looking for God’s work of healing and restoring.

Jesus did not go looking for sin and guilt, and did not apportion blame.  Human pain is, rather, the place where God’s work is to be done.

…..

God seems to specialise in the transformation of bad things. It is the resurrection power, to redeem, restore, make new.  What is more, it seems that the work is not God’s alone:  ‘We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work’.
There is a ‘we’ in that sentence…. So the challenge is not to judge, but to join in with God’s work.  God longs for us to act, as partners.  What an extraordinary thought! The hope is that when we are in hopeless and most desperate situations, like the man born blind, like the woman, we can encounter the glory and mercy of God.  We are open to the possibility of transformation.  Once again, Jesus’ language is full of action. ‘Work’ is the key repeated word.

 

Night is coming for Jesus, and this is his response – to give sight to the blind.

 

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We act now to lift the darkness we can.  We work while it is light.  This theme emerges again in the story of the raising of Lazarus (11:9-16). Light and work go together – and the work is the transformation of suffering and death, sin and despair, into hope and life.  It is the bursting out of a new dawn, a new light to live by. This is the life-light in action: the glory-light that is found in the strangest places.

Can we notice this life-light, the light of Christ?  Can we learn to see in its loving clarity? We know that if we turn towards light, like the plants, we will grow and grow well.

 

Reflection and Response

Oh, God, who spoke and light came into being, may we forever dwell in the brightness of knowing you.

May we bring the light of Christ to those in darkness,
may we chase away the shadows with hope and love,
may we hold a lamp for feet that stumble,
may we too be lights in the world.

 

The account of the woman and the stones we considered briefly above invites us to look at our own hearts and behaviour.  Lent is a good time for self-examination.

Quaker light meditation

The light of love and grace transforms our seeing.

The Society of Friends have various pamphlets available to help introduce the practices of meditation and silent prayer.  These are usually undertaken together, as a group, and the meditation below can be done alone or with others.  The words in inverted commas are those of George Fox, founder of Quakers, 1624-1691.  Many of the others are a paraphrase.  Again, you may wish to begin this in darkness, or use a small light or candle to focus.

Look Inside  “Your teacher is within you.  Mind what is pure in you to guide you to God” – remember the work of the Spirit within you.

2 Identify the light  “Now this is the Light with which you are lighted, which shows you when you do wrong.”  When you bring yourself into the light, you see your troubles, your temptations and your wrongdoings.

3  Let the light show you yourself “Mind the pure light of God in you” which shows the things in you that are not light: let your conscience be stirred.  Let the light of Jesus Christ search you.  Do not be afraid.  It is the light of love.

Trace the light to its source  Stand in God’s counsel, learn from the light that “you may be led forth in his life and likeness.” God is restoring God’s image in you.

5 Trust the light to show you the alternative.  Have courage to stand still in the light: it is the light of your saviour.  If you look at your sin, you are swallowed up in it, so look to the light by which you see it instead, and let your focus be on the source.

Feel the new life grow  “He who follows the light comes to have the light of life.” The Lord has sown a seed in you that lies shut up in the darkness, with winter storms about it.  He sends his light to the seed, that with time the new life will grow.

7 See other people in the light  “As you abide in the light, the life-light, you will see the kinship that is amongst you, for in the light no self-will, no mastery can stand.”  We are all equal before the light.

See the world in the light  This light lets you see all the world as it is, and keeps you mindful of God.

Learn to love in the light  Standing in the eternal power and light of God, we have strength to love those who persecute and wrong us; we have light enough to shed light on the paths of those who are against us.  This is how we learn to love.

Prayerful reading – for yourself or others
If you find yourself in a dark place, read through the stories again –  the woman with the stones, the man born blind.  Notice the depth of the pain these two were experiencing, and the easy condemnation.  Notice how Jesus responds. Notice how his presence transforms things.  Bring your situation into the light of life,  inviting Jesus, the light of the world, into your dark place.  Allow yourself to lay aside worry, and be lit and warmed by the love that waits for you. Stay in that place for a while.
You can bring someone you love, or a situation, before God in this same way.

Creative
Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.  Emily Dickinson
Photography, light-writing.  Why not take on a photography project, perhaps one of these every day for a week, or take a camera/phone with you wherever you go.
Light-sources in your home/community
Reflections and light effects
the same object or view at different times, in different light.
The same subject using various filters.
You could print off any you like, to pin up, or make into “sending you light” cards.

Living from a place of light.

Jesus calls us not to judge, and yet reminds us to know a tree by its fruit.

Can we develop the discipline of looking at ourselves and others with a clear-sighted vision, which sees truly and yet does not condemn?
This week, seek to lay aside harsh judgements.  Perhaps we can seek to learn lovingkindness even in situations of hostility.  Kindness to ourselves means we can keep ourselves safe, kindness to others means we do not need to condemn or retaliate.
Perhaps we can begin our own move towards light in the way we interact with each other on line.

Social Media .  Think about the arguments  in these chapters [of John’s gospel], and compare them to those you encounter on social media and comments sections online.  How can we respond in a way which is more like Jesus?  How can we be light in this particular dark place?

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Scatter the darkness in our hearts, that we may be children of light.

 

I wrote a poem as darkness fell while I was sitting on the beach.  You can read the poem, Light, here.

A prayer for the opening of the eyes (to be said throughout the day)
May I see signs of your kingdom springing up like seeds, working like yeast in the dough.

Thank you.  Next week, we’ll be looking at the Shepherd and the Gate.

 

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

Jesus said, ‘I Am’ – for Lent. Chapter 2, Bread

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The Little Free Pantry  at St Andrew’s Melton. A community food sharing project.

John 6:1-15, 25-35

We are following my book for Lent – thank you for joining me.  I hope you find it helps.

As Lent begins, we think of the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness, and the hunger and temptations he faced there.

Matthew 4:1-11

The first of these was to turn stones into bread, so it seems good to think about this first of the traditional I Am sayings at the beginning of Lent. Those two occasions of considering bread, or not, in the wilderness – the temptation, and the feeding of the five thousand – offer interesting contrasts.  You might like to hold them both in your mind as we proceed, seeing what light they might throw on each other.

Jesus fed a hungry crowd.  They had followed him to a remote place by the lake, where there was nowhere for them to get food.  There, he gave them bread to sustain them, and later he said he himself was bread – bread that came down from heaven, the bread of the life of the world.  Not surprisingly, they were mystified.

Some may be fasting during Lent, and this idea of following Jesus to a remote place, and finding that Jesus is bread, is coming to be your experience.  Maybe, imagining yourself into the story,  you see yourself as one of the hungry crowd.  Maybe you are one of the hungry crowd. Maybe lack of food is not a chosen discipline, but your economic experience.

At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus spent time in the wilderness where he fasted, prayed and was tempted.  One of the temptations the hungry Jesus faced was turning stones into bread.  Jesus answers, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God””….. but as Jesus answers the temptation we are reminded of a deep thread in Hebrew thought – that the wisdom, the mind of God, the Word, nourishes and sustains us like food….. God feeds us like bread.  This way of seeing helps us remember that our inbuilt need for God is a deep hunger.

In Jesus, tempted in the wilderness, we see a paradox.  Jesus, this Word made flesh, feels hunger like us, needs bread like us.  Now, astonishingly, after this feeding of the hungry people, he says that he is bread, and that he will be broken for us.  This Word made flesh has become bread for us…..

Knowing that there is more than one sort of hunger, that the hunger of our hearts and souls is real too, does not mean that the hunger of the body is less important.  Jesus feeds the hungry people.  He feeds all of them.

Firstly, we notice who was fed: everyone, all that multitude.  Here we see the extravagant generosity of Jesus, and the extent of human need.  Bread was given to all the hungry people who were in the crowd: there is no payment, no worthiness criteria, no belief criteria in this feeding; simply, if you come, you will be fed.

All who need it receive bread.

The tradition of fasting in Lent was always coupled with acts of service.  As we think about hunger – our own, and others – we can think too of ways of feeding that hunger.  There is an abundance and a generosity in this story of feeding so many that can liberate us into our own giving. We think of the small child who gave the little he had.

sowing

And so, we see what Jesus does with the little he has been given by a child: he takes it in his hands, gives thanks, and then gives it away…… He gives thanks for the little he holds before it is enough.  This is another practice we can engage with: thanksgiving.  It is a powerful way of shifting us from a perspective of scarcity and anxiety to one of gratitude, of noticing the good and the blessing and the small loaves among so many hungry people. …..

Jesus models many things here for his followers: compassion for the hungry, a desire to help, seeing much in little and giving thanks.  After all have eaten, Jesus tells the disciples to gather all the broken fragments up, and there are twelve basketfuls.  Nothing is wasted………..

As we seek to find ways of living out these I Am sayings, perhaps we too can be a people who gather up the broken pieces, so that nothing and no one is wasted and lost.  It humbles us, it involves us stooping and searching for each broken thing.  By gathering the broken, we are following Jesus’ instruction and example.  The kingdom is the very opposite of a throwaway society.

 

seed

Reflection and Response

Enough, not enough?

Sometimes we can look at the little we have at our disposal, and the greatness of the needs we see, and be overwhelmed.  Look at the exchange between Andrew and Jesus. What have you to offer? Where do you feel a lack? Meditate on this scene, bringing objects that represent what you have and where you feel a lack, and lay them before you.  Use words and paper if more practical.  Ask Jesus to bless them and give thanks for them.

Make a practice of always doing the little you can, and asking Jesus to bless it and multiply it.  What do you notice as you do so?

bread

If you have done the meditation above, and you have considered that you may have some financial resources, or cooking ability, you might like to move to the next activity.  If not, feel free to adapt to find some way to be generous – giving attention, a smile, a blessing, can transform things.
If you feel very empty right now, do think on the hunger of the crowd, and how they were fed.  It is good to ask for what you need.

Bread for a hungry world: social action
Feeding people was a sign of God’s kingdom.  How can we live that out where we are – open-handed – thankful for what we receive, ready to share? Perhaps there are food banks or homeless people near you for whom you  can buy food.  Perhaps you can cook and share what you have made. Perhaps you can support a charity that feeds the hungry.

If you are fasting from any  sort of food, you could consider buying it anyway and putting it in the food bank.  Our little local Co-op supermarket has a collection box for the Salvation Army.  Our church porch has a Little Free Pantry – simply a set of shelves that anyone is free to donate to, and receive from, at any time.  It’s easy to set one up. You can find out more following the link under the picture at the top of this post.

Let nothing be wasted.
Set yourself a challenge for the week: to avoid waste, especially food waste.

 

Think about these three things, and how to make them your practice this week:
gratitude, generosity, avoiding waste.

 

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Vincent Van Gogh

You might like to extend your reading with thinking about The Sower and the Seed or small seeds from the Sunday Retold series.

A blessing for food from Prayers and Verses

Lord Jesus, who broke bread beside the lake and all were fed,
thank you for feeding us.
Lord Jesus, who asked his disciples to pass food to the crowds,
may we do the same.
Lord Jesus, who saw to it that all the spare food was gathered,
may we let no good thing go to waste.
Lord Jesus, who gave thanks,
we thank you now.

 

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

Here are a few suggestions:

The publishers, BRF

Amazon

 

A link to Malcolm Guite’s thoughtful sonnet on this saying can be found here.

Jesus said, ‘I Am’ – for Lent. Chapter 1, the woman at the well.

 

The bible scene with Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman shows signs of damage and peeling of paint

Mural by  Emmanuel Nsama

If you are following my Book for Lent, welcome! I hope you find it helps.
If you’d like to begin at the very beginning, you could take a look at the chapter on Moses, and the burning bush – the first I Am. You can find a link to my post about that here.

 

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John 4:1-30, 39-42

It may seem a strange place to start, with this deep conversation that is not normally mentioned as one of the I AM sayings – and indeed, it isn’t one of the classic seven.  However, it is a story which has intrigued me for years, and when I found that this is the place where Jesus first says “I am”, I wanted to explore it more fully.  It is the longest recorded conversation Jesus has with one other person – and it is with someone who was on the other side of so many cultural barriers.

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

John the Evangelist prepares 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 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” (Matt 19:3). We often think of her as one utterly disgraced in her community, having to visit the well at such a time.  That may be so, but we must remember that at this time divorces were easy for a man to come by and early death not uncommon.  Whatever her circumstances, she must have known more than her share of tragedy and disappointment.  She may have known deep shame and disgrace.  She may well have been a rejected member of a rejected community.

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, 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?”

Jesus humbly admits his own thirst, his own need.  If we have heard the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46), this question may have a deep resonance for us, for there Jesus says that whoever gives a thirsty person water, gives it to him.  This story in John gives us a way of thinking about the needs before us.  How would we respond – how do we respond – if a stranger asks us for a drink?

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And from the Reflection and Response section.

Pour out a jug of water and set it before you, together with a glass.
Ask yourself what you thirst for.  Allow honest answers to emerge and note them.  Where does your life feel dry and unproductive?  What would help?

 

“I was thirsty and you gave me a drink”
….If you buy drinks out, perhaps you could fast from one or two a week, and give the money to a charity instead………

You could carry extra bottles of water to give to the homeless or buy tea or coffee for those you encounter and drink with them.  I have gift vouchers for coffee shops in my bag to pass on………

 

 

trees

Think about this picture – look at the two trees, and the fence.
Where do you find connection in your life, and where separateness?
Are there ways you can reach across divides?
Pray for wisdom.  Remember how Jesus slipped away from potential conflict with the religious leaders.

“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.
What comes to mind as you meditate on this verse? Does it speak into an particular situation for you?

 

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

Here are a few suggestions:

The publishers, BRF

Amazon

img_20181130_114736372319885.jpg

This blog post also draws on the Sunday Retold series.

Thank you for sharing this time with me.