Monthly Archives: January 2015

A Sonnet for Candlemas

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright

Though the 12 days of Christmas ended at Twelth Night and Epiphany, there is another sense in which this season, in which we reflect on the great mystery of God in Christ as an infant, continues until February 2nd, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This year many churches will be keeping the feast a day early, on Sunday 1st of February, so I am posting this sonnet in time for them to make use of it should they wish.

This feast came to be called by the shorter and more beautiful name of Candlemas because the day it celebrates, recorded in Luke 2:22-40, is the day the old man Simeon took the baby in his arms and recognised him as ‘A Light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.’ It became the custom of the church to light a central candle and bring it to the altar to represent the Christ-light, and also on the occasion of this feast to bless all the ‘lights’ or candles in the church, praying that all who saw that outward and visible light would remember also and be blessed by the inner light of Christ ‘who lightens everyong who comes into the world.’

It had always been prophesied that God would one day come into the Temple that human beings had built for him, though Solomon, who built the first temple had said ‘even the Heavens are too small to hold you much less this temple I have built’. Candlemas is the day we realise that eternity can come into time and touch us in the form of a tiny child, that God appears at last in His Temple, not as a transcendent overlord, but as a vulnerable pilgrim, coming in His Love to walk the road of life along side us.

I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful image above. She writes:

“This picture is of my first born on his first outing to walk to the station
with his grand-mother who was returning to France. he was four days old. On
the way back I stopped at the local bakers, whom I knew well and we were
both properly feasted. Was I proud and pleased! I choose it because
something of these lines was my feeling

Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,

They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,

For God was coming with them to His temple.

He was a new little Temple of the Lord. There was definitely a sense of awe
for me. We chose his name for the Olive branch brought by the dove. I did
not like that shirt very much (it had been passed on) but for the dove…”

This and my other sonets for the Christian year are published together by Canterbury Press as Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian Year.’ You can get this book in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or viaAmazon, and I am vey happy to say that both this and my other poetry book The Singing bowl are now available in North America from Steve Bell who has a good supply in stock. His page for my books is HERE

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears or on the title of the poem

Candlemas

They came, as called, according to the Law.

Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,

They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,

For God was coming with them to His temple.

Amidst the outer court’s commercial bustle

They’d waited hours, enduring shouts and shoves,

Buyers and sellers, sensing one more hustle,

Had made a killing on the two young doves.

They come at last with us to Candlemas

And keep the day the prophecies came true

We glimpse with them, amidst our busyness,

The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.

For Candlemas still keeps His kindled light,

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright.

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25th January: The conversion of St. Paul!

Image by Margot Krebs Neale

This sunday, the 25th of January, is the day the Church keeps the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. However often it is told or re-told, it is still an astonishing story. That Saul, the implacable enemy of Christianity, who came against the church ‘breathing threats and slaughter’, should be chosen by God to be Christianity’s greatest proponant and apostle is just the first of a series of dazzling and life-changing paradoxes that flow from Paul’s writing. At the heart of these is the revelation of God’s sheer grace; finding the lost, loving the violent into light, and working everything through the very weakness of those who love him. Here’s a sonnet celebrating just a little of what I glimpse in the great apostle.

This poem and my other sonnets for the Christian year are published together by Canterbury Press as Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian Year.’ You can get this book in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or viaAmazon, and I am vey happy to say that both this and my other poetry book The Singing bowl are now available in North America from Steve Bell who has a good supply in stock. His page for my books is HERE

As always you can hear the poem by clicking n the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the title of the poem.

Apostle

An enemy whom God has made a friend,

A righteous man discounting righteousness,

Last to believe and first for God to send,

He found the fountain in the wilderness.

Thrown to the ground and raised at the same moment,

A prisoner who set his captors free,

A naked man with love his only garment,

A blinded man who helped the world to see,

A Jew who had been perfect in the law,

Blesses the flesh of every other race

And helps them see what the apostles saw;

The glory of the lord in Jesus’ face.

Strong in his weakness, joyful in his pains,

And bound by love, who freed him from his chains.

Caravaggio: The Conversion of St. Paul

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The Words of Life: A New Sonnet

You have the words of eternal life

You have the words of eternal life

This is the season of new beginnings. Some people may have made the resolution, in one way or another, to ‘turn over a new leaf’, though when I used that phrase once in a conversation with my mother, she looked at me sharply and said: ‘Its not the leaves, its the roots that want turning!’

I am turning then to the roots of my faith in the living words of Jesus, deep generative words, words of Life, as the gospel calls them, because Life himself speaks them, and from them so much new life and growth can spring. But there is a problem. Many of these ‘words of life’, these sayings of Jesus are so over-familiar that we have ceased to hear them at all, ceased to register the shock, and challenge, that many of them contain. And when we do begin to grasp them we often find them difficult and don’t take the time we need to wrestle with them.

I have begun a new sonnet sequence called Parable and Paradox, reflecting on and wrestling with the sayings of Jesus to try and get past that familiarity and return again to these deep roots.

In this particular sonnet, which will come near the beginning of the sequence, I look at the moment in John’s Gospel, when disciples are leaving Jesus, because they find his sayings too hard and challenging, and he asks Peter directly if he too, is going to leave, and we read in John 6:68:

Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

Peter may not understand all that Jesus has to say to him, but he knows that somewhere in there is the heart of life itself and he is going to stay with Jesus until he understands it. And that really is the starting lace not only for this sonnet but for the whole sequence.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

The Words of Life

 

John 6:68 Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

 

You have the words of life, where should we go

Except to you, to try and take them in?

We want your words to quicken us, to know

And be transformed by knowledge deep within.

How is it then, these words seem dead in us?

We neither let them go nor let them live,

Their empty echoes always seem to haunt us,

As daily we refuse what they might give.

 

Oh Teacher we need more than just the hearing,

More than these readings we have set apart,

Somehow the two-edged sword we have been fearing

Must pierce at last the well-defended heart.

Unsheathe it now and help us take the pain,

Pierce to the point where we can start again.

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Sunday 18th Jan: Nathanael’s Epiphany

You will see the Heaven opened

The Gospel reading for this Sunday, the second Sunday of Epiphany (John 1:43-51) takes us to one of the most mysterious and beautiful moments in the New Testament. As the disciples begin to gather around Jesus, Philip finds Nathanael and says “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law, and the prophets did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45) Nathanael’s unpromising response is ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ But Phillip gives the best possible reply that anyone sharing the mystery of their faith can give; ‘Come and see’. and that ‘come and see’ sets a theme of ‘seeing’ and vision which culminates in the amazing exchange between Nathanael and Jesus that follows.

Before Nathanael has uttered a word Jesus says ‘Behold an Israelite indeed’ and turns the tables of ‘vision’ onto Nathanael himself, and in that moment Nathanael suddenly knows that he is ompletely known by this man he has never met. ‘Whence knowest thou me?’ he asks, and Jesus’ reply is again about vision and seeing: ‘Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.’  Something amazing happens here, Nathan, who was scoffing at Nazareth a minute before, has a sudden leap of understanding, outpacing reason or teaching, leaping ahead of all the other disciples to an undertanding and certainty that even Peter would not attain for another three years, and declares ‘Rabbi thou art the Son of God, thou art the king of Israel!’

An Epiphany has taken place, something whole and complete has been disclosed in a single glance, to see and be seen is enough! This is an example in the Gospel of a sudden ‘awakening’, a direct pointing to reality, which some people think is only associated with Buddhism, but here it is. And then Jesus, alluding subtly to Nathanael’s mention of Israel, promises that this is just the beginning of a greater epiphany. Nathanael is ‘an Israelite indeed’ and Jesus points to the key epiphany in the life of Israel, when he was still called Jacob, the epiphany in which he saw the ladder connecting heaven and earth:

‘Verily, verily I say unto you, Hereafter you shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man’

Here is one of those thrilling moments when a mysterious image from the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the New! The ladder was a prophetic image given in a dream to Jacob of what is to come, now it has come true! I am the ladder, Jesus is saying, the true connection, the true gate of Heaven. And in this intimate exchange Nathanael has seen with his waking eyes what his ancestor had seen only veiled in dream and symbol!

I have tried to embody something of these reflections in the following sonnet. I am grateful again for Margot Kreb’s Neale’s beautiful photograph, itself a comentary on this same mystery.  The poem itself is from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press and available on Amazon or from your local bookshop. As always you can hear this poem by clicking on the ‘play’ buton or on the title.

Nathanael’s Epiphany

A fugitive and exile, Jacob slept,
A man of clay, his head upon a stone
And even in his sleep his spirit wept
He lay down lonely and would wake alone.
But in the night he dreamt the Heavens parted
And glimpsed, in glory, as from Heaven’s core,
A ladder set for all the broken-hearted
And earth herself becoming Heaven’s door.

And when the nameless Angel named him Israel
He kept this gift, whose depth he never knew;
The promise of an end to all our exile,
For now a child of Israel finds it true,
And sees the One who heals the deep heart’s aching
As Jacob’s dream becomes Nathanael’s waking.

 

An extraordinary Sculpture of Jacob’s Dream at Abilene Christian University, Texas.

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A word about “The Word in the Wilderness” (my new book)

My new book from Canterbury Press

My new book from Canterbury Press

As January is often a time when Churches, and indeed individuals, start to think about what they might take up as spiritual reading for Lent (as opposed to the myriad things they might give up!) I thought I might mention that my own ‘Lent Book’ is now out with Canterbury Press.

The Word in the Wilderness is an anthology which offers the reader a poem for each day of Lent, Holy Week and Easter, together with a short reflection of 700-800 words in which I open out that particular poem, set it in context and try to share something of what it has to offer. The book is shaped, over all by the theme of an accompanied journey through the wilderness with Christ, and has sections on pilgrimage, on prayer as conversation on the journey, and on the poets we read as fellow pilgrims. The poetry itself is drawn from a wide range of sources, from Dante to our own contemporaries.

The book could be used either privately as a devotional inner journey, just read at home each day, or the journey could be shared as a group, and this indeed is how it began. Last Lent at St. Edwards, I ‘road-tested’ the contents of this book with a group who agreed to read the poems at home each day and then meet once a week to discuss the previous week’s poems, which worked very well and elicited all kinds of new insights, for me as well as for the group members.

However you use it I hope you are able to get a copy and enjoy it. It is available on Amazon UK here, and in America here and in Canada here, and can of course be ordered via your favourite local bookshop. It is also downloadable now on Kindle

Finally I will be combining a launch of this book with a poetry reading of my own at Beautiful Sarum College in Salisbury on February 6th at 7pm, do come along to that event if you are free and in the area!

Sarum college, where I will have the book Launch and Poetry Reading

Sarum college, where I will have the book Launch and Poetry Reading

 

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In Memoriam Kate Gross: A Sonnet and a Funeral Sermon

Kate in her garden in Cambridge

Kate in her garden in Cambridge

Kate Gross’s best memorial will be the lives she has changed for the better; her family, in whom all her loving and her gifts are still alive and growing, the friends and colleagues she inspired, and the untold thousands in Africa whose health and livelihood have been so profoundly improved by her work in running AGI. Her other great memorial will be her book Late Fragments: Everything I want to tell you (about this magnificent life), a book that will itself be life-enhancing for all its readers.

I cannot really add to these magnificent memorials but I would like nevertheless to record here what a moving experience it was for me to be her parish priest, to prepare her for baptism, to take her last communion, and to take her funeral. In all those encounters I was as much, if not more, ministered unto than ministering. The best way I can evoke and remember her here is to share with you the poem we read at her Baptism and the sermon I preached at her funeral.

As we began the conversations that led to her Baptism I had begun to write a sonnet for Steve Bell’s beautiful Pilgrimage album, and as it was finished, even before I sent it to Steve I realised that its imagery and shaping had been influenced by my encounters with Kate. I read her the sonnet and she asked to have it read, amongst other poems, at her baptism. She loved swimming, and clear flowing rivers and I think something of the poem’s image of turning upstream to our source was helpful to her. As I worked on the sermon for her funeral I realised that the baptism service had already said the deepest things we needed to say, and so the poem found its way too into the sermon. Here is the text of the poem, which is also printed as part of the Pilgrimage Album. You can hear me read the poem by clicking on the play button or the title. After the poem I have added a link to a recording of the sermon.


Pilgrimage

Come, dip a scallop shell into the font

For birth and blessings as a child of God.

The living water rises from that fount

Whence all things come, that you may bathe and wade

And find the flow, and learn at last to follow

The course of Love upstream towards your home.

The day is done and all the fields lie fallow

One thing is needful, one voice calls your name.

 

Take the true compass now, be compassed round

By clouds of witness, chords of love unbound.

Turn to the Son, begin your pilgrimage,

Take time with Him to find your true direction.

He travels with you through this darkened age

And wakes you everyday to resurrection.

 

Here is a link to the sermon.The recording stops just before the end of the final phrase, which is in full ‘The light that shines in darkness and which the darkness has never put out.’

Upstream towards the source

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The First Sunday of Epiphany -Jesus’ Baptism

The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings

The season of Epiphany is an invitation to reflect on the many little ‘epiphanies’, glimpses of how things really are, which are vouchsafed us in the Gospel. The first Sunday of Epiphany is a time to reflect on the moment when ‘the heavens opened’ at Jesus’ Baptism and we were given a glimpse of Father Son and Holy Spirit at the heart of all things. This sonnet is a reflection on that mystery. As always you can hear it by clicking on the ‘play’ sign or on the title of the poem. I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful photograph, taken at the river Jordan which says as much as, if not more than the poem. The poem itself is from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press and available on Amazon or from your local bookshop.  After the text of the poem I have included links to the wonderful song Steve Bell wrote from it. He has written a fascinating blog post about writing that song here: Steve Bell on his song.


Beginning here we glimpse the Three-in-one;
The river runs, the clouds are torn apart,
The Father speaks, the Sprit and the Son
Reveal to us the single loving heart
That beats behind the being of all things
And calls and keeps and kindles us to light.
The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings
‘You are belovèd, you are my delight!’

In that quick light and life, as water spills
And streams around the Man like quickening rain,
The voice that made the universe reveals
The God in Man who makes it new again.
He calls us too, to step into that river
To die and rise and live and love forever.

Also check out Steve Bell’s amazing album Keening for the Dawn in which he reworks this sonnet into a beautiful song
Keening for the Dawn
You can hear the song itself on sound loud here:

Epiphany on the Jordansteve-album

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