Monthly Archives: February 2015

In the Wilderness 7: Christ amongst the refugees

this scant and tented city outside Syria.

this scant and tented city outside Syria.

When Adam Boulter sent me the final sketch for his Wilderness series, titled ‘Contemporary Christian Refugees,’ I began to see the whole series in a new context. These stories of life-changing wilderness journeys which began with the well-known and resonant Biblical Narratives are not over. The Lord is still with his people in an exodus through the desert, Jesus is still with the displaced people ‘on the long road of weariness and want’. We have all been horrified by the events unfolding in Syria and Iraq, and as Christians flee from Mosul and the other places where ‘ISIS’ has persecuted, and painted ‘Nazarene’ on their doors, we are tempted to ask ‘Where is Christ in all this’?

But we must answer,’Christ is where he said he would be! With his people on the road, with the poor and persecuted, even where two or three are gathered together.’

Adam visited the UNHCR refugee camp where he sketched this tent, and there was something about the tent itself that moved me. Not only that it linked with the tent of hospitality pitched by Abraham and Sarah in the first painting and poem of this sequence, but because it set me in mind of how the powerful Greek word that’s used for ‘dwelt’  in John 1:14 14 ‘And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,’ is εσκηνωσεν (eskenosen) which comes from ‘skenoo’, which means ‘to have one’s tent’, or ‘to pitch one’s tent’. As I saw the tented city of these Christian refugees I thought in a new way of how Christ pitches his tent in our humanity, and I try to suggest a little of that in this final poem in the series, into which other details Adam had observed at the scene, like the dark smoke from a devastated city looming over the horizon are also woven.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button and you can visit the exhibition with the finished paintings and poems at St. Margaret’s Westminster throughout Lent. If you are not able to come to the exhibition, Adam has created a page on which you can see images of all seven finished paintings alongside their corresponding sonnets HERE

Christ amongst the refugees

 

That fearful road of weariness and want,

Through unforgiving heat and hate, ends here;

We narrow sand-blown eyes to scan this scant

And tented city outside Syria.

He fled with us when everything was wrecked

As Nazarene was blazoned on our door,

Walked with the damaged and the derelict

To where these tents are ranked and massed, foursquare

Against the desert, with a different blazon;

We trace the letters: UNHCR,

As dark smoke looms behind a cruel horizon.

Christ stands with us and withstands, where we are,

His high commission, as a refugee;

To pitch his tent in our humanity.

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In the Wilderness 6: Abba Moses the Black

Abba Moses the Black near Petra

Abba Moses the Black near Petra

For the last two, in our sequence of seven wilderness episodes, we leave the familiar territory of Biblical story and see how that story extended and extends into the life of the Church, for the God of Scriptures extends his steadfast covenant love to us too. Adam’s picture of a shadowy figure meditating in a dark cave touches on a remarkable story. That shadowy figure is Abba Moses the Black one of the great desert fathers, but before his conversion he had been a notorious and grossly violent bandit terrorising travellers. After his conversion it was said of him: “The grace of God worked in Moses to the extent that as much as he hated humankind before his conversion, in Scetis he came to love everybody. He received all visitors with joy. ” You can read his story in greater detail here. He foresaw his martyrdom at the hands of raiding berbers and accepted it willingly, and as fitting, saying that he who had once lived by the sword should die by the sword. But the story of his repentance and new life gives us hope and encourages us to pray that those committing violent atrocity in these same deserts today may also have a change of heart, and I have reflected a little on that in the phrasing of my sonnet.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button and you can visit the exhibition with the finished paintings and poems at St. Margaret’s Westminster throughout Lent

Abba Moses the Black

 

You were yourself what everybody fears:

Sickening terror in the wilderness,

Roadblocks and robbery, as hatred stares

From the eyes of a cold killer, practiced, pitiless.

And then you met your match: outdone, undone

By One whose wounds pierced deeper yet than yours,

One victim’s agony met you alone

To touch and pars a gospel in your scars,

And turn you to what everybody needs:

All-understanding, all-forgiving grace,

A radical humility that bears and feeds

The needy, lets them blossom in the place

Where love has planted them. Your martyr’s blood

Still seeds and feeds and nurtures us for good.

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In the Wilderness 5: Paul Blinded and led to Damascus

Paul Blinded Being Led Into Damascus

Paul Blinded Being Led Into Damascus

I loved the evocative sketch Adam Boulter sent me for this poem for many reasons. Firstly because it focussed on a liminal, in-between time: we all think of, and many artists have painted, the dramatic moment of blinding light which was Saul’s ‘Damascus road experience’, or we think of him, after Damascus, in the full power of his Christian convictions, the great Apostle to the Gentiles, but Adam asks us to imagine the last bit of road, between the blinding light and the opening of his eyes. And then there is something tender and affecting in the tentative holding hands as the strong man who was the leader must allow himself to be led, and finally there was something in the gorgeous purple colours of the night and the beautiful slender crescent of the moon in this painting, some how rendered more poignant because it is a painting of a man who cannot see them. I have tried to get some of that feeling and those reflections into this poem.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button and you can visit the exhibition with the finished paintings and poems at St. Margaret’s Westminster throughout Lent

Paul blinded being led into Damascus

 

He cannot see the crescent moon, but feels

This night’s wide wilderness. He is afraid,

And holds the hand of one he used to lead,

Through folds and shadows where the moonlight falls

He holds his counsel and still holds the road,

As it winds northward. Rounding a last bend,

Paul senses each slight change in scent and sound;

A gradual Damascus just ahead,

Whose pre-dawn hush is filling him with dread,

For what awaits him there is his true end.

 

Slowly from Ananias he will learn

To touch the body and to break the bread

And, as the scales fall from his eyes, discern

How Love himself has risen from the dead.

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In the Wilderness 4: Temptation

Temptation

Temptation

When Adam Boulter sent me this haunting sketch of two figures looking down at Petra ‘from the high place of sacrifice’ (as he added in a marginal note) I realised that, with some small changes, it answered to my sonnet on the third temptation of Christ in the Wilderness. The whole sequence of seven ‘Wilderness’ moments hinges on the two glimpses of Christ in the Wilderness: the first, forced there as an innocent child refugee, sharing the trauma of all the coerced victims of conflict, and this second as a mature man choosing to face and feel, to suffer for us, and to overcome our temptations, and in this case, the most insidious of all temptations, and the root of the most destructive and ghastly of all our conflicts, the temptation to religious pride.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button and you can visit the exhibition with the finished paintings and poems at St. Margaret’s Westminster throughout Lent

Temptation in the wilderness

 

‘A sacred place is good for looking down from;

You stand above the world on holy heights,

Here on the pinnacle, above the maelstrom,

Among the few, the true, unearthly lights.

Here you can breathe the thin air of perfection

And feel your kinship with the lonely star,

Above the shadow and the pale reflection,

Here you can know for certain who you are.

The world is stalled below, but you could move it

If they could know you as you are up here,

Of course they’ll doubt, but here’s your chance to prove it

Angels will bear you up, so have no fear….’

‘I was not sent to look down from above

It’s fear that sets these tests and proofs, not Love.’

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In the Wilderness 3: The Flight into Egypt

The Flight into Egypt

The Flight into Egypt

I found Adam Boulter’s sketch for the flight into Egypt very moving, with Mount Sinai in the back ground summoning the memory of the children of Jacob/Israel wandering through this same wilderness and knowing that somehow the Lord was with them, though under the shadowy symbols of the pillars of cloud and fire. But here the Lord is indeed our companion in this same wilderness. And not in the towering symbols of power, but in the fragile and vulnerable fresh of a refugee child, he takes the road with us. I had already reflected on this a little in my sonnet ‘Refugee’ from Sounding the Seasons, and Adam and I agreed to place that poem in this sequence and with this picture, where it seems to acquire a new resonance.The tragedy of the Syrian Civil War and the rise of Isis has unfolded since I wrote the poem and as you will see the final poem of this new sequence which deals with that catastrophe, and asks where Christ is in all these things, also alludes to and draws on this poem. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button and you can visit the exhibition with the finished paintings and poems at St. Margaret’s Westminster throughout Lent

The Flight into Egypt

 

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,

Or cosy in a crib beside the font,

But he is with a million displaced people

On the long road of weariness and want.

For even as we sing our final carol

His family is up and on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,

Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower

Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,

The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,

And death squads spread their curse across the world.

But every Herod dies, and comes alone

To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

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In the Wilderness: 2 Jacob Wrestles With The Angel

DSCF9147Here is the second in my suite of seven sonnets on the theme of Wilderness composed in response to a set of paintings by Adan Boulter which will be exhibited along with the poems at St. Margaret’s Westminster . As before, I am giving you the initial sketch from Adam’s notebook with his pencilled notes (shown above) and then my sonnet in response. The finished paintings, made with both the sketch and the sonnet to hand, can be seen any day in lent at St. Margaret’s between 9am and 4pm.

In the first painting and sonnet Abraham welcomed the angels who were the harbingers of Isaac’s arrival. Now we skip  generation and Isaac’s own son has that life-changing encounter, that long wrestle in the dark that will change his name to Israel and change his future and ours for ever. This meeting with an angel is the harbinger of his dramatic encounter and reconciliation with his wronged brother Esau, the brother-victim he had deceived but in whose face he now recognises the face of God. I have voiced this poem for Jacob but written it full consciousness that his story is also ours, that we too, in our brokenness and alienation must also wrestle with, and be changed by the Love that wounds and heals.

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

2 Jacob Wrestles with the Angel

 

I dare not face my brother in the morning,

I dare not look upon the things I’ve done,

Dare not ignore a nightmare’s dreadful warning,

Dare not endure the rising of the sun.

My family, my goods, are sent before me,

I cannot sleep on this strange river shore,

I have betrayed the son of one who bore me,

And my own soul rejects me to the core.

 

But in the desert darkness one has found me,

Embracing me, He will not let me go,

Nor will I let Him go, whose arms surround me,

Until he tells me all I need to know,

And blesses me where daybreak stakes it’s claim,

With love that wounds and heals; and with His name.

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In the Wilderness: 1 Abraham and Sarah at Mamre

I am publishing here the first of a sequence of seven sonnets which were commissioned to go with a sequence of paintings by the artist Adam Boulter on the theme of Wilderness. They will form part of the exhibition ‘In the Wilderness: Preparing for Public Service which will be installed for the whole of Lent in St. Margaret’s Westminster. The paintings and poems are a series of meditations on key turning points in Biblical and Church wilderness experience. The way Adam and I worked on them was this: First he sent me the scriptural or patristic point of inspiration together with a sketch he had made, in situ, of the wilderness episode, for he is a chaplain in Amman in Jordan and has been able to journey through the desert himself and visit these sites. Then I composed the poem, drawing on both the scripture or church history and the sketch, and sent him the poem. Then he completed the painting having in mind both the initial sketch and the poem. It has been a remarkable and I think fruitful long distance collaboration, and I can hardly wait to see the paintings themselves when he and I meet for the opening night on the 17th of this month.

In the meantime though he has given me permission to share with you  the initial sketch book images I worked with, as well as the sonnets, so I am going to post them in a series over the next week. If you want to see the finished paintings then do come among to the exhibition which is open 9-4 every day in Lent, at St. Margaret’s just next to Westminster Abbey and across from the Houses of Parliament.

All but two of the sonnets are completely new. For two of the wilderness moments his Bible readings, and indeed sketches, came so close to what I had already written that we agreed to use earlier sonnets with some revision, but they seem to take a new life in the new sequence. As in other posts I have also read these poems aloud for you and you can hear them by clicking on the title or the play button.

So we begin with Genesis 3 chapter 18, with Abraham and Sarah at the oaks of Mamre in what is really, in both poem and painting, a meditation on Hospitality in the wilderness, a theme to which we will return with contemporary force in the final sonnet of the sequence. It is in the very act of going hospitality that Sarah and Abraham receive a blessing which confirms their true vocation. Their hospitality to the strangers has unlocked something in them and the power of God’s promise to bless us all through Abraham is released.

DSCF9148


1 Abraham and Sarah at Mamre

 

They practice hospitality; their hearts

Have opened like a secret source, free flowing

Only as they take another’s part.

Stopped in themselves, and in their own unknowing,

But unlocked by these strangers in their need,

They breathe again, and courtesy, set free,

Begets the unexpected; generosity

Begetting generation, as the seed

Of promise springs and laughs in Sarah’s womb.

 

Made whole by their own hospitality,

And like the rooted oak whose shade makes room

For this refreshing genesis at Mamre,

One couple, bringing comfort to their guests,

Becomes our wellspring in the wilderness.

 

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