Monthly Archives: April 2016
I thought I would tell you a little bit about the fortnight’s trip to America from which I have just returned, and have cheekily borrowed at title from one of GK Chesterton’s later books. I can’t claim that my account will be as witty as his, though I must say many of his bon mots came to mind, not least, as the American Election looms large, his observation, in the chapter titled ‘Presidents and Problems’ that
‘All good Americans wish to fight the representatives they have chosen. All good Englishmen wish to forget the representatives they have chosen.’
My trip, like Gaul was divided into three parts: Houston Texas, Grove City Pennsylvania and Gloucester Massachusetts.
I flew to Houston to take part in a wonderful poetry initiative there called Iconoclast, which is not only taking poetry into tough schools and ‘lock down’ units where young people are incarcerated, but also drawing poetry and new poets out of these places. I was delighted to work with my old friend Matt Russel and with the excellent poet Marlon ‘Marley’ Havikoro. We did a joint poetry reading one evening, whilst also hi-lighting the work of some of his young students, and that seemed to go down very well.
We hear so much that is negative in reporting from the States, so much about haters, about dividing lines, about oppression, so it was good for me and an eye-opener to witness some of the excellent and unreported work of bridge-building, healing to which so many churches, of all denominations in America are fully committed. Alongside my work with this project and my preaching at St. Paul’s Houston, I got to meet up with local Bishop Andy Doyle, who rightly guessed that having a Taco Truck pull up at his house would deepen the conversation. I was delighted to catch up there with another old friend David Taylor, currently enabling, (and filming!) conversation between Bono of U2 and Eugene Peterson, of the Message, on the rich topic of the Psalms
After Houston I flew to Pittsburgh whence I was driven through the beautiful rolling, densely wooded countryside of Western Pennsylvania to Grove City College where I was the main speaker for a three day Christian Writers conference organised by Sarina Moor from the English Department there. The College was founded in the late nineteenth century, and looks remarkably similar in places to my own college Girton, founded at a similar date, and is set in the most enchanting small town with woodlands around and a little creek running through. They still get black bears roaming the woods and one even crossed the campus at night not long ago, though the closest I came was a pint of ‘Black Bear Porter’ from the local microbrewery.
I gave two substantial lectures, taught a couple of seminars, and preached in the chapel, but the hi-light for me was a poetry reading at a substantial coffee house called Beans on Broad, which I shared with some students from the college poetry group. They read some very good poems and the place was absolutely packed – so it looks like poetry is flourishing in Pensylvania and in good hands with the rising generation. Another unexpected treat was a visit to some Amish families which included the sight of ploughs being drawn, straight and beautiful by expertly guided and patient horses and a visit to some beautiful furniture workshops. As it was cold and the snow was falling I also ended up buying a wonderful Amish coat which makes me look rather like a time-travelling highwayman!
Then it was on to Gloucester, in the beautiful Cape Ann. There I glimpsed Eliot’s Dry Salvages, thus completing my collection of Four Quartets visits and then settled in to some rich and stimulating days in the studio with the painter Bruce Herman, with whom I have begun a new collaboration. Bruce is working on an astonishing series of portraits of family and friends entitled ‘Ordinary saints’ and invited me to make a series of ‘ekphrastic’ poems in response to them. I am now six poems into this new endeavour and finding it hugely stimulating, as together we discern how God works in and through, indeed discloses himself through the mystery of the human face, itself always grounded in the deepest mystery of all, the love of God shining in the face of Christ. Bruce has written:
the face of any person is infinitely worthy of our sustained gaze. We know in our bones that persons are irreplaceable. And faces are like fingerprints. There are no two alike. We live in this mystery of this ordinary miracle––the recognition that we live among immortals.’
Here as a taster, is an opening poem for the collaboration, written in response to the portraits he has already completed as I saw them around the walls of his studio:
(As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play button)
The ordinary saints, the ones we know,
Our too-familiar family and friends,
When shall we see them? Who can truly show
Whilst still rough-hewn, the God who shapes our ends?
Who will unveil the presence, glimpse the gold
That is and always was our common ground,
Stretch out a finger, feel, along the fold
To find the flaw, to touch and search that wound
From which the light we never noticed fell
Into our lives? Remember how we turned
To look at them, and they looked back? That full-
-eyed love unselved us, and we turned around,
Unready for the wrench and reach of grace.
But one day we will see them face to face.
This Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, the Gospel set in the Lectionary is John 10:22-30, which contains Jesus’ beautiful saying ‘My sheep hear my voice and I know they follow me, I give them eternal life and they will never perish’. These verses are in fact a continuation of verses earlier in chapter 10, in which Jesus develops the image of shepherd, and declares, in one of the seven great ‘I Am’ sayings in John, ‘I Am the good shepherd, the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep’.
Reflecting on these linked verses, prompts me to post another poem from the ‘I Am’ sequence in my forthcoming book Parable and Paradox. When I came to write this poem, I found that what came out was a cry of pain, a lament. Jesus’ picture of The Good Shepherd suddenly brought out, by sheer contrast, the dreadful images and memories of all the bad shepherding, the abuses of clerical power for sexual and other purposes of which we have all become belatedly aware and which has done so much not only to hurt all the individual victims but to cast a shadow for many people over the church as an institution and even over the gospel itself. Though the gospel in all its love and freedom is just the opposite of all that clerical abuse. But the cry of pain which forms the first half of my sonnet turns to prayer, and to a return to the true essence and understanding of the word ‘pastor’ in Jesus’ promise to be our shepherd, that Christ himself will in the end rescue and heal all those who have suffered, and especially perhaps those who have suffered at the hands of false shepherds.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the play button)
John 10:11 I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.
When so much shepherding has gone so wrong,
So many pastors hopelessly astray,
The weak so often preyed on by the strong,
So many bruised and broken on the way,
The very name of shepherd seems besmeared,
The fold and flock themselves are torn in half,
The lambs we left to face all we have feared
Are caught between the wasters and the wolf.
Good Shepherd now your flock has need of you,
One finds the fold and ninety-nine are lost
Out in the darkness and the icy dew,
And no one knows how long this night will last.
Restore us; call us back to you by name,
And by your life laid down, redeem our shame.
Continuing in my series offering some glimpses from my forthcoming book Parable and Paradox, here is the last in a sequence of seven sonnets on the ‘I M’ sayings in John’s gospel. this one is on one of my favourites ‘I Am the Vine, ye are the branches’.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the play button
John 15:5 I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.
How might it feel to be part of the vine?
Not just to see the vineyard from afar
Or even pluck the clusters, press the wine,
But to be grafted in, to feel the stir
Of inward sap that rises from our root,
Himself deep planted in the ground of Love,
To feel a leaf unfold a tender shoot,
As tendrils curled unfurl, as branches give
A little to the swelling of the grape,
In gradual perfection, round and full,
To bear within oneself the joy and hope
Of God’s good vintage, till it’s ripe and whole.
What might it mean to bide and to abide
In such rich love as makes the poor heart glad?
In the run-up to the launch this June my new collection of poetry Parable and Paradox, I am posting some of the poems in it in advance. Today’s poem is the sonnet which goes with the painting on the cover of the new book. Jacob Wrestles with the Angel is one in a suite of five sonnets on the theme of Wilderness which were originally composed in response to a set of paintings by Adan Boulter and exhibited in Lent 2015 at St. Margaret’s Westminster . I refer to that in the lead-up to my reading of this sonnet.
My poem is voiced for Jacob in his 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. Though I have voiced this poem for Jacob, it is written in 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.
The feast of the annunciation usually falls on March 25th, but this year, because that day was also GoodFriday, it has been transferred to April 4th. The Annunciation, the visit of Gabriel to the blessed virgin Mary, is that mysterious moment of awareness, assent and transformation in which eternity touches time. In my own small take on this mystery I have thought about vision, about what we allow ourselves to be aware of, and also about freedom, the way all things turn on our discernment and freedom.
As always I am indebted to Margot Krebs Neale for the accompanying images, and she has kindly offered the following note for the images that accompany this sonnet:
‘As I was making suggesting a picture for another sonnet, Malcolm said he was working on the Annunciation sonnet. A little cheeky I sent a picture of a beautifully blurred lily wondering if it might help. Malcolm liked it and could see angel wings in it, I thought we needed a face. A young woman of sixteen. One of the many 16 years old I know and love or…myself. I remembered and found this picture of me taken when I was 16 or 17. Why me? Because of the “We” of the first strophe, I read it like an “I” : We see so little, only surfaces, and yet we have a choice.
« Quel fruit lumineux portons-nous dans l’ombre de la chair? » What luminous fruit do we carry in the shade of our flesh?
« un fruit éternel enfant de la chair et de l’Esprit ». An eternal fruit, child of the flesh and the Spirit »
May we be granted the joy of giving it to the light.’
This sonnet is drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are available in Canada via Steve Bell‘s Signpost Music. It is also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great. You may also like to check out Steve Bell‘s wonderful Snippet eBook The Pilgrim Year, in which this sonnet also appears, together with some of my reflections on Fra Angelico’s great fresco of the Annunciation.
As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ buton or on the title.
We see so little, stayed on surfaces,
We calculate the outsides of all things,
Preoccupied with our own purposes
We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,
They coruscate around us in their joy
A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,
They guard the good we purpose to destroy,
A hidden blaze of glory in God’s world.
But on this day a young girl stopped to see
With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;
The promise of His glory yet to be,
As time stood still for her to make a choice;
Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,
The Word himself was waiting on her word.