Monthly Archives: January 2018

A Sonnet for Candlemas

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright

Though the 12 days of Christmas ended with Twelfth 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 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 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 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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Apostle! -a sonnet for St. Paul

Conversion of Saint Paul Artist Unknown Niedersaechsisches Landesmuseum, Hannover, Germany

Conversion of Saint Paul Artist Unknown Niedersaechsisches Landesmuseum, Hannover, Germany

The 25th of January is the day the Church keeps the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. However often told or re-told, it is still an astonishing story. That Saul, the implacable enemy of Christianity, who came against the faith ‘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 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 books The Singing bowl  and Parable and Paradox 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, he freed us from our chains.

Caravaggio: The Conversion of St. Paul

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The Ballade of the Bored Presenter

– (C) BBC – Photographer: Rolf Marriott

I’m reposting this piece I did about GK Chesterton, John Humphries and Thought for the day as part of the little poem I wrote in response to an article in the Radio Times has now found its way into the Radio Times, courtesy of Giles Fraser. so here it is again for any RT readers who would like the whole poem!

  Chesterton would have been a perfect contributor to the Today Program’s ‘Thought For the Day’ His wit, originality, brilliant shifts of perspective, his whole dazzling combination of absurdity and grace would have been perfect for it. But no doubt even if the great man had been at his coruscating best in the Today Studio, John Humphrys would have been as smug and condescending to Chesterton as he has been to the likes of John Bell and Jonathan Sacks, the great communicators of our day, and declared himself to be ‘bored’. Why? Because its ‘religion’ and we all know, without needing to know anything about any religion, that ‘religion is boring’.  Humphrys’ unfortunate and graceless tirade against Thought for the Day, published in this week’s Radio Times has met with a brilliant and considered response by Nick Baines, a TFTD contributor, in his excellent blog ‘Musings of a Restless Bishop. It was interesting to note that Archbishop Justin Welby also responded warmly to Nick’s piece and praised him for it.

Nick Baines deals with the substantive points, but though I don’t usually go in for topical satire, I wondered what GKC, in his mishcevious Ballade-making mode, would have made of all this and have composed, in his spirit, the following Ballade of  the Bored Presenter. As usual you can hear me read it by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.

 


Ballade of the Bored Presenter

 

Thought For The Day! let it begin!

My new perspective on today

Three minutes on the state we’re in

A breath of spirit through the clay

A chance for those to have their say

On whom such constant scorn is poured

We listen, lifted on our way,

Except John Humphrys who is bored

 

For after all the slant and spin

The petty postures and display,

Two second sound bites, bleak and thin

We yearn for thought, Thought For The Day

Jonathan Sacks shows Wisdom’s way

And John Bell rings a rousing chord

We all find courage for the fray

Except John Humphrys, who is bored

 

They don’t have any votes to win

Or points to score on polling day

They simply know the place you’re in

And stand with you and help you  pray.

Some thoughts may fly and some may stay

And some we stand up and applaud

And some we grapple with all day,

Except John Humphrys who is bored

 

Prince you have spoken of the day

When Gates will open wide and broad

And we’ll ascend that splendid way

Except John Humphrys who’ll be bored.

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An epiphany at Cana

Photo by Margot Krebs Neale

The set readings for this third Sunday of Epiphany tell the story of  ‘the first of the signs that Jesus did and manifested forth his glory’; the transformation of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. (John 2:1-11). I love this miracle, though John doesn’t call it a miracle, he rightly calls it a sign. It is a sign that points to so many profound and liberating things about the God whom Jesus reveals to us; His delight in and concern for our own personal life and loves, attested by His presence at the wedding feast, His abundant generosity in more than meeting our needs in the midst of everyday life, His call to us to move from the mere outward purity, symbolised by the water for ritual washing, to a transformation of inward joy, symbolised by the wine. But most importantly,  this sign points to the gift of His very self, His own heart’s blood, given once for all on the cross and received by us in communion. I have tried to bring out a little of the richness and depth of this first ‘sign’ in the following sonnet. 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 via Amazon, and I am vey happy to say that both this and my other poetry books The Singing bowl  and Parable and Paradox 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 sonnet by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears or by clicking on the title of the sonnet itself

Epiphany at Cana

Here’s an epiphany to have and hold,
A truth that you can taste upon the tongue,
No distant shrines and canopies of gold
Or ladders to be clambered rung by rung,
But here and now, amidst your daily  living,
Where you can taste and touch and feel and see,
The spring of love, the fount of all forgiving,
Flows when you need it, rich, abundant, free.

Better than waters of some outer weeping,
That leave you still with all your hidden sin,
Here is a vintage richer for the keeping
That works its transformation from within.
‘What price?’ you ask me, as we raise the glass,
‘It cost our Saviour everything he has.’

It cost our Saviour everything he has

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Nathanael’s Epiphany

You will see the Heaven opened

The Gospel reading for this 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?’ Nathanael is not alone in having this kind of bigoted and prejudiced attitude to ‘other’ places and people, as we have seen from the recent shameful outburst by the president of a great nation, 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.

And here also is a link to the podcast of a sermon inspired by this story and concluding with this poem:

Jacob, Nathanael and You

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

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In Praise Of Decay (and against plastic)

In pale gold leaf-fall losing shape and edge

In pale gold leaf-fall losing shape and edge

Once again our headlines and our conversation have turned to the scourge of discarded plastic packaging and bottles, littering our landscape and choking our oceans. The question is whether we have the collective will to do something about it.

I am reposting this cri-de-coeur from three years ago, the poem ‘In Praise of Decay’ has now been published in my book Parable and Paradox:

I walk each morning in some woodland near my home and especially savour in this late autumn, early winter season, the damp carpet of fallen leaves, now decaying and forming  rich mulch that will feed the soil for future growth. Even in their decay, losing edge and shape, melding and blending together there is in this carpet of leaves, a kind of grace and beauty. The other morning though, these meditations were interrupted by a sudden intrusion. There amongst the gold and mottled leaf mould, like some harsh alien excrescence, was a discarded plastic bag. It was totally out of place and told its own tale of indifference and carelessness; not just the carelessness of the person that dropped it, but the carelessness of the culture that produced it. The trees shed their leaves, and in that fall and letting go  achieve a new grace, the leaves themselves let go of shape and colour and in that change and decay become something rich and nurturing. That plastic bag will just persist in unchanging ugliness, and we who make and discard that plastic will continue to be maimed and made ugly by our accumulations, we who might have learned from the trees something about the grace of  diminishment and renewal.

But the plastic in our lives does much worse than just disfigure the occasional patch of woodland, it literally chokes the life out of other living things and then returns, in the food chain, to poison us from within. The morning’s Guardian has a harrowing piece about how prevalent and deadly discarded plastic is in the world’s oceans. you can read that here. One of the most distressing consequences of this plastic accumulating in the seas is being fed to young albatrosses by their parents as a result of which the birds, their bellies full of indigestible plastic cannot retain enough real food and starve to death. This has been chronicled with great power and pathos by Seattle Photographer Chris Jordan, one of whose pictures I have included after the poem. You can read more about that and see his film about it Here.  As so often, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was prophetic when he made the destruction of an albatross a sign of our wanton indifference to other life and our disturbance of a balance in nature which will eventually wreak havoc on us.

My morning walk, and the wider awareness of the damage caused by plastic’s bleak persistence led me to write this sonnet in praise of decay and praying for a return to older and wiser ways of living. As usual you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title. Do feel free to share this with other people.

In praise of decay

So much is deadly in the shiny new,

Persistent plastic choking out our life,

The landfill of each ego’s empty stuff,

Where poison and possession still accrue.

So praise Him in the old and mouldering,

In pale gold leaf-fall losing shape and edge,

In mottled compost rustling and rich,

From which the stuff of life is still unfolding.

 

Change and decay is what our plastic needs

To break the bleak persistence of our waste.

Pray that we learn the lost arts of our past,

The arts of letting go and sowing seeds,

That secrets of the lowly and the least

Might save us from the dreadful things that last.

 

 Persistent plastic choking out our life Chris Jordan's bleak picture


Persistent plastic choking out our life Chris Jordan’s bleak picture

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A Sonnet for Epiphany

these three arrive and bring us with them

The Feast of the Epiphany falls on the 6th of January and I am posting this sonnet of mine as a little extra in addition to the extracts from my Advent anthology Waiting on the Word which I have been posting each day.

Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the three wise men at the manger in Bethlehem has a special mystery and joy to it. Until now the story of the coming Messiah has been confined to Israel, the covenant people, but here suddenly, mysteriously, are three Gentiles who have intuited that his birth is good new for them too. Here is an Epiphany, a revelation, that the birth of Christ is not  one small step for a local religion but a great leap  for all mankind. I love the way that traditionally the three wise men (or kings) are shown as representing the different races and cultures and languages of the world. I love the combination in their character of diligence and joy. They ‘seek diligently’, but they ‘rejoice with exceeding great joy’! I love the way they loved and followed a star, but didn’t stop at the star, but rather let the star lead them to something beyond itself. Surely that is a pattern for all wise contemplation of nature whether in art or science. The last line of this poem is a little nod in the direction of Tennyson’s great poem Ulysses

This sonnet is drawn from my book Sounding the Seasons, which is available from Amazon etc or by order from your local bookshop, should you be lucky enough to have one.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or by clicking on the title of the poem which will take you to the audioboo page.

Epiphany

It might have been just someone else’s story,
Some chosen people get a special king.
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.
But when these three arrive they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A  pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name but still they sought him,
They came from otherwhere but still they found;
In temples they found those who sold and bought him,
But in the filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice.

 

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