Monthly Archives: July 2020

My Groaning Is Not Hid From Thee: A Response to Psalm 38

psalm 38 illuminated manuscript

Psalm 38 is one of those uninhibited psalms that simply cries out to God in pain and distress, begging for help. It’s good that we have such psalms and are encouraged to pray them. So many of us were brought up thinking that we had to be polite to God, restrained and pious at all times in our prayers. The psalmist will have none of that! When he is in distress, he lets God know it in no uncertain terms and so can we. For God already knows our distress:

I am feeble, and sore smitten: I have roared for the very disquietness of my heart.

Lord, thou knowest all my desire: and my groaning is not hid from thee.

With its vivid account of the distress of illness, and its fear that the psalmist’s own folly or negligence may have brought the illness upon him, this is a psalm that speaks directly into the current crisis, whether we are suffering from covid itself or from some of the preventable underlying conditions that might make it worse.

Perhaps it also speaks into the isolation which has been such a distinctive note in this crisis:

My heart panteth, my strength hath failed me: and the sight of mine eyes is gone from me.

My lovers and my neighbours did stand looking upon my trouble: and my kinsmen stood afar off.

But the great thing about this psalm, in whatever age it is recited, is its complete honesty about everything, about pain, about guilt, about repentance. In an age of dissimulation, it is very refreshing.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XXXVIII Domine, ne in furore

For I have found my God and my true friend,

And heaven knows I need his friendship now

For I am weak, my days draw to an end

 

Or so it seems to me, I sigh and bow

My head in bitterness, the stress and strain

Of chronic illnesses have laid me low

 

How can I praise you when I roar with pain?

Smitten with affliction and infection

No sooner soothed than in distress again

 

And made more bitter by the sad reflection

That half of this I brought down on my head

In folly. I deserve my dereliction,

 

My portion of disquietness and dread.

Forsake me not O Lord my God, make haste,

Deliver me and raise me from the dead!

 

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He Shall Give Thee Thy Heart’s Desire: a Response to Psalm 37

the cool inviting glades
Of my new life in you

In my new sequence of poems written in response to the Psalter we have come to psalm 37. One of the most trenchant, and the most comforting of the psalms, it puts the brief flourishing of wickedness in this world into its true context and invites us to re-orient our loves and desires, to delight in the true God who knows our hearts and will give us our heart’s desire:

  1. FRET not thyself because of the ungodly: neither be thou envious against the evil-doers.
  2. For they shall soon be cut down like the grass: and be withered even as the green herb.
  3. Put thou thy trust in the Lord, and be doing good: dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.
  4. Delight thou in the Lord: and he shall give thee thy heart’s desire.
  5. Commit thy way unto the Lord, and put thy trust in him: and he shall bring it to pass.
  6. He shall make thy righteousness as clear as the light: and thy just dealing as the noon-day.

In my response to this poem I have dwelt on both the lovely promise that He will give us our heart’s desire, which is really the desire for God himself, and also on that image of the clear and growing light of his coming Kingdom. I also allude briefly to that passage in Milton’s Comus where the two brothers are discussing the problem of evil and one of them says

But evil on itself shall back recoil,
And mix no more with goodness…

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XXXVII Noli aemulari

I’ll fret no more for passing wickedness,

No more than for the new mown grass that fades

To leave room for the growth and tenderness

 

Of fresh green leaves; the cool inviting glades

Of my new life in you, my heart’s desire.

The True Sun rises now, and soon the shades,

 

The last black shades of night, will ‘back retire

And mix no more with good’. Then I will sing

The song of my redemption in that choir

 

Where I, whom you have made, at last can bring

My song to its beginning and its end.

Till then I’ll be content with each small thing

 

Your love provides, and let the rich contend

With one another for their fading wealth

For I have found my God and my true friend.

 

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With Thee Is The Well Of Life: A Response To Psalm 36

Chalice Well gardens in Glastonbury

After a little break for saint’s days and site launches I return to my new sequence on the psalms.Psalm 36, is one of those psalms that suddenly shifts in tone part way through and rises to the sublime. It starts, as so many psalms in anger and frustration at the manifest evils in the world:

MY HEART sheweth me the wickedness of the ungodly: that there is no fear of God before his eyes.

For he flattereth himself in his own sight: until his abominable sin be found out.

but then, from the fifth verse on our vision is suddenly lifted, quite literally, into the heavens:

Thy mercy, O Lord, reacheth unto the heavens: and thy faithfulness unto the clouds.

Thy righteousness standeth like the strong mountains: thy judgements are like the great deep.

And then comes, the master image of the psalm, one of the most sublime images in all of Scripture:

For with thee is the well of life: and in thy light shall we see light.

In my responsive poem I have dwelt on that image, together with the other lovely phrases that precedes it:

the children of men shall put their trust under the shadow of thy wings.

They shall be satisfied with the plenteousness of thy house: and thou shalt give them drink of thy pleasures, as out of the river.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

 

XXXVI Dixit injustus

As pilgrim souls on whom your light has shone

Let us leave judgement to your tender mercy

And turn instead to you, keep pressing on

 

Towards the steadfast heights, the mountain country

Of your holy presence. Let us drink

From that swift river, our true ecstacy.

 

Refresh us Christ, and bring us to the brink

Of that deep well where life itself is light

And goodness, more than we can dream or think,

 

Flows from your plenteousness, from your delight

In all your works, and where your loving kindness

Shines through our day and comforts us at night,

 

Like soft wings safely overarching us,

That we might put our utter trust in you

And fret no more for passing wickedness.

 

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Mary Magdalene: A Sonnet

The 22nd of July is Mary Magdalene’s day, and, returning to my sequence of sonnets written in response to the church year, I post this for her. As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on its title or on the ‘play’ button.

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 . 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. As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title.



Mary Magdalene

Men called you light so as to load you down,
And burden you with their own weight of sin,
A woman forced to  cover and contain
Those seven devils sent by Everyman.
But one man set you free and took your part
One man knew and loved you to the core
The broken alabaster of your heart
Revealed to Him alone a hidden door,
Into a garden where the fountain sealed,
Could flow at last for him in healing tears,
Till, in another garden, he revealed
The perfect Love that cast out all your fears,
And quickened you  with love’s own sway and swing,
As light and lovely as the news you bring.

 

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Ordinary Saints: a new website with poetry, painting and music

Self-Portrait by Bruce Herman

I am delighted to announce that a project on which I have been working over the last few months together with the artist Bruce Herman and the composer JAC Redford has come to fruition at last.

Over the last few years I have collaborated with Bruce and JAC on a sequence called Ordinary Saints which had its premiere in a live performance at Laity Lodge in Texas. It consisted of a series of powerful portraits by Bruce Herman of ‘ordinary’ people; family and friends, but with the aim of showing that as CS Lewis said, ‘There are no ‘ordinary’ people! I have written a series of poems responding to these portraits, and JAC has composed music responding to both the poems and the portraits. Our aim, throughout the project, was to explore what it means to be truly face to face with one another, how we might discern the image of God in our fellow human beings, and how that discernment might ready us for the time when, as we are promised, we will no longer see ‘through a glass darkly’ but really see God and one another face to face in the all-revealing, and all-healing light of Heaven. We had planned to take this exhibition and its accompanying music and poetry on tour and it was scheduled for Oxford this summer, but that has had to be cancelled because of Covid. So over the last few months we have worked together with an excellent web designer to create a website which should give you as close an experience as we can of that lost exhibition. After an introductory video you click ‘next’ and go to a ‘program’ page on which you can see all the paintings and hear all the music and recitations in the order we intended, and also, as you listen, zoom in on detail on any of the paintings. There are also tabs for you to click if you just want to focus on any one of the three art forms. The website is completely free, and you can find it by clicking Here. 

Bruce’s portrait of JAC

Bruce’s portrait of me made during the project

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Lord Convert Me: A Response To Psalm 35

Psalm 35 is one of those powerful psalms that epitomises for us one of the great challenges of the whole psalter. How are we to read those psalms in which the psalmist, suffering deep injustice, calls on God to act on his behalf and to bring swift justice against his oppressors? So this psalm opens:

  1. PLEAD thou my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me: and fight thou against them that fight against me.
  2. Lay hand upon the shield and buckler: and stand up to help me.
  3. Bring forth the spear, and stop the way against them that persecute me: say unto my soul, I am thy salvation.
  4. Let them be confounded and put to shame, that seek after my soul: let them be turned back and brought to confusion, that imagine mischief for me.
  5. Let them be as the dust before the wind: and the angel of the Lord scattering them.
  6. Let their way be dark and slippery: and let the angel of the Lord persecute them.

This is tough stuff. Are we to throw up our hands and say, ‘we are Christians now, we can’t possibly pray this sort of thing, for we have been commanded to love our enemies’? That is true of course, but hidden in such a  response is the comfortable assumption that we are with the psalmist, that we are the good guys, and that these enemies and oppressors are always someone else. But supposing it is the other way round? Supposing right now there are people praying this psalm to God who, with some justice, regard us as the oppressor and are calling for God to deal with us. After all this psalm was prayed, and still is prayed, by devout Jews whom Christians were persecuting, and in some places still are persecuting. This psalm was prayed by African Americans from slavery days through the civil rights movement and even today, when their oppressors were, and sometimes are, fellow Christians. Is it prayed today by Christians in minority groups here in England and all over the world who are being in one way or another being exploited or marginalised? What if it turns out that we are on the wrong side of this psalm, that it is on us, and not on others that some desperate person is calling down God’s justice?

I think we must respond in two ways. As far as we have enemies or are mistreated ourselves then we must complain to God but also ask for mercy on our oppressors, knowing that in Christ God has already dealt with the sin and suffered the punishment that our oppressors deserve. But we must also seriously and soberly ask God to show us if we are the oppressors here, and seek his forgiveness, and beg him to convert us, to change our hearts, to teach us to join with him in his solidarity with the poor.

When I came to write my poem in response to this psalm I found myself praying exactly that prayer and I am glad that this sharp piece of scripture taught me to do so.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XXXV Judica, Domine

The poor cry out, Oh help them speedily

And plead their cause, though it may not be mine

The psalmist here is sure in crying ‘help me’!

 

But he was poor himself. Help me divine

How these sharp psalms call out for change in me

Lest I should be an ‘enemy of thine’,

 

And find the poor, who cry to you for mercy,

Have cried against me too! Oh let me not

Be numbered with these scoffers, Lord convert me,

 

Show me with whom I ought to share my lot,

For whom I ought to put the sackloth on,

Whom you remember, whom I have forgot,

 

That having wept with them and helped them on

To better things, we may rejoice together

As pilgrim souls on whom your light has shone.

 

If you are enjoying these posts, you might like, on occasion, (not every time of course!) to pop in and buy me a cup of coffee. Clicking on this banner will take you to a page where you can do so, if you wish. But please do not feel any obligation!
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To See Good Days: A response to Psalm 34

What man is he that lusteth to live: and would fain see good days? This is the central question of Psalm 34, and for the Christian praying this psalm we have an answer not only in the advice the psalmist gives, but much more fully in the life, the person, and example of Jesus Christ. For in Christ, the Lord whom the psalmist addressed has come into the world and shown us what it is to live life well and to the full, shown us, as St. Irenaeus said, that ‘the Gory of God is a Human Being fully  alive.’ I hope you enjoy this response to the psalm, you may get even more from it if you have the chance to re-read the original psalm first, but either way, I hope this poem will encourage you ‘to taste and see that the Lord is good’ and ‘to increase/The reach of love, the possibility/Of fruitful life together’

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XXXIVBenedicam Domino

He raises and delivers us from death,

And even now he shows us how to live

That we might savour life with every breath,

 

That we might taste and see, might truly thrive

Might see the good days that he wants for us

And make the best of all he has to give.

 

And so he comes to live as one of us

And teaches us afresh the ways of peace.

He lives the fullest life in front of us

 

And shows us how to break the bonds, release

The captive, seek the truth that sets us free

To choose the right and do it, to increase

 

The reach of love, the possibility

Of fruitful life together, and to hear

The poor cry out and help them speedily.

 

If you are enjoying these posts, you might like, on occasion, (not every time of course!) to pop in and buy me a cup of coffee. Clicking on this banner will take you to a page where you can do so, if you wish. But please do not feel any obligation!
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Sound A New Song: a response to psalm 33

My harp, my mandolin, my old guitar

After the harrowing intensity of confession and penitence in psalm 32 we emerge, in psalm 33, fully forgiven, into the freedom, release and relief  of sheer praise. I love the note of rejoicing, and the details about all the instruments in the opening verses of this psalm:

REJOICE in the Lord, O ye righteous: for it becometh well the just to be thankful.

Praise the Lord with harp: sing praises unto him with the lute, and instrument of ten strings.

Sing unto the Lord a new song: sing praises lustily unto him with a good courage.

As I began to write my poem in response to this psalm, I glanced around my room and realised that I had just such instruments as the psalmist mentions all to hand and in sight. From my writing table I could see my harp, my trusty old guitar, and a mandolin I am still learning how to play, so I thought they ought all to find a place in this poem.

The psalmist goes on to praise God not only for his faithfulness to us, but to his whole creation:

By the word of the Lord were the heavens made: and all the hosts of them by the breath of his mouth.

He gathereth the waters of the sea together, as it were upon an heap: and layeth up the deep, as in a treasure-house.

and those verses too found their way into my praise- poem.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XXXIII Exultate, justi

A love that comforts and embraces us

Is the true theme of every song I make

How tenderly he finds, and takes and places us

 

Deep into Christ himself for his love’s sake.

The strings of all my instruments will stir

My heart to praise. Therefore I take

 

My harp, my mandolin, my old guitar

And let them sound a new song in his praise

Whose word is true, whose works so full and fair

 

Are radiant with glory, and whose ways

Are tried and trusted. The whole earth

Is charged and brimming with his goodness. Days

 

Are ordained to praise him, by his breath

The stars of night are kindled, by his love

He raises and delivers us from death.

 

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John Keble and Sounding the Seasons

Rebecca Merry’s beautiful cover design for my book Sounding the Seasons

Today is the day the Church of England remembers John Keble, a priest, scholar and poet who was part of the Oxford Movement which so enriched the church’s mission and liturgy. He has a special place for me in my own calendar of saints because, almost exactly 200 years ago he began a cycle of poems going through every Sunday in the Christian Year and celebrating its distinctive mysteries which was eventually published as ‘The Christian Year” and proved immensely popular and helpful to many Christians all over the world, and went through 50 editions in Keble’s own lifetime. Keble’s book, together with George Herbert’s The Temple was one of the inspirations for my own book of poems for the liturgical year: Sounding The Seasons. So on Keble’s day I am reposting the opening sonnet from that book, simply called Sounding the Seasons, a sonnet which meditates on what we hope to achieve by keeping the seasons, keeping holy and memorial days. Of course the truths on which we meditate over the course of the liturgical year, from the mystery of Christmas to the all-transforming drama of Good Friday and Easter, are true all the time! But we do not remember or think of them all the time, for time itself, ‘the subtle thief’, can so easily take even the memory of truth from us. So it was a deep wisdom that led the early church to turn ‘Time the thief’ into ‘Time the messenger’, to make the very medium that might have taken the truth away from us become the medium that restores it, as Time brings round and renews each Holy Day.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. This recording was made early in the project before the sequence was finished, or the book was published.

Sounding The Seasons

Tangled in time, we live with hints and guesses
Turning the wheel of each returning year,
But in between our failures and successes
We sometimes glimpse the Love that casts out fear,
Sometimes the heart remembers its own reasons
And breathes a Sanctus as we tell our story,
Tracing the tracks of grace, sounding the seasons
That lead at last through time to timeless glory.

From the first yearnings for a Saviours birth
To the full joy of knowing sins forgiven
We gather as His church on Gods’s good earth
To share an echo of the choirs of heaven
I share these hints, returning what was lent,
Turning to praise each ‘moment’s monument’.

 

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The Relief of Honesty: A response to Psalm 32

Arriving at psalm 32, we come to one of the great ‘penitential psalms’, a group of psalms  often used in the season of Lent, or at anytime to express personal confession and contrition. But that doesn’t make it a gloomy psalm, it’s a beautiful psalm because in the same breath that it calls for confession, it proclaims forgiveness. It opens with a ‘Beatus’, a beatitude, a blessing:

  1. BLESSED is he whose unrighteousness is forgiven: and whose sin is covered.

The key to this psalm is the observation that hiding and repressing the truth about oneself only makes things worse: ‘For while I held my tongue: my bones consumed away’, and then, after honest confession and forgiveness comes that beautiful line:

Thou art a place to hide me in, thou shalt preserve me from trouble: thou shalt compass me about with songs of deliverance.

My poem in response to this psalm takes a necessarily more personal tone but I hope it can in that sense be personal to all its readers.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XXXII Beati, quorum

In your deep silence and your mystery

You led me to confess and be forgiven.

You gave me the relief of honesty.

 

How long and bitterly I might have striven

With all the guilt that I could hardly name

How painfully my heart might have been riven

 

By hidden memories and secret shame

Instead you blessed me with a new beginning

Unbound me from bands and brands of blame

 

My false accounts of losing or of winning

And called me to come forth like Lazarus

And start my life again, rejoicing, singing

 

Baptised and born in your mysterious

And all-involving love, a love that lifts,

A love that comforts and embraces us.

 

If you are enjoying these posts, you might like, on occasion, (not every time of course!) to pop in and buy me a cup of coffee. Clicking on this banner will take you to a page where you can do so, if you wish. But please do not feel any obligation!
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