Category Archives: Poems

Word In the Wilderness: 3rd Temptation

Temptation

Temptation

Here is my reflection and poem on Christ’s third temptation from my new book The Word in the Wilderness:

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered, “It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time’ (Luke 4.9−3).

If the first two temptations in the wilderness were in some sense ‘obvious’; the temptation to mere physical satisfaction of appetite, and the temptation to worldly success and power, then the third temptation is subtle and dark, all the darker for pretending to a kind of light, or enlightenment. The third temptation takes place on the ‘pinnacle of the Temple’ on the height of religious experience and achievement. What could be wrong with that? But the best things, turned bad, are the worst things of all. A ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ life can be riddled with pride and a sense of distinction, judging or looking down on others, despising God’s good creation! Such a twisted religion does more damage in the world then any amount simple indulgence or gratification by sensual people. One of G. K. Chesterton’s wonderful Father Brown stories, ‘The Hammer of God’, explores this theme with his usual combination of acuity and humour. In the story a curate who has constantly taken to ‘praying, not on the common church floor with his fellow men, but on the dizzying heights of its spires’ is tempted to deal justice to his sinful brother by flinging a hammer down on him from the heights. It is Father Brown who sees and understands the temptation and brings the curate down from the heights to a proper place of repentance. Here’s a fragment of their dialogue before they descend:

 

‘I think there is something rather dangerous about standing on these high places even to pray,’ said Father Brown. ‘Heights were made to be looked at, not to be looked from.’

‘Do you mean that one may fall over?’ asked Wilfred.

‘I mean that one’s soul may fall if one’s body doesn’t,’ said the other priest …

After a moment he resumed, looking tranquilly out over the plain with his pale grey eyes. ‘I knew a man,’ he said, ‘who began by worshipping with others before the altar, but who grew fond of high and lonely places to pray from, corners or niches in the belfry or the spire. And once in one of those dizzy places, where the whole world seemed to turn under him like a wheel, his brain turned also, and he fancied he was God. So that, though he was a good man, he committed a great crime.’

Wilfred’s face was turned away, but his bony hands turned blue and white as they tightened on the parapet of stone.

‘He thought it was given to him to judge the world and strike down the sinner. He would never have had such a thought if he had been kneeling with other men upon a floor.’

‘I mean that one’s soul may fall if one’s body doesn’t,’ said the other priest.

 

I was remembering something of this story when I wrote my sonnet on the third temptation, but thanks be to God that in resisting this temptation to spiritual loftiness and display, Jesus shows his solidarity once and for all with all of us, trusting himself to our flesh and blood so that we can trust our flesh and blood to him. He does not look down on us but looks up with the humble eyes of the child of Bethlehem.

WhenThe image above is from a sketch book of the painter  Adam Boulter who 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) who sent me this sketch when we were working together on the In the Wilderness Exhibition for Westminster Abbey.

If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.

I am happy to announce to North American readers that Copies of The Word in the Wilderness are readily available from Steve Bell Here

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

 

‘Temples and Spires are 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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Word in the Wilderness: The Second Temptation

The penthouse suite with world-commanding views

Here is a further extract from My Lent book The Word in the Wilderness and an opportunity for those who are using it to hear me read today’s poem, which deals with the second temptation of Christ in the Wilderness:

‘Then the Devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the Devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me and I give it to anyone I please. If you then, will worship me, it will all be yours”’ (Luke 4.5−7).

This second temptation is the temptation to worldliness, to ‘success’, money and power, set up obsessively on the throne of our hearts as rivals to God. It is the supreme temptation of our own materially obsessed culture. And it is our failure at this point that has led to the gross imbalances between what has recently been termed the ‘1%’ and the ‘99%’.

‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority’ is the dreadfully conditional offer that the Devil still makes, and in my sonnet I have tried to flesh out in contemporary terms some of the figures who seem to be making and receiving that offer now, and the contemporary contexts in which this dreadful deal is transacted. It’s a striking thing that the old terms ‘wordly’ and ‘worldliness’ are scarcely ever used in contemporary moral discourse. We still talk of course, and rightly about fairness, and fair distribution of resources. We are rightly concerned with justice and fair dealing in the worlds of finance, commerce and trade, but we seem to have lost sight of the long Christian tradition, and the substantial Christian teaching, that there is something essentially tainted and corrosive in the very desire for worldly pre-eminence and success.

A symptom of this amnesia, of this serious spiritual malaise that afflicts our culture, can be found in our extraordinary use of the word ‘exclusive’ as a positive term! The liberal West is allegedly the most inclusive culture there has ever been and we deploy a great deal of rhetoric about including the marginalized, and take care that everyone should use politically correct and ‘inclusive’ language. But this is of course just a fig leaf. One look at the advertising in any magazine or website, one glimpse of the commercials that saturate our airwaves tells a different story. Every Estate agent advertising their residential properties (or ‘homes’ as they like to call them- as though a home was something you could sell) reveals that their favourite word is ‘Exclusive’. Come and view these ‘exclusive’ flats, come with us on this luxurious and ‘exclusive’ holiday! And nobody asks, just who is being excluded. Nobody responds to these ads with a letter to say: ‘I am interested in your product but perhaps I am one of those unfortunate people whom you and your exclusive clientele would like to exclude! No one asks themselves, as they read these ads, ‘Just what is it in me that is being roused and appealed to here?’ For it is not our generosity, our courtesy, or our sense of community that is being worked on and developed in this appeal. Rather it is the worst in us; the desire to be considered ‘special’ and ‘better’ and ‘superior’ at the expense of other people that is here being inflated and inflamed. In his chilling essay ‘The Inner ring’ C. S. Lewis lays open this fallen desire in all of us to belong to exclusive clubs, cliques, and circles, to be someone who is ‘in’; ‘in the know’, ‘in the right circles’, ‘in on the real knowledge and power’ among ‘those who really count’, and to look down on those who are ‘out’, excluded, not part of the magic circle. So much of the consumerism that is choking our society and bringing misery, alike to the haves and the have-nots, is driven by this desire to have and to wear, and to drive, the status symbols, the ‘exclusive’ signs of belonging. Time and again goods and services are offered by their manufacturers not for their intrinsic virtue, the beauty of their design, or the genuine pleasure that might be had from owning or using them, but for their ‘exclusive’ cachet, their ‘exclusive designer label’.

The other word which worldliness loves and has in turn subverted is the word ‘Dream’. We are to have ‘dream homes’, ‘dream holidays’, ‘dream wedding days’. As though all dreams were to enmesh us deeper in the tangles of getting and spending, not to lift our vision, change our perspective and give us glimpses of Heaven. I have tried to highlight some of these issues in the following poem, and here I see Jesus taking the worldly ‘dream’ on its own terms and calling us instead to wake up to the fullness of life. Perhaps only then can we, in Eliot’s phrase ‘Redeem the unread vision of the higher dream’.

This poem together with the other ‘lenten sonnets’ is published by Canterbury Press in my collection Sounding the Seasons

I am grateful, as before, to Margot Krebs Neale for these beautiful images

You can hear the sonnet by clicking on the play button or the title.

All the Kingdoms of the World

 

‘So here’s the deal and this is what you get:

The penthouse suite with world-commanding views,

The banker’s bonus and the private jet

Control and ownership of all the news

An ‘in’ to that exclusive one percent,

Who know the score, who really run the show

With interest on every penny lent

And sweeteners for cronies in the know.

A straight arrangement between me and you

No hell below or heaven high above

You just admit it, and give me my due

And wake up from this foolish dream of love…’

But Jesus laughed, ‘You are not what you seem.

Love is the waking life, you are the dream.’

So here’s the deal, and this is what you get

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From The Word in the Wilderness: The First Temptation

And He was led by the sprit into the Wilderness

Here is a sample from my book the Word in the Wilderness, This is Today’s poem and reflection on the first of Christ’s Temptations. It will also allow those who are following it in the book to hear me read the poem.

There are three days between Ash Wednesday and the first Sunday in Lent, the first day of the first week of our six-week pilgrimage. Since Christ’s own primal Lent, his sojourn as the Word in the Wilderness, is prefaced by his three temptations, by his confrontation with just those corruptions of the good that confront us every day, it seems good to spend these three days reflecting on these three temptations, which will themselves form the readings and subject for reflection in many churches this coming Sunday. I have chosen to follow the order of the three temptations as they are set out in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 4.1−12). His order seems to me to make most spiritual and psychological sense. We start with the most straightforward, (and often most insistent!) of temptations, those generated by our bodily appetites and needs: the temptations to serve first our own creature comforts, to tend to our obsessions and addictions before we have even considered the needs of others. But then we move on to the deeper temptations to serve and feed, not just the body, but its driving ego, with its lust for power, the temptation to dominate in the kingdoms of this world. We may have overcome the first temptation only because we are captivated and driven by the second. We diet, and discipline our flesh in gyms and health-clubs, we submit our appetites to the dictates of personal trainers and three-month fitness plans, but only because we hope thereby to sharpen our image so as to shine and succeed in the world!

And then comes the last, the subtlest and worst temptation of all: the temptation to spiritual pride. We may rise above worldly ambition only to congratulate ourselves on how spiritual we have become, how superior to our fat-cat neighbours! The very disciplines and virtues designed to bring us closer to our saviour, to make us more available as ambassadors of his love become instead the proud possessions that separate us from the one whose strength is made perfect in weakness.

But this is to anticipate, let us begin at the beginning with the temptation to turn stones into bread.

Jesus meets this temptation with the profound reply ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’. A word which certainly needs to be heard by Christians living in affluent Western societies dominated by consumer culture. I believe that Jesus underwent this ordeal on our behalf, to break open the ground of the heart and make real choice possible for us.

In this and the other sonnets on Christ’s temptations I have born in mind two essential, but easily forgotten truths. The first is that because Jesus is both fully human and fully God there is a double aspect to each of these temptations. On the one hand Jesus experiences these temptations exactly as we do, in a fully human way, feeling their full force and yet showing us both that it is possible to overcome them and also, the way to overcome them. As the letter to the Hebrews says: ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are but without sin’ (Hebrews 4.15 NRSV) But at the same time He is God and his action in defeating the Devil in resisting the temptation, casting back the tempter and creating, and holding a space in which right action is possible is done not just privately on his own behalf but is done with and for all of us. In the old Prayer Book litany there is a petition that says ‘By thy Fasting and Temptation, good Lord deliver us’. If Jesus were simply set before me as an example of heroic human achievement I would despair. His very success in resisting temptation would just make me feel worse about my failure. But he is not just my exemplar, he is my saviour, he is the one who takes my place and stands in for me, and in the mystery of redemption he acts for me and makes up, in his resistance to evil what is lacking in mine. I have emphasized this double aspect of the temptations by beginning the first sonnet with a series of paradoxes that turn on the truth that it is God himself who feels and suffers these things for and with us:

 

The Fountain thirsts, the Bread is hungry here,

The Light is dark, the Word without a voice.

 

And I have tried to bring out the way he endures these temptations both with us and for us. We ‘must dare with him to make a choice’, but at the same time ‘he chooses for the ones who cannot choose’.

The second essential truth is that we should not see the temptations in entirely negative terms. The Devil is no substantial being. A shadow himself, all he can do is cast shadows of God’s substantial good. All good things come from God and those things which the Devil pretends to offer, but in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons, are cheap imitations of the very things that God does indeed offer and that Jesus himself receives, enjoys, and crucially, shares. He refuses to turn stones into bread for himself at the Devil’s behest, but later, in the very same wilderness he takes bread, gives thanks, and breaks it, and feeds five thousand with all they want, and twelve baskets full left over! This was the substantial good from God, in light of which, and to gain which, it was necessary to refuse the shadowy substitute

CS. Lewis evokes this truth very well in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Everything that the White witch pretends she can offer to the children is a stolen and corrupted version of something that Aslan fully intends them to have in its true substance. She pretends that she will share the throne of Narnia with Edmund and then leave it to him, and yet the whole story is about how Aslan will truly and substantially crown all four children kings and queens of Narnia. And this holds true in the smaller things too, even down to this matter of personal appetite. If Edmund had turned down the Witch’s Turkish delight he would have come sooner to Aslan’s feast!

As always I am grateful to Margot for her thought-provoking images. you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button.

Stones into Bread

 

The Fountain thirsts, the Bread is hungry here

The Light is dark, the Word without a voice.

When darkness speaks it seems so light and clear.

Now He must dare, with us, to make a choice.

In a distended belly’s cruel curve

He feels the famine of the ones who lose

He starves for those whom we have forced to starve

He chooses now for those who cannot choose.

He is the staff and sustenance of life

He lives for all from one Sustaining Word

His love still breaks and pierces like a knife

The stony ground of hearts that never shared,

God gives through Him what Satan never could;

The broken bread that is our only food.

His love still breaks and pierces like a knife

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A Sonnet for Ash Wednesday

Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s Cross

I resume the thread of Sounding the Seasons, the sonnet sequence I have been posting here, and which is also available as a book from Canterbury Press, with this sonnet for Ash Wednesday. As I set about the traditional task of burning the remnants of last Palm Sunday’s palm crosses in order to make the ash which would bless and sign our repentance on Ash Wednesday, I was suddenly struck by the way both the fire and the ash were signs not only of our personal mortality and our need for repentance and renewal but also signs of the wider destruction our sinfulness inflicts upon God’s world and on our fellow creatures, on the whole web of life into which God has woven us and for which He also cares. So some of those themes are visited in this sonnet. As we go through Lent I will post sonnets reflecting on each of the three temptations of Christ in  the wilderness, as well as for Mothering Sunday and the Feast of the  Annunciation which also falls in Lent. And this Lent I have two special additions. the first is a link to the new Snippet Book for Lent by Steve Bell, to which I have made some contributions. Check out his snippet series HERE, and the second is my own new book The Word in the Wilderness which contains these and other poems set out so that you can reflect on a poem a day throughout Lent. If you’d like to pursue the Lenten journey further the book is available on Amazon both here and in the USA and is also available on Kindle. But if you’d like to buy it from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.

 

As before I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the remarkable commentary on these poems which she is making through her photographs. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the Play Button

Ash Wednesday

Receive this cross of ash upon your brow,
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross.
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands
The very stones themselves would shout and sing
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognise in Christ their Lord and king.

He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please,
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow.

Beginning with this sign upon your brow

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The Transfiguration; a glimpse of glory before Lent

Transfiguration by Rebecca Merry

Today, the Sunday before Lent, many churches will hear again the story of the Transfiguration. So continuing my series of sonnets ‘Sounding the Seasons’ of the Church’s year, here is a sonnet about the Transfiguration, when we remember how the Disciples, even before they went to Jerusalem to face his trials, had a glimpse of Christ in his true glory.

The feast of the Transfiguration is usually celebrated on August 6th, but The transfiguration is also the set reading for many churches on the Sunday before Lent. And just before Lent is a good time for it too, as I believe the glimpse of glory in Christ they saw on the mount of the Transfiguration was given in order to sustain the disciples on the journey with Christ towards Jerusalem, towards the events of Holy Week, and through darkness of Good Friday. Indeed it is for a disciple, looking back at the transfiguration from Good Friday, that I have voiced the poem.

I am honoured to have had my work interpreted by two other Cambridge artists. The painting above is artist Rebecca Merry‘s response to the poem. Rebecca is well known for her paintings in egg tempora and in responding to this ‘iconic’ moment in the life of Christ she has drawn on her training in icon painting. She writes:

I wanted to stay with the idea of the circle for an important event in the life of Christ, and the theme of cycle and circle that is a theme of your book – the changing of the seasons, the unchanging nature of God. Underneath is the circle and the cross, a symbol also in Egyptian hieroglyphs of the city but of course the cross (or crucifix) is the meeting point of two worlds, heaven and earth, and the division of the upper circle as light and the lower as dark also symbolises this. The red is a recurrent themes of all the illustrations but here it implies Christ’s blood (and sacrifice) but also the life blood and life giver that God/Christ is to us all, giving light to the world.

The photograph which appears after the poem is by the Photographer Margot Krebs Neale. Margot has responded to the idea in the poem that the light of transfiguration is also kindled in us a response to Christ’s light. She writes:

As a person and as a photographer I so wish I could catch “the Love that dances at the heart of things”, and to have seen it not its reflection but the very Love in a human face…Imagine.

Well it was immediately clear I could not count on my work. But then, the light in us that leaps to that light, that trembles and tingles through the tender skin, I believe I witness that.

I am not sure what brought this smile on my friend’s face but I believe it had to do with her being seen, valued, loved. A camera is a light-box, and if I concentrate on them some people feel that it is their light and the light which I try to crystallise and they let them shine together.

I am very grateful to both of them. As always please feel free to copy or use the poem in prayer or liturgy; you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button or clicking on its title.

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 also available in Canada via Steve Bell. The book is now 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.

Transfiguration

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

Photograph by Margot Krebs Neale

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Renewing Vows for Valentine’s Day

As we approach St. Valentine’s day I thought I might re-post a sonnet on renewing Marriage vows which I wrote for my wife Maggie. It so happened that I began my ministry as a vicar in All Saints Hartford on Valentines day. I was priest in a beautiful mediaeval church where we had many weddings. Maggie and I decided that we would invite all the couples whose weddings we took there, year by year, to come back to the church each year on Valentine’s day and renew their vows with us as we renewed ours, (I’m delighted to see that my sucesor there is still keeping up the tradition!) and it was out of those yearly renewals that this poem arose. I hope it might be helpful for any couples out there who might want to renew their own vows this coming valentines day, if so please feel free to use or reprint this poem in anyway you like. The words in italics come from the Anglican Marriage service. In some ways this sonnet also continues the reflection on the gift of language and its mysterious powers, which have been the subject of my last few posts. Maggie and I will be reciting this sonnet together at her church of St. Marks in Newnham this Valentine’s day as part of their ‘St. Valentine’s Cabaret’! so wish us luck. The poem has been published in my most recent Collection The Singing Bowl which you can order in the UK through the Sarum College Bookshop or in North America from Signpost Music

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


A Renewal of Vows

So, open up the treasure-casket, love,

the treasure is still there, the hidden things

that love contains. Old words, like wedding rings,

surround their mysteries, they live and move

as breath renews them, burnished as the gold

around our fingers, glowing as we make

the vows that make us new again: I take,

protect, and comfort, cherish, have and hold.

The same old words, that cannot stay the same,

for they have grown, as we have, more than old.

They change and deepen like all things that live,

they compass more and still have more to give:

All that I have is yours, all that I am

I give again, with all I will become.

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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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