Category Archives: Poems

Our Mother-tongue Is Love; A Sonnet for Pentecost

A Pentecost Banner at St. Michael ‘s Bartley Green

Continuing in ‘Sounding the Seasons’, my cycle of sonnets for the Church Year this is a sonnet meditating on and celebrating the themes and readings of Pentecost.

Throughout the cycle, and more widely, I have been reflecting on the traditional ‘four elements’ of earth, air, water and fire. I have been considering how each of them expresses and embodies different aspects of the Gospel and of God’s goodness, as though the four elements were, in their own way, another four evangelists. In that context I was very struck by the way Scripture expresses the presence of the Holy Spirit through the three most dynamic of the four elements, the air, ( a mighty rushing wind, but also the breath of the spirit) water, (the waters of baptism, the river of life, the fountain springing up to eternal life promised by Jesus) and of course fire, the tongues of flame at Pentecost. Three out of four ain’t bad, but I was wondering, where is the fourth? Where is earth? And then I realised that we ourselves are earth, the ‘Adam’ made of the red clay, and we become living beings, fully alive, when the Holy Spirit, clothed in the three other elements comes upon us and becomes a part of who we are. So something of that reflection is embodied in the sonnet.

I am publishing this a few days before Pentecost Sunday in case anyone would like to copy it or make use of it in a Sunday Service.

As usual you can hear me reading the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser or by clicking on the title of the poem itself. Thanks to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful image which follows the poem.

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 now available in Canada via Steve Bell. It is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of this, and my other 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..


Pentecost

Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today  the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire,air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in  every nation.

Whose Mother-tongue is Love in every nation

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Jesus and our wealth: dwelling with a hard saying

Jesus and the rich young man

Jesus and the rich young man

In Chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, verses 17-27 we are told the challenging story of Jesus encounter with a rich young man, and how Jesus tells him to sell all he has and give it to the poor, and how he goes away sorrowing because he can’t bring himself to do it. It’s a haunting story, full of paradox; the young man who has everything discovers from Jesus that he ‘lacks one thing’, Jesus loves him and calls him, and yet he cannot find the freedom and strength in himself to choose Jesus and return the love, for he is so encumbered by his possessions. I felt that in my new poetry sequence Parable and Paradox I must tackle this story and particularly the central saying of Jesus at its heart, ‘sell all you have':

21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

But of course it’s very difficult for any of us to reflect freely on this saying because we are all haunted by the fact that none of us have actually done what it asks! We deal with our discomfort either by ignoring this passage altogether or by deflecting Jesus’ words away from ourselves and applying them instead to some special category of persons ‘this is only for special people like monks and nuns’ or alternatively ‘this saying about the rich only applies to people who are much richer than I am’. Somehow we all take it that he is not speaking to us! But perhaps rather than always ignoring, evading, or deflecting, we should honestly keep asking, ‘who is he speaking to? might it be to me? might it be to me at some future date? ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be’, says Jesus in another place, and this story poses the question very sharply, ‘where is our treasure’? I preached on this text in Girton last Sunday and wrestled with the many ways of approaching this teaching and you can hear the sermon from This Page.

I also wrote a sonnet in which I tried to voice some of our evasions and excuses, and perhaps some of the feelings of the rich young man, but also to keep returning to the unanswered question. To whom is Jesus speaking here? As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

‘Sell all you have…and follow me’

To whom, exactly, are you speaking Lord?

I take it you’re not saying this to me,

But just to this rich man, or to some saint

Like Francis, or to some community,

The Benedictines maybe, their restraint

Sustains so much. But I can’t bear this word!

I bought the deal, the whole consumer thing,

Signed up and filled my life with all this stuff,

And now you come, when I’ve got everything,

And tell me everything is not enough!

But that one thing I lack, I cannot get.

Sell everything I have? That’s far too hard

I can’t just sell it all… at least not yet,

To whom exactly, are you speaking Lord?

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A Sonnet for Ascension Day

 Here is a sonnet for Ascension Day, which will be this Thursday, the 14th of May; the glorious finale of the Easter Season.

I am posting this a couple of days in advance, in case anyone would like to use this sonnet in their celebrations or devotions that day.

In the mystery of the Ascension we reflect on the way in which, one sense Christ ‘leaves’ us and is taken away into Heaven, but in another sense he is given to us and to the world in a new and more universal way. He is no longer located only in one physical space to the exclusion of all others. He is in the Heaven which is at the heart of all things now and is universally accessible to all who call upon Him. And since His humanity is taken into Heaven, our humanity belongs there too, and is in a sense already there with him.”For you have died”, says St. Paul, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God”. In the Ascension Christ’s glory is at once revealed and concealed, and so is ours.  The sonnet form seemed to me one way to begin to tease these things out.

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 shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell. The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of this, and my other 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 always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser or by clicking on the title of the poem.

I’m grateful to Oliver Neale for the image above, the image below was taken as we launched rockets to celebrate Ascension day at Girton College:

We have lift off!

Ascension

We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed .

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Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground…

john-12-24-unless-the-grain-of-wheat-dies-it-abides-alone-but-if-it-dies-it-bears-much-fruitContinuing with my work in progress, a new sequence of sonnets called ‘Parable and Paradox’, which this term I am linking with a sermon series at Girton, I come to Christ’s central and challenging saying

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit John 12 verse 24

This saying comes at a crucial turning point in John’s Gospel; Jesus has often been saying ‘My Hour has not yet come’, but just before this verse he says ‘The hour has come for the son of man to be glorified’! And so begins the unbearable, beautiful, all transforming sequence of paradoxes in which God’s power is shown forth in weakness, Christ’s Lordship is know in the service and his willing death at the hands of those who hate him releases Life and love inton the world, and Death’s apparent moment of triumph turns out to be death’s defeat, as Christ himself the Gospel seed is sown in the Garden tomb and rises on Easter day, the first fruits of those who sleep.

and yet there is more, the first and prime reference of this saying about falling into the earth and dying in order to bear fruit is certainly Christ’s own death and resurrection, but he goes on immediately after to make it clear that this is a universal principle; those who love their life lose it, those who set it aside gain it eternally. this is true at every level, we all know that selfishness is self-defeating, that clinging and possessing destroys and spoils the treasure or the relationship we over-possess and on the contrary  letting go, restores it. Blake knew that when he wrote in the auguries of innocence:

He who binds to himself a joy

doth its winged life destroy

but he who kisses the joy as it flies

loves in eternity’s sunrise.

I have tried to weave some of these thoughts into the following sonnet which also draws on the other biblical image, which calls on us to be separated from the outer husk of our sinfulness and be left ‘sheer and clear’ as Hopkins says, to be God’s harvest.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button and after it I have also posted a link to a recording of the accompanying sermon

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies…’

 

Oh let me fall as grain to the good earth

And die away from all dry separation,

Die to my sole self, and find new birth

Within that very death, a dark fruition,

Deep in this crowded underground, to learn

The earthy otherness of every other,

To know that nothing is achieved alone

But only where these other fallen gather.

 

If I bear fruit and break through to bright air,

Then fall upon me with your freeing flail

To shuck this husk and leave me sheer and clear

As heaven-handled Hopkins, that my fall

May be more fruitful and my autumn still

A golden evening where your barns are full.

 

You can listen to the sermon, second in the Parable and Paradox series at Girton College Here

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Parable and Paradox: He who has ears to hear…

Christ the Saviour St. Catherine's monastery Mount Sinai

Christ the Saviour St. Catherine’s monastery Mount Sinai

I am presently working on a new collection of sonnets about the sayings of Jesus to be called ‘Parable and Paradox‘, which will come out with Canterbury Press next year. The sequence will consist on a series of reflections on, wrestlings with and responses to the sayings of Jesus, voicing, I hope, the wide range of our responses to his teaching from thrilling recognition to baffled amazement, from the urge to follow to the fear of challenge, from wary evasion to life-changing engagement. Parable and Paradox is also the title of a series of sermons I am giving in Girton College Chapel this term which introduce both some of the sayings and some of the sonnets. I am going to post both the sonnets and the sermons on this blog over the coming weeks and I begin with the opening sonnet/sermon which addresses the problem of how we open our ears to hear Jesus in the first place. First I will give you the sonnet which is a response to Matthew 13: verse 9: ‘He who has ears to hear, let hm hear’ and then I will give you a link to a recording of the sermon, along with the references for the Bible texts in that service. If you are in Cambridge you are welcome to come up to Girton and join us for the services and sermons which take place every Sunday evening at 5:30pm during term time. The full term card with all details cam be viewed, or downloaded as a PDF here

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

 

‘He who has ears to hear let him hear’

 

How hard to hear the things I think I know,

To peel aside the thin familiar film

That wraps and seals your secret just below:

An undiscovered good, a hidden realm,

A kingdom of reversal, where the poor

Are rich in blessing and the tragic rich

Still struggle, trapped in trappings at the door

They never opened, Life just out of reach…

 

Open the door for me and take me there.

Love, take my hand and lead me like the blind,

Unbandage me, unwrap me from my fear,

Open my eyes, my heart, my soul, my mind.

I struggle with these grave clothes, this dark earth,

But you are calling ‘Lazarus come forth!’

 

You can listen to the sermon that includes this sonnet from this page

The texts for the sermon and sonnet: Psalm: 49:1-12
Old Testament Reading: Ezekiel 12:1-12 New Testament Reading: Matthew 13:9-17

Next week we will look at Jesus’ saying ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it abides alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit (John 12:24)

 

 

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I Am The Door of the Sheepfold: A Poem for Good Shepherd Sunday

I am the door of the Sheepfold

I am the door of the Sheepfold

Today, the 4th Sunday of Easter, the lectionary gives us the wonderful  discourse of Jesus in the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel in which he reflects on the shepherd’s role and identifies himself as ‘the Good Shepherd':

 

Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep.

8 All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them.

9 I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.

10 The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.

11 I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. (John 10:7-11)

I have begun what I hope will be a sequence of sonnets on the sayings of Jesus, to be called Parable and Paradox, a sequel to Sounding the Seasons, my book with Canterbury Press. I posted the first one some time ago Here.

Now here, for Good Shepherd Sunday, I am reposting the second one, meditating on that great ‘I Am’ saying of Jesus: ‘I Am the Door of the Sheep’.

I remember reading in a commentary once that in this saying Jesus is alluding to the round stone sheepfolds in the high pastures, built with an open gap so the sheep could pass through in safety and the shepherd himself would then lie down across the gap becoming himself the door that kept them safe. So I allude to that, as well as to a number of other doors, opened and unopened in Scripture.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button should it appear in your browser

‘I Am The Door Of The Sheepfold’

 

Not one that’s gently hinged or deftly hung,

Not like the ones you planed at Joseph’s place,

Not like the well-oiled openings that swung

So easily for Pilate’s practiced pace,

Not like the ones that closed in Mary’s face

From house to house in brimming Bethlehem,

Not like the one that no man may assail,

The dreadful curtain, The forbidding veil

That waits your breaking in Jerusalem.

 

Not one you made but one you have become:

Load-bearing, balancing, a weighted beam

To bridge the gap, to bring us within reach

Of your high pasture. Calling us by name,

You lay your body down across the breach,

Yourself the door that opens into home.

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A Sonnet for St. Mark’s Day

A winged lion, swift immediate

The 25th of April is the feast day of St. Mark the Evangelist,  so I  am posting again my sonnet on St. Mark’s Gospel, one of a set of four sonnets on each of the four evangelists. For each of these sonnets I have meditated on the way the traditional association of each of the evangelists with one of the ‘four living creatures’ round the throne helps us to focus on the particular gifts and emphasis of that Gospel writer. For a good account of this tradition click here. Mark is the lion. There is a power, a dynamic a swiftness of pace in Mark’s Gospel, his favourite word is ‘immediately’! and that suits the lion. His Gospel starts in the wilderness and that suits it too.

But the great paradox in Mark is that the Gospel writer who shows us Christ at his most decisive, powerful, startling and leonine is also the one who shows us  how our conquering lion, our true Aslan, deliberately entered into suffering and passion, the great ‘doer’ letting things be done unto him. In this sonnet, I am especially indebted to WH Vanstone’s brilliant reading of this aspect of Mark in his wonderful book The Stature of Waiting.

For all four ‘Gospel’ sonnets I have also drawn on the visual imagery of the Lindesfarne Gospels, as in the one illustrated above. Margot Krebs Neale has given me the beautiful image below taken in Galillee in Beth Shean,

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 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.

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

Mark

A wingèd lion, swift, immediate

Mark is the gospel of the sudden shift

From first to last, from grand to intimate,

From strength  to weakness, and from debt to gift,

From a wide deserts haunted emptiness

To a close city’s fervid atmosphere,

From a voice crying in the wilderness

To angels in an empty sepulcher.

And Christ makes the most sudden shift of all;

From swift action as a strong Messiah

Casting the very demons back to hell

To slow pain, and death as a pariah.

We see our Saviour’s life and death unmade

And flee his tomb dumbfounded and afraid.

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