Tag Archives: Bible

Be Merciful Unto Me: A Response To Psalm 41

After the ‘new song’ of psalm 40 we find ourselves once more grappling, in psalm 41 with feeling after God and finding him in the midst of suffering. In many ways the psalm, which seems to have been written in the midst of both physical illness and personal betrayal, speaks deeply into our own times, as it speaks of the Lord comforting us and making our bed in our sickness. And for Christian readers of course it has that sharp moment that seems to prophecy the intimate pain of Christ’s betrayal by Judas:

Yea, even mine own familiar friend, whom I trusted: who did also eat of my bread, hath laid great wait for me.

And yet the psalmist, even as he cries for mercy, recovers and closes the psalm with a glimpse of the beatific vision and the sheer blessing and glory of God’s eternal presence:

And when I am in my health, thou upholdest me: and shalt set me before thy face for ever.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel: world without end. Amen.

Here is my poetic response to the psalm. 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.

XLI Beatus qui intelligit

That you might make me whole in every part,

Have mercy on me now. Oh raise me up

And comfort me when things just fall apart.

 

For you have known this too: the grip and grope

Of suffering, the time when comforts fail,

The false pretence of friendship, the false hope

 

Of some relief, the sense of being frail,

Of being helpless, wounded, vulnerable

And worst of all the sickening betrayal

 

By those we thought were closest. Miserable

Dependence on the ones who’ve lost our trust

What can I do but cry ‘be merciful

 

Be merciful and raise me from the dust

Restore my health, because I cry to you,

You are my heart’s desire from first to last’

 

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A Sonnet for the Feast of the Transfiguration

Transfiguration by Rebecca Merry

Pausing for a moment in our progress through the Psalms I return to my series of sonnets ‘Sounding the Seasons’ of the Church’s year, to share a sonnet for today’s feast of the Transfiguration. This is the day when we remember how the disciples, even before they went to Jerusalem to face his trials with him, had a glimpse of Christ in his true glory. The Transfiguration is usually celebrated on August 6th, but sometimes on the Sunday nearest.

The transfiguration is also sometimes remembered just before Lent, which 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 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 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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Lo, I Come: A Response To Psalm 40

Just beforeI continue with my psalm series, may I say thank you to everyone for the many messages of support, prayer and condolence, you have sent to me after mother’s death. I have been greatly comforted, and it was of course a comfort and blessing to have been with her when she died, and to send her on her way home with poetry prayers and blessings. She was very much the source of poetry in my life, and one of my later psalm poems, which I will share with you in due course, is a thanksgiving for my birth and for my mother. There will be a time, later, on this blog, when I am able to say more, but for a now, as I am sure she would wish, I am going to continue quietly with this series.

Psalm 40 is a favourite with many people and with good reason. It celebrates being lifted out of the miry clay and set firmly on the rock, and being given a new song to sing. Then, at its heart it has that beautiful revelation that it is not sacrifice and burnt offerings that God desires, but rather that we should come to him ourselves with open hearts and minds:

Sacrifice and meat-offering thou wouldest not: but mine ears hast thou opened.

Burnt-offerings, and sacrifice for sin, hast thou not required: then said I, Lo, I come,

In the volume of the book it is written of me, that I should fulfil thy will, O my God: I am content to do it; yea, thy law is within my heart.

It was that theme of coming to him with all we are, heart and soul, which formed the core of my own response to this psalm. This poem was also the occasion to express the heart of how I read the psalms as a Christian, and in some sense the key to this poetic sequence:

I sing my psalm in Christ who sings in me,

A new song made in his Love’s mystery

Christ had the psalms on his lips in his lifetime and when, as Christians, we pray and sing them, we do so with and in Christ, whose coming as Messiah is prophesied in so many of the psalms themselves.

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.

XL Expectans expectavi

The stone itself will soon be rolled away,

I wait in patience, all expectantly,

Firm on this rock above the miry clay

 

Where he has set me in his loving mercy.

I sing my psalm in Christ who sings in me,

A new song made in his Love’s mystery:

 

‘Your wondrous works all rise like wings in me

And lift my heart to praise. I hear your call,

The simple call of Love: Oh come to me,

 

Bring me no gifts, for I have made them all,

Just bring yourself, and open up your heart.

And so I come to you and bring you all,

 

All that I am and have been; joy and hurt,

Glory and shame, I bring you everything,

That you might make me whole in every part.

 

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The Shell Is Breaking: a Response To Psalm 39

‘Take thy plague away from me: I am even consumed by the means of thy heavy hand.’

This verse from psalm 39 will resonate with all of us in the midst of the covid crisis, and so perhaps will those verses about our mortality and the frailty of things in this world, verses calling us to set our hope more firmly on God:

‘Behold, thou hast made my days as it were a span long: and mine age is even as nothing in respect of thee; and verily every man living is altogether vanity.

For man walketh in a vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain: he heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them.

And now, Lord, what is my hope: truly my hope is even in thee.’

For a Christian of course that hope is rooted in Christ, in his death and resurrection. This was all in my mind as I composed my poem in response to psalm 39, but so were those lines of Leonard Cohen’s, that it is just when you begin to perceive the ‘crack in everything’ that you also perceive that that is ‘how the light gets in’!

This present plague has prompted me, like many, to reflect that we must not return, afterwards, to our old ways, but must take this kairos moment as an opportunity to strengthen the things that remain and renew our true hope in Christ

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.

XXXIX Dixi, Custodiam

Deliver me and raise me from the dead

For I have walked in shadows. Nothingness,

The vanity of things fills me with dread,

 

The sheer inanity, the pointlessness

Of how we used to live – we can’t go back

To that – the rush that masked our emptiness,

 

All the pretence that covered what we lack

When what we really lacked was always you.

I held my tongue, but I could see the crack

 

In everything we build and say and do.

And now the crack is widening. I pray

That we will turn and see a light break through

 

These fissures that so fill us with dismay.

The death we fear is birth, the shell is breaking:

The stone itself will soon be rolled away.

 

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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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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.

 

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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.

 

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