Tag Archives: Christ

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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Holy Week, Wednesday: The Anointing at Bethany

John 12 1-8 tells us of how Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus.I love this intense and beautiful moment in the Gospels, The God of the Cosmos enters as a vulnerable man into all the particular fragility of our human friendships and intimacy. I love the way Jesus responds to Mary’s beautiful, useless gesture and recognises it as something that is always worth while, something that will live forever, for all the carping and criticism of Judas, then and now.

This sonnet, and the others I will be posting for Holy Week are all 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‘s Signpost Music. 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.

I am grateful to Oliver Neale for the image above and to Margot Krebs Neale for the one below. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

The Anointing at Bethany

Come close with Mary, Martha , Lazarus
So close the candles stir with their soft breath
And kindle heart and soul to flame within us
Lit by these mysteries of life and death.
For beauty now begins the final movement
In quietness and intimate encounter
The alabaster jar of precious ointment
Is broken open for the world’s true lover,

The whole room richly fills to feast the senses
With all the yearning such a fragrance brings,
The heart is mourning but the spirit dances,
Here at the very centre of all things,
Here at the meeting place of love and loss
We all foresee, and see beyond the cross.

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A Sonnet for Mothering Sunday

…for those who loved and laboured…

The fourth Sunday of Lent happens also to be Mothering Sunday. Continuing in my series of sonnets for the Church Year I have written this one for Mothering Sunday. It’s a thanksgiving for all parents, especialy for those who bore the fruitful pain of labour, and more particularly in this poem I have singled out for praise those heroic single parents who, for whatever reason, have found themselves bearing alone the burdens, and sharing with no-one the joys of their parenthood.

This poem is taken from my collection Sounding the Seasons published by Canterbury Press. Canterbury are now also launching a Kindle Edition

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 Singing Bowl and my other books are readily available from Steve Bell Here

I am grateful to Oliver  Neale for his thought-provoking work as a photographer, and, as always, you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button, or on the title

Mothering Sunday

 

At last, in spite of all, a recognition,

For those who loved and laboured for so long,

Who brought us, through that labour, to fruition

To flourish in the place where we belong.

A thanks to those who stayed and did the raising,

Who buckled down and did the work of two,

Whom governments have mocked instead of praising,

Who hid their heart-break and still struggled through,

The single mothers forced onto the edge

Whose work the world has overlooked, neglected,

Invisible to wealth and privilege,

But in whose lives the kingdom is reflected.

Now into Christ our mother church we bring them,

Who shares with them the birth-pangs of His Kingdom.

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Dante and the companioned journey 2: Through the Gate

Dante and Virgil at the Gate by William Blake

Dante and Virgil at the Gate by William Blake

This week is the Dante Week for readers of my book  The Word in the Wilderness, my compilation of a poem a day for Lent.  In that book I give three poems from my sequence of nine written in response to the Commedia but I thought I might repost all nine on this blog for those who were interested in following up the sequence. Yesterday I gave the first of them In Medias Res, today I am posting the second, ‘Through the Gate.’ Here is the commentary with which I introduced it in The Word in the wilderness and then the poem itself:

So Dante begins again, accompanied by Virgil and they come to the very gate of Hell, with its famous inscription ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here’! But they don’t abandon hope, and that is the whole point. It is hope that leads and draws them on, hope inspired by love. For Virgil has revealed to Dante that it is Beatrice, the woman with whom he had fallen so completely in love as a young man, now in the bliss of Heaven, who has herself ‘ventured down the dark descent’ (to borrow Milton’s phrase) to find Virgil and ask for his help in rescuing Dante, so that she and Dante can meet again and rise together through the spheres of Heaven. Like Jesus, who went to the cross, not for pain in itself, but ‘for the joys that were set before him’, so we are to make this journey through the memories of pain and darkness, not to stay with these things but to redeem them and move beyond them. And the journey is itself made possible because Christ himself has gone before. ‘He descended into Hell.’ Throughout the journey into the Inferno we are shown signs that Christ has been this way before and broken down the strongholds. Dante is here alluding to one of the great lost Christian stories, which we need to recover today; ‘The Harrowing of Hell’. We, who build so many Hells on earth, need to know that there is no place so dark, no situation so seemingly hopeless, that cannot be opened to the light of Christ for rescue and redemption.

This is the theme I have born in mind in the following poem, which is my own ‘reader response’ to Dante’s journey. Throughout I have been mindful that the Inferno is really ‘in here and right now’ not ‘out there and back then’, and emphatically not, if we trust in Christ, some inevitable end awaiting us. In that knowledge we must have the courage to expose our own personal Hell’s to Christ and let him harrow them with us, and that is precisely what Dante’s great poem allows us to do. The great statesman and Dante enthusiast, W. E. Gladstone said: ‘The reading of Dante is not merely a pleasure, a tour de force, or a lesson; it is a vigorous discipline for the heart, the intellect, the whole man’.

For all of us, somewhere within, there is a threshold or a gate beyond which we feel we dare not go, but it is sometimes just past that threshold that our real healing and restoration needs to take place. Sometimes the best way to get through that gate, and let Christ in, is in a companioned inner journey, with a trusted ‘soul friend’, a spiritual director, or a priest to whom we can make confession in complete confidence. I have deliberately echoed the phrase, from the form of confession ‘All I cannot call to mind’ as a way of suggesting that this journey with Dante down the dark spirals; one sin leading to another, one wound inflicting the next, can itself be an invitation to confession, and so to absolution and release.

This poem is  from my collection The Singing Bowl  published by Canterbury Press and is also available on Amazon here

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 Singing Bowl and my other books are readily available from Steve Bell Here

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

Through the Gate

Begin the song exactly where you are

For where you are contains where you have been

And holds the vision of your final sphere

 

And do not fear the memory of sin;

There is a light that heals, and, where it falls,

Transfigures and redeems the darkest stain

 

Into translucent colour. Loose the veils

And draw the curtains back, unbar the doors,

Of that dread threshold where your spirit fails,

 

The hopeless gate that holds in all the  fears

That haunt your shadowed city, fling it wide

And open to the light that finds and fares

 

Through the dark pathways  where you run and  hide,

through all the alleys of your riddled heart,

As pierced and open as His wounded side.

 

Open the map to Him and make a start,

And down the dizzy spirals, through the dark

His light will go before you, let Him chart

 

And name and heal. Expose the hidden ache

To him, the stinging fires and smoke that blind

Your judgement, carry you away, the mirk

 

And muted gloom in which you cannot find

The love that you once thought worth dying for.

Call Him to all you cannot call to mind

 

He comes to harrow Hell and now to your

Well guarded fortress let His love descend.

The icy ego at your frozen core

 

Can hear His call at last. Will you respond?

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I Am With You Always

JesusTeaching2I am working on a new sequence of sonnets, called Parable and Paradox, responding to the sayings of Jesus, and I have come to the end of Matthew’s Gospel and the last words of Jesus to his disciples as he sends them out to the four corners of the earth to make disciples of every nation

And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matt 28:20)

It seemed to me that these final words actually linked back to and fulfilled the promise that was given in the Naming of Jesus, that he should be called ‘Emmanuel’, God with us, and that was the starting point of this sonnet.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. Parable and Paradox will be published by Canterbury Press in 2016.

I will be with you

 

Your final words fulfill your ancient name,

A promise hidden in Emmanuel,

A promise that can never fade or fail:

I will be with you till the end of time;

I will be with you when you scale the height

And with you when you fall to earth again,

With you when you flourish in the light,

And with you through the shadow and the pain.

Our God with us, you leave and yet remain

Risen and hidden with us everywhere;

Hidden and flowing in the wine we share,

Broken and hidden in the growing grain.

Be with us till we know we are forgiven

Be with us here till we’re with you in heaven.

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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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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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