Tag Archives: christianity

A Sonnet for Petertide, and the 30th Anniversary of my ordination

 

The 29th of June is St. Peter’s day, when we remember the disciple who, for all his many mistakes, knew how to recover and hold on, who, for all his waverings was called by Jesus ‘the rock’, who learned the threefold lesson that every betrayal can ultimately be restored by love. It is fitting therefore that it is at Petertide that new priests and deacons are ordained, on the day they remember a man whose recovery from mistakes and openness to love can give them courage. So I post this poem not only for St. Peter but for all those called to ministry who should have been ordained this weekend, but whose ordination may have been postponed. I also post it with thanksgiving for my own ordination at Petertide 30 years ago.

This poem comes from my collection Sounding the Seasons published by Canterbury Press. You can also buy it on Amazon Uk or US or order it in any bookshop.

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

St. Peter

Impulsive master of misunderstanding

You comfort me with all your big mistakes;

Jumping the ship before you make the landing,

Placing the bet before you know the stakes.

I love the way you step out without knowing,

The way you sometimes speak before you think,

The way your broken faith is always growing,

The way he holds you even when you sink.

Born to a world that always tried to shame you,

Your shaky ego vulnerable to shame,

I love the way that Jesus chose to name you,

Before you knew how to deserve that name.

And in the end your Saviour let you prove

That each denial is undone by love.

 

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Judgement and Clemency: A response to psalm 26

The opening three verses of psalm 26 announce a theme that balances judgement and clemency, truth and loving kindness:

  1. BE THOU my judge, O Lord, for I have walked innocently: my trust hath been also in the Lord, therefore shall I not fall.
  2. Examine me, O Lord, and prove me: try out my reins and my heart.
  3. For thy loving-kindness is ever before mine eyes: and I will walk in thy truth.

To ask God to be our judge is both an alarming and a comforting thing to do. Alarming because there can be no evasion of truth since God sees all things, but comforting because in Christ we see that the God of truth is also the God of grace ‘ We beheld his glory…full of grace and truth’ as John testifies. Our own judgements on the other hand are partial, both because our knowledge is incomplete, we only know in part, and because we are inclined to partiality, to favour ourselves and be over severe with others. This is why Jesus specifically says ‘ do not judge and you will not be judged.’  and Paul says ‘ I judge not even myself’. The psalmist here seems confident of his innocence and his clean hands. I cannot say the same for myself, but I can still trust myself equally to God’s judgement and mercy.

These themes were all in my mind as I responded to psalm 26 and so was a beautiful hymn by Faber which we sing regularly which begins:

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice
which is more than liberty.

but I was especially remembering the verse:

But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

So my poem became a plea to let him judge, to rest in his mercy and to see with his eyes.

As usual you can hear 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.

XXVI Judica me, Domine

That I may find my peace in all he wills

I call on him in faith, to judge for me,

Since my own judgement fails and all my skills

 

In reckoning forget his clemency.

For when I judge myself, when I judge others

I do so with a false severity.

 

He has a far more patient love, that gathers

All his lost and fallen children home

Into that habitation where he mothers,

 

Fathers, and befriends, us, where the same

Love is lavished on the least as on

The greatest and he welcomes all who come

 

To him. I may have shunned them, but the son

Who died for them knows better than I do,

Oh let me see with his eyes from now on!

 

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New Perspective: a Response to Psalm 25

The wide skies Speak of his mercy, and the distant hills Stand in his steadfast love

We resume our poetic journey through the psalms and come today to psalm 25, a little landmark and staging post, exactly one sixth of the way through the psalter. It’s a good psalm for pausing on the journey, taking stock, getting a good view of the way ahead for psalm 25 is all about putting earthly life in the heavenly perspective. I particularly like the line in verse 14:

Mine eyes are ever looking unto the Lord: for he shall pluck my feet out of the net.

If I look down too often at my own tangles they get more tangled still whereas if I look up to Christ and trust him, he can gradually do some of the untangling for me, a theme I have developed in my response to this psalm.

As we reflect at this staging post, can I say a big thank you to everyone who has supported me me with a friendly ‘cup of coffee’ over the past month or so. It’s been very encouraging, and as a result I feel much more secure going forward into my new life as full-time poet. But can I also add that although the ‘buy me a coffee’ button is there for anyone to use at the end of these posts, there is absolutely no obligation, and it need only be an occasional thing. These posts themselves will of course always be absolutely free to all. (you can read more about the whole coffee thing and why I started it on this previous post)

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

XXV Ad te, Domine, levavi

The gates will open for us both, look up!

I hear that voice each day when I’m downcast

I hear it when I’ve almost lost my hope

 

And now, when I’m entangled by my past,

My feet are netted by necessity,

Snared in the traps of time that bind so fast,

 

My eyes turned downward, dimmed by what they see,

I hear that voice again and raise my eyes

And he untangles me and sets me free.

 

He alters my perspective. The wide skies

Speak of his mercy, and the distant hills

Stand in his steadfast love and make me wise

 

In his simplicity, and all my ills

Diminish and recede to their true size.

That I may find my peace in all he wills.

 

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A pair of sonnets for St. John the Baptist.

So keep his fires burning through the night
Beacons and gateways for the child of light.

We pause for a moment in our poetic journey through the psalms, to mark an important moment in our other journey through the sacred seasons of the year. For now we have come to midsummer and the traditional Church festival for this beautiful, long-lit solstice season is the Feast of St. John the Baptist, which falls on June 24th, which was midsummer day in the old Roman Calender. Luke tells us  that John the Baptist was born about 6 months before Jesus, so this feast falls half way through the year, 6 months before Christmas!

The tradition of keeping St. John’s Eve with the lighting of Bonfires and Beacons is very ancient, almost certainly pre-Christian, but in my view it is very fitting that it has become part of a Christian festivity. Christ keeps and fulfills all that was best in the old pagan forshadowings of his coming and this Midsummer festival of light is no exception. John was sent as a witness to the light that was coming into the world, and John wanted to point to that light, not stand in its way, hence his beautiful saying ‘He must increase and I must diminish’, a good watchword for all of those who are, as the prayer book calls us, the ‘ministers and stewards of his mysteries’.

I have written two sonnets,  one for St. John’s Eve reflecting on the lighting of the fires and another for St. John’s day in which , in honour of the Baptist, I reflect on the mystery and grace of baptism itself.

I am very grateful to the artist Rebecca Merry  for her beautiful interpretation of this feast and these poems.

Both these sonnets were published in Sounding the Seasons, my cycle of seventy sonnets for the Church Year.The book is now back in stock on bothAmazon UK and USA  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.

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

St. John the Baptist: 1 St. John’s Eve

Midsummer night, and bonfires on the hill

Burn for the man who makes way for the Light:

‘He must increase and I diminish still,

Until his sun illuminates my night.’

So John the Baptist pioneers our path,

Unfolds the essence of the life of prayer,

Unlatches the last doorway into faith,

And makes one inner space an everywhere.

Least of the new and greatest of the old,

Orpheus on the threshold with his lyre,

He sets himself aside, and cries “Behold

The One who stands amongst you comes with fire!”

So keep his fires burning through this night,

Beacons and gateways for the child of light.


St. John the Baptist: 2 Baptism

Love’s hidden thread has drawn us to the font,

A wide womb floating on the breath of God,

Feathered with seraph wings, lit with the swift

Lightening of praise, with thunder over-spread,

And under-girded with an unheard song,

Calling through water, fire, darkness, pain,

Calling us to the life for which we long,

Yearning to bring us to our birth again.

Again the breath of God is on the waters

In whose reflecting face our candles shine,

Again he draws from death the sons and daughters

For whom he bid the elements combine.

As living stones around a font today,

Rejoice with those who roll the stone away.

 

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Through the Valley of The Shadow: responding to Psalms 22 and 23

led me beside still waters

In my last post, reflecting on psalm 21, a coronation psalm, I mentioned that it stands at the threshold of the special prophetic sequence of psalms 22-24 which speak in turn of Christ’s crucifixion, his leading us through the valley of the shadow death as our good shepherd, and his ascent into heaven as our lord and king. Because of the way these psalms and the poems written in response are linked, I am going to post my responses to psalms 22 and 23 together, so that you can read them as a sequence and also experience the effect of the linked closing and opening lines which make the sequence a ‘corona’.

In these poems I am often drawing on or responding to the language of Coverdale’s translation of the Psalms in The Book of Common Prayer, and you might like to re-read these psalms in that translation alongside the poems

For all Christians reading psalm 22 has a special power and poignancy because it was on the lips of Jesus when he died. As I say in my poem, ‘Christ himself is crying through this psalm’. And psalm 23 is perhaps the nation’s favourite, with its comforting image of the Lord as our shepherd leading us by still waters. People seldom link the two psalms, but the link is essential. The Lord can only be my shepherd and lead me through the valley of the shadow of death if he himself makes that journey with me, and psalm 22 tells me he does just that. Jesus goes to the cross, cries out that psalm, and passes through the gates of death, not only to make my peace with God, but also to be with me and lead me through when I make the same journey.

As always you can hear me read the poems by clicking on the play button or the title and you can find the other poems in this evolving series by putting the word ‘psalms’ into the search box on the right.

XXII Deus, Deus meus

Before he shares with us the golden crown,

He comes to share with us the crown of thorns.

Our hurts and hates close in and hem him round

 

Mock and humiliate him. All the scorns

With which we blaspheme God in one another

Are concentrated here among ‘the horns

 

Of unicorns’, the lions mouths, the slather

Of our devouring wickedness. He takes

It all and turns it into love. He gathers

 

All of us and by atonement makes

Our peace with God. He speaks to us of mercy

Even as we pierce him. No-one slakes

 

His thirst. I tremble at the mystery

For Christ himself is crying through this psalm,

To suffer my own dereliction for me.

 

XXIII Dominus regit me

To suffer my own dereliction for me,

To be my shepherd, and to lead me through

The grave and gate of death, in strength and mercy

 

Christ has come down. At last I’ve found the true

Shepherd and the false just fade away,

Before him. I will sing of how he drew

 

Me from the snares I set myself, how day

Dawned on my darkness, how he brought me forth

Converted me and opened up the way

 

For me, and led me gently on that path,

Led me beside still waters, promised me

That he’d be with me all my days on earth,

 

And when my last day comes, accompany

And comfort me, as evening shadows fall,

And draw me into his eternity.

 

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Corona Spina: the Crown of Thorns and the Crown of Glory: Psalm 21

We come now to psalm 21, often referred to as a coronation psalm because of the verses:

  1. THE King shall rejoice in thy strength, O Lord: exceeding glad shall he be of thy salvation.
  2. Thou hast given him his heart’s desire: and hast not denied him the request of his lips.
  3. For thou shalt prevent him with the blessings of goodness: and shalt set a crown of pure gold upon his head.
  4. He asked life of thee, and thou gavest him a long life: even for ever and ever.

From its original associations with David’s Crown, Early Christians applied this psalm to Christ ‘the son of David’ and therefore the understanding of coronation itself deepened. Before he wears  the golden crown prophesied in this psalm, Christ, the true Messiah, comes to suffer with his creation and to wear the crown of thorns, the Corona Spina as it was called in Latin. For the word corona which we have learned to dread, is there in the word coronation, and surely part of Christ’s Corona Spina is this current coronavirus crisis, for he enters into our suffering that we might enter into his glory.

This is the reason I chose the ‘corona’ form for ‘David’s Crown’ this new poetry sequence. For another meaning of corona is a crown or chaplet of poems interwoven so that the last line of the first poem is the first line of the next, and so on until the final line of the final poem is the first line of the first poem.

This psalm of course precedes the special prophetic sequence of psalms 22-24 which speak in turn of Christ’s crucifixion, his leading us through the valley of the shadow death as our good shepherd, and his ascent into heaven as our lord and king. But first that glory is prefigured in psalm 21. All these themes have in different ways entered into my response to psalm 21, and I end it knowing that we will turn, in psalm 22, to Christ’s cry of dereliction from the cross.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the play button or the title and you can find the other poems in this evolving series by putting the word ‘psalms’ into the search box on the right.

XXI Domine, in virtute tua

Now may you find in Christ, riches and rest

May you be blessed in him, and he in you

In Heaven, where to grant you your request

 

Is always blessing, for your heart is true:

True to yourself and true to Christ your king.

Breathe through this coronation psalm and view

 

The glory of his golden crown, then sing

The exaltation, goodness, life and power,

The blessing and salvation Christ will bring.

 

But first he wears a darker crown. The hour

Is coming and has come. Our Lord comes down

Into the heart of all our hurts to wear

 

With us the sharp corona spina, crown

Of thorns, and to descend with us to death

Before he shares with us the golden crown.

 

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Some Scent and Sense of Heaven: a response to Psalm 20

‘May each glimpse become epiphany’ (looking across Loch Broom from my mother’s cottage)

Psalm 20 opens with an act of pure blessing. You could speak it over someone and bless them with it, and the crown of that blessing comes in verse 4:

Grant thee thy heart’s desire: and fulfil all thy mind.

The response to this psalm, in my sequence ‘David’s Crown’ is also written as a blessing, and at its core is the idea that the deepest desires of  our hearts might lead us on to God, the one whom, in the end,we most deeply desire. A theme CS Lewis explores so beautifully in both Pilgrim’s Regress’ and Surprised by Joy. So I hope you enjoy this poem and receive it as a blessing spoken over you for good.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the play button or the title and you can find the other poems in this evolving series by putting the word ‘psalms’ into the search box on the right.

XX Exaudiat te Dominus

All given for your growth, and your delight,

All flowing for you from his sanctuary.

Even before you enter in, his light

 

Is blessing you. May mystery

Still draw you on, arouse your heart’s desire,

And may each glimpse become epiphany.

 

May brief sparks blaze into a Holy fire

Whose light and warmth illuminate your mind.

And may some scent and sense of heaven inspire

 

Your thoughts and words. May everything remind

You of your Lord that you may put your trust

Entirely in his name, not in the blind

 

Dependence of this world, whose weapons rust

Into the soul and and kill it from within,

But may you find in Christ, riches and rest.

 

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The Heavens Declare the Glory: my response to psalm 19

under mysterious starlight

In my series ‘David’s Crown’, an interwoven ‘corona’ of responses to The Book of Psalms, we have come to Psalm 19, one of the most famous and beautiful of all the psalms, with its wonderful opening line:

  1. THE heavens declare the glory of God: and the firmament sheweth his handywork.

It was CS Lewis’s favourite psalm, and Michael Ward has shown in his brilliant book Planet Narnia how deeply Lewis responded both to the beauty of the stars and planets and also to the wonderful penumbra of poetry song and story that has been associated in all ages and cultures with their radiance, their dance through the skies, and the sense they give us of an eternal splendour above ‘the changes and chances of this fleeting world’. This psalm is also a favourite of mine and I approached it with some trepidation, but in the end I found in it an invitation just to enjoy and celebrate beauty in verse.

In this poem ‘the complete consort dancing’ is a quotation from Eliot’s four quartets, and the idea that the stars are themselves words in God’s poem is drawn from Coleridge’s insight, in Frost at Midnight, that all the appearances of nature are themselves ‘ the lovely shapes and sounds intelligible/of that eternal language which they God/utters.

It has been lovely to come to a psalm which for a moment leaves agony and struggle behind, and is sheer celebration. I hope you enjoy it too.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the play button or the title and you can find the other poems in this evolving series by putting the word ‘psalms’ into the search box on the right.

 

XIX Caeli enarrant

In that still place where earth and heaven meet

Under mysterious starlight, raise your head

And gaze up at their glory:  ‘the complete

 

Consort dancing’ as a poet said

Of his own words. But these are all God’s words;

A shining poem, waiting to be read

 

Afresh in every heart. Now look towards

The brightening east, and see the splendid sun

Rise and rejoice, the icon of his lord’s

 

True light. Be joyful with him, watch him run

His course, receive the gift and treasure of his light

Pouring like honeyed gold till day is done

 

As sweet and strong as all God’s laws, as right

As all his judgements and as clean and pure,

All given for your growth, and your delight!

 

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Rescue Me: A response to psalm 18

David Delivered out of Many Waters c.1805 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by George Thomas Saul 1878 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02230

Continuing my series of responses to the psalms we come to Psalm 18. This is one of those anguished and dramatic psalms which come as a great  cry from the depths for help and give us a glimpse of  the God who comes down into those depths to rescue us. William Blake was drawn to this psalm and in his painting ‘David Delivered out of Many Waters’ picks up on those lines:

He bowed the heavens also, and came down: and it was dark under his feet.

He rode upon the cherubins, and did fly: he came flying upon the wings of the wind.

At the heart of this painting is the intense gaze between Christ as he descends with the angels his arms outspread in power and compassion, and David who gazes up from the waters, his arms stretched out and bound as though in crucifixion. Blake’s vision here perfectly expresses a Christian reading of the psalms. Of course they were written ‘BC’ but the God whom they address is the God who came down in Christ to rescue us, and the psalms themselves are rustling with the rumour of his coming, indeed many of them are quite literally Messianic. And of course the Christian who prays them now is praying them ‘AD’ and is bound to sing and pray them in the Light of Christ, and consciously address to Christ the psalms which Christ himself had continually on his lips.

In my own response to this psalm I drew not only on Blake’s vision, and the psalm itself, but also on my own personal experience of what it is like to be overwhelmed, to cry for help, and to be rescued by the intervention of a loving God.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the play button or the title and you can find the other poems in this evolving series by putting the word ‘psalms’ into the search box on the right.

 

XVIII Diligam te, Domine

I will behold you, and be satisfied.

My strength my rock my buckler and my shield!

You came to rescue me, I saw you ride

 

The wind’s swift wings, I saw the waters yield

To you, as you reached down to lift me out

Out of the whelming panic, where I reeled

 

And flailed in fear of death. You heard my shout

My anguished cry for help, and carried me

And held me safe and put my fears to rout.

 

And now you give me back my liberty

You strengthen my weak hands and set my feet

To dancing lightly as a deer, as free

 

As any in the forest, and as fleet.

Soon you will call and draw me in your love

To that still place where earth and heaven meet.

 

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Compline’s Familiar Chant: A Response To Psalm 17

Returning to my series on the psalms, we come now to psalm 17, a favourite for many reasons, not least because it is the source of many of the most beautiful and comforting phrases in the lovely service of Compline. Compline, or ‘night prayer’ is the final service of the day and its name is derived from the Latin completorium as it is spoken and sung at the completion of the day. One of the joys and privileges in my role as chaplain at Girton college is to sing compline, late on each tuesday night with our wonderful college choir, but anyone can say or sing it, and in this lockdown, away from college, my wife and I have said it together. In fact she has made a podcast of that for others to join in, which you can find HERE.  There is so much to love in this service but i am especially moved by the response:

V:Keep me as the apple of an eye

R: Hide me under the shadow of thy wings

All these phrases are drawn from psalm 17, a psalm which has the beautiful ending:

But as for me, I will behold thy presence in righteousness: and when I awake up after thy likeness, I shall be satisfied with it.

So when I came to make my response to this psalm I decided to make it a poem of thanksgiving for the comfort of Compline and to reflect on how the beauty of that service serves to re-enchant a disenchanted world.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the play button or the title and you can find the other poems in this evolving series by putting the word ‘psalms’ into the search box on the right.

 

XVII Exaudi, Domine

Oh comfort me until I fall no more.

In this dark season when I am so frail

And fearful, comfort me. I stand before

 

You in your house at evening. I avail

Myself of compline’s long familiar chant

To call on you. I ask you to prevail

 

Over the powers that dull and disenchant

Over the scoffing of a world that’s steeped

In its own excess. And instead to plant

 

Me firmly by your waters, and to keep

Me as the apple of an eye, to hide

Me in the shadow of your wings. I’ll sleep

 

In peace and take my rest. I will abide

In your rich presence now, and when I wake

I will behold you, and be satisfied.

 

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