Tag Archives: Reflections

The Voice of the Lord: a response to Psalm 29

Psalm 29 is one of those short psalms that thrills with an intense, almost electric poetic charge. It is a celebration of  ‘the voice of the Lord’ singing and ringing through nature and yet resounding and commanding from above and beyond nature:

It is the Lord that commandeth the waters: it is the glorious God that maketh the thunder.

It is the Lord that ruleth the sea; the voice of the Lord is mighty in operation: the voice of the Lord is a glorious voice.

The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedar-trees: yea, the Lord breaketh the cedars of Libanus.

He maketh them also to skip like a calf: Libanus also, and Sirion, like a young unicorn.

The voice of the Lord divideth the flames of fire; the voice of the Lord shaketh the wilderness: yea, the Lord shaketh the wilderness of Cades.

A Christian praying and responding to this psalm does so knowing that the Lord whose voice is celebrated in this psalm is Christ, whose voice is also within us as well as beyond us, who speaks to us in the voices of the poor and in his own Passion and compassion.

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.

XXIX Afferte Domino

Call us oh Christ, and open up the gate

Call us to worship, with your mighty voice:

The voice that sings through rivers in full spate

 

The voice in which the forests all rejoice

The voice that rolls through thunderclouds, and calls

The deep seas and steep waves, the quiet voice

 

That stirs our sleeping conscience and recalls

Us to the love we had abandoned, leads

Us through the parting mists of doubt, or falls

 

Upon us like a revelation, pleads

With us upon the poor’s behalf, blazes

In glory from each burning bush, and bleeds

 

Out from compassion’s wounds, raises

Our spirits till we dance for joy

And gives us too, a voice to sing his praises.

 

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A Heart That Dances: Responding to Psalm 28

Returning to our psalm sequence we have come to psalm 28, another psalm which calls for and summons up strength and comfort, and, something more than comfort -Joy. For me, and for many others the key verse of this psalm is verse 8:

The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart hath trusted in him, and I am helped: therefore my heart danceth for joy, and in my song will I praise him.

There is a beautiful movement there from strength and protection into trust, and through trust into joy, and arising from joy the song of praise which is the psalm itself. And yet the psalmist is well aware of the struggle with evil, with ‘wicked doers: which speak friendly to their neighbours, but imagine mischief in their hearts.'(verse 3) The trust and joy towards which the psalm moves are all the stronger and more persuasive because they are not naive, because they engage with, rather than evading the problems of the world.

My poem in response to this psalm enters into the same paradox, how to keep tuning into and hearing the music of Heaven, even amidst the cacophony of hate, how to let go of the ego and receive again, how to keep turning, again and again to Christ as he calls us.

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.

XXVIII Ad te, Domine

 

To dare each moment’s death, that I might live

Means both repentence and a plenitude

Of grace. Means letting go to let him give.

 

So Christ I beg for that beatitude

The grace to simply let go and receive

From your unsparing hand the amplitude

 

Of your beneficence, to have a heart

That dances to the measure of your music

Even here where evil seeks to part

 

Us from each promised good, and where the sick

And sickening cacophony of hate

Might deafen us or wound us to the quick

 

And break us down. May it not be too late

To turn to you again and start to live

Call us oh Christ, and open up the gate.

 

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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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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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A Goodly Heritage: my response to psalm 16

Continuing my series of poetic responses to the psalms, we come to psalm 16. A favourite with many people, it comes as a sweet relief, a kind oasis after the tension and struggles of psalms 9-14, and the moral challenge of 15. Here we come to a sheer recognition of our blessings and a thanksgiving for them:

The Lord himself is the portion of mine inheritance, and of my cup: thou shalt maintain my lot. The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground: yea, I have a goodly heritage.

and then of course the beautiful promise in the final verse:

Thou shalt shew me the path of life; in thy presence is the fulness of joy: and at thy right hand there is pleasure for evermore

My response here picks up on that hope in our true heritage, especially as so many of the frail and unstable goods in which we use to put our trust have been withdrawn or are collapsing around us.

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.

XVI Conserva me, Domine

Then help me, step by step, my guide and friend.

Preserve me O my God in whom I trust.

My other goods are nothing in the end,

 

How quickly they decay, how swiftly rust,

But through it all you stay and comfort me,

My one abiding joy, when all the rest

 

Have flown so suddenly. For now I see

My true inheritance, now I look up

And find you still beside me, showing me

 

The path of life. In your right hand the cup

Of blessings full to overflowing, your

Left hand upholds me still, gives me hope.

 

I have a goodly heritage! You pour

On me your graces, undeserved, you raise

And comfort me until I fall no more.

 

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The 12th Poem in my Corona on the Psalms: A Plea for Liberation

whose icons all prove idols in the end

We come now to the 12th poem in my interwoven series of responses the the Book of Psalms. We have been praying these ancient texts together as a church for two thousand years, but each generation in their turn must make these prayers their own and bring them to bear on the way we live now, and this is what I am seeking to do in these poems. When I came to read the opening verses of this psalm:

  1. HELP me, Lord, for there is not one godly man left: for the faithful are minished from among the children of men,
  2. They talk of vanity every one with his neighbour: they do but flatter with their lips, and dissemble in their double heart.

And also the 4th verse in which the oppressors say: ‘with our tongue we will prevail’, I began to think about all the technology of communication, and the lives we live online. Like many people I have been alarmed not only by the anger and absence of charity in so much internet discourse but also about the insidious ways in which some social media platforms have turned their users into saleable ‘product’, harvesting and marketing our personal data. Now we have brought this on ourselves and I am very conscious of the irony of even discussing it on the very media I am criticising, though I have to say the appearance of my poetry on social media is only a stopgap, its true habitat os the good old fashioned book, or the in-person recitation, and of course I hope the readers of this page will eventually prefer to have a real book in their hands when these poems are eventually published.

Happily Psalm 12 doesn’t leave us in despair about the human abuse and cheapening of language, but brings us back to the redemptive words of God himself:

The words of the Lord are pure words: even as the silver, which from the earth is tried, and purified seven times in the fire.

And so in the end my poem too returns us to hope in the words of Christ himself. 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. I hope you enjoy the poem.

XII Salvum me fac

To topple tyrants and exalt the low,

Up lord and help us! Hear our hapless sighs,

We have been cowed by ‘people in the know’,

 

The worldly wind us in a web of lies,

We have been flattered into servitude,

Snared with devices that the rich devise.

 

They purchase us with their fake plenitude,

They keep us clicking on false images.

The one percent control the multitude

 

With virtual distractions, online purchases,

Whose icons all prove idols in the end.

They market us as passive packages.

 

Send us instead your pure words, Jesus, send

Us hope, still silver-bright, tried in the fire,

Come down to free us, come as our true friend.

 

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The 11th Poem In My Corona On The Psalms: In Domino Confido

‘I envy birds their wings’ image by Peter Swain

Continuing my series of poems in response to The Psalms we come to Psalm 11 I mentioned in my last post that this is part of a  sequence of four psalms from 9 through to 12, which strongly emphasise God’s promise to defend the poor and needy. Psalm 11 highlights our sense of unfairness when some of the best people, ‘the true of heart’ are specifically targeted by the worst people, and how even if we had wings to fly, someone would want to shoot us down

IN THE Lord put I my trust: how say ye then to my soul, that she should flee as a bird unto the hill? For lo, the ungodly bend their bow, and make ready their arrows within the quiver: that they may privily shoot at them which are true of heart.

But the Psalmist opens and closes the psalm with confidence in God and the final establishment of his justice. It is both challenging and comforting for us to read this: challenging because we may be complicit in the oppression f the poor it describes, but comforting because in trusting God alone we may be liberated to change the way we live. In my poem I confess the constraint and complicity but also try to deepen the trust and the comfort. As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the play button. If you put the word ‘psalms’ in the search bar you will find the other poems in this series.

XI In Domino confido

 

Arise my God, and give the poor their day!

For now I see the powers taking aim

And targeting the weakest. See, they slay

 

The true of heart and still they claim

To be our shepherds!  Where then can I fly?

I envy birds their wings, but sorrows maim,

 

And my complicities constrain me. I

Long with all my soul to seek the hill

Where God has set his citadel on high,

 

Yet through these sad constraints I trust him stlll,

I know that he can see the way things go

I know that these dark ways are not his will

 

For he loves justice, and the poor will know

That he is their defender when he comes

To topple tyrants and exalt the low.

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