About afeatheronthebreathofgod

a child of God, brimful of curiosity, learning to see the world through five year old eyes ... learning to be a feather on His breath I am a curate in a rural Anglican Benefice.

Bearers of Light

Mary didn’t feature much in my evangelical upbringing. She was there, but a two dimensional figure who didn’t impact me. I knew nothing of the controversies that surrounded her in the larger world of the church, and down the centuries.

During my adult years my spiritual journey has led me to travel with Mary more and more. She has so much to teach me. Her Yes to God, changing her life forever and that of the world. Her life after that, as a mother, watching her son grow up, and pondering.. turning all these things over in her heart. As a mother standing at the foot of the cross, watching in agony, the way any mother feels their child’s pain almost more than they do. After the resurrection. I have mused in sermons about the possibility of that undocumented meeting. ‘Mother and Son reunion’, I can’t believe it didn’t happen. Almost certainly unwitnessed by anyone else. We will never know this side of Heaven, but prayerful meditative imagination is a powerful way of experiencing the Word.

I am in the habit of scribbling poems in my Christmas cards (although this has become a much greater challenge amidst the pressures of ordained ministry). I was delighted to discover that a much better poet than I, also started that way. U.A. Fanthorpe.( Look her up, she is well worth discovering.) I have blogged some of my poems (click on the titles for the links to those posts)   I have collected some of the more recent ones, to put together in one post, as I prepare to write a sermon for Advent 4 – on Luke 1: 26-38 Gabriel’s visitation to Mary. Pulling together some of the facets of Mary’s life and particularly THAT moment, which have paralleled my own call to ordination, my experience as a former midwife, and my own musings about reputation and the painful process of letting go of even that.

I will post them in chronological order of Mary’s life, rather than the timing of writing them.

The following was written the first Christmas at Theological college, as I was struck ever deeper by how I could ‘bear the weight of this Light’ that God had asked me to carry in calling me to ordination.

Aftermath of Angels

Who are you and who am I

that you should choose me?

Who am I now

that I have chosen

to say yes?

How can I bear the weight

of this light,

carry the child of your heart;

hold He who is Love

within the limits of my own?

Face down, I lay my head

upon the earth

hide me under the shadow

of your wing.

As you form Him in me,

shape me within your hands.

Knit my soul

to the fabric of your being,

Cradle us both

In your enfolding

and bring us to birth

encircled by grace

Surrender. Trust. Saying Yes. My journey towards ordination has been one of struggle. I put up a gargantuan fight when God started to ask me to consider this possibility. (Moses had nothing on my protestations) Her Yes was instantaneous. I now fully embrace my calling, but it was not always so. This poem reflects this stage of my journey.

She said Yes-

but suppose the answer had been NO?

and Heaven held its breath

as in that startled moment

a teenage lass

looked an angel in the face.

Cascades of questions

in tug of terror and of trust

as wide eyed in wonder

it dawned on her

the choice was hers

and hers alone.

yet the choice was not to choose

to surrender choice itself

taking the gift

God gives with life and breath,

to lay it down.

her Yes was all that she could give

took all she had

To hold the angel’s eye.

Let it be

to me as you have said’

and Heaven’s gate swung wide..

Mary’s Yes risked everything. Her engagement, her relationship with her family, her life. She could have been stoned for adultery. How do you begin to explain? How do you hold on to your self esteem and integrity, when you know the truth, but the world does not see it? I have had my own journey with having my reputation smeared and having to keep silent, knowing that God knew the truth, and that was in the end, all that matters. We waste so much precious energy holding onto our reputations when it can, like health or wealth or dear ones, be taken from you in a moment. Letting God guard it for you, is a much better way, that Mary modelled, and I am still in the learning. 

Scandal.

slip of a brown skinned girl

almost a child herself,

with some story about angels ( as if!)

and so the offensive smell of scandal

clung like dust to Mary’s skin.

You were an outcast

from the start.

A wrinkled nose and upturned sneer

barely hid behind hard hands.

Your birth, no less, a squalid mess

a foetid outhouse slum

the scrapings of a nowhere town.

What father this , who watches on-

while child of his, flees in the dark

a refugee from hate?

A Father whose love outstripped

the twisting coils of evil’s curse

and let his Son grow on

into the scandal of a cross.

Written from my experiences as a midwife and a mother, the following tries to explore the wonder and miracle of any birth, and the mind bending miracle of this particular one. Further thoughts on this, and Mary’s life can be found in my post Bringing Love where Love is absent

Upside Down Miracles

 

Exhausted, yet wide awake,

my body spent, yet every nerve alive.

we one have become Two.

He who lately stirred in me, moved

more than limbs, whose spirit sang

with mine, filling my soul with wordless awe:

now like a lamb, lies in the straw.

God’s perfect lamb…that shepherds knelt to see.

my tiny lamb…so vulnerable

that I would hide him from the fears that lurk, and

what the future may require..

Who then is he, whose soft breath on my neck

nuzzles me close, and with his

fingers in mine, I wonder with a kiss

just who is holding who?

This one isn’t specifically about Mary, but follows the theme of wonder, and the things she carried in her heart, as he grew up.

Incarnation

With the first cry of birth

A gasp of foetid stable air,

The Mighty Godhead came to earth

Likes naked in a hovel bare.

Fragile and helpless, he-

Whose incandescence fused the stars.

The humble shepherds kneel to see

Eternity behind Life’s bars.

No throne, no royal crown

Ahead for this celestial king.

To wood and nails he is come down,

Earth’s toil and tears his lot would bring.

A crib, a child, a cross,

Heaven’s mysteries are revealed;

Our gain would mean the Father’s loss,

By his wounds, our world is healed.

Written the Christmas of my second year of Theological college, the following emerged from a deep journey of discovery into the mysteries of the Eucharist. During that exploration I accidentally stumbled upon the notion of the priesthood of Mary, theotokos, the Christ-Bearer, something that wiser folk than I have written much upon, but which was so obvious once I had seen it. More of this can be found in my eponymous blog post, Holy Gifts. Again I am echoing Mary’s life with my own calling as a priest.

Holy Gifts

 

Taken

Chosen

A life lifted from obscurity

Held in hands that hefted galaxies

Hallowed by an ask

To sustain

The Word

 

Blessed

Given grace

To bear the weight of favour

Daughter of Eve,

Giving God a thankful heart

By holding His, within

Her own

 

Broken

Lanced by sword

That pierced Father, Spirit, Son.

Blood of her blood

Poured out for those

That clamoured for

His death.

 

Given

Her whole life

Offered on the altar

Of surrender

A readiness to be God’s Yes

Shared out to hungry hands

To feed a world

With grace

The following poem was written one Christmas when God was asking me to Go. To leave all that I had known and loved, within the church family of which I had been a part for most of my adult life. To step out into the dark. At the time it felt like a deep tearing. Heartbreaking. Looking back, God’s grace transformed that heartbreak into so much blessing, learning and growth. Every time He calls me once again to step out, I remind myself that ‘He who calls you is faithful’ and that His nail pierced feet tread at my side.

Sent

God said GO and He went

from all knowing to unknown

from unbounded horizons

to the confines of a womb.

God said GO and she went

from innocent obscurity to scandal’s

harshest stare. God said GO

and she went- full bellied from all

she knew and loved, to weary road,

that knew no place of welcome or of rest.

God said GO and they went

awed by angels, hearts racing their feet

towards the promise of a child.

God said GO and they went

they knew not where, but the call was all

their hearts could hear, and drew them on

when way was hard, and path unclear.

Bringing the best they had

they came to follow and to kneel.

God said GO and they went

out in the dark in what they stood,

exiles of a jealous king.

God says GO and will you ask

‘How far?’ Or know the route you tread?

Listen for the Child’s cry

to wake your heart to go

but travel with your feet unshod

for the Way is holy ground.

This morning, I discovered a beautiful, fresh angle on Mary’s encounter with Gabriel, and I could not finish this post without including the poem and the  link to the blog in which it can be found. Written by Jan Richardson on her blog The Advent Door.

What must it have been like for the archangel who witnessed Mary’s yes?

Gabriel’s Annunciation

For a moment
I hesitated
on the threshold.
For the space
of a breath
I paused,
unwilling to disturb
her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step
would cleave her life:
that this day
would slice her story
in two,
dividing all the days before
from all the ones
to come.

The artists would later
depict the scene:
Mary dazzled
by the archangel,
her head bowed
in humble assent,
awed by the messenger
who condescended
to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor
upon a woman, and mortal.

Yet I tell you
it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape
when I came upon her—
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,
I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me—
blessed and full of grace
long before I called her so—
shimmered with how completely
she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment
that hung between us.

I wanted to save her
from what I had been sent
to say.

Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered
the invitation
(history would not record
the sweat on my brow,
the pounding of my heart;
would not note
that I said
Do not be afraid
to myself as much as
to her)
it was she
who saved me—
her first deliverance—
her Let it be
not just declaration
to the Divine
but a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction

for the angel
in the doorway
who would hesitate
one last time—
just for the space
of a breath
torn from his chest—
before wrenching himself away
from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and
awful yes.

- See more at: http://adventdoor.com/2014/12/19/advent-4-gabriel-and-mary/#sthash.iWh5qIBG.JyHMT2MA.dpuf

Journey to joy

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Gaudete Sunday. Avent 3.

How do you get to joy when three days ago you buried a much loved pillar of the church and community, our churchwarden, Diana? How do you do the journey to joy in the tears, the the dark days and the loss?  The following is my sermon from this morning, as I tried to answer..

(The readings from this am were Isaiah 61.1-4,8-end 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24 and Gospel John 1: 6-8, 19-28)

Isaiah 61 (NRSV)

61 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice,

    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;[b]
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets,[a] 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.

23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound[b] and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.              24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

You shall go out with joy.

We sang that through our tears on Thursday. It was Di’s favourite hymn and she would have loved it that we sung it as she left this place. Paul in writing to his beloved brothers and sisters in Thessalonica is for once in his life very succinct, in the passage we have today. You will be glad to hear that I intend to follow suit..

Paul fires off 8 imperatives in 7 short verses and they could sum up all of his many many words and teaching about the wholeness that is at the heart of our life of faith. Wholeness, because if you over emphasise one aspect without the others you can end up on the floor.

3 legged stool

 I made this stool in a woodwork class, some years back, from scratch. Turning the legs and cutting and shaping the seat. It is just a humble 3 legged stool. Nothing fancy. Nothing complicated. But I had to make sure that all the legs were exactly the same length and that I made 3 of them. A two legged stool is a much use as a chocolate tea pot! Like I said, you can end up on the floor.

God who loves each of us so much, so longs for wholeness in our lives. Longs to touch our spirits, souls and bodies with his Peace, his Spirit and his Joy.

Paul starts with Joy. The three legs of his stool are joy, prayer and thanksgiving.

He tells his friends to start with joy. Joy as the fire in the steam engine of their lives that drives the rest. Using that analogy. Perhaps the water is prayer and the coal needed to keep that fire burning is thanksgiving… I don’t know a lot about steam trains – but I do know that shovelling coal is hard work! It also needs to keep happening or the train will simply grind to a halt.

I have a thing about 3’s this am, and the Trinity are of course the most important. 3 legs of a stool. 3 initials that should be applied to any and every sermon (by the preacher) YBHYES, BUT HOW?

HOW do you rejoice when your heart is broken or heavy? When you are tired and there is simply too much too do, and no time or energy to do it all in? When your faith is wobbly, and you are not sure where you are going anymore?

HOW do you give thanks in all circumstances .. ALL circumstances? What planet are you on, Paul? You can’t mean that, surely.

HOW can you pray without ceasing when you can’t find the words, or they stick in your throat or you want to shout rather than pray?

If I want to stand on this stool, I have to make sure it is set on a firm foundation. Slide your eyes down to the last verse of our passage to the Thessalonians..

The One who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

THAT is how. We can’t do it by ourselves. We can’t pull ourselves up by our bootlaces and make ourselves joyful, prayerful or thankful. But we have a God of Peace who wants to ground the very depths of our being in his LOVE and Faithfulness. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.. (we sang this prior to the Gospel reading)Touch me with your holy fire and set me alight , spirit, soul and body. Paul tells us not to quench the Spirit, because he knows that it is ONLY through the Holy Spirit that we can have joy, peace and thankful hearts. The other name for the Holy Spirit is Comforter. Jesus said he would not leave us alone, but would send us a Comforter. The Bayeaux tapestry has a picture of King Harold poking a spear at one of his soldiers – with the heading Harold comforteth his troops” The old English meaning of the word – encompassing comfort, encouragement, enabling.. but it can often feel like anything but- like a poke with a sharp stick!

How do we give thanks in all circumstances .. only because we know that God can use and transform even the toughest of circumstances for good. The sharpest, most pointy things can be used by him for good. Please note that I AM NOT saying that God sends hard things for our good. I am saying that if we offer those hard things to him he can transform them and us. There is a saying that goes: Life is 10% what happens to us, and 90% how we react to that 10%.                                                                                       We can react with bitterness, the oh,so dangerously, slippery slope of self pity, or by walling ourselves off from God or other people. OR with the help of God’s Spirit we can come to him Just as we are.(Opening hymn) On any given day. UP, down or in between. Fearful, doubtful, tired. Just as we are. We come. We come to the one with nail pieced hands who comes in to the darkest of places and sits with us.

I cannot tell how silently He suffered,
  As with His peace He graced this place of tears,
Or how His heart upon the Cross was broken,
  The crown of pain to three and thirty years.
But this I know, He heals the broken-hearted,
  And stays our sin, and calms our lurking fear,
And lifts the burden from the heavy laden,
  For yet the Saviour, Saviour of the world, is here.   (Closing Hymn)

We will sing those beautiful words at the end of our service this morning.                      ‘The Saviour of the world is here.’ 

Emmanuel. God with us. In it all. The hard bits, the good bits, the boring drudgery bits and the rest.

Emanuel. God with us -spirit, soul and body.  Touching our weary spirits with his peace, lifting our heavy souls and carrying us, in his faithfulness, fuelling our flagging bodies with his joy.

1 Thessalonians 5 (The Message) 

23-24 May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ. The One who called you is completely dependable. If he said it, he’ll do it!

Amen.

personroots

Silent Night

Christmas Truce 1914

Christmas Truce 1914

This Christmas Eve, 2014, sees the hundred year anniversary of that strange and wonderful happening – The Christmas Truce. A spontaneous Truce that broke out all along the Western Front, that first Christmas of the Great War, 1914. In many places the opposing trenches were only yards apart, shouting distance across the no go area known as ‘No Man’s Land’ strewn with unburied bodies, excrement and mud. There is so much about ‘The War to end all wars’ that looking back with the retrospectascope of a hundred years, makes us wonder ‘What were they thinking?’….

Thousands of Christmas trees had been shipped to the German Front line. A fictional account which picks up the facts and emotions portrayed in letters from those present as it unfolded gives a sense of the wonder. Phillip Maddison an English soldier in Henry Williamson’s A Fox Under My Cloak, found Christmas Eve to be literally a silent night.

‘His company, under the cover of moonset was to pick its way across the ‘frost-cobbled’ mud with posts, rolls of wirs, hammers and staples, to edge the line forward a few yards. Under the gleaming stars they walked easily. Although they risked being mowed down by machine-gun fire, Maddison ‘rejoiced that he was not afraid’.

Not a sound came from the Germans. The unbelievable became the ordinary, so that they talked as they worked, without caution, while the night passed as in a dream. The moon moved down to the top of the wood behind them; always it seemed, they had been moving bodilessly with their own shadows. Some time in the night Phillip saw what looked like a light on top of a pole put up in the German lines. It was a strange sort of light. It burned almost white, and was absolutely steady. What sort of lantern was it? He did not think much about it; it was part of the strange unreality of the silence of the night, the silence of the moon in the sky, of the silence of the frost mist…

Suddenly there was a short, quick cheer from the German Lines, Hoch! Hoch! Hoch! and with the others he flinched and crouched, ready to fling himself flat; but no shot came. Voices reached them across the dark void of No Man’s land. Then the Scots saw dim figures silhoutted on the German parapet, and about them more lights. With amazement, Maddison realised that a Christmas tree was being set there… They began to hear from the German parapet a rich baritone voice singing ‘Stille Nacht, Helige Nacht’ . The voice came across the mist and ‘It was all so strange; it was like being in another world, to which he had come through a nightmare…

This book is quoted in another called Silent Night, in which ‘acclaimed historian Stanley Weintraub reveals the truth of this inspiring episode and tell the story of those men whose goodwill, humanity and faith all too briefly prevailed over the madness of the Great War’

I will be using this remarkable episode in history woven in with the Christmas services I am taking this year. There is a very obvious correlation, and many gifted people have produced dramas, liturgies and materials to highlight the link for the Centenary.  I also write a poem most Christmases and have for many years now. The following is the result of some of my journeying with centenary commemorations.

Silent Night

Light in the darkness
It started with one.

A flicker of flame against the black of night
A pin-prick of hope in a canvass of hate and fear.
One became another, a host of mystery
Sprinkle of tiny lights
Ribboned out across the Front.

Light in the darkness
It started with one.

One star. One angelic flame fracturing the night.
herald of Hope to a people dwelling in darkness.
one became another, a host of mystery
Holy couriers ablaze
Phosphorescence of grace

Song in the dark
It started with one

A lone voice lifted into the silence, void of guns
Longing for home, a soldier’s strain of Christ child come down
One became another, a host of mystery
As voice echoed voice across
No man’s land, scarred waste of war

Song in the dark
It started with one

Orison of joy sung out to astonished ears
Singing of Home, an angel’s word of Christ child come down
One became another, a host of mystery
Incarnation of Love
God birthed in dung and trench

Light in the dark
It started with One.

christmas-star

Looming Liminality / Base Jumping

liminality
In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.”

Wikipedia, I couldn’t have put it better myself. For months now, the sense of an ending has been sitting over my head. The feeling of a yawning gap opening up ahead as the time draws near to move on.
To take the leap from being a curate to incumbency.
I should be used to liminal space by now. The discernment process and ordination training itself is a  whole series of liminal experiences, but it never gets anymore comfortable.
It has felt at times, like drawing ever closer to the edge of a cliff and knowing that jumping off is not optional but mandatory. Scary and exciting. (but mostly scary)

BBC1’s wonderful current series Life Story opened with unforgettable scenes of the Barnacle geese’s start in life. At the tender age of two days old they must forsake the nest in which they hatched and hurtle over a 400ft cliff. Believe it or not, it is the parents method of maximising their chances of survival to adulthood. I watched with my heart in my mouth, and the scene has stayed with me, striking a deep chord.
See for yourselves.

It may not have been a mere two days, but it feels like no time at all since I moved here and took up my curacy. I have loved the experience, demanding, exhausting and full on as it has been. In the deep end from the start, it has been a privilege to share the highs and lows of so many lives.  Enmeshing myself into four churches that form our Benefice, and learning to live out incarnational ministry in a rural, village context. I have put my heart and soul into this place and it will be a wrench to leave. I have had plenty ‘moving on’ experience, from places and churches, but it doesn’t make the transition any easier.

I have adapted to country living like a duck to water and the blessings of being surrounded by beautiful countryside have far outweighed the inconveniences. Watching the seasons change and living with the rhythms of nature have become an integral part of my spiritual life, constantly feeding me and lifting my heart. Having dogs means I am outdoors in all weathers, at least twice a day, and their requirements have afforded me regular pauses/reflection time in otherwise non stop schedule. (see my twitter feed for regular photographic journaling)

This week along with other final year curates, I spent a day with the Bishop, looking at the pressing question of What Next? It all became very real, as we explored the process and strategies for interviews and applications. It was like standing on the edge and looking down. Quite a few bumps along the way, and hopefully a welcome party at the other end.  Simultaneously trying to continue to focus on the job I have, whilst think, pray and imagine myself into another. And potentially to have to do the latter several at a time. An emotionally demanding journey.

God called me to follow him into the vocation of ordained ministry and although I fought him tooth and nail at the outset, (see Where is your home? / Becoming who you are / Called to fish, shaped to serve / Called by name for more on that story) it is a calling I have now fully embraced. I have no idea at this point what His plans are for me for the next few years (who does?)  but as I stand here teetering on the edge, about to jump I know that ‘He who calls is faithful’. It is into His hands that I jump, and I can’t think of better ones to trust.

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Speaking into the unspeakable

War. It is on our screens and in our faces, from many corners of the globe. It weighs heavy on the heart, as the seemingly endless tragedies of innocent victims play out time and again. Hard to watch. Hard to see. Hard to know how to pray. The horror of it all almost unimaginable. The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote over 2500 years ago, ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ and certainly as far as human conflict is concerned, he was right. The First World War commemorations have reminded us of the scale and cost, paid in lives a hundred years ago.

flood of poppies at the Tower of London

Bloodswept Lands and Seas of Red

In my early teens I discovered the poetry of Wilfred Owen, whose vivid word pictures captured the stuff of nightmares. The physical, moral and emotional maelstroms facing those fighting in the trenches. I am not sure any other poet has been able to express the pathos and pointlessness of war so eloquently.

Anthem for doomed youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

This poem could have been written for the youth of Syria, of Gaza, Iraq. .                           Its timeless truth as apt. He saw his poetry as a warning for humanity as he looked into a future he would never see. He was killed on the 4th November, 1918 just days before the end of the war. His parents had news of his death as the bells were ringing out for Armistice on the 11th of November. He was just 25 years old. Compiling a book of his poetry, he wrote in his introduction Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.      

unnamed My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful. His warnings unheeded, his truths live on. As part of the commemorations, a place where I work held a re-enactment of the first men of the town marching off blithely for ‘King and country’, cheered on by those left behind. It was a sober moment, realising that a high majority of those marching would never return. A whole generation of young men wiped out, leaving a crater of grief and hardship in the towns and villages from which they came. I have just finished the book The Quick and The Dead: Fallen Soldiers and their families in the Great War by Richard Van Emden. If every poppy in the photo above of Paul Cummins/Tom Piper’s artwork on display in the Tower of London, represents a life, graphically capturing the magnitude of loss, this book’s collection of letters and personal insights paints the petals of a few. Setting them in the context of their homes and families, it examines the impact of the war on those left behind, parents, wives and children and the reverberations down the generations since. In the summer of 2010, Lilly Baron a frail 97 year old made her way to France to lay a wreath of lilies at the place of her father’s death, and say a prayer She had been born in 1912 and her father had died in November 1917. Her note with the lilies said simply.

Daddy, Thank you for five years of real happiness- I have missed you all my life.”

She was to die herself, a few months following that journey.

The following fragment from a poem by Wilfred Owen called Strange Meeting, envisions a meeting between fellow soldiers on opposite sides, just after death.

“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

 

  How much do we find ourselves again in need of those ‘sweet wells’ and ‘truths that lie too deep for taint’. Wilfred Owen was able somehow to find the words for the unspeakable. Lacking his eloquence, I can only weep, and pray Kýrie eléison,

Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy’  

longing for that day when

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 4:2

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If

Jesus-Desert

There aren’t any roads in the desert. It is easy to get lost, and disoriented. One hill or escarpment looks very like another. Especially in the burning sun. He didn’t know what he had expected. Driven from the Jordan and the scene of his baptism, by an inescapable inner compunction. The voice that had called him Beloved had called him into the wilderness.

At first, he had welcomed the solitude, the silence of the empty landscape. If he was honest, he had also welcomed the challenge that he sensed. Pitting himself against the elements, against the odds. At first, it tasted of adventure.

At first.

The desert is an unforgiving friend. A harsh host, who gives nothing, takes everything. Strips the spirit bare, and picks over the bones of your dreams.

No roads, no directions, no certainties. No place to lay his head.

By day, the unrelenting sun. Remorseless glare of white on white. Bleached stones and dust, devoid of colour, comfort, life. The longing for shade, to creep under a rock and shut it out. A thirst for darkness, that surprised.

By night, inky blackness spreads her cloak of desolate chill. Wind whispers cold comfort to a lonely soul. Hard shale no solace to weary bones and shrinking flesh.

Hollowed out by hunger, he had never felt so empty. So spent. So alone. The breaking glory of his baptism a distant memory. The call into the wasteland a faint echo in a bleak canyon. A mouthful of dust.

There are no smells in the desert, and yet the waft of fresh-baked bread pulled him from what passed as sleep. In the shimmering haze, each stone, a roll each rock, a loaf. He blinked and stared, uncomprehending. Tantalised by a phantom feast.

A shape. A form that wore a sycophantic smile and spoke in honeyed tones.

“Your power lies within. IF you are the son of God… One word would turn these stones to bread. You are weak with fasting that has become fanatic. Gone beyond the call. What harm in feeding yourself? Come now, listen to the voice of reason. ” 

So simple. So sensible. So inviting. .. Just a word.

And yet. And yet the words ingested as a child nourish him still.

“Man shall not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’  Spoken to desert wanderers, long years before, lest they forget the hand that gave them life.  He’d not waste his words, or play with power to feed himself, or to prove the power was his. He would stay hungry for God.

The desert dropped away. His vision swam and cleared to see the crowds far below. The temple throng and press. The silky voice relentless in his ears, as he swayed on tiny ledge.

IF you are the Son of God, as you believe (is that really true? How do you know?) God would not let his son be harmed- a thousand angels would catch your fall. Jump! Make a splash! Such a large crowd to impress. An overnight sensation – and the peace of knowing you are who you say you are. They would know- you would know. What is not to like? Jump!

The hand on his back to help him fly.

Dizzy, faint with lack, his body teetered on the edge. So easy. So sweet. So quick – an end. To fall into the angels arms.  Anger for God’s name flashed through his limbs and held him fast. His words terse and spare.

As well you know, It is written, “Do not put The Lord your God to the test” ”

He jumped ..

back and spun to face the shadow at his back.

Gone. And in an instant, so was he. Whisked from temple tower to mountain top, the world spread out at his feet. A panoply of dominion.

All MINE. ” The voice was soft and warm. “I would not desert and starve you as the God who you call Father has.. (where is he now?) I am here. Simply rest. Kneel and ask my blessing and it is yours, my son. No more to do. No cross to bear. ” 

No cross. No tomb. No hell.

And yet hell’s breath was in his face. Sweet words on foul vapour. Deception unmasked by evil’s fetid taint.

” Be gone! ” The command brooked no rebuff. All authority was his. The Word spoke ancient words of life the devil could not stay to hear.

” Worship The Lord your God and serve only him.” 

The brush of angel’s wings.

There aren’t any roads in the desert. It is easy to get lost.

Water of life

Water for the Journey. My venture into the scary world of blogging started with that post. (It remains above this as a title page, as I hadn’t learnt to post properly at that stage, but it seemed right to leave it where it was)

I started this year with another adventure. A pilgrimage to Israel.                                          Travelling on my own with a group of unknown others. A journey of encounter, of learning and entering Jesus’ world.

It started with being given a bottle of water. Water for the journey. In a dry and thirsty land where water is precious, water was to be a constant theme. The gift an example of the loving care and kindness from those leading the group,* that continued throughout the trip.

Take a desert, a barren, rocky moonscape of a desert..

Desert

and add a few vital drops of water.. and the hidden seeds buried in the hard, dry ground, burst into life.

life

Before my eyes, I saw a prayerful vision of promise for a church played out for real. Green shoots of potential breaking through in hope. Elsewhere I was to see the miracle of transformation taken much further. Valleys I had last seen as dusty wastes, were now verdant farmland- transfigured by advances in de-salination and irrigation processes. From death to life. The desert come to bloom.

The trip was as much an inner journey as an outer one. Early in the itinerary we were taken out into the Judean desert, (where Jesus faced down forty days of temptations at the very start of his ministry)and left to scatter to places of isolation for an hour of interior travel. Sitting in silent solitude was a deep balm. People-filled weeks of frenetic pace dropped away. I could have stayed much, much longer and initially found it hard to return to company and conversation. The Gospels often record Jesus stealing away to ‘lonely places’ for time out with his Father, a life-line undergirding his ministry.

Staying right beside the Sea of Galilee, was an equal balm. Early morning walks by the lakeside as dawn was breaking or watching the sun setting were a gentle counterpoint to days filled with multiple impressions, stimuli and thought provoking information.

Galilee is, if anything less populated than it was in Jesus’ day, and the vistas of hills and lake are immensely evocative of the world he knew and loved. Hard to describe, it feels a very ‘thin place’ where the veil between earth and heaven becomes transparent. Contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge describes the Celtic idea of ‘Thin Place’

'Thin places', the Celts call this space
both seen and unseen,
where the door between this world
and the next is cracked open for a moment
and the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.

I may not visit this shore again within my life time, but it is somewhere I can return to again and again in imaginative prayer. Water for the journey. Water for life.

At a major turning point in his ministry, as Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem and all that awaited him there, he travelled with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. Luke records him as ‘praying privately’. The source of the Jordan gushes out of the foot of Mount Hermon, very close to this spot, and it is possible to walk beside its roaring waterfalls and rushing waters. It would have been an obvious place to choose for private prayer.

Our guide had us walk beside the water in silence, then pause to hear Psalm 42.

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?
3 My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
    ‘Where is your God?’
4 These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng.

5 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Saviour and my God.

6 My soul is downcast within me;
    therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
    the heights of Hermon – from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.

8 By day the Lord directs his love,
    at night his song is with me –
    a prayer to the God of my life.

9 I say to God my Rock,
    ‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
    oppressed by the enemy?’
10 My bones suffer mortal agony
    as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
    ‘Where is your God?’

11 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Saviour and my God.

A Psalm written in this ancient landscape. A Psalm echoing perhaps, Jesus’ mood at this point of crucial transition. He goes on to describe his coming suffering to his bewildered disciples.

Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls. All your waves and breakers have swept over me.. 

A vivid, lasting memory of a much earlier visit to Israel, had been standing under the gushing force of these very falls. (This is no longer permitted) The Psalmist’s words echo my own spiritual experiences. Sometimes God is found in gentle stillness. At other times, encounters with the Almighty feel like being swept off your feet in an unstoppable torrent. 

Thirst. The Psalmist describes himself as having a ‘thirsty soul’. I need a thirsty soul. A deep and constant longing for the only water that can satisfy. 

Thirsty

The underground stream that never fails, even in the harshest drought. 

Water of life 2

Late one afternoon, we boarded a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. To experience for ourselves a journey Jesus would have made many times. It was to prove an intense crossing for me. I think I cried for most of it. Early in my journey towards ordination, I had written a poem on the various calls on Peter’s life, as they resonated so deeply with my own. I used the poem Called to fish, shaped to serve in the presentation I had to give at the three day residential interview for the priesthood.  My own words now came back to me forcibly. ‘Stepped out of all he knew’ – Jesus’ invitation to Peter to step out of the boat..onto the deep. It seems God is always calling me to step out. Out of comfort zones and known territory. Into a place of overwhelming dependence. 

Deep calls to deep.

* www.michaelcard.com