Camas Lilies – ‘Gone to the fields to be lovely’

  Camas Lilies

Consider the lilies of the field,

the blue banks of camas opening
into acres of sky along the road.
Would the longing to lie down
and be washed by that beauty
abate if you knew their usefulness,
how the natives ground their bulbs
for flour, how the settlers’ hogs
uprooted them, grunting in gleeful
oblivion as the flowers fell?
And you—what of your rushed
and useful life? Imagine setting it all down—
papers, plans, appointments, everything—
leaving only a note: “Gone
to the fields to be lovely. Be back
when I’m through with blooming.”
Even now, unneeded and uneaten,
the camas lilies gaze out above the grass
from their tender blue eyes.
Even in sleep your life will shine.
Make no mistake. Of course
your work will always matter.
Yet Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.

Lynn Ungar

I stumbled across Lynn Ungar’s beautiful poem in recent years, and have used her lines

Gone to the fields to be lovely. Be back when I’m through with blooming”   as my out of office reply. A statement of the need and importance of immersing myself in the beauties of nature to fill my well. The demands of priesthood are a constant outpouring, and it is an ever essential need that I find ways in daily contemplative rhythms and time out, to fill that well. You can’t pour from a cup that is empty. ‘God’s Cathedral’ is where I go to source that sustenance, be it in my own garden or the breathtaking beauty of Norway, Namibia or the Canadian Rockies or anywhere in between.

I shared this poem with Cynthia a dear life-long friend from school days, who was coming to terms with a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer cholangiocarcinoma , and the natural re-evaluation of her life in the light of that diagnosis. Cynthia was Canadian, and she and I did a huge road trip when we were both barely 18, up through Eastern Canada in her father’s car. (What trust!) She and I shared a love of nature, of travel, of words and poetry and were very much on the same wavelength. We chatted often over this last year, and shared her journey of treatments, side effects, exploration and understanding.

The poem meant alot to her, and she mentioned it to me again in her last weeks. It was printed on her funeral service leaflet.  I had never seen Camas Lilies until May this year, when I rounded a corner on an evening walk around Victoria, BC. I had spent ten days in Canada’s most pristine wilderness, and was struggling with ‘concrete shock’, being back in a city environment. (Victoria is however as cities go, a small and very beautiful one, in a stunning setting) Coming out of city streets to the shoreline and the vistas of distant mountains,  I came across a meadow of wild Camas Lilies (pictured above) ‘gazing out above the grass from their tender blue eyes’   and my heart soared.

Even in sleep your life will shine’ ..  Cynthia died very peacefully surrounded by the love of her family, surrendering herself to Love eternal early on June 5th 2019.

Being on different continent, unable to attend her funeral, I wanted to remember her in a tangible way at that moment of farewell. I bought a rose – a rose called Roald Dahl– (a celebration of his centenary in 2016) Children’s author and genius imagination. Cynthia and I also shared a love of children,  and so it seemed to fit the bill perfectly. I planted it in my garden and had a slate plaque made.

‘Consider the lilies.. yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these’ words from Jesus lips, found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:28) in his discourse on worry and perspectives. They appear to do nothing, but simply shine with their beauty, being what they are, where they are, blooming where they are planted.  A quiet lesson to us in our ‘doing/achievement/targets’ orientated world.

Even in sleep your life will shine

Rest in Peace dear friend.

Your life mattered, and I was the richer for knowing you.

 

Mary Magdalene

 

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Mary Magdalene. Apostle to the Apostles. Passionate friend & follower of Jesus. Much maligned & misunderstood, both in her lifetime, & certainly down the centuries since. 

 

She stayed. How could she leave? She had watched every excruciating moment of his stumbling journey through the narrow streets of Jerusalem, staggering under the weight of his cross. The lashes across his back, freshly open & bleeding. Had stood & felt every blow of the hammer striking his flesh. She did not look away when they raised the cross and left him hanging in agony that went far beyond the physical. She could not reach him with her hands, but her eyes were locked on his face as he struggled to breathe, to speak. This man who had set her free, was held by cruel nails to rough hewn wood. Held by love that kept him there more than any rusty iron. She was helpless to ease his suffering, and that tore her apart, splintered her soul into jagged shards. He had given her back her life and now he was gone. Her mind was blank with grief, her limbs heavy with heartbreak. She had helped his mother wrap that beloved body in clean linen, flesh of her flesh, blood of her blood. Their tears had washed the blood and sweat from his too still, face. His extraordinary eyes dull and closed forever. Eyes that had looked deep into her being with recognition and acceptance such as she had never known. Eyes that had sparkled with laughter and wept with compassion, now dull.

 

Joseph and Nicodemus had carried his body between them to the nearby garden and tomb, hewn deep into the rock of the hill of death. Between them they laid him gently in that place of forever rest. Of quiet dark. Wrapped the grave clothes around his head and backed out on their knees. The men rolled the stone in front of the yawning dark that enfolded his broken body. It was finished.

 

They hurried away into the lengthening shadows of evening, but she stayed on. Keeping vigil. Watching as the darkness fell around her feet and heart. Waiting even as her world tilted and all hope extinguished. Remembering. Turning over in her mind the memories of being brought to life with grace and soul-lifting mercy, that had breathed new life into her beaten down being. This extraordinary man had changed her life forever beyond recognition, and now he was gone  -violently ripped away from them by jealousy and fear. She could do nothing more for him, but she could watch, keep vigil through the long cold hours.

 

She returned early on the first day of the week. Her feet finding their own way in the darkness to the grave. She would pour out her love for him one last time. With no mocking words or sneering faces to watch, she would tenderly anoint his beloved body with precious perfumed oils. Her last gift.

Stopped in her tracks by the grave’s yawning emptiness, her heart plummeted at this fresh assault – they had stolen even this last goodbye. Removed/ desecrated? His body dumped somewhere? She daren’t begin to imagine. Fast flight with heart hammering, to Peter and to John, bearer of fresh agony that burned and seared. They ran too – looked and left. Unable to deal with themselves, and unable to deal with her.

She stayed. Rooted by grief, anger and confusion, she could not leave. Seeking the comfort of at least holding his grave clothes, she leant over to look into the emptiness of the open cave. Two men were sitting at where his head and feet had laid and her stupefied mind couldn’t take in who they might be, or why they were there.

They asked her a stupid and intensely irritating question. “Why are you crying?”

As if it wasn’t blindingly obvious! What else do you do at a grave?

She wanted to scream her anger at them –“ they have taken him away- they have taken away my hope, my life- my reason for being!”

 

There was a sound nearby, the sound of footsteps. She spun around conscious of another person approaching, and saw the figure of a man outlined in the radiance of the rising sun. Her tear filled eyes made no sense of what she saw.

“Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” The same question, but this time it didn’t make her want to scream. The questions found their way into the depths of her heartbreak, and somewhere in that deep and broken darkness there was the faintest shimmer of light.

Thinking him to be the gardener she stammered

“If you know where he is, if you have moved his body –please tell me!”

There was the faintest whisper of hope that she might find him after all. He didn’t answer, and she still couldn’t see his face through her tears. His expression obscured by the brightness of the dawn. Silence. A pregnant pause in which she breathed in hope despite herself.

 

“Mary”

 

No one else said it like that. No one else had ever put such unconditional love into the simple saying of her name. That beloved voice called her a second time out of a nightmare of darkness, bringing her back to life. It couldn’t possibly be – and yet it was. She had been looking for a corpse, and she had found a living Lord, who knew her, and called her by name. “Rabbouni!” was all she had breath to say. She fell at his feet. The feet she had anointed with her tears; the feet she had seen hammered to the rough wood of the cross. Reaching out to hold them – she wanted to stay in this moment forever. Be sure it was real. That he was real. That her teetering mind hadn’t tipped finally, over the edge.

Gentle hands lifted her up. His smile was as wide as the sea, and the eyes she thought had closed for ever, twinkled with life and laughter. A name, a smile. A smile that reached out and found all the shattered pieces of her heart, and drew them together again, into a new whole.

 

Now go– and tell my brothers who you have seen” he asked of her.

Be the one to tell them I am alive. Be the Hope Bearer. Turn their lives upside down, as yours has been”

 

She didn’t hesitate. No need to stay.

Carrying the Gospel – the good news- she ran with joy, in the glory of the rising sun, that was lighting up the world.

Climbing the rainbow

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What a difference a single word can make.

I have sung this well loved hymn all my life.

O Love, that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O Light, that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to Thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in Thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy, that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross, that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

Written in 1882 by George Matheson on a day when he was left alone, his family all gone to his sister’s wedding.  A moment of personal anguish. A heart-breaking memory of abandonment that had never healed, broken open afresh.

He was a bright young man and graduated from Glasgow university at age 19, destined to be an accomplished academic. He began theological studies, but his eyesight which had been failing since he was 15, let him down badly and led to errors in his work. His book The Growth of the Spirit of Christianity failed his early promise, and was harshly criticised for inaccuracies.  George was crushed. A friend wrote, ‘When he saw that for the purposes of scholarship his blindness was a fatal hindrance, he withdrew from the field, not with out pangs, but finally.’  Death of a dream, and all his hopes.

At university he had fallen in love, and was engaged to be married. When he revealed his prognosis of blindness to his fiance, her response was immediate and abrupt. She could not see herself going through life as the wife of a blind man. Devastation, and abandonment, by the one he loved and trusted most.

His sister who had helped him with his studies, even learning Greek, Hebrew and Latin to do so,  enabled him to take up life in the ministry. He became the minister of a church in Innellan, Argyllshire and later of a much larger church (with a 2000 strong congregation) in Edinburgh. He became famous for his preaching and writing.

Love was later to call for his sister, who became engaged to be married, leaving George for her own husband and household. He didn’t attend the wedding, feeling abandoned by the one who had stood by him, perhaps? Naturally, memories of earlier heartbreak and loss washed over him.  He wrote in his journal (not disclosing the cause of his distress)..

“My hymn was composed in the manse of Inellan on the evening of June 6, 1882.  I was at that time alone.  It was the day of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of my family were staying overnight in Glasgow.  Something had happened to me which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering.  The hymn was the fruit of that suffering.  It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life.  I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice than of working it out myself.  I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction.  I have no natural gift of rhythm.  All the other verses I have written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high.  I have never been able to gain once more the same fervor in verse.”

(Albert Lister Peace, organist wrote the tune associated with the hymn, also in five minutes.. finishing it ‘before the ink had dried’. )

Thus much was known to me. Matheson’s heartbreak poured out in the words of a hymn have spoken to hearts broken and crushed across the world, and generations  in the hundred and thirtyfive years since they were written. Pain and heartbreak know no boundaries, and many tears have fallen to these words.

I woke to the view above the other morning. A double rainbow. The words of Matheson’s hymn came to mind, and I looked up the words to refresh my memory. I stumbled on an insight that blew me away.

“The original 3rd line of the 3rd stanza said “I climb the rainbow through the rain”.


It was a prosy hymnal committee of the Church of Scotland that insisted it be changed to “I trace the rainbow through the rain.” The members of the committee could not imagine anything so fanciful and farcical as climbing a rainbow! …
Finally, Matheson consented to the change with regret, permitting a line he would never have written. How sad!

A close friend of Matheson, J. Morrison of Colinton, Scotland, expressed in an article for “The Scotsman” years later:

When “climb” was altered to “trace”, the figure of a victorious ascent of the spirit toward its divine source (a purely inner experience) was changed to passive contemplation of an external phenomenon mentally envisaged – pious and beautiful in its way, but quite different from what was originally implied.” .

For Matheson, the rainbow was like Jacob’s ladder let down from heaven for the poet’s ascent into the glory of God.

James Black, in a book published 54 years after Matheson’s death, wrote:

It is merely silly to think of Matheson ‘tracing’ that rainbow through the rain; his eyes were shut forever! But in his own fine imagination, he could picture himself stumbling forward blindly till he actually touched the rainbow with his groping fingers! And when he touched it, he could grasp it and climb it.”  

Climbing the Rainbow by Loyd J. Ogilvie ”

That metaphor of stumbling towards the rainbow, grasping it with both hands and actively climbing towards ‘its Divine Source’  is breathtakingly powerful. It transforms the hymn for me. The idea of reaching out to lay hold of God’s promises (the rainbow being the symbol of promise) hands clutching at colours, spilling through fingers is mesmerizing. Reaching out of pain to climb toward God. Laying hold of the Love that no matter what, would never let him go.

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I don’t believe for a minute Matheson was triumphalistic. His words spell out the pain and heartache in bleak reality. Pain and Hope side by side, not one over the other.

He would never see another rainbow, but he would climb one instead.

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You can listen to the hymn here:

Reflections on logging off for Lent

The first week, inevitably was the hardest. I made the decision to ‘log off’ from all social media for the whole of Lent (a period of six weeks leading up to Easter) at relatively short notice. I was curious to see how and if, I would be affected. How addicted I truly was, and particularly the effect of not being able to share the many photographs I take.

I deliberately left the notifications live .. clocking up day by day – social media literally only a click away. Somehow this was to challenge myself more fully. Make the temptation more acute. Twitter and Facebook in particular went into panic mode, bombarding me with emails, telling me that I had X many notifications.. that I hadn’t seen.. that I hadn’t checked in lately, and didn’t I think I should? I was obviously failing in their eyes.

I managed not to log on to any of them for the whole period. I wrestled with myself about Sundays ‘not being part of Lent’ .. traditionally Sundays don’t count as ‘fast days’, being the perpetual reminder of Easter and Resurrection.. The excuse was to clear the backlog of notifications and  not miss any important invitations. People naturally tend to assume you can see what is posted, or events to which they have invited you – and it may appear rude, as if you are ignoring them. However, I saw through my excuses and decided for me, it was best to keep to the ‘digital fast’ for the whole period. Period.

Lent was a particularly busy season this year, with a great deal going on in both my life and my head. Somehow when life is going fast, the temptation is perversely to speed up, rather than slow down.. or perhaps that is just me? By speeding up, I mean reading more, taking in more stimulation via the internet-  newsworthy articles on Twitter, etc. All good stuff, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. I guess the underlying increase in pace is the false belief that if only I cross this, this and this off my ‘do list’ I will get to a point where I can allow myself to slow down.. a little. Perhaps.

One of the suggestions from itistimetologoff.com was to remove all ‘screens’ from the bedroom. I had hitherto always charged my phone overnight on my bedside table.. doesn’t everyone?  The benefit given was improved sleep.   Now my phone charges in another room and will do so, here on in. The temptation to reach for it in sleepless moments in the wee small hours is great, and it has been clearly shown by many studies that this definitely doesn’t help.  I can’t say that I suddenly slept deeply and peacefully.. but my head was a whole lot less ‘full’. It was good ‘sleep hygiene’ to coin a popular phrase, and made a lot of sense.  Putting screens away for an hour or two before bedtime is another excellent suggestion, though one I manage better sometimes more than others.

I am a social person. I like to interact and communicate. I like to stay in touch, even if it is only digitally. Social media provides a way of easily doing that, traversing time zones and continents with a click.  I missed the connections. I did feel ‘out of the loop’, as FB and Twitter kept reminding me I was. However after the first week or two, I missed it less. I only checked my phone three or four times a day. It was easier to let go of, than I imagined. I don’t want to do it on a permanent basis, but the exercise of going without for a long period of six weeks was a useful and helpful one. The idea of a 5/2 ‘diet’ of internet interaction appeals, and I may yet experiment with that. (Five days on, two ‘unplugged’. The only reason I haven’t immediately moved to that rhythm is that I am currently engaged in a seven week online course/retreat, and need to engage with that particular online community 6/7.

Photography. I take (and share) a lot of photos. Over the course of the last five years, living in a beautiful rural setting, and moving on an increasingly contemplative path spiritually, has led me to using my camera as kind of photo journaling. I was recently asked to reflect on why I do this. The following (including the photo) was my answer.

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I pause

My camera is my constant companion. Most times it is the one on my phone, for the practicality of living in my pocket. (I have selected the last two of my phones for their camera technology) 

I pause. I pause to stop and see. To notice. I pause to look again, sometimes from another angle. I pause to delight in the play of light and shadow, the sparkle across a river, the unfolding of the dawn. I pause to hold the moment. To share the joy. I pause to create. To share with The Creator, as He paints the day beautiful. I pause to receive. To drink in. To breathe. To dip my toes in joy. 

I found not being able to share my photos one of the hardest things of all. Photography is a communicative art form. Photographs, like paintings are designed to be shared. Sharing the moment, the beauty, the joy of a glance of wonder, increases the joy. They say a joy shared is a joy doubled, and I agree. I used to paint- watercolours, pastels, charcoal – you name it, and I have dabbled and daubed in it. I took classes for many years and loved to learn how to use the various mediums as an outlet for creativity. Time and life has curtailed that opportunity in recent years- study, college and full time work has squeezed out that particular outlet. And so I have painted with my camera. Painted with light and shadow.  I might yet take up my brushes again.. I have an increasing yearning to do so- and doing it is primarily about making room for it. Setting aside time and space deliberately.

This whole exercise has been a good and healthy one. I am glad to have done it, even as I am glad to enjoy social media again. It has given me much food for thought, which I need to keep reflecting upon.

Logging off for Lent

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Yesterday I logged off for Lent. Logged off social media, that is. Not so much a grand gesture, nor a spiritual exercise in denial, more a timely experiment in Digital Detoxing. 

Lent is the 6 week period leading up to Easter and is often associated with ‘giving up’  things.. chocolate, coffee, crisps etc. This is a token nod to the period being an ancient one in the church of prayer, fasting and self examination. Self denial, and resisting temptation being good for the soul. (The 40 days echo Jesus time in the wilderness, facing his own challenges and temptations- see my blog post If , for more on that story.) Not having grown up within a culture that made much of the Lenten period, its austerity and self imposed gloominess seemed at first like over spiritual self-flagellation to me, minus the hair shirts and birch twigs. I have since learned to treasure this season – more as journey than anything else. Often a journey into the wilderness in a spiritual sense. A time apart. A time of intentionality. I still prefer to do something for Lent in the socially active sense, and there are many charity led schemes to help with that. However this year I was challenged by an article that I read in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday about the benefits of Digital Detoxing. The challenge to our 24/7 world where we are ‘on call’ and bombarded with media on a constant basis. Without realising it we are glued to our screens and if not careful, miss out on the real world.

I will hold my hand up and confess to being glued. I read voraciously, am wildly curious about the world, and enjoy the stimulation of being able to find out about anything, instantly. Social media connects me world wide with scattered friends and family and I love keeping up with their news and photos and sharing mine. Twitter keeps me in touch with what is happening in the world, and brings me news from the church, politics, social action etc, etc and often brings a smile or a chuckle. I love being able to enjoy a book, and be able to be directly in touch with the author to share my enjoyment.

I also enjoy the wind in my face and the great outdoors. Having two dogs means I am out in all weathers and the fields, paths and waysides of the beautiful rural setting in which I live provide me with an endless sense of quiet wonder, as the season turn. Having my phone always in my pocket, it is my habit to stop and capture some of the beauty I see in a photograph. I am interested to see how not being able to share that photograph affects my joy in photography.

I hadn’t intended to log off, but I was curious and challenged simultaneously and Lent seemed an excellent time to start. How addicted would I prove to be?  How would it feel to be ‘out of touch’? What effects might this have physically, spiritually and emotionally? I am only 24 hrs in and it is far too soon to tell. The irony of blogging about logging off is not lost on me either, and my blog auto posts to my twitter account. I may blog again post- Easter on how this experiment has gone.. watch this space.. or try it yourself? The website www.itstimetologoff.com suggests a whole raft of ways of approaching it – not least a 5:2 digital diet. (Five days on and weekends or two other days off).

I am enjoying the companionship of two writers in this journey through Lent ’17             One familiar to me, and one brand new.  I can highly recommend both!

The familiar author is Paula Gooder, and the last of her series of books reflecting on key seasons in the Christian year – Let Me Go There  The Spirit of Lent.

 

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The new-to-me author is strangely enough, another Paula. Paula Huston and her delightfully grounded and practical book

Simplifying THE SOUL Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit. 

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Each leads you through Lent on a daily basis, giving rich spiritual food for thought and contemplation.

However you choose to journey in Lent this year, if you journey at all – many blessings from a fellow traveller on The Way.

(Clicking on the titles will take you to a site where you can find out more, and see other reviews. Clicking on the author’s names takes you to their websites)

 

It was time

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It was time. It was time to take that little scrap of helpless life and face the press and push of the city. It was time to scrape together enough for a couple of doves for the purification sacrifice. It was time to present the child before God.

The narrow streets to the temple were crowded and noisy. The people pushed and shoved as they passed and she held the child closer. The outer courts of the Temple were if anything, noisier still. Animal bleats. Doves cooing and the shouts of the moneychangers and stallholders added to the cacophony. The smells, animal and human were overpowering.

Moving through the vast court of Gentiles, they pass through the narrow gate and climb the steps to the Gate Beautiful into the court of the Women. She drops the handful of small coins into the trumpet shaped coffers – the price of two turtledoves to be sacrificed for the purification ceremony. Swept along in the tide of worshipers, she climbs the 14 steps to the majestic Nicanor gate and stands at the threshold. This is as far into the Temple as she is permitted. She can see into the court of the priests, and the temple itself, from the gateway. There is a queue and she stands in line, waiting for the officiating priest. Her heart is beating wildly, and she is sure it will wake her still-sleeping child. She holds him a little tighter to stop her arms trembling. It is time. The priest approaches and spatters her and the child with the blood of sacrifice, declaring her to be clean. Even though she is expecting it, the warm sticky blood on her face and neck and across the baby’s face makes her reel in shock. She stumbles backwards even as she is supposed to hand the child over, offering him up God and then paying the ransom price to receive him back. The impatient priest has moved on down the line. Her trembling hands hold out her blood-spattered son, wanting to get this over and get out.

 

It was time. So much time had passed. Day after day he had waited. Year after year, his eager steps into the Temple courts were very much slower now. Hope burned ever bright even as body betrayed him. Looking, always looking. Waiting. Listening for God’s Spirit to point out the One. The One through whom the Light would come. It was Time.

He saw her. A slip of a girl with a pale face streaked with blood. For a moment his heart stood still. The pressing crowds disappeared, and he saw only her and the child held out in her shaking hands. Almost before he knew what was happening, he had gathered the warm bundle gently in his arms and held him to his heart. The baby stirred, opened his eyes, and they beheld one another for a long solemn moment. It was a life-changing look of recognition. It was time. Now.

Simeon was pierced with joy, and the song of praise that poured out of his lips unbidden, he sang to the blood stained child in his arms.

 Lord, NOW lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:   For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

It was time. It was now. He had waited all his life for this moment.

The Light of the world was within the circle of his arms.

He glanced at the parents, who were wide eyed in wonder at his words.

He blessed them both for the task they had been given, for their obedient hearts, for the courage they would need. His words of prophecy and warning laid out the life of the child he held, as a sign. As a sacrificial lamb of God. Handing him back, he whispered gently of the pain she would know. The pain, that went right through her spirit, even as her face was splashed in blood. The pain that made her stumble, and would pierce her soul again.

 

It was time. She who had dwelled a lifetime in the courts of God had become a dwelling place of God. All her prayers, her tears and fasting had pointed to NOW. It was time. Simeon’s song of praise had sung her heart into wild joy. Emmanuel. God with us. At that moment her whole life was gathered up in Presence. The child of Promise was come.

As if drawn by invisible threads of wonder, she drew close to see for herself. To feast her eyes on the tiny child whose eyes fastened on her own. She had lived so long. So many years. So much time had passed. But Time had stopped in its tracks before a helpless babe. Heaven touched earth, and her voice lifted with the unheard song of angels that rang around the unheeding crowded courts. IT WAS TIME. She would tell them. Would carry the Good News to the world. To all who would listen. The Light had come, and lit a beacon in her soul.

 

Leaning into darkness

 

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It is hard to believe that such peaceful place of quiet beauty can swallow a life. A hot July day, the first of the school holidays and youngsters kicking up their heels, their lives and the long lazy days of Summer stretching ahead of them. They could never have foreseen that the day would end in tragedy, with a 15 year old lad losing his life beneath the surface of this river. Today, four years on, I watch from a distance as they gather around his grave, my heart heavy for their grieving.

I can never forget. Days into my curacy, I was pitched headlong into this unfolding drama of loss almost from the first moments. Racing to the scene, talking to traumatised youngsters and worried villagers as we waited the many hours until the emergency services found and recovered his body. From the television interview to the funeral and beyond into the weeks, months and years of heartbreak and adjustment to loss that followed, it was my tender privilege to travel with the family and the community. The sudden tragic death of a teenager inevitably causes profound shock waves not unlike a major earthquake within the microcosms of family, village and school. Life can never be the same. It can only be slowly and painfully rebuilt.

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How I wish this was a rare, exceptional event, as no family should have to face this horror. Alas my heightened sensitivity has zeroed in on news reports over and over each summer of young lives lost by drowning. Innocent fun turning fatal in the blink of an eye. Over sixty children lose their lives in this way each year in the UK, and is the third largest cause of child deaths. In the last few weeks I have heard of at least four, one only yesterday. Five years old.

Sudden death of any cause has the same seismic effects on hearts and lives. Every day it seems we wake up to hear of yet more horrors and violent atrocities with communities and families ripped apart by terrorism and hate crimes. Each candle burning, each flower laid representing a precious individual gone from the lives of those who loved them. Grief that will go on – long long after the news focus has moved on. Worlds turned upside down. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the darkness.

One of the most famous prophetic descriptions of Jesus comes from Isaiah 53, describing him as ‘A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief‘.  At its simplest, and from personal experience I know this to mean Love that sits with us in the dark. The darkness of grief and the darkness of unknowing. Watching, waiting, keeping vigil. Nail-pierced hands that hold ours. Tears that fall from God’s face.

Three years ago today, on the first anniversary of this young man’s death, I came across a timely prayer poem that spoke deeply to me and I offer it here. It turns out they are the lyrics to a song on an album called Take Heart by Velma Frye, co written with Macrina Wiederkehr.


LEANING INTO DARKNESS (M. Wiederkehr, V. Frye)

Draw me into the depths.
Take me down to the holy darkness to Love’s roots.
I lean into that darkness,
The darkness that surrounds me,
This nurturing room for my restless spirit.

Let me borrow your eyes, Beloved.
Then I shall see in the dark, though for answers I do not look.
It is enough to wait,
To wait in the holy darkness,
This nurturing womb for Love’s yearning.

Listening to the sound of silence,
And leaning into the song of darkness, I wait for You.
Waiting with purpose for who I will become,
Waiting without agenda for things I can not change,
I become one with the One I love,

For I have seen too many stars,
Too many stars to let the darkness overwhelm me.

I keep vigil:
with my heart’s eternal questions, and with my deep longings.
with those places in my being where the light has grown dim.
with those whose hearts are tired, & with those whose hope is lost.
for those who sleep and for those who can not rest.
for those with fearful hearts, and for those whose hearts are angry.
for those whose courage is waning and for those whose strength is growing.
for those who suffer, and for those who keep vigil.

I keep vigil. I keep vigil. I keep vigil. I keep vigil,

For I have seen too many stars,
Too many stars to let the darkness overwhelm me

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I am always so grateful for the gift of words or art that others offer, putting pain, blessing and healing into words or form that speak in a profound way. These gifts are often costly, self-sacrificial baring of souls. Someone who frequently does this for me is fellow priest, author and artist Jan Richardson  who blogs at The Painted Prayerbook. Her latest post, A Blessing when The World is Ending,  from her book Circle of Grace (which I can highly recommend along with her other work) seems to dovetail beautifully with the lyrics above.

Blessing When the World is Ending

Look, the world
is always ending
somewhere.

Somewhere
the sun has come
crashing down.

Somewhere
it has gone
completely dark.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the gun,
the knife,
the fist.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the slammed door,
the shattered hope.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone,
the television,
the hospital room.

Somewhere
it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
your heart.

But, listen,
this blessing means
to be anything
but morose.
It has not come
to cause despair.

It is simply here
because there is nothing
a blessing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.

This blessing
will not fix you,
will not mend you,
will not give you
false comfort;
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.

It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
will come,
gathering itself
about you
as the world begins
again.

—Jan Richardson
from Circle of Grace © Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.

I think all I can add to these is a heartfelt AMEN.