Good shepherds…

sheep, shadows b and w

Advent, day eleven.

We know the story. Simple shepherds on the hillside. An explosion of light. Polyphonic glories. Rough men, enfolded as worthy of royal appointment. How they set off on their own journey of discovery.

Of course, the Bible is full of sheep and shepherds. The Passover lamb. David in the fields with his sling shot. Psalm 23 and ‘the Lord is my shepherd, so I’ll not want…’

Jesus used the image a lot too. There is that bit in John 10 were he talks about the Good Shepherd. Perhaps the most famous passage is this one though, from Luke 15 (here from the Message version);

1-3 By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story.

4-7 “Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.

I don’t mean to get hung up on sin and what being saved might mean other than reminding us that this is a parable, a story to make us think, to trip us up a little in our easy comfort.

What I want to take us back to is this.

Each sheep is loved.

But each sheep returns to the flock.

We are one, but we are part of each other.

The good shepherd knows this. She gathers us together.

sheep, snow, hills

 

Shepherd

 

Gathered

Like the late autumn crop

Like loose threads in a sock

Like post box gets mail

Like the children of Israel

Like birds overheard

Folk at a deathbed

Chicks under a wing

A choir come to sing

Like stories not told

Like the sheep in this fold

 

Gathered

Like wet fallen leaves

Like fields full of sheaves

In the arms of a mother

In the life of my lover

Crowd comes to band

Like a beach full of sand

Like hook and like eye

Like clouds in clear sky

Like boats back from sea

Like you gather me

 

Gathered

Like slow recollection

Like mutual affection

Like pond-bottom slime

Around the scene of a crime

Bright hearths in December

Like football club members

Like the hungry to feast

Around the holy high priest

Honey bees to a hive

Refugees who survived

 

Gathered

Like dry clothes from a line

Like grapes to make wine

Like fish in a net

Like old age regret

Like friends in a pub

Like the weft of a rug

Like cards from the table

Like telephone cables

Like hairs in a comb

Like prodigals now back home

 

 

Mary; woman, not womb…

Advent, day ten.

Mary, mother of God has been venerated throughout Christendom. The tradition I grew up within was however very suspicious of Mary. She was after all, not God- she was just a girl. Praying to Mary (as was common in Roman Catholic traditions) was regarded as heresy. To us, Mary was a footnote, merely offering a willing womb.

I read this article today, which said this;

It’s Advent, and the same old lies about Mary are slipping over pulpits and out of parish letters, Christmas cards, public prayers, TV holiday movies, and late night comics’ jokes.The subjugation of Mary, the maligning of her as meek, mild, and mindless, has been harmful to millions of women over many centuries.

Hiding within the wonder of Christmas are a thousand years of doctrinal female subjugation, doctrines that, like tinsel, are dripped all over the season of Christmas. In the midst of the celebration of Wonderful Life, these malicious ideas keep women from feeling empowered, invited to be strong, and urged by God to imagine new ways to live, as Mary of Nazareth did, who mothered God’s redemption of the human world.

Read the article, particularly for its rather interesting description of the meaning of the word originally translated as ‘virgin’…

So, today’s poem remembers Mary. Not for her meekness, but for her grace and bravery.

mary-1

 

Mary

 

Where you born already divine;

A scrap of human flesh with a

God only skin deep?

 

Or did the shape of Messiah-

The mewling lion of Judah

Need nurture?

 

At the breast of this mother

Scarcely beyond child herself

You took in milk

 

What sort of woman

Might school the star maker?

Whose sharp words

 

Could cut through a

Heavenly tantrum like a

Shaft of light through shadow?

 

Did she teach the turning of

The other cheek against some teenage

Provocation?

 

Or perhaps this was always the point-

Power and might made tender flesh

The highest now most lowly

 

The filling up of hungry mouth

The arms that hold

The pride at a first step

 

The learning and the loving

The pulse of blood in fragile vein

The summer cough

 

From this material

A man was made

Who was also Messiah

 

 

Jerusalem…

1200px-Western_wall_jerusalem_night

I have never been, but the very word still has the capacity to raise tingles at the back of my neck. Jerusalem. A city half in this world, half in the next. For most of us, less an address, more an allegory.

Jerusalem is of course known as the ‘City of God’ and like most other manifestations of the divine on earth, it is a complex mess of misunderstandings and theology mixed up with power struggles and misappropriation.

Jerusalem has been in the news recently for all the usual (bad) reasons. It is now a symbol of division, injustice and the oppression of one population by another, each and every oppressive act justified using ancient texts. Enter America’s first fool, making bombastic proclamations and in the process, smashing a decades worth of efforts to make a negotiated peace.

In an age of spin and media manipulation, Jerusalem is another place onto which we project our prejudices. For many Christians, Zionism has mingled with their narrow interpretation of the Bible to mean that Israel can do not wrong, even when what they are doing is manifestly appalling. Others, seeking to follow the way of Jesus, side with the poor and oppressed, soon having to cope with the fact that there are those on the other side who also have blood on their hands.

Jerusalem. The ancient/modern city, around which history pivots.

Two thousand years ago, a different occupation was being undertaken. A different ethnic group was being oppressed. A different empire was in the ascendancy. Other things were much the same.

wire-622575-1495520565-905_634x422

 

Jerusalem

 

Press of people

Each step thwarts to shuffle

Alien accents scrape the ear

Soldiers shoulder imperial room

(Their curses spat out like spears)

 

A crash course in city etiquette;

Every eye must be avoided

We give (nor receive) no greeting

Gird on your invisible armour

And wear coins against the skin

 

The blind hold out empty hands

Children dart out and in

A scented woman advertises soft flesh

Stalls clatter with roughly beaten pans

Someone shouts a warning of the certainty of

Approaching Armageddon

 

The rich are in their castle

The poor cluster at the gate

Meanwhile, the shadows nurture words of revolution

The old walls have seen it all

Before

 

The city makes some bigger

Others

Shrink

 

Men from the East…

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These days, we in the west regard the Middle East with disdain. It is a war zone, riven with in-fighting. The people there are not like us- they follow a different religion, wear funny clothes. They are less developed than us too- many of them live in primitive squalor. Not to mention the fact that they are dangerous, prone to radicalism and even terrorism. We fear that they will sneak in through the backdoor, smuggling toxic difference into our society.

This view persists, despite the fact that most of us know very little of the realities of life beyond our small island. Perhaps it has always been like this- we fear the outsider and this fear converts to hatred if we are not careful.

Then there is the historical perspective. Once, we were the backward terrorist heathens. We marched behind a cross rather than an ISIS flag, but we were every bit as blinkered and bloodthirsty as the Taliban. We were the bogeymen that kept children in their beds. Meanwhile, for thousands of years, civilisations of the middle east had established great cities with libraries and centres of learning. They mapped the stars, made great scientific and mathematical discoveries, became physicians and poets.

The advent story, when seeking to portray the science of divinity, looked not to the West, but to the East, out towards the ancient Persian seats of learning…

Where, we are told, wise men saw signs and portents in the stars and set out on a journey of discovery…

persian-priests

 

The scientist

 

Some search for fame, for fortune

But I search for answers;

 

Who set the stars in their celestial arcs?

Who pulls back the skirts of the sea?

How many the grains of sand in my hand?

What is the meaning of me?

Where does the stream in the desert rise from?

How does the eagle take wing?

How high are the hills that rise to the west?

Why does the caged bird still sing?

Whose massive bones are cast in this rock?

What is the point of a flea?

How did I come to be born here at all?

Can we ever make alchemy?

 

So many questions for one short lifetime

How then am I being pulled

(Like a magnet draws iron)

Into this crazy quest

Far away from how

Into primitive Hebrew superstition?

I am hooked like a perch

By a worming words of foolish prophecy

 

My only excuse is that a light came in the west

And it might just illuminate the biggest question of all;

 

Why.

Blessing…

IMGP0600

Advent, day seven.

Yesterday, we woke to a woods hung up with ice and snow. The dark wet brown of the forest floor, wet from so many weeks of rain, was blanketed with white snow. It was beautiful, like a Christmas card.

Today’s poem is an old friend, written many years ago, at a time when the world seemed dark. Depression stalks many of us, but we are not alone.

We are never alone.

 

Emmanuel

 

Evening draws in closer

Frost, it hangs like lace

Tired leaves brown and speckle

Then slowly fall from grace

Sometimes it seems that spring is shackled

And summer fell in deep disgrace

 

In days like these when darkness seems

To swallow light

I offer you, my friend, this blessing;

Emmanuel

God with us

 

 

Life before life…

Advent, day six…

Before everything, was there nothing?

Before we were conceived, before seed, before egg,  before cells divided- nothing?

Or was a space waiting, like an empty womb?

Those of us with faith, and those of us without- we live in the same darkness.

We all wait for light.

 

moon, neon

 

Unpregnant

 

In the corner of my gaze something moved

I blinked

Reminded of almost imperceptible stars

In sky almost black like bruises

Punched through with points of light

 

Did I form you like an idol from some ancient river bed?

Did I raise you up on a pole?

Are you just déjà vu

For the deluded last few

Will science yet prove us all fools?

 

But the night whispers

Mist of breath on puckered skin

Like the scent of sea to a sailor

It speaks of a yearning

For all those words unpoemed

Paintings not yet painted

Songs not yet sung

Reeds still to be fluted

Strings still to be strung.

 

The unpregnant womb

Is still waiting.

 

 

 

 

 

Those who see differently…

 

Pregnant-Teen-in-Shadows-001

Continuing our Advent journey, on day 5 we consider how we might come to imagine a different future.

I see the Bible as a magnificent library of books that record how mankind seeks to understand God. There are many ways to read and engage with the texts but one way that I find meaningful is to see the stories it contains as a process of evolution of understanding; humankind starts in innocence, then we stumbled into acquisition and successions of empire building. All through this process however, there were people who saw differently. People who risked everything to speak a different truth, calling us to a more lovely, more beautiful, more loving (otherwise known as ‘more holy’) version of ourselves.

These people were usually called ‘Prophets’. Men and women who belonged to the awkward squad. They were often irritants, weirdos, wild visionaries. Sometimes people in power listened. Mostly they did not.

Notice friends, that we have tended to understand the word ‘prophecy’ to be concerned with predictions of future events, but this is just one way to understand it. The more common use for the recorded prophetic utterances in the Bible was to speak truth to power. Prophets were people who saw things differently and were brave enough to do something about it. Some things have not changed. We need our prophets more than ever.

The Advent story includes an old man called Simeon who had spent a life time longing for things to be different. You can read about him here.

israel-125year-old-man-laughing

 

A shuffling walk, awkward

silences,

followed by strange words,

spat out like spears.

Be still my child

for the Prophet speaks.

 

“For unto us a child is born.

Unto us a son is given.

And the government shall be

upon his shoulders.”

 

“The Spirit of the Lord will dance within him;

He will turn the power games upside down

The poor will be his priority

Those locked out will be welcomed in

Fools will open their eyes for the first time

To the debtors

He will shout

jubilee.”

 

The Prophet was rigid

All angles like a marionette

Eyes shining.

 

“He is coming.”

“He is coming.”