Advent 26: The light blazed in the darkness…

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1-2 The Word was first,
    the Word present to God,
    God present to the Word.
The Word was God,
    in readiness for God from day one.

3-5 Everything was created through him;
    nothing—not one thing!—
    came into being without him.
What came into existence was Life,
    and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
    the darkness couldn’t put it out.

From The first chapter of John’s Gospel, the message translation

With a great blaze of poetry, John begins to talk about the life of Jesus. He does not talk about babies in mangers or choirs of angels or wise men travelling from afar. Rather, he talks about light…

It is a cliche beyond my enjoyment to describe ourselves as made of stardust, even though somewhere deep in our carbon it may be true. I would much rather talk about how we are animated by light.

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It is a mataphor of course, and one well employed by John, but I want to take a moment to consider whether it might also be ‘true’.

The life in us is only our own for a while. It burns bright and beautiful in some, in others it is obscured by so many shadows, but still the light remains.

As advent unfolds towards its apotheosis, I pray that whatever illuminates and animates you will sing in your soul. May it be the most graceful, the most loving, the most simple and the most human way of being.

I believe that this light is not gifted only to those who ‘belong’ through accident of membership or proximity, rather that it is the very core of all created/evolved life. I know this can be debated by application of all sorts of scripture-swords, but stil… I feel it differently.

It does not matter to me at all if you take a different view, because all will be revealed soon enough… in a blaze of light.

.

The light from stars

.

The last breath

Then the one after that

My hand on her head

Holding the last heat

As it faded away.

.

When light is thrown by stars

Does it fly forever

(Like a soul set free)

Or is it just taking the

Long way home?

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If you are ready to go, I whispered

Then go.

Go towards the light.

Advent 25: It’s behind you…

Let me introduce you once again to another one of my friends, Graham Peacock. Perhaps I should say the Reverend Graham Peacock. Here he is, as his alter ego, Madam Fifi…

I must have been very young- maybe 5 or 6- but I remember my class at school being asked about who wanted to be in the school play. I was shy, but I wanted to be in it, yet I hesitated and by the time I put my hand up it was too late.

That memory has stayed with me as a sign of ‘I could do that, but I’m scared to put my hand up and take a risk’. It was a way of saying ‘no’ to all sorts of things because of fear.

Once I got into my 40s- I’m 55 now- I began to say ‘yes’.

From that came wilderness retreats, running gigs, playing cricket hopelessly: I began to switch from ‘I couldn’t possibly do that’ to ‘Why on earth can’t I?’

And so was born acting.

My village has a strong amateur dramatic tradition; many years ago, someone asked me to audition for a part in a murder mystery and I was cast. Eventually I got into the village pantomime which is A.Very.Big.Thing. I did it as a one off: I was a minister in the village and I thought it’d be good to meet new people and to take the church to a different place.

I managed to be marginally less cardboard than the scenery and I enjoyed it so much: the performing, being around people who didn’t have church as a reference point and also the creation of temporary community. The next year I auditioned again. I think this year I’m in my 12th or 13th time of it being a one off…. even through lock down.

On one level, there is no real connection with Advent, apart from the fact that being in the pantomime begins to consume Advent evenings: two lengthy rehearsals a week and seemingly every spare moment learning lines but then trying to deliver them with feeling and humour. I guess there is also something here about repetition of familiar lines until you begin to see the meaning, ‘feel’ them & began to sense nuances that at first weren’t apparent.

For me though, aside from the fun and life that I gain out of being on a stage, each time I do it, my inner 6 year old punches the sky and goes ‘You said yes and didn’t give into fear!’ That’s a very tenuous link with Advent, but for me it is about giving into hope and possibility instead of playing it safe.

As I started writing this, omicron and the spread of omicron seems to have put paid to pantomime happening in 2 or 3 weeks time, but maybe it’ll be possible by Candlemas or later. Maybe…and maybe I won’t be this way again: whatever- the casting, the learning and the attempt have been enough to give me hope.

Advent 24: The shortest day of winter…

Today is the shortest day of the year, at least for those of us in the northern part of our beautiful planet.

Light has pulled back, retreated defensively, waiting for a chance to tentatively return and from hereon forward, each evening will gift us with approximately 2 minutes 8 seconds extra daylight.

There will be cold to come; icy days when it is easy to slide and fall.

There will be storms to face; days when panes of glass between us and the wild winds seem hopelessly insufficient.

There will be bone soaking dampness; the sort that makes it impossible to imagine that mud might become soil again.

There will be false starts: days when it seems as if spring has finally come, only to be snatched away again.

Despite all of this, each and every day, we are gifted 2 minutes and 8 seconds of light.

Let it feed your souls my friends.

Let it filter in.

Nadir

.

Nadir

The arc swings low

The day drains away

Across the steel grey sky

How deep is the sump

Of winter

.

Exhale

For before each breath

Lungs must be fully emptied

Swell the chest and say farewell

To the shortest day

Of winter

Advent 23: Ghosts of Christmas past…

This post is from my friend Chris Fosten. I met him through poetry. Sometimes when you read a poem, you ‘meet’ somone and know instantly that you will like them and so it was with Chris. Here here talks about those Christmas days that are both normal and extraordinary at the same time. May we all make our own memories like these.

By the way, Chris has been a long time blogger, podcaster and has pubished a book of his poems here.

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I love Christmas, and I view anyone with any sort of visible Christmas lights as an ally. I’m sure that seems crazy to some, but it’s true: in the darkness, they are optimistically,  and sometimes over-enthusiastically, bringing joy. It’s been true since I was a child. I used to love sitting in the room with the Christmas tree, all lights off except those on the tree itself. I was entranced. Every evening, they are still the last things to switched off, and occasionally I still sit and marvel before flicking the switch. There’s a sort of happy abandon in coloured Christmas lights – a wilful joy breaching the darkness. I  love them – a visible, brazen, symbol of hope.

I think my memories of Christmases have quietly taught me that, while things are very much different now, what has always made Christmas is the people I am with. The people who, in quiet ways, have brought that joyful splash of colour into my life. The people who, to quote John, are “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.”

For me, the small, ordinary, things; the times of love and laughter, the shared significant moments, can be the fairy lights.

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Ghosts of Christmas past (iv)


There is nothing to do
but sit on the bench
watching the water.

Christmas even has come
with chill and rain
and this break in the storm.

We talk in staccato
bursts, laugh quietly,
making plans for the year

that we’ll never follow,
spotting birds we
cannot name.

Insulated from the cold
by the company,
we head home for tea.

Advent 22: To you whose hope seems stolen…

Christmas can be hard. I have friends who are clinging on by their fingernails, watching the approach of fake festivity with dread.

It is no surprise that cultural assumptions around Christmas impose a kind of torture on those who feel out of sorts with them.

Perhaps this is you. In part, it will be me, not only because of recent losses, but also because I tend towards the meloncholy, particularly at this time of year. However, In my case at least, this is not the whole story. I am blessed not to be alone for a start, and my table will not be empty. Still, I will struggle and sowill look for small moments beyond the inevitable excesses when things are deeper and these will be my Christmas.

To those of you who struggle, often in secret, to ‘get through’ Christmas, I want to say this; it is no shame to opt out of what you need to opt out of. There is nothing wrong with doing what you must to get by. If you need to grit your teeth and watch back-to-back episodes of old TV programmes, do it. If you need to stay in bed with a good book and try to forget the whole thing, this is fine too. There are days when these things are necessary.

There might be moments though. Small things known only to you. Tiny exchanges between you and the mercy that holds you. They will be easily missed and soon forgotten, unless you reach out and take them in your hands.

This poem is a prayer for the same…

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Starlight

.

To you whose hope

Seems stolen

Know this tender thing;

The bruised old sky above you

(Which seems to yawn indifference)

Is, in fact, leaking light.

.

Particles tumble down

Like this promise;

I am here

Where you are

.

For I know what you know

I see what you see

The fences you built are no protection

From starlight

.

My stars leave no shadow

And in this gentle light

Shy things

Become possible.

Advent 21: The gift…

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Remember that Jesus bloke- the one who is actually the true meaning of Christmas? What was all that about then? What was he for?

It is a genuine question, for at least two reasons- the first one is obvious, in that Jesus plays almost no part in our celebrations within the culture of this country at least, beyond the odd school nativity play, in which Jesus is at best the eternal baby. We can (and I have) easily rail against what it has become. In the face of this however, I force myself to step back and remember that feasting has its place after a long journey, and to bring our communities together around a common table. We need this more than ever, right? The looming pandemic might well rob us again…

(As an aside, it seems that in the first one and a half thousand years following on from the life of Jesus, his followers feasted at easter, not christmas. Make of that what you will, but things seemed to start to change at least in part because St Francis proposed the idea that we did not need to wait until the cross for God to love us, rather that the whole thing was about incarnate love.)

The other reason is more esoteric however, because it is a theological one. Those of us from a religious background have often been given a template that, once imposed across all scripture, means that the whole thing is about trying to solve the problem of human sin. The gift that Jesus gives us in this template is as a holy sinless sacrifice to allow the rule of cosmic punishment to be set aside, for some at least. There are many problems with this template of course, which I will not go in to here, but it has dominated until recent times, when many thinkers in and around the church have begun to question it as a flawed or at least partial insight into the gift of Christmas.

The question then, takes us backwards and forwards. Backwards towards the ancient Hebrew idea of ‘Messiah’, and forwards towards what Richard Rohr calls ‘The cosmic Christ’.

The Messiah of old is about justice for the oppressed. His gift is jubilee for the weak and poor, when the crooked roads are made straight and the widow and orphan are embraced. This Messiah will bring about a new kingdom in which people remember that way of love.

The Cosmic Christ on the ther hand, is not just a man, but he is the very substance behind the whole material universe. The point here then is not (only) about solving the problem of sin, but rather a visible revealing of the incarnation of love inside all created things.

Rather than saving a fallen world, this Christ shows how love is constantly coming to us and being revealed to us by the world around us. It is buried within everything because without love, nothing would exist.

Here is RR on the same thing (from here.)

Remember, when we speak of Advent or preparing for Christmas, we’re not just talking about waiting for the little baby Jesus to be born. That already happened 2,000 years ago. In fact, we’re welcoming the Universal Christ, the Cosmic Christ, the Christ that is forever being born in the human soul and into history.

And believe me, we do have to make room, because right now there is no room in the inn for such a mystery. We see things pretty much in their materiality, but we don’t see the light shining through. We don’t see the incarnate spirit that is hidden inside of everything material.

The early Eastern Church, which too few people in the United States and Western Europe are familiar with, made it very clear that the incarnation was a universal principle. Incarnation meant not just that God became Jesus; God said yes to the material universe. God said yes to physicality. Eastern Christianity understands the mystery of incarnation in the universal sense. So it is always Advent. God is forever coming into the world (see John 1:9).

We’re always waiting to see spirit revealing itself through matter. We’re always waiting for matter to become a new form in which spirit is revealed. Whenever that happens, we’re celebrating Christmas. The gifts of incarnation just keep coming. Perhaps this is enlightenment.

This is the gift we recieve as advent moves towards Christmas. The incarnation of…

Love.

The coming of winter

.

It is not the loss of light

It is the revealing

Of a candle’s flame

.

It is not the loss of leaves

It is the finest tracery

Fingering a steel-grey sky

.

It is not the vice of ice

But the delicious itch of scarf, and

Air stratified by woodsmoke

.

It is not incessant soaking rain

But the musical blessing to be found

Behind window panes

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It is not cruelty

It is a jubilee, when rested lands, like

human hands, fall fallow

.

It is not cold

It is a well-stoked fire

Drawing both of us closer

Advent 20: Will the river run forever?

Thanks so much to all of you who sent messages over the past few days. It really does make a difference.

It feels important to carry on with these advent posts, so here is another old poem that has taken on a different significance from when I wrote it.

Perhaps the advent message here is less clear to you, but let me reframe it this way; previously I have used the term ‘the mercy’ to describe the great one-ness and am-ness of all things.

Richar Rohr describes this as ‘The Christ’ or the God who loves things by becoming them. The Christ refered here is both the same as and different from the physical person of Jesus. The Christ, through whom all things were made and have their being, comes to us as a child called Jesus, to live in the midst of our brokenness and vulnerability, to reveal to us the ways of mercy.

You may ‘get’ this, or it might seem strange and misguided. However, I feel it stronger than ever. We are have our being within this mercy, which both forms us and holds us. Our division from it and our individualism within it are tautological mysteries from which much of the pain of the human condition emerges, but this division is only temporary.

We tend to see our lives as linear events, as if our advent journey is always towards a distant vanishing point. As we look at the world around us though, the reality that we see is almost entirely cyclical. Seasons ebb and flow, the planets arch and turn about their heavenly stars, even the universe may well be looping back on itself as it expands.

Another way that I have tried to conceptionalise this is as a great water table, in which the essense, or the spirit, forms a great journey through different states, from sky to rain to river to sea and back again.

Advent, might form another cycle.

We rise then we return, held by the mercy.

Will the river run forever?

.

Will the river run forever?

Will it keep on tumbling down this cliff?

Will it keep on sparkling with the splash of light and life?

Will it dance to the scale of fin and fish,

Or will the music it makes

Fall silent?

.

Will the river run forever?

Will it carry the boat that carries me?

Will the flow go past these fields I know

And twist and turn to new places?

Or am I just a fool, floundering

In a stagnant pool?

.

Will the river run forever?

Will it keep carving these old rocks?

Will it keep on carrying them as suspended sediment,

Spew them through the open-mouth of an estuary

Fan them across the ocean floor,

Or will it fail?

.

Will the river run forever?

Will it irrigate? Will it recreate the flow

Of life in me? Will it roll through this world like laughter?

Will it quench the thirst of a thousand tongues

Or will it dry, like the salt tears of a woman

Done with weeping?

Advent 18: Joy…

Today, two poems about joy.

The first one might take you down, but can I suggest you stay with it for a while. Let it rest before you move on to the second.

Most of us are not used to reading poetry, but for most of the history of written language, it has been used as an aid to meditation and mysticism. The Hebrew Bible is at least one third poetry, for instance, more than likely copying the practices of the Babylonian culture that dominated them, from which fragments have survived too, most notably the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Other traditions are more familiar with this practice, particularly the Sufis within Islam, who have inherited the most astonishing work of poets such as Attar, Rumi and Sanai.

If you are approaching poems as a spiritual practice, it might be worth remembering the tradition of lecto divina, or holy reading, in which we read a passage 3 times, attending to our bodies and looking for words that resonate. The simplest easy to do this is to read a poem, and allow one sentence to speak to you. Wait for a moment, then read again.

There is a discussion to be had here about what is ‘scripture’ and whether it is appropriate to use poetry written by someone like me in this mystical way. That is a discussion for another time.

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Joy to the world

.

‘Joy to the world’ always sounds

ridiculously over-inclusive, from my

narrow perspective

lowered down in these city streets

obfuscated by all that is ordinary.

How about some joy more localised?

More specific

to the state I’m in?

.

What currency is joy counted in anyway?

What mortgage payments might it make?

Will it float me far away on free air miles?

Will it sprinkle fairy dust on these small days of winter?

Or is it some celestial scratch card

Always scratched by

someone else?

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Like a shepherd, I would not recognise it

even if the Angel Gabriel visited me on lonely hillside

Even if it fizzed in the mountain brooks

like victory Champagne.

Let alone if glimpsed in bloody froth

as it slapped down on some filthy stable floor

at the ragged end of a distant empire.

.

No choir, just the cries of a too-young mother

And a fart from the odd ruminant.

Joy to the world indeed.

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Joy 2

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Joy is not a bauble

Not a bubble, too soon burst

Never manufactured cost effectively

It is not bought or sold

It is not gold

.

Joy is not a jacket

You pick from a handy peg, it is

Never something worn externally

It is always a surprise

Like sunrise

.

Joy requires no skill

Its practice is not taught

It is not being ‘happy’ or content

It is just being open, to the

Beautiful and broken

.

Joy is an ambush

Hidden in plain sight

Wrapped up in the most unlikely things

It often comes with grief, not even

Promising relief

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Joy is a squirrel

Transcending a tree

It is music played directly on the spine

You do not need to look, because

It stabs you the gut

Advent 17: Journey…

Today, I am driving 7 hours down to England, having been called to my mother’s bedside. We have been here before and may well be many times yet, but it feels hard. A long journey towards the unknown.

I did not need to make this journey alone, but persuaded Michaela that I needed to. I will probably regret that a few times. But there were once three of us; my mum, my sister and me. We lived in our ordinary dysfunctional bubble, the inside of which will soon only belong to me.

But how blessed are we who journey together? In my loneliness, I am rarely alone. I am surrounded by people I love. I am held even when I do not feel the holding arms.

Those of you who make your own journeys, alone or in company, I pray for you this kind of companionship. I pray it to for my old mum.

It is Immanuel.

Shepherd

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Gathered
Like the late autumn crop
Like loose threads in a sock
Like a 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

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Gathered
Like wet fallen leaves
Like fields full of sheaves
In the arms of a mother
In the life of my lover
Crowd to upcoming 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

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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 a fibre-optic cable
Like hairs in a comb
Prodigal now back home