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

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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

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It is not the loss of light

It is the revealing

Of a candle’s flame

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It is not the loss of leaves

It is the finest tracery

Fingering a steel-grey sky

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It is not the vice of ice

But the delicious itch of scarf, and

Air stratified by woodsmoke

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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

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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

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‘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

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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

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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

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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

Advent 16: Shopping…

Over the weekend, Michaela and I did a version of our dayjobs. These days we make most of our living selling ceramics. We do this through galleries and shops but we also attend a few ceramics fairs and craft events ,so on Saturday and Sunday we were in the Briggait, an old drafty drippy fish market in Glasgow.

Selling stuff.

It is Christmas, after all.

We had a lovely weekend. We sold a lot of ceramics, had lots of great conversations and won a a free place at the next WASPS artists fair because ours was judged the best looking stall. In the evening, we ate out at a lovely vegan eatery and went to see James Bond strut his stuff before retiring to our Budget Ibis hotel.

It felt like we had stepped out of our rural backwater in to the mainstream.

There is the rub.

We are amongst that wide slice of the UK whose income is reliant on commerce, and in particular, that kind of commerce that might be given a boost around Christmas time, when people splash the cash on friends and family.

Frankly, we have struggled a bit with this. How can it be right that we, who seek a simpler more sustainable life, unplugged as much as possible from mainstream consumerism, need others to buy OUR stuff so this life is possible?

Is all shopping part of the problem?

Well, no. Of course not.

Trade – as in the fair exchange of goods and services – is a human good. It is how we are able to mange our varied skills in community to benefit from the fact that not everyone is the same, and some can do things that others cannot.

At best these exchanges are face-to-face, and based around a local economy.

If you are interested in the difference between this kind of trading and the more globalised, multi-national, corporation owned, kind, you might be interested in what has become known as the Preston Model- the town where I used to live;

But leaving all that aside, back to our little stall in Glasgow. Thankyou to all of those who came and bought things; bowls, plates, vases, poetry books, pictures etc.. (And while I am at it- thanks to those who have bought things from our webstore or from galleries!)

We hope that we are able to provide a service, in terms of an object that carries meaning, that is a fair exchange (in terms of the work we do to make this object) for the money we ask in exchange.

In return, we try to use this money well, to buy services and goods from other people. Our income is small, and deliberately so, but what we have, we try to buy from local suppliers, or from free trade, sustainable sources. This is simply not always possible but we think it is important to do this not as a charitable excercise, but as a social good, and for the sake of our planet.

You may see this as tokenism. I do not agree though, for two reasons;

Firstly, if we try to follow a life of the spirt, we know already that we seek to find the meaning below the surface. The way we trade is a fundamental part of our lives, so how can we not see this as part of our spiritual journey? As we seek to change the way we trade towards greater justice and social/economic/environmental responsibility we are do this as a spiritual discipline as well as a financial one.

Also, one person doing this is a drop in the ocean, but that is not a reason not to do it. Rather, we seek to create chains of influence, which is actually the very thing that trade IS – a chain of influence that is lubricated and liquified by money. What we are seeking is to turn our small actions in to a mass movement and these always start small.

Let me make this clear. This is NOT an advertisement for our business- you will see I have not included any links in this piece. You can find many other small, local people who are just like us.

A couple more stories from our weekend.

Because we make things that deliberately carry meaning – or become a vehicle for the meaning that others ascribe to them – our stall is often a place where emotions run high. It is a regular thing to see tears or to suddenly find ourselves in deep conversation with strangers. It is a very deep honour to be trusted like this.

Over the course of the weekend, I spoke to people who were retiring and looking for something that marked the change, a woman whose mother had just died, someone who was seeking to find ways to make work oportunities for their learning disabled son and his friends. These were not small conversations.

Then there was this conversation;

We sold a small clock like this one, but with words on which read ‘Let’s whisper dreams of things to come’;

It was bought by someone whose best friend’s husband died two weeks ago of cancer, as a gift for her in her pain and loss. The more I think about it, the more lovely this seems.

Let’s whisper dreams of things to come.

Advent 15: A story with which to live…

I used to rail against consumerism each year as Christmas approached. I made all sorts of token efforts to make personal changes- some years we only shopped in charity shops, or only from locally made produce, or with a limited budget. Always there was the obvious back story of ‘the true meaning of Christmas’, whatever that might be.

There is a version of this (which we consume through a thousand screens) that seems to be about being nice, being generous, and enjoying friendship and family. These are good things. Presents are good things I- I like getting presents and I like giving them too.

But this story of Christmas is not going to save the planet. It seems to be a story that has failed us, like an old scientific theory, superceded by experience and hard won knowledge.

Neither am I sure that this is in fact the ‘true meaning of Christmas’, even in our commercially oriented times. But what is then?

I suppose first and foremost, the true meaning of Christmas is that it was the start of a new story…

…a story about an ancient prophet who claimed to be God, which upset people so much that they killed him…

…or a story about the start of a new kingdom and a new way of living that was simpler, more connected and subjugated to something called love…

…or a story of how people took the example of the life and death of a man and formed it in to a religion, albeit one that often seemed to miss the point entirely…

…or a story in which we find ourselves. A story that challenges us and draws us towards an active hope that things could and should be better…

But there are many many other versions of this story. It became maleable and has been adapted and adopted by all sorts of divergent causes. It was worn by those in power like a badge to justify their power and has been employed by slaves to remind them that they were more than just slaves. So the story might become diluted and distorted from over use and under examination. It is a story that might then lose its power entirely because there is nothing more disposable than a meaningless story.

But how we need a new story at the moment; a better story than the one we have been living with. Here is Monbiot on politics for example;

The interesting question though is whether this story will be a new one after all, or rather a rediscovery/re telling of one that we had mostly forgotten.

The story that began at Christmas is celebrated in a burst of consumerism. But what if we remembered that Jesus told his followers that they did not need two shirts on their backs and modelled a way of sharing everything? The same Jesus who told us that the rich would struggle to enter the Kingdom of God that he was proclaiming, which would bring blessing to the weak, the poor and the broken? How might this story affect the way we live? How might it shape our politics, our economics, our theological understandings of the world?

What light will fall on our darkness?

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

Open the sky

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Open the sky and let some light in

Let this night be night no longer

Let stars shine down in shafts of love

Illuminating ordinary things

All down with dirt and common use

Let donkeys laugh out loud

For now the basest things

Are silvered up with grace

Lubricated in kindness

He is coming

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Not to penthouses, to plump up cushions of comfort

Not to stroke the fragile ego of celebrity

Not to strengthen the hands of the powerful

Or expand their empty empires

Not to shape new cathedrals from seductive certainty

Or even to doctor our old doctrines

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He comes not to the exclusive few

But to you;

The mess of you

All your brokenness

All your failures

He comes in the certain knowledge that

You will fail again

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So, open the sky and

let some light in

Advent 14: Donkey…

There ain’t much that is more ‘advent’ than a donkey, right?

Time for some complex donkey theology.

The poem below centres around a very strange story from the ancient scriptures in which a donkey mocks a poet called Balaam in plain speech. Balaam then flogs the donkey until God intervenes and gives him a right talking to. You can read it in all its wierdness here.

A donkey-flogging poet who is so caught up in his own pomposity and pontification that he fails to see an Angel standing in front of him? Now why would I take this one so personally?

Perhaps what we learn here is that what we think we know, particularly about things of the spirit, we know at best in part. We might be totally wrong. We probably are. Sometimes it takes a donkey to point out the blindingly obvious.

There is truth in this that is important I think. Doubt is a holy discipline as much as faith ever was, otherwise however can our understandings change and evolve? (I wrote this piece ten years ago during a period of doubt trying to describe this same kind of thinking.)

Anyway, back to the donkey;

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Baalam’s Ass

Numbers 22:21-38

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“Look! It’s there!

Can’t you see it?

Wings like thunderclouds

Eyes like searchlights

Robes spun from the last rays of the summer sun

It is either a fairy pumped up on steroids

Or a feckin’ Angel –

Not an allegorical one either.”

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So it was that the living God

Sent a mighty Angel

To play hide and seek with a Donkey

So that a pagan sorcerer

Could speak out holy words

To confound all Israel.

And a whole sky-choir

Of heavenly creatures

Chuckled

Advent 13: The Mercy…

The word ‘mercy’ has meaning for me.

A few years ago, I curated a collection of poetry, gathering together a team of editors, towards whom I pitched the title ‘reaching for mercy’. Initially the reaction was not positive. ‘Mercy’, they thought, sounded too… religious. I was surprised, because to someone like me, who had become disconnected from organised religion, mercy meant something else. I think I first hatched the idea from this song;

It was around the ascent of Trump, when it felt deeply moving to be reminded of this kind of America- that of broken humanity in search of redemption, of non-conformity and tentative (but determinded) hopefulness.

I did win the argument. Mercy, recast as a post-religious word, might be understood as a tender word of hopefulness used like embrocation on our own wounds, even the self-inflicted ones.

Skip forward a few years and my understanding of mercy has expanded somewhat towards something that I will call ‘The Mercy’.

Here is Cynthia Bourgeault on the same subject;

The term I will use to describe this embodying fullness is “the Mercy.” It is the water in which we swim. Mercy is the length and breadth and height and depth of what we know of God—and the light by which we know it. You might even think of it as the Being of God insofar as we can possibly penetrate into it in this life, so that it is impossible to encounter God apart from the dimension of mercy. . . .

The mercy of God . . . is unconditional—always there, underlying everything. It is literally the force that holds everything in existence, the gravitational field in which we live and move and have our being. . . . Mercy is God’s innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love. . . . 

This is from here.

Suddenly, the mercy is everything.

It is not longer just confined to acts of kind humanity, instead it is a magnetic force of love that holds everything together.

I could, and probably should, say a lot more about what I mean by this, but perhaps you are way ahead of me anyway. Instead, I will offer this poem, which was my way of reaching towards the same conclusion.

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I am

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I am bird, I am wind

I am scaled, I am skinned

I am soil, I am stone

I am flesh, I am bone

I am ebb, I am flow

I am stream, I am snow

I am all of these things

And I am nothing

.

I am love, I am light

I am morning, I am night

I am atom, I am star

I am close, I am far

I am start, I am end

I am stranger, I am friend

I am all of these things

And I am nothing

.

I am silence, I am song

I am right, I am wrong

I am sea, I am shore

I am less, I am more

I am young, I am old

I am iron, I am gold

I am all of these things

And I am nothing