Friday, 22 January 2010

O Simplicitas

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An angel came to me
And I was unprepared
To be what God was using.
Mother I was to be.
A moment I despaired,
Thought briefly of refusing.
The angel knew I heard.
According to God's Word
I bowed to this strange choosing.

A palace should have been
The birthplace of a king
(I had no way of knowing).
We went to Bethlehem;
It was so strange a thing.
The wind was cold, and blowing,
My coat was old, and thin.
They turned us from the inn;
The town was overflowing.

God's Word, a child so small,
Who still must learn to speak,
Lay in humiliation.
Joseph stood strong and tall.
The beasts were warm and meek
And moved with hesitation.
The Child born in a stall?
I understood it: all.
Kings came in adoration.

Perhaps it was absurd:
A stable set apart,
The sleepy cattle lowing;
And the incarnate Word
Resting against my heart.
My joy was overflowing.
The shepherds came, adored
The folly of the Lord,
Wiser than all men's knowing.
22nd January and five poems learned!  I think I might spend the last week of January consolidating and start again in February.

I wanted something different again - so I chose a poem by a woman - and more recent than the others - and something with a more direct and up-front religious theme: O Simplicitas by Madeleine L'Engle.
I am drawn to the strange simplicity of this - and I think it is primarily in the metre - the slightly odd 667 pattern that forces an economy of words - not easy to do, as those who have tried to write alternative words to Bunessan (Morning has Broken) have found!

The economy of words makes for simplicity - but the skill is in squeezing mystery out of such pausity - and I think L'Engle does this well.

She also wrote this - about death - which I think is quite stunningly perceptive...

"How long your closet held a whiff of you,
Long after hangers hung austere and bare.
I would walk in and suddenly the true
Sharp sweet sweat scent controlled the air
And life was in that small still living breath.
Where are you? since so much of you is here,
Your unique odour quite ignoring death.
My hands reach out to touch, to hold what's dear
And vital in my longing empty arms.
But other clothes fill up the space, your space,
And scent on scent send out strange false alarms.
Not of your odour there is not a trace.
But something unexpected still breaks through
The goneness to the presentness of you."

L'Engle was an Episcopalian and believed in universal salvation, writing that "All will be redeemed in God's fullness of time, all, not just the small portion of the population who have been given the grace to know and accept Christ. All the strayed and stolen sheep. All the little lost ones." As a result of her promotion of Christian universalism, many Christian bookstores refused to carry her books, which were also frequently banned from Christian schools and libraries. However, some of her most secular critics attacked her work for being too religious.

Her views on divine punishment were similar to those of George MacDonald, who also had a large influence on her fictional work. She said "I cannot believe that God wants punishment to go on interminably any more than does a loving parent. The entire purpose of loving punishment is to teach, and it lasts only as long as is needed for the lesson. And the lesson is always love."

Epiphany 3, year C

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Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
From early morning till noon, Ezra reads the Law of Moses to the people - young and old, and they listen carefully. Imagine!

Psalm 19
The heavens are telling the glory of God!

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a 
What if the body had a fight with itself over which bit was more important?  It would be ludicrous, wouldn't it? Why then would the body of Christ do it so often?

Luke 4:14-21 
Jesus announces his Mission in his boyhood synagogue, he has been chosen for this moment.  He looks them in the eye and sees more bewilderment than excitement...

Some early thoughts which may or may not link together - it doesn't really matter, it is only Tuesday!

Jesus reads from the scroll of what we now call Isaiah 61:1-2 - and he rolls up the scroll and addresses the people. But at what point does he roll up the scroll?

What Jesus says according to Luke 4:18-19
What Isaiah Said in Isaiah 61:1-2

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek. He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound, to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn.

He stops reading before Isaiah's last clause - he snips the bit off the end about the day of vengeance of our Lord.  Also, Isaiah uses the Hebrew word qara' - which means to "call out for" - as one who thirsts might "call out for water" whereas Luke uses the Greek word kēryssō which means to "proclaim" - as in a herald bringing news of something that has happened.

Maybe the two changes go together. Jesus reminds them of their centuries-old longing - how they have cried out for the day of the Lord and how as the years have passed they have settled into the idea that they are living in the "day of vengeance"Well, says Jesus, that day of vengeance is long gone - today in your sight - in your presence - the day of the Lord has dawned - you are living in a new day!

I don't know about you - but I find this time of year a bit depressing - and I think it is the light - the poor quality of the light on a new morning - it isn't fresh or bright or joyful - it is dull and lifeless and uninspiring - it is to me anyway - it is grey.  The people of Israel had been waking up to that dull, grey lifeless morning for centuries, and here Jesus is telling them a new day has dawned.

They flood out of the synagogue but find it doesn't look very different - how will this new day be recognised?  Here's the hard bit... The new day is not recognised so easily by looking up above us or around us - as if it is something happening around us or "to" us - it is recognised within us and within the community we build - it is recognised "through" us.

That's what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Corinthians.  It is not so much "us" looking out at the world to see the dawning of God's new day - it is the other way around - the World will look at us - and in us should be able to see the dawning of God's new day.  The world should be pointing at us and saying "Look - something new is happening!  The living breathing body of Christ right before our eyes!  I want to be a part of that!"

Photo by Dan Barron

Saturday, 16 January 2010

The Tyger

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Fourth poem learned -  The Tyger by William Blake - another one that I was made to learn as a child - except I don't think we learned it past the first verse.  This is from his collection: Songs of Experience.  My choir - amongst many - sings John Tavener's gorgeous setting of The Lamb:

The Lamb comes from his other collection Songs of Innocence and is obviously a sister poem to The Tyger - in the second to last stanza of the Tyger, Blake asks "Did the hand that made the lamb, make thee?" - a clear parallel to "Little Lamb who made thee?"

Blake wasn't bad at spelling - he wrote "Tyger" - not because it was the norm back then - the "y" spelling was already archaic by the 1790s - but on purpose, perhaps to add an aire of mystery or to take the poem beyond "Tiger" to a much deeper metaphor. The Cambridge companion to Blake asks whether in fact, it is about "the very power of language to call into being and frame alternative worlds" - not, I suppose, unlike the prologue to John's Gospel - "In the beginning was the Word..."

This is a version he himself wrote and drew - note the caricatured face in the tree....  My only problem with Blakes drawing here though is that his tyger looks very far from fearsome dread and terror!  His tyger looks like it should be wearing a cardigan and settling down to watch the snooker....

Friday, 15 January 2010

Psalm 36

How fantastic is this? The Psalm for this Sunday is Psalm 36. The King James Bible has verses 5-6 as follows:
Thy mercy, O LORD, is in the heavens; and thy faithfulness reacheth unto the clouds.
Thy righteousness is like the great mountains;
thy judgments are a great deep:
O LORD, thou preservest man and beast.

Which is fair enough and OK and all that - but hardly pant-bustingly zingy!  Whereas - the Message has it as follows:
God's love is meteoric,
his loyalty astronomic,
His purpose titanic,
his verdicts oceanic.
Yet in his largeness
nothing gets lost;
Not a man, not a mouse,
slips through the cracks.

I shall be using the Message version as-is for my Opening Sentences!  Job done!

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The Serpent M25 never sleeps

Lord I need to get there - now
tomorrow won't do
it must be now
I need to go faster

Be still and know that I am God

Lord I can't stop - no
it won't wait
it needs to be finished
I need to work longer

Be still and know that I am God

Lord it has to be me - really
nobody else
I'll do it properly
I think I can squeeze it in

Be still and know that I am God

Lord I hate the silence - help me!
it's deafening
my mind is still racing
I can still hear the treadmill

Be still and know that I am God

Death be not proud...

A third poem in the bag - and it's only 12th January!  I'm feeling very smug and pleased with myself.

I wanted something very different to Jaberwocky - so I chose John Donne's "Death be not proud" - I have known the first two lines since I was a boy and heard Richard Burton reading it on a cassette tape...  of course the proper title is "Divine Sonnet X" (we all knew that didn't we? err...) - but that's not so catchy!
DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
Hear Christopher Hassell read the poem...

John Donne - other than possessing the sharpest and most pointiest beard in the whole of Jacobeandom (he could have someone's eye out with that!) - was a metaphysical poet. Death, being a metaphysical matter, was a favourite topic of his:
"Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." (from "Meditation 17" in "Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions" - or, more commonly, "No Man is an Island" which I shall be learning later in the year!)
 Donne is preumably reflecting on 1 Corinthians 15:55:

O death, where is thy sting?
O death, where is thy victory?
And he takes up Paul's taunting refrain - addressing death as a person - and scornfully laughing in "his" face.  His technique is known as a metaphysical conceit - a far-fetched and ingenious extended comparison that cleverly draws the reader into a deeper understanding.

Donne compares the state of death to sleep - no more than that - sleep even looks like death (which but thy pictures be) - and as we wake from sleep - so we will wake from death.  "Poppie and charmes" may simply be sleeping drafts - but more likely refer to suicide - thus taking away from "Death" any control.  Death is "slave" to "fortune, chance, kings and desperate men" - though he is called "Death" - others do his work - and he is forced to keep the very lowest company.

The Italian sonnet has a steady rhyming scheme throughout (a, b, b, a, a, b, b, a, c, d, d, c). Nevertheless, the last two lines do not adhere to this rhyming scheme. They are fore grounded as independent lines, not rhyming with each other. Donne's primary concern was to render these lines conspicuous, for the significance they imparted to the theme of the poem and the punchline - "Death - thou shalt die!"

Epiphany 2, year C

Isaiah 62:1-5
Isaiah prophesies that a time is coming when Israel will not be called "desolate" or "forsaken" anymore - but rather she will be as blessed as a newly-wed bride.

Psalm 36:5-10
How far does God's love reach?  How deep is God's justice?   What is God's unfailing love worth?
a: to the skies; b: as the ocean; c: it is priceless...
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all of us.

John 2:1-11
Jesus famously turns water into wine.

Some early thoughts...  (in no particular order - and with no promise that any of them fit together coherently - it is only Tuesday after all!)

Isaiah prophesies a glorious future - yet it is decades before it could even be thought to have been fulfilled.  Jesus turns water into wine - but only when it seems they are in serious danger of running out.  It's almost as if God allows the bad stuff to happen before sorting it out or offering us a new way forward - when what we so often yearn for is for God to have thought ahead and sorted it out before it happened! 

I'd quite like a miracle to have happened BEFORE I was dragged off into slavery for generations - and I'd quite like a miracle to happen BEFORE I have aged prematurely with worry over the wine running out!  The Psalmist attests to the depth, breadth, height and length of God's love, righteousness and justice - as of they would "catch all" - as if the net is big enough for nothing to slip through - yet so often that is not our experience of life.

If the Wedding at Cana had gone differently - the miracle of Jesus ensuring there was enough wine to start with - it might have sounded like this:

Jesus went to a wedding with his mother and a few of his friends - and they all had a great time.

if Isaiah had prophesied God's glorious hope (and there had been no exile) - it might have sounded like this:

Listen, my people - life is great just now - you are prosperous and happy - well, I have news for you - nothing much is going to change.
There's nothing wrong with those stories - but in them we would not have seen the glory of God - even if the glory of God was shining right through them.  So am I saying that God makes bad things happen so that we can see how great he is? - NO! - I am suggesting that God's greatness is there in the whole of life - but we only ever come close to recognising it and acknowledging it when bad changes to good...  God is God and just as glorious whatever the circumstances of our lives - God's glory is always there - if there is a fault it is ours that we cannot see it unless we have just been "rescued".

Another tack....

I have always loved the comment that the chief steward made - "Most people serve the best wine first - and later when the guests are a bit worse-for-wear - he slips in the bottles of Liebraumilch" (John 2:10 slightly paraphrased!)  Without knowing it, he has (in a nutshell) the meaning of the miracle.  The people of Israel have had the Law and the Prophets - wine, sure enough - but rough wine compared to what God is now about to do in his Son.

And it is also, obviously, a story about abundance.  At first glance you might be puzzled by this miracle - especially as so many of the others are about curing blindness - healing the lame - raising people from the dead!  This seems like a bit of as luxury - providing too much wine for a  middle-class family...

It reminds me of the chastisement Mary got when she broke the expensive ointment over Jesus' feet - Judas told her that it could have been sold to bring relief to the poor.  And he was right - it could have - but that wasn't the point - and nor is it the point here.

The coming of God's Kingdom - the final fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy - the true occasion for the singing of Psalm 36 is the breaking in of God's Kingdom - and that is symbolised by ABUNDANCE - "I have come that you might have LIFE - ABUNDANCE of life!"