Blessing the apple trees after Paris terror

In this wintertime of violence and hatred

In this wintertime of bloody executionWassail 2014

In this wintertime of meanness and closedness

In this wintertime of ignorance and fear

We pray for a springtime flowering of tenderness and compassion

We pray for a summertime of leafy generosity and love

We pray for an autumn of crisp sweet fruit – the taste of justice, welcome and peace.

We ask you to awaken the apple trees to your call, o Creator of the seasons; bless them  and dress them with nourishing fruit!


Seth Godin: What’s ‘education’ for?

This post about public school in America, its industrial roots and lack of connection with the nature of contemporary society gives clues to how we might train people in theological colleges, how we ‘do’ mission and church, and how we disciple people today…  Enjoy!


Pussy willow

This poem has taken more than a decade to come of age.  I found the archeological remains literally on the back of a torn, empty A4 envelope a few weeks ago, and this evening inspiration has flown in from wherever it dwells to bring the dry bones to life….  I began to write it on a Valentine’s Day, feeling single and a little unloved.  The rest you can discern for yourself.

Lithe brown branches
soft silk budlets
fountain-fluff beside the river…
There it pussy-willows-12-3-_0913was: the pussy willow
ranged in swathes of soft profusion.

You, the lover of my spirit,
dwelling in my deepest dreamings,
left a valentine of silver
like a favour on a pillow –

wordless tender consolation.

No red rose or gold-clasped locket
could have rendered sweeter meaning.
Here an unforeseen encounter,
in the shape of pussy willow,
with the Lord of all creation.




Discerning the future: the Parable of the Jelly Shoe and the Gecko

Asleep in a sparsely furnished bedroom in a Nepali flat I became aware of something running over my uncovered body.  My mind jumped quickly into action to interpret this audacious invasion of my night privacy, and presented my now-conscious mind with an image of the invader:  it was a pink jelly shoe.

A cerise jelly shoe, made of rubber strips, cool, flexible and waterproof.  Was running across my stomach and up my arm, and gone.

I shot out of bed, fumbled for a light switch and my glasses (not sure in what order), and looked for the offending piece of footwear.  No shoe.  Nothing pink at all.  But half-way up the wall, moving at speed, was a gecko.  An ordinary Nepali gJelly shoe or ..... ?ecko who probably thought of me as the intruder.

I often think about this encounter when I’m trying to discern what God is up to.  We receive impressions, intuitions, images and inexplicable urges in the process of trying to allow the Holy Spirit to direct us into the newness that is coming.  But if it is truly a new newness, something that hasn’t been before, then our finite human brains have no way of conceptualizing or naming it.  All our minds can do is find an approximate comparison based on our previous experience for the idea that’s housed in the mind of God.

Which is what happened to me in Nepal.  All my brain could do when my body got in the way of the gecko’s path was interpret what had happened as closely as possible in the light of its existing bank of experience.  And my brain decided to choose a jelly shoe as an approximate comparison to convey the idea of a creature that was rubbery, quick, flexible and probably impregnated with glitter!  An amazing piece of neur0-gymnastics….

And a great metaphor for what goes on when God tries to communicate to us what is in his mind for our future.  He has in mind a gecko – but we’ve never seen a gecko.  So we perceive a jelly shoe. Some important information is passed on in this transaction – something new we’ve never seen, something moving across a landscape, lithe motion, and robust but malleable sparkly material.  But the facts cannot be accurately translated and misunderstandings are bound to arise – we might try to put the gecko on our foot and wear it to the beach or to the ball.

It seems this is the nature of God-human communications, even at their most finely-tuned.  We see it in the prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah.  God had in mind a new, unrepeatable kind of human being and revealed him to the prophets, who reached for words and metaphors to express what they understood.  But people had never met a Messiah, a Godman.  So they interpreted the prophecy in the light of their bank of experience, and came up with the idea of a Maccabean Jelly Shoe Saviour rather than a Messianic Gecko One.

Trying – with many of you – to discern the medium and the message for present and future generations, I am increasingly awGeckosare of the disconnect between what God shows us and what we understand.  We need to handle our intimations circumspectly, aware of all that will be lost in translation.  And we can expect to to be surprised because when the newness comes we will see both the authenticity and accuracy of the communication, as well as the difference between the idea we received and the emerged reality, which will I expect be as distinct from each other as a gecko from a jelly shoe.


Waking the trees

As part of my pilgrim role I facilitate the church’s partnership with the environmental group, Transition Portishead.  In North Somerset apples and the apple harvest are a big deal, and in the autumn there are apple-pressing events in various parts of the town.  Early in the year Transition members traditionally organise a Wassail, to wake the trees after the winter, and prime them for a good year of produce.  Recently I’ve been invited to take part and bless the trees.

Here’s the blessing we used this evening:

God of the universe,
Source of all life,
We come on behalf of all living things
in the darkness of winter
to ask for the blessing of new life.
God of life and love,
Goodness and grace,
Bless this tree and all the trees…
Fill their leaves with worship
And their branches with the dance of praise.
May they express your beauty in their blossom
And your faithfulness in abundant fruit.
Awaken us with the trees to hear your voice
And be obedient to your call.
As we taste the juice of the harvest,
may we know your fruitfulness in the whole of our lives.
In the name of Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.

No enthronement for the Bishop

I don’t want the new Bishop enthroned.  For all kinds of reasons.  Firstly, this: “You know those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.’  (Mark 10: 42-244)

I know Bishops see themselves as servants, and the term ‘enthronement’ is historical.  But it is an archeological relic of the days when church and state were politically interbred, and since the Bishop is no longer considered a prince, and he has (wisely in my view) decided not to live in the Palace, how can he be enthroned?

You might think it’s a fuss about nothing, but words are linguistic symbols.  The word represents something, the sign signifies a specific object, person or idea.  Enthroning someone must entail putting someone royal on a throne, and by inference, giving them the right to rule over their subjects.  This is not what bishopping is all about.  And so using the term ‘enthronement’ creates a gap between the word and what it signifies.  And if we’re telling the truth about who we are as church, we can’t have a gap between a word we use and the reality it is supposed to represent.

Could he be installed, then?  Well, no.  Not for my money.  These days we install software, fridge freezers and new bathrooms.  And unless the new Bishop is going eliminate our computer viruses, store our meat at a safe temperature, or give us a warm shower in the mornings, this isn’t appropriate language either.  I know the word ‘install’ refers to the fact that the Bishop has a ‘stall’ in the cathedral (quite a large one, rather like a throne), but that doesn’t help.  The primary and secondary meanings for ‘stall’ these days are both to do with housing cattle.  And although we are a rural Diocese, I doubt if we want to be telling the wider world that we keep our Bishop in a barn, charmingly Christmassy though that may be.

I also think being installed sounds very static:  ‘Our Bishop is going to sit here for a few years… ‘

So we’re left with ‘licensed’.   And you know what I’m going to say…   People are licensed to own dogs, to enjoy public broadcasting, and sell alcohol on their premises.  007 was licensed to kill….  Heaven forfend our Bishop should be licensed. Or the cathedral would be populated with beer-drinking canines watching ‘Beethoven’ on satellite.  With the possibility of the occasional unexplained shooting.

As I say, it’s not just about relevance.  It’s also about creating meaning.  The words we use must be skilfully chosen symbols for what they signify.  Or we lose meaning, and when we lose meaning, we lose listeners.

I’m going for ‘welcomed and sworn in’.  I want the Bishop to know he is welcome, and to receive the gift of our hospitality.  I want to know, too, he has taken solemn vows before God and God’s people to serve us faithfully, as God inspires him and gives him grace.


Birthing prayer

Broad-shouldered, muscly men walked faster.  One crossed to the other side of the unlit path to avoid me.  I’m not surprised.  I was a bit worried too.  I’d started involuntarily talking out loud to God, expressing my frustration and sense of isolation in aggressive, repetitive mantras.  Appealing desperately to an invisible audience with my hands, using plenty of colourful language, I walked my regular prayer route.  And scared people.

I was never taught to pray like that, and either I am losing my mind (I’m not excluding the possibility) or I’m slowly learning what real prayer is.  Like the inexplicable ravings of someone with mental illness.

What I was saying?  I can’t tell you the words… You’d be shocked.  But about the difficulty of birthing the new thing God is doing.  And the possibility he’s not doing anything new, and I’m just deluded.  Speaking about something others can’t see.  That’s the definition of deluded, right?

Raving like a woman in labour.  Swearing like a woman in pain, trying to get through this moment.  But missing something to push against.

I met Richard, who stopped for a chat….  We talked about Christmas, and we considered Mary, who when she said ‘Yes’ to be mother of God’s child, didn’t know most of her support systems, everything that was familiar and reassuring, would be withdrawn.  She didn’t know she’d be pregnant and in labour in circumstances that would challenge her physical, emotional and spiritual strength to the limit.  She didn’t know she’d be compelled to carry out her task on very thin resources, pretty much on her own, without a script or a map.

And so it is, I suppose, with all the new things God does.  The invisible and unknown have few fans.  God doesn’t do a big media launch for his fresh initiatives with a prior press release sharing the aims of the new strategy. He gives hints and intimations of the possible for ordinary, hidden people to bring to birth.  In unprivileged circumstances.

And it’s hard.  Resources are thin.  The pregnant are tested to the limit of their physical, emotional and spiritual strength.  If you’re pregnant you need people who resist you, perhaps, to push against, to get the baby out.  And you need to swear, to scream, to yell at the God who’s put you in this situation and apparently left you to get on with it.


A shepherd’s tale

Easy-to-organise last-minute creativity for a Christmas service if you’re pressed!  Goes well with Luke 2:8-20 (or radical choice – instead of!).

 “We’re the unsung heroes, you know…No one gives us the blindest bit of notice.  You’d think we were dirt, the way they treat us when we go into town…

 The wages are rubbish and when you think what we have to do…  Night shift in the freezing cold, wild animals on the prowl, and not a sniff of danger money…  Bored out of our minds half the time and scared witless the rest…  And in the day we’re at it non-stop – getting the maggots out of them, shearing them for market, hunting down the strays…  Oh, did I tell you?  We’re shepherds…  We provide food for that stuck-up lot in town, wool for them as can afford it, and lambs for sacrifices in the temple…  And all the thanks we get for it is the evil looks in the street… ‘Better stand down-wind of him…Cor, what a whiff!  Did someone let one off?’ 

So there we were this one time…  Sat round the fire with the usual bottle of something to keep the cold and the fear out, and then – there’s this other person there with us, talking to us somehow…and you could just hear a voice, inside you and outside you at the same time, if you know what I mean…  Of course you don’t…I know you don’t…you couldn’t unless it happened to you…And I tried to look at him but it was like he was made of light…really brilliant light…

He said about the baby…a special baby born for us…  ‘For shepherds?!’ I said, trying to make a bit of a joke of it, stop myself feeling so weak and wobbly.  ‘Is there going to be a posher baby born for society people?’  I still wish I hadn’t opened my mouth.  But he – she – it didn’t break me into a million pieces.  It said, ‘This baby’s for everyone, and will bring peace to everyone who worships him.’

And then there was singing.  No, not us!  But them – a whole load of them by now, a blaze of light and music like you can’t describe.  But it fills you with a joy and excitement so big you think you’re going to explode.

So we went to see the baby… he was easy to find, the only one in an animal shed – his mother had used her wits and made a trough into a kind of cot…God must have a sense of humour, I thought, to put his kid – if it really was his – in a baby bed like that.  And among the straw and cow muck – well, we fitted right in.  By the time we went back to the sheep, everything had changed.  God thought of telling me about his Son’s arrival.  He wasn’t the God I thought he was – he was much better.  Much more human.  Much more down-to-earth!  I could worship a God like that…”

Mary’s mum finds out she’s pregnant

Mary and her Mum Christmas 2013

Quick-and-easy (although best if well-rehearsed) sketch on newness and change for your Christmas service picking up Messianic prophecies…  Aftertones of weepy mother-daughter bonding sessions.  Goes well with the annunciation reading…

A: Mary….

B: What? (Muffled, sounds as if she has been crying)

A: I’m sorry I lost my temper. I shouldn’t have shouted.

B: indistinguishable noise – someone trying to say something, but too weepy to control voice.

A: I just… (long pause)…. Well, it’s just so unbelievable. It’s …not the sort of thing that happens.

B: (sniffing) Do you think I don’t know that?! I didn’t ask for it. It’s not something I want. (in a small voice) But it is something He wants. And it was so beautiful, what he said. I told you.

A: I don’t know how we’re going to tell your cousin. She and Zechariah’ve been trying for years and no baby. How we explain you falling pregnant…. I don’t understand why the Lord would give you a baby you don’t want before you’ve been with a man, but can’t give her a child when she’s decently married and so desperate to be a mum. Mind you, if she had a daughter like you she’d have her work cut out…

B: That’s not fair! When have I ever been in trouble before?!

A: Mary, why? Tell me what – the man…

B: …the messenger…

A: What the strange man said.

B: Mum, I’ve told you what he said. But I’ve been thinking… about some of the prophecies… ‘A virgin shall be with child and give birth to a Son and call him Emmanuel.’ I’m a virgin….. Mum, no, really, I know it’s hard to believe, but I swear to you… I am!

And there’s another one…. ‘a root shall come forth from Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its shoots, and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him’. We’re descended from Jesse, aren’t we? And from King David? Couldn’t it be possible? Possible this baby is God’s anointed one? Inside me?

A: I don’t know, Mary. I really don’t know…. I’ve been thinking about when I was pregnant with you. Your dad and I were so excited. We’d been together for a while, and things had settled into a pattern. We were ready for something new… Ready for a new phase of life. And we waited quite a long time before you came along, and didn’t dare imagine what it’d be like when you did. But once I was expecting, we were always imagining the future. Seeing you for the first time, holding you, feeding you… watching your dad teach you to walk, your first words… first friends, the games you liked playing… You weren’t even there and we were so full of hope for the future. And life seemed full of promise and possibility.

B: Are you going to tell me I’ve let you down? Because I can’t bear it.

A: … (slowly, thoughtfully) … No, no… I suppose I’m just thinking about the other stories in the Scriptures… all the baby stories. Moses was rescued from the Nile, Isaac was born when Abraham and Sarah were nearly dead, Samuel was born to barren Hannah when she did a deal with God… Somehow they all brought in a new era for the people of Israel. So it makes sense the Messiah might have an unusual birth. Tho’ I can’t say I’d ever have imagined anything like this!!! And with my daughter!

B: So you believe me? It’s important you believe me. I expect everyone else to think the worst, but I don’t think I can do this on my own.

A: You won’t have to, my love…. God will be with you. And I will. But it won’t be easy. When you’re pregnant, everything changes. Your body, family, your relationship with your husband. You have to make room for the newborn – not just in your house or in your belly, in your marriage too. It won’t be easy. Specially under the circumstances. But then, change never is.

B: But this is God’s change. This is God fulfilling his promise to his people. Surely we can make room for God, for the new thing he’s doing. My baby is a new life, and he’ll bring everyone a future full of hope. The messenger told me not to be frightened, because God is with me. We just need to trust and believe that what happens is for our good. Whatever it is….
And by the way…

A: What?

B: The messenger said something else. A secret. About Elizabeth.

A: What? Tell me!

B: (Teasing) You won’t believe me…

A: I will! What is it? Is it…. Not another miracle baby?!… Mary!!! Please! Don’t be so mean…

B: She’s going to have a boy. She’s 6 months gone. Because nothing is impossible for God!!!

A: I don’t believe it. I really don’t believe it… It’s all too much (starts to weep)

B: That’s how I felt when the messenger left. Full of joy and totally wiped out!… Come on, have a hug. God thought so highly of you you’re going to be his grandma!!!! Now that should really make you cry!

Foreseeing: Mary pondered these things in her heart

Foreseeing: a Christmas reflection Luke 2:19

At the Bath and Wells Clergy Gathering Matt Harvey our poet-in-residence talked to us about the Norwegian concept of ‘kenning’.  I’d never heard of it before – the art of ‘describing a physical object in terms of its properties, abilities, attainments or effects’ (thanks, Steve Tilley).  I realised I’d written a kenning piece at theological college several years ago for Morning Prayer and I’ve adapted it today so it can act as a reflection for a carol service (you can use more than one voice if you like to give it more colour)…

Life giver bread breaker storm sleeper blame taker

Scroll reader mask exposer sheep steerer wave treader

Temple razer truth wielder light exuder crowd amazer

Life enhancer, drinker, dancer

Cross bearer dazzle wearer law lover wine renewer

Story weaver, hurt healer, death drinker, God revealer

Lone lamb finder, Satan binder

Sight restorer, desert victor, sin forgiver, hymn singer

Dawn-light pray-er, bondage breaker, bone straightener, peacemaker….

Bubbling up with joy river

Death defeater, grace ladler, never sinner,  heart burner

Tempest husher, Spirit breather, show stealer, table turner…..

Mary worships.

Baby cries.

All the future in their eyes.