Writing

  • The Guide

    The Guide

    Of all prophets and seers
    tradition presents
    just three, opening
    the clasp of heaven’s veil,
    revealing the question
    of wonder’s quest.

    Cold shimmering light,
    night’s pointed sign,
    attentive wisdom caught.
    This silent message
    evoking sage response:
    A celestial companion,
    moving travellers on.

    Wisdom of years the guide
    where youth
    would have safely trod:
    Beyond comfort awoken
    to grime and fear of night,
    becoming a caravan’s
    compulsive course.

    A stall beneath a public hall:
    Journey’s end –
    could this be –
    the beginning quest?

    Magi, tradition tells,
    valued wisdom:
    light’s transcendent call.

    ©John Fairbrother
    ©
    Image Three Wise Women, Jan Richardson, reproduced with permission. 

     

  • On the 12 days of Christmas

    On the 12 days of Christmas

    Two turtle doves
    Rachel Mann

    IN HER poem for the feast of the Presentation, Christina Rossetti writes: “O Firstfruits of our grain, Infant and Lamb appointed to be slain, A Virgin and two doves were all Thy train, With one old man for state, When Thou didst enter first Thy Father’s gate.’”

    While the Presentation or Candlemas may seem a little distant from the “Twelve Days of Christmas”, it has often been treated as the final liturgical moment in the season of Christmas. Many people keep their nativity sets up until that date. In addition, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first performed on Candlemas in 1602.

    Rossetti’s poem also reminds us of the rich symbolism of doves. She implies that the two doves — offered as redemptive sacrifice in the biblical text — are part of Christ’s simple “train”, or honour-guard, as he is carried into the Temple for the first time.

    The Bible, of course, contains rich dove-based symbolism. Noah sends a dove out to test whether the flood has receded, and it brings back a freshly plucked olive leaf, a sign of hope and life. Perhaps, most definitively, in St Luke’s and St Matthew’s Gospels the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove at the moment of Christ’s baptism.

    Doves (and olive branches) have become associated with peace and reconciliation. The depth of connection between doves and peace is reflected in American political idiom: those in favour of aggressive foreign policies are called “hawks”, while those who take a conciliatory stance are called “doves”. For Christians, the connective tissue between ancient and modern dove symbolism lies in the Bible: doves take us back to God and to his son, the Prince of Peace.

    As a song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” provides a fun singalong for all ages. In the year of the centenary of the Armistice, however, there is potentially great pathos in the gift of “two turtle doves”: doves were offered at the dedication of Christ; doves signal peace; and doves show forth the Holy Spirit. In a world that still hungers for peace, and it is yet to find it, may we know the blessing of doves this Christmastide.

    Canon Rachel Mann is Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and the author of Fierce Imaginings: The Great War, ritual memory and God (DLT).

    Four calling birds
    Jerry Marshall

    “TRANSCEND reflects the Palestinian dream of a prosperous life with open borders,” the team leader for an Israeli client, eTeacher, Abdallah Khalifah, says. “We’re working with clients from all over the globe, and across borders. I believe that creating jobs for youth in a very troubled place of the world is worth working for.”

    Transcend is my Bethlehem baby, born in 2012. It’s a call-centre business, set up with my friend Nassim Nour, and uses the language skills in Bethlehem to bring jobs, skills, and exports unaffected by movement restrictions. Today, we have 120 staff providing contact-centre services and software development for businesses in Palestine, Israel, and beyond.

    Besides creating jobs designed to survive even in a curfew, we try to model integrity and gender equality. Our first CEO, Abeer Hazboun, became the first Palestinian women to win a place on the prestigious IMD MBA programme in Lausanne, Switzerland.

    Encouraging and respecting our staff is not only morally right, but also makes business sense. “I feel like management trusts my decisions and supports me in my daily work,” says Rozet Najajrah, who was regularly “Agent of the Month”, and is now team leader for a wellness programme.

    Behind Transcend is a desire to bring hope. Yaman Qaraqe, one of our first team leaders, says: “This transcends political barriers and limitations. I really love that. I’m the eldest daughter in the family, and I’m my family’s hope. . . I love it, because it makes me feel renewed every day because I learn about other cultures, and it helps my English come to life.”

    Abdallah, Abeer, Yaman, and Rozet are just four “calling birds” whose communication skills enable us to transcend the separation wall. Transcend is risky, because not everyone likes what we are doing; but it is one small source of hope in a troubled region. The Jesus plan was high-risk, but is the primary source of hope for us all in a turbulent world.

    Jerry Marshall is the co-founder and chair of Transcend Support Ltd.

    Five gold rings
    Anne Bennett

    SLEEVELESS dresses are unwise in December. The bridesmaids are shivering, and even in cassock and surplice I am chilled. Only the bride is impervious to the cold, fuelled by an inner furnace of anxiety, adrenaline, and hope. I arrange the bridesmaids in order of height, whisper some reassurance to the bride, and nod to the verger. She signals the organist, and the bridal party makes its stately way down the aisle.

    All weddings are special, but Christmas weddings have a distinctive beauty. We have brought in evergreen branches, and the scent of pine and incense is sharp in the air. The candles, barely visible in summer, gleam in winter gloom. The florist has found mistletoe to hang from the pulpit — pagan, possibly, but the church will happily adopt it, just as we once adopted this midwinter festival and made it our own: a celebration of light and love coming to redeem a benighted world.

    We sing a carol. There is nervous laughter as I preach about the joys and tribulations of marriage. And now the couple are facing each other, and we begin the vows. Silence falls, absolute silence. Even the smallest children are still, caught by the power of the moment, as two people repeat after me the ancient words. To have and to hold. For better, for worse. Till death us do part. They exchange golden rings, and make more promises. With my body I honour you. All that I am I give to you.

    And now they are married, and no one shall put them asunder, and we all cheer, and the organist belts out the “Hallelujah Chorus” to carry them down the nave.

    Love came down at Christmas, and on this wedding day we see it come down still. In this church, on this day, blessings abound.

    The Revd Anne Bennett is Team Vicar in the Ravensbourne Team Ministry, Southwark diocese.

    Eleven pipers piping
    Doug Gay

    THE ninth day of Christmas 2018 will fall on Wednesday 2 January 2019. This enjoys the happy distinction of being a Bank Holiday in Scotland, though not in England; an anomaly sometimes linked to the Scots tendency to celebrate Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) in a particularly committed fashion, during which, as the Scots saying that echoes the King James Bible confesses, “strong drink might be taken.”

    A second Bank Holiday allows revellers to switch to Irn Bru (Scotland’s other national drink) and recover themselves the better to cope with those ten heartless souls who will be drumming them back to work on 3 January.

    The pipers in this glorious English carol (there are sometimes 11) may not have originally been bagpipers, but, given the carol’s disputed origins and meanings, and generally anarchic character, I am happy to claim them for Scotland and clothe them in tartan.

    Sometimes despised and rejected by outsiders, the traditions of playing and composing for the Highland pipes are extraordinarily rich and subtle, encompassing both the “little/light music” (in Gaelic ceòl beag) of marches, strathspeys, reels, and jigs; and the “big music” (ceòl mór) of Pibroch/Piobaireachd: a slower, extended art music in which a solo piper works elaborate variations around a melodic theme.

    Reflecting on a move into the last days of the Christmas season and the rather more pagan and secular disruption of the 12 by Hogmanay, I cannot resist invoking Jesus’s words in Matthew 11.17, chiding the cynicism of his critics: he compares his generation to children in the street, crying out indignantly “We piped for you and you did not dance, we sang a dirge and you did not mourn.”

    The wisdom he invokes knows that there is a time to mourn and a time to dance. A good piper — or even nine, or 11 — will be able to accompany both, and a wise Christian will hope to discern when to do which.

    The Revd Dr Doug Gay is a Lecturer in practical theology at the University of Glasgow and has been a Visiting Lecturer at The University of Otago, Aotearoa, New Zealand.

    Twelve drummers drumming
    Terl Bryant

    FOR some, the idea of one drummer drumming is quite enough. But 12?

    Group drumming is just about as old as it comes, and drummers have gathered, making rhythms for dancing and marching, since the dawn of time. The sound of drums is powerful: it can prompt a child to jump for joy, and an old person to sway and clap, despite the pain.

    I left school at 16 to start a career as a drummer. And, in 1995, I had a dream that changed my life. In it, I stood with a group of drummers, drumming in the presence of God. We were pounding out a beat that somehow reflected the power and majesty of God.

    It so inspired me that it changed the course of my life. I started gathering Christian drummers to play together and live out what I had seen in the dream: drummers beating out rhythms as prayer, praise, and encouragement for the glory of Christ. I called the gathering “Psalm Drummers”, and, over the years, these Christian drummers went on to drum on numerous occasions, in many contexts, leading the church in worship.

    I was recently in Pakistan, and had the privilege of worshipping alongside Christians whose faith is often challenged in the same way that first-century believers were. During my visit, I was able to play with other drummers and lead a congregation of several hundred believers in a rhythmic version of the Lord’s Prayer. We played a powerful beat as the crowd declared, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” It was electric, as we all came together with one voice in praise.

    The Bible tells us that God is love. This Christmas, may God, our “true love”, send to us the joyful sound of 12 drummers drumming: a heavenly heartbeat of faith, hope, and love.

    Terl Bryant is a drummer and percussionist, and founder of Psalm Drummers. www.voiceofdrums.com

    The full article was published in The Church Times, 21 December 2018. www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2018/21-december/features/features/on-the-12-days-of-christmas

    Image: www.wikimedia.commons.org

     

     

  • A Divine Beauty

    A Divine Beauty

    Pohutukawa’s crimson
    unfurls
    in the twelfth month.
    No more pain of being in the bud.

    Beauty blossoms the landscape
    of the bare heart
    warming it like the breath of creatures
    healing like nectar.

    Veined leaves
    rustle in the evening
    with a felt underbelly of moisture
    softening.

    Dark red heart wood
    roots resting in infinity
    interweave wisdom and story
    of our eternal Mother.

    Seeds white as Ngauruhoe snow
    carried through the air
    with spirit of salt spray and wind
    share the ancient commandment of life.

    Leaves fall
    in the wintry light
    limbs becoming bare,
    withstanding.

    Circles of time sanctified
    storms
    sunshine
    fragile hope.

    Nothing more holy
    in the ninth month.

    ©Hilary Oxford Smith
    ©Image: Pohutukawa Abstract, Harold Coop

  • Christmas Been

    Ana Lisa de Jong 30 December 2018

    Christmas Been


    Christmas is for a moment
    the veil lifted,  
    the light of Christ appearing
    through the mist.

    The bright glow
    of a candle briefly lit,
    that for a time
    illuminates the room.

    As a lover’s knock upon the door
    causes the heart to lift,
    so Christmas is the long awaited visit
    to which we open our arms.

    Christmas is the birth
    of the promised child,
    whose innocent dependence
    draws from us our love.

    So that Christmas is
    the veil lifted,
    the light of Christ appearing
    in a crib.

    But we must be careful
    to not too soon forget,
    the one to whose feet we bring
    our treasures.

    The bright glow
    of a candle briefly lit,
    might start and stutter,
    until it goes out with the wind.

    Or the lover’s embrace which warms,
    depart,
    to leave us waiting
    and desirous again. 

    But Christmas that for a moment
    lifts the veil,
    shows us what lies always
    behind the scenes of things.

    Christ, in love
    found a way to remain,
    and has given us back our treasures,
    surrendered at his feet.

    So that the treasure that is Christ,
    can be threaded through our days,
    strung from one Christmas to the next,
    as glowing lights across the heavens.

    ©Ana Lisa de Jong
    Living Tree Poetry
    Image Aurora Australis, Wikipedia.com

  • Ultimately

    Ultimately

     

    when all is said and done

    that might and power

    can say and do, they’ll be

    compelled to forfeit all;

    for ultimately the power of love

    will outwith outmanoeuvre

    and outclass the power

    of power-for-its-own-sake

    and keep it hostage to oblivion.

    ©James M. McPherson

    Image Unsplash.com

  • The Shadow of the Holy Innocents

    Professor Gavin G. D'Costa 28 December 2018

    The Shadow of the Holy Innocents

    The Shadow of the Holy Innocents is a reminder to me that Christians should never be triumphalist as the magnificent truth of the gospel is always framed in thin, beautiful, delicate ice. Claims to truth have always been used to kill others and Christianity, uniquely, at its centre speaks of one who is killed. Suffering, death and tragedy mark life too deeply to be triumphalist, but at the same time, the resurrection cannot be hidden from view. But the resurrection is only authentic when the trace of blood is not denied, the suffering not glossed over, and the wound always has a scar, even when fully healed.

    The Shadow of the Holy Innocents
     
    Did Gabriel realise that he initiated a blood bath?
    Had this sublime angel missed Jeremiah’s prophecy,
    that Rachel’s weeping in Ramah would turn into
    a wailing that would never stop, not even to welcome
    angels in that dung-rich Bethlehem stable?
     
    She was highly favoured. But what of those mothers
    whose sons were forced from their arms,
    torn from their feeding breasts,
    heads smashed on paving stones brought from Jerusalem?
    Had they given a stifled fiat, assenting as handmaidens?
     
    Perhaps, when Mary was disturbed by Gabriel’s words,
    she saw what havoc she unwittingly allowed:
    giving birth to a childless son who would unleash
    such pain upon her, for she must witness
    what the other mothers saw: blood on wood.
     
    She paused, asked the question, distracting herself
    from the terrifyingly obvious: her life would never be
    the same, her body not her own. She would walk
    in the shadow of the presence, dimly clear,
    and the wailing would not cease, growing louder and near.
     
    While nothing is impossible to God, stopping the tears
    will be. These women will weep until the end of time,
    spitting phlegm into the darkness of divinity that offers no solace
    but remains hanging there with us. A handmaiden’s lot?
     
    © Gavin G. D’Costa
    Image Destruction (2016), Judith Carlin. Wikimedia Commons.
     
    Reprinted with the kind permission of Dr. Gavin G. D’Costa, Professor of Catholic Theology at The University of Bristol, UK.
    This poem was first published in Making Nothing Happen: Five Poets Explore Faith and Spirituality, Gavin D’Costa, Eleanor Nesbitt, Mark Pryce, Ruth Shelton, Nicola Slee. Routledge (Routledge, 2014).
  • John the Beloved

    John the Beloved

    It was on Iona years ago that I first became aware of the need to reclaim some of the features of ancient Christianity in the Celtic world as lost treasure for today. Part of that treasure is the much-cherished image of John the evangelist, also known as John the Beloved, leaning against Jesus at the Last Supper. Celtic tradition holds that by doing this he heard the heartbeat of God. He became a symbol of the practice of listening—listening deep within ourselves, within one another, and within the body of the earth for the beat of the Sacred Presence.

    Do we know that within each one of us is the unspeakably beautiful beat of the Sacred? Do we know that we can honor that Sacredness in one another and in everything that has being? And do we know that this combination—growing in awareness that we are bearers of Presence, along with a faithful commitment to honor that Presence in one another and in the earth—holds the key to transformation in our world?

    © John Philip Newell
    Image Jesus and John the Beloved; source unknown

  • On the Feast of Stephen

    Malcolm Guite 26 December 2018

    On the Feast of Stephen

    There is something telling about the fact that the very day after Christmas the Church celebrates the Feast of Stephen, the first Martyr. Martyr means witness, and Stephen witnessed that the Babe born at Bethlehem was worth dying for, and more: he witnessed the resurrection of Jesus and in that resurrection the promise of resurrection to humanity, for whom Christ died. The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church, and the seed Stephen sowed bore almost immediate fruit.  I believe it was the witness of Stephen’s martyrdom that opened the way for Christ into the life of St. Paul. Even as he held the coats and was consenting unto Stephen’s death he was witnessing in Stephen’s face the risen life and love of Christ, and Paul’s road to Damascus led past the very place where Stephen died.

    Witness for Jesus, man of fruitful blood,
    Your martyrdom begins and stands for all.
    They saw the stones, you saw the face of God,
    And sowed a seed that blossomed in St. Paul.
    When Saul departed breathing threats and slaughter
    He had to pass through that Damascus gate
    Where he had held the coats and heard the laughter
    As Christ, alive in you, forgave his hate,
    And showed him the same light you saw from heaven
    And taught him, through his blindness, how to see;
    Christ did not ask ‘Why were you stoning Stephen?’
    But ‘Saul, why are you persecuting me?’
    Each martyr after you adds to his story,
    As clouds of witness shine through clouds of glory.

    ©Malcolm Guite
    Image Mosaic of St. Stephen, St. Stephen Walbrook Church, City of London, UK 

    The Rev. Dr. Malcolm Guite is Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge, UK

  • Moments: The Guide

    Moments: The Guide

    Of all prophets and seers
    tradition presents
    just three, opening
    the clasp of heaven’s veil,
    revealing the question
    of wonder’s quest.

    Cold shimmering light,
    night’s pointed sign,
    attentive wisdom caught.
    This silent message
    evoking sage response:
    A celestial companion,
    moving travellers on.

    Wisdom of years the guide
    where youth
    would have safely trod:
    Beyond comfort awoken
    to grime and fear of night,
    becoming a caravan’s
    compulsive course.

    A stall beneath a public hall:
    Journey’s end –
    could this be –
    the beginning quest?

    Magi, tradition tells,
    valued wisdom:
    light’s transcendent call.

    ©John Fairbrother
    © Image Three Wise Women Also Came, Jan Richardson, reproduced with permission.