Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. A few years ago, I took ashes out into the town centre and offered ‘Ashes To Go.” – taking the ashes from last year’s Palm crosses and offering the sign of the cross to anyone who was willing to receive it. Ashes are a reminder that in the end, we all turn to dust. That reminder of our mortality, can be a signpost to turn to God, the ground of all our being.
One of my readings today was from Malcolm Guites book of sonnets, that traces the church year, with a sonnet for different seasons. He has written a sonnet for Ash Wednesday.
Receive this cross of ash upon your brow
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross;
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands,
The very stones themselves would shout and sing,
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognise in Christ their lord and king.
He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow.
Below is a short extract of the introduction to the sonnet that he originally wrote for it when wrote it over ten years ago. He has reposted the sonnet with a new sense of urgency here on today’s blog post.
As I set about the traditional task of burning the remnants of last Palm Sunday’s palm crosses in order to make the ash which would bless and sign our repentance on Ash Wednesday, I was suddenly struck by the way both the fire and the ash were signs not only of our personal mortality and our need for repentance and renewal but also signs of the wider destruction our sinfulness inflicts upon God’s world and on our fellow creatures, on the whole web of life into which God has woven us and for which He also cares.
It has been a few weeks since I completed writing the most recent song – The Seige of Gloucester, so I was beginning to wonder when the inspiration was going to come for a new song.
As the song began to take shape, I thought it would be interesting to track the development of the song.
Falling back on a method I have used in the past, I decided to pick up a book that I read many years ago – ‘Ragman and other cries of faith.’ – a collection of stories by author Walter Wangerin.
In one of the stories, so beautifully written, I noticed some particular phrases that drew me in, from which I wrote the following lines:
Living in a shotgun house
Three rooms in a dead straight line
Built on just a half a city lot
They listened to his heart
Never told him what they heard
Just some scribbles on a chart
It seemed that I had the beginnings of a song here. A shotgun house is one where you can see all the way through from the front door to the back. You could fire a gun through both open doors! A bit like a traditional terraced house where I live. Although it’s not ‘my language,’ I like the sound of shotgun house, so I’ll stick with that.
Now I had to consider – did I want to try and write a song that follows this story ? That would feel forced to me. It would feel like I would have to ‘steal’ even more from this story, when all I was looking for was a starting point. I would rather let the song emerge.
Some songwriters (Joe Henry among them) talk about the song existing already, and the art of the songwriter is to bring the song to birth.
So … I’m looking for this song to emerge.
I noticed in another book I’m reading these words: “She’d never really thought about the way the dead would gather at the edge of a town, all their names spelled out so you’d know whose they were for as long as that family lived in that place …. And there she would be, after so many years, waiting in sunlight, all covered in roses.”
I wrote down these words:
Gathered at the edge of town,
Remembered after many years
waiting in the spring sunlight
While the Walter Wangerin story was about the experience of a young church minister visiting an elderly man, today I began to try and discern the story that was beginning to take shape here. It seemed that this was going to be a story about a life. Some of that life would have been lived in a ‘shotgun house;’ there would be a verse about being in hospital for some heart investigations, and a verse set in the cemetery at ‘the edge of town.’
Later on today, we were out walking along the North Wales coastal path, and I was mulling over where I had got to with this song. I was thinking about the roses growing around the headstone in the cemetery in the quote above, and thought perhaps the song should have a chorus, and that roses could appear in a slightly different way in each chorus ?
Then another thought came to mind. I suddenly had the image of the shotgun house, with the three rooms, one behind the other, all in a ‘dead straight line.’ Other images came into my imagination … maybe three headstones in the cemetery ‘in a dead straight line,’ and maybe an image of three children. ‘Standing in a line’ in a photograph. I have a photograph of my mum, Nancy, and her siblings, all eight of them, standing in a line, one behind the other – from the eldest at the back – Mary, Wilfred, Bessie, Bertha, Bernard, Margaret, Ruth, Nancy, Hugh.
That’s as far as I’ve got … but I thought I’d try and make a record of the process …
Hopefully I’ll come back soon with a completed song, or at least more of the process.
I’ve just started reading Marilynne Robinson’s book – ‘Lila.’ Set in the town of Gilead in Iowa, it has the feel of other novels I’ve read recently. (The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, and Devisadero by Michael Ondaatje). All of the books are written with the skill of a story teller and the language of a poet.
As someone who believes in the grace of God that surrounds and covers us, I was struck by these words, spoken by her pastor husband.
…. No. No, it isn’t. I think you are asking me these questions because of some hard things that have happened, the things you won’t talk about. If you did tell me about them, I could probably not say more than that life is a very deep mystery, and that finally the grace of God is all that can resolve it. And the grace of God is also a very deep mystery.” He said, “You can probably tell I’ve said these same words too many times. But they’re true, I believe.” He shrugged, and watched his finger trace the scar on the table.
Grace and peace.
We met with some friends on Zoom yesterday to share some thoughts about writing our own psalms.
This is more of a poem than a prayer, but poems and prayers are often very similar
A lock – a lock of hair
a reminder of the first time that we cut her hair
kept in a small box
If I ever open the box,
the feeling is one of precious memory
A lock – on the canal, just down the road
I remember standing, watching an older couple
suddenly burst into action
she on the rudder
he on the bank, shoulder to the whatever you call it
opening the lock gate
to allow the journey to continue
A lock – a lock in actually
not that I’ve experienced one for a very long time
– a surreptitious gathering after closing time
when we were invited to stay
and have another drink, or two, or three, or more
feeling a sense of belonging on a Saturday night
A lock – something that stops you
you stand before it without the key
wanting to open that door
to see what’s on the other side
but you either can’t find the key
or maybe it’s genuinely lost for ever
or maybe it doesn’t even exist
A lock – a locket
contains something that’s close to your heart
it’s always there around my neck
even when that door is closed
If you saw my previous post – a photo of a padlock on a rotting wooden door … I wonder what it made you think of ?
On Thursday last week, I started on a four week exploration of creativity with Jonny Baker. It’s just an hour a week on Zoom to help get the creative brain working.
The first thing we were asked was – “Do you think of yourself as creative ?”
Then he asked – “Do you think that everyone is creative ?”
I wonder how you would answer ?
We then spent some time listening to three people, telling us a bit about their creative endeavours.
We were then asked to come up with some ideas about how to combat loneliness in our neighbourhood whilst this lockdown is going on. Within a minute the chat in Zoom was full of ideas.
I’m guessing that most of the 270 participants were churning out ideas … but how good to have other people thinking about it with you. We were encouraged to have a conversation with someone in the week – either carrying on the ideas about cobatting loneliness … or whatever …
On a similar track, together with a few friends, we’re sharing some ideas about psalm writing. The psalms is a book of prayers in the Bible, and one of our friends suggested we worked on writing some of our own. The psalms usually come out of some intense experience of life … I’m working on that today in preparation for the chat with our friends tomorrow when we share our thoughts.
Grace and peace.
By the way – Tomorrow I’ll post my morning prayer for Monday, and then post each day through this week.
They tried to bury us,
they didn’t know we were seeds
Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos.
Yesterday I listened to a programme called ‘One to One’ on BBC Radio 4. It made me very thankful for the BBC and for the variety of programming that we have access to. The programme was presented by Peter Bazalgette, a BBC executive who has a concern for increasing our understanding of empathy.
In a short 15 minute interview with Jane Davis, founder of ‘The Reader’ magazine they explore the way that reading aloud in groups can help us to understand ourselves better and to have a deeper empathy with the experience of others. Jane Davis is also the founder of a programme where small groups meet together to read aloud – Shared Reading
She describes in often moving ways how these groups not only help those with limited reading ability, but can also have a much deeper impact in transforming lives. She desribes the reading groups as ‘Not like a book group, but more like a cross between a very small intimate church and a small intimate pub.’
At the end of the interview, we learn how through talking about the varied experiences and stories that are shared, Literature becomes a rich resource that can help us learn about one another other as well as ourselves. Novelist George Eliot wrote: “The greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet, novelist is the extension of our sympathy. Art is the nearest thing to life, and is a way of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”
Jane David responds – “Yes, humans are profoundly social. We want to be together and we need to be together, yet we are burdened by individuality and that’s mainly how we experience ourselves. Literature – poems, plays, stories is a marvellous way of reaching out to others.
It’s a quick listen – do give it a try using the link at the top.
Grace and Peace.
Every year for the past 20 years we have been to the Greenbelt Festival of Artistry, Belief and Activism over the August Bank Holiday. There is a different theme each year – this year’s theme was to be ‘Wild At Heart,’ but it’s being re-imagined as ‘Wild At Home.
We’re really disappointed that Greenbelt isn’t happening in the usual way, but excited that the Greenbelt spirit will be alive and well in spite of the pandemic.
So throughout the pandemic, Greenbelt have been creating online content, and this all comes together on 29th August when there is a whole day of Greenbelt offerings.
We’ve signed up to join in (at a minimal cost of £10), but in addition, we’re going to be doing our own ‘Wild At Home.’ We’ll be spending the Friday with our daughter and son-in-law and family (The Greens, appropriately!) and making our own mini festival.
On a ‘normal’ year, we would arrive at the festival site in the late morning, get the tent up, have a cuppa and a sandwich, and then pore over the programme for the weekend. (Which goes from Friday evening to late Monday evening). At about 5 pm Friday, things kick off on the Festival Village ….
So this is a rough programme for our ‘Green Belt’ (Kindly hosted by the Greens). We’ll be arriving at normal Greenbelt time on the Friday to put the tent up … etc etc.
Rachel, our daughter is working out the fine details, but it will include Greenbelt favourites including :
- Fischy Music, (by kind arrangement with Jon, and Bev).
- Food (Courtesy Mr and Mrs Green)
- Camping (In the garden)
- Toilets (proper ones)
- Sports (Trampolining)
- Tiny Tea Tent (Yes, really)
- Open Mic Session
- Family Twist (Hosted by the Greens)
- Make and Create (The Make and Create team)
Whatever you are missing this summer – even so, I hope you might find a way to do something fun and soul satisfying
In the interview with Mark Oakley I listened to last week, he talked about poetry, and a time when the poems of R.S.Thomas were especially important to him. I decided to try and read more poetry, and as we have the collected poems of R.S.Thomas, that’s where I’m starting.
Today I read ‘The Cyclamen,’
Here’s my attempt.
Megaphones, held up high
Here I am
Standing tall in the land
And scattered along their limbs
Their coloured faces shine
Whose tops move so far in the breeze
That you think
They must topple
I have been sitting with them
Each morning for months now – garden companions
They will leave soon
Maybe they will be back next year ?
Grace and Peace
I’m still pondering on the podcast interview with Mark Oakley that I listened to on Wednesday this week. I’m challenged to read more poetry, which I don’t find easy.
So, one of the things that Mark Oakley was saying is to do with the importance of language and using language carefully. He talked about the role of poets, prophets,* preachers, and protesters, and the need for a ‘poetic imagination’ to be more visible in the public square. He sees that we are in a very troubling time, when the rise of right wing politics is a threat to the health of many peoples. Now is the time for Christians to join with all people of all faiths or no faith to speak out against injustice, discrimination, hatred, bigotry and prejudice.
Here’s something written by a Greek poet that has been helpful to all sorts of groups who struggle against injustice. It goes something like this:
“‘They buried us, but they didn’t know we were seeds. ‘”
The quote comes from poet Dinos Christianopoulos, who was sidelined by the Greek literary community in the 1970s because he was gay.
It reminds me of another saying – “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”
I have always found reading poetry difficult. I’m much more drawn to narrative and story telling, but the language of poetry has something special that I need more of.
I was watching the cosmos flowers blowing in the wind this morning. So beautiful.
The wind gently blows
flowers bend their heads
breath of God on me
Shape me as you will
*The word ‘prophet’ is a tricky one. I’ll have to write more about that. Being prophetic is about discerning what is really going on. (Not so much about foretelling the future, although that might be a part of it)