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Ash Wednesday

For tonight’s Ash Wednesday service I wrote a monologue, retelling the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) from the perspective of one of her accusers.  I admit that I have embellished some of the details of the story (such as knowing what Jesus wrote) but I don’t feel any guilt about that!

~~~

I didn’t know her personally, you know, but I knew who she was.  I knew about the rumours, the reputation.  I knew what she’d done. What they said she’d done anyway.

I knew about him too, but he was a well respected public figure so we tried to keep his name out of it.  It wouldn’t go down well if he got caught up in the scandal.

It just makes me sick, you know, when people do things that are so patently wrong.  The law is clear, you don’t do it!  The punishment is clear too.  None of us enjoy this part of the job, it’s brutal, but someone has to do it and for now that’s us.

We got the tip-off from a neighbour early that morning.  Said she’d seen her sneaking in late at night but not out again so we knew she was likely to still be there.

As we entered the house I caught a glimpse of his face.  He looked at her with such tenderness, such love in his eyes.  But as soon as he spotted us that love turned to anger and he thrust her in our direction, “get this woman out of here” he shouted.

So that’s what we did.  We’d caught her in the act so there was no question that she was guilty.  You could see it in her eyes, she knew what she’d done, she knew what was coming.

We got to the temple just as the sun was beginning to creep over the hills, its golden light shone on the pale walls and scattered off the healing pools.

There would be no healing here today though, not for her.  This was the end of the road – the law had been broken and the punishment was death.

As we arrived in our little corner of the temple – out of the way so the tourists didn’t get put off – we tied her up and began to look around for suitable stones, not too big, not too small.  But as we turned back towards her we saw that she was not alone.

Someone was actually bending down and talking to her!  Perhaps it was one of the pilgrims who didn’t know what was going on but no, he looked like a Rabbi – surely he couldn’t misread a situation like this?

As he stood up and turned towards us I recognised his face, this was that new hotshot rabbi that everyone was talking about, the one who’d been making waves all through the countryside.  

Not the most popular chap around here if I’m honest, everyone wanted to be the one to get the better of him, to outwit him with some clever theological argument.  So far no-one had managed it. 

As we looked at each other we realised that maybe this could be our chance.  There was no loophole here, she’d committed the crime, been caught in the act, and the punishment was clear.  He couldn’t wriggle out of this one surely?

“Teacher”, our boss said to him, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.  Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now, what do you say?”  Seemed like a pretty watertight argument to me!

We all waited with baited breath see what he would say, would he step aside and let us stone her?  Seemed unlikely given what we knew about him.  But surely he wouldn’t contradict Moses’ teaching?  Not here in the temple with dozens of witnesses?

For a moment he looked at us with such deep sadness in his eyes then, glancing back at the terrified woman behind him, he knelt down and started writing in the dust with his finger.

It took a moment to work out what he was writing, it wasn’t easy to make out, but I think it was a verse from the Torah,

You are dust, and to dust you shall return” 

What did that mean?  He didn’t seem to be in any rush to answer our question and and after a while it seemed like he was just stalling for time so we kept pressing him.

“Come on Rabbi, what do you say?”

Slowly he stood up, brushed the dust off his hands and looked each of us in the eye.

Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her

It took a moment to sink in, but when it did it was like I’d been struck by the rock I was holding.  Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.

I looked at the woman again, really looked this time.  I saw the blood trickling down her cheek were we’d struck her.  I saw her hands, delicate fingers hardened by a life of hard work.  Through a rip in her dress I saw the stretch marks from a past pregnancy.  I didn’t know she had children, what would happen to them now?  I no longer saw the guilt, I saw the person.

And then I looked back at Jesus, and his eyes were like a mirror into my own soul.

I saw the bitterness I’d kept bottled up from all those times I didn’t get my own way.  I saw the fear that masqueraded as zealousness for God.  I saw the lack of compassion, of understanding, for anyone who didn’t agree with me.

I saw all those mistakes I’d made, mistakes I’d written off as ‘character flaws’, and suddenly I could see how others had been hurt by them.

As this washed over me in a flood of regret and sorrow, the stone in my hand felt like it weighed as much as one of the huge blocks that made up the temple wall.

I looked back towards the woman, but I couldn’t look her in the eye.  The guilt and shame I felt was so overwhelming I just turned and walked away.

As I walked the stone slipped from my hand and with it went the weight I’d been carrying around for so, so long.  The burden of guilt that had built up inside was suddenly washed away.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

And from that day on that is what I tried to do, each day.  Of course I still made mistakes, who doesn’t.  But in acknowledging them, and repenting of them, they don’t weigh on me as heavily as they once did.

I even went to see the woman again, to try and put things right there.  But when I saw her from a distance, playing with her daughter, she looked so happy, like Jesus had given her a second chance in life. So I didn’t go any closer.  

I knew exactly how she felt.
© Rich Clarkson 2017

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Two sonnets on healing

Two sonnets on healing

I wrote two sonnets recently which were both, in different ways, to do with healing.

The first, “For Wendy”, was written for a friend who has recently been re-diagnosed with breast cancer and it draws on a comment she made about valuing days differently now that she doesn’t have as many left.

The second was written for a service at which we offered prayer for healing and raised funds for Age UK by participating in “wear it woolly”. It was inspired by Psalm 139.

For Wendy
Some days the sunlight sparkles off the sea,
scattering its jewels through rising mist
then, safely gathered, like the memory
of summer or a child’s cheek newly kissed,
It lodges in the eye and in the heart,
A glint of hope when worlds are torn apart.
Yet days like these are rare, most days will not
be quite so fine or filled with fire. Most days
prefer to temper “what could be” with “what
is now”, cloaking life’s gold with winter greys.
A shadow falls. A smile fades. A friend,
through tears, marks the beginning of an end.
But endings are like evenings. Even night
Is pregnant with dawn’s promise of new light.

© Rich Clarkson 2017

~~~

Knitted
In my mother’s womb you knitted me
My fabric fashioned from your own design.
As weft and warp were woven, even then
You knew what this frail form would one day be.
Each stitch, with love and care, was intertwined
And tied off with a heavenly “Amen!”.
But some threads are no longer firmly tied,
and edges, over time, have become frayed,
causing                                       gaps to appear
revealing the unravelling inside.
We may indeed be “wonderfully made”,
but “fearfully” at times gives way to fear
yet one day God will take this threadbare frame
and weave it into beauty once again.

© Rich Clarkson 2017

Unusual words

I wrote a couple of impromptu poems on Facebook this evening inspired by some unusual words.

The first was inspired by the word  coddiwomple (which means “to travel purposefully an as-yet-unknown destination”)

It was dark outside but with one pull

Of the bell the train slid to a stop

I leapt out and began to coddiwomple

In search of a hoped-for shop

I knew there was one near the station

So set of with a purposeful stride

To my as-yet-unknown destination

And the treasures awaiting inside.

The second was inspired by the word pusillanimous (which means “showing a lack of courage or determination, timid”)

The votes are in, they are unanimous

On the question: “are you a man or mouse?”

Thankfully they were magnanimous

Saying I’m not pusillanimous

Crib Service poem

For this evening’s Crib Services (1,000 people across 2 services) I wrote a poem with responses for everyone to join in with.  I looked up rhymes for “amazing” and 4 of the suggestions were “grazing”, “stargazing”, “praising” and “self-raising”, after that the poem pretty much wrote itself!

Responses:

Mary – “Mamma-mia!” (Women)

Joseph – “Knock knock” (Men)

Jesus/baby – “shh…” (Children)

Angel – “hallelujah!” (balcony + choir)

Shepherds – “come-bye” (Left hand side)

Wise men – “wow!” (right hand side)

I want You – “who, me?” (Everyone)

.

Part 1. Journey to Bethlehem

A long time ago an ordinary girl called Mary (Mamma Mia!) was asleep

when God sent an angel (hallelujah) to wake her with a message that nearly made her weep:

He said I want you (who, me?)

Yes you to follow me

I’m going to do something amazing

I want you (who, me?)

Yes you for you see

that bun in your oven is self-raising!

Mary (Mamma Mia) woke Joseph (knock knock) who’d heard the same thing so, with a yawn,

They headed to Bethlehem where, in a crowded room, Jesus (shhh…) “God with us” was born.

.

Part 2. Shepherds and angels

Later that night some shepherds (come bye) were out on the hills with their sheep

when God sent some angels (hallelujah!) with a message that woke them right up from their sleep:

They said I want you (who, me?)

Yes you to follow me

In Bethlehem there’s something amazing

I want you (who, me?)

Yes you, come and see:

God is with us! leave your sheep to their grazing.

So the Shepherds (come bye) went down into town and found Mary (Mamma Mia) and Joe (knock knock)

Then when they saw the Lord Jesus (shh…) fast asleep they praised God before heading back home.

.

Part 3. Wise Men
A long way away some wise men (wow!) watched the skies in a far off land

So God sent a comet to blaze night and day. A message that they could understand:

It said I want you (who, me?)

Yes you to follow me

over there there’s something amazing

I want you (who, me?)

Yes you, and you’ll see

the king prophesied by your stargazing

So the wise men (wow!) packed and got on their way, and found the baby (shh…) who was also a kkin

Gave Mary (Mamma Mia) and Joseph (knock knock) the gifts they’d remembered to bring!

.

Part 4. Talk

In this church, in this town, on this Christmas Eve God is speaking to his people again

through Mary (Mamma Mia) and Joseph (knock knock) and Jesus (shh…) and Shepherds (come bye) and Wise men (wow!)

God says I want you (who, me?)

Yes you to follow me

This Christmas do something amazing

I want you (who, me?)

Yes you come and be

like the angels (hallelujah!) with your whole life God praising.

So in this season of peace and goodwill there’s a choice that each one of us here ought to ponder

God is not just for Christmas, he’s for our whole lives. God is with us, are you with him, I wonder?

Ten green bottles…

I’ve written this for my sermon today, it’s the story of the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus where only one came back to say thankyou.  I started wondering what it would be like to tell the story from the perspective of one who didn’t go back to say thanks.

Simple costume (towel headband, no stole) to identify character

It’s hard, being caught in the middle like that. Neither one thing nor the other.  We used to joke about it! We had to joke about it, we would have just given up otherwise.  There were ten of us, ten outcasts, ten refugees, ten…nobodies. Ten green bottles, went the joke – which of us would fall first?

I remember when I first realised what was happening. The rash which led to the stares which led to the avoidance, which led to the exile.  I had been happy, I had a good job, a lovely family, it was all taken away so quickly.  The problem is that once you’ve got that label you can’t shift it. That’s how they define you – you’re an outcast, an untouchable, one of “them”  So we had to stick with our own kind, our new own kind.

There were ten of us, some from Galilee, some from Samaria and we hung about in the scrubland between the two regions.  They hated each other so not many people crossed between them which suited us just fine.

The great irony is that before all this I had treated the Samaritans just like my people were now treating me!  I’d kept my distance, I’d told jokes behind their backs, even laughed about ‘Samaratianitis’ being infectious. Now that I think about it I was proper horrible to them.  The Samaritans in our group are just normal people, once you get your head round the accent they’re no different from the rest of us.  So there we were, ten nobodies, living a half-life in no-mans-land.  Ten green bottles, waiting to fall.

Then we started to hear the rumours. Rumours of a healer, Rumours of a Rabbi who wasn’t afraid, Rumours of a way out.  Now these kind of rumours fly around our community all the time so you have to take them with a pinch of salt – people with no hope will take whatever crumbs of hope they can get.  But these rumours wouldn’t go away so, without anything better to do, we kept an eye out for this itinerant young Rabbi.

One day the ten of us were sat in the dust, trying to find whatever shade we could behind the old wall when we saw movement in the distance.  There was someone coming towards us, heading South towards the village. I’m sure he spotted us about the same time we spotted him but, unusually, he didn’t turn away.  He just kept plodding on through the heat towards the village.  When he got close enough to hear us we began our usual begging routine: “Spare some change mate?”

Now usually there are three types of responses to this.  Some chuck a few coins towards us before scuttling past, some look guilty but walk on by anyway, and some just walk past like we weren’t even there.  This guy was different, he didn’t ignore us but he didn’t get any money out either. He just…stood there, like he was waiting for us to say something.

What was that Rabbi’s name? Joshua? Jairus? Jesus! “Jesus!” We called out. He smiled.  “Jesus! Master! Have mercy on us!” we cried, like our lives depended on it, which, I guess, they did. “Have mercy!”  He took a step forward. Instinctively we took a step back.  “Go!”, he called out. Our hearts began to sink. I’m not sure I could cope with yet another disappointment. “Go…and show yourselves to the priests”.  We all knew what that meant, the priests were the only ones who could say that we were better, say that we were no longer unclean, no longer outcasts, exiles, refugees.

Excitedly I looked at my hands, expecting them to be miraculously better but…they weren’t.  How many hours, how many long, angry hours had I stared at those scars, willing, wishing, praying for them to disappear, all to no avail. And now it was like those same scars were draining away the surge of hope I had felt. How could I show myself to the priests looking like this? They’d laugh me back out of town!

“Go on”, he urged, more gently this time, “go and show yourselves to the priests”.

To turn and make that first step was about the hardest thing I’ve ever done. They talk about stepping out in faith but I’m not sure how much faith I had left by this point.  It was more a case of stepping out in desparation but I managed it and once I’d taken that first step the second seemed a little easier.

I heard my mates just behind me so I inched ahead. If we were doing this then I was going to be first. Soon we were all running full pelt towards the village where we knew there was a little synagogue.  As I ran I felt my muscles getting stronger, I felt my fists clench tighter, I felt more alive than I had done in years! I didn’t dare look at my hands again, I couldn’t cope with another setback so I just concentrated on running and let the wind do its work.

When we finally made it to the synagogue we banged on the door and as the priest opened it we tumbled inside.  I don’t know how he made sense of our ramblings but eventually he got the gist of it and, after inspecting each of us he pronounced us all clean.

Then he got some parchment and started handing us notes to confirm this. 1..2..3..4..5..6..7..8..9. Nine? But there were ten of us? Who wasn’t here? One of the samaritans. Maybe he’d gone the other way, into Samaria? No that wouldn’t make sense. Maybe he’d not been healed? No he was definitely with us. What had happened to him? I staggered to my feet and stuck my head out of the synagogue door.

In the distance I could see two figures. One was out on the road, walking slowly towards the village, the other was running away from the village towards him. As they met, the second figure threw himself on the floor at the feet of the first. In an instant I realised what was happening – he was saying thankyou! I had been so caught up in my own feelings I’d barely thought about thanking the man who had transformed my life!

I turned back to my friends in the synagogue and told them what I’d seen, said that we should go back and say thankyou as well but when I looked back towards the road he was gone. There was just the solitary figure of our companion making his own journey towards the synagogue.

My life was completely changed after that day. I went back to my home town, complete with my certificate proving that I was ok, that I was clean again.
I was welcomed back into my family, I got a new job, picked up the pieces of my life again. But I was never quite the same.

Whenever my mates started making fun of the Samaritans I’d make them stop, I’d tell them that we shouldn’t fear people just because they are different from us – we are more alike than you know.
Whenever I saw someone sleeping on the streets I’d stop and talk to them, look them in the eye.

And even from a distance I kept an ear out for news of Jesus.
I heard rumours that he’d been rounded up and killed by the Romans for associating with people like me. I heard even stranger rumours that he was seen alive again afterwards.

And although I never got to say thankyou to him in person I make sure that I never take what I have for granted. That I am thankful every day for the new life that God has given me.

A roof over my head, a meal in my belly, a hug from a friend – these have taken on a whole new meaning for me. They are no longer ordinary, everyday things.

They are blessings from God, who lifts up the downtrodden and comforts the brokenhearted.

Blessings from God who turns mourning into laughter and tears of sorrow into tears of joy.

Blessings from God, whose mercies are new every morning, even when the night has been long and dark.

And for that I will always be thankful.

Hidden

This poem was written for tonight’s sermon at evensong.  It is based on these words from Isaiah 30

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel:
In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.
But you refused and said,
‘No! We will flee upon horses’—
therefore you shall flee!

And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying,
‘This is the way; walk in it.’

~~~

It is hidden
like a current beneath the waves
not thrashing and crashing and making a scene
not tossing and turning and clamouring for attention
but quietly, steadily, irresistably there.

It is hidden
like the trunk of a willow
As branches whip around in the wind
and leaves fly, and catkins cry out for fear of falling
In the turmoil it stands unmoved.

It is not found
in the stampede of the horse
or the silver words of the powerful
in the flashing diversions of billboards
or the honeyed lure of the bank balance

It is hidden
from all but those who seek it
those who are not turned
by the distractions that swirl
to the left and to the right

Those who know the still small voice
The word whispered close into the ear
“This is the way, walk in it”

© Rich Clarkson 2016

Praise God for Humble Moss

This poem was written in response to an article in the Guardian entitled ‘All Hail the Humble Moss‘, with a measure of inspiration from Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poem ‘Pied Beauty‘.

moss sonnet

Praise God for humble moss, without whom we,
Who live and breathe and leap and laugh and praise,
Could no more do such things. Praise God for days
Long past when mosses spread from sea to sea
A continental carpet breathing fresh
New life into the oxygen starved air.
Praise God for lungs which found that they could bear
To breathe this atmosphere. Praise God for flesh
Which crept and crawled and leapt and breathed and moved
Among the lichens, liverworts and ferns.
Praise God for life’s tenacity across
The ages as it gradually improved,
Evolved, developed hopes, dreams and concerns.
For all of this, praise God for humble moss.

(c) Rich Clarkson 2016