Dear Possessions – Part I

Why is an only child invariably possessed of so much family? Perhaps as the lone progeny of a tribe it is not so much that horde of uncles and aunts and great-aunts and great uncles and second cousins and third cousins and indeterminables is actually larger than in any other family, merely seeming that much more numerous in contrast to the daily experiences of a single son, accustomed to short and impermanent glimpses of ever varying relations. Or perhaps there is some truth in it – that men and women born into large families naturally desire to escape them, and satisfy themselves with fewer offspring than their parents in turn. I do not know. All that I am sure of is that I am just such an only child, and that I have relatives quite beyond number.

In my childhood one consequence of this broad wealth was my inability to enjoy it. I found my relatives tiresome, distant, and memorable only in their extremity, categorised in some childish rhyme I used to try and keep of them all, which reduced each portion of the clan to some defining feature of body or soul. I was indifferent to visits from the short or the tall, but feared the thin and the fat. The ‘wild and hairy’ were on my mother’s side, suitably remote. They only ever broke upon my solitude rarely, but then with violence of gift-giving and music-making.  Far too energetic for my retired younger self.

Amongst all these, however, there was one cousin of my own generation, a few years younger and somewhat brighter, whose company was a constant joy and subsequently, when lacking, a constant request. His name was Michael and he has recently become quite well-known for his talents, which were already apparent when I first knew him. We spent some time sharing a school to our great mutual satisfaction, and forged a tie of trust and intimacy, as boys will, that has lasted the years despite the consequent distances between us and the infrequency of our meetings.  We lost touch for some time while he studied at Oxford and then travelled, for some time, those parts of the world that served his interests. On his return he announced, much to the surprise of the family, that he was getting married.

That is now quite some time ago. Michael and his wife Helen, whom he met whilst researching the sphragistic history of ancient Sweden, are still married and once again happy, for it might not be quite true to say ‘still’ happy. Such a word might imply a complete continuity in their happiness which, I am afraid to say, would be misleading. It is about Michael, his wife, and a time shortly after their marriage that I propose to tell you – this time that prevents me, in all honesty, from deploying the innocent adverb ‘still’ and implying lives entirely free from perturbation or peril.

Unfortunately I had been necessarily absent from cousin Michael’s wedding to the reputedly lovely Helen, on account of the affair of the Monk’s Tomb, a matter that must wait for some time to be fully brought to light. My desire to visit the newly-weds was only delayed by their own extended honeymooning and more unavoidable commitments in London, so when at long last they were settled in their new house and I found myself with a week I might honourably lend to what I would rather than what I must, I did not hesitate to write to Mr and Mrs Edmund and declare my intention.

The answer I received was uncharacteristically brief. It simply read, ‘Come by all means! Michael.’ I do not really recall what I made of it at the time with any accuracy, but I might have arrived more prepared, or at least more cautiously, if I had not read Michael’s exclamation as one of excitement, but rather one of desperation.

There was nothing less than wonderful about the beginning to that visit. The ride into rural Gloucestershire was delightful in the early Spring. Travelling by train allows such lacunae of blissful inactivity: everything is somebody else’s responsibility when you are on a train, from departure to arrival and ever in between. Should the train be delayed, why, so be it. Better delayed than wrecked on the line. Like stubborn beasts, the engines will have their own way and their own timing, for while they can be tamed, they cannot be coerced or coaxed into anything that they do not do. A trained man may have some weight with them, but a passenger, never! It is merely his task to submit to the awesome power and inscrutable complexity of the busy railways and to be satisfied with whatever he receives. And that, I feel, is freedom of a sort.

I shared a compartment with a young manager of a Bath bank. Dining on the Great Western, we both agreed and I still maintain, is quite the height of luxury. Racing along Brunel’s smooth and crafted road, in no other way can a leisurely lunch be a once so desperately fast of so delicately substantial. The only thing that approaches this supping on a train is to eat on board some great ship, but in such a case speed and, of course, the view are both sacrificed to layer another degree of, frankly, unnecessary sumptuousness.  Rather a varied bouquet than a single gilded lily.

Our train whistled though mist as we ate, a single pane of glass between lobster salad and Chardonnay and the racing track.  The countryside waited, alive, in glimpses of budding cherries, in the coarse sunlight and the flash of the fast-moving millstream, lending the bright and excited world a clarity that simply sang of spring.  The heavy clouds shunting rays over the embankments towards us, away from us, over all stupid and standing sights, they answered the charging force of the engine with a subtle power of their own to mark and to reveal and to light and to deny.  What I missed, cooped up in a London townhouse!  Here was the bright circle of Spring, gathering itself delicately, almost imperceptibly, for the coming rush of a new year.  The starting leaves, sparking on twig tips like green glowing coals, hung everywhere over last year’s fall still deeply littering and filling the hollows.  The mist sharpens, here, and softens, there, and the weak and new-born sun, looking like a pale yolk in a pale sky, surprises everything with the cool strength of his beams.

I alighted onto the platform of a small country station, to wait for the connection that would take me up the branch line to my eventual destination.  Peering into the lively faces all around me, watching the lively poplars’ sway, I saw that same exuberance that had so endeared the lucky young manager to me in the compartment.  Spring!  There was never anything like it.

It was still early in the year, though, and by the time I reached the ultimate station on the line the brightness of day was fading.  It was only a late afternoon, but the further the driver led me down deep hawthorn lanes, the more I felt the fragility of that hopeful new year.  Here and there I saw frost still lying around a fallen tree or hanging into the edge of a shadowed ditch, and in the quiet shadow of the hills the day grew colder.

The rattle of the hired carriage and the echoing clop of the horse in front of me rang and resounded, and I saw crows flying, and snowdrops still in corners.  We turned suddenly between two tall white willows and were suddenly before a small house nestled among trees and quite hidden from the road.

The lights inside the house shone warmly through the upper panes of the door before me, but as I knocked and the carriageman turned his trap about and returned the way he had come, I reflected that Michael’s love of privacy had secreted him close in a lonely house.  The cold that had followed me from the station hung overhead with the slowly-climbing darkness, captured between the boughs of the willow and ash and heavy on the steeply-pitched roof.  Well, surely it would be all the warmer inside for that.

The door opened and before me stood the young woman who had to be Michael’s wife Helen.  Certainly she suited the multiple guarantees of beauty that I had heard vouchsafed.  She was not over-tall, not over-slender, rich brown in the tresses, slight and sincere about the smile and elegantly, effortlessly dressed.  Only one thing stood out; her eyes were very rimmed with red and shadowed, although they were themselves eyes of a velvety shade that pledged tenderness.  She was indeed quite lovely.

‘Mrs Edmund?’  I asked, removing my hat.  ‘I believe I am your cousin by marriage.’

‘Clement?’ she said, with a strange ring, satisfied, unhurried and pleased.  There was a praise worth seeking in her voice.  ‘At last!  I have been waiting to meet you for so very long.  And Michael has told me so much about you.  Come in at once, dearest cousin.’  She gave me her hand, which was cold, I realised with a shock exaggerated by the warmth of the hallway, and I kissed it.

I motioned to my small trunk and bag.  ‘Is there anyone to take these?’

Michael appeared from the door on the left, ‘No, I’m afraid not, old man.  It’s just the two of us here.  We can’t get any help!  And I’ll say we need it.  I can’t put anything down without losing it somewhere.  Been asking since we got here, you know.  But, I say, dashed good to see you.’  We shook hands like close cousins.

The front door was closed against the now swiftly falling darkness and he took the Gladstone and one end of the trunk.  ‘I’ll help you up with these to the room.  Yes, dashed good to see you.’  He said this last repetition with a slight shake in his voice that seemed caused by something more than the effort of the stairs and my luggage, but I was not sure.  I took the other end and followed him up the narrow stairway.

‘I’m afraid,’ he said, ‘that you’re not in the better guest room.  The funniest thing, you see.  We meant for you to have the room at end, overlooking the fields to the front, but we can’t find the key.  I didn’t think the door had been locked since we moved here, but for some reason when Helen came to air it this morning the door was locked and the key missing.’

I looked at Michael, as we put the trunk down on the floor of a small, sparse room that I presumed was the second-best guest room.  He seemed rather over-troubled, so I tried to put him at his ease.

‘You know I really don’t mind,’ I said.  ‘What’s possible is what’s possible.  It’s a delight to be here, and to see you again – an absolute honour.’

‘Yes, in was very glad when you wrote.  You’re the first real guest, actually, and it’s been six weeks.  But it has rather frustrated me, I admit.’  His face lost the gleam of contentment that had always so endeared him to me when younger and was crossed by a troubled frown.  ‘I seem to be constantly mislaying things.  I suppose it’s the unfamiliarity of a new place, but, dash it all, it’s frustrating.’

A less frustrating topic was at the fore of my mind.  ‘I haven’t had much opportunity to congratulate you and your wife,’ I said.  ‘You have every reason to be quite happy.  I have never seen a more beautiful young woman.’

Michael instantly lightened, as would any man so fortunate, that is, at that moment I still thought him fortunate, having no reason to think otherwise.  ‘Ah, yes,’ he said.  ‘You should come downstairs and meet Helen properly.  You also need a warming drink and some supper after all that travelling and you must tell us what you’ve been doing.  It must have been very exciting to miss our wedding for!’

I was quite content to oblige, over supper, and a couple of glasses of sherry, by explaining to Michael and the lovely Helen exactly what I had been doing.  I felt that I owed them more than merely an apology for my previous absence, and so at Helen’s request I told them all of my part in the affair of the Monk’s Tomb.  Judging some of the details too disquieting for the warm company we had struck up, I was careful to avoid those explanations which, even in the security of the house, even around a bright fire, were apt to make even me shiver.

Helen was quite fascinated. In turn, she related to me the story of the couple’s meeting, grown friendship and short engagement among the Scandinavian sphragisists.  Michael, however, I could not fail to notice, was ill at ease and unconcentrated.  Even close description of the most individual ancient seals and the most decorated waxes failed to catch his attention fully.  He puffed at his cigar nervously, at times barely listening.  Helen’s enthralled and enthralling conversation sufficed.  It seemed that Michael really had told her everything about me, which bears witness rather to his faithful generous friendship than anything admirable about the life I lead.  I was greatly touched both by the interest of his wife and, inferentially, by his, even if some other concerns possessed him for the time being.

Clearly Michael’s behaviour had not escaped Helen’s notice either.  As he lit another cigar, she suggested that he show me the garden while it was maybe still light enough.  Strangely, Michael started like a wild thing.  Am queer intense look flashed across his grey eyes and fled from his face.

‘Yes,’ he said, regaining his composure and looking at me with some clarity again.  ‘Perhaps I should.  Would you like that, Clement?’

I answered that I would very dearly.  Michael was an able and a keen gardener, and although they had not been long in this house I was sure that he could at least share some very interesting plans.  He led me towards the back door.

‘I shall take you outside in just a moment,’ he said.  ‘But first, I want to show you something.  Come into my study.’

‘Now Michael,’ I said, following him through the door, ‘you are plainly quite worried about something.  You have been nervous and jumpy all evening.  Is everything alright?’

He did not answer immediately, but went up to a bureau and unlocked it with a key from his waistcoat.  ‘I will explain it completely,’ he said in an undertone.  ‘I am, I will freely admit, not on an even keel.  Something has been troubling me very much.  Here.’  And he removed from an inner cupboard a small box, on top of which was an ungummed cream envelope.

Something about the way Michael handled the little wooden box was not right.  His hands grasped it tightly as if it were heavier than it surely were, or in some other way, not as it immediately seemed. It was a light wood, but stained unevenly by water and not quite fully closing.  The twisted lid bore the remains of a green silk cushion, also stained and quite torn, the colour faded and only just discernible. A wedge of darkness stood out where the upper did not meet the lower part, almost leeringly shameless in the way the little thing was so broken and ruined. The envelope was a normal house envelope – the same sort, in fact, as that which had held Michel’s enigmatic reply to my own letter.

Obeying some inner prompt I did not quite recognise, before I knew what I was doing I reached out to touch the little box where it sat, and brought my hand back with a cry of shock and amazement. It was cold – a cold of a degree more biting and permanent than, surely, wood could convey.

‘You also feel it?’ asked Michael keenly. ‘It is desperately cold and does not warm. But I will show you what is inside.’

His hands flinched involuntarily as they felt the frozen edges, but he brushed the envelope from the top, which fell with a clinking, and opened the box.

Inside, I saw as I leant forwards and peered, what obviously were, or had been, two silver christening spoons, no bigger than my little finger, wrought finely and carefully. But they were twisted into bizarre, sharp shapes, ruined and defiled with certain intent. Around them the moisture of the air froze into twin ovals of rime. A pungent and piercing smell arose and our breaths misted like on a winter’s morning. As I looked at the spoons my heart – I could feel it within me – sank and slowed and I was filled with a great and possessing sadness.  Was it merely my sympathy for the loss – the poignant destruction – of such dear possessions of some long-dead family that drew such bands around my sore-breathing lungs?  I could not tell if there was not also some simple communication of woe, direct, plain, unvoiced and yet utterly comprehensible, in that pathetic sight.  Compelled to keep looking I was dragged deeper and deeper into the paralysing and consuming sadness.

The first of three parts of a ghost story I wrote in Easter 2006, when friends were enjoying M R James’ formula for horror…  Fut

Lines from the British Museum I

The coin, a double-dozen thousand years,

Each year three hundred, sixty-five mornings,

Each morning, someone rising, the owner

Of a silver owl and a goddess’s head,

Unless it slept in soil somewhere.  But this,

The bright and heavy star, lost from its night,

Dropped from the dark, surely wasn’t hidden

Or let go, ever, was it?  So warm

Like just out of the pocket of a man

A double-dozen thousand years ago

And in a dusty land.  So bright, the polish

Of finger-sweat and greed still thick on it.

And even if it lay somewhere, still owned

By someone, or the heir and son, someone

Who didn’t know that this was his bequest

While it was locked in a box or folded

In heavy cloth, wrapped pocket-wise, forgot.

Can we even forget silver?  Are we

So rushed and careless, so full of hurry?

An element unseen, unfelt, like quarks,

Detectable by reflection and effect,

Its signature a half-life of regret…

If he had pride in striking such a picture,

Twice, once on either side, and then the man

Who cast it, glee to see the metal flow,

Then where is your treasuring, O tourist,

O passing tourist in this museum world?

Your stool was well-designed, gave pleasure, pay

To someone still living, his name not unknown!

Your trousers, brooch and boots are all silver.

To honour strangers perhaps we should strip

And put our clothes on slowly, prayerfully,

Again, instead of hurriedly dressing

In the morning’s mist of barely-slept sleep.

The prayerful life is a life well-lived,

The worshipful life one of peace and thanks,

The good news life looks with Jesus’ eyes

On the world that we make with our hands.

Psalm 119 – Verses 1-8

Blessed are they whose ways are blameless,

Our ways are important to God – it’s our ways that make us stand out in the world.  And what are these blameless ways?  I think of James’ letter – Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.  (1:27)  There’s an inner and an outer dimension to this walk – and being in a way that is merciful, faithful, generous, free is to be blameless.  The Lord blesses them – and these, in this psalm, are his words of blessing.  Those who receive the blessing are those justified by faith, believing and carrying no sin.

 who walk according to the way of the Lord.

This means our walk is defined by the God’s word: his law is the definitive guide to every step and the entire trek – our stumbling, childlike toddle and our youthful racing.  The beginning of our responsibility to crawl forward like a baby, and begin to rise to our feet!

 Blessed are they who keep his statutes

and seek him with all of their heart.

To keep his law and to follow his law is to seek him.  To be obedient is to prove that you are willing to be visited by the Spirit.  The greatest treat or happiness we can have is to be in the place of seeking God.

They do nothing wrong:

they walk in his ways.

Because they don’t fear stepping out of God’s will, they know the height and width and breadth of his love for them, so his ways are explorable, free, open – what we might call free-grazing!

You have laid down precepts

that are to be fully obeyed.

Yes, commands and instructions that are only valuable when we carry them out to the end – when we complete the task and finish the race.  And to fulfil things like this – when we have no strength?  God promises to be our strength – they shall run and not grow weary – and so we don’t fulfil these instructions by the letter but by the Spirit – by God’s grace.  These precepts are foundational for us – their weight is indicated when the psalmist says ‘You have laid down…’ as if they were flagstones or paving on the road.  And this is a prophetic address to Jesus, too.  He has laid down instructions that, fully obeyed, become a firm and plain pathway to walk, to run, through life, almost fulfilling themselves in us rather than requiring us to fulfil them.

Oh that my ways were steadfast

in obeying your decrees!

After receiving revelation of the great value of God’s word, what else can we do but cry out in sorrow for our failure and in desire for their good!  This is our new heart’s cry – the Spirit of life within us cries this out to God – as did Jesus, who loved to obey his father and longed to follow his decrees, even unto death.

Then I would not be put to shame

when I consider all your commands.

Because our conscience will shame us if we think honestly – for all the commands convict us, sooner or later.  If one does, then the whole law does.  But a right sense of shame only exalts God higher, in thankfulness for Jesus and in adoration of God’s holiness.  And when we realise that it is God’s single purpose to bring about his kingdom by changing us so that we do indeed become steadfast and obedient, then we will worship even more, knowing that we can be free of shame.

I will praise you with an upright heart

as I learn your righteous laws.

The process of being shamed and of continuing is the process of learning the law of love – and our redeemed heart will continue to praise God all through the process of sanctification – all through the increasing revelation of God’s plan – even while we read this psalm.  Not a thing can happen but, taken rightly, it will lead us to praise God.

I will obey your decrees;

do not utterly forsake me.

Yes, it will happen.  My obedience to your word, O God, will happen, not because of me but because of what you have promised, again and again.  It will happen because you, yourself, are training me in righteousness.  To leave me without shame and with no conviction would be worse than to suffer correction, so do not forsake me.  What we have now from you is good for us.

Non-Standard Children

“Your children,” said the Inspector, “Display a rather idiosyncratic use of the English language.”

“Like Shakespeare,” said Mr Briggs.

“What I mean,” tried the Inspector, “Is that they can’t spell…”

Mr Briggs was really ready for that.  “No, they can spell.  They just enjoy themselves with what they have learnt.  Do you know Shakespeare spelt his name six different ways?”

“What I know is not at stake here, Mr Briggs…”

“So, for example, you would not worry that you can’t spell floccinaucinihilipilification, but some of my eight-year-olds can?”

“Standard English is unambiguous and clear when it is spelt correctly…”

“But we have taught them phonical awareness and phonics skills, and so they try to write sky s-c-i-e.  I find it charming.  Which is more correct, in absolute terms, Inspector?  Which one contains a greater density of correctness per phoneme?”

“If they won’t learn correct spellings from you, where will they learn them?”

“From books!  And maybe greengrocer’s.”

“It is all very well them using non-standard spellings in the playground or at home, but we simply must insist that at school they use correct English.”

Mr Briggs really felt the lava rumbling in his belly.  “Well, yes,” he deadpanned.  “Because I became a teacher because I want my children to maintain a complete and absolute distinction between their life at home and their experiences at school.  I want them to understand that whatever they value at home is worthless here, and however they speak or write there, it needs to be unspoken or unwritten here.”

The Inspector sipped his weak, instant coffee.  “Good.  I am glad you are following the policy amendment memorandum on home-school relations after all.  I had heard some worrying things about this school.”

“And then,” continued Mr Briggs, “We might at last get all the quiet children to speak.  It will really help if members of staff are vigilant and ready to get them to speak in full sentences – to correct them and insist they pronounce their glottal stops correctly.  And to assess them regularly – this will be a profitable and enjoyable enterprise that will help and smooth the process of teaching spelling and reading.”

“Perhaps I have not so much to teach you after all, Mr Briggs.”

“And when we have taught them to regulate their language – because, of course, there is no difficulty in getting any of the children to express themselves at all – and to recognise the situations in which they can dominate and assert themselves by speaking in formal, clipped tones, the world will open like a flower before them, and they will walk into whatever job they dream of.”

“Of which they dream, Mr Briggs.  Please don’t end your sentences with prepositions.”

Mr Briggs walked over to the working wall, where his beloved polar bears were once again capturing the imagination of his class.  One note from a quietly-spoken Romanian girl read ‘Polr bares sleepe in dens on stip slopes wear othr polr bares can’t get them’  He smiled to see that his lesson on abbreviations and apostrophes had struck home.

“If it were really true,” he said, without turning around, “That access to higher education is denied these children because of their lack of standard English, then we have more than one option.  We can change the children, or we can change the system.  Why should we teach the children to fit to the shape of the world around them?  Why should we teach them that that is the way the world works?  Why should we accept the injustice?  If we really wanted to change it, shouldn’t we engineer some sort of response?  Who better to do so than the architects of tomorrow’s society, the teachers?  Because children may leave school reading, or writing, or they may not, but not a one will leave without absorbing and internalising our values – the unspoken much more than the spoken.  They will forget our bullying policy and instead they will take it for granted that we separate the world into a minority of bullies and a majority of victims.  They will remember that the problem lies with someone else, not with me.  They will forget their order for sitting in line in assembly but they will remember that children should be seen and not heard.  They might remember the shape of a courgette seed and that you can make green paint in more than one way, and they might extrapolate from that that there is more than one way of skinning a cat.  But if we let them they will also assume that the world is full of the rulers and the ruled, the winners and the losers, the speaking and the silent.”

The Cooking Stove

“Ai, Sarah!  Come and fetch wood.”

“Wait just there, Mama.  My son Benjamin is writing in his schoolbook.  I want to see him writing.”

“Sarah, Sarah.  It is a long walk, we will not wait until he is done.”

“Ooh, Mama, I am coming.  Every day!  Every day we must go to fetch more wood, go to fetch water, go to the goats, go to the market.  My life is a chain.”

Sarah got up from beside her house and picked up the strap from the raw wood hook in the fence.  She did not run – you would never see her run, or any of the women there – she took her long strides and caught up with the other women, chattering on the path.  It was morning and not yet hot.

“Your husband is away long, Cindy.  He will have to give you such a present when he gets back.”

“Aha!  I know what I would like from my husband, oh yes.  I have been waiting for him!”

The path was dusty, lined and cracked liked Mama’s forehead.  She was the eldest of the women there, gaunt and straight like a Sudanese, but copper-coloured like the dirt.  She strode along, her head covered with a bright scarf that flashed, her dark eyes watching the women, and flashing.

“Ai, Cindy.  You do not want too big a present from that man.  He has given you too many babies already.”  Mama clicked between her teeth.

“I know how to have my man,” Cindy giggled, “And no more babies.  I am not a girl anymore.”

They carried on, teasing, smiling, and then came to the scrubby trees.  There was still a lot of wood on the ground.  They fanned out, still calling out, stacking the bleached wood, knocking off remnants of bark, making their own piles.  From above it might have looked like the uncurling of fingers on a hand, even, balanced.

Sarah leant over and grasped a forked limb.  A lizard dashed out from beneath it, over her foot, away.  “I am just like that lizard,” she said.  “There is no time.”

“Why do you say there is no time?” said Mama, who was collecting small pieces beneath an acacia.  “There is just enough time for all of us.”

“If I was not collecting wood I would be helping my son with his writing.  I would be answering his questions.  I would be taking the melons to the shop.  We have all those melons and they will not stay fresh.  It would be better to sell them to Mr Funassu, and then I could buy another book for my Benjamin.”

“But you have to collect wood,” said Mama, “Or you cannot cook food for him.”

“Yes,” said Sarah.  “I have to collect wood.”  She picked up her bundle by the strap, and raised it against her back.  “I have to.”


Sarah came walking back from Mr Funassu’s shop.  It was an hour there, an hour back.  She did not have a clock that told her this.  She knew it from the number of steps she had walked.  She was taut inside, guilty for the time she had spent, anxious.  And carrying a bundle that was not shaped like a book.  She hurried into her house and sat down by her fireplace.

Cindy appeared at the open door.  “What have you bought from Mr Funassu, Sarah?  What have you found?”

Sarah looked around.  “It is a cooking stove.  Mr Funassu showed it to me.  It does not smoke like this fire.  It will not sting my eyes with the smoke.  Mrs Funassu has one, and she cooks on it every day.”

The cooking stove was a round drum, about eighteen inches high, somewhat battered and plainly well-used.  It had an opening in the side, an open top and a folding frame.

“How can you cook with that?  It is too small for the fire!”

Sarah shook her head.  “No, it is not too small.  It keeps the fire close together.”

“You spent money on it, but you did not need to spend any money on having a fire.  Your fireplace is already there.”

“Wait and see.”


Mama came to see later that evening.  Sarah was sitting by her stove, stirring the porridge in the pan.  She lifted the cup through the grain, through the water, slap, slap.  The flames climbed around the sides of the pan.

“Ai, it is dark in here!  You have hidden your fire in a can!”

Sarah didn’t answer.  She put down the enamel cup and experimentally pushed the pieces of wood deeper into the opening.  They didn’t move far.  The porridge was cooking quickly.  The fire normally needed feeding more than she or her son.

“How can the fire breathe in that stove?” asked Mama scornfully.  “He is trapped in there.”

Sarah smiled.  “The fire must do as I say now.  He must not make all this smoke in my house.  It makes me cough.  It hurts all our eyes.  He is my fire, so he will stay in the stove if I tell him to.”

Mama snorted and left.


She heard the noise as Birthday came back with the goats.  They pattered and butted their way through the gate and into the yard around the little round house.  She heard his familiar whistle and smiled, knowing she would see his lopsided smile very soon… in a moment!

He came through the door, his bright eyes shining.  His mouth seemed to laugh whenever it opened.  His missing teeth might have been knocked out by the force of so much good humour.  Sarah knew she was a lucky woman with a man who smiled and meant his smile.

“Ohoho!  What is this?  What has my Sarah bought here?  A cooking stove, they told me.  Ohoho.  My wise wife is thinking of her house.”

When Birthday was there, Sarah did not need to worry what the other women thought.  She did not feel bad for thinking differently, or having wishes, or wanting to play with her boy.

The others could still look at her with their scornful eyes, but she had Birthday’s bright eyes and his lopsided, gappy smile.

“Here, my Birthday.  Eat and be warm in your belly.”  She passed him a tin plate of porridge.  He ate it slowly today.  Normally he ate quickly.  He scooped it up and seemd to be thinking.

“I think right now Benjamin is walking along the path from school,” he said.  “I think he is playing with the other boys and he is happy to be coming home.”

“He is a good son,” she said.

“Yeass.  Maybe he will do well at school.  Then he will be a teacher or a lawyer and tell people what is right to do and make judgements in the city.  He cannot spend all his time looking after goats, like me.”

“We have to do our best.”

“Oh yeass.  But you are working harder than all the other women, Sarah.  You are cleaning and milking and growing and fetching water and wood.”

“Benjamin is big enough to fetch the water now.”

“So he must do his part.  But our lives are full of things to do and we cannot just help him to grow up his own way.  I want him to have something better, you know?”

She smiled and drew close to him.  This was why they had come together.  They had more in common than need and desire.  They had some living spark of hope.  They knew other people had things better.


“Ai, Sarah!  Come and fetch wood.”

Sarah looked up from the patch she was weaving for her dress.  Mama and the women were waiting on the path.  But then she looked at her stack of wood.  She had not used half of it.  She did not need to fetch wood.

“I am not coming, Mama.  You can all go.”

“You are not coming?  Does your fire in a can not need wood?”

“I have enough wood.”

Mama called again.  “Then I suppose you can just stay and rest, can’t you?”

“Rest?  Ai, no!  There is so much I want to do!”  She leapt up.  Now she had time…

I wrote this as an exercise after watching a TED talk about providing simple cooking stoves for rural households in Africa.  Or maybe it was a National Geographic article?  I don’t remember – there’s quite a lot on the internet about these initiatives.

Psalm 2 – A Meditation on Authority

This Psalm is a powerful revelation of the true nature of Jesus’ authority, contrasted with the authority of rulers and kings in the world.  It reveals God’s plan to judge wicked and unjust rulers and establish a greater Kingdom, installing his Son who willingly suffers, identifies himself with his Father and receives all power and authority in Heaven and Earth at the cross – his true victory and the real place of our rejoicing!  The Lord also speaks instructions to rulers and people of authority.

God the Father’s voice speaks to the Son directly in this Psalm.  Surely it was revelation of his Father’s plan for him in this that gave Jesus the power to stand in the face of worldly authorities and continue his pre-eminent claims.

And we should know whom it is we serve, whether as rulers or individuals.  We too can know God’s purpose is for us to have a place in a greater Kingdom – but not through our own righteousness, but through Jesus.

Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?

This first question is an expression of exasperation.  The nations and peoples certainly plot, but what is their purpose in doing so, and how do they reason it?  Whole countries seem to get together and make plans to prosper themselves outside of God’s plan – and without any chance of success.  Races and ethnic groups can make plans to raise themselves up, but only God calls nations together.

The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.

The Kings – Herod Antipas, Tiberius and others – have a position as if ready for a battle, and with their advisors they directly challenge both their Father God and his Messiah – who has come.  This should be the time for them to acknowledge him, not make a challenge!

“Let us break their chains,” they say, “And throw off their fetters.”

They want to be free from what they see as chains and restrictions – his moral law, written in their hearts – their consciences – which they correctly identify as coming from ‘them’ collectively – God and his Anointed.  But what a misunderstanding!  The chains they are experiencing are the convictions of their conscience because they do not follow the way of the righteous, neither meditating on his law (see Ps 91) or proceeding justly.  It seems glamorous, to revolt and ‘throw off their fetters’, but this is an undignified thing for a ruler to say!  These rulers should be applying God’s law and ensuring that their realms are places of peace and stability, and yet they are the ones planning a revolution!  Furthermore, it is they who have created chains for the undeserving – imprisoning Jesus on no charge and taxing the weak.

The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.

God’s reaction to this nonsensical attitude is ridicule.  He is careless of their plans, which make no threat to him at all.  In fact, he mocks them – for the mighty shall be laid low and the humble exalted.  Jesus can scoff at them too, as the rulers unknowingly effect their own humbling through the unchanged attitude of their hearts.  He can be sure that their plans will fail.

The he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.”

After this laughter, he turns to anger – a righteous anger – that is intended to rebuke them, knock them back from their plans.  His anger fell at the crucifixion with the darkness that covered the earth, and the earthquake.  Rightly they would have been terrified, but the earth shakes as he confounds their plans.  Their intention was to punish an innocent man and rid themselves of the voice that rebuked them, but this itself effected God’s will of installing Jesus as King over Life and Death, all punishment and reward, when he suffered death on the cross, on that holy place where God had always accepted true sacrifice.  The centurion on the hill, who was himself a ruler, had no doubt that Jesus was the Son of the King when the earth shook beneath his feet.

I will proclaim the decree of the Lord:

Jesus can proclaim the new law – the new decree – the true statement of justice and the prophetic word of power at the cross.  He will be the new decree – he himself will be the new law – the entire sacrifice and the access to the righteousness it wins for us – and he will speak it abroad by suffering on the cross and then rising to life again!

He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.

God said this to Jesus at his baptism, but also in the secret times of prayer, and when Jesus suffered for his brothers and sisters he really and completely reflected God’s nature, and so the bond was strengthened and the relationship taken to another level.  God’s revelation to Jesus is the foundation for his ability to rule and replace the other Kingdoms of the earth.

Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.

So by suffering on the cross, Jesus asked his Father for the new authority and received it, because God was planning to give it to him.  Then, when appearing to his disciples (Matthew 28.18) he explained that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  He had inherited the nations from the bad rulers, and all the ends of the earth were his, which is why he commissions the disciples with the words “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations… and surely I am with you always, to the very end of time”.  This would not have happened if Jesus had not asked – and not only did he ask in words, but in actions too.

You will rule them with an iron sceptre; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.

So at this enthronement, Jesus also fulfilled the prophecy of Daniel, to shatter the Kingdoms of the world with the inauguration of a Kingdom without end.  He is given a rod of authority that serves to break any other – a rod for punishment, surely.  The Roman Empire does indeed break up into pieces after this, and what other empire can last without being broken up?  The kingdoms of the world do not last like his kingdom.

Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.

God does want his appointed rulers to be wise and to carry out their responsibilities properly – even if it takes his mockery, anger and punishment to bring that about.  They need to make the decision to be wise – as does anyone who gains authority and rule – and it certainly is part of his plan for us to pay heed to prophetic warning in Scripture.  His warnings are the best guide to good rule.

Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling.

And these warnings are: to remain a servant personally before God, however much authority you gain – and to keep a holy awe and wariness – a fear – of God and his plan to raise and lower Kingdoms.  Do not expect that because he has exalted you in the earth one day he means for you to stay that way for ever.  So rejoice in what you have received, but always, always keep it in the perspective of gratitude.

Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment.

More instructions to rulers: find and then love the Son of God, who as ruler of all things in Heaven and Earth has a right to expect you to behave in line with his plan, or destroy you simply as you are about your business.  He will be patient and give you warning, but when he speaks take care to respond!  Rulers have less leeway than individual people.  His judgement is sudden, always sudden.

Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

This ruler will be good to all his servants, rich or poor, who come and hide themselves in him in trouble.  Even on the cross, he offers his body as a shelter in which to take cover from the onslaughts of the world, and a most effective shelter, because no attack can succeed against the true ruler.

Delabole Waterfall at High Tide

Upon the lip a flow like glass,

It seems as solid as the slate

Over which the waters mate,

Salt and sweet, where waves amass.


The waterfall persists its flow,

Its noisy rattle, chatter, rush

But the bigger water sweeps in hush

The shatters patterns with a throw.


Now synchronised in flow and draw

The waves ride in and mount the shelves

Some further, nearer, spend themselves

To salinate the pool-spread shore.


Is it a battle or a game?

These two waters meet head-on

Their distinct selves are seen, then gone.

And left, one cold and salt-sweet same.

Limehouse Poppies

Somewhere just West of Limehouse

An emptied yard has lain and slept

Among the brick and rubble

Are promises the poppies kept,

To bloom between the foundation slab,

To stretch between the mortar,

Beneath the girders of the bridge

Beside the dockstill water.

They flourish in obedience

To a hundred-year-old-seed,

They quench with a silk-soft moment

An ancient personal need.

If you rode on a train and saw no life,

No bloom of weed or rose,

Then how would you know you were living

And how would you do what you chose?

Unless the flowers chose to rise

From the rubble where a warehouse stood

We’d have no daily proof of how

Ruins turn good.

Coming Soon… Psalm 119

In the first half of 2014 I made an extended Bible study as part of my devotional time with God, re-reading Psalm 119 – known to some Bibletriviaphiles as the longest chapter and Psalm in Scripture. I’ve always had a particular fondness to it, since the little red Hodder and Stoughton NIV I carried almost everyday at secondary school habitually fell open there, in the Psalms, and the second section, ‘How can a young man keep his way pure?’, spoke to me very directly.

But reading it again in the light of the path of my last two years, I’ve gained a great deal by doing more than silently thinking on it. Pray-reading has become part of my devotional discipline since May, so praying this Psalm aloud, speaking God’s truth back to Him, meant that it became more important as I gave it more power in me. (If you are unfamiliar with the discipline of pray-reading, you may know the lectio divina of the catholic tradition.) Around Christmas when I talked with my Dad, he also made a comment that Jesus, raised to know and love scripture, would have had the Psalms as his prayer and songbook – so to read them as he would have read them, letting David’s ‘I’ become directly prophetic of Jesus’ daily walk, puzzling and wondering on what gospel occasions he might have prayed these very words, reading them like this has also given them a real depth. If anything, the solemnity with which these prayers and poems were used by Jesus inspires me to treat them the same.

And at the same time I’ve experienced a re-awakening of my spiritual life, as God has brought about great changes in my life. Realising that my life’s greatest work will always be the fitting of myself for heaven – the sacrifice of my self to Jesus – the altering of my walk from a selfish one to a holy one – has meant I have discovered a new passion and insight for the wonderful work of sanctification that God works in us through the Holy Spirit. And in Psalm 119 I have found a step-by-step account of sanctification in the believer.

At the same time as studying and praying these words I have also been making real decisions about my life and acting upon them. The last year has seen my engagement to be married and my movement from employed work to self-employed work. In walking this way, Psalm 119 has been a direct guide to my thoughts and words.

To begin a brief overview of the Psalm, a word about revelation. I have learnt to distinguish between the knowledge that we can gain in our minds – the understanding of facts, causes, purposes and events that engages our intellect and our reason – from the deep understanding and knowledge that is born in the spirit. One is worldly, the other heavenly, one will pass, the other will remain forever. Intellectual understanding can lead to revelation – but it does not cause it – for revelation to the spirit of a believer is the gracious gift of God. Let me explain a little more: it is quite possible to know something to be true – for example, the promise of Jesus in Matthew 6 that our Father in heaven will provide for us – and yet to have no conviction of this and to fail to act upon it in any way so that your manner is different to those who have no faith. It is possible to understand that Jesus rose from the dead and do nothing about it – to intellectually think that this is the most reasonable reading of the evidence – and not to have it touch your heart or change the manner of your life. It is possible to know many things… But when a lesson sinks deep to touch your spirit, you must act on it – it is unbearable not to. So we see those who are moved to act in pity and love and give all their energy to charitable work when we who know that it is valuable do not. What is the difference between them and us? That their understanding is a spiritual understanding – that it is more than their head knowing that this is true, but their very being assents to it.

This then is real teaching, real education. This is also real growth. No-one – in this life – can bear all, and we need not feel guilty for not being touched or moved by those things that move others. But conviction within us can be a sign that our spirit longs to be involved – and that conviction is God’s greatest gift to us for daily guidance.

So when reading Scripture we are instructed not simply to look at it, think about it and apply it theoretically, but to actively invite revelation.

How can we do this? How can we overcome ourselves and make ourselves available to God – for in his mercy and grace, he is always willing to give?

Firstly we must ask – with words and actions. He may expect us to ‘prove’ that we are ready – which may actually consist of acting, physically, to replace the normally dominant mind with a more balanced internal hierarchy, in which the Spirit of God within us calls to God our Father. Personally, I aim for this rebalancing through the following spiritual disciplines: prayer walks, when in the country; prayer in tongues, when travelling, feeling short of time, in company, or wanting to include some daily act such as preparing food as part of my prayer; kneeling, bowing and lying down, when in congregation or in private, to express my awe and obedience particularly; singing, in almost all circumstances; dancing, in privacy and increasingly in congregation; pray-reading or lectio-divina, which is challenging but very valuable; making a sacrifice of time, money or something valuable to me by giving it away, less frequently than I should!

In general, the revelation I have received from the Psalm is this: obedience to God’s law, which we now understand in the new covenant, changes a person so as to bring about decisive action in them, which in turn leads to experience, often struggles and suffering as we overcome the remaining human nature and become less worldly, but these pains allow us to understand with our spirit and receive God’s revelation, which makes us more like Jesus, our perfect model, and makes us more dependent upon God’s Word, which we need to teach us the more we find the wisdom of the world will not suit our changed way of life, and also causes us to enjoy and desire God’s law with greater fervour, bringing about more obedience. To me, this is a beautifully clear teaching method that can never be completed in this life, only the speed of our travel upon the path changed, for once engaged, the effects upon us are indelible. It is the work of re-creation, of sanctification in its simplicity and beauty and starkness and severity. At times, God wishes to show us subtle things, at others, to confront us with harsh truths and necessary sacrifices. And his simple entry route for us is pure obedience – to believe in God and in the one he has sent.

Canning Town

How beautiful the river banks,

Each a slick and shining brown.

The tide now slackens out through town

Past railway sidings, standing tanks.


Here reeds are stained and standing thick,

The ducks and gulls squat on the mud

And later comes the brackish flood

But now the silt is dark and slick,


Here interrupted by a pile

Half-rotted, stained with grey and green,

There lies a tire, half-sunk, half-seen,

And so on down the winding mile.


All the way, from here to the sea,

The Thames retreats from its own bed,

Its mind is changed, intentions fled,

So changeful as the moon we flee.