As part of our daily devotions in recent weeks Julia and I have been reading a wonderful little book called Haphazard by Starlight: A Poem a Day from Advent to Epiphany by Janet Morely. Basically it is ‘what it says on the tin’. The book consists of a carefully chosen selection of poems, written by a variety of authors, together with a biblically sensitive commentary by Janet Morely herself in which she seeks to ‘unpack’ the meaning and significance of the poem in question. Brilliantly written in way that really fascinates and grips the reader, Haphazard by Starlight is a companion volume to Janet Morely’s bestselling Lent book, The Heart’s Time (which we have now ordered to use during Lent). Janet Morely, herself, is a freelance writer, speaker and workshop leader who has worked for Christian Aid and for the Methodist Church. She is the author of several other books, including books of prayers and poems.
Our normal practise for our corporate daily devotions is to read a passage of Scripture together (usually systematically working through a book of the Bible), perhaps read some thoughts about the meaning of the passage in question from a helpful commentary or devotional book, discuss it together, and then spend time praying together – our prayers triggered by the thoughts we have been sharing. Our prayer time consists of time spent ‘waiting on God’ – listening to what he has to say to us – followed by intercessory prayer ‘for the church and the world’.
There are, of course, many ways to read (or teach and preach) Biblical truth. One is to begin with a passage of Scripture, expounding it and applying it in ways relevant for today. Another way is to begin with a theme or idea or question or problem or topic – and then introduce the teaching of Scripture to show how the Bible can so often provide us with answers or direction or advice relevant to the issue in question. Janet Morely’s book takes the latter route – raising a particular issue or problem through the use of poetry and showing how the particular poet attempts to tackle that question. Her commentaries on the various poems she has chosen are fascinating – so well written in a way that both captivates the reader and takes us right into the mind and heart of the particular poet. She does not stop there, however, but develops thoughts and ideas of her own, drawing repeatedly on her own biblical, theological, historical and liturgical knowledge. She also manages to always conclude each short commentary with a thoughtful question you can carry away with you to ponder for the rest of the day.
I have to confess that this whole approach to communicating the Gospel impresses itself upon me more and more. My conviction is that there are a whole host of people ‘out there’ who are actually really, really interested in ‘spiritual things’ but who are not at all ‘grabbed’ by the way we evangelicals repeatedly attempt to ‘communicate’ the Gospel. They are not interested in ‘reading the Bible’ or ‘going to church’ or ‘listening to a sermon’. But they are interested in a ‘good story, well told’ or art or poetry or music or film, and so on. One of the things I would really like to do in 2016 – in my new role as unofficial ‘assistant to the Minister’ at Knaphill Baptist Church – is to develop new approaches to getting alongside people in the community. I can envision myself as part of a ‘story telling group’ meeting on a regular basis at the Garibaldi (our local pub just round the corner) to exchange stories and their meanings? Or perhaps a ‘poetry group’ meeting to share poetry that we have written (perhaps along similar lines to the way Janet Morley shares and discusses various poems in her books). Or a ‘book reading group’ or a ‘film club’ or … well the possibilities are endless. The only condition should be that they ‘scratch where people itch’! We need more ‘off the wall’ stuff to reach those ‘out of the picture’ people!
Coming back to Janet Morely’s book Haphazard by Starlight: A Poem a Day from Advent to Epiphany, her ‘offering’ for the cusp of the year is Ring Out, Wild Bells by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Tennyson (1809-92) was an immensely popular poet in his day, with an ability to articulate an emotional vocabulary that was hugely appealing to the Victorians. It is suggested that Queen Victoria herself derived much consolation following the death of Prince Albert from Tennyson’s poetry. One might presume from this that Tennyson’s poetry is mostly ‘sentimental slush’ but the actuality is that this is far from the case. This particular poem, Ring Out, Wild Bells is a poem for every generation echoing the same mix of anguish and hope that we all seem to express at the cusp of every Old and New Year.
I do not propose to plagiarise everything that Janet Morley ‘draws out’ from her reading of Tennyson’s poem – go buy her book and read her fascinating comments for yourself! Sufficient to say that poem emphasises many of the things we despise and wish (as human beings) we could leave behind us with the passing of the old year, whilst at the same time highlighting many of the hopes the vast majority of us would like to see come to fruition in the coming year! We would do well to take to heart the sentiments expressed here and seek ourselves to ‘Ring out the old, and ring in the new!’ as we move from 2015 to 2016. For Tennyson (and for Janet Morley) however, these aspirations for major changes that will benefit all can only come about as we ‘Ring in the Christ that is to be!’
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
~ Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92)