I am going to dare to share one of my own poems this morning. It is about to be published in a seasonal anthology of autumn and winter poems and is, like too many I have written since the invasion of Ukraine, about war, or at least my experience of being a distant bystander of war.
But before doing so, I think it might help to reflect on why people find they have to write poems.
To me, writing poetry is closely related to praying. It is not essentially a craft or art but a spontaneous act of letting words and images out into the open, which can’t be held back. Both have elements of praise and lament. They respond to the beauty and the tragedy of life which so often reside alongside each other or twine around each other. They are a cry we need to share and might hope God hears.
One of the greatest examples from the Great War is Isaac Rosenberg’s Returning, we hear the larks, with the lines:
‘Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped…’
The contemporary poet Ben Okri began a poem which takes us straight to Gaza and Israel:
I shall tell you
The meaning of love
When the conflagrations
In the cities
My very short poem came about because at dawn – a very cold dawn – when we slept out to raise money for heating costs, the birds were active in the hedge, but the news was in my head too. And this became the cry I needed to share in God’s hearing:
The wrens are building ladders of song in the olives.
The leaves are defying seasonal legend and staying put.
This October is when the storm season begins and the trees
Are shaken, and as the branches crack the innocent fall.
When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan I am sure that he was delivering a message not only about generosity and charity and risk, but also about noticing. The easiest thing, and probably the natural thing, to do when we encounter suffering, outside our own networks of family, friends or ‘own people’ or tribe, is to look away and pass on.
Christ’s message, which he lived and died by, was not to overlook people and their greatest needs but to see there inklings of the kingdom of God: the tiny mustard seed, or the treasure in the field, that could explode into flourishing life, or become the greatest gift of all.
Because of the way the Church’s lectionary works, the texts recommended for Remembrance Sunday happen also to have come around already in the immediately preceding weeks. These are the discussion about imperial coinage we heard today and the beatitudes. Each of them comes at this fundamental Christian vision from a different angle.
In the beatitudes, Jesus calls some of the toughest human experiences a blessing – a cause of happiness: grief, lack of social significance, those who worry themselves about justice, do the hard work of forgiving, and above all those who make peace, who will be called the children of God.
The argument in the discussion of imperial coinage focuses on the most prominent man who declared himself to be a child of God – the dissolute emperor Tiberius, whose face was on every coin. Jesus’ insistence, though, is that whatever is on the coin and whatever culture wars can be stoked up by it, the more important thing is to look to the divine vision – towards the God in heaven, who we are shortly reminded in the Gospel, invites adoration and demands that we love our neighbour.
On Remembrance Day we call to mind those who have died in military service and those civilians affected by war, old and young, and those enduring today. We notice them, we grieve for them, and we yearn and pray for the healing of memory and our broken world. We pray for the great blessing of peace as we look for the good and the signs of hope that fulfil God’s blessing for all his children – blessings that are stirringly put in the verse of I vow to thee, my country. There is another country, whose armies can’t be counted and her King cannot be seen:
‘soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.’
And in the words of the poet-prophet Isaiah, writing about Jerusalem:
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as waters cover the sea.