27th February George Herbert, Priest, Poet (1593-1633)


Montgomery, Powys, Wales is a very special place. It is associated for me with  my family and with some wonderful people. It was also the birthplace of George Herbert, whose life and work is commemorated today.  SONY DSC

Herbert was born into an aristocratic family and had a brilliant career in academic and public life. However, he withdrew from both in order to serve the Lord devotedly in a rural parish. His poems are jewels of English Christian verse.

Here is one of Herbert’s best known poems. I recommend reading it aloud.

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,

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An epiphany at Cana

Malcolm Guite

Photo by Margot Krebs Neale

The set readings for this third Sunday of Epiphany tell the story of  ‘the first of the signs that Jesus did and manifested forth his glory’; the transformation of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. (John 2:1-11). I love this miracle, though John doesn’t call it a miracle, he rightly calls it a sign. It is a sign that points to so many profound and liberating things about the God whom Jesus reveals to us; His delight in and concern for our own personal life and loves, attested by His presence at the wedding feast, His abundant generosity in more than meeting our needs in the midst of everyday life, His call to us to move from the mere outward purity, symbolised by the water for ritual washing, to a transformation of inward joy, symbolised by the wine. But most importantly,  this sign…

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Streams of living water

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,  but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4.13-14)

I can count on one hand the times in my life when I have been properly thirsty. Many of us are so blessed with good things that it is a rare experience. The same may be true in the spiritual sense. Indeed we may not even be able to identify our problem. In western countries it is all too easy to turn aside from spiritual thirst and dryness, seeking a panacea, a distraction or a quick fix. Some of us may ‘treat ourselves’, seek out ‘comfort food,’ decide we need a holiday or some entertainment to lighten the mood, watch a box set, perhaps escape into ‘retail therapy’ or decide that the cure lies in a nice cup of tea. Yet these strategies, helpful as they may be in the short term do not solve the problem when strength is sapped and morale sinks (nor, of course, does escapism cure the suffering of depression). At worst this turning aside can take the form of rebellion against God and the idolatry of materialism, as was the case with those of the Israelites in the wilderness who, experiencing real thirst, denied God’s work among them and wanted to return to Egypt.

If Nicodemus in last week’s gospel was pointed forward to the cross, the Lord’s discussion with the woman of Samaria looks forward beyond this to Pentecost. Nicodemus, a man who seemed to have his life under control, struggled with the sheer simplicity of the call to accept a free gift and be born again. New birth is the beginning of new life, but now we are made to consider how spiritual life is to be sustained, grow and flourish. The unnamed woman at the well seems to become aware that her life, and indeed her religion, were stagnating and responds to Jesus: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. mit_tzt_im_fluss.gifShe leaves her water jar (and remember that set of enormous water jars at the wedding at Cana!), understanding what is meant by “living water”, an endless stream bubbling up from the source that will transform the staleness of her life.

Many in religious communities have deliberately turned their backs on the avoidance tactics that the materialistic world offers. To do so is not a kind of self-flagellation, but trust, and those who have done this often describe periods of spiritual dryness followed by a discovery of the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. Those who accept the challenge to trust, find the streams of water in the desert. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert (Isaiah 35.6)

When in the noonday heat we may be tired (as Jesus was), when in suffering we may thirst for God (as did Jesus, unimaginably, on the cross when he bore the sin of the world), we are not abandoned in the wilderness, as individuals or as a people, if we go forward in trust instead of turning aside. The living water bubbles up from the source, ultimately filling everything. It is from the source that this life-giving sustenance comes, by contemplation of what the Creator has done, by prayer, which is the daily centre of our relationship with God, the Bible and the sacrament. This may be experienced as we pass through green pastures or, through perseverance and trust, in the wilderness.

Christian unity: personally speaking

My grandmother 18th September 1905

16th January was the birthday of my grandmother, born when Victoria was still on the throne into a family of Congregationalist lay preachers. Her own grandfather (1818-1881) had spent a lifetime of service in chapels in Berkshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire, before settling in the Polesworth area of North Warwickshire, where he remained, ‘teaching three times each Sabbath and twice during the week until his death’ (The Congregational Year Book 1881). The writer George Eliot immortalised this era in her novels, when every village had both a church and a chapel, a division which at the time often sprang from and reinforced social divisions.

The Congregational Church does not have bishops but is led by elders and deacons. Women served as elders long before they were admitted to positions of leadership in other churches, and my grandmother was an elder of Albert Street Congregational Church, Rugby, where my parents were married and I was baptised as a baby (without godparents – Congregationalists regard the children of believers as members of the church and responsibility rests with the parents). Unfortunately, this church is no longer in existence, although I possess a plate stamped with the name, which appears each year for the opłatek when we celebrate Wigilia here in Poland.

After a Congregationalist early childhood I was later confirmed in our local Anglican church. This I regarded as personally ratifying the baptismal commitment made at the beginning of my life through my parents. I was actually confirmed by Archbishop Michael Ramsey, whose historic meeting with Pope Paul VI in 1966 was recently commemorated by Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby).

In my working life I have spent time in different places and worshipped in different churches, mainly Anglican, but also Baptist. Early in my career I taught for several years in a Moravian school and learnt much about this church, historically linked to the Bracia Czescy. I have been enriched by all and am thankful for them all.

Almost half my life now has been spent in the mainly Roman Catholic environment of Poland, where I have learnt and shared with Catholic Christians. It has been saddening, however, when occasionally someone has assumed that by not being a member of the Catholic church I am somehow not a Christian! All need to be realistic about divisions but still to rejoice in the diversity of the Church, as has historically been the case in Gdańsk. We have been able to reflect recently on this heritage as our Lutheran brothers and sisters have celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and their long history in this city. I hope that the reinstatement of the Anglican Church here may also have a part to play, however small, in the enrichment of the Church in this area.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4.4-6)