Come Back

UnknownThis was not an easy book, but I’m glad I read it. I don’t think I’ll be revisiting it for a while, though.

Here’s the blurb at Amazon:

Hal Wiens, a retired professor, is mourning the sudden death of his loving wife, Yo. To get through each day, he relies on the bare comfort of routine and regular phone calls to his children Dennis and Miriam, who live in distant cities with their families. One snowy April morning, while drinking coffee with his Dené friend Owl in south-side Edmonton, he sees a tall man in an orange downfill jacket walk past on the sidewalk. The jacket, the posture, the head and hair are unmistakable: it’s his beloved oldest son, Gabriel. But it can’t be – Gabriel killed himself 25 years ago.

The sighting throws Hal’s inert life into tumult. While trying to track down the man, he is irresistibly compelled to revisit the diaries, journals and pictures Gabe left behind, to unfold the mystery of his son’s death. Through Gabe’s own eyes we begin to understand the covert sensibilities that corroded the hope and light his family knew in him. As he becomes absorbed in his son’s life, lost on a tide of “relentless memory,” Hal’s grief–and guilt–is portrayed with a stunning immediacy, drawing us into a powerful emotional and spiritual journey.

Come Back is a rare and beautiful novel about the humanity of living and dying, a lyrical masterwork from one of our most treasured writers.

Three personal observations:

First, Hal Wiens actually appeared as a small boy in Rudy Wiebe’s first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many. I believe this is the first time that Wiebe has revisited an old character in a new novel.

Second, the style is very vivid, but I wish the author wasn’t so fond of (a) long, run-on sentences, and (b) incomplete sentences.

Third, this novel is very autobiographical. The experience of a son’s suicide is something Rudy Wiebe has been through himself; I suspect this is his most personal novel to date.

Link to Come Back at Amazon, Chapters, and Penguin Random House.

John 1.43-51 Study Notes

How do you bear witness to Jesus? What do you say about him? Who do you talk to? What sort of person do you need to be in order to be an effective witness? All these themes are addressed in the second half of John chapter 1.

John 1:1-18 is a theological prologue in which the author establishes the divine origin of Jesus: he is ‘the Word’ who was with God at the beginning and in fact ‘was God’, but has now been made flesh and lived among us as one of us. The actual narrative starts at verse 19 with an encounter between John the Baptist and a delegation from the religious authorities in Jerusalem; in answer to their questions, he denies that he is either the Messiah or Elijah or ‘the prophet’, but identifies himself with Isaiah’s ‘voice crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord”’. When asked about his baptizing ministry, he points up the difference between himself and the one coming after him – he himself is only baptizing with water, and is not worthy to even untie the shoelaces of the one to come. And the one to come is already among them: ‘Among them stands one whom you do not know’ (v.26).

In the next section (1:29-34) John sees Jesus and identifies him as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ and the one who he has been talking about, who comes after him but ranks above him. He then testifies that when he baptized Jesus he saw the Spirit descending on him like a dove, in fulfillment of a word he (John) had received from God that this would be the sign that this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, not just with water. This, John says, is the Son of God.

In 1:35-42 John is walking with two of his disciples, Andrew and possibly John the beloved disciple (although the second is not identified in the narrative), when they see Jesus again. Once again John the Baptist identifies Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God’, and the two disciples go after Jesus. Jesus asks them what they are looking for; they ask him where he is staying and he says, ‘Come and see”. So they spend the rest of the day with Jesus. Then Andrew goes and finds his brother Simon and says to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’. He brings Simon to Jesus; Jesus looks at Simon and says, ‘you are Simon Son of John: you are to be called Cephas (Petros, ‘rock’).

In the last section (1:43-51) Jesus goes to Galilee. He finds Philip and calls him to follow him. Philip is from Bethsaida, the same town on the lake of Galilee as Simon and Andrew. Philip goes to find Nathanael and tells him ‘We’ve found the one the law and the prophets wrote about – Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth’. ‘Nazareth?’ Nathanael replies scornfully; ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ ‘Come and see”, Philip replies. So he takes Nathanael to Jesus, and to Nathanael’s surprise Jesus seems to know him: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit”. “How do you know me?” Nathanael asks. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you?” Jesus replies. Nathanael is impressed: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel!” Jesus seems to smile at this: “Do you believe, just because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? That’s just the beginning; you’re going to see greater things than that – you’re going to see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (this is probably an allusion to the story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28:10-22; Jesus is the ladder between earth and heaven, the one who makes it possible for God to come to people and people to come to God).

This passage is all about bearing witness. John the Baptist bears witness to Jesus and refuses to bear false witness about himself. Through the Baptist’s witness, Andrew and John become followers of Jesus – going on from what John has told them about him, to experiencing him for themselves as they ‘Come and see’. Andrew in his turn bears witness to Simon his brother and brings him to Jesus. And Jesus himself is bearing witness: he calls Philip, and Philip invites Nathanael to ‘come and see’ as well (in a gospel where the author pays careful attention to words and structure, it is surely no accident that the phrase ‘Come and see’ appears twice within six or seven verses; surely the author is underlining a point for us).

What is the content of our witness about Jesus? The thing that stands out in this entire passage (19-41) is the amazing richness and variety of it.

John the Baptist calls Jesus ‘The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. This is a sacrificial image; Jesus is compared with a sacrificial lamb, taking the sins of the world on himself and dying for them, so that those who offer the sacrifice can be forgiven. Paul will take up this imagery in his letters when he talks about Christ our Passover having been sacrificed for us. So here the problem of guilt is in view, and Jesus is the one whose atoning death takes away guilt.

John also witnesses that Jesus is the one who has been anointed with the Holy Spirit and who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. This is one of the signs that he, who came after John, is in fact greater than him. A human being can immerse someone in the water of baptism, but Jesus has the power to ‘immerse’ them, to plunge them in and to fill them up, with the Holy Spirit of God, so that their lives are suffused with the presence of God. And he can do this because he is himself the ‘anointed one’ or Messiah (v.41).

The Baptist also calls Jesus ‘the son of God’ (v.34), as does Nathanael in verse 49. In OT times this was a title for the King of Israel (see Nathanael’s words, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” [v.49]), and thus served as a synonym for ‘Messiah’ (which is also what Andrew calls him when he speaks to Simon Peter in verse 41: “We have found the Messiah!”). Jesus is the one God has anointed to be King, the King who will bring justice and peace and set his people free from evil. But in the Gospel of John the phrase ‘Son of God’ begins to take on a higher meaning as well, closer to our theological understanding of Jesus as a divine figure, one who has come from the Father and will return to the Father, one who makes his Father known to us.

I also note Jesus’ witness to himself: he is the ladder between earth and heaven (v.51), the one who will bring God to people and people to God. And he is ‘the Son of Man’ (v.51) the strange figure from Daniel 7:13 who will be given dominion and glory and kingship by ‘the Ancient of Days’ (God) and will rule forever, long after the ‘beasts’ (evil empires) of the world have been destroyed.

Finally, on two occasions in the passage Jesus is called ‘Rabbi’ as a form of address. This of course is an honorific title; he is being recognized as a teacher of Israel. But ‘rabbi’ doesn’t get a lot of attention in John’s Gospel; in this passage it is what people call Jesus when they first meet him, but they soon move on to more significant titles.

So we have a number of images used to describe Jesus to us: he is a ‘rabbi’ or religious teacher; he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; he is the anointed one, the Messiah or coming King; he is the one who baptizes people with the Holy Spirit; he is the Son of God, not only the King but also the one whom God has sent into the world and who reveals the Father to us. He is the one who brings us to God and God to us, and he is the Lord of all, the one whose rule over all nations and peoples and languages will last forever.

What is this plethora of titles and images telling us? Surely that Jesus is a many-faceted figure in the New Testament. Each title or image tells us something about him, and together they make a full-orbed picture. Likely, at each point in our Christian journey a different title of image will be most meaningful for us, and so it might be helpful as we are thinking about our Christian witness to ask ‘Which of the biblical titles or images or names of Jesus is most meaningful for me right now, and why? And which ones have been helpful to me in the past, and why? And which ones do I avoid like the plague, and why?’

But we can’t stop there, because witness is not about us so much as it is about Jesus and about those we are hoping to point to Jesus. So being a good witness involves listening to people, finding out what their point of need is, and then thinking carefully about which of the many biblical ways of describing Jesus would make most sense to them at their point of need.

So to be a good witness, we need to speak accurately and helpfully about Jesus, in ways that connect with the people to whom we are bearing witness. But that leads to another question: to whom do we bear witness?

In this passage, John the Baptist bears witness to the religious authorities, who seem to be somewhat hostile to him and his movement. No matter; he speaks a word of truth to them anyway. Later on, he bears witness to two people within his circle of influence: disciples of his, Andrew and perhaps John. Andrew in turn bears witness to his brother Simon, and Philip to Nathanael, who we assume is also his friend.

So none of the witnessing that is going on here involves taking the initiative and going up to total strangers to do ‘cold calling’. It involves either giving a response to people who ask us about our faith (even though sometimes they may be hostile), or going to our friends and pointing them in the direction of Jesus. And note that the witness is not just intellectual; it is invitational as well: ‘Come and see!’ Come on in and try out this Christian life. Come on in and see what we do in church. Come on in and take part in some of our service activities. Come on in and begin to learn to listen to Jesus in the gospels and speak to him in prayer. The swimming pool might look good to you on the sidelines, but you’ll never find out how good it is ‘til you stick your foot in! So ‘come and see’.

(Of course, we might want to give careful thought to the difference between our situation and that of Jesus’ early disciples; they could invite people to ‘come and see’ Jesus in the flesh, whereas we can’t do that. So what does it mean for us to invite people to ‘come and see’ today?)

Finally, I’m struck by what the passage has to say about who can be a witness for Jesus. What sort of person makes an effective witness? I see two things.

First, you can’t be a witness for Jesus if you’re full of yourself. John the Baptist, in John’s gospel, is portrayed as resolutely pointing away from himself toward Jesus; he is a signpost, nothing more. ‘Are you the Messiah?’ ‘I am not’. Later on, in chapter 3, he will say of Jesus, ‘He must increase; I must decrease’. Human beings love to be the centre of attention, but if our witness involves putting ourselves forward, it will not be effective. We need true humility, pointing away from ourselves toward Jesus, remembering the prayer of the Greeks in John 12, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ (John 12:21). ‘I am not the Messiah’ – I am not the answer to people’s needs, and I must not give them the impression that I am. I am not big enough for that job. Only Jesus is.

Secondly, I note that good witnesses are people who have themselves been in the presence of Jesus. Andrew and his fellow-disciple (John?) respond to Jesus’ invitation to ‘come and see’ (v.39); they spend the rest of the day with Jesus, and then Andrew finds his brother Simon and invites him to come and meet Jesus. It is being in the company of Jesus that motivates us to point others toward him. His presence changes our lives in a good way, a way that adds meaning and value to our lives. And we are effective witnesses to the degree that we continue to keep company with Jesus, in prayer and in listening to his teaching. As Jesus will say to us later, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them will bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing…If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love’ (John 15:5, 10).

So we must keep company with Jesus, with him living in us and we living in him, being careful to follow his teaching and put it into practice. This is how we ‘abide’ in him, and if we do so, we will bear fruit in many ways, one of them being in this whole matter of being effective witnesses, pointing others to Jesus.

That’s it for now; time to check out the commentaries.

Leveret: Northern Lass / The Kings’ Barrows

Leveret is Andy Cutting, Rob Harbron, and Sam Sweeney. I first came across Andy Cutting’s playing on Kate Rusby’s albums, and I have come to believe that he is one of the finest melodeon players in the world today. Rob and Sam I know less about, but the tracks I’ve heard from this upcoming Leveret album are very fine indeed. Here’s a sample.

The album is called ‘New Anything’ and will be released later this month. Find out more here.

One of the many reasons I love the writing of Wendell Berry…

…is paragraphs like this:

When he lets himself out through the lot gate and into the open, past the barn and the other buildings, he can see the country lying under the sun. Nearby, on his own ridges, the crops are young and growing, the pastures are lush, a field of hay has been raked into curving windrows. Inlets of the woods, in the perfect foliage of the early season, reach up the hollows between the ridges. Lower down, these various inlets join in the larger woods embayed in the little valley of Shade Branch. Beyond the ridges and hollows of the farm he can see the opening of the river valley, and beyond that the hills on the far side, blue in the distance.

Or how about this:

A water thrush moves down the rocks of the streambed ahead of him, teetering and singing. He stops and stands to watch while a striped woodpecker works its way up the trunk of a big sycamore, putting its eye close to peer under the loose scales of the bark. And then the bird flies to its nesting hole in a hollow snag still nearer by to feed its young, paying Mat no mind. He has become still as a tree, and now a hawk suddenly stands on a limb close over his head. The hawk loosens his feathers and shrugs, looking around him with his fierce eyes. And it comes to Mat that once more, by stillness, he has passed across into the wild inward presence of the place.

Yes, I think if I could write paragraphs like that, I would call myself a writer.

By the way, both of these paragraphs are taken from a story called ‘The Boundary’, found in the collection entitled ‘That Distant Land: The Collected Stories‘ (published in 2004 by Counterpoint).

More about Wendell Berry here.

Berry

A New Beginning (sermon for January 11th on Mark 1:9-11)

Question: how many of you here today have actually read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings? I don’t mean ‘how many of you have watched the movies?’ – I mean actually read the book – all three volumes of it?

The first time I tried to read The Lord of the Rings I was about fourteen; a lot of people were talking about it at the time, and I decided to try it out. I went to the local library to look for it, but the first volume, ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, was out, so I just borrowed the second volume, ‘The Two Towers’. Now, there was a very short summary of the plot of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ at the beginning of this second volume, but even with that help, it was very difficult to get into the flow of the story, and in fact I think I gave up after about fifty pages. It wasn’t until a few years later that I read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ all the way through, and then the story made sense to me, because I started at the beginning.

I want to suggest to you that a lot of people who are interested in the Christian faith get into trouble for this very same reason – they don’t start at the beginning. Where do they start? Well, the most obvious thing that Christians do these days seems to be ‘going to church’, so people who are interested in learning about Christianity start coming to church. After a while people notice them, and they get added to a parish list and get a set of envelopes. Someone finds out that they’re good at a particular job that needs doing around the church, and before you know it they’re on a list of volunteers. They get involved in all the activities, but deep down inside there’s this nagging doubt, “Where’s God? I wasn’t really looking for more social activities, or more work to do – I was looking for God? How can I find him?”

The problem is that they haven’t started at the beginning, and so their Christian story isn’t making any sense. Not that there’s anything wrong with going to church, but churchgoing is meant to take us right back to the heart of the Gospel, to the central truths that give us a good start in the Christian life. And we find these truths in our gospel reading for today which tells the story of Jesus’ baptism. What does Jesus’ baptism have to say to us about our own baptism and how we start out in the Christian life?

Let’s think about baptism for a minute and what John the Baptist was doing here by baptizing people. In the ancient world a number of religions baptized people. Jews did it to Gentiles who wanted to become Jews; they baptized them all as a sign of the washing away of ritual uncleanness before God, and then the men were circumcised, which was the covenant sign God had given to Abraham. But before John the Baptist came, no one had suggested that people who were born as Jews needed to be baptized; they were seen as being clean enough already! But now John came, preaching that the Kingdom of God was near; people were excited about that, and thousands of them flocked to hear him. If they wanted to sign up for the new kingdom, he told them to repent – to turn away from their old way of life – and to be baptized as a sign of this. Baptism was an obvious sign for repentance; sin has often been seen as making us dirty in some way, and repentance and forgiveness are a sort of cleansing.

But now Jesus comes to the river to be baptized, and according to Matthew’s version of this story, John is a bit confused about this. “I need to be baptized by you”, he says to Jesus, “and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). Baptism is about repenting from sin, but Jesus has nothing he needs to repent of, so why does he need to be baptized? Makes perfect sense to me! But in fact Jesus disagrees: “Let it be so now”, he says to John, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness”(Matthew 3:15).

But in fact baptism is about more than washing from sin. There are whole layers of meaning in the act of baptism in the New Testament, and the baptism of Jesus has a lot to teach us about this. Let’s take a closer look.

One thing we see in the baptism of Jesus is an assurance to him that he is God’s Son. We read in verse 11 that when Jesus was baptized ‘a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”’.

What a wonderful thing for a son to hear from his father! I suspect that there are many adult children today who are walking around with a big empty space inside, because they just aren’t sure whether or not their parents are pleased with them. In some cases those parents have been dead for years, but it doesn’t matter: that big, empty space is still there. But here we have God the Father, right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, before he had healed anyone, or told any parables, or done anything out of the ordinary at all, saying, “You are my beloved son, and I’m very pleased with you”.

Baptism speaks to us about becoming God’s children. And just as Jesus received the affirmation of his sonship before he had done anything spectacular to earn it, so too God declares that we are his children as a free gift – what Christians call an act of pure grace – which we don’t have to earn.

Here’s the way it works. In that act of grace, Jesus gave his life for you and me and everyone else, so that our sins could be forgiven and we could be brought back into God’s family. That’s God’s great rescue operation for the world. That great rescue operation is applied to your life and mine in the act of baptism. Through our baptism, God’s forgiveness and adoption are offered to us, like a hand of rescue reaching out to a drowning person. We respond to that free gift by faith, which means trust. “Ah!” you say; “There is something I can do!” Yes, there is – but let’s be clear about what it is. If you’re drowning and a person reaches out their hand to save you, you don’t save yourself by clasping their hand; you simply take advantage of their strength and skill. Faith is our hand reaching up to take the hand of God and receive the gift he gives us in our baptism. Or if you like, in your baptism God says to us “You are my son or daughter” and in faith we reply “Yes: I am God’s son or daughter”.

So ‘starting at the very beginning’ is all about grace, which means God’s love for us that we don’t have to deserve. Most of us here were baptized as children, when we’d done absolutely nothing to deserve it. Some of us here were baptized as adults, after we’d done lots of things not to deserve it! Whenever we were baptized, in our baptism we were made the children of God, and when we came to Jesus in faith and welcomed him into our hearts we accepted that for ourselves; we began to enjoy the special relationship with the Father that he’s given us.

So the first thing we notice about the baptism of Jesus is that it was God’s assurance to him that he was indeed God’s beloved Son. The second thing is that it was the beginning of a new life for him. Up until that time, he’d lived quietly in Nazareth with his family. But now, at the age of thirty, he came to the Jordan and was baptized by John. From that point on, he left his old way of life and plunged into three years of public ministry, in which he announced that God’s kingdom was coming, and showed by his actions what God’s kingdom was all about.

When we look at the different pictures that are used for baptism in the New Testament, they all include the idea of a new beginning. We’re told that being baptized is like being born again; it’s like dying and rising again with Jesus; it’s like being adopted into a family. And at the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus says “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). To be baptized, Jesus tells us here, is to begin a new life as his disciple.

So you’re not only a child of God, adopted into his family by a gift of his grace; you’re also a disciple of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus have taken a long hard look at the world around them and concluded that, even though it’s full of voices wanting to give us advice, no other voice seems to get it exactly right. Disciples of Jesus realize that in the life and teaching of Jesus they can see God more clearly than they can see him anywhere else in all of creation. And so they come to Jesus day by day, with a prayer something like this: “Lord, will you help me to see life as you see it and live life as you taught it?”

Baptism is the beginning of this life of discipleship. The true Christian idea of infant baptism is that Christian parents who are themselves following Jesus want their children to follow him too, so they have them baptized because they believe it’s never too early to start learning to follow Jesus. Adults who are baptized are putting their faith in Jesus, leaving the old way of life behind and starting a new life as followers of Jesus.

So when we were baptized we were set down at the beginning of a new way of life. And as we try to learn this new way of life we aren’t left to our own resources either. Let’s look at the third thing Jesus’ baptism teaches us about ‘starting at the very beginning’. In his baptism Jesus had a special experience of God’s presence and power as the Holy Spirit came down on him. In today’s gospel we read, ‘And just as (Jesus) was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him’ (v.10).

It’s a striking phrase, isn’t it? ‘He saw the heavens torn apart’. If you had been a Jewish person hearing these words in the first century just after Mark wrote them, you’d immediately have been reminded of Isaiah chapter 64. In chapter 63 the prophet was talking about how the people felt abandoned by God because of all their sins; they were going through the suffering of exile from their land and longed for a sense of God’s presence with them. Then in chapter 64 he goes on to say to God:

“Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence” (vv.1-3).

This is what we need, isn’t it? We need the sense that we aren’t alone, that God is with us, walking with us through the difficult times in our lives, giving us the strength we need to do the things he asks of us. “Show me a sign, God?” we ask; “Please let me know that you’re near! Tear open the heavens and come down!” And now in Jesus’ baptism God answers that prayer: ‘He saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him’ (v.10)

This experience of the Holy Spirit shines through the pages of the New Testament. Nowadays if you’ve had a powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit you’re looked on as being an unusual person, but in the Book of Acts it was the other way around. In our epistle for today we read of Paul meeting some people in Ephesus who claimed to be disciples of Jesus. But reading between the lines, we can see that Paul noticed right away there was something different about them, and after a few minutes he put his finger on it. “Tell me”, he said,

‘“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit”. Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied – altogether there were about twelve of them (Acts 19:2-7).

Sadly, I think many people today would be just as mystified as these Ephesian disciples; we may have heard that there is a Holy Spirit, but he doesn’t play a very big part in our daily Christian experience. Yes, the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to us in our baptism, but many of us have never turned to Jesus in faith and asked him to fill us with the Holy Spirit. This is a gift we grow in, you see. When we are baptized God lights the pilot light of his Holy Spirit in us, but you can’t heat a house with the pilot light; you need to turn up the thermostat so that the whole furnace lights up. And so it is with the Holy Spirit: we’re told in the New Testament to go on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit, so that we can truly be in tune with God’s presence and experience God’s power for the tasks he’s called us to do.

Let’s go around this one last time. The baptism of Jesus tells us about our baptism – about what it means and what it says about us. In the world today there are many voices wanting to tell you who you are, and what you should be doing. But the most important truth about you is what God says about you, and in your baptism God says to you, “You are my beloved child; I am pleased with you”. In your baptism God tells you that the most important thing you have to do in your life is to learn to follow Jesus. And God puts the Holy Spirit into you to give you a sense of his presence and power.

This is where we have to start if we are to understand the Christian life. These are the things we need to be sure about before we go on to the next stage in our Christian journey. We are God’s children, we are called to follow Jesus, and we are offered the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us do it. These are the basic things, the things we start with, and we don’t have to earn any of them. They all come to us as a free gift: a gift of God’s grace.

The Poems of Wilfred Owen

In my post about my 2014 reading list I noted my surprise that I had not actually finished any books of poetry all year long. I actually quite enjoy poetry, but I tend to dip into it rather than reading through complete volumes. This year I intend to change that.

UnknownThus, my first book of the year is the slim volume of ‘The Poems of Wilfred Owen‘, in the Wordsworth Poetry Library series; it was a gift from one of my children, and I’m very grateful for it. I’ve been familiar with some of Owen’s more famous poems (‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, “Dulce et Decorum Est’ etc.), but not with the broad sweep of his work. This volume gives a really good overview of his poetic genius; it’s incredible to think that almost all of his most important poems were written in the space of one year, and very sad to think of him being killed by a sniper one week before the Armistice. But then, that is the tragedy of war that Owen wrote about so eloquently: the shattered lives and wasted talents.

A few brief words about the poet (adapted from the Wikipedia article, which is worth reading in full). Wilfred Owen was born in 1893 near Oswestry, Shropshire. He worked as a pupil-teacher in a poor country parish before a shortage of money forced him to drop his hopes of studying at the University of London and take up a teaching post in Bordeaux (1913). He was tutoring in the Pyrenees when war was declared, and he enlisted shortly afterwards.

In 1917 he suffered severe concussion and trench-fever whilst fighting on the Somme and spent a period recuperating at Craiglockart War Hospital, near Edinburgh. It was here that he met Siegfried Sassoon who read his poems, suggested how they might be improved, and offered him much encouragement.

He was posted back to France in 1918 where he won the MC before being killed on the Sombre Canal a week before the Armistice was signed.

I will give a couple of samples of his poetry. In the first, ‘Strange Meeting’, the poet finds himself face to face, after death, with the enemy he killed the day before:

It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand fears that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
‘Strange friend,’ I said, ‘Here is no cause to mourn.’
‘None,’ said the other, ‘Save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something has been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery;
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now … 

This poem is a good example of Owen’s style. He’s not an easy writer to follow, and ideally his poems should be read over three or four times, slowly, so that the metaphors can be explored to the full. But to me the mark of genius in this poem is that, although a discerning reader might already have guessed it, Owen does not explicitly reveal the identity of the one who ‘sprang up, and stared with piteous recognition in fixed eyes’ until close to the end.

Another piece, ‘Disabled’, is a snapshot of the life of a dismembered veteran of the war.

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark, 
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey, 
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park 
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn, 
Voices of play and pleasure after day, 
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him. 

About this time Town used to swing so gay 
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees, 
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim – 
In the old times, before he threw away his knees. 
Now he will never feel again how slim 
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands. 
All of them touch him like some queer disease. 

There was an artist silly for his face, 
For it was younger than his youth, last year. 
Now, he is old; his back will never brace; 
He’s lost his colour very far from here, 
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry, 
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race 
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh. 

One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg, 
After the matches, carried shoulder-high. 
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg, 
He thought he’d better join. – He wonders why. 
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts, 
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg;
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts 
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg; 

Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years. 
Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt, 
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears 
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts 
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes; 
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears; 
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits. 
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers. 

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal. 
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
thanked him; and then enquired about his soul. 

Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes, 
And do what things the rules consider wise, 
And take whatever pity they may dole. 
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes 
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole. 
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come 
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

Wilfred Owen looked up to Siegfried Sassoon, but in my view, Owen was the greater poet. His work is firmly situated in the Great War, but needs to be read over and over again in these modern times when we continue to send young people off to the slaughterhouse with depressing regularity. I conclude with the incomplete preface he himself wrote for his poems:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.

Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion or power, except War.

Above all, I am not concerned with Poetry.

My subject is War, and the Pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the True Poets must be truthful.

If I thought the letter of this book would last, I might have used proper names; but if the spirit of it survives – survives Prussia – my ambition and those names will have achieved themselves fresher fields than Flanders…

Happy birthday Nic Jones

A very happy birthday to one of my great musical heroes Mr. Nic Jones. Here’s a traditional song from his magisterial 1980 CD ‘Penguin Eggs’.

Note: If you like this music, please buy it to support the artist.

Penguin Eggs at Molly Music (Nic and Julia’s company)

Penguin Eggs at iTunes

Penguin Eggs at Amazon.ca

To find out more about Nic, go to his website here. Interesting biographical information is here and here. I would also highly recommend the new documentary ‘The Enigma of Nic Jones‘.

More information about ‘Courting is a Pleasure’ (also called ‘Meeting is a Pleasure’ and ‘Handsome Molly’) here and here.