One of the rose shrubs in my garden has had a tough time of winter.
It lost most of its leaves to disease, and was further damaged by the January storms. Not to mention the attack it had to endure from my pruning shears. It’s been left a ragged, unlovely twist of stem and thorn.
And yet, it is not dead.
As spring approaches, something within its cells is saying Now.
Something within its sleepy green mind is saying Yes.
And new leaves are beginning to grow.
And a few months from now… it is hard to describe how lovely. How the pink will be a shock of new delight each morning. How the fragrance swimming in the warm sun will be like a thousand dreams remembered.
Of course, I’m not just talking about a rose here.
Hold on, you who have been winter-wrecked. You are not dead. Spring approaches, and beyond.
Hope isn’t just a concept. There’s nothing intangible about it – nothing vague or illusory.
You can see it. You can touch it. It is happening right now within your very body.
Every day, more than a kilogram of cells in your body will die – and be replaced by brand new ones. Every second, 100 billion neurons in your brain are firing off dozens of messages each saying ‘Live. Begin. Move. Continue. Grow.’
Right now, across the northern hemisphere, plants and animals are noticing that the days are growing longer. Roots are detecting the building warmth within the soil. Subtle changes in air, earth and light are inspiring the web of life to plan its resurgence.
Sap is rising, sending water and nutrients for new buds. Seeds are germinating. Stems are pushing with divine force through the dirt towards a dream of sky. Birds who have spent the winter away are preparing for their journey home. Others are beginning to try out their spring songs.
The darker days will end. There is nothing uncertain about that. They will come again. There is nothing uncertain about that. There is decay, and there is new life. Skies turn black, stones are rolled away. All fades, all begins again.
You don’t need to conjure up hope. It’s in your DNA. It’s humming within the forces that sustain the universe. It’s everywhere.
PS This is taken from the daily Lent reflections/poems I’m offering on social media. Find me on Instagram @gideon.heugh or on Facebook at facebook.com/gideonheugh to follow along. GH x
I think we all need the spirit of shabbat at the moment: the spirit that says your worth does not depend upon productivity or achievement; the spirit that says joy needs to be taken seriously; the spirit that says, ‘Yes, life can be terrible, but look – isn’t it beautiful?’
During the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, Trump put out a video of him holding a Bible while standing outside a church, having used teargas to clear the peaceful protesters who were there. In the recent presidential election, 75% of White evangelical Christians voted for Trump. Before the violent assault on the Capitol building last week, far-right extremist groups kneeled to pray. Some held up signs saying ‘Jesus saves’; others ‘Make America Godly again’.
Of course, doing awful things in the name of Christianity is as old as… well, Christianity. There’s nothing new about this. Part of the story of the birth of America is Christians ripping away the culture, rights, land and lives of the indigenous peoples. But that was then – aren’t we in the West more enlightened now?
What is anyone who associates themselves with Christianity meant to do with all of this? When a faith they hold dear is associated with aggressive nationalism, racism, patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia and abuse?
The church is full of good people doing good things. Yet these aren’t isolated issues. Much of it is systemic. And it’s certainly not just in the US.
What are we to do?
Lament. Cry out. Call out these perversions of faith for what they are. And speak up for the true message of Christianity – of Christ:
Humility. Inclusivity. Nonviolence. Social justice. Generosity. Unconditional love.
Leaving the church is clearly an option being taken by many, and I would advocate for that if your church is a source of any of the injustices I’ve mentioned. Many are fighting for change from within, and that is beautiful and brave.
Do I still call myself a Christian? I’m not sure. These days I identify as much with my Jewish heritage. Whatever I choose to call myself, I still find Jesus compelling, because he represents the opposite of the intolerant, walls-up ideology that has so sadly surfaced in recent years.
If you want to go deeper into this, I cover part of it in the first episode of my podcast. I’ll be picking up the conversation in future episodes too.
Today is the Feast of Epiphany, which means Christmas is officially over (how did we ever get suckered into thinking it’s just one day? It’s right there in the song: twelve days! I feel cheated).
At this time of year it’s traditional in rural England to go wassailing. Usually this involves pouring cider around the base of an apple tree, putting a bit of toast in its boughs, then singing to it so that evil spirits are scared away. Folk traditions are awesome.
The idea is to bless the apple trees so they produce a good harvest later in the year. I love this because it’s a way of connecting us to the land at a time when that connection has all but disappeared.
I don’t have an apple tree, but at sundown this evening I’m going to stand in the garden, pour a little whisky on the ground, leave a slice of toast out, and pray that good things will grow this year.
Here’s a little wassail poem in case you do find yourself near an apple tree:
Bless you apple tree, Bless the way you grow, Bless the patience you have In a hasty world To be gentle, steady and slow.
Bless you apple tree, Bless the way you live, Bless the kindness you have In a needy world For the shelter and shade you give.
Bless you apple tree, Bless the way you care, Bless the generosity you have In a selfish world For the fruit you freely share
Bless you apple tree, Bless everything you do, Bless the wisdom you have In a shallow world To be content with being just you.
It requires no leap of the imagination, no contortion of the mind. Forget, if you can, about belief.
Be closer to the soil than to sanctimony.
Put away the walls and the ceilings – you will not need them. Be near to what is alive but cannot diminish itself with talk. The sky will help; it is large enough to extinguish your questions. The oak and the ash know what to do; follow their lead.
Heaven’s frequency is not unfamiliar; it is one you have always known, but perhaps lost beneath layers of dogma and ambition and busyness.
Search the world for what you possess within and you are bound to become frantic.
No, it is not a leap of the imagination, but an opening; an awareness; a realisation; an acceptance.
Self care has a problem. And it’s not just that chocolate cake and bubble bath aren’t going to do anything for you in the long run (well, maybe if it’s a really good chocolate cake…). It’s that word ‘self’.
One of the most damaging ideas in our culture is individualism. It’s the idea that what makes you happy is luxuriating in the first person – soaking unashamedly in me, myself and I.
It will make you anything but happy. And so here we are, living in the age of loneliness. A human being cannot thrive in isolation. We can’t even survive in isolation. And I’m saying this as a fully paid-up member of Extreme Introverts Inc. My idea of a great night out is generally speaking to not have one. But even I recognise that without connection – real connection – I’m finished.
We are made for community. We are made for each-otherness. We are a web, not single strands dangling of our own accord.
We cannot care for our selves alone.
Now don’t get me wrong – I’m all for cultivating healthy personal habits. Having lived with clinical depression and anxiety, I know how important it is to take practical steps to look after your own wellbeing. But top of that list has to be to move past the parameters of your self, to extend beyond the dimension of your own being – whether that be reaching out for help or reaching out to help.
You can make your day by making someone else’s. You can care for yourself by extending care to another. You can heal yourself by becoming medicine for someone else.
The best kind of self care is ‘us’ care.
It’s not easy during lockdown. We have to make even more of an effort to cultivate community and each-otherness. But it’s worth it.
Hope is a golden leaf falling to the ground. It knows that one day it will become the soil; it knows that one day a seed will settle into its dark arms; that roots, blind but seeking still will spread into the deep.
Today is Yom Kippur – one of the oldest sacred festivals in the world. At the time Jesus was born (roughly 2,000 years ago), Yom Kippur would already have been ancient. As a Jew, it would have been the holiest day of the year for him.
One of the rites performed on Yom Kippur is to say the Yizkor – a prayer of remembrance for loved ones we’ve lost. This feels particularly apposite given the year we’re having.
I’ve written a Yizkor below that you are welcome to use. It’s also traditional to light a candle. Whoever or whatever it is you’re grieving (because it’s not just people that we grieve), I hope this helps.
Or, if you have someone or something in mind that you’d like prayer for today, let me know and I’ll include them as I say my Yizkor.
If we wished for a lighter life, It would be a life without love. Spirit, be with me as I carry this weight. If we wished for a unbroken life, It would be a life without love. Spirit, be with me as I carry these wounds. If we wished for an uncomplicated life, It would be a life without love. Spirit, be with as I carry this pain. We mourn those we have lost. We give thanks for their lives. We remember them. We hold them now. We hold the weight of grief We hold the wounds We hold the pain And above all And above all And above all We hold the love. Amen.