It’s become a bit of a tradition for me to write gratitude lists on my birthday, yet each year it feels like I am discovering gratitude anew. While I always remember doing it the previous year, it never comes naturally to me. Instead, I find myself thinking that another strategy might be better this year – something productive like counting how many birthday wishes I get on Facebook each hour. Yet each year my need for gratitude keeps emerging; each year I have to remind myself of how much I have to be thankful for.
But this year I have Jonas Petersen (aka Hymns From Nineveh) to thank for reminding me that the best kind of gratitude doesn’t focus on what we have, because possessions are temporary and so often only make us want to acquire more. Instead, I want to do what Jonas does in this glorious, Ecclesiastes-like song of his: to “make a list of unownable things that make me happy”. Which is what, on this wet wintry Melbourne birthday morning, I will now do.
I am sooner
possessed than possessing.
Not ownership, for
I am owned by what
I long for.
the rain, which is ours,
falls now on this just and unjust day.
line our street with their dancing,
speckle pavement with green dust.
of all bodies, the truth
that the sun animates the clouds,
conviction that today we live
for each other:
all common graces
on this day of salvation.
All gift that cannot be owned.
This next question from the New City Catechism is a hard pill to swallow. It touches on what for me has long been one of the toughest questions of faith: the doctrine of election. The Bible is full both of invitations for all to come and also clear teaching that not all will come, and indeed that God has chosen for some not to come to Him. It can turn our heads and hearts inside out as we wrestle with it, yet in this poem I have tried to focus myself – and, I pray, you as you read it – on the goodness of God which shines through all these struggles through the gifts of common grace.
Are all people, just as they were lost through Adam, saved through Christ?
No, only those who are elected by God and united to Christ by faith. Nevertheless God in his mercy demonstrates common grace even to those who are not elect, by restraining the effects of sin and enabling works of culture for human well-being. (New City Catechism)
What does God require in the ninth and tenth commandments?
Ninth, that we do not lie or deceive, but speak the truth in love. Tenth, that we are content, not envying anyone or resenting what God has given them or us.
(New City Catechism)
The one beside you in the field,
who labours with hands just like yours,
with soul and breath, desires like yours,
the one who eats like you –
the one who, born beneath the same
sun and stars – he too requires
the truth which holds you in its stead
and says what is and how.
The one who has a wife like you,
husband, children, dreams like you,
the one who sweats and sleeps like you
and eats bread like you eat –
the one who opens hopeful palms,
expectant of his daily bread –
must love and must be loved like you;
his heart beats much like yours.
These yearly, daily, hourly gifts
of rain on just, unjust alike
cut through your skin-deep, fence-post heart
to veins that bleed like yours.
February now over, it is time to offer one final celebration of Les Murray’s poetry, before moving onto our next – and final – poet in the 12 Poets Project. Here is a short reflection on some of the qualities I value most in Murray’s work. I hope it is a fitting conclusion to our month spent in his work.
And as March gets under way, it will soon be time for us to open up the work of a quite unexpected poet: former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, the Welsh-born theologian and writer Rowan Williams. I first encountered Williams’ affinity with poetry through his translations of his eighteenth-century countrywoman Ann Griffiths’ work, only to find that he had written much of his own. I am looking forward to sharing it, and my responses to it, with you this month.
Time for my last poem for Peter Steele, this one based on his simple and delicate “An Ordinary Evening in Kew”. Less theological than the other poems I have chosen, this one is a wonderful tribute to the simple beauties of God’s gift of life.
Morning Song (After "An Ordinary Evening in Kew")
The Kensington street heats up for public holiday and I
Race the heat down hills, past flats and parklands, through
The lessening leaves that lined last week’s pavement.
Autumn yawns as summer dawns again, and slow the street
Awakes to greet the gift of sunrise without work.
In my ears the swoop of violins, and heartbeat
Growing with each downwards leap. My shins, uncertain,
Hold together for the plummet, though this is rest
Nonetheless: bodies, finite, all the same can sing
And defy the grave, though ever moving to it.
Birds’ music, poetry in movement: common grace
A sign that more than this may soon be allowed.
Welcome, street, and gambol now beside me,
Gravity negating, the dance a dreaming joy.
An Ordinary Evening in Kew - Peter Steele
On the one hand, Dante, and in the other pocket
The man who took his mind and left New Haven
For parts unknown. What were they up to,
The stoutly suited broker of our fortunes,
The burning Florentine? Watching the rain
Descend as if it chose to, giving vent
To laws at once of gravity and mercy,
I'm brought to book by earth's imagination,
The bearing of the trees, exfoliation
Of these most rambling streets, the rise of lights
Captive upon their poles and in my eyes.
Come in, you two: see if you'll make a lodging
An hour at least with the rest who wait inside,
Heads full of dreaming, bodies compelled by time.
(From Peter Steele, White Knight With Beebox: New and Selected Poems,
John Leonard Press, 2008)