Rags – a poem by Caroline Bird

This poem by young British poet and playwright Caroline Bird has more than a whiff of Pentecost about it. Caroline Bird was born in 1986. Already she has had five collections of poetry published. This poem is from her latest collection In These Days of Prohibition (Carcanet, 2017).


When love comes through
the vents, you press wet rags against
the grill, lest you are smoked out
of your loneliness, you tape egg boxes
to your ears so you can’t hear
the hissing, you swathe yourself
in shame like vinegar
and brown paper. At sundown,
you gather up the rags
and press them to your face
like the dress of a lover, hoping for
a slight effect, the remnants of a rush –
not enough to change your mind – just
enough to pacify the night.

Yes, I’ve done all that. And now I am full of questions.

How do we make the most of love?
How do we make the most of every minute of love?
What do we do about our preoccupations and those things which make us unprepared for love?
How dare we hope for love and remain openminded to recognise love?
How do we avoid leaving it all too late?
How can we let love do her work in us and through us?

Listful parading – a sermon for Pentecost

Love the Olympic cauldron. Well done Danny Boyle, well done London. What an opening ceremony.
In our worship we are joined by Christians from around the globe: Nigerian, French, Swedish, Canadians, Chinese. Our Diocese has links with the Melanesian Church and the Congolese Church. Your parish may have other links with churches as well. Some of you may have personal links. The Anglican cycle of Prayer invites us to join other Anglicans around the world in praying for the Dioceses of North Dakota and South Dakota, and their Bishops Michael Smith and John Tarrant.

In worship of our God we are as one. We are brothers and sisters, children of our heavenly father. Thanks be to God, through his work as father, Son and Holy Spirit.

That is the thrust of our reading from Acts as its author Luke recalls the power of God poured out by Jesus from the right hand of God as Holy Spirit on that Harvest festival in Jerusalem.

It was a power so powerful that about 3000 people were added to the other 120 disciples.

It was a power so transformative that “all the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions they gave to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all people.” (Acts 2)

The prophet Joel looked forward to the day when God would pour out his Spirit on all people, young and old, men and women. He knew then that the young would see visions and the old would dream dreams.

I wonder whether the disciples’ commune was one of those dreams, one of those visions.

I wonder if the spirit of Luke’s writing is not wanting us to read this passage as a one-off day in history – for us many centuries ago, but as “today, of all days”, and “today and everyday”.

God showers (that’s the meaning of the Greek word behind out word “baptism”) people with his love, today of all days, and today and everyday.

And then he wants to help us to dream dreams about what is possible, to envision the world in which God’s kingdom comes, on earth, as in heaven. It’s about the future, not the past.

Our news headlines are grim aren’t they? Particularly for the poor.

This week’s news featured a grandmother who committed suicide because of the new bedroom tax, and welfare workers have been trained to recognize suicide risk.

The plight of vulnerable children was highlighted by the Oxfordshire rape case. There was a body discovered buried in a garden in Ellesmere Port. Violence in Iraq has escalated with days of bombings between Sunni and Shia.

Luke’s world was no less divisive. We know there were divisions between oppressed and free, colonized and colonizer, rich and poor, Jew and Greek, men and women.

Luke parades the differences before our very eyes.

In the gospel, he parades the poor, the blind, the prisoners, the lame and the oppressed.

Here, in this reading from Acts, he parades the nations represented at the Pentecost festival.

I’ve heard readers get to that list of nationalities that Luke has measured out for us. Instead of reading the list, they said “Parthians, Medes and Elamites etc etc” which totally misses Luke’s point.

We enjoyed the parade of athletes at the opening ceremony of the Olympics – we discovered countries we never knew existed, like Micronesia. What would it have been like if we were just shown the first three – Team GB, USA and China – with the rest reduced to a blur, as etcetera, while we fast forwarded to something more interesting, like the Queen sky-diving?

No, the list of nations is meant to be long. That is the point. All those people gathered on one place, and in spite of their differences, and their border conflicts, they all heard in their own language what the disciples were saying as they spoke in tongues.

And 3000 of them came together, sold everything, shared everything, met everyday, and enjoyed the favour of all people.

Is it a tall story, a vision or a dream?
Heatherwick's Petals
You saw the Parade of Athletes at the Olympics last year. For a moment I want you to use your imagination. I want you to parade Luke’s people before your eyes, to see their flags, and to also notice the petal each group is carrying.

Here come the (fanfare, dancing, drums, cheering and applause)


The Medes

The Elamites

The residents of Mesopotamia

The Judeans

The Cappadocians

People from Pontus,



Egyptians (why do they walk like that?)

Libyans from the region of Cyrene




They parade around, stake their flag in front of our eyes and place their petal in a stand.

Then come seven young boys and girls. They represent the promise of the future. They go to the petals, and they breathe fire on to them. One by one the petals catch a light until they are all ablaze. The flames come together as one cauldron.

Wasn’t it an amazing sight that Danny Boyle offered us? Isn’t it an amazing sight that Luke shows us.

In spite of our differences, all of us understood in our own heart of hearts the Olympic dream.

For the Dean of Durham we saw what we can be.

He wrote: “We saw some important things that spoke about Britishness in the 21st century … like care and compassion, inclusivity and diversity, flair and creativity, modesty and understatement, the confidence to be at ease with ourselves, our ability to question ourselves, our enjoyment of life.”

Likewise, Luke’s parade needs no interpretation and no explanation. Each of them knew the meaning of what was being said in tongues from within the tongues of flame.

We hear of people speaking in tongues and wonder what all that’s about.

But the message of these 120 men and women speaking in tongues was immediately understandable.

Nothing was lost in translation, because although they were speaking in tongues, they were speaking the Mother Tongue, the tongue of the Holy Spirit.

The Mother Tongue is not a difficult language. In the Mother Tongue there is only one word, which was in the very beginning and which will be spoken for ever.

Some chose to think that the disciples were drunk.

But others, 3000 of them, chose to see the power that is God’s, that overcomes difference, that reconciles enemies, that made one community of many interests.

We call that community “the church”.

This is the community that believes in the power of God to turn the world upside down.

This is the community in which members see a chaotic world before their eyes, but they realise their own responsibility to revert to the Mother Tongue in all their interactions.

This is the community which prays for the ending of division and the repair of broken relationships, which prays for Sunni and Shia in Baghdad, slaves, the poor, the abused and their abusers because we know what is possible, today and all days.

This is the community of men and women who dare to dream dreams and who see visions of kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

This is the community that is being constantly licked into shape by the Mother Tongue. Today of all days, and today and every day.

This sermon was preached at Christ Church, Higher Bebington on May 19th 2013.

The photo of the Olympic Cauldreon is by Paul Watson. The Cauldron was designed by Heatherwick.

Ah Bisto! Conspiracy Theories of Pentecost and Community


People who breathe together, stay together. People who can smell one another create community. The person who holds his nose because he doesn’t like the air that he is breathing is excluding himself from that community.

Ivan Illich reminds us of an old German saying: ich kann Dich gut reichen, “I can smell you well”. It captures well an apect of openness we often miss. We have our eyes and ears open, but rarely do we talk about having our nose open. I can smell you well. For me that adds another sense to the story of the Good Samaritan. Did the victim in the ditch smell so badly that people could not tolerate his smell, and had to walk by on the other side, holding their nose against the stink. With nose open, the Good Samaritan had his arms free to manhandle the victim to safety and recovery.

There is a custom in Christian liturgy called the “kiss of peace“, or osculum pacis – only recovered relatively recently in the Church of England. These days the kiss of peace isn’t so much a kiss as a handshake – very British – but at least it’s touching. Apparently in some places, until the 3rd century, the kiss was “mouth to mouth”, and was a sharing and mingling of breath. John’s story of Pentecost reminds us that Jesus breathed on his disciples, saying “receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). They smelt each other well. They shared their breath in con-spiracy. The church formed conspiratorially to be a conspiracy. Illich writes:

“Peace as the commingling of soil and water sounds cute to my ears; but peace as the result of conspiratio exacts a demanding, today almost unimaginable, intimacy.”

Pax board, Early 16th century, in a frame from 19th century
16th century Pax Board from Budepest

The intimacy didn’t last as some regarded the practise as scandalous.  For example, Tertullian (in the third century) was rather worried about possible embarassment to “a decent matron”. The practice got well watered down. By the 13th century, the Catholic Church had substituted a pax board which the congregation kissed instead of kissing one another!

“Don’t imagine you can be friends with people you can’t smell.” That was the advice Illich was given. Friendships and communities develop amongst people who smell each other well, who can breathe in the air and the smell of their friends and neighbours, and who allow their own air and smell to be breathed by others. Friendships and communities are conspiracies – threatened in our de-odourised times of Lynx, Colgate and Ambi-pur where we struggle to smell anyone, or anything, well.

The playground cry “you stink, you stink” marks a cruel exclusion by those who won’t smell a person well – it is often accompanied with the gesture of the nose being held or up-turned. The person excluded has to find their friends who are prepared to smell. Above every friendship, every community, every conspiracy, there is a nose.


>Getting ready for Sunday one job is to prepare a weekly newsletter. We call it Network and we try to have a picture/photo as a focus for the Sunday. This one isn’t one we are using on Sunday, but it’s one that refreshed me. It’s called Pentecost by Chris Shreve. Pentecost is a great Jewish festival which has become the festival of the Holy Spirit for the Christian Church. John Pridmore writes in the Church Times, and referring to Pentecost and the Holy Spirit points out that fire, water and wind are all metaphors for the Holy Spirit, and that they are all things that flow.

Chris Shreve has captured this flow with the flame and the wind blowing the curtain – with the suggestion of dancing. Chris also captures the new creation of the Gospel with what reminds me of the stone rolled away from the tomb and the light, breath and energy of God bursting into the world. It’s a very dry picture though – unless that is a water pitcher, or a container of oil – another sign of the Holy Spirit and the gifts the Holy Spirit brings to the world.