Dust in the air, grain lorries in the lanes, and thunder flies in my hair: harvest is here. The roads are clotted with tractors pulling huge cutting platforms from one field to another. And the hot nights are full of thirsty, rumbling combines.
I’m trying to change the blades on my lawnmower which was a gift from my parents many years ago. Mower propped up on logs, I lie on my back in the long (and lengthening) grass and weeds. The first two bolts loosen easily enough but the last won’t budge. When the spanner slips, I bark my knuckles on the mower’s metal skirt – [insert expletive]. So I take a blow torch to that third and final nut in an effort to heat it off the bolt’s rusted thread, and I start chiselling away, lifting nibs of bright steel until it gives. Inelegant, but effective.
Later, in the vestry and changing into my cassock for a funeral, I find my socks and the backs of my trousers are covered in burrs from where I was lying in the grass trying to fix the mower. Round here these burrs are called beggar’s buttons. I pick them off one by one and drop them out the vestry window. And think no more about it.
The funeral is the first service to be held here since March, and I find it deeply moving. Unable to sing together, we sit, masked, listening to Joy play through ‘Morning has Broken’ on the organ. And I remember how I saw dawn break this morning, and heard the first birds.
But what does it mean to say morning has broken? Does the day break in the same way my mower keeps breaking?
In the story of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus breaks the bread in order to share it out. The story occurs in all four gospels, although there are slight variations in each telling. All four mention the grass on which Jesus tells the crowds to sit. I love the way Mark specifies that the grass is green. In John’s gospel ‘there was a great deal of grass in the place’ (John 6:10). It all makes me think of my broken mower back home sitting on what was once a lawn. Perhaps I could claim to be rewilding?
Each of the gospels is careful to describe the bread collected following the miracle as broken, as fragments.
And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.Matthew 14:20
The brokenness of the bread is important. Why? It’s easy to imagine ourselves as the crowds who’ve followed Jesus out to this deserted place to hear him and be healed. But actually, I think we’re asked to see ourselves in the bread, broken and left over, fragments to be gathered up.
Back in the funeral service, and after our prayers, Joy plays ‘Abide with me’. And as she plays, I follow the words in a hymnal. The final verse contains the lines
heav’n’s morning breaks,
and earth’s vain shadows flee;
in life, in death, O Lord,
abide with me.
Now the brokenness is heavenly, the dawn divine. But it’s still a breaking. Mornings and loaves are similar inasmuch as they’re breakable. And being breakable, they’re shareable. A morning is shared: we all wake into it, move through its light; a loaf of bread can’t be eaten alone; it must be shared amongst friends, with the hungry. And we share our hearts. I look out at the eyes above the masks in the congregation. Their hearts are broken for the person with whom they’ve shared so much.
To share entails being broken. That, I think, is the living truth of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand: to live fully is to be broken and shared out, Christlike, to be given and then gathered. Mornings, loaves, hearts.
After the committal, and when the family have all left, I stay behind to chat to Joy and to thank her for playing so beautifully. She lends me a treasured Greek grammar for Theo. Last of all, I close the window in the vestry and lock it. And I pause. This time next year, I wonder (as Jack’s mother famously didn’t), will there be a huge clump of giant burdocks growing where I dropped those burrs from earlier? It occurs to me then – immediately after the funeral, and having laid to rest a loved mother, grandmother and friend in the ground – why there’s such an emphasis on brokenness in the miracle of the feeding.
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.John 12:24
For the burdock, I have served as a distribution mechanism, a dispersal vector. Broken, each one of us is here to be shared – in our living and our dying – with the world; we are both the medium and the means, a loving and loved component in the working out of God’s creation.
We’re all fragments of one bread. We come into the world broken, to be shared. Sometimes, in our arrogance we’re able to convince ourselves we move alone and heroic through the world, but the truth is quite the reverse: God’s world is constantly moving and growing through us, sharing itself, scattering itself all the while, in love.
One of the great musical instruments of the 1980s was the voice of the late Mark Hollis. Talk Talk, whose first album was released in 1982, were initially packaged with all the other synth pop ingénues of the era. (They opened for Duran Duran on tour.) But Talk Talk were completely different. As they gained in confidence, their music developed into something extraordinary, unique, a sui generis sound. Jazz inflected, soulful, full of gospel and choral influences, exploratory, always open and honest, entirely immune to all the ironical pop posturing of the age.
‘New Grass’ is from Talk Talk’s last album, and arguably their masterpiece, Laughing Stock. Released in 1991, Laughing Stock is full of Christian and biblical imagery. It was almost completely ignored at the time, and EMI deleted the album shortly after its release.
Among many things, ‘New Grass’ is a masterclass in drum technique: Lee Harris’s sustained, subtle syncopation acts as a landscape to be shared, a canvas on which the harmonium, skeletal guitar figures and keyboards can each layer their colours. And over it all, Hollis’s sublimely beautiful voice, full of yearning and ache.
Reflected in returning love you sing
Heaven waits, Heaven waits
Someday Christendom may come
Set my resting vow
Hold in open heart
a broken and contrite heart you will not despise;
vouchsafe to us the wisdom to come to wholeness
through being shared.
As your Son’s body was broken for us on the cross,
and shared with us that we might have life
and have it abundantly,
so we offer our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice:
break us and build us anew into a living temple,
even your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you
in the Unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.