Monday, November 23, 2015

All Grace

Now he had been summoned to meet the king. He trembled at the very thought. He had lived out these years in obscurity, away from the attention of the court, and , ever since he was old enough to understand such things, he had hoped that his existence was forgotten. He knew what kings did; in order to secure their throne they would routinely kill all potential rivals. To be the descendant of a previous king was to have a sentence of death hanging over you. The only chance of living out your life in peace was to be overlooked and forgotten about. He had dared to think, for a while, that he might have got away with it. Now it seemed that his only hope was to plead for mercy. What threat, after all, was a cripple to a king?

History was against him. The former king, Saul, was his grandfather, and Saul, at first kindly disposed, had become the enemy of David, the current king. How he had harried and harassed him! Once he had thrown a spear at him. More than once he had ridden out into the wilderness, pursuing David and his men, seeking to destroy them, even though David had never lifted a hand against him. Mephibosheth shuddered at the memory of the tales he had been told all his life – tales of anger and madness where the stubborn will of a desperate king sought only destruction and despair. They were only tales told, he had been only five when his grandfather, and his father, Jonathan, had died in battle. He knew that David had written a famous lament for them; but he also knew enough of the bitterness of life to know that it is easier to lament the dead than to bear with the threat of the living.

But now there was no choice. The king’s men had come to fetch him, and he must go with them. Doom and misery rode in his heart all the length of the journey, and when he was brought into the king’s presence he fell on his face in fearful homage.  “Behold, I am your servant!” he cried out, consumed by terror.

But the king was not stern at all. He had no desire to harm Mephibosheth; instead, he wished to honour him. For him there would be no grim dungeon or executioner’s sword. Instead, for the very sake of those whose connection should have been his death warrant (namely his father and grandfather), he was to receive great honour. The property of his family was restored to him, along with servants to till the land for him, and he was to eat at the king’s table all the days of his life. His eyes, which had remained dry from his determination to hide his fear, now overflowed with tears of wonder. “Who am I that you should show me such kindness?”
 He went forth in gladness, his fears stilled forever. But there was a new question in his heart. What kind of king treats his enemy as a son, and calls him to come and sit with him at his own table?

Monday, November 09, 2015

The Sword

She did not know what the old man meant. Not really. Not then. But for the past nine months she had been walking through a thickness of miracles, wading so deep at times that she could scarcely manage breathing, so she knew better than to ignore what she was told. In one sense she was walking the path of everywoman, bearing a child in pain and fear, then loving it so deeply that she feared it would break her, carrying always in her mind, as closely as she held the child who, only a few days earlier had been part of her very flesh --  yes, THAT close! – the knowledge of the frailty of life, the fragility of that tiny thread of breath that raised and lowered the tiny chest. But, in another sense, she was walking a path no other woman before or since had trod. Only a few other women had ever had their child’s birth foretold by an angel (and none with such astounding promises). No other woman had borne her child in a virgin womb, no other woman’s child had been greeted at birth with a sky massed with exultant angels. It was a lot to take in.

So, like the words the angel had spoken, these words, too, were tucked away to be considered later when their meaning was made plain. But they were disturbing words to be told in the midst of her joy: “… and a sword will pierce your own heart too.” She could only repeat, in her heart, the words of her reply to the angel, the words that were her only guideline for the strange path that lay ahead: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

There were pains along the way. There was the pain of their flight to Egypt, leaving everything familiar behind. There was the pain of losing him that time in Jerusalem (and his response still filled her with discomfort when she thought of it). There was the pain of his leaving home to go forth in ministry, a ministry she still did not wholly understand. There was the pain of watching him make enemies of the very men, the religious elite of Israel, who should have been his sponsors. And there was the bewilderment of seeing him alienating his followers, reducing their numbers rather than increasing them.

Then came the terrible day when the sword was unsheathed. It was a sword that looked like a barbarous crown of twisted thorns. It was a sword that looked like those long, cruel, murderous spikes that the Roman soldiers called nails, and drove wickedly through his hands and feet. It was a sword that looked like the terrifying darkness that hid the daylight while he died: her desolation made universal. And it was a sword that looked like the long spear that was thrust to confirm his death, and the great, bitter stone that was rolled across his tomb. And she stood there, and she watched it all in a pain beyond all weeping, in a place where it seemed the angels would never sing again
 She did not know until the Sunday that there was a greater song to be sung, and a glory that would flood through every gaping hole where the sword had wounded her so deeply.

Monday, October 26, 2015

I give thanks

I give thanks
For fluff-clouds on water-blue skies.
The stern majesty of thunderheads,
Lyrical spring flowers
And the moving of the air in mighty winds.

I give thanks for water:
Running, leaping, dancing in sunlight,
A merriment of streams,
Mirror-magic lakes,
Seas that stretch beyond my ken,
Calling the pilgrim soul.

I give thanks for food:
Lushness of strawberries,
Subtlety of spices,
The first fruits of the season and the last,
The joy of bread,
The meats that satisfy
And the smooth of chocolate on the tongue.

I give thanks for life:
For the steadiness of breath and the readiness of tears,
For the music of birds and of laughter
And the gaiety of ducks,
For the touch of human hands
And the kind smile of the stranger,
For the wisdom learned through heartbreak
And the words that change our souls,
For poetry and story and imagination’s leap.

I give thanks for hope:
For the stars that light the darkness
And the cross
Whose darkness lights the world.
For the incoming Kingdom that sprouts
One mustard seed at a time.
For the courage we call faith
And the faith that we call courage.

I give thanks for love:
In spite of everything.

Monday, October 19, 2015

These Wolves

(a poem for those who immerse themselves in detective stories)

These wolves are no companions
For those who sing in the silence.
They do not light candles in holly bushes,
Or gaze through sweet-draped windows.
The rattle of bones and chains
Is not the rattle of good-news-horses.
And no children run, gleefully greeting.

No, these loups lope silent
Alone in the strong dark forest,
Through caves of old hidden hatreds,
The tunnels under the heart.
They pant with their fetid longing
To shatter false innocence.

Their names are older than memory,
Twisted through chains of language,
And those who doubt their power
Have never smelled blood on snow;
Have never beheld the horror
When life turns inside out.

We can trace the slot of their running
Through the dry river beds of thought,
When emotion has been dammed.
(Damned, dammed and damned)
They howl in slippery winds
Through our full-mooned disappointments
And we recoil in horror
From the doorways of our rage.

We are passion’s fools.
Helpless unless the angels
Shut up the mouths of the beasts
In the place of our praying.

And the truth shall set us free.

Friday, October 16, 2015


The salt is on my lips, and the wind tugs at my hair,
And the sun upon the waves, a light too bright to bear
And it calls, it calls to my heart, and I have no choice but dare.

Soft night wraps me around, the stars clear overhead
Like flames of ice in the sky, beyond where words are said,
Here, in my wingless flight, I rise and confront my dread.

The music whispers close, but the words are all my own
Like moths they flutter, beating their wings on walls of stone,
Till one finds the shape of truth, then into silence gone.

Flesh into softness falls, night into morning turns,
In the swift shape of days see that the soul still burns
Heeding the beautiful, owning the love it yearns.

Let these poor clumsy hands lay down the stones of life
Holding no stones to throw, humble amidst the strife
Letting the glory pierce sharper than any knife.

Here, while the years abide, under the stars and sun
Let me not turn aside from pilgrimage begun
Nor let these lame feet rest till the true journey’s done.

Not to be satisfied with any less than this:
The truth that tears me wide, and, though I stumble, miss,
Love is the air I breathe, nothing shall be remiss.

Monday, October 12, 2015


“Can these bones live?”

The words of the vision were thundering through his head, and the images were ones that would stay with him as long as he lived. He paused in his writing to turn it over in his mind, to consider the meaning. He still felt, almost physically, the sickening jolt that came when the reality in which you lived and moved and had your being was turned upside down and inside out. It took a while to feel as if your mind and body were on solid ground again. But then, that was what it meant to be a prophet of the Lord, it was like being a creature who inhabited land and water at the same time, to find yourself switched (at God’s timing, never your own) between the visible and invisible worlds, between the things which all men saw and felt and knew, and this other perspective, the perspective of eternity, which saw and felt and knew things so differently.

He shook his head as if to clear it, then realised that was something that never worked. He was a prophet, not a man who had had a strange dream, it was his responsibility to relive the vision in his waking flesh, to record it, to ponder it, to grow in understanding. Son he let it fill his mind – that huge valley filled with bones, dry bones without a single scrap of flesh left on them: as dry, as dead, as nearly nothing as the old bones a farmer might turn over with his plough from some battlefield in a forgotten century. He had looked at them, lying their helpless, beyond breath or help or hope, and, in the presence of God, he had known that this was Israel herself, idolatrous, foolish, disobedient Israel, exiled and rootless among the nations. Did she have a hope or a future, or were the promises made to Abraham so long ago rendered null and void by her faithlessness? Could those bones live?

But then, in the vision, he was commanded to prophesy over the bones, to tell them that it was God’s decree that they would live again – that he would give them the breath of his spirit, that they would be re-joined with sinews, and that flesh would form again, and skin would cover them once more. They would no longer be a rattle of bones, they would be human, and this time they would know their God.

So he prophesied, and the bones became bodies, and they lay there, in that great valley, like the piles of the slain on the day after battle. But, like the piles of the slain, there was no life in them, just the pretence of living.

Then, in the vision, the Lord commanded him to prophesy to the winds, and, as he spoke the words the Lord had commanded, the winds came, and breathed life into the empty bodies, and they rose up a living army. The Lord is the God who brings life to the dead. He would take the crushed hopes of Israel and restore them; he would bring back life from their national death. Exile was not an end, but a turning point. 

But as he wrote down the words of the vision, and turned over in his mind the majesty of the restoration he had seen, the thought teased at his understanding that there was something even more. God was a God who kept all his promises, right through to eternity. God brought blessing out of defeat, and made the grave a place of victory. Perhaps, in the not-yet, there was a deeper grave and a greater victory, and death, not just symbolically, but actually, would be overcome. But that was a chapter not yet written.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Sacrifice

It was one of the questions she had asked herself, now and then, through the years of her sojourning: Why have I agreed to this? What is it for? What have I given up? What have I gained? Is this a sacrifice, or just another part of life?

The answers weren’t easy, or obvious, and they changed from situation to situation. It could have been better, it could have been worse. More and more she had come to rest on the simple truth that no two lives are alike, and comparison only leads to confusion. Things were what they were. It was a different life, nothing she could have prepared for or imagined, but not necessarily a harder life. Or was it?

It was the little things, most of the time, which she missed the most, the small, intimate, everyday feminine things that had been the shape and colour and perfume of her daily life in Ur. Here, in the silences of Canaan, there was no sending a maid down to the bazaar for some little indulgence she fancied, no little visits with the friends and relatives she had known all her life, and no whiling away the lonely hours with the latest gossip and scandal. She knew nothing now about those things that had once filled her days, and discovered, after a while, that she cared a lot less than she had expected to. Her world may have shrunk, but what she had left meant so much more. And at least she never had to care if some of the gossip had been about herself and her barrenness, and the whispers that her husband really should divorce her and try again for an heir. But he never had, and for that alone she would give thanks for him forever.

But it was different for him. She had seen the glad light in his eyes when he had communed with God, the bright shining faith with which he had set out for an unknown country to pursue an impossible blessing. She had to take it on trust.

But there were other times. She had seen when fear had been his master, and, though she had been, in her turn, too afraid to speak, her resentment had burned. Twice, as if she were some mere commodity, he had lied about her status as his wife, and in order to ensure his own survival, had abandoned her to the harem of a foreign king. And twice Abraham’s God had rescued her, and she had begun to wonder if it were possible that she was just as important to God as her husband was. If so, that was a discovery that outweighed all the loneliness and discomfort of these travelling years.

But doubt still haunted her, for if God cared for her, why was she still barren? Didn’t that make any other blessing look trivial?

But now there was no further doubt, no further resentment or sense of futile sacrifice. She held in her arms her Isaac, her child of wonder, the focus of all those grand promises, the first step towards their fulfilment. This child had transformed her laughter, from the laughter of scornful doubt to the laughter of surprised delight. She lifted him up to see him better, and did not notice that the shadow of his outstretched arms formed the shape of a cross. She did not know that there would come a time when God himself would be a stranger and a wanderer in a far country, and the birth of her child was the first step towards a sacrifice that would change all history, all eternity.