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.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Wind Blew

The wind blew.

All was chaos and darkness, chaos and darkness. But the Spirit of God hovered on the face of the waters, and the wind blew. And there was separation between the waters and the dry ground, and creation became ordered and life-giving. And the wind blew.

And on the sixth day, at the apex of Creation, God formed man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils. And the wind blew and man became a living soul. And the wind blew.

And the wind blew, ruffling the pages of history, raising one man up and casting another down, raising one nation up and casting another down, raising one empire up and casting another down. And one man, Abram, was blown forth from the comforts of Ur to be a stranger and a pilgrim, to have no land or nation of his own, but the promise of a land and a nation that would be beyond his measure and counting. He was a stranger and a pilgrim, and he was called the friend of God. And the wind blew.

And the wind blew the descendants of Abraham down to Egypt, where they multiplied to become a nation. They endured slavery until the time of their deliverance, and then, led by Moses, they fled after the wind blew the angel of death across Egypt. And the wind blew, and there was a path through the midst of the waters, and they walked through that path of terror to their freedom, only to choose the chains of idolatry over and over again. And the wind blew.

And the wind blew. The walls of Jericho blew down. Judges and kings, priests and prophets, came and went. Empires rose and fell. And the wind ruffled through the pages of history. They left the Land of Promise and returned again. And the wind blew.

And the wind blew, and a man named John was born, mightiest of the prophets. And following on the heels of his conception, the wind blew and a virgin conceived, and God became man and walked this earth in power and meekness, and his face was set towards the cross. And the wind blew, and the face of the sun was hidden, and there was desolation, and redemption was accomplished. And then the wind blew, and the stone was rolled away, and death and hell were overcome. And the wind blew.

And the wind blew. And to those gathered in prayer in the upper room it came with the sound of a mighty rushing wind, and tongues of flame appeared. And the wind blew and they were empowered to carry forth the news of a new creation to the ends of the earth. And they were clothed in love and truth. And the wind blew. 

And the wind still blows. Hearts are made new, lives restored, truth is proclaimed and faith is given to the faithless.  And the wind blows, ruffling the pages of history. And we await the fulfilment of the ages, when the wind shall blow and the Son of Man descend, and this world shall be rolled up like a garment and blown away, and there shall be a new heaven and a new earth. And the wind blows, even now, blowing hope into our hearts.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Song

The idea first came to him when he was still a boy, out in the hills, watching his Father’s sheep. As he led the flock to better pastures, as he found safe waters for them to drink and defended them from wild beasts, it occurred to him that the Lord was rather like a shepherd as well. He was certainly the defender of His people, everyone knew that when the people followed God truly He protected them from their enemies, and when they fell away into false worship, He withdrew His protection and their enemies were victorious. Why, oh why was Israel so slow to learn that the gods of the surrounding nations were only stone and wood and metal, and had neither power nor love?

And there he was stuck. God was most certainly their protector and provider, but what else could he say? He put the analogy aside and got on with his life. There were sheep to be tended, music to be made, a giant to be destroyed to relieve Israel’s shame, and a mad king to be soothed and relieved.  There was a strange moment, too precious to be spoken of, when the prophet Samuel came and anointed him as king. Time passed. There was a princess to be won (at a price of blood), a prince to heal his heart with deep friendship, and then the mad king became his enemy, throwing spears at him and sending armies after him. He and his men took shelter in the wilderness, a bunch of lonely outlaws, and the years passed over them.

Then the mad king died, along with the friend who held his heart and in the fullness of time the shepherd boy became king of Israel. Now the challenges were different. He had a kingdom to rule, a family to manage, and temptations that almost destroyed him. And his God was still his highest joy. There were years of glory and years of shame. He was no longer managing just his father’s flock, he was trying to learn how to shepherd all of Israel, and discovering in the process that it was his own heart that needed shepherding most of all. And he could not do it, there was only one who could.

So he took out that old idea again, that picture of God as the perfect shepherd, and found that now he knew what to say. God was the one who could direct him on right paths and keep him walking in honour. God was the one who had walked beside him in the very presence of death. God was the one who had filled him with good things in the very presence of his enemies, just as a shepherd removed the poisoned weeds so that the sheep might know abundance. And God was the one who keep him safely in holy joy all the days of his life, and beyond life’s end. He took up his pen and began to write the song of his life: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall lack not be in want …”
 He did not know that, a thousand years later, it would be his own descendant who would stand and declare, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” but he knew, and sang of, the mercy of the Shepherd, his God, who was utterly faithful.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Conversion of St Paul

Down into seas unreachable I fall
Burned by the bitter salt encrusting me,
Within, without, around. My body weeps
And all I am is rust, rust and decay,
And crazy laughter from the depths of hell.

It seems another life, another world
Another self, another everything,
Like a child’s toy moved to another pose.
I did another’s wish, thought it my own,
So dutiful, so proud of dutiful!
(Oh, taste the burning bile upon my tongue!)
A shape of dust formed by a desert wind
A self-imagined cutting edge of truth,
And all my glory seen now vanity,
And all my hopes lie crushed in self-despair.

How did I dare presume? Presume to know
The ways of Him whose thoughts are not like mine;
Who rides upon the thunder, clothed in light,
Makes stars sing in their places, shapes the sea,
To deep, on deep, on deep no man can plumb,
And sculpts each blossom, delicate as air?

And yet I thought I knew. That was my sin
Such arrogance as very devils wear,
To think that I could see the face of God
Clear in my own nuancing of the Law,
Clear in my  wrathful scorn for this new Christ,
Clear in my hate for all the humblest ones.

And now the light has shone and I am blind
Spinning down into dark I never dreamed,
All light has gone except one dazzling truth:
This Rabbi Jesus, hated and despised,
Condemned, so I believed, by man and God,
Has vanquished death, is God-his-very-self
Consuming fire that burns up all I knew,
And all I am is prostrate in despair.

Yet, from this place, this lowly, slowly place,
Where fire and worm eat up my broken soul,
I see compassion on His thorn-scarred face,
This broken God who calls me to be whole.
I see compassion, and it eats away
The very stony bones of what makes me
Till I fall shapeless at his nail-scarred feet,
He reaches bleeding hands and raises me.
Yes, raises me, His utmost enemy,
Undone by all my blackest, darkest sin,
Yet more undone because He loves me here,
And opens up His heart and takes me in.
And I remember busy temple days,
The stench of blood, the incense and the fire,
The long line of unblemished lambs that wait
Their turn to suffer at the knife’s desire.
And see, and know Him now, the Lamb of God,
Wearing my sin and dying in my place;
I see it now, my world turned inside out!
For the first time I recognise His grace.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

The Gift of Peace

Deep inside he had always been restless, unsatisfied. It was what drove him. Mediocrity would never satisfy him; he had to be the best, the purest, the holiest. He had to be right with God. He did not know where this desire came from, nor did he even ask such questions. His only introspection was to measure himself against the Law, and see where he needed to work harder. He had heard some mocking whispers about his zeal, but they did not embarrass him at all – he was eager to be the most learned student, the most zealous Pharisee that the world had ever known.

He had excelled as a student, and was already a known man in Jerusalem, though he was still young. He knew the Law, and he understood the politics of the temple. So he was horrified when a new sect appeared, even more horrified when they persisted and grew even after their rabbi had been crucified. In fact, they claimed that he had risen from the dead. What blasphemy was that! Even worse, they claimed that this Jesus couldn’t be produced to prove their case because he had gone up into the heavens and was, in fact, God. Next they claimed that his sacrificial death had superseded the sacrifices in the temple. It seemed they wanted to undermine the very bedrock of his religion. This must be stopped, and he was the man to do it. He was on fire to get rid of them and their heresy. He hated their Jesus and everything he stood for.

So there he was, one day, on yet another expedition against them (this time in Damascus), when his whole world came undone. Just as the hottest part of the day was passing, it was as if the heavens opened, and a light too bright for this mortal world shone down on him. There were no more shadows or evasions. And then a voice spoke, a voice whose beauty broke his heart. This was what he had been seeking, what all his zeal and effort were for. But the voice did not commend him. Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?” it asked.

 A horrible fear engulfed him. “Who are you Lord?” he breathed, his mouth dry with sudden terror.

There was no comfort in the answer. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” There were further instructions, and he obeyed them blindly, groping his way through a world gone suddenly as dark as the pit. It took him a few moments to realise that he could no longer see physically, the darkness inside him was so much darker. Where does a man go when he finds he has been fighting against the very God he thought he was serving so excellently? What is left except damnation? 

The next three days were the worst of his life, as he sat in the darkness with his whole world unravelled. Then a man called Ananias came to him, prayed over him, and his sight was restored. And in that moment he understood. The very Jesus he had hated, was the one who had come to die for him, who loved him to death and beyond. In Jesus all his folly – no, his wickedness – was forgiven. And as Saul was baptised, in deep repentance, for the first time he truly knew the peace of God.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Holy is the Name

We train our tongues to shape round syllables,
Dusty with time and fresh with new day’s thought,
Bearing the weight of all we want to mean,
The blazed communication which we sought.

We train our tongues, we train our minds and hearts,
To think and feel what our small words contain,
To never colour in outside the lines,
And never own our secret doubts’ slow stain.

We train our tongues, but ah! our tongues stay mute,
Our chatter falls to silence in this place –
This nameless place, our senses cannot hold,
Where light unmeasured shines on our tears’ trace.

So now our trained tongues falter from all speech,
This is more real than anything we say.
And words would but constrict the majesty
Of glory’s finest touch, its least display.

And yet, and yet, and yet … you are the Word
God speaking forth himself, his self, disclosed;
Spoken into our whirling, wordy world,
And light and life and truth are interposed.

You are the Word who spoke, and what was not
Became. Potent impossibility
Danced into being at your utterance
And was, and at your saying, so shall be.

And thus our chattering echoes silent fall
Before your silence; knowing that your voice
Undoes all death, brings justice to the earth,
And stars and moons and planets shall rejoice.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Decision

The two men stood there side by side, gazing out across the land, and as the afternoon shadows chiselled their faces into relief, like two chiaroscuro portraits, the family resemblance was strong, though one was many years older than the other. They had reached the parting of the ways, not because of any ill will or loss of affection between them – they were strangers together in a foreign land, after all, and like gravitated to like – but because they owned too much.

They had not left Ur as poor men, but now, since their sojourn in Egypt, they were fabulously, absurdly wealthy, and the land could not support them both. It was, thought the uncle, who had reached this decision, like a family that had grown too big to fit in one tent any longer, and must now split themselves, and their belongings, between two. Uncle and nephew each had so many flocks and herds that the land simply couldn’t contain them both. They needed space so that there was no conflict between the herdsmen of one and the herdsmen of the other over whose flocks should have this pasture or that. But how should they choose?

Abram was a generous man, and he gave Lot the choice, saying, “If you go to the right, I will go to the left, and if you go to the left, I will go to the right.” And they looked out over the land and they pondered what they saw. And their hearts chose differently, and their fate was decided.

For Lot looked out across the valley of the Jordan, towards the cities of the plain, and he saw a rich, well-watered land (“like the Garden of the Lord”, he explained later to his wife.) He saw luxury, he saw ease and pleasure, and saw no temptation with them, but only an agreeable life with no more travelling or travailing.  A man with riches could live in splendour there, win the respect of his neighbours and become part of the community. His days of pilgrimage were over, he had found himself a new home, and so he set his face, and turned his life, towards Sodom and Gomorrah. Years later he would flee Sodom losing all his wealth and most of his family.

And Abram turned his face from the riches of Sodom and chose to go westward, willing to go wherever God should lead him, having no home but his tents and no posterity beyond the promise which God had given him, which seemed no nearer than before. And his heart was set on pilgrimage, for he had made the promises of God his habitation. And, as he turned aside from rest and ease, watching his nephew depart, the Lord appeared to him, renewing those self-same promises. “All the land you see, in every direction, I will give to you and to your descendants. And your descendants as plentiful as the dust of the earth. Walk the land, know its length and breadth, for it is my gift to you”.

And Abram went forth and walked the land and worshipped the God who had called him. And he is called the friend of God.