Monday, March 20, 2017

The Day we Changed

We were not afraid. That was the thing that surprised us the most. We had been afraid, so afraid for … well, it felt like forever. Even seeing the Risen Lord, while it had set our hearts dancing, had not eliminated our fear. We had a new confidence, we were certainly praying differently, but we still lived in the old habits of fear, just as we had so often when He walked among us in flesh and blood. We were human, and all human beings come into this world with some degree of fear, and most of us carry it so habitually that we do not even name it when we shrink away from the terrors of life and the risks of love. I can still hear His voice, the very tone of it, so tender and yet so challenging, as, over and over He said to us, “Oh you of little faith …”

But now it had all changed, and, when we had time for reflection, we only knew and named our fear for the first time by its absence. And to think that it was only fifty days after the greatest terror most of us had ever known! Some, mainly the women, had dared to stand there and watch Him die; the rest of us had already fled in terror, and the news they brought us only broke our hearts further. There is no darkness like the night when you believe that even God has failed you.

Then He rose from the dead, and our understanding was turned inside out, and our hearts were reborn. He came, He went, and we could not reason His comings or His goings, but we drank from His presence, for we knew then, with a universe re-shaping certainty, that we were more privileged even than Moses or Elijah, for we saw the face of God in the Man, Jesus Christ, even while we yet walked upon the earth.

And then he left us, hidden by a cloud as he returned to a glory we cannot yet comprehend.  We mourned His going, we who had been privileged above all those who had lived before us, and we returned to huddle prayerfully in the upper room, while we waited for the fulfilment of a promise we did not understand. But we knew that the One who promised had conquered death and returned to the glory of the Father, and we were learning to believe Him.

Then, on the morning of the feast of Pentecost, our world was changed forever. For as we prayed, God came down among us. He came with the sound of a mighty rushing wind, and a visible sign of tongues of flame, and more than one of us recalled the story of how he had come down to our people on Mount Sinai, so very many years ago. Those were the outward signs, the things that we could name. But deeper, of course, was the experience we could not name, the experience of the transformative power of God, the unshakeable glory of His love, taking up residence in our hearts. For one moment a corner of the curtain that separates the mortal from the eternal was twitched aside. We saw, we felt, we knew just a fragment of the truly holy, and we were changed forever. We stepped out into the world to tell them of the wonder of Jesus, in tongues we never knew.

And we were not afraid.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The Suffering God (after g A studdert Kennedy)

Spun through this wound of darkness
Faith is no empty sound
For the truth that pierces like a sword
Can bind the whole world round.

And the word that rends the silence
Where the heart’s blood finds its voice
Is torn from the breath of our deepest dream
Making its dreadful choice.

And He walks in all our stumbling,
Weaves music from our cries,
And love shall lift all into beauty
Where degradation lies.

For He stands in no aloofness
From our agonised despair.
Where man destroy the life of man
The Son of Man is there.

Through mud and muck and horror
And nightmare’s deepest fear;
In the shattering of our heart’s last hope
The Son of Man is here.

And we are not utterly alone
When all things crash to nought
For the nails, the spear, the crown of thorns –
He knew, He owned, He sought.

For faith is never just a word
Here in our hells he stands
Bearing the lash of our wildest grief
With nail scars in His hands.

Monday, February 27, 2017

A Broken Net

It was broken. Fishing nets had broken before, and they would break again. Mending nets was simply part of the job of being a fisherman. He had been mending nets since he was a child, long before he had a man’s strength to throw the nets out and haul them in again. But this time was different. He passed the strands through his fingers, and blinked back the tears in his eyes, lest anyone started thinking he was crying over something as silly as a broken net. Not that anyone was likely to; they were as stunned as he was and only had eyes for Jesus. It was the quietest return to shore he could ever remember.

It had all been so ordinary until then. Another wasted, wearisome night’s fishing, with nothing to show for it. They had thrown out the nets and hauled them in, thrown out the nets and hauled them in, over and over and over, until even his strong arms were tired. And not even one tiny fish to show for it! Nights like that were so discouraging. Those were the nights he started wondering why anyone would choose to be a fisherman, and trying to think of another trade.  But his family had fished by the Sea of Galilee for generations, and, really, what else could he do? And they came back, and they washed their nets, because that was what you did next.

And there was Jesus; and there was the crowd pressing in close to hear him. When Jesus gestured to him, he understood immediately what was needed, and helped him into the boat. From that position Jesus could be seen and heard by everyone. And he, Simon, listened while Jesus taught, and something melted inside him, something he had no words for.

Then Jesus turned to him and told him to take out his boat and cast out his net. At first he protested, they had already wasted a whole night fishing for nothing. And yet … this was Jesus, and before he had time to reflect, he found himself saying, “Nevertheless, at your word ..”

And so they went out, and they cast their nets, and came up with so many fish that their nets were breaking from the weight of them, and others had to help them bring in the catch. And the broken nets were not as broken as he was. He had listened to the teaching and marvelled, but there were too many new ideas and he was not a learned man. But this he understood. He knew about fish. And he knew that what had just happened turned his whole world upside down. He was in the presence of something (or someone?) holy. And he was not holy at all. It was too much! “Depart from me,” he said, overwhelmed, “for I am a sinful man.”

And Jesus replied, “Do not be afraid Simon. From now on you will catch men.”

It was enough. He left behind his nets and followed Jesus.

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Question Answered

The question burned in his bones. This had made a mockery of everything he believed, everything he had striven for.  He had always lived his life so carefully, painstakingly carefully. “Ridiculously carefully,” his wife called it. Righteousness before God was a man’s safeguard, his protection from all the great evils of the world – or so he had always thought. Give honour to God and God would give honour to you. That was fairness, that was justice, and if God was not just and fair, then life had no meaning. This had been the lynchpin of his life.

And then his troubles started. In just one day he lost everything: all his children, his herds, his flocks. Outside of some terrible atrocity of war, who had ever heard of such a thing? Only he and his wife were left. How does a man put words to so much anguish? Then, as if that wasn’t enough, as if his soul wasn’t already torn to shreds, his body was afflicted too, with terrible, painful boils, so that even the oblivion of numbness and sleep was denied to him. His wife told him to curse God and die, but he knew that wasn’t the answer. At first his friends sat with him in the silence beyond coherent thought, and he imagined that they grieved with him, and understood, but that delusion did not last long. When their silence gave way to speech, their words fell on his wounds with the bitter sharpness of whips.

They were convinced that he was somehow to blame, that in a just world he must have sinned against God in some way, and this was his punishment. He was devastated. What sort of friendship was this, to turn around and blame the victim? He knew that he was blameless, that his actions would stand up in the very courts of heaven – so who were these men to accuse him?

But the bitter question remained unanswered, tormenting him as much as his outward afflictions. Why? Why should the innocent suffer? How could God do this to him? He had lost everything else, must he lose his faith as well?

Then God spoke, and all his understanding was undone. Who was he to question such majesty? God had designed, with intricate precision, infinite tenderness, every particle of the universe. Every creature, unique and wonderful, was fashioned for His marvellous purposes, reason enough, in itself, for wonder and worship. He, Job, had no knowledge of the great creatures of the deep, he had never heard the morning stars sing together, and had no power to set the limits of the oceans. And if he could not understand the ways of God with brute beasts and mindless rocks, how could he understand the ways of God with man? He knew so little. “I had heard of you with the hearing of my ears,” he said, “but now my eyes see you and I repent in dust and ashes.” It was God himself, and not philosophical speculation, who could answer the riddle of his pain.

And his fortunes were restored. But, centuries later, a greater answer would be given, for God himself would become the innocent victim, lacerated by false accusations, lacerated by whips, and his very life would not be spared. And, as death and suffering themselves were overturned, he would prove to all eternity that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Conflict Resolved

He had always thought she was a good girl. No, that wasn’t the right word. Good girls came in two flavours, in his experience. The first sort were dull and insipid, and afraid of their own shadows. They never had an interesting opinion or an original thought. They were boring, and ultimately rather nauseating, like food without salt. The thought of spending the rest of his life sharing his bed, his hearth and his children with a woman like that made him shudder. Then there was the second sort, so demure and respectable on the outside, so careful of their reputations – but he had seen their roving eyes when they thought no one was looking and their secret amusement at things that were indecent or mean-spirited, and he had no trust in such girls, and was not young enough to be excited by the things they promised but, in his observation, never fully gave. Besides, as a pious Jew, he knew that none but God was truly good.

She was something else, his Mary. Her eyes were honest and clear, and she looked directly at a person when she spoke to them, without downcast eyes or sidelong glances. She spoke from her heart; gently, because her spirit was gentle, but with genuine surprise when others had not seen as she did. She was too young to have learned of the world’s hypocrisy and wanton cruelty, but he suspected that when she did realise these things, it would make no difference to the light in her smile and the truth in her soul. So how could this have happened? How?

He felt like tearing something or breaking something. Mary was with child. Had some careless lout defiled her? Had she been seduced by some cunning foreigner without understanding what was happening to her until it was too late? He tried to think of excuses, of some reasonable explanation that belonged to the world he knew, but at every suggestion she simply shook her head and repeated her crazy story about an angel. Two months ago he would have sworn on every word and jot and tittle of the Torah that she was the sanest and truest person he had ever met, but she would not change her story. And when he pointed out, exasperated beyond measure, that virgins simply did not have children, she simply smiled and agreed and reminded him that she had asked the angel the same question.

What was a man to do? He didn’t want a scandal and he had no desire to shame her, but his trust had been shattered, and the dissonance between who she was and what she must have done was tearing him to shreds. He would put her away quietly, surely that was the only decent thing to do, wasn’t it?

It was late that night when he fell asleep, crushed at last into exhaustion by his grief. And then the angel appeared to him. Not that he had any idea what an angel should look like, but there was no mistaking this glorious one for anything less than a messenger from heaven. And the angel confirmed every strange and troubling word of Mary’s story. She really was still virgin and the child really was from God. This was a great and holy mystery, and he was caught between the flooding relief that Mary still was all that he had believed her to be, and the trembling awe that he was called to walk by her side through these things that were so far from his ordinary wake-a-day world.  Tears of wonder blurred his sight and he could not even name why he wept. He only knew that first thing in the morning he must go and tell her that now he understood.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Gethsemane

The sun screams down.
This is my desert place
In the heart’s geography,
Leaning out from you.

I have seen the dear desires
Fall away into dust, red dust:
Iron of my heart’s blood
Falling away to nothing,
Crumbling into the wind,
With a mouth too dry to sing.

Dragons are in this place,
Small, skittering, spiny,
But these are not our condemnation.
The other dragons, coiled around our hearts,
Whose honey drips with malice,
These are our habitation,
Till we wear their ugliness with pride.

“Go back! Go back!”

Let the children drown,
Let their lives be locked in iron,
Let us turn our foolish backs, imagining,
We can blot out their pain,
While we stand at the point of breaking,
And the three wise monkeys cling tight to our shoulders.

The names ring through our history:
Tampa, Manus, Nauru,
But, with fingers in our ears,
We try to paint our red dust white.

We stand in the ancient garden,
But we will not kneel to pray,
Preferring to send others to the cross,
Denying
The meeting place of blood,
Denying
The communion of our commonality.

While the lone few stand their vigil
We cannot watch one hour.
The babbled excuses of the comfortable
Burn down to bloodless dust,
Our white bones in the desert -
They gleam like whited sepulchres
Until the red dust blows.

Whom, then, do we crucify,
If not the Son of Man?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Different Drummer

All of my life I heard
The rhythm beneath the word:
The call and the music,
The dancing the singing,
The march into truth
And the one clear note ringing.
All of my life I heard
The rhythm beneath the word.

Always I heard its call
Reaching to me through all:
Reaching through seasons
Of falling and fumbling
The din and the chatter
Of all the world’s mumbling.
Always I heard its call
Reaching to me through all.

Always I heard its song
Showing the world was wrong:
Flapping and fussing
And rushing and turning
Selling its soul for
A momentary yearning.
Always I heard its song
Showing the world was wrong.

Always it spoke my name
Having the greatest claim:
Starlight and moonlight
And sunbeams a-dancing
Truth like a sword blade
Direct and not glancing.
Always it spoke my name
Having the greatest claim.

Always I heard its beat
Calling my awkward feet:
Kicking and tripping
And scuffing and sliding,
Till every part of me
Moves to its guiding.
Always I heard its beat
Calling my awkward feet.

Always a step beyond
The path familiar, fond:
Taken in trembling
To unknown places,
Finding my foothold
In alien graces.
Always a step beyond
The path familiar, fond.