Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Pretence

Nobody seemed to have noticed any change in him. There were moments when he looked at Jesus, or heard the familiar cadences of his voice, and his heart skipped wildly within him, or his hands shook a little. But nobody seemed to notice. Though he didn’t want them to notice, it served to harden his resentment. If they cared about him, if he was really one of them, wouldn’t they notice anyway? But he had always been the odd one out. The others were Galileans, he was a Judean. The others seemed content to follow Jesus around with no concern for where they were heading. They never asked where they would be in five years’ time, or ten. And Jesus was very guarded about any details of his plans. Maybe he didn’t have any? Surely the Messiah of God would have a clear path to victory and no exactly how to build his support? That was the least a disciple should expect! Meanwhile, a man must take care of himself, and if that meant taking an extra share from the common purse, well, what was so wrong with that when they never missed it?

Increasingly, it seemed to him, Jesus was doing the exact opposite. Every time there was a swell of public support he seemed to deliberately cut the ground out from under it. Why would God’s Messiah sabotage the advancement of his own kingdom?
The thought worried at him and would not let go. Was Jesus really the Messiah of Israel or not? He was aware of the mounting hostility of the religious leaders he had been taught to revere, and it disturbed him.  Shouldn’t the Messiah unite them? Eventually the strain became too much; action must be taken to resolve it.

So, secretly, he went to the chief priests and arranged to hand Jesus over to them at a suitable time and place. That should resolve the dilemma. Either Jesus would be exposed as a sham, and he himself would be in favour with the winning side, or it would provoke Jesus to reveal his Messianic powers, and then, after all, he was one of the inner circle, and Jesus would probably be grateful. Either way, the issue would be resolved. And thirty pieces of silver would not go astray, either.

But it was hard to play a part in front of men he lived with so intimately, and the Passover meal together was especially difficult. When Jesus said, “One of you will betray me,” the stress was almost unbearable. Was he about to be exposed to his fellow disciples?

No, apparently not. But he was itching to get out of there, to resolve this thing once and for all, and when Jesus told him to go and do what he had to do, he knew it was time: time for action, time for decision, time to throw off the heavy burden of pretence that was weighing him down. He knew where Jesus was going next, he would be able to lead the temple guards straight there. After that, it would be out of his hands. Only one last act of pretence would be required of him, to go up to his former Master and greet him with a kiss …

He never guessed how that kiss would resonate through the ages to come. He never guessed how much it would be overshadowed by the eternal victory his Master was about to win through death and unspeakable suffering. He never guessed who his Master truly was.

Monday, August 08, 2016

National Trust Houses

(an old poem from my archives, previously unblogged)

A building's nothing, unless it is loved.
Where the slow trees curve down in tenderness,
And the long lawns proclaim a yester-grace,
And the incisive freedom is to care.
Where there are ropes, and signs that say "Keep Off!"
All of the subtle bindings of red tape;
Here creeps the ivy, in its natural place;
Bright flower beds, where bees hum endlessly.
Indoors, all smells of polish and of tea.

Why do we come, we pilgrims in fast cars?              
All by our school excursions so well trained,
To do the dutiful and cultured thing?                 
Admirers of some long-past architect?
Simply because the brochures tell us to?
Just for the joy of being out of town?

This is another place. We pause to breathe
Another air, to inhale history,
By-pass the intellect, and taste the past.
Some think the sun shines differently here,
Others maintain its all too much the same,
(Duty and hope provide the variance.)                 

Shut your modernity outside the gate,                  
Walk up the gravelled path with too loud steps.
Obedient to training long ago,
Acknowledge with your reverential nods,
Each listed feature of some dwindled past.
We are all proper children, hungering
For difference, intrinsic novelty,
And fix our glance on carpenter's neat joins.

Enter the doors, adjust your eyes to dim.
Pay your admission in the proper place,                
Wish they had better ventilation then;                
And be re-grounded in the human race.

Here is our shrine, not some aesthetic goal
Nor a lust born of pure intelligence,
Nor a bare duty, which can ill sustain.
We come, pathetic in humanity,
(Under our brazen surface of finesse)
A rootless people, moderned out of time.

Here, (and our quest is dimly understood),
We seek to take again the common cup,                  
Participate in some continuance,
Drink deep our joining in humanity;
Leaving our neat, pre-packaged, ordered lives,
(If you can call such automation life),
To be spectators of some quickening grace,
Museum-processed for posterity.

Dutifully read the biographic notes,
Stare at the furnishings, old-fashioned, strange;
Try to imagine life in such a place.
Who would you be, moved from this century,             
To be appurtenanced into this scene?
Is style a stage-prop for identity?
Is all I am a product of this time?

Rebuild the set, rewrite your script of life;
Deconstruct all that culture's made you be,
Unweave the twisted threads of time and place,
See your bare soul in all its poverty!

Bow, awed, before the mystery of fate!
How little of your deeply cherished pride
Remains intact when you have stripped away             
All the gains wrought by opportunity.
This is humility, and this is truth.

Or, more resilient, picture yourself,
Romantically, the hero of the hour.
Glide, stride (according to your gender's choice)
Through panelled corridors of mystery,
Mistress or master of what never was.
Unblinker all your ego's poor-lit dreams,
This is the daylight hour, here feet trod
That ached in weariness. Old age came young,           
Fulfilment was as transient as now,
Self-seeking greed was just as arrogant,
And pleasure fled before men knew its name.

Emerge into the sun with grateful hearts,
Embrace, with new-found thanks, your given life,
Glad of the time, the place, and all that is,
Slightly impoverished in complacency
Newly enlarged in your humanity.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

I wanted to write about swallows

I wanted to write about swallows:
Slicing the sky with a dip of wing,
But the late light lay golden
On the brown winter rushes,
And the rain-churned water
Shone like brass.

I wanted to write about swallows:
Suddenly turning, with a flash of tangerine,
But the swamphens strutted on grass
With a comical nonchalance,
Twisting their necks to peer
With quizzical solemnity.

I wanted to write about swallows:
Catching my heart with their ballet,
But a small coot traced a bow wave on the water,
And a chattering of ducks did their dabble,
And a magpie lark, in the liminal spaces,
Danced lightfoot over mud.

I wanted to write about swallows:
Teaching me again the rhythms of sweet glory,
But the cockatoos screeched in the treetops,
And a heron stood motionless
Until I recalled in its curve
The word ‘grace’ has two meanings.

I wanted to write about swallows,
But instead
Beauty waylaid me.

I wanted to write about swallows.

Monday, August 01, 2016

The Feast

For the young king, it was just another night of pleasure. His father, with all his conquests, had gathered great riches; now that the power was his, he intended to make the most of them. What was the point of having so much if it was just stuck away in storerooms? It was there to be used, and he used it.  Besides, he had to impress his father’s nobles with his beneficence.

As the wine took hold and the night grew more intense, another thought took hold. He remembered the golden goblets of Jerusalem that his father had brought back from one of his conquests. They had been used in the service of some obscure tribal god, and for some reason his father had regarded them as special, even sacred. And he had not generally been a squeamish man. Well, his son would have none of it. This was a new reign, a new era, and it was time to be done forever with the old superstitions.

He ordered the vessels to be brought to him, and he and his nobles and his wives and concubines drank from them. But even that was not enough. He was King of Babylon, and the age of gods was over. He would kill them with mockery. He rose, a little unsteadily, to his feet, raised his golden goblet and his voice. “This is a time for new gods. Let us drink to the god of (he looked around for inspiration) … gold! Let us drink to the god of … silver!” And with shouts of drunken laughter, his friends took up the game.

But then silence fell. A disembodied hand had appeared, and, as they watched with mounting horror, it moved, and its outstretched finger wrote strange words upon the plaster, then vanished. There was no laughter now.  The king’s bravado had vanished, like wine poured down the drain, and he ordered all the seers and wise men, old remnants of his father’s reign, to be brought. But none of them could tell him what the words meant, despite the most extravagant rewards he could offer.

And the king grew even more afraid, and the whole palace was in uproar.

Then the old queen, hearing the noise, entered the hall and approached him, and told him of a man who had been chief over all the wise men in his father’s day, one of the exiles from Jerusalem, a man called Daniel.

So the desperate king called for him, repeated his extravagant promises, and demanded an explanation. And the old prophet stood before him and told an old story of his father Nebuchadnezzar and his relationship to the God of the Hebrews, whom he insisted on calling the Most High God, a story of pride and repentance.

Then he looked at the king and accused him of a failure to repent, and told him that, that very night, he had sinned against the Most High God. He then read out the inscription on the wall, written by that supernatural hand, and explained it.

                God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.
                You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting.
                Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians

The king gave Daniel the gifts he had promised, but there was no joy in it.
That very night the kingdom was taken and the king was slain.

He never knew that one day there will be another feast, where every vessel and every guest is sacred to the Most High God, and God Himself will wipe away every tear, and all the kingdoms of this world will be no more

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Finding Dory

Follow the trail of shells,
Follow them home,
Where love’s long labour marks the way.

Though you forget,
You are remembered.
In my Father‘s house there is a place,
Marked with your name,
And no oceans can divide you
Love waits.

We drift into strange places
And the pilgrim path is long.
Our memories grow dim,
Our hearts benighted,
Confused by distraction
In our many-coloured world.
Love waits.

And in the hour we remember
When we come unto ourselves
Love waits

To guide us home.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Stranger

It was late afternoon when we set off on our walk back home. The sun was in our eyes as we walked westward, away from Jerusalem, but our heads were so bowed and our eyes so tear-fogged from the sorrow in our hearts that we scarcely noticed it. All we could talk of was our great grief, still trying to fully understand the sequence of events, still baffled as to how the destruction of all our hopes could have taken place so swiftly and absolutely. We felt as if death itself had taken up residence in our spirits.

Later, when we had discussed it over and over again between ourselves, we still could not pinpoint the moment when the Stranger joined us. There was no shock, no moment of making room for him to walk beside us, he was simply there, and had been already there with us when he asked us what we were talking about.

Cleopas, though surprised, was carefully polite, “Are you a visitor to Jerusalem, that you don’t know what things have just been happening?”

“What things do you mean?” asked the Stranger.

Well, we needed to talk about it, so we did. We told him about Jesus and his greatness, (oh, the irony!), about His capture, sentencing and crucifixion, and even about the confusing stories the women had told of an empty tomb and visions of angels who said He was alive. But when some of the men went they had seen nothing. So what were we to think?

To our amazement he rebuked our unbelief. (Were we supposed to have believed the unsubstantiated testimony of women?) . Then followed the most amazing conversation we had ever been part of. We listened, rapt, as he laid out for us, from the scriptures we had known all our lives, the plainly revealed truth that the Messiah we had so longed for, and believed that we had found,  had to suffer before he entered his glory. The one who was the Salvation of Israel (and not only Israel) was the same who would be a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. The one who would crush the serpent’s head was the one whose heel would be stricken. How could we not have known that? Yet still we were blind.

We could not get enough of his words, so when we reached Emmaus we urged him to stay and share the evening meal with us. It was only when we sat down to eat that our whole world was utterly changed. For the Stranger took up the bread, gave thanks and broke it, and as he handed it to us in the ritual that went as deep as life and breathing, our eyes were opened at last and we saw him at last for who he was – the risen Lord Jesus, the Christ of Israel and the Saviour of the world. And, as we recognised him, he vanished from our sight, and for one fleeting, all-transforming moment, we felt as if we breathed the very air of heaven.

We looked at each other, seeing each other, too, in a whole new way. “Didn’t our hearts burn inside us as he spoke to us along the way?” There was no thought now of finishing our meal or settling down for the night. Instead, energised with wonder, we returned to Jerusalem to tell our story to our brothers there.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Shalott Reprise

(putting words in the mouth of Tennyson's Lady of Shalott)

I lived too much in shadows, the warp and weft of time
I have watched through the castle mirror, and hid my heart in rhyme,
I have walked in other’s rhythms, and never seen the crime.

I have yearned another kingdom but never bowed my head
To shoulder life’s deep burden and speak life to the dead
And I embroidered daisies, when the hungry should be fed.

I have yearned another country but have not blessed my own,
And the years went to the locusts, and my heart went to a stone
But sometimes it grows weary to always be alone.

I have hungered other mornings, be-mirrored in my dreams,
Have clenched with silent violence and schemed a thousand schemes
But never crossed the threshold, or left what only seems.

But now I have beheld him, Beloved of my soul!
The least of all his beauties betrays I am not whole.
One glance, one fatal moment, and all my peace he stole.

And I? I will have done now with vague dreams of desire.
My breath is changed to dust now, my veins scream out with fire.
Twixt one death and another, to life I will aspire!