Saturday, August 28, 2010

Down to Egypt

Would I have said yes if I had known the price tag upfront? Possibly not. Knowledge of the future is a dangerous thing; perhaps that’s why the prophets so often speak in riddles. But, one step at a time, I have reached this place, and one step at a time we will continue.

My first reaction was total confusion. We all know how once our people were slaves in Egypt, how God Himself delivered us by His mighty hand and outstretched right arm, using Moses the Deliverer to lead us through the long travail of the wilderness to the land promised to Abraham. Then -- this is the story every child of Abraham’s line has been taught – because we did not keep the commands of our God, because we indulged ourselves with all the gods of the nations roundabout, we were sent forth into exile, to Babylon. And we came back. But things are not as they were before. The Romans choose our kings, and this king is a tormented soul who loves the favour of Rome far more than the burning glory of God.
And it is because of this king that we must do the unthinkable, and take this child, this child unlike any other child, the one who is to bring our people true freedom, out of the Land of the Promise and descend to Egypt, the land of bondage. Everything seems to be going backwards.

Sometimes I feel trapped in a nightmare where I will never see my home again. The world has changed, the rules have changed, utterly and irrevocably. But most of all, I have changed. I am no longer a girl, a child looking at the grown up world with wide-eyed eagerness, I am a woman, a wife and a mother in Israel. And I can never be that heedless, shiningly unaware girl again, however much there may be moments when I long to be free again, at home in the safe familiarity of my parents’ love and the ways and customs of Nazareth. There are moments when the strangeness, or the fear, hit me afresh, and for a split second I long to wake up again and find it was all a dream.

But not really. Because alongside the fear and the loss and the longing to go back and speak to my mother again, something else inside me is beginning to move with the wild dance of faith. The road is drear and long, the sun beats harshly on my eyes, but somewhere inside me those eyes are uplifted to the stars, and a breeze tanged by alien flowers is blowing through my hair. Since the day the angel came I have been learning to walk in two different worlds at once. Sometimes the double vision makes me dizzy, but often I find myself learning to breathe in a courage that is not my own.

And there is love. This little child, this miracle, is worth more than all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He looks up at me with those quiet eyes, and I know that I am blessed beyond all other women to be His mother. I would do this a thousand times over if this is what He needs, and still wonder, with tears of amazement in my eyes, why I was ever chosen. I reach out for Joseph’s hand, and in the midst of all this we smile at each other. Though this road may lead to Egypt, it is still the road of God.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Exiles

Never again will I dwell in the land that was promised to Abraham. My children, or perhaps my children’s children will return, for the prophets have declared that mercy is greater than judgement, but for me, and for my own, my family, my friends, the companions of my life, it is the end. We trudge forth as slaves under the hard cruel eyes of Babylon, and know that, wherever they take us, we will live out the rest of our days as strangers in a strange land. The songs of Zion will no longer be a joy and anticipation, but a memory of terrible yearning, that cuts through the soul until our tears are salt as blood.

It is hard to leave the hills of my childhood, and harder still to leave the graves of my parents, never to return; but harder, far harder still, to see Jerusalem destroyed. She was the jewel of Judah, the city of our God, and as long as she stood we knew that we were the people of His particular care, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. We were the ones who came up Mount Zion with shouts of joy, singing the Psalms of David to join in the great festivals. And there, in our beloved city, stood the temple, Solomon’s glorious temple, the house of God on earth. It was said that when the temple was built, God Himself sent down His glory to live there, making this truly the Holiest place on earth. But the Glory has long since departed, for our people could not stay true to their God, even when He dwelt among them, and now the temple itself lies in ruins, and the terrible gods of Babylon exult.

We dare not put our torment into words, lest the speaking of it destroy us, but I glance at my companions of the dusty road and read the same hollow grief in their eyes as I know must be burning in my own. Has our God deserted us? Oh, we have the words of the prophets, words of punishment and restoration, words I am sure we will study deeply in the long dry years that lie ahead – but they are only words on scrolls. They fall away into silence before the things our eyes have seen, the city of our God, plundered, violated and left desolate! But beyond the screaming of my soul, I know there is a deeper truth: it was not God who deserted us, but we who deserted Him. What other people have treated their gods of wood and stone the way that we, in our infinite folly, have treated the Maker of Heaven and Earth?

It is strange that it is only now, in the time of our great loss, that we understand how precious it was and how much it meant. We weep, when our weary eyes can find the tears, because we were careless children who had been given the most wonderful thing on earth, and we didn’t even care. We put it down in the dust while some fleeting fancy caught our eye, we turned our backs on it, taking it for granted. Only now that it is gone do we mourn, not just the loss, but the stupidity of our losing.

It is strange, but somehow, in this act of leaving the Promised Land behind, we realise for the first time that we do not actually want to be like the other nations. Now that we are cast forth among them, we know that we want to be different. We will teach our children, and our children’s children, to value the very thing we threw away. Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how can I forget you? It would be a better thing for me if my right hand should lose its skill, than that I should forget the city of my God! We shall not forget where we belong, and one day our children’s children will return, will rebuild the temple, and the gates of the city will sing with praise.

And yet, it will not be like the days of Israel’s glory. We shall have our temple again, but the glory of God will not dwell in her midst. And if God should ever return to Jerusalem, what then? Will we receive Him with joy this time, or will we still prefer to go our own way?

Saturday, August 14, 2010


It had happened once before, of course. Then it had been my own fault – it had meant so much to me to be noticed, to have attention paid to me, that it had gone to my head and I had acted like a fool. It is humiliating to be a slave, and I was tired of being invisible, tired of waiting on that foolish old woman who still had this crazy dream that one day she would have a child. Anyone could see that she was long past any such hope. The truth was I was jealous – jealous of her wealth and position , everyone in our little world treated her like a princess --- and jealous of her beauty, which even in old age, still had the power to catch you by surprise. I was young and strong and less than half her age, but even my fresh prettiness could not really compete with her, and in a few short years, living and working as a slave, I would be just another withered, shrivelled, invisible woman, eking out my repetitious life on the edge of the desert.

But most of all I was jealous of the love between the Master and the Mistress. All those years, and all her failure to do the one thing that is every wife’s first duty, to give him a son, and still, even now, he would look at her with a kind of wonder in his eyes. No one had ever looked at me like that. My parents had willingly sold me into slavery, and since then I had been loved by no one. So when she sent me to the Master’s bed I completely misunderstood. I started daydreaming that I could replace her in his heart.

What a fool! What a green, love-sick fool of a girl I was! I behaved like a fool, my mistress responded with anger, and I ran away. At least I ran away along the right road, and came to a spring. There I sat in despair; a pregnant woman alone in the desert has neither hope nor future. And there it was that the angel came to me, the Holy messenger of Glory. He confirmed I was bearing a son, and told me to return and bear my child, who had a God-given destiny of his own. I was overwhelmed; the God of my Master had taken notice of me, a mere slave girl! The thirst of my heart for recognition was satisfied, and I knew He was the God who saw me, took notice of me and bid me live!
* * * * * *
This time it is my son’s fault. I suppose I should have taught him better, but what is a woman to do with a boy like that? And I think it may be my jealous heart that he inherited; he could not bear to see his father’s favour turned from him towards that puny infant. It was too much for him, and perhaps that is my fault too. I have not taught my son to have a generous spirit. But I also think that the mistress must share some blame; now she has produced the long awaited son she does not want any reminders around that her husband has another son, or that another woman once shared his bed.

So we were sent away with some food and a skin of water, to wander forth into the desert. What did they suppose would happen to us? I knew what I expected when the water ran out and the hot desert sun beat down on us. This was just a way for us to die, out of sight and out of mind. But again there was an angel. How many women have encountered angels twice in their life, and yet lived? This time I did not thirst for comfort for the torn vanity of my heart; I thirsted simply for water, and that my son might live. And again Abraham’s God heard the cry of my heart and answered. He revealed a well of water, there where no water should have been, and our thirst was slaked. And he has promised to be with my son, and make a nation from him, and my heart is satisfied and my trust restored. Now I have only one thirst left – a thirst for God Himself, that I might know the mighty one who is so compassionate that He would wipe away the tears of the lowliest of slaves.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Crossing Bridges

He challenged us so often – challenged our comfort, challenged our faith, challenged us to become something we’d never dreamed of. But most of all, I think, He challenged our notion of holiness. All my life I had been told that holiness meant separating yourself – from evil, from temptation, from things that might be someone else’s temptation. To be holy meant to resist every warm human desire as something dangerous – to be human was to fall under the curse of God. To be truly holy meant to spend your life walking away.

Apparently not. To Him, holiness always looked like walking towards. He was unafraid of sin. That in itself was a marvel, we had been taught all our lives to be terrified of sin. The only people who did not fear sin were those who were so wicked that they delighted in it. He did neither. It was as if sin had no power over Him . And the laws of the Pharisees? He despised them.

He would speak to women. Of course ordinary men speak to women, we have to, don’t we? But only in the right situations. Holy men, religious leaders, rabbis are generally people who will never so much as look at a woman except the members of their own families, and woe to any woman who is foolish enough to speak to them. I‘ll never forget that day, passing through Samaria, when He sat down to rest and sent us off to get food. When we came back He was chatting away to a Samaritan woman, and she was utterly enthralled. A woman. A Samaritan. We were not sure which surprised us most. If we hadn’t known by then that He always knew exactly what He was doing, we would have been seriously questioning His judgement. As it was, we were just thankful that there were no Pharisees around to see that particular incident.

But He wasn’t going to stay behind the Pharisees careful fences – not for anything. He’d speak to people He should have stayed away from if he’d wanted to make the “right” impression with the “right” people – even a Roman centurion! He even healed people on the Sabbath, and seemed quite convinced that showing compassion was more important than keeping a rigid interpretation of the Law. Often He made us feel uncomfortable. Not only was He constantly crossing bridges into realms that were uncharted, and probably unsafe – He was taking us with Him. What were we to think when He sent demons into a herd of pigs and the pigs promptly went and drowned themselves. We were rather embarrassed when the owner of the pigs appeared. It was rather an awkward moment for everyone except Jesus. He had us taking a little grain to eat when we walked through a cornfield, and wandering around in pairs to preach the Kingdom of God. What could be more ludicrous than turning guys like us into preachers and miracle workers? He touched the dead, He touched lepers – things that should have made Him unclean – but somehow it didn’t work like that. Instead they became whole, they became alive, he touched them and they became clean. It was all back to front.

I remember the night He let an immoral woman anoint Him. Any other religious leader would have felt befouled just by being in the same room; but He never drew away from her. Instead He told her that her sins were forgiven! It was as if -- I can’t think of a better way to say it – He saw people struggling on the wrong side, and, rather than leave them there, He crossed the bridge to where they were and carried them back across with Him. No bridge ever seemed to bother Him if there was someone on the other side who needed Him.

And there was one last bridge He crossed, and this still leaves me trembling with wonder. The greatest gulf that exists in this world is the gulf between life and death, but He crossed it, on that day I can still barely dare to remember, and then gleefully crossed back again, as if the conquest of death had become a small thing. He came back to tell us – no, to show us – that death is now merely a bridge from life to Life. And He will be there, waiting for us on the other side.