Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Lover

(an imagined juxtaposition of Hosea and Picasso -- the Picasso parts are based on actual quotes from the artist)

Picasso:
I create by destroying, I give to the world by taking. The broken are the fools who do not believe in their own genius. He can who thinks he can, and he can't who thinks he can't. This is an inexorable, indisputable law. I acknowledge no other. I am because I am, and I am sufficient. It is enough to be me.

Hosea:
You have called me to love as You love, and my heart is broken. I am not God, I am a man, and my heart cannot stretch this far without breaking. You have given me a broken woman as my wife, a woman who has no interest in fidelity, a person reduced to a commodity to be bought and sold. How can I even be certain that my children are my own? Nothing is truly mine, yet all is Yours, and I fall into the hole between desire and fulfilment—yet even this crevasse is not so deep that Your love is not deeper! I have seen, not just in the faithlessness of Gomer, but in the shallowness of my own heart how weak and fickle a people we truly are and how great is your constancy.

Picasso:
There are only two types of women, goddesses and doormats, and I know what to do with each. Fidelity? What is that but a crude form of bondage? Only the masters matter, those who create. God? He is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style, He just goes on trying other things. Love? Love is the greatest refreshment in life. It serves me, I do not serve it.

Hosea:
How shall I speak of Your love? We flail, we flee, we fall apart into infidelity, and you remain constant. We cannot fall outside the compass of your love. You are the husband who is faithful to His faithless bride, the father who cannot give up on His errant child. I have held the pieces of my heart in their bleeding confusion through the lonely watches of the darkness, knowing that the one I gave my own name to is revelling in another’s arms. And I have seen that my Gomer is Israel writ small. But, in response must my love grow to be as tender as yours? And as I grapple with betrayal I dare to wonder a thing I scarcely dare to put into words: is there some sense in which the maker of the universe, the almighty Lord of Hosts, has a broken heart?

Picasso:
Truth? Why do people make so much of it? If there were only one truth you couldn’t paint a hundred canvasses on the same theme! The world today doesn’t make any sense, so why should I paint pictures that do? We all know that art is not truth, art is a lie that makes us realise the truth. We must pick out what is good for us where we can find it.

Hosea
You alone are truth, and your love is the highest truth that we can know. You love us as a husband who stays true to an untrue wife, as a father who cannot give up his wayward and rebellious children but holds them still closer in His heart. We stumble gracelessly through the motions of living, constructing our own truths, but that is a folly which ends in dust and ashes. Choose our good for us, Oh Lord, for you are the only one who is wholly right the only one who is holy.

Picasso
If I had been a priest I would have become pope, but I am an artist so I became Picasso. It is all about me – I am!

Hosea
Lord, heal our waywardness and teach us to love as you love. We are nothing without you

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Through the Long Night

He watched them walk away, out of the garden, down the hill, and tasted the pain of that moment. Even with their first glory withered, they were strong, and beautiful, the crowning glory of His creation. But their light had gone out. Though the sun hung vivid and burning in the sky, they were walking into that darkness their descendants would call history. They had, themselves, become that darkness. It was a darkness full of petty evils that would grind their souls to dust. It was the kingdom of death, and the end of the beginning

And, as the long night continued, it grew darker, and darker and darker – violence, lust, hatred, murder, and the twisted worship of perverted things. Downward the world spiralled, away from its only source of light and hope, and the tears of its children were more bitter than the saltiness of the sea. And the day came when the waters covered all the earth, and the grossest evils were washed away – but the darkness had not been defeated, and the small group of people on that lonely boat carried it still, each within them.

Years passed. A man was called out, in obedient faith, and stumbled, in broken love, to follow the calling. Children were born, a nation grew, small lights shone in the darkness like faint and distant stars. But few saw the light, and they clung, by choice to the darkness, even though it cost them everything. There was a great redemption, the calling forth of a race of slaves to become the people of light, but even at their best they were fitful followers, and sometimes their darkness was very dark indeed. He sent leaders and prophets, torchbearers into the darkness, and there would be a momentary flare of light, a brief flash of understanding, before the darkness descended again. And the night endured. And through the long night the faithful endured, hoped, prayed and wept.

Then there came a night when light invaded darkness – and the heavens themselves were afire with praise. For He, Himself, the Light of the world, the light from beyond all worlds, came down to become one of them, to live inside the darkness, under the heavy burden of the shadow of death. Could it possibly be that the long, long night was finally drawing to a close? He came in the darkest hour of night, bringing life, and that life was the light of men. But, locked in darkness, they did not understand, and they rejected the light. And thus He entered into the deepest darkness, and the light-bearer became the sin-bearer, and the light of the sun was hidden, and the darkness of death swallowed Him up. And there, in the deepest night, He overcame, and returned to the light, bringing the promise of morning with Him.

And so we wait, through the long night, and we know that the darkness is no longer such a terrible thing, for He has promised the morning shall come, and the glory that shall break upon us on that day is His glory, and night shall be no more. And there shall no longer be any need of sun nor moon, for the Sun of Righteousness has risen with healing in His wings, and he has said, and will say, “Let there be light!”

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Advent

Come, bright star, now is your time. For this purpose you were created at the beginning of time, and have bided for aeons hidden amongst so many others, far away, where men must stretch their eyes to notice you at all. When Abraham was called to look up at the countless stars, his eyes slid straight past you, there was nothing to distinguish you from myriads of others. But now is the perfect moment of God’s eternal plan. It is time for you to catch resplendent fire, so that those who watch the heavens will read your meaning, and will follow you through the desert places to have the privilege of worshipping the newborn Desire of Nations.

Come, old woman, priest’s wife bowed under the burden of barrenness. Your husband is struck dumb, but you will feel the wonder in your own flesh, for a son will be born to you, past hope or expectation, the forerunner long foretold. And you will tingle with the awe of those who walk amongst miracles, for by this sign of life within a long-dead womb, you will know of the approach of the Messiah. And you shall know the favour of the Lord, and his Spirit shall come upon you, and you will give comfort and strength to the virgin mother in her time of need.

Come, sheep in the Bethlehem pastures. In just a few short months your feckless, woolly lives will be interrupted by the jubilation song of Heaven. For a little while the angels of God themselves will watch over you, while your shepherds speed to the town to see this wondrous sign, a child wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger. For He, Himself, has come to be the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep, and the day will come, years from now, when no more of you will be dragged from your flocks to lie beneath the knife of the priests, for there will be no more priests, no more temple, no more altars – just the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sin of the whole world.

Come, little, ordinary Judean town. Once you were the birthplace of a king, but now all your bustling is to prepare yourself to obey the edict of a distant emperor. His word is law, but in your midst a greater king than David will be born; one who has come to overthrow the law of sin and death, and His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and He shall be called the Prince of Peace. But though He shall be among you, and kings from a far country will come to give their homage, you will know nothing of him, and when Herod’s soldiers come with their cruel swords, you will have no idea why your children die. But for a little while you will give shelter to the Son of Man who has nowhere to lay His head.

Come, carpenter of Nazareth. You must take to wife the woman who bears our only hope in her womb. Things you do not understand will happen all around you, and you must be steadfast. It is not asked that you should comprehend these things, (could any man do that?), it is only asked that you should be faithful to your charge, to protect the one who was born to die through these vulnerable years, until it is His time to give His life as a ransom for many.

Come, busy world, cease your strife for a moment to hear the prophets’ promise and the angels’ song. Through these aching ages you have battled thorns and thistles, and seen your greatest hopes return to dust. You have sought on the high horizons for the glittering things you prize, but when you get closer, they fade like a mirage. But He will come, in the darkness, and you will not even see Him. And He will be despised and rejected of men. He is the answer to the questions you are too afraid to ask. And He will call you to come to Him, and you will turn away your eyes. But He will love you still, though death and hell shall get in the way. For He is coming to you to be the Saviour of the world, and to plant His deathless kingdom in your midst.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Sure and Certain Hope

She lay there gazing at the child in her arms. Isaac they had called him, meaning laughter, because she had laughed with incredulity at the impossible announcement that she would bear a child. But the doubts were over, and the miracle lay in her arms, and now she did not know whether she laughed or cried.

It had been a long journey, and the physical journey from Ur had been the smallest part of it. She remembered the night that Abram had first come to her and spoken of his encounter with God. It had been a frightening and wonderful adventure to leave behind the only world she had known: a world of comfort and opulence and familiarity; but also a world where she knew that she was scorned and belittled behind her back for being a childless, aging woman. These promises seemed like a dream, Abram’s dream (though Abram always preferred to call them God’s dream), and they would lie there at night and ponder their meaning: to become a nation, (how could one do that without a child?), to bear a great name (something men seemed to care so much for), to be under God’s direct protection (yes, every step of the way she had seen that) and, most intriguingly of all, to be a source of blessing to all the nations of the world.

And they had gone on; and on, and on and on, for twenty five years. And as time went on, the word of God to Abram became more explicit: the heir of these promises would be the child of his own body. The whole idea seemed crazy – who were they, barren all their lives, to suddenly produce a child in the weary dryness of old age? That was like expecting fruit on a dry branch ready for pruning. She had made a mistake then, assuming that from his body meant not from hers. And Ishmael was the price of her want of faith.

But then the promise had been reiterated, and Abram (now Abraham) had undergone circumcision. Again, it seemed preposterous at the time, though she had been awed by how willingly Abram had obeyed. Surely it was a kind of madness, this symbolic token which implied a giving up of human potency and strength as the very seal upon the promise that potency, strength and fruitfulness would be given to the flesh beyond the very boundaries of hope? There had been tears in her eyes for her husband that day.

Then, beyond hope, she found herself with child. At first it was too hard to believe, and she ascribed her symptoms to all kinds of diseases. But, when the child quickened there could no longer be any doubt, and she had stood at the door of the tent, gazing out upon the stars (those desert stars whose uncountable fiery numbers were supposed to symbolise the number of their descendants), until she could see them no longer because of the tears of wonder prickling from her eyes.

And now the child was born, healthy and strong, from her body too old and worn to have nourished such vigour as his, and she knew, flesh to flesh, the life-giving power of the promise of God. She had doubted for so long, not with active unbelief, but with a weariness that turned away from the effort of daring to hope one more time. And the child was given anyway – the mercy of God to a barren stock. She held him and she marvelled, for if this impossible promise came true, beyond the dark expiry point of all normal human hope, then why should she doubt any other part of God’s given word. And she thought of the promise of the Blesser of all nations, the Restorer, who would one day come from their descent and somehow bring the broken peoples of the earth to God again, and she knew that this was not a mad fantasy, but, beyond human understanding, a sure and certain hope.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

In the Rain

It was a terrible time to live in Israel. No one remembered a drought like this, and we who still cared about the words of God could find no record of something this bad. But we did find out why, and that frightened us. If the Lord had turned against us, what hope could we have? There had been warnings before, of course; but it seemed that most people didn’t care anymore.

Way back when our people first came to the Promised Land, we had been told by Moses himself that the rain that fell upon this land was God’s direct blessing, a sign of our dependence on Him. It was part of the covenant. If we were faithful in obedience, keeping the covenant, then the Lord would be faithful in sending the bounty of the rain upon this rich and fertile land, and we would be blessed with fruitfulness and prosperity. But, of course, there was a flipside to the promise. If we turned away and worshipped other gods and bowed down to them, then the Lord would shut up the heavens against us.

And now it had happened. The prophet Elijah had appeared before King Ahab and warned him, but did they take any notice? Ahab had married the heathen woman Jezebel, and from all accounts was completely wrapped around her little finger. What did he care if the nation deserted the God of our fathers? Other nations around us worshipped other gods: Baal and Asherah, and even more abominable gods like Moloch and Chemosh. And those nations were more powerful and prosperous than we were. So he encouraged the worship of Baal throughout the length and breadth of the land, and the people suffered from a terrible drought.

But so perverse had things become in Israel, that many of those around us, instead of repenting from their idolatry, turned the tables on us and blamed those of us who remained faithful to the Lord. Apparently we were making Baal angry, by refusing to worship him, and so it was Baal who withheld the rain. Frightened starving people quickly become angry people, and as the drought went on we had to worry about the potential of violence from our neighbours, as well as where our next meal was coming from. They were terrible times, and the death toll was mounting.

It was Elijah’s reappearance that saved us in the end. He set up a terrible showdown on top of Mount Carmel between himself and Jezebel’s priests. While gathered Israel watched fearfully, the drama of the day was played out, and Elijah (or rather, Elijah’s God) was shown to be totally victorious when the fire from heaven consumed not only the sacrifice but the altar and the very ground around it. No one emerges unscathed from the sight of God’s holy fire, and even those of us who had remained the faithful remnant were awed and overwhelmed by the sight.

Afterwards we milled around uncertainly. Elijah had ordered the priests of Baal to be taken away and killed; the king and his intimates were eating and drinking. What do you do in the aftermath of a battle between the gods, when the terror of the moment is still upon you? We marvelled that Ahab could feast himself so readily, as if these things had not shaken him in the deepest places. We were starting to make desultory moves towards home, not saying much to each other, because the mundane words of everyday seemed suddenly lifeless, when there was an interruption. Elijah’s servant came running through the crowd to inform the king that it was time to depart, the rain was on its way. Word spread from lip to lip, and realising how difficult the way home would become in heavy rain, we quickly dispersed.

But now, as the waters of blessing and restoration pour down from the skies, I stand here, soaking wet, almost feeling the revival of the land all around me, and I wonder. The priests of Baal may have been destroyed for now (though there will always be more), but what about the little Baals so many Israelites still worship in their hearts? Isn’t the root of idolatry a longing for a God who is small enough for us to understand and manage? Has that changed? Yet God has sent the rain, and the gift of life is returned to us. What does it mean? Where do mercy and judgement meet without destroying one another? And how is the Holy Lord of the covenant the same God who now sends rain on the just and the unjust alike?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Breaking the Rules

I was a woman of the shadows, living on the borders of life. My place was on the edge of the community, but never part of it. For twelve years I had been unclean, because of my bleeding, cut off from the life of my own people, shunned from the feasts and the worship. After a while I came to believe I was shut off from God as well. If He loved me, if He wanted me, why did He curse me with this shameful condition that left me alone in the darkness?

Twelve years of bleeding. Twelve years of mess and discomfort. Twelve years of always feeling tired and weak from the loss of blood. Twelve years of feeling like I had failed at being a woman. Twelve years of seeking out every doctor in the district, hoping one of them would have a cure. Twelve years of being subjected to painful and humiliating “cures” that never solved my problem but just added to my suffering. Twelve years of spending money I could not afford in order to seek healing, until all my money was gone. Then the doctors lsot all interest. Twelve years of watching my neighbours withdraw from me, and the judgemental looks in their eyes. Surely I had committed some terrible sin to be so afflicted? Twelve years of questioning my own heart and life, trying to understand what my terrible sin had been. Twelve years of despair, and loneliness, and pain.

Sometimes, when the town was busy and crowded, I would slip out and mingle with the crowds. Under my veil, nobody noticed me. I knew I was breaking the rules, since anyone who came in contact with me in the crowd would be unclean also, but if they didn’t know, did it matter? Yes, God would know, but since I was already outcast from His presence, unable to venture near synagogue or temple, I didn’t really care.

And this day there was a special reason for the crowd. Jesus was here. I had heard the stories – how He taught like nobody else taught, and healed like nobody else healed; and the thought came to me that if only I could touch the hem of His garment, maybe, just maybe, I would be healed. It was madness, of course – the very idea of an unclean person, and a mere woman at that, going up and touching a rabbi was insane. It broke all the rules I had known since infancy. But in a desperate situation, you think of possibilities you would never have dared consider otherwise; and I had nothing left to lose. So, veiled and hidden in the shadows of my own garments, I forced my way through the crowd. It was unladylike; but in that milling excitement no one really noticed.

And then – I touched Him. I brushed the hem of His garments with the tips of my reaching fingers, and the bleeding stopped immediately! Not only that, but the lassitude and weakness was gone from my bones, and felt as if I could stand up tall and strong. I thought I would melt back into the crowd and disappear into world of shadows to study whether I still carried shame.

It was not to be. “Who touched me?” He demanded, and in the end, seeing His insistence, I had to step forward and, shamefaced, admit what I had done. I was a mess of misery and embarrassment, for here all my shadowed places were being held up to the light. What I had failed to understand was that light added from a different direction can make the shadows disappear.

And so it was.”Daughter”, He said, with infinite tenderness, “your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” It was only then that I dared to raise my eyes and look into His, and my whole world changed. I had feared judgement and longed for mercy, but this was more than mercy. It was understanding and affirmation. It was love. He had healed so much more than my body.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Sacrifice

It is easy to give away something you haven’t got, or is it? Certainly my husband thought so. When my womb quickened with the child I had desired for so many years, and I told him of my vow, his first response was to shake his head in incredulity. He thought I had done something very foolish, which I was going to regret enormously once I had to relinquish the child to the priests. He did not understand that, even deeper than my longing for a child, was my fear that God had forgotten me; that I had been somehow overlooked in the divine plan, or else that was simply unworthy to ever receive the gift of a child.

But the Lord had heard me, had understood me, and responded to my desperate prayer. My husband did not understand the depth of my grief; man-like he had said to me, “Aren’t I enough for you?” How could I answer that? And my rival, sleek in the triumph of her motherhood, would goad me with her taunts until my every thought oozed bitterness and grief. And the priest thought I was a foolish drunkard, profaning the tabernacle with my inappropriate behaviour. But the Lord heard my prayer and had mercy on my grief, and gave me the child I had been aching for. And I had promised to give the child back to Him as soon as he was weaned.

It was too much for my family. My husband, who already had sons and daughters aplenty from Peninnah’s womb, said only that I must do what seemed best to me. And my rival? She was silenced by my choice. No longer could she mock me for barrenness, but my choice to give the child away totally confused her. All her married life she had used her children as weapons, a means of keeping score against me because she knew Elkanah loved me more: now, having conceived, I had chosen an inconceivable action which undid her whole system of thinking. But we had never understood one another.

Yes, of course there were hard moments – moments when I looked at my nursing child and wondered if I would ever have the strength to let him go. But then, all motherhood is a journey of letting go, from the moment the child exits one’s body, through learning to walk, weaning, learning, growing .. all the way until they marry and leave home. Every step is a step away from the circle of their mother’s arms. My Samuel was just going to go through the process faster than most.

Then came the time of his weaning and the journey to Shiloh. I had expected it to be difficult, but to my amazement it was not. The child seemed to understand perfectly – so perfectly that I had to believe that the Lord himself had been preparing Samuel for the place he had been called to – to serve at the Tabernacle of the Lord all the days of his life. When the moment of parting came, and I presented the child to Eli, instead of being torn and broken by the grief of farewell I was filled with joy: wild, fierce and exultant like the cry of the eagle soaring into the wind. It was a joy that could not be contained and, to the astonishment of all who knew me, I burst into a song of praise to the God who turns man’s injustice upside down! In that moment I knew the whole point and purpose of the surrender God had asked of me – that this child would grow to be his great servant in Israel, prophet priest and judge, set apart to Him from birth. And my arms would not be left empty, I would go back to bear more children in thankfulness and joy.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Finding Courage

One does not say to God “You’ve got to be joking!” but I came very close. It was such an improbable, crazy command. This man was our sworn enemy, a leading agent in the persecution of the saints, and now God was asking me to go to him and heal him?? It didn’t make any sense. And what did God mean “he is praying”? Everyone knew that Saul was a devout Jew. Of course he prayed!!

I repeated the instructions over in my head, to make sure I had heard it right. I was to go to the house of Judas and ask to see Saul of Tarsus, because he had been praying (!) and the Lord had given him a vision of me coming and restoring his sight. “Why me??” was my other immediate thought, but I knew better than to say it, not because I feared some dire punishment, but because I knew enough to know it was a waste of breath. God’s reasons are often inexplicable to man.

Inexplicable? Yes, but not back-to-front-and-inside-out crazy. If our enemy had been struck down (and rumours had been running rife that something very strange had happened to Saul on the way here), wasn’t that the time to rejoice that God had rescued us from the hand of the enemy, not reach down and help him up so he could attack the saints all over again? I paused for a moment, while a heavy lump of fear consolidated inside me. Then, choosing my words carefully, I pointed out to the Lord the obvious problem: there had been many stories circulating about how this man had set about the persecution of the Jerusalem church, and it was a known fact that the temple authorities had sent him up here to do the same, and arrest in their name the followers of Jesus. Surely going to visit him was as insane as walking deliberately into the wolf’s den?

But the Lord wasn’t interested in my fears, however reasonable they seemed to me. He commanded me to go and lay hands upon this bitter enemy, because he (the Lord) had chosen Saul to carry the gospel into the nations of the gentiles and “show him how much he must suffer for my name.” There was no room left for argument.

If anyone ever writes the story of that day, they will simply say that I, Ananias, went to the house and entered it, laid hands upon Saul, prayed for him and he was healed, both in body and in spirit, as the Holy Spirit did His mighty work in him. And that is, of course, the truth. But it leaves out the struggle within me, the slow reluctance of my steps, the shaking of my sweating hands or the way I walked up and down the Street called Straight several times before, having run out of other options, I went up to the door. It was the hardest thing I have ever done – the bare word of God versus everything that my heart and mind could tell me. In the end, faith and courage are nothing more than taking the next step because it is the only step, and God was already waiting there for me, on the far side of my fear.

It was only when I entered the room and approached Saul that the power and love of the Holy Spirit filled me, and I knew exactly what to say and do. And the miracle occurred. But the greater miracle had already taken place in each of our hearts.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

No Going Back

No going back at all, my hand in His
Is held fast close for all eternity;
Nor would I turn aside if that I could,
His love is all the universe to me.

All of this striving, all this wearing thin,
Falls from me like dead leaves at Autumn fall,
All swept away with yesterday’s debris
At that small moment when I hear His call.

All the complaining of my jaded heart,
All of this grief because in dark I dwell,
All of this jarring noise He has caught up
In the vast harmony of His song’s swell.

No going back – not because I am brave
But because He continues to the end
And holds me still, myself continuing
All that I am into Himself to spend.

Forward and frontward, upward and afar,
Over soft meadows or through piercing stone,
I shall go on, there is no other way.
I shall go on, afraid but not alone.

Even when darkness weaves its bitter doubts
Even when fear destroys my solitude.
Still, in the poisoned night I cling to Him:
My only rest lies in His amplitude.

I – who am I and what shall I become?
Who is this mystery that I call me?
What shall I be when love has had its way?
What is this song in its entirety?

No going back till every note is made
Beautiful in His loveliness made whole.
He is the song, and I a tuneless voice
Wrapped in His music, mind and heart and soul.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Except a Seed ..

Only now did she begin to understand. All his words which had made no sense before now began to make shape and meaning, a shape that was both terror and glory. She had never really understood before how intimately the wonder and the horror, the good news and the bad, were interconnected, at least on this earth. But now, having lived through the crucifixion, the knife-twisting moment of the empty tomb, and the moment, almost too much for human flesh, when he had called her by name and she had come face to face with Resurrection; she began to understand, with her heart before her head, what this salvation he had talked about actually looked like.

It did not begin with keeping the law. No wonder the law keepers, the self-appointed righteous of the nation, had hated him so much. Long before his disciples had any real grasp of what he was talking about, their defensive fear had recognised the threat he posed to them. They were not the centrepiece of God’s kingdom, and never could be, for the one who stood in their midst showed up all their carefully orchestrated piety for the shallow window-dressing it really was. He himself was the centrepiece just by being who he was. But even then, it would not have mattered at all if they could have let go of their pride and listened and believed. Nicodemus had managed it, so had Joseph of Arimathea. But Caiaphas and his ilk could no more go there than a camel could fly (or pass through the eye of a needle, perhaps?). In order to say ‘yes’ to the Master, they would have to say no to themselves, and that was the one thing which they would not, could not, do. And that, right there, was the heart and nub of the issue.

The Master himself had said it, “Except a seed fall into the ground and die, it abides alone.” There was no holding on, any attempt to cling to this shadow of life, this shadow of having and being, was nothing less than a death grip which would strangle your own soul. Hold onto the stuff of this world, the things, material and immaterial, from which we build our little gestures of would-be security, and one would have no hands left to take the hand which God Himself was holding out. One must let go, be willing to fall down into the darkness of abandoned hope, face the bad news of utter loss, but do so in faith because there was a glorious dawn to follow the darkest night.

The Master had said it so clearly, “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” At the time the words had just added to her painful confusion, now that he himself had walked through death to life again, he had made a way for whoever would follow him to take up their own cross until He became their whole life. There would be grief, there would be suffering, for the children of God are not immune to the pain of this broken world, but there would never again be a pain which he did not inhabit, a tomb to dark for his life to meet you there and bring you through to resurrection.

“Do not cling to me,” He had said; and now she understood why. To cling to him was to cling to the earthly human comfort, the warmth of a friendship like no other. To cease to cling was to receive, instead, the Son of God, the Resurrection and the Life, the Eternal Lover who would never let her go. Her hands might be empty, but his hands would never be, and he would hold her fast forever. This was the Good News and the Joy that waited for her on the other side of all this death that she must pass through. The night had ended, and the morning had come, and the very leaves on the trees whispered “Alleluia!’

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Pursuit

It had been a long, hot day. The Shepherd was tired, the sheep were tired. Now, just as the lowering sun became a giant orange ball hovering above the western hills, they had returned to the sheepfold. Some of the other shepherds had already returned, and, having stowed their sheep safely for the night, and were sitting on the ground, relaxing, bringing out food and drink. The sheep, both in and out of the fold, were making comfortable noises, knowing that darkness and rest were very close.

As he always did, the Shepherd stood in front of his flock and counted them as they went in. He knew every one of his one hundred sheep by name, and the order they normally walked in, so, while he counted, he spoke a word of reassurance and comfort to each one. Every sheep would rest in the fold that night secure in the comfort of the Shepherd’s love. But what was this? ... 97 ...98 ...99 ...? There was a sheep missing! The Shepherd knew exactly who it was: Needgrace, a sheep of poor wool, straggly appearance and, for a sheep, cranky temperament. If any of the Shepherd’s flock were going to wander off on their own, this would be the one. All the shepherds knew Needgrace, and most of them saw him as unattractive and worthless. When the Shepherd said he would go and seek his sheep and bring him back to safety, they laughed at the very idea. “Why would you bother with him?” was their consensus.

But there was one factor they had overlooked – the Shepherd loved his sheep, even one as apparently useless and difficult as Needgrace. He would leave his 99 safe sheep and go forth into the night to find the one that was lost. The others tried to dissuade him. There was lightning flickering on the hills, and a dusty breath in the air that was the first sign of the storm’s rising wind. But the Shepherd would not be dissuaded, he would pursue that one, foolish sheep, whatever it took, until he had found it and carried it home to safety.

The night grew dark and wild. The Shepherd was already painfully weary, but how could he leave his sheep in this? There were wolves in the hills and thunder close at hand; under the fierce roiling of the clouds there was no light of moon or stars, only fitful jags of lightning to confuse the sight. But the Shepherd kept on, his ears constantly alert for the faintest bleat. The rain came in short, sharp torrents, punctuating the icy wind. But the Shepherd kept on. The stones were sharp under his sandals, and he had to prod with his staff to be sure he wasn’t stepping off the edge of the cliff in the dark, but the Shepherd kept on. His heart was overflowing with tears and prayers for his lost, foolish sheep. If he didn’t keep on, he might never find it in time.

Finally, after weary, bitter hours, he heard the faintest sound through the clamour of the storm. It was the voice of Needgrace so faint with misery that only the ears of love could hear it. With deliberate speed the Shepherd pursued that voice across the slippery rocks, calling out reassurance as he came. By the time he reached his needy sheep, the Shepherd was badly bruised and bleeding, but his torn hands reached down and untangled the trapped creature, and with a mighty effort he pulled it free. And just as he hoisted it onto his shoulders, the clouds parted and a watery dawn showed through. The pursuit was over, the sheep had been rescued from his own folly, and as the Shepherd took a direct path back to the sheepfold, he called out in gladness, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep!”

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Stumbling Block

It was all his brother’s fault. Abel, Abel, it was always Abel. First to do whatever their parents asked, first to try new things or bring home new gifts, and now the first in God’s favour. It wasn’t fair! He was the firstborn, he should be the one to come first in everything – the eldest son of the human race. It was only fair that he should have the pre-eminence. But Abel was always there before him, with his quick smile and his kind words. Through many seasons Cain had watched the eyes of his family light up at the sight of his brother in a way that they never did for himself. Once or twice he had stepped forward and said, “I should be doing that!” Abel had simply stepped back with a slightly bewildered smile and let him have his way. Somehow it hadn’t felt much like a victory.

And now Abel had offered a better sacrifice. Of course Cain had offered what he had, from the fruit of his crops, but once again Abel had waltzed in ahead of him, choosing the very best he had, and Cain’s offering had not been acceptable. It was all Abel’s fault, he was the stumbling block to Cain’s success. Even God did not understand, warning him that sin was lying in wait for him. Couldn’t God see that it was Abel who was in the wrong, stealing the love and favour that belonged to his brother? The only possible solution was to get rid of him.

It was all too easy. An invitation to go out into the field, a surprise attack (Abel was always so trusting) and hiding his body away, and it was all done. There was a strange, stomach-lurching moment when he looked down on his brother’s damaged body, as dead as any brute beast, and realised that this was the first time a human being had ever died. But it was done, the stumbling block was removed, and he could be first in everybody’s love.

It surprised him when God Himself questioned him, but he had his prepared answer: “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?” That should have been the end of it, shouldn’t it?

But it wasn’t, and his stomach twisted as he heard the Lord’s reply. Rather than being moved to the front of the line, the favourite of God and man, he had become accursed. The ground he had tilled, the fruitful earth into which his brother’s blood had soaked, would now reject him and no longer yield its bounty to him. Rather than being received into the central place in his family, their joy and their delight, he would be an exiled creature, abandoned and alone.

He cried out in protest, “My punishment is more than I can bear!” God was taking away from him everything he had thought to gain by removing his brother, the stumbling block. And if he was driven from the land, wouldn’t he also be driven from the presence of God altogether? And that would mean away from His protection – and how long would he survive?

But God had made provision for that as well, marking the murderer and outcast with the seal of his protection, and as Cain stumbled, despairing into the darkness that would endure all his days, a terrible possibility gripped his mind. What if the stumbling block to all he had dreamed of had never been Abel? What if it had been himself?

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Going Home

He was going home. It wouldn’t be very long now, only a matter of days at most until the soldiers would come to his cell and drag him out to the executioner’s block. Death was still the last enemy, but Jesus had conquered death and hell and made them captive. There was no fear. His work was done, and he was ready to be with Christ, which was far better. He would be home, and nothing could ever separate him from the love of God.

He watched the moving light of his one poor candle flame reflected on the damp walls of his cell, and thought back across the life that he had lived. It was not at all the life he had expected, the comfortable, respectable life of a successful, influential Jewish rabbi; instead he had been imprisoned many times, flogged, stoned, shipwrecked, and lived a life of constant danger. But it was a life with Jesus at the centre of it, and he did not regret it for a moment. He pondered.

“I have fought the good fight ..” Yes, there were so many bad fights out there that a man could spend his life in: fights for riches, prestige and power. And there was the worst fight of all: fighting against God. Even now, after all these years of grace, he winced just a little at the memory. He had been so zealous, so eager to serve the Holy One, and he had totally misunderstood what God wanted. He had totally misunderstood who God was. And God, in mercy, had stopped him in his tracks and turned him round in the opposite direction, and had given him something worth more than his own life to fight for. And then, as if that wasn’t wonder enough, He had armed him for the battle in the armour that was Christ Himself.

“I have finished the race ..” Yes, that was true too. There had been so many times when he wished it was over, and he could go home to the God who had captured his heart. But he had a job to do, and a race to run, and the victor’s crown was for those who persevered to the end. Only God knew where the finish line was. So he had kept on going, as single minded as an athlete running in the games, but for a prize immeasurably greater, a crown of righteousness that awaited him.

“I have kept the faith ..” Yet it was not he who had done it, but Christ who so laid hold of him. He had kept the law so keenly, seeking to prove and promote his own righteousness – then he had seen the righteousness of Christ and known that the best he could ever do was rotten to the core. But it didn’t matter, because what he could never have done, Jesus had done for him. It was as the bond slave of Christ Jesus that he had learned the glorious liberty of the children of God. And he jealously guarded the churches, lest they, in turn, should trade in their dependence on Jesus alone for a bowl of legalistic pottage. And now Christ, whom he had clung to as a drowning man clings to a spar, would carry Him home as the spoils of his triumph.

He smiled in wonder, acknowledging once again, that it was love that mattered. The battle, the marathon, the fidelity – they were only possible because God Himself, with love beyond all comprehension, had reached out across the darkness of sin and death, and planted such responsive love in his own heart, that everything else was dust and ashes in comparison. And in that love he was always, already, at home.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Protector

All he had ever expected or desired was to lead an ordinary life. After all, what could be more ordinary, more mundane, than the life of a village carpenter in a distant province of the empire? Steady work, a loving, virtuous wife, in due course God’s precious gift of children, and, underlying all of this, the security of knowing what God required – wasn’t that all that any sane man would anticipate?

He couldn’t remember exactly when he had begun to notice her, but over time he became aware of her, and started to court her. He was a good prospect, her parents approved, and they became betrothed. He thought she was the most special girl in the world, she had a beauty of tranquillity that touched some deep place within him, and for her sake he wanted to be the most caring, tender and responsible husband he could possibly be. But he had no idea how uniquely special she was going to prove to be, or what would be required of him.

It started the day she told him that she was with child. While he gaped at her, unable to take it in (she was the last girl he would have expected of any unchastity, five minutes ago he would have been prepared to swear that she was the purest woman in Nazareth) she proceeded to tell him a story about God, a visiting angel, and becoming the mother of the Messiah. She told her story with the calm conviction of someone who was simply report6ing what had happened, but her voice faltered and grew silent when she saw that he did not believe her.

He was resolved to treat her as gently as possible, and divorce her without public scandal, but that night the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and declared to him that every word she had said was true. She was, indeed, to be the mother of the Promised One, and he was to be – what? – her husband, her support, her protector through these vulnerable years. He was to be (and his mind reeled at the prospect) the earthly protector for the infant Son of God. How did a totally ordinary man end up in such a role? How could he ever be adequate?

For a while he thought that, despite the strangeness of the situation, things might resolve themselves into a semblance of normality, at least for the next few years. But nothing went according to his plans. Caesar (or God?) had other ideas. There was the census-required trip to Bethlehem with a pregnant wife, and the birth itself, in an outbuilding, with no women to attend her in her time of need, but strangers, shepherds and angels, celebrating the deity, and amazing mission, of this quite ordinary-looking baby.

There was a time of normality then, at least a little breathing-space, and Mary and the baby were, to the inhabitants of Bethlehem, just another mother and child. But it didn’t last. The strange kings came, with their heavy accents and unsettling gifts, and then he had the dream. He was to take Mary and the child and flee to Egypt, there was no other way to escape Herod’s insane jealousy.

So here he was, in the middle of the night, swiftly packing their meagre belongings, and thankful that at least he knew which direction Egypt lay in. And as Mary, accepting his explanation, lifted the child and wrapped him tight against the night air, his heart swelled. He was uncertain, he was afraid, but he understood the job that God had given him to do. He would protect and guard this woman and this wondrous child until the day when he could bring them back to the safety of Nazareth.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Impossible

What am I to do with a God like you?
All day I beat myself
Against the rock of your improbable truth
Battered to despair;
Then you touch me
(It doesn’t matter: sunbeam, butterfly,
The soft new leaves of Spring)
And I am broken once again
By the tenderness that comes and carries me.

Both law and gospel
Scour me out precisely with the curette’s blade
Till I am nothing
A hollow thing
Deflated.
And then, oh wild wind of the Spirit,
Sun, moon and stars,
Music defying gravity,
Love, yourself, bursting through creation,
Entering my emptiness
Overturning death,
Scattering my altars till my heart laughs with you.

There is no walking with you
I must learn to dance,

Where angels fear to tread.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Return

This was what the angels would have been waiting for, if they had been certain what to expect. He had come back to his throne, and he would reign forever and ever.

It had been 33 years they had been waiting, plus those nine months before that which their minds could scarcely compass. That the Lord of all creation should confine himself to the limitations of a human being was enough to beggar their understanding, but at least, despite the confines of that finite flesh, to be human was to be made in the image of God. But that he should be so much less again, an insentient egg taking root in a woman’s womb, how were they to understand that? They marvelled and they worshipped afresh at the greatness of a God who could make himself so small.

There was no part of being human that he had exempted himself from. The ordinary childhood, the refugee experience, the learning to work by his “father’s” side, supporting his widowed mother until his brothers were ready to take over the responsibility. Hunger, thirst, fatigue, frustration, the daily burdens of the children of Adam: he had born them all and done so without sin. And then he had gone forth to do the Father’s will on a larger stage. He had spoken the very truth of God into the ears that would hear, declaring judgement on the bondage of the empty traditions of men, and mercy and forgiveness so enormous that the souls of the self-righteous were offended. And, just as he spoke the words of the kingdom, so he did the deeds of the kingdom, making the blind to see, the deaf to hear and the lame to walk. He spoke in authority to the storms without, and the wind and the waves obeyed him; he spoke authoritatively to the storms within, and demons relinquished their claims on the hapless and helpless. He had even raised the dead.

And then ... well, if angels could cry, they would have cried at the horror of it: the betrayal, the traitor’s kiss, the malicious mockery of a trial. Who did these creatures think they were to stand in judgement on their Creator? And then, the utterly unbearable – the beating, the mocking, the humiliation and the crucifixion; and the angels could not bear to watch as the Beloved himself became the sin-bearer, alone, forsaken and tormented on that dark and dreadful hill.

But now he had returned, triumphant, and sin and death and hell were captive in his train. That did not surprise the angels, they knew who he was and had never doubted his transcendent power. But there were two things that did amaze them, two things that were now changed forever within heaven itself. The first was that he still bore the scars of his torment, and those wounds were too bright to look upon, for from them the love that was before all worlds poured itself out upon the loveless, and this was the greatest beauty they had ever seen.

And the second thing was also a great mystery, for though he returned in the full glory of his godhead, he also returned in his humanity, carrying the race of Adam in himself to the very throne. The beloved son was also the firstborn of the new creation, going ahead of his brothers and sisters to prepare a place for them, and to intercede for them as their great high priest. And the angels bowed their heads and marvelled.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Reluctant One

I came, I saw, I did nothing -- and that is my greatest shame. Somewhere, deep inside, I think I knew the truth a long, long time before that crucial day when I finally admitted it, but the fact is that I didn’t want to know, didn’t want to have my comfortable world disordered and disrupted. And I especially dreaded the condemnation of my fellow Jewish leaders. I had far too much to lose. In short, I was afraid. But if I didn’t know the truth, then how can I explain my preoccupation – no, make that total fascination – with that man?

Oh yes I came – again and again and again I came, to stand on the verge of the crowd and watch and listen. At first I came with my fellow-members of the Sanhedrin – that was part of our legitimate business, to check out a new teacher, but then I couldn’t stay away. I was careful, either I would quietly be there with a group of other Jewish leaders, or I would hide myself in the midst of a large crowd, on the same principle as hiding a leaf in a forest. Dressed in un-ostentatious clothing, I would not be noticed or recognised among so many. But I think Jesus knew, a couple of times he looked straight at me, almost as if he had deliberately sought for me, and I felt as if his searching eyes could see every secret conflict of my soul.

And conflict it surely was. His teaching made so much sense – he talked about God comforting the mourners and giving victory to the meek, and looking below the surface to see whether our hearts, not just our visible actions, were guilty of lust and murder and unbelief. He spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, and it was like a fresh breeze blowing through my soul, overturning all the musty formalism of my world – a kingdom of righteousness and justice, growing as inexorably as the leaven works its way through the dough. And when he spoke of God, the loving father who welcomes the wanderer home, who sends out an invitation, right across the universe, to let go of our religious foolishness, and come back to Himself, I could feel that same invitation tugging at my heart.

And that is not even to mention what I saw – the sick healed, the hungry miraculously fed, the blind and the deaf made whole. I even saw the dead raised to life again. What right has any man to doubt after seeing so much?

But I was afraid. I had lived my life secure and comfortable, a member of the Jewish religious elite with a secure place in the system and the approval and acceptance of my fellows. And I knew how vicious they were to those who did not conform. I was not ready to take the risk, and my heart was torn. Even when I overheard fragments that suggested they were plotting to kill him, I still held my peace, though my heart was sick within me. I was immobilised, in thought and action by my dread, as if some terrible sickness had bound up my mind and heart.

It was only when I saw him hanging there, dying on that terrible cross, that I was released, only to find myself in a different kind of sickness – an absolute horror at my own cowardice, and the way in which it had all played out. Then, in the midst of my despair, I heard him cry out “Father, forgive them ..” and when I looked up, from the distance where I stood, I imagined (for no one could see clearly in such darkness) that he was looking straight at me, with a pity that understood me and loved me even in my brokenness. I was glad of the darkness then, for no one could see my tears.

When it was all over, I asked Pilate’s permission to take his body for burial. With reverent sorrow I laid his body in the tomb I had bought for myself. He did not need it for very long.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Renunciation

We left everything for his sake. I remember the day so well. It wasn’t the first time we had met him – that was when, hungry to learn more of God, we had been down at the Jordan, where John was baptising. Jesus appeared, John greeted him, strangely, as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”, and then, after a moment’s disagreement, John led him into the water and baptised him. It was hard to see and hear exactly what happened next, but it looked like a dove came down and hovered over him, and there was a sound, which we now know was a voice from heaven, but at the time we were simply confused. Then he walked away, and we rubbed our eyes and wondered what it was we had just seen.

We didn’t see him again for quite a while. We had our nets to return to and fish to catch – and he had just vanished from the scene. Later we learned that he had fasted in the desert for forty days, but at the time we had other things to think about – like our families and where our next meal was coming from – all the normal concerns of everyday life. And yet .. we couldn’t forget him either, even though we couldn’t articulate why. But we had seen something that day by the Jordan that had touched our souls forever.

And then, one morning, he was there –walking by the shores of Galilee as comfortably as if he knew every pebble of the strand. We were casting our nets, at the time, it was just another working day after all, and then we looked up and saw him. We glanced at each other, and there was no need to say, “It’s him,” we could read in one another’s eyes the hidden longing to encounter him again.

And we looked back towards him and he was coming straight towards us, with that look in his eyes that has taken us 3 years to understand, as if the deepest sorrow of earth and the most transcendent joy of heaven were all contained in him at once, in a single moment, without contradiction or conflict. And, yes, he was heading straight for us! And he looked at us directly, man to man, eye to eye, and said, “Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men!” It sounds crazy even to say it, but it was as if we had been waiting for that invitation all our lives. We didn’t stop to consider it, we didn’t stop to weigh the pros and cons, we simply left our nets and followed him. It was absolute action, taken without measure or reserve.

Of course, the testing times came later – weariness and rejection, the enmity of some and the misunderstanding of others, but by then we never doubted our choice, for we had learned to love him. What did any of the things we had put aside matter compared to that? Even on the day when the thronging crowds turned away from the challenge of his truth, and he asked us if we would also leave him, Peter was speaking for us all when he replied, “Where would we go? You are the only one who has the words of eternal life!”

And that said everything that ever could be said. Yes, we turned aside from so much else when we chose to walk with him, but it rarely mattered. You can’t have it all, there are always choices to be made. And when are privileged to meet the one who is Life itself, everything else seems a small price to pay for the privilege of knowing him.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Commitment

I shall not walk away,
Though the waves break over me,
And I go down into silence,
I shall not walk away.

I shall not walk away,
Though the words grow bitter,
And the air is torn with cruelty,
I shall not walk away.

I shall not walk away,
Though the needs are wrapped up,
And the whitewash clogs my breathing,
I shall not walk away.

I shall not walk away
Though the paths are darkened,
And I grope, confused, to reach you,
I shall not walk away.

I shall not walk away,
Though the heart grows heavy,
And the feet too tired for dancing,
I shall not walk away.

I shall not walk away,
Till the true dawn brightens,
And a nail-scarred hand receive us,
I shall not walk away.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Conversation ..

She didn’t see him until she had landed on the twig, angling her wings to catch the warmth of the soft spring sun. His green, segmented body was well-camouflaged against the leaf stem, but she saw his familiar, hunching movement. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that she herself had been exactly the same ..

He looked at her, then quickly looked away. She recognised the signs, she had once felt exactly the same shy awkwardness. It seemed wrong, on such a beautiful day, that he should be left feeling such awkwardness and doubt, when there was a wonderful secret she could share with him. She paused, wondering what she should say, then his furtive, sidelong glance decided her.

“Hello,” she said gently, “isn’t it a beautiful morning?”

“Yes,” he answered, then, with a sudden rush of words, “it must be wonderful to fly in the sunlight on such a day!”

It was her cue, and she took it. “It is wonderful. There’s such freedom being able to fly. I can remember how it felt when I was like you, and had to crawl everywhere. I used to dream of being able to fly, and it all seemed such a ridiculous, impractical thing to dream of.”

“Well,” he replied, “it is. Some are born with wings, and some without. We all have our place in this world. We live, we eat, we enjoy light and warmth while it is given to us, and make the most of every juicy leaf, then the day is over and the darkness descends. One by one our friends disappear, becoming dry and lifeless lumps. This is who we are, this is all we have.”

“Oh no, it isn’t really like that at all. It only looks like that. We go into that darkness like a great sleep, a sleep that feels like death – but it is not. We come out the other end as a new creature; it’s like getting born all over again”

“That old fairytale? We tell that to the new hatchlings, the one-day-you-can-be-whatever-you-like story, but then we outgrow it. I guess that some people like to dream that there is something more than this, but they’re only fooling themselves. There is nothing more than this, and wishful thinking only spoils the pleasures of now. Take what you can, enjoy this life you have, and don’t muddle the moment with vague philosophies. That’s as silly as trying to tell a chicken that it’s going to grow up to become an eagle!”

“But what if it is?” She saw him roll his eyes and realised she had not expressed herself well. “I mean, what if it turns out that it really isn’t a chicken after all, but a baby eagle?”

“Baby eagles still have wings, “ he replied, obviously growing tired of the conversation, which was interrupting his continuous lunch. “You might note that I do not have any wings – see, none!! – and I am self-evidently not a baby butterfly. I don’t know what game you’re playing, or why, but please leave me alone. I don’t have a future destiny, and I’m very hungry.”

The butterfly flew sadly away, wondering why it had to be so difficult. Was there no way to convince a caterpillar that there was a greater reality than what it could see immediately before it?

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Nonconformist

The Nonconformist

Walking amongst the outward forms, I tripped,
Swirling down through the layers of knowing
Towards the black silence.

Set upon by the lachrymose beasts
And pummeled with emotions not my own
In search of proper feelings which I cannot find,
Is motley out of fashion?

Transparency appears the last defence
But, even so, the image is a lie;
Revealed by the proper reflection.

I would go as the wind goes
But, having too much substance,
Dismiss the childish fantasy in search of solid self –
Yet Thine is the glory ..

Me? Oh I would roll upon the hills of paradise,
But that would be to circumvent the journey,
And that is not allowed.

Gather me then, in the tendrils of your promise,
More solid than this fleeting earth;
And carry me, however long it takes,
Learning Your honesty.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Going Down

I couldn’t believe it. Didn’t he know who I was? Apparently he didn’t even consider it important enough to come out and speak to me in person, just send a message via his servant. If he didn’t appreciate my high rank, and the might and majesty of Aram, surely it mattered that his own king had sent me to him? But Israel is a strange place, where it seems that prophets rank higher than kings, and have no qualms giving orders to them. The least he could have done was come out and speak to me in person; perhaps pray over me or whatever it is these outlandish prophets do to minister healing! Apparently I wasn’t important enough to be worthy of his time and attention – even though his own king had taken my request very seriously indeed (and quite mistaken my objective)

But it wasn’t just the mode of the message that rankled, it was the message itself. “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan’” I was told, as if that most ordinary of rivers, where the common people did their washing and fetched their drinking water, was somehow more magical, more powerful that the great rivers of Damascus.

I was furious. This whole journey had been a complete waste. And I was the more angry because it meant so very much to me to be healed. Honour and glory and the favour of the King I had amassed in plenty, but it was all useless to a leper. Soon those little patches would spread, soon they could no longer be concealed beneath my clothing, the disfigurements would appear, and, instead of being one who rode forth resplendently to the cheering of the crowd, I would be an object of scorn and loathing. All men must die, and who knows that better than a soldier, but leprosy is the sentence of a living death, and, under my bravado, I was terribly afraid. This is a fate that would unman the bravest.

It was my servants who talked sense back into me, and surely there is a deep moral there, for my whole path to healing has been dependent on humbling myself. It was the little Israelite slave girl who made the first suggestion; now it was my own faithful servants who tactfully pointed out that I had nothing to lose. If he had demanded from me some daring or difficult deed as the means to my healing, of course I would have consented (and claimed the credit for the healing to my own courage). Therefore (they suggested very carefully) why should I refuse to do something so easy as wash in the nearest river? There was no possible answer to that which didn’t sound ridiculous when put into words, so, with an ill grace to preserve the remnants of my pride, I went down to the Jordan.

And there, in the river whose very name means “going down”, I washed myself seven times, as the prophet had instructed, and was cleansed of my leprosy and washed away my foolish pride. Well might I be a high ranking commander in the King of Aram’s army, but before the God of Israel, the God of Elisha, I was nothing but a broken leper, desperately needing to be cleansed and healed. And how could I receive His healing until I had let go of myself and gone down to acknowledge my true emptiness and need?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Confession

I was a fool – a right royal fool if you like. I had seen the power of Israel’s God before and only a fool crosses swords with a God so mighty. That is a loser’s game, and I did not get to be king of this vast empire by choosing to be a loser. I knew (or thought I knew) how to vanquish every earthly power, and what are my priests and diviners and all their crowd of hangers-on for, if not to keep me in the favour of the gods of Babylon? Give them their appointed festivals and sacrifices, and they seem well content. A king can do business with gods like that, and know where he stands. They have their sphere of power, and I have mine.

But Israel’s God is different. I thought He was nobody, the god of a defeated people, the god of an empty temple – like we found when we ransacked Jerusalem. But it seems that this God, who has no statues, no representation except an empty altar stained with blood, wants more than any other God. He is not content with the forms of worship, He wants the submission of our hearts – even kings have to bow to him. I should have known, I had seen what happened when those three young men refused to worship my statue, and were thrown in the fiery furnace. He walked in the flames with His servants, and the worst I could do to them was set at nothing . Even then He was demanding my submission; I had made a decree that none should blaspheme Him, but even that was not enough. He wanted me.

He even sent a dream as warning, and gave Belteshazzar the wisdom to interpret it. And still, even then, in the pride and folly of my heart I ignored Him. I still worshipped myself, and my own achievements, more than any god. And the day came when I looked out over Babylon, that great city, and saw it as the living proof of my own glory, and spoke the words of my own sublime praise. And in that moment, in my very act of speaking the highest untruth, that glory and honour belonged to me, rather than Him – in that very moment my sanity departed, and I became as a beast of the field, and was driven forth from the society of men. I ate grass like a brute beast, and this body of mine, perfumed and pampered, for seven years was washed by nothing except the dew of heaven, and my hair and my nails had no servants to care for them. All my kingliness that I thought made me so great was gone in a moment. I had no authority any more, and, it soon became apparent, even my humanity was not my own accomplishment, but could be taken away from me. There was nothing left for me to boast in; only my life was preserved. All those things that identified me as human had been stripped from me, and the meanest beggar in the street was more fit for the throne than I was.

And then, after seven years of humiliation, I lifted my eyes to heaven, and I was restored. I have learned, and those who watched what happened to me have learned, that I am not king of this great empire through any virtue of my own, but because god, the great God, the only true God, has chosen to let me rule. And I was a fool to ever believe that all glory, honour and dominion did not belong solely to Him.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Tree

In the beginning, it was placed in the garden. No one knew where it came from, but, like all of creation, it was sourced in God Himself. Perhaps it was more truly of Himself than any of them realized then. It was there, in the centre, right at the heart of all things, the only companion, in that holy place, to the tree which was forbidden. And its beauty was something beyond their understanding, something they were not yet ready for. It was too subtle, too complex for their dawning minds to grasp, and somehow just a little frightening.

But the other tree, ah, that was different. God had spoken His ‘No!” into the very fabric of creation, but there was a beguiling ‘Yes!” speaking louder and louder in their minds. And, in the end, they took of the fruit, and they ate, and the world was broken. Their hearts were shattered by their own doing, and God’s pronouncement when it came was confirmation of the death they had already accomplished. And they were sent forth from the garden, and the cherubim descended, sword aflame, and the way to the tree of Life was barred from humanity. Yet the very action of their being sent forth invoked promise as much as penalty, for it was said that there would be a life beyond this death, and a hope beyond this hopelessness.

Centuries passed. Men laboured and men fell. Some looked upward, and beheld the beauty of God and put their trust in the One whose promises outlast the stars; but others looked around at the heaving world, or inward to the clamour of their own desires and embraced death by the very means they sought to defy it. And finally, while men looked the other way, the tree returned. It was no longer a thing of beauty, it was stark and dead and terrible. As it had to be, for the way to life leads now through death, and it could appear no other way within this world. It was no longer living wood planted by the hand of God, but old, dry boards, pushed back forcibly into the ground by human hands. Its only fruit was the body of a dying man, and it was blood, rather than the sap of Life that flowed from it. It no longer grew in holy sunlight, but stood under the descent of a terrible darkness. Men cried and wept at its presence, but many were so inured to death that they mocked instead. And by the planting of that terrible tree, Life returned to the broken human race.

It has not wholly vanished since, though the world sees only the symbol and not the substance. The eyes of faith see the life that is given to them in this death, they eat and drink of its fruit and find His life flows into their present body of death.

But even this is not the end of the story. One day the whole creation shall be reborn, and there shall be a new heaven and a new earth and the city of God, fair as a bride, shall be revealed. And in the midst of her the Tree of Life shall stand, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Every tear will be wiped away. There will be no more mourning or crying or pain. There will be no more death.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Girl at the Window


She dreams, and in her dreaming is her becoming. Softly, softly, life whispers to her, calling her by name, but she does not yet know how to follow. She is not even certain yet that her name is really her own, she has not yet staked her claim on a definition of her self. That will come later, with time, with life, and, most of all, with love. Love will bring her boldness, to say that this much is me and this much is mine. In the desire to give herself away, she will discover the boundaries of her own being. But not yet; not yet.

Now is the time for dreaming, for wondering. She has known fear, she has known doubt. Night comes, as surely as morning does, and in the night there is uncertainty. There is a world around her whose demands she does not always understand, requiring her to do and to be what an adult world expects of her. It is confusing sometimes, and already her soul is a little bruised, for she dwells in a place where love has not yet been made perfect, where anger and folly and impatience are woven into the very fabric of time. And those who strongly maintain that the sorrows of childhood are insignificant, have forgotten how it feels to be a child, when one’s whole existence is contracted to a crushing word or an upraised hand..

But where the sorrow dwells, the promise and the comfort dwell also, and joy still comes with the morning. In the loveliness of the early light, still unsullied by crossness and crassness, she gazes out upon a world transfigured into beauty, and the shadows of fleeting nightmares are swiftly burned away. And there are some for whom beauty will ever be an open door to faith, for when the heart is lifted up it must respond, however tenderly and uncertainly, with praise and wonder towards the one who has made this possible – the one whose hand is revealed by the thumbprints of glory he leaves on creation.

Not that she has thought it through that far. She is simply a child looking out at the yard. But the deep peace and thankfulness that well up inside her when the light caresses her face with a touch like a blessing make her think of the bible stories she has learned, especially the one about Jesus saying ‘let the little children come to me!’ She has thought, for as long as she can remember, that his lap would be a very safe place to be. It would be exactly the same as that other place they have told her that the bible speaks of – the one where there is no more pain and every tear is wiped away. That is a good place, the best place.

But this here-and-now world is not a bad place either. There is laughter, and shelter and warmth, the satisfaction of accomplishment and a sense of belonging. Sometimes one does not need words to dream, or a certain image of the desired future, it is enough to rest in the bounty of the present moment and lean upon its peace. It is enough to say ‘yes!’ to the coming day. It is enough to reach out tendrils of trust towards the Maker of all things. It is enough to be learning to move one’s hands with compassion and one’s lips with truth, however slow and long the learning. It is enough to be alive and live each morning as a fresh springtime.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Forgiveness

I am an old man now, and tomorrow they will lead me out to die. A few bitter hours, and then I shall be with Him forever, just as, in this broken world, whether I knew it or not, He has always been with me. It is strange to think that once the fear of death was the strongest thing in my life, stronger than love or truth. For fear’s sake I denied Him, and the acid shame inside me afterwards corroded me like death. But it was what happened after that which changed my life forever.

It was early morning, up in Galilee, when spring was at its fairest. Locked in my shame, thinking myself an outcast, I had returned there to pick up the pieces of my broken life. I was a failed disciple, but at least I still knew how to fish, or thought I did. Perhaps if I was unfit to be a fisher of men, as He had once called me, I could at least go back to being a fisher of fish?

But we had caught nothing. Even that last refuge was denied to my pride. And then the stranger on the shore in the blurry light of dawn commanded us to throw our nets on the right side of the boat. There were more fish than we could haul aboard, and, in the abundance, we recognized our Lord. Once before He had done that, and I had said to Him, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!” This time, already exhausted by the knowledge of my sin, I only wanted to come to Him so, without thought, I jumped into the water and made my way to Him.

It is so hard to understand when I think about it rationally, yet when my eyes were fixed fast on him, it seemed somehow in the strange new order of things that the Lord who had overcome death and risen again in glory should cook our breakfast for us on the beach. I was almost beyond the capacity for further humiliation, I was willing to accept His grace gifts on whatever terms He chose to give them. I was not worthy to be called His disciple, but He was still my Lord.

It was after breakfast that He turned to me and, gesturing towards the rest of our catch of fish, asked me, “Simon bar Jonah, do you love me more than these?” Was He kidding? Hadn’t I given it all up once before to follow Him? I replied positively, not even stopping to think. “Feed my lambs,” He said.

He asked me again and I answered the same, Then He asked me the third time, and I was hurt. Didn’t He believe me? Was He playing games with me? Or had I only been playing games with Him, ready to desert the moment that real trouble threatened? His questions lanced open my reservoir of shame – three times I had denied Him, three times He questioned my love. He had every right to, but I could not bear it. How easily I would give all this away to follow after Him forever! But did He still want me? In the end, all I could blurt was, “Lord you know all things. You know that I love you.”

And in saying that, I realized that He knew my whole heart – the love and the fear and the shame. He knew every inch of my soul more clearly than I did. And did He brand me with my failure? No, He called me afresh to follow Him and to be one who gave His grace to others, and to follow Him all my days through to this place of death and loss – not only was I restored in His love and forgiveness, but I now had His sure and certain promise that I would continue to follow after Him all the days of my life. And so, by His grace, it has proved to be.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Valley

I feel like I have been here forever, in the valley of my desolation. Every hope has turned to dust and ashes, every gain has turned to loss. This is not the Valley of Death, for this aging, aching body of mine still lives and breathes and goes through the motions of daily life, but it is surely the Valley of the Shadow of Death, for Death has touched me and mine so very closely, that now I live forever shrouded in its gloom – a woman without a hope or a future, and a past that is woven from tears and futility. What right has the sun to shine so brightly, or the rain to fall so softly, or the wind to blow with the fragrance of spring flowers, when all my heart and my hope has become sightless unfeeling stone?

It was different once. I loved my husband, Elimelech, and there was joy in our going forth together. When he suggested that we leave famine-stricken Bethlehem, with the two fine sons who were our blessing from the Almighty, and settle for a while in Moab, where there was no shortage of food, it seemed like high wisdom to my ears. I was tired of scraping and struggling and making do, and have never doubted that the same Lord who brought our people to this land meant us also to use our intelligence, and when there was trouble and disorder in the land, it was prudence to remove ourselvesfor a time to a safer and more plenteous place.

For a while all seemed richness, but then my beloved took sick and died, leaving me a widow with two sons. But even while I grieved, I rejoiced in these fine young men. I thought of returning to my own people, but the boys were young men by then, and both were courting local girls, and where should I be but with my own. And they were fine girls too, heathen Moabites they may have been, but they were willing to learn of our God and His ways, and real love grew between us. Not every woman is so blessed in her daughters-in-law, and, recalling the story of our foremother Rebekah, and how grieved she was by Esau’s wives, I gave thanks for Ruth and Orpah, and waited for the grandchildren they would bring me.

But they never quickened, and the childless years passed by while I watched and wondered. Then the blow fell: both my sons dead in the prime of their youth. There was nothing left for me here, it was time to go home, back to my own people, and conclude my empty days in Bethlehem. I thought I would go alone; the girls were young, and lovely still, they would find other husbands among their own kind. After a little while Orpah was persuaded to do just that. But Ruth is of another kind, and nothing I could say would dissuade her. She insists on coming with me, no matter what, and truly, I am glad of her patient love and steadfast faith. It is odd that this Moabite girl now clings to the God of my fathers more closely than I do, for grief and bitterness have loosened my hold.

For she is steadfast, and as we walk this weary journey, she gives me the courage to continue. She tells me that God hasn’t finished with us yet, that though the way seems hard He can lift up every valley and lower every mountain till we walk in a straight path. And as we rest in the night she looks up at the everlasting stars and tells me that even in this valley, shadowed by death, God is still with us, watching over us, and like all true shepherds He will lead us home to Himself.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Stillness

It is still. It is dark. It has always been dark. The waters cover the formless world, and they are calm and still, for the Spirit breathes over them. There is no life or voice or movement in this place. There has never been change or growth or the counting of days. But this is about to end. The presence of God is in the stillness. A voice of command speaks into the darkness saying, “Let there be light!”. And there was light. And there was evening and there was morning, and it was the first day.

It is still. It is dark. The stars are out. The old man, childless and aching with longing, stands and looks up at the stars. In the clear desert air he can see so many, and each one shines fiercely. He stands there, and the presence of God is in the stillness. And God speaks, “so shall your offspring be.” The old man trembles in wonder, but he believes the word of God. And so it came to pass.

It is still. It is dark. The shepherd boy looks out over his flock, watching with alert eyes for any predator. But the moon is bright tonight and the pastures are at peace. The presence of God is in the stillness. He is aware of the Lord’s protection, compassing him round, holding him fast in love. God is watching over him constantly, just as he watches over his sheep. Now it all seems so clear to him, this love in which he lives and moves and has his being. He takes up his harp and strums softly. He starts to sing, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want ..”

It is still. It is dark. In the small cold hours after midnight, the crowded little town has settled down. There is the occasional sound from young children and restless sleepers, but here, in the outhouse with the animals, it is very still. The woman lies exhausted on the straw, waiting, between heartbeats, for the final pain that will bring delivery. The man stands there, tense with watching, there to help if needed, but awed to silence by the wonder of the moment. There is nothing he can say and do, she is in the hands of God. The stillness presses in on them, and the presence of God is in the stillness. There is a final pain, a moment when the whole earth stops and listens, and then the thin cry of a newborn child, overtaken by the glorious music of angels. God himself has entered our darkness and come to dwell among us. Salvation has entered the world.

It is still. It is dark, but then it is always dark in here when the stone is rolled across the entry. The battered, tortured, murdered body lies where reverent, loving, tear-spattered hands have placed it. Life and hope have fled, and the Light of the World seems to have gone out. But the presence of God is in the stillness; and this tomb is a holy place, for the True Sacrifice has been accepted, and death itself is about to come undone. Glory will overtake despair, the stone will be rolled away, and love will have the victory. The dark stillness of the silent tomb is about to become the womb of a new creation.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Widow

All was lost. I thought my life was over and my joy extinguished when my husband died, but I had still had my son to live for, my only child, and he was both the reason to keep going and the means to be able to. The years had not been kind to me. I had married with such hope. My husband, hardly known to me, was well-respected in the community as a good worker. His wife would not go hungry. I would be mistress of my own home, albeit a small one, (but what did that matter? I had lived just above poverty all my life), I would have children, many children, a woman’s glory, and maybe, just possibly, I would be the mother of the Messiah. That was of course the secret tender hope, the one no one dared put into words for fear of being laughed at. But just because every other daughter of Abraham had dreamed that dream for hundreds of years didn’t make it impossible. It had to happen some day! I had no idea, as I prepared for my wedding, that the Messiah had already been born, that was something I would only learn in the darkest hour.

We settled in Nain, and the years passed. After several years of barrenness and much desperate prayer, remembering the story of Hannah, I had one child, a fine, handsome boy. I never had another that made it to birth. My marriage was not the wonderful dream I had imagined as a naive young bride, but it was better than many. He was kind, e was fair-minded, and he never reproached me for our lack of children. I sometimes wondered if he was secretly relieved not to have too many mouths to feed, for while he worked hard the returns were poor and the Roman taxes were ruinous. We had enough, but never the abundance I had dreamt of. But this was the real world, and what more could anyone expect?

Then, just as our son was approaching manhood and learning his father’s trade, my husband started to weaken. At first he grumbled about pains, and even found fault with my cooking (which he never had before), but over the course of months it became clear that this was no mere indigestion. Before my eyes he shrank away, the little pains grew to big ones, and he could no longer work at all. I remember the day that I realised that he was dying, and how, in the midst of that tight, cold misery, I gave thanks to the God of our fathers that He had given me a fine son to take care of me and I would not be left alone and destitute. For I was a woman withered before my time, with no prospect of bearing more sons, so no other man would ever want me.

He was a fine son, who never shirked in his duty, and between us there was tenderness and laughter. I knew that I was blessed – here was no Messiah, but a good boy nonetheless, and I loved him dearly. He had brought joy into the bleakness of my life, and if still, in the silence of my heart I asked God that I might one day see the Messiah face to face, well, isn’t that the heart-longing of all our people?

Then the fever came. In the morning my son struggled to rise from his bed, in the following night he died. And when he died, I died with him, though my feet still walked above the ground. There was nothing left for me in this world, and I knew God had forgotten me. I was never more wrong.

I am not sure why there were so many people coming with us as we carried his body out of the town, but the sudden death of someone young, healthy and strong is bound to attract attention. But with so many people around, it is not surprising that I did not notice the arrival of the strangers. Besides, I felt as if it was my own heart being led out to the coldness of the tomb, and, blurred with the tears that were the most alive part of me, my eyes were downcast and saw no reason to ever be raised again. “Don’t cry,” he said.

There were no cheap emotions in those words. Many times I have heard people say ‘don’t cry’ when what they really meant was ‘don’t disturb me with feelings that make me feel uncomfortable’. This was different; this was a compassion that knew not only the death of my only son, but all the other deaths that were happening inside me. This was the heart of God meeting with my broken heart right where I was and changing the great No to a Yes. I raised my eyes in wonder, and watched as the stranger walked over to the coffin. Everyone was standing still. Everyone was barely breathing.

He touched the coffin, he spoke to my son and told him to arise. There was such authority in those quiet words that it felt as if the very universe itself could not deny him. And my son lived. My. Son. Lived. Just like that; with no effort, no spectacle, no struggle, death itself was overturned. There was clamour around us, people were declaring the presence of a great prophet, were marvelling at the mercy of God. But, in the still centre, I heard none of those things. I looked at him and knew that I had met the Messiah, and he knew and loved me. I gathered my bewildered son in my arms, and gazed into the eyes of the stranger who had met with death on my behalf. God himself was walking on the earth and he had come here just for me.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Music ..


She could not escape the music. All her life she had tried to ignore it, to refuse it; even while it penetrated the very rhythm of her blood and bones. She had seen others succumb – her parents, her siblings, the people in the village – some sang the words of their lives to it, others danced its steps, with a little jig here and there. And some were so consumed by it that they could move only into its frenzy, and danced away to the battlefields, overcome by its passion and pain. She had watched, all her life, and she had grown afraid.

She had been criticised for her distrust of the music. The left-leaning media said it was harmless, simply a part of the natural environment and one that united the community; the right-leaning media said it was good for the country, and it was unpatriotic to criticise it. So she said nothing. The academics went further, of course, and were much more nuanced. Doctoral theses had been written on such subjects as “The Necessary Rhythm of Being”, or “The Music as an Evolutionary Correlate”. A while ago, a group from a prestigious university had investigated whether flowers grew better with the music or in a soundproof container. The soundproofed flowers had all died, which had seemed conclusive until someone had realised that the soundproofing also rendered the container devoid of all light. No one had been anxious to repeat the experiment. A whole branch of philosophy had been dedicated to speculating on the source of the music, it sounded remarkably like a stringed instrument, but neither instrument nor player had ever been seen. The currently fashionable theory tried to integrate the frequency of vibration of the celestial spheres with distortions caused by the earth’s magnetic field and modulated by the phases of the moon. Nobody actually understood that.

She knew they were wrong. Bone deep, soul deep she knew that the music was evil, though she could not articulate why that was. But she knew that it hurt to resist it, whilst the ones who accepted it, who allowed it to flow in and out and through them, looked as if they dwelt in frenzied gaiety, as long as you didn’t look too deeply into their eyes.

But she also knew that she was weak. How long could she resist? It both attacked her and seduced her. There were days when she believed herself a fool for resisting. Who did she think she was to imagine that she knew better than everyone else in her world? What presumption! And she was only flesh and blood, just like everyone else.

Then, one day, she found a dusty old book, and as she read it she was amazed by the story it told, of the man who had not only resisted the music, but walked the earth singing a different song. And the real makers of the music were so enraged by the challenging beauty of his song that they had taken him out and put him to death most cruelly. And in that book she read enough of a description of that song to be able to begin to imagine what some of the notes might have been. And even in the faint reconstructions of her imagination she was so moved by its beauty that she realised that if she could constantly listen to that song then the evil music would have much less power over her – for how could it compete with something that, even at its furthest remove, was beautiful enough to break her heart?

Only after she had wrestled with this thought for some time did she realise something else: perhaps the music was so loud and insistent precisely so that it would drown out the true song. And maybe that meant that the song was still there, more primal, more true, more real than the music she had been hearing all her life? Then it followed that what she really needed was for some part of herself to be changed, to be attuned to the beautiful song instead of the deathly music of the world. She found herself crying out, from the deepest part of her being, that the Singer, wherever he was, would come to her and set her free, and deliver her from sinking into cacophony.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Dream

It was no good. He had failed – utterly and totally failed – and all his dreams and plans tasted like choking desert dust in his throat. All his life he had resented being second son, second best, and the one who stood outside the straight line of blessing. Why should he matter less to God because, in the final tussle to leave the womb, he had been born moments after his brother?

And he had tried so hard, done everything he humanly could to get the blessing for himself, even got it, by force of trickery, and it was all for nothing. Instead of gaining favour, he had lost it, had lost everything, and, at his beloved mother’s advice, was fleeing for his life. Everything he had striven for had come to nothing, and now he was a homeless wanderer. What use was a father’s blessing that was only given freely in the act of sending him away from home – a home he could never safely return to as long as his brother was alive?

He was tired, horribly, heavily tired, and the weight of his disappointment made every step a dragging effort. Surely tonight, despite all his discomforts, and the lurking fear that even now Esau might be pursuing him with murderous intent, he would be able to sleep? He must, it was a long, long journey to Haran, and he must conserve his strength. So, as the daylight died, he found a comparatively level place on the ground, selected a smooth rock to serve as a pillow, wrapped himself in his cloak and composed himself to sleep.

It took him a while to settle. The desert night was chilly, the ground was hard and the deep misery inside him was even colder and harder. But exhaustion won out, and he slept, and, as the night folded in on its darkness, he dreamt. In his dream he was still in the same place, nothing had changed about him and his position; and yet, at the same time, everything that really mattered had changed utterly, as if the whole universe had changed around him while he remained cowering in his desert of mind and body.

There was a stairway, a ladder, an endless succession of steps rising from the very earth beside him into the far reaches of heaven beyond the limits of mortal sight, or rather, perhaps more accurately coming all the way down from heaven to touch at the miserable spot where he lay. They were not empty stairs either, the very angels of God were constantly ascending and descending. And then, or so it seemed, as Jacob dared to raise his eyes, he saw that the Lord himself was standing at the summit of the stairs – the very God whose blessing he had tried to finagle for himself. Even in his sleep he trembled, fearing he was about to be cut off from God, as well as his family. But then the Lord spoke.

It was not the message Jacob had expected to hear. The very blessing that he had tried to steal was what God was freely giving him! The God of his forefathers was declaring him to be in the line of the promise given to Abraham, that he would be the father of many, and the one through blessing would come to all the peoples of the world. That was miracle enough, but it was not all, for the Lord also promised his own presence. Yes, Jacob was going into exile, but he was not going alone, for the God of all gods would be with him, and would bring him back safely, one day, to the very place he was fleeing from now. Wherever he went he would never be outside the blessing of God.

He awoke overwhelmed, with tears in his eyes. All the time while he had been wandering in despair God had not let go. He had been there the whole time; it was Jacob who had been blind to his holy presence.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Over the Waters

She flew, weary-winged, over the endless expanse of water. Only a week before she had done the same thing and it had all been so tiring, so pointless. There had been nothing but the waters of death, as far as her eye could see. Was this just more of the same?

It hadn’t always been like that. She remembered a time before she was shut up in the boat, when the world had been lush and green, dotted with trees to roost in, and many other birds, just like herself, had flown amongst them, enjoying the gentle sunshine and abundant food. Then, one day, a strange compulsion had seized her and she had flown far to find herself in a strange valley, gathering together with every other species of creature she had ever seen. At the words of an old man they had all lined up, in their twos and their sevens, and entered the ark. She had never been inside a building before, and at first she was frightened, but these people were gentle and quiet, and she soon lost her fear. And when the strange noises began – the drumming of the rain, the creaking of the boat as it moved upon the rising waters – she was glad of the warmth and safety.

But it had been a long time now, and the world outside had changed beyond anything she could comprehend. There was no grass, no flowers, no trees, only endless water under a clear and arching sky. Once water had been a friend, a welcome drink, a place to splash and cool oneself on a hot day: now it was the enemy, the destroyer, the chaos that had overtaken a once beautiful world. Was there no respite from this watery wilderness, no hope of a new beginning?

Her wings were so tired, if she didn’t turn around now she might not have the strength to return to the safety of the Ark. Exhausted, she would fall into the darkening waters, and her small life would be spent. One last time she scanned the waters, hoping crazily for something that would prove the possibility of a new beginning. What was that dark speck? She flew closer, her energy renewed by a surge of curiosity. It was the topmost branch of an olive tree, with a few new leaves showing bravely forth. Trembling with emotions too great for her tiny heart, she perched there and rested. But it was not enough to have found herself a momentary refuge, she must bear back with herself the proof that the world was beginning to change again. She rested till sufficient strength returned, then she reached down and carefully, using her beak, sheared off a twig with a young olive leaf growing from its tip. Moving her head until the twig was securely held, she lifted her body and her wings, replenished and triumphant, bore her back towards the Ark. And the name of her burden was “Hope”.