Sunday, February 24, 2013


From the time he was a young child, he had always known he was somebody special. He was bigger and stronger than the other children, and he very quickly learned how to use it to his advantage. Girls were scared and stayed away from him, literally running out of sight when he appeared. And boys soon learned that they had to do whatever he wanted, or they would suffer for it. There were advantages in being his friend (or lackey), and most of the children of Gath preferred to play it safe. And, if nobody likes a bully, most of them were smart enough not to tell him so, and the few that made that mistake were soon cowed into never making it again. The people of Gath said, as he grew up, that he must be a descendant of the ancient giants, and he was more than happy to encourage the story.

Of course, when a man’s chief talent is for fighting (and winning), the army is his obvious career choice and, as soon as Goliath was old enough, he joined their ranks. But he did not stay in the ranks for long. He was so big and strong, and so willing to use his strength against others, that he very soon became a very special person, the champion of the Philistines. He had his own armour specially made, since the standard issue was never going to fit him, and his pride continued to grow.

Then came the day that he was called to join the forces fighting against Israel, and one look at their army inspired him with his great idea. “What a pathetic, paltry lot they are”, he said to his commander. “Why should we waste the lives of good Philistines battling against them? I believe I can terrify the whole army of Israel on my own!” And that was what he did: for forty days, every morning and evening, he came and shouted out to the Israelite army, challenging them to let the issue between them be settled between himself and whatever champion they should choose to face him in battle. And, as he watched the Israelites cower in dismay, he laughed and redoubled his taunting of them and their god – for what a pathetic god they must have, he thought, that they were too ashamed to bring his image into battle with them? Surely their god was as pathetic as they were!

Then, one day, it was different. He had trouble believing his own eyes when a young, unarmoured boy stepped out of the ranks of Israel and responded to his challenge. How utterly ridiculous! Was this the best they could manage? In fact, it was insulting that they would waste his time like this. “Am I a dog, that you come against me like this?” he asked, and redoubled his taunts.

But the boy never wavered. Was he too stupid to understand? “You come against me with your spear and sword,” he said calmly, “but I come against you in the name of the Almighty God of Israel. Your sword and your spear won’t save you, for the battle belongs to the Lord!”

Laughing louder than ever, Goliath moved forward to attack him. The sorry joke had lasted long enough. It pleased him that the boy was running eagerly towards him – towards his doom. But as he ran he reached into a bag he had slung at his side, took out a stone and put it in a rough sling, the sort that young boys might use to scare the birds away from the crops. Goliath laughed louder than ever.

It was said afterwards, when the Philistine army fled in disarray, that Goliath never knew what hit him ..

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Time of Breaking

Slowly he wandered through the banqueting hall. The smell of spilt wine mingled with the pervasive smell of spilt blood. Food scraps: half-eaten meat, broken loaves, gnawed bones, fruit turning brown where it had been bitten into and left. Although it was still early morning, the flies were already finding their ways in through the nooks and crannies and the maze of doorways. Any other morning the slaves and the higher servants who commanded them would be hard at work – cleaning, scrubbing, tidying, perfuming, so that within a very short space of time all the detritus, all the signs of decay would be swept away and rendered invisible. But not this morning, this morning was different.

It was ugly, stomach-churningly ugly, but so was the evil he had seen day after day in this place: the folly, the arrogance, the petty cruelties, the lust and greed that were so unrestrained that they raged through the palace like unchecked forces of destruction. They had turned away from the revelation of the True God, so vividly shown in the life of the king’s father and made for themselves gods in their own image: powerless mockeries of truth. He prayed as he walked, and felt no shame for the tears that blurred his vision. How could this breaking of a nation, this destruction of an empire overnight not remind him of his beloved Jerusalem? And the longer he lived, the more deeply he learned the holiness and love of God, the more acutely he felt the horror of what men reduced themselves to in the pursuit of their own depravity.

Reluctantly  he kept walking through the room, shaking his head as he remembered how different it had been last night, when the ornately dressed crowd, the elite of the Babylonian court had sprawled there in their wild feasting, blasphemously desecrating the vessels that Nebuchadnezzar before them had taken from the Temple. Then, as a hand appeared from nowhere, their drunken levity was suddenly startled into terror. He looked at the wall alongside the lamp stand. Was it his imagination, the imposition of a vivid memory, or could those letters still be faintly traced on the plaster: mene, mene, tekel, parsin? He shuddered at the memory. The drunken king had sat right there, shaking with fear. This king, whose arrogance had flounced in the face of Almighty God, was now reduced to a shivering, broken wreck at the sight of four words written on a wall.

And it was a terrible message: The days of his reign had been numbered and brought to an end, he had been weighed in the balances and found wanting, and his kingdom would be divided and given to the Medes and Persians. They had insisted on loading Daniel with tawdry gifts he had no desire for, they were the useless baubles of those who had no more understanding of the truth than brute beasts. But Belshazzar and his cronies were gone now, swept away in the slaughter of a single night.

It was a heavy burden to be a prophet of the Most High God, to watch the rise and fall of nations and the bitterness of the judgements men bring upon themselves. But how much more terrible, he reflected, would it be to walk blindly through the glory of this world and to never know that submission to a Holy God, which so many baulked at, was simply the doorway into Love Unimaginable, where the broken were mended and cherished forever?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Ash Wednesday, 2013

Here stretch the empty shores, laced with the salt
Of our mortality. A sere wind blows
To penetrate each crevice of our hearts
With desolation we cannot dispose.

Here, at this time, we turn hunched shoulders round,
Vowing that we will not deny the pain,
Will put aside the pleasures that make numb,
And sip at choking penance once again.

There is a time for all that’s scant and spare,
To walk the graveled earth with naked feet,
And own the hungers still unsatisfied,
Admitting our account books are not neat.

But see, within the scope of this strait hour
Ever a dawn on grey horizon shines:
The wonder, and the glory, and the power,
Which by its being, all things else defines.

Suffer us then to drink this gall of living.
Suffer us to admit this time this place,
Suffer this flesh to own that it is dying,
Suffer us to unclench our hands for grace.

Suffer our tears to blend with sweet rain falling --
Even on sullen earth a freshness sprouts;
And from the bitter ash the phoenix rising
Bursts into flame, extinguishing our doubts.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Little Boxes

“Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.”

I was a child in the 60’s and those words were part of that childhood. I remember singing it at school camp in 5th grade and wondering what it meant. (Of course, in those days it would never have occurred to the adults around us to explain what song lyrics meant – we were just given the songs and taught to sing them.) But I really couldn’t fathom why everyone would come out all the same ..

I spent my childhood amazingly oblivious to the pressure to conform. Because of the emotional emptiness and chaos of my home life, trying to differentiate myself and become myself was far more important to me than the approval of the herd. For a child who was so shy and timid in many respects, I was singularly unconcerned about fitting in. It didn’t worry me to say I didn’t care for the Beatles when every other girl in the class was trying to choose her favourite, or (a little older) to be the one who openly admitted that she didn’t know how to dance, wasn’t allowed to watch the ‘in’ TV shows and didn’t own any vinyl records of my own. And it was exactly the same with gender: growing up in an all-girl family and attending all-girl schools, I missed out on learning any rules. I still didn’t understand the little boxes, because no one had pushed me into one and thrown away the key.

Then I got married, and my education began. I learned that I was supposed to live in complete submission to my husband, bring up perfectly disciplined children, keep an immaculate house (who me? well, let’s just say that I am not a naturally tidy person) and be suitably ‘womanly’ on all occasions. Apart from dressing in a feminine way, I had no idea what that meant. 

Then I started to learn:
“Men don’t like women with brains.”
“Women don’t have opinions about the Bible – they leave that to their husbands”
“Why would you want to even speak to other men? Isn’t your husband enough for you?”
“Womanly women would rather work in the church kitchen to serve the men than be in the hall listening to the speaker.”

I was learning about boxes, and that if I didn’t fit neatly into one of the predetermined ones, the church would have to do their best to squeeze me into one, and, like Procrustes’ bed, lop off the bits that didn’t neatly fit inside – all my soul’s sake, of course! Though I could not name it yet, I was discovering a huge, yawning cognitive dissonance at the heart of evangelicalism: all the books and sermons inspire me, as a Christian, to stretch and grow and become all that I can be for Jesus, and yet, at the same time, as a Christian woman, I was to make myself small, smaller, smallest to honour Jesus. The song describes the little boxes as “pink ones .. and green ones, and blue ones and yellow ones” but in the church there were only pink ones and blue ones, and, given my anatomy, I’d better compose my limbs neatly and fit inside the pink one .. or else!

Little boxes are very safe --  look at those impermeable walls! – but oh you can get a cramp tucked up inside them if you haven’t managed to make yourself tiny enough!  Is that really what Jesus died for, so that there might be 2 neat rows of blue Christians and pink Christians, each produced by their respective cookie cutter and lined up with identical smiles?

If we are going to be all that Jesus has called us to be, both male and female, then the first thing we have to do is chop up those little boxes for firewood. We follow a Saviour who came to set the prisoners free. And if this means dispensing with a few man-made rules (like girls stay on the pink squares and boys stay on the blue squares), well it isn’t the first time in history that a few well-established tables have been tipped over in the church.

We are brothers and sisters doing the Kingdom together as the unique and amazing individuals God created us to be. Thirty-six years ago I said my marriage vows and they included the words “forsaking all others ..”. Did that mean that I was going to retreat into a little pink box marked ‘married woman’ and never relate to any other male again? Or did it mean, as I believe it did, that because I was committed to one particular man for all my sexual expression, that I was now free to relate to other men as friends and brothers, without fear of romantic misunderstandings? The boundary around my sexual intimacy has been set, I am free to enter into wholesome, life-giving spiritual and personal intimacy with anybody else, male or female, whom God calls me to befriend. To say that I cannot do that is to say that my gender and sexuality is the most important thing about me, more important than giftedness or character, more important than being a New Creation, who is a member of Christ, a child of God and an inheritor of the kingdom of God. I will stand at the foot of the cross and I will say that the greatest narrative of my life is Jesus, not ‘sex object’.

Jesus came to set us free, and that includes being free from the little pink and blue boxes that evangelical culture wants to lock us into.

This post is part of the February Synchroblog “Cross Gender Friendships”. This is the list of posts that people have contributed

Chris Jefferies – Best of both
Lynne Tait – Little Boxes
Glenn Hager – Sluts and Horndogs
Jennifer Ellen – A Different Kind of Valentine
Karl Wheeler – Friends at First Sight
Elizabeth Chapin – 50 Shades of Friendship

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Under a Cloud

He sits in darkness, in his cell, and remembers, and wonders. So many memories flow in and out of each other, and he lets them flow as they will: the stark hot sun of the desert, the small scuffles of animals in the cool of the evening, the amazed delight his elderly parents always showed towards him, the son they never expected, the awareness, from the time he was a small boy, that he was different from the other children, that God had touched him in a very particular way. He remembered the shock, as his life widened beyond the gentle piety of his parents’ home, of realising just how far Israel had fallen from the height of her calling, and the deeper shock to realise that so many either couldn’t see it, or didn’t think they needed to do anything about it. How could one not speak out about evil when one saw it?

But one figure dominates his memories: his cousin Jesus, who is not like anybody else. They knew each other by sight, but God had led them by very different paths until they met again that day on the banks of the Jordan. It had been a clear day, with the sky that startling desert-blue and just a few high clouds. He had been standing there, with the muddy water of the Jordan lapping about his feet, exhorting and baptising in the midst of the crowd, when he looked up to see a young man walking towards him. He recognised his cousin, but at the same moment that feeling he had always had about Jesus suddenly broke through into startled recognition, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” He had been testifying to the coming of the Messiah; now He was here and all the pieces clicked into place.

He remembered their gentle bickering over who should baptise whom, but, more clearly still, that transcendent, unearthly moment when Jesus rose from the water and the Spirit of God descended like a dove upon Him and a voice from heaven declared, “This is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”. It had all seemed so wonderful, so real, and he had lived and preached with increasing boldness in the light of that reality.

And now the light and glory seemed to have disappeared, and, locked away in darkness, he wonders what he has done. There is no sign of the Kingdom, Rome still rules the world, and Herod, in all his hideous corruption, is still on the throne. Was it all for nothing? In desperation he sent a message to Jesus, “Are you really the One, or are we waiting for another?”

And now, even as he sits in the silence, his friends return with Jesus’ reply, “The blind see, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the Good News is preached to the poor ..” What had he been thinking, that the Kingdom would appear in a flurry of trumpets and a thunder of galloping horses? No, that was not what the prophets had foretold. The Kingdom did not come like a dreadful storm, with the madness of wind and the clattering of hail. It appeared softly, in silence, like the Spring, bringing the world to life one flower at a time. Things were unfolding just as they should be, and he, John, had done exactly what God desired of him. In that hope he could find his peace.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

A Second Chance

He was a broken man. Was this what all hope, all confidence came down to in the end? Where did faith finish and falsehood begin? How could it have come to this? How does a man rebuild his life when he is not who he thought he was?

He had always seen himself in the front rank. He was the leader, perhaps not the cleverest but certainly the one most willing to step out. He was the first to take action, the first to speak, and the others, less sure of themselves, often waited for him to go first. He had been the first to name Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and that had been the moment when Jesus had said, “upon this Rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” That must mean something, surely? He had been one of the three on the mountain, and seen some of the glory of Jesus. He had seen Moses and Elijah with his very own eyes! Didn’t that make him special? He had gone into the room where the little girl was raised from the dead, and he had stored in his heart three precious years of teaching and learning, three precious years in the company of one whom he thought he had come to love more than his own life (except that it seemed he didn’t after all). And he was the only one of them all to have actually stepped out of the boat and, for those unforgettable moments, actually walked on water! Didn’t that make him special?

And now it had all fallen apart. On that dreadful, dreadful night he had discovered the truth: he, Simon Peter, the big guy, catcher of fish and fisher of men, right hand man to the Messiah (or so he had secretly called himself) was nothing but a coward. He had been willing to deny Jesus, and not even (as he had tried to convince himself) for the sake of preserving his own skin, but simply to be spared a few jeering remarks from strangers. Had he been fooling himself all the time that he loved the Master?

He would never forget the terrible time that followed, and hoped never to walk through such darkness again. That Jesus had gone to His death knowing that Peter had let Him down hurt almost as much as the loss of his Lord – or more , or less, or something else altogether – in that measureless night there was no meaning in weighing out the components of his grief. Still, it was another sword thrust into his pride to know that even the women had been braver than he.

In the glory-light of the resurrection it all looked different now, but did Jesus still want him? He had trembled at the edges of things, borne up, as they all were, by the mighty tide of wonder, but now, as he splashed ashore from the fishing boat, he saw himself as another broken creature, caught inexorably in the net of God and waiting for its fate:

“Do you love me?”
“Do you love me?”
“Do you love me?”

He was pierced, he was broken, he was shamed beyond all measure or understanding, but nothing mattered now except to raise his shame-cast eyes and speak what he now saw was his deepest truth: “Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you.” And that was truly enough

Friday, February 01, 2013

At Cana

In mirth lies a great promise. Wise hearts know
Mercy in surcease, joy to know the stars
Dance to the laughter at the root of things.
Fragments of freedom whirling in our sight.
It is not good for man to be alone:
Darkling this universe in which we spin,
We cannot even hear the angels sing,
Or see, with earthbound eyes the smile of God.

Yet here He is. Simple to overthrow
The comfortable theology of time;
He who created reason and its rhyme,
Walks dust, breathes dust, and knows to dust we turn.

Here streaks love’s lightning over barren skies:
Yet only one has eyes and heart to see:
The one whose heart watched o’er his infancy,
And she is still, to see what He will do.

No, not the hour, but foreshadowing,
Love dances in His eyes, can he refuse
To show the Kingdom here, in miniscule?
The dust will thirst, but, oh! Her Lord has wine.

The bread is not yet broken, yet he knows,
To what dark place of pain he must descend:
The way is cast and He shall be its end.
Yet, even now, is glory near to hand.

He sees the bride and sees, beyond her smile,
Another veiled face in the yet to be,
Love overwhelming in immensity,
Nor any tear can linger in that place.

The vessels of the Law, now be transformed
Bear richness past what any grape can give;
And all who taste shall wonder while they live
But he has saved the best wine until last.