Sunday, December 27, 2015

Return to Bethlehem?

Shall we return to Bethlehem
And take again the narrowed way
Descending through the dark of things
Toward that distant, alien day?

Shall we put off our modern cloth,
Our blithe superiority
The arrogance that laughs too loud
At yesterday’s antiquity?

Shall we become like kids again
Discard our adult heresy
That we were made the measurers,
And what we know is what must be?

Shall we be willing to let go
Of the braced walls of human pride
Sophistication’s coolest front
Behind which prop we cower, hide?

Shall we return? Oh let it be,
We trace our footsteps back again
To where the Lord God writhed in hay,
That busy night in Bethlehem.

Shall we in being be renewed
By learning to kneel in the dirt
Believing that this child alone
Is the lone healer of our hurt?

Can we believe? Do we believe,
Who cannot see or taste or hear
That in the darkness of that night
Did light beyond all worlds appear?

And do we know (for we can know).
The one whose birth made angels sing
Has walked our darkest human hells
And now is conqueror and King?

Monday, December 21, 2015

Advent is pregnancy


It begins with hope.
Life-hope joining life
Life flutters in darkness,
Unknown,
Little understood,
And there is waiting.

The full-bellied moon waxes
And wanes
And waxes once again.
The stars move slowly in their courses;
And the words of life are spoken.
And the weary times begin.

Hope deferred can make us sick.

The burden of the wanting
And the weightiness of time
Bear down on us.
And we cry out in our longing and our weight
And wait.

We await the child,
And bear the weight
Of the world the child must enter.
And the darkness is within.

Time stretches
Stars slow
And we enter the world of our groaning
As the world has groaned so long.
And with agony the child comes
Into our stretched worn world

And we tremble in our joy.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The King of Paradox

Memory, they say, fades as you age, but I think it is truer to say, at least for those of us who have kept our minds in working order, that what we really do is refocus; the insignificant melds into the background of our daily living, and the things that mattered most, that touched and changed our hearts, stand out in stark relief. So, as I sit (for in age there is time for sitting) I remember the Star, and the paradoxical king we found at journey’s end.

Yes, we must have been crazy, as the world measures craziness. I can understand now, why the people around us kept saying we were mad. But I have learned that there is a madness that is saner than all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, and I have no regrets. Life is so much more than a careful balance sheet. I have heard that He, Himself, said that (when He grew to be a man, I mean) – that a man must lose his life in order to find it. That is truth of the highest, deepest order.

So we did it, following a star that blazed like no other star has ever blazed, and moving like no other star we know has ever moved. The Jews tell how, long ago, when they were exiles in the wilderness, they followed a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. That star was our pillar of fire, and it lent an exotic gladness to our weary, sometimes frustrating, miles.

Then we made a mistake, a mistake that came from the fact that, while we strove to understand the star, we had not striven to understand the king that it heralded. So we went to King Herod’s palace, and spoke to that greedy, paranoid, treacherous old man, who only wanted to know about our quest so that he could intervene to destroy a potential rival. I still cannot recall him without shuddering. Such a king knew nothing of the one we sought.

But then we found him, and our world turned upside down. Here was no palace, here were no insignia of power. The sheer ordinariness of it all stunned and confused us. We did what we had come to do: we brought our gifts and we offered our homage. We went through the motions, and we wondered much. So we stayed a while and we asked our questions, and we answered theirs, for it is not every day that men arrive from a far kingdom bearing princely gifts to an ordinary village. We learnt of his supernatural conception, of angels and strange prophecies, and how even the decrees of distant Caesar were woven into God’s plan. We learned that there was no inn, no guest room for them, and how they had been offered shelter with the beasts, and there she had given birth and laid the child in a manger, whilst the skies outside were bursting with the song of angels. And we wondered even more.

We returned home another way, for we were warned in a dream of Herod’s intentions, but we did not lose touch. Rome is not the only place where information can be bought. And years later, after he had grown to manhood, died, and risen again to claim his everlasting kingdom, one of his followers came here, and I learned the rest of the story, and thanked the God of Heaven that I had lived to hear it all. It is my privilege and my joy to remember, it is my privilege and my joy to look forward to meeting Him again, this time in the glory of His own kingdom. And I marvel at the King of Paradox: that He, far outranking any earthly king, needed none of their panoply or pomp, but instead was enthroned in rough-hewn wood, from the manger to the cross. And now He reigns in a glory no petty little Herod, or Caesar with all his raw power, could imagine in their wildest dreams.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

He went down

He went down into the water. It was not his first descent, or his greatest. He had already descended from heaven to earth, put off his immortality and infinity to share our finite mortal state: creator reduced to creature. And he would go down further, into unimaginable horror: darkness and death and separation and damnation. He who was everything, from whom all things take their being, would become nobody and nothing, a dehumanised thing from which men turn away their eyes. This was not that day, but it was a decisive step towards that day. For this purpose he had been born. So he went down.

He went down into the water. His cousin, who had known him for what he truly was when they were both still in the womb, hailed him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”; but in that clamorous throng, who listened, who understood? He was just another man come to hear the strange prophet who had emerged from the wilderness, one of the many in the dusty, milling, jostling crowd. He was just another man seemingly answering the call to repentance, lining up to go down into the water and be baptised.

He went down into the water. He had nothing to repent of, for he was without sin. He wore no shame, for when he took on human flesh there was no shame in being material finite. He had no shame, he had no sin, but we did. He had never walked away from God, but we have. He had never tried to build a righteousness of his own based on empty works, for he was righteousness incarnate. He had never constructed a hollow fa├žade of religious practices, for he was the one who fulfilled the law and the prophets. He had never done any of these things, but we had, and we still do, and he carried it for us, down into the water.

He went down into the water. And his cousin was shocked. This was the wrong way round. John knew who stood before him, and he knew he, a mere man, wasn’t worthy to so much as tie his shoes, let alone baptise him. But Jesus said that this was fitting, to fulfil all righteousness. John did not know what that meant, but how could he refuse the one he had been born to serve? So Jesus went down.

He went down into the water. And as he came up again. And the Spirit of God descended on him in the form of a dove, and a voice spoke to him from the thunder of heaven, saying, “This is my Son, my beloved, and I am well –pleased with him.” It was done, he was accepted to be the True Israel and the Second Adam. And so, wrapped in the Father’s love, he went down, into the desert, to face the bitter temptations of humankind, and resist them to the uttermost

.He went down so that, when he had descended to the uttermost, we might be raised with him.

Monday, November 23, 2015

All Grace

Now he had been summoned to meet the king. He trembled at the very thought. He had lived out these years in obscurity, away from the attention of the court, and , ever since he was old enough to understand such things, he had hoped that his existence was forgotten. He knew what kings did; in order to secure their throne they would routinely kill all potential rivals. To be the descendant of a previous king was to have a sentence of death hanging over you. The only chance of living out your life in peace was to be overlooked and forgotten about. He had dared to think, for a while, that he might have got away with it. Now it seemed that his only hope was to plead for mercy. What threat, after all, was a cripple to a king?

History was against him. The former king, Saul, was his grandfather, and Saul, at first kindly disposed, had become the enemy of David, the current king. How he had harried and harassed him! Once he had thrown a spear at him. More than once he had ridden out into the wilderness, pursuing David and his men, seeking to destroy them, even though David had never lifted a hand against him. Mephibosheth shuddered at the memory of the tales he had been told all his life – tales of anger and madness where the stubborn will of a desperate king sought only destruction and despair. They were only tales told, he had been only five when his grandfather, and his father, Jonathan, had died in battle. He knew that David had written a famous lament for them; but he also knew enough of the bitterness of life to know that it is easier to lament the dead than to bear with the threat of the living.

But now there was no choice. The king’s men had come to fetch him, and he must go with them. Doom and misery rode in his heart all the length of the journey, and when he was brought into the king’s presence he fell on his face in fearful homage.  “Behold, I am your servant!” he cried out, consumed by terror.

But the king was not stern at all. He had no desire to harm Mephibosheth; instead, he wished to honour him. For him there would be no grim dungeon or executioner’s sword. Instead, for the very sake of those whose connection should have been his death warrant (namely his father and grandfather), he was to receive great honour. The property of his family was restored to him, along with servants to till the land for him, and he was to eat at the king’s table all the days of his life. His eyes, which had remained dry from his determination to hide his fear, now overflowed with tears of wonder. “Who am I that you should show me such kindness?”
 He went forth in gladness, his fears stilled forever. But there was a new question in his heart. What kind of king treats his enemy as a son, and calls him to come and sit with him at his own table?


Monday, November 09, 2015

The Sword

She did not know what the old man meant. Not really. Not then. But for the past nine months she had been walking through a thickness of miracles, wading so deep at times that she could scarcely manage breathing, so she knew better than to ignore what she was told. In one sense she was walking the path of everywoman, bearing a child in pain and fear, then loving it so deeply that she feared it would break her, carrying always in her mind, as closely as she held the child who, only a few days earlier had been part of her very flesh --  yes, THAT close! – the knowledge of the frailty of life, the fragility of that tiny thread of breath that raised and lowered the tiny chest. But, in another sense, she was walking a path no other woman before or since had trod. Only a few other women had ever had their child’s birth foretold by an angel (and none with such astounding promises). No other woman had borne her child in a virgin womb, no other woman’s child had been greeted at birth with a sky massed with exultant angels. It was a lot to take in.

So, like the words the angel had spoken, these words, too, were tucked away to be considered later when their meaning was made plain. But they were disturbing words to be told in the midst of her joy: “… and a sword will pierce your own heart too.” She could only repeat, in her heart, the words of her reply to the angel, the words that were her only guideline for the strange path that lay ahead: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

There were pains along the way. There was the pain of their flight to Egypt, leaving everything familiar behind. There was the pain of losing him that time in Jerusalem (and his response still filled her with discomfort when she thought of it). There was the pain of his leaving home to go forth in ministry, a ministry she still did not wholly understand. There was the pain of watching him make enemies of the very men, the religious elite of Israel, who should have been his sponsors. And there was the bewilderment of seeing him alienating his followers, reducing their numbers rather than increasing them.

Then came the terrible day when the sword was unsheathed. It was a sword that looked like a barbarous crown of twisted thorns. It was a sword that looked like those long, cruel, murderous spikes that the Roman soldiers called nails, and drove wickedly through his hands and feet. It was a sword that looked like the terrifying darkness that hid the daylight while he died: her desolation made universal. And it was a sword that looked like the long spear that was thrust to confirm his death, and the great, bitter stone that was rolled across his tomb. And she stood there, and she watched it all in a pain beyond all weeping, in a place where it seemed the angels would never sing again
 She did not know until the Sunday that there was a greater song to be sung, and a glory that would flood through every gaping hole where the sword had wounded her so deeply.

Monday, October 26, 2015

I give thanks

I give thanks
For fluff-clouds on water-blue skies.
The stern majesty of thunderheads,
Lyrical spring flowers
And the moving of the air in mighty winds.

I give thanks for water:
Running, leaping, dancing in sunlight,
A merriment of streams,
Mirror-magic lakes,
Seas that stretch beyond my ken,
Calling the pilgrim soul.

I give thanks for food:
Lushness of strawberries,
Subtlety of spices,
The first fruits of the season and the last,
The joy of bread,
The meats that satisfy
And the smooth of chocolate on the tongue.

I give thanks for life:
For the steadiness of breath and the readiness of tears,
For the music of birds and of laughter
And the gaiety of ducks,
For the touch of human hands
And the kind smile of the stranger,
For the wisdom learned through heartbreak
And the words that change our souls,
For poetry and story and imagination’s leap.

I give thanks for hope:
For the stars that light the darkness
And the cross
Whose darkness lights the world.
For the incoming Kingdom that sprouts
One mustard seed at a time.
For the courage we call faith
And the faith that we call courage.

I give thanks for love:
In spite of everything.
Love.

Monday, October 19, 2015

These Wolves

(a poem for those who immerse themselves in detective stories)

These wolves are no companions
For those who sing in the silence.
They do not light candles in holly bushes,
Or gaze through sweet-draped windows.
The rattle of bones and chains
Is not the rattle of good-news-horses.
And no children run, gleefully greeting.

No, these loups lope silent
Alone in the strong dark forest,
Through caves of old hidden hatreds,
The tunnels under the heart.
They pant with their fetid longing
To shatter false innocence.

Their names are older than memory,
Twisted through chains of language,
And those who doubt their power
Have never smelled blood on snow;
Have never beheld the horror
When life turns inside out.

We can trace the slot of their running
Through the dry river beds of thought,
When emotion has been dammed.
(Damned, dammed and damned)
They howl in slippery winds
Through our full-mooned disappointments
And we recoil in horror
From the doorways of our rage.

We are passion’s fools.
Helpless unless the angels
Shut up the mouths of the beasts
In the place of our praying.

And the truth shall set us free.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Resolution

The salt is on my lips, and the wind tugs at my hair,
And the sun upon the waves, a light too bright to bear
And it calls, it calls to my heart, and I have no choice but dare.

Soft night wraps me around, the stars clear overhead
Like flames of ice in the sky, beyond where words are said,
Here, in my wingless flight, I rise and confront my dread.

The music whispers close, but the words are all my own
Like moths they flutter, beating their wings on walls of stone,
Till one finds the shape of truth, then into silence gone.

Flesh into softness falls, night into morning turns,
In the swift shape of days see that the soul still burns
Heeding the beautiful, owning the love it yearns.

Let these poor clumsy hands lay down the stones of life
Holding no stones to throw, humble amidst the strife
Letting the glory pierce sharper than any knife.

Here, while the years abide, under the stars and sun
Let me not turn aside from pilgrimage begun
Nor let these lame feet rest till the true journey’s done.

Not to be satisfied with any less than this:
The truth that tears me wide, and, though I stumble, miss,
Love is the air I breathe, nothing shall be remiss.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Bones

“Can these bones live?”

The words of the vision were thundering through his head, and the images were ones that would stay with him as long as he lived. He paused in his writing to turn it over in his mind, to consider the meaning. He still felt, almost physically, the sickening jolt that came when the reality in which you lived and moved and had your being was turned upside down and inside out. It took a while to feel as if your mind and body were on solid ground again. But then, that was what it meant to be a prophet of the Lord, it was like being a creature who inhabited land and water at the same time, to find yourself switched (at God’s timing, never your own) between the visible and invisible worlds, between the things which all men saw and felt and knew, and this other perspective, the perspective of eternity, which saw and felt and knew things so differently.

He shook his head as if to clear it, then realised that was something that never worked. He was a prophet, not a man who had had a strange dream, it was his responsibility to relive the vision in his waking flesh, to record it, to ponder it, to grow in understanding. Son he let it fill his mind – that huge valley filled with bones, dry bones without a single scrap of flesh left on them: as dry, as dead, as nearly nothing as the old bones a farmer might turn over with his plough from some battlefield in a forgotten century. He had looked at them, lying their helpless, beyond breath or help or hope, and, in the presence of God, he had known that this was Israel herself, idolatrous, foolish, disobedient Israel, exiled and rootless among the nations. Did she have a hope or a future, or were the promises made to Abraham so long ago rendered null and void by her faithlessness? Could those bones live?

But then, in the vision, he was commanded to prophesy over the bones, to tell them that it was God’s decree that they would live again – that he would give them the breath of his spirit, that they would be re-joined with sinews, and that flesh would form again, and skin would cover them once more. They would no longer be a rattle of bones, they would be human, and this time they would know their God.

So he prophesied, and the bones became bodies, and they lay there, in that great valley, like the piles of the slain on the day after battle. But, like the piles of the slain, there was no life in them, just the pretence of living.

Then, in the vision, the Lord commanded him to prophesy to the winds, and, as he spoke the words the Lord had commanded, the winds came, and breathed life into the empty bodies, and they rose up a living army. The Lord is the God who brings life to the dead. He would take the crushed hopes of Israel and restore them; he would bring back life from their national death. Exile was not an end, but a turning point. 

But as he wrote down the words of the vision, and turned over in his mind the majesty of the restoration he had seen, the thought teased at his understanding that there was something even more. God was a God who kept all his promises, right through to eternity. God brought blessing out of defeat, and made the grave a place of victory. Perhaps, in the not-yet, there was a deeper grave and a greater victory, and death, not just symbolically, but actually, would be overcome. But that was a chapter not yet written.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Sacrifice

It was one of the questions she had asked herself, now and then, through the years of her sojourning: Why have I agreed to this? What is it for? What have I given up? What have I gained? Is this a sacrifice, or just another part of life?

The answers weren’t easy, or obvious, and they changed from situation to situation. It could have been better, it could have been worse. More and more she had come to rest on the simple truth that no two lives are alike, and comparison only leads to confusion. Things were what they were. It was a different life, nothing she could have prepared for or imagined, but not necessarily a harder life. Or was it?

It was the little things, most of the time, which she missed the most, the small, intimate, everyday feminine things that had been the shape and colour and perfume of her daily life in Ur. Here, in the silences of Canaan, there was no sending a maid down to the bazaar for some little indulgence she fancied, no little visits with the friends and relatives she had known all her life, and no whiling away the lonely hours with the latest gossip and scandal. She knew nothing now about those things that had once filled her days, and discovered, after a while, that she cared a lot less than she had expected to. Her world may have shrunk, but what she had left meant so much more. And at least she never had to care if some of the gossip had been about herself and her barrenness, and the whispers that her husband really should divorce her and try again for an heir. But he never had, and for that alone she would give thanks for him forever.

But it was different for him. She had seen the glad light in his eyes when he had communed with God, the bright shining faith with which he had set out for an unknown country to pursue an impossible blessing. She had to take it on trust.

But there were other times. She had seen when fear had been his master, and, though she had been, in her turn, too afraid to speak, her resentment had burned. Twice, as if she were some mere commodity, he had lied about her status as his wife, and in order to ensure his own survival, had abandoned her to the harem of a foreign king. And twice Abraham’s God had rescued her, and she had begun to wonder if it were possible that she was just as important to God as her husband was. If so, that was a discovery that outweighed all the loneliness and discomfort of these travelling years.

But doubt still haunted her, for if God cared for her, why was she still barren? Didn’t that make any other blessing look trivial?


But now there was no further doubt, no further resentment or sense of futile sacrifice. She held in her arms her Isaac, her child of wonder, the focus of all those grand promises, the first step towards their fulfilment. This child had transformed her laughter, from the laughter of scornful doubt to the laughter of surprised delight. She lifted him up to see him better, and did not notice that the shadow of his outstretched arms formed the shape of a cross. She did not know that there would come a time when God himself would be a stranger and a wanderer in a far country, and the birth of her child was the first step towards a sacrifice that would change all history, all eternity.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Wind Blew

The wind blew.

All was chaos and darkness, chaos and darkness. But the Spirit of God hovered on the face of the waters, and the wind blew. And there was separation between the waters and the dry ground, and creation became ordered and life-giving. And the wind blew.

And on the sixth day, at the apex of Creation, God formed man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils. And the wind blew and man became a living soul. And the wind blew.

And the wind blew, ruffling the pages of history, raising one man up and casting another down, raising one nation up and casting another down, raising one empire up and casting another down. And one man, Abram, was blown forth from the comforts of Ur to be a stranger and a pilgrim, to have no land or nation of his own, but the promise of a land and a nation that would be beyond his measure and counting. He was a stranger and a pilgrim, and he was called the friend of God. And the wind blew.

And the wind blew the descendants of Abraham down to Egypt, where they multiplied to become a nation. They endured slavery until the time of their deliverance, and then, led by Moses, they fled after the wind blew the angel of death across Egypt. And the wind blew, and there was a path through the midst of the waters, and they walked through that path of terror to their freedom, only to choose the chains of idolatry over and over again. And the wind blew.

And the wind blew. The walls of Jericho blew down. Judges and kings, priests and prophets, came and went. Empires rose and fell. And the wind ruffled through the pages of history. They left the Land of Promise and returned again. And the wind blew.

And the wind blew, and a man named John was born, mightiest of the prophets. And following on the heels of his conception, the wind blew and a virgin conceived, and God became man and walked this earth in power and meekness, and his face was set towards the cross. And the wind blew, and the face of the sun was hidden, and there was desolation, and redemption was accomplished. And then the wind blew, and the stone was rolled away, and death and hell were overcome. And the wind blew.

And the wind blew. And to those gathered in prayer in the upper room it came with the sound of a mighty rushing wind, and tongues of flame appeared. And the wind blew and they were empowered to carry forth the news of a new creation to the ends of the earth. And they were clothed in love and truth. And the wind blew. 

And the wind still blows. Hearts are made new, lives restored, truth is proclaimed and faith is given to the faithless.  And the wind blows, ruffling the pages of history. And we await the fulfilment of the ages, when the wind shall blow and the Son of Man descend, and this world shall be rolled up like a garment and blown away, and there shall be a new heaven and a new earth. And the wind blows, even now, blowing hope into our hearts.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Song

The idea first came to him when he was still a boy, out in the hills, watching his Father’s sheep. As he led the flock to better pastures, as he found safe waters for them to drink and defended them from wild beasts, it occurred to him that the Lord was rather like a shepherd as well. He was certainly the defender of His people, everyone knew that when the people followed God truly He protected them from their enemies, and when they fell away into false worship, He withdrew His protection and their enemies were victorious. Why, oh why was Israel so slow to learn that the gods of the surrounding nations were only stone and wood and metal, and had neither power nor love?

And there he was stuck. God was most certainly their protector and provider, but what else could he say? He put the analogy aside and got on with his life. There were sheep to be tended, music to be made, a giant to be destroyed to relieve Israel’s shame, and a mad king to be soothed and relieved.  There was a strange moment, too precious to be spoken of, when the prophet Samuel came and anointed him as king. Time passed. There was a princess to be won (at a price of blood), a prince to heal his heart with deep friendship, and then the mad king became his enemy, throwing spears at him and sending armies after him. He and his men took shelter in the wilderness, a bunch of lonely outlaws, and the years passed over them.

Then the mad king died, along with the friend who held his heart and in the fullness of time the shepherd boy became king of Israel. Now the challenges were different. He had a kingdom to rule, a family to manage, and temptations that almost destroyed him. And his God was still his highest joy. There were years of glory and years of shame. He was no longer managing just his father’s flock, he was trying to learn how to shepherd all of Israel, and discovering in the process that it was his own heart that needed shepherding most of all. And he could not do it, there was only one who could.

So he took out that old idea again, that picture of God as the perfect shepherd, and found that now he knew what to say. God was the one who could direct him on right paths and keep him walking in honour. God was the one who had walked beside him in the very presence of death. God was the one who had filled him with good things in the very presence of his enemies, just as a shepherd removed the poisoned weeds so that the sheep might know abundance. And God was the one who keep him safely in holy joy all the days of his life, and beyond life’s end. He took up his pen and began to write the song of his life: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall lack not be in want …”
 He did not know that, a thousand years later, it would be his own descendant who would stand and declare, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” but he knew, and sang of, the mercy of the Shepherd, his God, who was utterly faithful.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Conversion of St Paul

Down into seas unreachable I fall
Burned by the bitter salt encrusting me,
Within, without, around. My body weeps
And all I am is rust, rust and decay,
And crazy laughter from the depths of hell.

It seems another life, another world
Another self, another everything,
Like a child’s toy moved to another pose.
I did another’s wish, thought it my own,
So dutiful, so proud of dutiful!
(Oh, taste the burning bile upon my tongue!)
A shape of dust formed by a desert wind
A self-imagined cutting edge of truth,
And all my glory seen now vanity,
And all my hopes lie crushed in self-despair.

How did I dare presume? Presume to know
The ways of Him whose thoughts are not like mine;
Who rides upon the thunder, clothed in light,
Makes stars sing in their places, shapes the sea,
To deep, on deep, on deep no man can plumb,
And sculpts each blossom, delicate as air?

And yet I thought I knew. That was my sin
Such arrogance as very devils wear,
To think that I could see the face of God
Clear in my own nuancing of the Law,
Clear in my  wrathful scorn for this new Christ,
Clear in my hate for all the humblest ones.

And now the light has shone and I am blind
Spinning down into dark I never dreamed,
All light has gone except one dazzling truth:
This Rabbi Jesus, hated and despised,
Condemned, so I believed, by man and God,
Has vanquished death, is God-his-very-self
Consuming fire that burns up all I knew,
And all I am is prostrate in despair.
…………

Yet, from this place, this lowly, slowly place,
Where fire and worm eat up my broken soul,
I see compassion on His thorn-scarred face,
This broken God who calls me to be whole.
I see compassion, and it eats away
The very stony bones of what makes me
Till I fall shapeless at his nail-scarred feet,
He reaches bleeding hands and raises me.
Yes, raises me, His utmost enemy,
Undone by all my blackest, darkest sin,
Yet more undone because He loves me here,
And opens up His heart and takes me in.
And I remember busy temple days,
The stench of blood, the incense and the fire,
The long line of unblemished lambs that wait
Their turn to suffer at the knife’s desire.
And see, and know Him now, the Lamb of God,
Wearing my sin and dying in my place;
I see it now, my world turned inside out!
For the first time I recognise His grace.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

The Gift of Peace

Deep inside he had always been restless, unsatisfied. It was what drove him. Mediocrity would never satisfy him; he had to be the best, the purest, the holiest. He had to be right with God. He did not know where this desire came from, nor did he even ask such questions. His only introspection was to measure himself against the Law, and see where he needed to work harder. He had heard some mocking whispers about his zeal, but they did not embarrass him at all – he was eager to be the most learned student, the most zealous Pharisee that the world had ever known.

He had excelled as a student, and was already a known man in Jerusalem, though he was still young. He knew the Law, and he understood the politics of the temple. So he was horrified when a new sect appeared, even more horrified when they persisted and grew even after their rabbi had been crucified. In fact, they claimed that he had risen from the dead. What blasphemy was that! Even worse, they claimed that this Jesus couldn’t be produced to prove their case because he had gone up into the heavens and was, in fact, God. Next they claimed that his sacrificial death had superseded the sacrifices in the temple. It seemed they wanted to undermine the very bedrock of his religion. This must be stopped, and he was the man to do it. He was on fire to get rid of them and their heresy. He hated their Jesus and everything he stood for.

So there he was, one day, on yet another expedition against them (this time in Damascus), when his whole world came undone. Just as the hottest part of the day was passing, it was as if the heavens opened, and a light too bright for this mortal world shone down on him. There were no more shadows or evasions. And then a voice spoke, a voice whose beauty broke his heart. This was what he had been seeking, what all his zeal and effort were for. But the voice did not commend him. Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?” it asked.

 A horrible fear engulfed him. “Who are you Lord?” he breathed, his mouth dry with sudden terror.

There was no comfort in the answer. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” There were further instructions, and he obeyed them blindly, groping his way through a world gone suddenly as dark as the pit. It took him a few moments to realise that he could no longer see physically, the darkness inside him was so much darker. Where does a man go when he finds he has been fighting against the very God he thought he was serving so excellently? What is left except damnation? 

The next three days were the worst of his life, as he sat in the darkness with his whole world unravelled. Then a man called Ananias came to him, prayed over him, and his sight was restored. And in that moment he understood. The very Jesus he had hated, was the one who had come to die for him, who loved him to death and beyond. In Jesus all his folly – no, his wickedness – was forgiven. And as Saul was baptised, in deep repentance, for the first time he truly knew the peace of God.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Holy is the Name

We train our tongues to shape round syllables,
Dusty with time and fresh with new day’s thought,
Bearing the weight of all we want to mean,
The blazed communication which we sought.

We train our tongues, we train our minds and hearts,
To think and feel what our small words contain,
To never colour in outside the lines,
And never own our secret doubts’ slow stain.

We train our tongues, but ah! our tongues stay mute,
Our chatter falls to silence in this place –
This nameless place, our senses cannot hold,
Where light unmeasured shines on our tears’ trace.

So now our trained tongues falter from all speech,
This is more real than anything we say.
And words would but constrict the majesty
Of glory’s finest touch, its least display.

And yet, and yet, and yet … you are the Word
God speaking forth himself, his self, disclosed;
Spoken into our whirling, wordy world,
And light and life and truth are interposed.

You are the Word who spoke, and what was not
Became. Potent impossibility
Danced into being at your utterance
And was, and at your saying, so shall be.

And thus our chattering echoes silent fall
Before your silence; knowing that your voice
Undoes all death, brings justice to the earth,
And stars and moons and planets shall rejoice.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Decision

The two men stood there side by side, gazing out across the land, and as the afternoon shadows chiselled their faces into relief, like two chiaroscuro portraits, the family resemblance was strong, though one was many years older than the other. They had reached the parting of the ways, not because of any ill will or loss of affection between them – they were strangers together in a foreign land, after all, and like gravitated to like – but because they owned too much.

They had not left Ur as poor men, but now, since their sojourn in Egypt, they were fabulously, absurdly wealthy, and the land could not support them both. It was, thought the uncle, who had reached this decision, like a family that had grown too big to fit in one tent any longer, and must now split themselves, and their belongings, between two. Uncle and nephew each had so many flocks and herds that the land simply couldn’t contain them both. They needed space so that there was no conflict between the herdsmen of one and the herdsmen of the other over whose flocks should have this pasture or that. But how should they choose?

Abram was a generous man, and he gave Lot the choice, saying, “If you go to the right, I will go to the left, and if you go to the left, I will go to the right.” And they looked out over the land and they pondered what they saw. And their hearts chose differently, and their fate was decided.

For Lot looked out across the valley of the Jordan, towards the cities of the plain, and he saw a rich, well-watered land (“like the Garden of the Lord”, he explained later to his wife.) He saw luxury, he saw ease and pleasure, and saw no temptation with them, but only an agreeable life with no more travelling or travailing.  A man with riches could live in splendour there, win the respect of his neighbours and become part of the community. His days of pilgrimage were over, he had found himself a new home, and so he set his face, and turned his life, towards Sodom and Gomorrah. Years later he would flee Sodom losing all his wealth and most of his family.

And Abram turned his face from the riches of Sodom and chose to go westward, willing to go wherever God should lead him, having no home but his tents and no posterity beyond the promise which God had given him, which seemed no nearer than before. And his heart was set on pilgrimage, for he had made the promises of God his habitation. And, as he turned aside from rest and ease, watching his nephew depart, the Lord appeared to him, renewing those self-same promises. “All the land you see, in every direction, I will give to you and to your descendants. And your descendants as plentiful as the dust of the earth. Walk the land, know its length and breadth, for it is my gift to you”.


And Abram went forth and walked the land and worshipped the God who had called him. And he is called the friend of God.

Monday, July 13, 2015

To the Uttermost

 In later years he would ask himself, “What was I thinking? How could I not have known?” but at the time it made, if not exactly sense, then a kind of desperate necessity. He was doing the only thing he knew how to do, the only thing he could think of to salvage the situation when his heart’s desire was on the line, or so he thought. His mistake was to think that his own strength and cunning could bring him there. All his life, after all, (from before his birth if his mother had spoken truly) he had been struggling to get there.

And in the end, all his cleverness had brought him full circle. Now, after leaving home as a desperate runaway, with only a stone as pillow, he was returning as a wealthy man, with flocks and herds beyond his imagination, wives, concubines and children. And in the end it didn’t matter, because he would still have to face the brother he had wronged, and hope that he could appease him with gifts so that, at the very least, his life would be spared. He was very afraid.

So he divided all he had into two groups, hoping that something might be spared from his brother’s wrath, and sent his wives and sons away, and then, alone and desperate, he prayed. And then a man appeared, and wrestled with him all through the night. When Jacob told the story to his family later, he put it as bluntly and baldly as that. How else could he explain such a surreal experience? How could explain the time, the place, his state of mind, in such a way that they could understand any better. Some experiences cannot be explained, they can only be lived through. The understanding les in the doing. So at the time, Jacob did not ask why a stranger should appear in this desolate spot and wrestle him, he knew, in the very turmoil of his bones, that it was his prayer made visible, his deep, need of God, the hunger that had driven him to treachery and sharp dealing, come up at last, against the reality of who God was. And so he strove, with everything he had, with everything he was, pitting himself to the uttermost against this foe who was also his heart’s desire and his deepest need. In his very fighting he clung desperately, until the only strength he had left was the strength of his need. All other things: his pride, his cunning, the cleverness with which a soft man bargains for success in a brutal world, all these things fell away. Only need remained.

And as the sky started to lighten in the east, the stranger touched his hip and dislocated it. The pain was intense, but still Jacob would not concede defeat. “Let me go, it is daybreak,” said the stranger.

“No,” said Jacob, still hanging on through the overwhelming pain. His breath came in hoarse sobs, but he cried out, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!”

There it was, at the heart of who he was. All his life he had been chasing the blessing, trying every means except the only one that mattered. One did not win the blessing of God by grabbing from men, but by pursuing the One whose very nature was blessing until all other things were left behind. Here, in this place that turned the whole world upside down, man seemed to have victory over God, but the very triumph of all God’s plans for blessing came from the very place of God’s apparent defeat. 

And Jacob was given a new name.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Sook Ching (on Changi Beach)

(The Sook Ching -- literally "purge through cleansing" -- was the massacre of Chinese people deemed to be hostile by the Japanese during WW2. We stood on Changi beach, and the guide told us the story of one such massacre, where the men were forced to wade into the sea in rows, where they were shot down. )

And the waves wash, grey and salt,
Salt and grey.

The time of terror,
Prejudice spinning,
Wild, uncontrolled,
The desperate nightmare,
Of a world that lost its bearings,
Lost its axis,
Twisting, like a child’s top,
Madly down the road.

And the waves wash, grey and salt,
Salt and grey.

Picture it now,
The juggernaut of hate,
Bearing down, crushing life, crushing hope,
Men in mad scramble
To gather up their splintered selves again:
Blank with horror
For the waste of it,
The bitter, pointless waste.

And the waves wash, grey and salt,
Salt and grey.

There is no sense in violence,
Cold calculation
Has married raging hate
This is the fruit,
Dark, damned and fruitless fruit.
The devil’s arithmetic
Gambles with lives – one here, another there,
Another overlooked.

And the waves wash, grey and salt,
Salt and grey

They marched into the sea,
They had no choice
(The guns, the bayonets)
Herded and helpless,
Oh, what was the point?
(The pointless, pathless point,
Pathetically profound)
To stand, to stand,
Unsteady in the waves
(The waves of water, and the waves of fire)
Blindly reduced to bodies in the sea.

And the waves wash, grey and salt,
Salt and grey

And we, with tears, now stand on that same beach.
We hear the story, and we hear the waves
The waves of water and of history,
The bitter waters of our broken race.
And, see, no sun is breaking through the clouds,
The dark and looming clouds.
We each, alone,
In the primeval loneliness of man,
Must face again the dark without, within.
Must learn again to know and not pretend,
Deny the facile answer, programmed verse
With which we seek to flee our human shame;
And face again our coward lovelessness,
Till our numb lips can shape a holier name.

And the waves wash, grey and salt,
Salt and grey
Till there is no more sea.

Monday, July 06, 2015

On Planning a Holiday

I, who am too in love with big ideas,
Preferring, always, concept to the concrete,
Subtly gnostic,
More wedded to the feeling than the fact,
And wont to drown
In a cascade of details,
Must here take hold of hope
And wade me through.

I, who find
The mists of history indwelt by my kind,
Where every story wears a human name,
And ever passion leads to joy or shame,
(Or both, because our tales are rarely small),
Would wander castles, put down roots in time,
Dazzled by daydreams of what might have been,
Yet knowing I can never see them all,
Must choose a route that touches some of this.

I, who have walked
Cathedrals, and have felt the weight of prayer
Bear down on me from countless counted years
In benison or challenge.
Wondering,
Who were the saints who sanctified this place
With patient faith and sacrificial trust?
And, all the more,
How can I learn from them?

I, who hold
A whole world in imagination’s hand –
Worlds beyond worlds if only feet could reach …
Must tie me down into the tangible,
Must walk through timetables, prices and maps,
Cities and flightpaths, distances to drive,
Weathers and wearinesses,
Websites too,
And draw a line of best fit through them all,
A path that we can follow with delight,
And stretch our hearts, and find in everywhere
One still, small voice that always calls us home.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Sydney Winter

Here, at the nadir of the year
Long-slanted sun, pale yellow on the ground,
And shadows etched out,
Dark-edged and precise.

I have heard magpies
Singing sweetness back
Into these ebb-tide days,
This time withdrawn:
Drained out, laid bare,
The skeleton time when some trees naked stand,
And others rattle dull leaves in the wind.

And wattles blaze
In fiery, brilliant gold
Against the cold
And life leans back
Against their gathered light.

My blood grows thin
As winters pass,
Each swifter than the last;
The cold more keen
Cuts to the bone my self-illusioned strength,
I wait,
Less patiently,
For days of length.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Conflict

It is all too easy to start out with love and end up with ambition, to start out in a rush of admiration and conviction, putting everything else aside for the sake of the one in whom you had glimpsed, in that transcendent moment, the glory of God, but then you let other motives intrude. They had been there then, on that day, by the Sea of Galilee, engrossed in their mundane tasks when He had come to them (to them!!!!) and told them to cast aside their nets, and follow Him, and He would make them “Fishers of Men.” They weren’t quite sure what that meant, what that could mean, but there was a hard, bright glory in those words, and something about Him that was different to every other man they had ever met.

Of course it wasn’t easy being the disciples of an itinerant preacher with no home of His own, and they were very aware of the things that they had given up for His sake, but His words were like springs of living water, and the signs and the wonders He performed turned their whole world inside out. He confused them and sometimes annoyed them, expecting and proclaiming impossibilities, but they would no more have forsaken Him than they would have forsaken their own beating hearts. And gradually their confidence grew.

He talked a lot about the “kingdom”, and since by then they believed Him to be the promised Messiah, it was inevitable that eventually they would start to speculate what their own role in this coming kingdom might be. Obviously, as His first disciples, they would be very, very important, but how would that work? Some would obviously be more important than others, and, since Jesus said nothing on the subject, they wondered how this would be decided. Of course, being human, they each started marshalling their arguments to support their own case:

“Well, I believed in Him first.”

“I have cast out demons in His name.”

“I was with Him when …”

Tensions escalated, grumblings increased. Each of them had a secret dream of being the one in charge, His right hand man, a person of great glory. Each of them made his own case for superiority over the others. Things were starting to get tense. In the end they had to ask Jesus, they had to resolve this. “Which of us is the greatest?” they asked.

He took His time. He looked each of them in the eye in that uncomfortable way He had that made each of them feel that the secret thoughts of their hearts were not as glorious as they had imagined, but actually rather shabby and shoddy. They stood there, almost shuffling their feet with awkwardness. Somehow the question, which had seemed so urgent a moment before, now seemed rather silly.

Then Jesus turned away from them and called a little child to come over and stand with them. What was He about? Jesus looked at them, looked at the child, and then back at them again. “I tell you,” He said, “unless you change, unless you give up your hunger for power and position, and become a nobody, like a small child, and humble yourselves, you haven’t begun to understand my Kingdom. Whoever is willing to let go of power, and pride and prestige, he is the greatest in the Kingdom.”

Friday, June 12, 2015

Lost and Found

It was marvellous to be a newborn member of the Shepherd’s flock. The pastures were so lush and green that, even though many sheep were sharing the same meadow, it took no effort at all to find the softest, juiciest grass to eat. And, when she had eaten her fill, there was plentiful water to drink: water so still and clear that even a young lamb felt safe bending her head to drink from it. She ran and leapt and giggled with the other young lambs, but, just before the point where her tiredness would begin to make her disagreeable, the Shepherd would be right there (how did He keep watch on each one of them individually?) and He would make her lie down and rest. It was the most beautiful place, the happiest life, and she would gaze at the Shepherd in grateful adoration for the life He had given her.
Imagine her shock when, one day, the Shepherd said that it was time for the flock to move on. Looking around she realised that the grass was all cropped and the waters were growing muddy. She accepted, reluctantly, that she must follow the Shepherd away from this tranquil place.

But the route he took were like nothing she had expected. There were no rich pastures here. That was all gone. Oh there was enough, she didn’t starve, but there was never the more-than-enough which she craved. The paths were long and narrow, and it was hard to stay obedient to the Shepherd – to stop when the Shepherd said to stop, to keep going when the Shepherd said to keep going, to not wander off and munch on those tempting green plants which the Shepherd said would only do her harm. She wasn’t always obedient, but the Shepherd was always there to protect her when she most needed saving from herself. And in the journey she grew stronger, and learned to trust Him more, though she still longed for the rich pastures which had gone.

She needed that strength. For now the Shepherd led them through a terrible place, and she trembled for her very life. The drops were sheer, the paths were narrow, and there was a great darkness hovering over every hesitant step she took. Some sheep whispered that it was called the Valley of the Shadow of Death. It took all the obedience she had learned to keep going. But whenever the danger was greatest, somehow the Shepherd was always there to rescue her, and to shield her from destruction.

Eventually the nightmare was over. Many times she longed for the green pastures, but there was no going back. Now they had reached a flat and level place, and the Shepherd told them to stop. Yes there was rich grass here, but there were other plants growing among them which would kill the sheep. He must root these out before they could safely eat. And the sheep, impatient with hunger, huddled close together as they heard the howling of wolves in the background. They knew that their Shepherd was a match for any wolf, but it is a frightening thing to be in the presence of your enemies.

Eventually they ate richly, while their Shepherd stood guard. He walked among and checked them for the scrapes and sores from their difficult journey, pouring healing oil upon their wounds. She looked up at him with love. No, the journey wasn’t over yet, and difficulties and dangers probably lay ahead, but she no longer had regrets. She understood enough by now to know that the Shepherd was leading her through these things because He was taking her somewhere better, to a pasture that would never fade or fail, where she could drink forever from the water of life.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The Caged Eagle

(I began this in Singapore, seeing the birds of prey confined in cages which, though large, are still so much smaller than the wide skies they were created for. Found the poem in my notebook, and finished it this morning)

And is this all there is,
This which I see,
Or should there be
A different life for me?

Infinite skies I see
Beyond this cage
Incite in me strange longings
And strange rage.

Some glory calling,
Glory past my ken.
Stirring in me to rise there
Now and then.

I hear the wild wind
To my heart it sings.
I long to feel its power
In my wings.

All of this safety
Serves but to confine
This unstretched self
From serving the Divine.

I am no twittering sparrow
To content
My being with such
Circumscribed extent.

And should I choose to be
The smaller thing,
And never, never hear
The wild clouds sing?

It is temptation but
It is not life
To shun the dizzy height,
The wild winds’ strife.

Though curtailed and contained,
I choose to be
True to my blood and calling
And heart-free.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Sunlight dancing on the water

A thousand ballerinas
In glittering pirouette?
Or perhaps angels,
Grown since their mediaeval pinhead days,
Dancing to the glory?
Or minuscule ships of fire,
Burning but not consumed,
Skipping waves we cannot see?
Diamonds are too ordinary for this,
Too tainted by our groping avarice.

Coruscation:
Creation showing forth delight
Unbound from the wheel of time,
(The endless entropy of our heart-passion);
Instead
Anticipating
The merriment, the grace of joy reborn,
Delight that lights the Lamb’s great Wedding Feast

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Polar Bears

(on predictions that they will become a threatened species)

If the reports (with all their oughts)
Are true,
If a wildness is vanished from the white,
And another wonder swallowed up
By our determined banality,
The greyness of the comfortable life,
Is the world bereft,
Another step in its long, slow grieving?
Do we conquer monsters with despair?

Is there room for play in the frozen wastelands?
Is there joy in the stark, dark night?
Do the Northern Lights sing mystery
For eyes that are not mine?

Loss and sorrow, the world’s long miserere,
The funeral march for springtime’s hopes and dreams.
Only the listening ear can hear,
Pianissimo,
The single flute motif of all things new.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Day of Reckoning

Did they think he was a fool? Did they think their silly magic tricks would let him relinquish such a valuable asset? Say what they would about going three days into the desert to worship their God, they weren’t fooling him. Out of sight, and they would vanish faster than the morning dew in the desert air! He was Pharaoh, not some peasant to be taken in by a good story, and they were a race of slaves, born to serve. Without their labour, all his building projects would never get done. Why would he give away such a valuable asset? They might as well ask him to give away the River Nile, or the sun in the burning sky! But the River Nile knew its place and flowed between its banks, overflowing them once a year at just the right time so that the land of Egypt stayed fertile and prosperous. Certainly it had turned to blood that time, but that was just a magic trick, and, after all, it didn’t last. A bit unpleasant at the time, sure (ok, it was downright nasty) but no harm done in the long run. The Nile knew its place, and the blazing sun, Amun-Ra, knew his rightful place and stayed there, god though he was. Only this Moses, his brain obviously addled by too many years under the desert sun, kept coming back with this insane demand, “Let my people go!”

Yes, he had to admit it had been a bad year: locusts, hail, cattle plague, even that period of darkness which had terrified some of the priests and magicians and set them imagining all sorts of dreadful portents. Bad years happen. Hadn’t there been that time, way, way back in the mists of history, when they had famine for seven years? Terrible, yet Egypt had survived. He was Pharaoh, secure in his palace where no hurt could reach him. If a few peasants died, starved, suffered, well, that was the lot of peasants everywhere. He was tired of these Hebrews trying to gain credit for their futile cause from every misfortune that happened. If their God (who didn’t even seem to have a name or an image) were really so powerful, why would they be a race of slaves?

And now the latest news was that they had all been killing lambs from their flocks and painting blood on their doorways. What kind of slavish superstition was that? And so unhygienic! Actually, he’d better make a note to get the overseers to make them clean up before some sort of plague broke out among them. It would serve them right, of course, but he needed able-bodied slaves right now. Odd, wasn’t it, that none of those plaguey misfortunes that had racked Egypt lately seemed to have affected them?

It really was time he went to bed and stopped letting those slaves keep him from his rest. They really weren’t worth it! It must be nearly midnight. It was a mild night, he wandered out to the balcony, still unable to get them out of his head. And then, it was if a loud cry went out all over Egypt, as if some terrible calamity had happened in every home at once. And then, before he had time to begin to understand, a terrible keening cry rose up from within the palace, from the quarters of his eldest son, his beloved heir. What could possibly have happened?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Ministry of Poetry

We carry tears for those who cannot cry,
We walk the darkness where they dare not die,
And say aloud their secret question “why?”

We kneel before the beauty that transcends
Encouraging the faltering knee that bends,
Offering word-wings so the heart ascends.

We dare to look towards the heart of things
Reminding that here, too, the Spirit sings,
And faith gives feet to all our journeyings.

We keep the secret vigils of the heart,
And then, with fumbling words, try to impart
Our wordless wonder with our struggling art.

Our songs are prayers for those who cannot pray
We bring small candles where there is no day
Offering our feeble lights to show the way.

When all the tears are cried, the words are said,
And memory and meaning seem all fled,
We’ll sing the resurrection of the dead.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Song of Confession

Oh God of the shining face
Mystery of mysteries, whose love out-sings the cherubim,
Mercy of eternity
Bend your grace on me.

I have walked (as all men walk)
With stumbling steps
Tripping over myself
In the rush towards my folly
Bending my tears to your ears
Unheeding of your love song.

I have climbed the precipice of pride
And thought myself lifted,
Swum the ardent puddles of my self-deceit,
And imagined me a conqueror of oceans,
Closed my eyes and turned my head
To avoid the relentless demands
Of unbearable pity,
And blamed you for my pain.

I have failed to love you
You, you whose love first spun me into being
Who can balance the galaxies on a fingertip,
And wipe my smallest tear.
I have turned away
From the gratitude of stars
And the secret of forgiveness
Into a self-bound world,
Self on self bent backwards,
And the angels sang and I drowned it with cheap jokes.

I have kept my neighbour
At the safe and careful distance that propriety demands,
Leaving no blood on the carpets,
From the bloodless banal words
That displace our hearts.
And my name is Pharisee,
And my cheap gilt mirrors
Show a strangely leprous face
(It must be the light.)

God of the shining face,
Light which is life
Turn not your face
Lest I perish,
Utterly undone.
One life,
One death,
One Way,

And I give thanks.