Saturday, April 24, 2010

Eagle's Wings

What I remember most clearly was the fear. I was only a little girl at the time, but I could feel the fear among the people, and my mother clutching my arm too tight and ordering me, over and over, to keep hold of my little brother. Of course, that was not a logical response to the mighty army of Egypt, but when did fear make people logical?

They were such strange days that even a child could feel their strangeness. For months the adults had been talking in serious, anxious tones about “plagues”; I remember the frogs (which we children thought were rather funny), and the giant hailstorm, and the locusts, and all the rest, but it was all a bit unreal since those plagues weren’t happening to us, just to our Egyptian neighbours. Only when I grew up, and heard the story repeated, did I begin to understand the sequence of events, and how our parents’ whole world was being turned upside down.

For me reality broke in when we reached the sea. We were camped there when the Egyptians came, and the fear that ran through our camp was something you could taste and feel. I remember someone screaming at Moses, “Have you brought us here to die?” and someone else laughing, in a tone that chilled my bones, “weren’t there enough graves in Egypt?” I was too young to understand, but I was frightened by the clamour and the yelling. I buried my head in my mother’s skirt. Then Moses spoke, and the clamour grew still. There was a darkness between us and the Egyptians, so that we could no longer see each other. Then, from nowhere, there came a wind, perfumed with a wild freshness that I have never smelled before or since, and the waters divided. It was a night so different from every other night, and all I felt was fear.

There was hubbub and confusion as we started moving forwards together, and then, by that strange light that shone from behind us, I saw the mighty wall of water. Several times the height of a man’s head, it reared up to our left, and if we hadn’t known that the Egyptians were right behind us, and that the punishment of runaway slaves was a fearful thing, I doubt if many would have crossed. That terrible wall of water loomed over us as we trod across the damp uneven ground that had been the seabed such a short time before, and we clutched each other tight and tried not to look. I could feel the tremble in my mother’s hands, and I know she was not the only one. It was a dreadful road we trod, and many, I suspect, had very little idea of what was happening. Then we reached the other side, and just as the last of our people clambered up to dry ground, the first of the Egyptians tried to cross the sea. Forward they came, and I can dimly remember the people asking why we did not hurry away (as if we could outrun the chariots of Egypt), but Moses shook his head and commanded them to wait. There seemed to be much confusion among them, certainly they were moving very slowly! Then, I think Moses moved his hand again, or something like that, and all that weight of water came crashing down. The army of Egypt was swept away!

I remember that night now, it all comes back to me, but for many years I hardly thought of it. I had understood so little at the time, and so many more things happened afterwards, that I think I simply locked my childhood memories away. Somehow, at least in my family, it became one of those things we never talked about.

Tonight Moses spoke, before all the gathered people, and at last I remembered and understood. He spoke of God as being like an eagle, an eagle who stirs up her nest so the young birds are forced to leave it and discover their wings, but then hovers beneath them and bears them up, so that they will not cannot fall. I remember the fear, and the horror, the people around me crushed by so much change; but I also remember the wonder and the joy. This is salvation, this is what it looks like when the Holy One Himself breaks into our little, broken lives. We are let loose into terror, the old order falls away beneath our feet, but then we are borne up by eagle’s wings, and carried where we never dreamed to go. We are saved into glory, and glory is a fearful thing, but nothing less can be our destiny. He will lift us, He will carry us, until we learn to grow wings ourselves, and then we will soar with Him, into love.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Wilderness

She had never thought the wilderness could be like this: soft, scented, crowded with female flesh, high pitched voices and petty jealousies. But only when she named it as the wilderness, did it start to make any sense ..

The wilderness had always been important to her people. It was where Adonai took his people to deal with softness and doubt and make them strong. It was the place where He took them so that they could know Him. In the Beginning, Father Adam had been sent forth into the wilderness when he had disregarded the word of the Holy One. There he could begin to learn what holiness means. Father Abraham had walked through the wilderness to come to the promise, Jacob had met Adonai himself in the wilderness, or so her uncle’s stories said, and as for Moses .. She always found herself shaking her head when she thought of Moses. Such a strong man, but it was the wrong kind of strength. Forty years he had to spend in the wilderness to get his faith remade, and then he was sent back into the wilderness to lead the people through the forty years they needed there until the slavery was burned from them by the desert sun, and they were blown clean from the darkness of Egypt. “We are a stubborn bunch, my people,” she thought. King David had spent his time in the wilderness too, learning how to be a king, and there was Elijah, and great Joshua ..

She sighed. It was easy to see why they went to the wilderness. Adonai had called them to be great leaders, and in the wilderness they met Him and let go of what they had been before. But she was a woman. And she was not walking the road of greatness, but of bitterness and shame. She had thought she would marry one of the young tradesmen whose fathers were friends of her uncle, and be an honoured Jewish wife, the help of her husband and the strength of his bones. That was the life she understood, the life that her upbringing had been preparing her for. Not this uncleanness, this shame, this separation from her own people. When she had said yes to her uncle (as she must, anyway, since he was her guardian) she had thought only of honour and excitement. She was young, and for a while she had begun to guess, from the quick look in men’s eyes, that maybe she was beautiful. It had felt so good to be recognised.

But here she was, just another pretty girl among so many. They did things to her body that amazed her, and taught her things that made her blush. Her days were filled with pointless idleness and petty gossip. If she had to spend the rest of her life in this harem, surely she would go mad. This place, with its soft cushions and perfumed places, was the desert of the heart, and she could not understand why she was there. Her uncle had said that it was the will of the Holy One that she should be taken here, he had also said she must keep it secret that she was one of the exiled people. He was a wise man, but did he understand this strange world of women? Day by day he came to enquire how she was, and to encourage her that this was all part of Adonai’s plan.

She did not understand, and yet, she assented. Why the Holy one would put her in such an unholy place was mystery, but if this was her wilderness, then here she would grow strong. She would find a way to know the one who the prophets said was so near, and who cared for His people. She could not imagine what use she would ever be behind the harem walls, but if this was her wilderness, then here she would learn faith. She would not be a little girl any more. But how could Adonai ever use her in such a place as this?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Feast

She had always been on the outside, in the cold, bleak miserable darkness. She had always wished she could be an inside person, sitting at a laden table, with warmth and light, surrounded by good friends who really loved her, and who were glad to receive her love. Inside people always looked happy. They sat there is abundance, and all their needs were provided, but, best of all, they belonged! She wanted so badly to belong like they did, but she was an outside person, and outside people didn’t belong.

The truth was, outside people didn’t even belong to each other. They made room for each other when they needed to, because life was easier that way, no one had the energy to be always fighting. But they didn’t love each other, they used each other, and counted themselves lucky to be used. It was better than being ignored, at least if someone was using you they gave you back a momentary sense of your own existence, and if you were smart you find a way to use them back at the same time. It wasn’t what she wanted.

As long as she could remember, she had wanted to be an inside person. Out there, alone in the dark, she would sidle up and peek through their windows. She would gaze longingly at their little clubs and households, the comfortable chairs, the smiles softened by the warm firelight, the way they would look at each other, touch each other .... There was always food and drink, indoor people never seemed to go hungry, but most of all, they belonged!

But there was one place she returned to again and again: the King’s palace! It was large, it was richly furnished, crowded with people, and the tables were barely visible under all the food. But mostly it was because of the King himself. He was so beautiful! If only she could belong to Him! To be in the same room as Him for the rest of her life would be Heaven! There were letters over the door of the palace which seemed to spell out a message saying anyone was welcome, but once or twice, when she had had tried to walk in, the guards outside had turned her away. She wasn’t good enough. She was dirty and ragged and alone, there was rain in her hair and tears in her eyes. She understood why they turned her away, she would soil the beautiful palace just by stepping inside it.

She tried to forget about it, but she couldn’t. Other outside people didn’t seem to care, but she cared desperately. She couldn’t stay away.. Night after night she pressed up close against the windows, growing weary and weak with longing. One day she was so desperate that, scarcely noticing what she was doing, not even thinking about her own unworthiness, she walked straight past the guards and into the banquet chamber. Unbelievably, she had made it inside. She stood against the wall, out of the way, and watched and wondered.

After a while she grew tired of standing. It was precious and wonderful to be inside, but it wasn’t enough. She still didn’t belong. A cruel voice whispered in her heart that she had only got in by accident, and if the King saw her he would surely have her thrown out. So she cowered in the shadows, afraid of drawing attention to herself. Sometimes she would venture close to one of the tables on the outermost edge, but the moment she approached the people there would huddle together and spread out their elbows, making it very clear that there was no room for her there.
She was crying again, slow, silent tears that managed to make her face look even dirtier. Distressed that, even in here, she was no closer to her heart’s desire, she found herself calling out, in a cracked and broken whisper, “My Lord and My King!”

No one could have heard her. No one could have possibly heard her amongst the noise of the feasting. Those nearby showed no reaction at all. Yet, unbelievably, the King had heard. Impossibly, He rose from His place and was walking towards her. For a moment she thought that she would be condemned to something even worse than being thrown out. But there was no mistaking the smile on his face, the love n His eyes. He looked at her as if she was the only person in the room. He was by her side, his arms were around her. “Come, “ He said, and that one word was enough. He drew her with Him, to the centre of the room, to His own table, to the chair right next to His. She sat down in wonder. With His own robe He wiped her clean -- her hands, her face, her feet – and His robe was as white as before. Then He reached out, and with His own hands, the hands with the strange scars, He served her bread and wine ..

Friday, April 09, 2010

Vale Michael Spencer

In the not-yet we wait, on the nearer shore,
In this place on broken flesh and flaccid dreams,
Missing you already, who have barely gone,
Knowing this river is the great abyss
We cannot cross alone.

It is not enough
Right now, to know that our God waits us there,
We need Him here, right now, right here, to hold us,
To tell us loss is not the final word.
The last foe prowls
Cruel on the crumbling edges, and his icy breath
Crumples us tight with fear we barely name,
For us, for you, for all we dare to love.
It is hard to be a human in this place,
Or speak of grace within the monster’s grip ..
And yet we know he is an empty thing.

Oh Easter God!
Meet with us here in the place of desolation,
Tell us again the price is fully paid
Show us again how momentary is death,
How short the path of darkness we must tread
Until we reach that sun which goes not down.
Hold us in promise
Through mystery and fear, until we reach,
That certain place where life abundant springs,
And Death, the great impostor, is no more;
And all Creation, caught in one embrace,
Dances with joy before our Father’s face.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Darkest Day

It was so hard to keep breathing, as if every part of her apparatus – throat, lungs, all the in between bits whose names escaped her at the moment – had been rasped raw by emotion, and struggled to keep working. She had to get out of the house. If she stayed here any longer, something inside her would explode. Snatching her coat and wriggling haphazardly into it, she almost ran out the door (or at least as close to running as her breathless, uncoordinated state would allow.) The raw Spring air, heavy with the smell of greenness and wet earth, seemed a cruel counterpoint to her need.

She was aimless at first, but when she saw the village church looming in front of her, habit turned her feet in that direction. This was the place which had hallowed and legitimated all the important moments of her life: her wedding, her son’s baptism, the funerals of her parents, the strange, cold funeral of the man who had once been her husband, the man who had grown so strange and bitter and remote that she had watched his burial with an unacknowledged feeling of relief. But not this one! This was the death that must not happen – the loss that violated nature, love and reason.

Here, inside the church, alone in the failing light of ending day, she was free to express her grief. Even now, it was so hard to put it into words. But words were all she had: the telegram with its stark message, the one that other mothers all over Britain were receiving, “Missing, presumed dead.” And there, just below the superscription to herself, the name of her son, her only child. “Jimmy,” she whispered in a cracked voice, and the name released a few scalding tears, like the first spatter of drops that come while the storm is still waiting to burst.”Jimmy ... my Jimmy ..” No one had ever told her that grief could feel so much like fear, that she had to clench her fingers tightly to the edge of the pew and hold on to the world, so that it wouldn’t begin slipping sideways and tipping over, slowly and inexorably, into the huge, bottomless crater that now existed in the centre of her soul. If jimmy was gone, what was left? All those hours she had spent nurturing his body into life, coaxing him to eat, nursing him through childhood illness, keeping him clean and tidy (what was that strange relationship between little boys and dirt?), teaching him right from wrong, agonising over him in the secret places of her soul .. what was the point if all that carefully cherished life could be obliterated by an impersonal bullet? What was the point of her whole life if the one she had kept struggling for was now just another statistic on the War Office files?

She realised that she was angry, very angry. With some nameless German boy with a gun who was probably even more frightened than her son? What was the point? Who was really responsible for this travesty and futility? Who created the whole sorry, sickening mess? To her own astonishment, who had always been so reverent and correct, she found herself shaking her fist at the whole kit and caboodle at the front of the church all the pious panoply of faith; and owned that she was shaking her fist at God. Her inarticulate fury found words: “How can you do this? Do you have any idea how it feels to lose your only son, to see the treasure and darling of your life disappear into the darkness of death?”

Her words hung in the silence, reverberating in their accusation. She raised her tear-brimmed eyes, almost expecting a thunderbolt from heaven There was none. Instead her eyes fastened on the crucifix at the front of the church. Vividly she remembered when the vicar before last had introduced it. There had been outrage from the more “low church’ segment of the congregation, she remembered signing a petition of sorts that had circulated, protesting the imposition of such a “papist” symbol. The petition had been ignored, the crucifix stayed, and after a while no one had paid much attention any more. It was just another part of the furniture.

But now she noticed: the twisted body of the young man, every muscle taut with struggle. No quick bullet had released him, this was hellish agony. And his father? Whatever was happening there, in that immeasurable transaction between life and death, sin, justice and forgiveness, the Father cared. Her father cared. In the death of the son, a door was opened so that all could become his children. But that took nothing away from the pain and sacrifice of that moment. He did know how it felt, he knew exactly. Somewhere there was hope in that. Her heart was broken and her hope was spent, but those nail-pierced hands still held a different kind of hope – strange and difficult, written in a language her soul could barely speak, but no less real for that. She did not know how she would go on, but somehow she knew that she would. She was not yet ready to hear an answer to her cry, but she was ready to believe that one day an answer would be given. And when it was, it would be altogether right. She began to cry softly. Her loss might be just a statistic in the official reports, but there was One who had counted every precious hair on Jimmy’s head. And he grieved with her.