Sunday, May 30, 2010

Here let me have my Heaven

Here let me have my Heaven, where the lame,
The halt, the blind, the naked and ashamed
Are gathered at the low gate’s blood soaked frame.

Here let me be as one with those who know
They have no right to claim, no right to go
And yet they come because You told them so.

Not where the neat, clean-handed pious dwell
(Those who have practised carefulness so well)
Here, with the broken, is Immanuel.

Here, beyond law and doctrine’s argued place
Here, where the huddled outcasts find their space,
Here let me drink from undiluted grace.

Here let me learn to love with hands of pain,
Here, beyond fear, acknowledging my stain
Until all things are made complete again.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


It is cool and peaceful out here on the hill, under the stars. The summer night folds round me like a cloak and I feel at rest. The love of God wraps around me also, and I wonder what it means.

For hundreds of years, every Jewish girl has dreamt of being the one who would bear the special promised child. But that was a dream, just like every poor village girl, the whole world over dreams of marriage to a rich man of high rank so that she never has to draw water of sweep floors again. We dream our dreams, we say, ‘what if?’, then we settle down and marry our good, sensible husbands, and live the life we always expected to live.

But what do you do when the dreams walk into the living day? What do you do when, one day, in the midst of household chores, a being of sheer glory appears in front of you and tells you that, out of all the girls who have ever lived, all the weary, dreamy eyed, careless maidens who have ever wistfully glanced up at the stars, you, for no possible logical reason, are to be the one who is the bearer of the Promise? Well, I know now. The very first thing you do, once the angel leaves and normal feeling returns to your body, is stand there and say, like every other person who’s ever met an angel, I suppose, is “Why me?” Only later, when you start to realise all the practical implications, do you start to ask, “How am I going to do this?”

Now I wonder both questions all the time. The first three months sped by quickly. My mother sent me off to Elizabeth’s and I stayed for the birth of her John – another miracle baby, though not the same kind of a miracle. At least he is a normal human baby, and they know who his father is. I was so busy there that there was no time for dreaming. And it gave Joseph and my parents time to understand as well. I don’t think my parents knew what to believe till Joseph told them about his dream. Joseph is not the sort of person who has holy dreams; he is the kind sensible village husband that every right-minded girl hopes she’ll end up with in real life.

And now I’m back, and I’m here, and at the end of the day I gaze up at the stars. I remember how Father Abraham was told to look up at the stars. Was he forever wondering, “Why me?” I remember how Father Jacob lay under the stars, with only a stone for a pillow, and saw so many angels. One was almost too much for me, Jacob must have been a very strong person, maybe that’s why he had to wrestle with God Himself before he learned weakness? I am not Abraham, I am not Jacob. I am just a girl whose mother has to remind her to finish sweeping while I stand rooted with amazement that this child could ever come to be.

And I remember the prophet Daniel said something about the wise shining like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness like the stars forever .. I am not a shining star. I am a little household candle, scared some days that a small wind will blow me out altogether. Yet God has placed a light inside me, a brilliant, all-consuming light, not just a star, like the prophets and the fathers of our people, like King David the writer of true songs, or Moses, who met the brightness of God in the desert. We needed those stars while we walked in darkness, and by them we steer our way through the wilderness of living. But when the sun rises? There will be a day, I know it in the very blood of my own body, when this child will be the one who dawns upon the earth, the sun of righteousness that Malachi spoke of, who will rise with healing in His wings. And then we will be healed. But now I wait, under the stars, and count down the months till he shall come.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Through the Window

I am old now, but my body carries the years lightly, because I have always been careful. I was only a little girl when my father died, and my mother went crazy with grief. “Keep your heart safe,” she screamed at me one day, “or someone will take it and smash it into little pieces.” I was frightened of her pain, so I took her advice. I needed to keep safe, so I made a resolution then and there that I would not let myself get too involved with anything. If my heart needed solace, I would find it in dreams. Dreams are safe, I can control dreams. As for the rest of life? I shall watch it from a safe distance – through the window.

And so I have lived. I have sufficient to manage comfortably, I have my interests, I have my work, I have my comforts. Books and poetry and music have their place, too, though I have always thought some of the most popular ones were very overrated. So much ill-judged emotion and unnecessary tragedy! So silly! I am quiet, I am dignified, and I keep my own counsel. I have pleasant social exchanges with the tradesmen and the neighbours. I am not inhuman. I go to church when convenient, I give a little to charity, I behave like a responsible citizen. But I have never seen any reason to get embroiled with the messiness of life, tragedy and comedy and ill-disciplined emotions are for fools. I stand back and merely watch – through the window.

Sometimes I have been tempted to break my own rules. Once a little boy was knocked down right outside my house, and his mother knelt beside him in the gutter, soaked with blood and mud, and screamed. I nearly went outside to her it looked so dreadful, and she sounded so pitiful. But what could I have done? And besides, it was raining. So I shut the window and watched through it.

Another time, a long war ended in victory, and the people were dancing in the streets. There was spontaneous singing, and people catching the hands of total strangers and twirling around. Their joy looked so intoxicating I was tempted to join them. But – intoxicating? That was precisely the problem. There were bottles being passed around, and people growing flushed. Who knew where it would end? Besides, I never learned to dance. So, even though the music made my feet itch and twitch, I stayed inside and watched through the window.

Further back, long ago when I was young and my mirror said I was pretty, there was a young man who started to come calling. At first it was all very flattering, and I was quite enjoying his attentions, until I realised he was serious. At that moment something froze inside me. I remembered my mother, and her pain, and I knew that love hurts. Far easier to stay safe. So I told him no, and a grey melancholy settled inside me as I watched through the window as he walked away.

I have been safe. I have been careful. I have kept my hands clean and my heart intact. And I never knew that my soul was dying of starvation – until last night. Can a dream change a person? It must have been a dream, because I was asleep, but it still seems so real it could have happened in this room.

In my dream (for what else can I call it?) a king was riding into town, and the people in the street were shouting and dancing, just like they did at the end of the war. I think it was the end of some kind of war. I was, of course, watching through the window, safe and distant as always. But then he stopped, right outside my window, and in a loud voice he called my name and ordered me to come forth. And, to my own amazement, I wanted to come. Who could refuse that voice? But I couldn’t. I tried to lift the sash, but it held fast, and I hurt myself trying. All the time he sat there, on his horse, looking straight at me, waiting .. So I decided to smash the glass, and get out that way. But the glass had grown thick and hard with the weight of years, and though I threw everything I had at it, nothing would break it. In the end I pounded my bruised fists against it and cried. The King himself was waiting for me and I could not come. In the end, feeble and defeated, not caring how silly I sounded, I cried out to him to help me.

And he did. He threw his whole body at the glass, and it shattered, though, as he did so, he was impaled upon a jagged piece of glass. There was so much blood, all over me, but I never even noticed. All that mattered was the king. But then, in a long moment, strong arms grasped me and lifted me through the window. In his arms I was safe in the unsafe world.

I thought it was a dream. But when I rose this morning the window was flung wide, and the perfume of strange flowers is blowing through the window.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Letter

Our scene: imagine a woman in her 50s or 60s, living alone, who discovers she has an incurable (but not too painful) disease. She is about the strange business of dying. She writes this letter to a friend she hasn't seen for a while ..

I am not who I was. This wasting flesh
Has carried me across the cusp of time
Into a chartless land, my world grows still
And I no longer fear the chariots.

Once I was young, and thought that being wise
Meant the great need for knowing everything,
As if to understand was to control.
Now there is wisdom in the sitting still.

Yes, it is Autumn here, the colours fade,
The sky is so intense, the world winds down,
And, like the slow, soft shedding of the leaves,
Each day, in sunlit sadness, I let go.

I thought there would be terror in this place:
A scrabbling and a scrambling of the flesh
And faith the trumpet call upon the walls ..
And every muscle poised to fight the fight.

But this is weariness that seeks for rest
And faith is simply turning in His arms,
The arms that have been always holding me
This is a journey back towards my love.

For goodbye is a melancholy word
But not the worst, far worse were to remain
And play the fool to time’s unravelling
And be afraid to leave an empty stage.

I am not who I was, for now I know
That the not knowing truly is enough
And love is bigger than I ever guessed,
And while my autumn shrinks, I am at rest.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Waterfall

It was a dreadful time to come and draw water. The sun beat down on her, the jar she carried was heavy, even when it was empty. She couldn’t keep doing this, it was all too hard. But they would not let her join them in the cool freshness of the morning and evening. They were afraid of her, she had done what they would not do, or rather what they would never admit that they were capable of doing, and there was something about her they were scared might be contagious. Five husbands – and what a sorry collection they had been! And now no one would have her, the whole town had decided she was bad luck. As for the guy she lived with, he didn’t care, she was convenient, and he knew she would put up with poor treatment because she needed a home and a little food so very much. She had done what she must to survive, and no one accepted her – apparently it would have been more virtuous to just roll over and die.

And she was so thirsty. Oh yes, her body was thirsty, the heat was drawing moisture from her like a wilting plant, and she longed for the cool, sweet water of Jacob’s well. But that would soon be satisfied. The other thirst raged inside her with no hope of satisfaction – a burning pain of longing that she tried to ignore, because she had to stay strong just to get through each day. That was just the way life was – the pain of failure and mistakes, of rejection, of being both despised and despicable. It was so hard .. perhaps a person could die of such thirst?
She was shocked when she approached the well to see a strange man, and a Jew at that, sitting there, and even more shocked when he spoke to her, asking for a drink. Didn’t he know the rules? But he didn’t seem at all fazed by her astonished questions, and instead started talking about Living Water. Her heart lurched in hope, but her mind doubted. Was he crazy? Or touched by the sun?

She pointed out the obvious, he, who was asking for a drink, had no means of giving water! Who did he think he was! But he went on with his wild and glorious promises: ‘never be thirsty again”, “springing up to eternal life”. She was almost in tears – she must be fiercely practical – there was no water that could solve her problem – why was this madman tormenting her with hope?

And then, like the priest who knew just how to hold the sacrificial animal to make it completely helpless, he touched her most vulnerable point. “Go and get your husband!”

Choking back the shame, not daring to look him in the face, she stared at the ground and muttered, “I have no husband.”

His voice was incredibly gentle, yet he named to her face what was only whispered behind her back, that she had had FIVE husbands (most of those who knew her would have trouble keeping count), and now lived with a man who wouldn’t even offer her the respectability of marriage. It hurt so much, yet, just hearing him speak the words was like the first trickle of water in a dry and barren land. She could hear the faint tremor of tears in his voice, but she dared not look at his face. He was not crazy, no crazy man could have known the whole sorry story of her life .. so who was he, and why was he, a prophet of God standing here, in this town, speaking to its worst citizen?

Her mind was doing somersaults, trying to make sense of this. She needed time to take in the enormity of this. She cast her mind wildly for a safe topic, one that would keep him talking while giving her heart time to catch up. All she could think of was the old, tricky question that was such a cause of contention between his people and hers. A prophet should know the answer, where should they worship?
The moment the words left her lips she knew how ridiculous they were, and blushed deeper. He was laughing at her – no, with her, inviting her to share the joke of human silliness. Yet he answered her question seriously, “You worship what you do not know ... salvation is of the Jews ..”

Could it be? Was this .. the Messiah? There was no judgement here, or rather, in some way she could not fully understand, judgement had already been passed and she now stood on the far side, where it didn’t matter any more. There could be joy here, and even love .. She stood by the well, her water jar forgotten, while mercy and peace flowed over her soaking the parched and barren places in her soul. God Himself had sent this man to her, God himself cared about her whom everybody despised. She did not know that she stood there open-mouthed at that moment while the Living Water he had spoken of poured over her in a mighty waterfall, washing away her shame.

Saturday, May 01, 2010


I thought I knew almost everything. By most measures I am a remarkably successful man. Look at my flocks, my herds, my family. Twenty years ago I ran away with nothing but my father’s blessing, my mother’s love, a stone for my pillow, and a vision of God that turned my heart inside out and gave me the courage to go on. Now, after a long time in the land my people came from, I am going back. I have kept my faith, I have used my wits, I have a wife I love with my whole being, and another who is a bearer of fine sons. Most would say I lack nothing. And yet ..

The closer I come to home, the clearer the memories grow. He was my brother, my twin, the one who shared the womb with me. We grew beneath my mother’s heart together, but even then there was no peace between our unformed selves. Already we were two nations at war, jostling for supremacy. And I could never let him win.
Oh, I wanted the birthright, don’t get me wrong, that strange hunger for the love of this God that I can neither see nor touch, has coiled and roiled in me for as long as I could remember. But now, and I can finally be honest now, how much of it was built from that secret place of the spirit, the faith-place, and how much was a determination to show Esau that it didn’t matter if he was our father’s favourite, I was going to be the favourite of the only One I knew who was greater than our father? I am ashamed to admit now how much of it, all the time, was about trying to best my brother. It wasn’t fair that he should have it all just because he had the muscles to push his way out the womb a moment before me!

All those years with Laban I had put it aside. But now, coming back, I began to remember, and finally face the fact that perhaps I had wronged my brother. And maybe he was angry. Maybe he had been angry all these years. And then I heard the news. Esau was coming with four hundred men! This was one time I couldn’t scheme my way out of trouble. I did what I could, dividing everyone and everything into two groups, in the hope that some might escape, and sent them on their way, and then I waited. Alone with my fear and my God I waited. And a man came, for I must call him a man, and, how strange it seems, we looked at each other wordlessly, and began to wrestle. Strength for strength we were: my faith and His reality, his holiness and my determination to break through, to find a way to bend God to my will and make my life comfortable again. But as the night wore on I saw my sin against Esau grow blacker and blacker, and the quality of my wrestling changed. It did not matter if my whole world fell apart, if every scheme I had ever schemed should coil undone, if I was nothing and naked, vulnerable to my brother’s rightful wrath. Only one thing mattered: that I should not die unblessed. I had stolen my brother’s blessing, but now I must have my own, for apart from the blessing of God everything else is finally vanity and dust. And in the end disabled, I cried out my need and he gave me back my life. I have met the unknowable God, and yet I live.

Today he shall come. My brother, in whose eyes I must appear as traitor and thief. And I shall meet him without terror, for I have seen my shame and I was conquered by mercy; my body limps and my heart is singing, for I have met the one who holds my life in his hands, and I have tasted his holy forgiveness. It is enough.