Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Gods of our Fathers

Sometimes it is hard to be married to a man with a big idea, especially when the name of his big idea is God. It has a way of disturbing the comfort of the whole household. Life had its moments while we still lived in Ur, because Abram didn’t worship in the temples or do some of the other things that all our friends and acquaintances did, but generally, because we were wealthy family of high rank, and because Abram was unfailing pleasant, polite and generous, it was regarded as an endearing eccentricity, and left at that.

It was different living in the same house. I had grown up believing in the deities of Ur, as any well-bred girl should, especially devoted to the moon god Nanna, whose principal temple was right in our city. I had been taught all my life that we humans existed in order to delight the gods – they needed our worship and sacrifices in order to be happy, and, conversely, they would be angry with anyone who failed to give them honour. Imagine how I felt on my wedding night when my glorious young husband told me that he wasn’t sure he believed in that! Had I married a blasphemer? Would we lie under the curse of the gods because of Abram’s unbelief?

The trouble was, I liked Abram’s God. We had always had a vague idea in our family that there was another God, vague and nameless, far beyond and above the civic deities, a sense that there was something more to the universe than what we had generally been told. But it was not a belief that had ever disrupted our lives in any way. How could it? An unknown God, with no temples or images or name or stated character – He was a rumour from a far country of the spirit, not part of our daily lives. But as the years passed, and Abram shared with me his vision of the one true God, I had to admit I found him far more attractive than the gods of our fathers. But one fear haunted me and held me back from complete surrender to his faith: I was barren. How could that not be the curse of the gods upon my husband’s unbelief? If this God of Abram’s was really all-powerful, wouldn’t he reward his one faithful servant with a son – with many sons?

Then one day, when life had settled down into comfortable patterns, and I had long-since put away my broken dreams of motherhood, Abram announced that his god had told him to leave Ur, to take all his household out into the desert, and follow the guidance of this unknown god to a land we did not know. Of course I cried, of course I screamed, of course I asked him, not once but many times, if he had gone completely mad – and all the while he just kept quietly insisting that we must all be obedient to God.

Of course, in the end I went with him. Truth be told, by that stage, I was rather looking forward to it. I knew I would not be in need or discomfort, and who would have expected to be starting on such a great adventure at our age? Besides, I loved this man, and through the years of our marriage the substance of ourselves had been woven together so deeply .. I needed to understand this God of his, and it seemed it would be easier far away from Ur, away from the temples and the processions and the whole social fabric that sang to me about the gods of our fathers. The desert roads are clear and bright, perhaps in those uncrowded lands it would be easier to only have one god?

And so we set out on a journey that was the beginning of something I had never imagined. The years flow together in my memory, the moments of shame and glory, the ordinary days and the strangeness and the wonder breaking through. And round about me the clear, almost unwavering faith of my husband. Oh yes, there were times when it wavered, he is a man still, even though he has walked with God, the times when ... But no, none of that matters now. All those mistakes are hidden under the mercy of the one I have learned to call my God as well. But only now, in these last weeks have the last of my fears and doubts disappeared. For only now, in my extreme old age, the god of my husband Abram has given me a son. And now I know, fully and completely, that the gods of our fathers have no power, they were, all along, just the tragic, broken myths of men.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

By The Hand

I am going to be crucified tomorrow. There will be no miracles this time, it is finished and I am going home, and all His promises will be fulfilled to me. I think I will ask to be crucified upside down – an unusual request, I know, but soldiers like novelty so I think they will grant my request. Who am I to have the privilege of dying as He died?

Tonight I will keep vigil with my memories, and all my memories that matter are of Him. Once there was pain in those memories – the pain of longing and the pain of shame – but now there is only peace, all my shame is washed away and I am cradled in His love. This time tomorrow, on the other side of death, I will be with him inseparably.

Now the memories jostle together, and I am content. Once it would have mattered to me to get them back into sequence, to try and arrange them with meaning and order, but why should that matter now? Soon there will be no more darkness or confusion, only love, and love will make all meanings plain. So I journey through them, smelling again the freshly caught fish, feeling the prickle of the sun on my back, and hearing the slap of the little waves. That was the day He came to us, and asked us to leave our nets and follow Him. “I will make you fishers of men,” He said. I had no idea what He meant, I only know that when He said them, it suddenly seemed the most important thing in the world. I knew that I would rather be about His business (whatever it was) than my own. I followed Him and those were my first steps towards Him.

The problem was, of course, that, while I wanted to walk with Him, I wanted to choose my own steps and my own pace. One minute I would be walking on the water (without stopping to think how impossible that is), the next minute I would be looking at the waves, and down I’d go. It is very hard for a man to keep pace with God, but His love kept stretching my legs. Sometimes I understood, like the day when so many departed from Him after He spoke about being the Bread of Life, and He turned to us and asked if we would leave too. “Where would we go?” I replied, always the one to jump in first when wiser men would stop and think, “You are the one who has the words of eternal life!” Other times I missed it completely, like the day I tried to dissuade Him from the cross. How little I understood!

I got so much wrong. Not just once (once would have been more understandable), but three times I denied Him to the onlookers at His trial. If He was walking towards a cross, I certainly didn’t want to go there! I ran away instead, and even now I wince at the memory. I saw the empty tomb, and I still didn’t understand what was happening. I was so slow to believe. And even after He had defeated death, I still imagined I knew more about fishing than He did.

All my life has been a walking lesson. I had always been so eager to choose my own path. Even that morning on the shore, so bright with His tender forgiveness that my eyes still mist when I try to see it, He told me that the day would come when I would stretch out my hands and be led where I do not want to go. And inwardly I recoiled, as if it were a smudge of dark cloud on the furthest horizon.

And now, when that time has come, it is like nothing I imagined. They have chained me and taken me to prison, tomorrow they will lead me to a cross, and the burly soldiers will march around me, for fear I should run away. How far do they think an old man could run? But none of it matters. They can lead me where they like. It is another hand I am holding fast to, and He is leading me in His own steps. And I am so glad – for the soldiers and the pain and the weariness of life will all fade from me in just a little while more, but He will still be holding me, and He will hold me fast for all eternity and never let me go.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Despised

My relationship with my brothers was always a bit awkward. I was so much younger, that they looked down on me anyway, but there were other differences too. It went back to the time when I was still a boy, the day when the old man came to our house and asked to see us all. Not that I was home when he got there, but since it was the talk of the family for weeks after, I heard every detail many times repeated.

He said that he came to make a sacrifice, that was odd in itself, but strange and mysterious are the ways of prophets, as strange as the ways of God Himself. He called my father to come and bring his sons to the sacrifice. Then followed a strange scene, even know I remember the unease of my brothers as they retold it. One by one they had to come before the prophet, one by one they were told that they were not the one the Lord had chosen. (Chosen for what? That was the unspoken question). That was when they sent for me, and that is the point where my own memory takes over. I walked in as summoned, fresh from the fields with no idea what was happening (but who did, apart from Samuel?), and was called to stand before this stranger. He looked at me, and I knew it was not my face he was seeing, but the hidden-most parts of my soul. And then, without a word of explanation, he took his horn of oil, anointed me, and when the sacrifice was complete, departed. My brothers had no idea what to make of it, so they joked about me to hide their discomfort.

Time passed. I was still the youngest brother, but there was an edge to their gibes that had not been there before. They had obviously decided that I was getting above myself and must be put back in my inferior position.

Then the Philistines attacked. My three oldest brothers went off to join the army, and I was kept busy going back and forth, filling in everything else that had to be done. Eventually I was sent up to the battle lines, to take food to my brothers. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Who did that that monstrous Philistine think he was, standing there insulting our people and our God? How dare he blaspheme the Holy One? And why was no one challenging him? Didn’t they know that they need not fear when their cause was God’s honour?

That was my mindset when my brothers found me; imagine my shock when they judged me with anger and scorn. They treated me like a naughty boy who had run away from his chores, they told me that I was conceited and had a wicked heart. In that moment I realised just how deeply they despised me: the younger brother who was different. And there was never a moment when it mattered less to me – my heart was on fire for a righteous cause.

The rest of that story is history: the sequence of events that led to the defeat of Goliath. It was victory pure and clean, I was fighting for God’s glory, not my own, and I didn’t care what anyone else thought, because I knew I was walking in obedience to the only one who mattered.

How different it is now: how bitterly, horribly different. Now, when I am their king, and they serve me gladly, now their words come back and hold up a mirror to my soul. Because now it is the truth, and I despise myself more than they ever despised me then. What was I thinking? How could I do such a thing ? Yet such indignation with myself is a falsehood in a sense. My sin, my dreadful sin against Bathsheba, against Uriah, above all against my God who forbade adultery and murder, is not some silly mistake I drifted into, it comes from the very core of who I am, conceited, self-indulgent, more concerned with gratifying the good pleasure of David than with surrendering to the good pleasure of God. What I did is the revelation of who I am, and how shall I live with that horror? Can even the sacrifices cleanse me? How can God still receive me? Can God Himself, altogether perfect, make peace with the despicable?

I can bring Him no more than my broken heart. Everything else I do is just an expression of what is inside. And yet I know that God receives me. How can that be? Unless .. unless .. somewhere beyond my understanding there is a place where a perfect sacrifice is made, a place where God Himself can meet with sinners, can even – is such a thing possible? – be the sacrifice Himself, despised and rejected, the scapegoat in the wilderness, that all His broken children might be the despised no longer, but, somehow, the ransomed of His love?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

My Father's Son

He came back yesterday. He had been gone so long that I had stopped thinking about him every hour – like a foot heals slowly from a sharp stone which was stuck in your shoe for too many painful miles. Of course, if he had been such a stone I would have cast him away at the first wincing moment of pain – but he is my father’s son, and I had never thought I could be rid of him. But he did leave, of his own accord, and the manner of his leaving was so insulting to our father and our family, that it was a while before I recovered enough from the shock and the shame to happily think, “Good riddance!”

He had asked for his share of the inheritance – while our father was still alive! That was tantamount to wishing our father dead, or at the very least saying that all he wanted was the riches, and not the relationship. What amazed me even more (since such brazen effrontery, such carelessness, was, after all, only to be expected) was my father’s reaction. My father would have been well within his rights to give an affronted refusal (who ever heard of asking such a thing?) or even to punish him (which would have been quite fitting, and long overdue) – at the very least he should have thrown him out and disinherited him. But no, the hopeless scapegrace makes his ridiculous demand, and our father gives him exactly what he asks for!! I never could understand it. And no sooner has he got his share than he converts it all to cash, and leaves...

I was glad that he went far away. Imagine if we’d had to put up with his disgraceful behaviour on our doorstep! It hasn’t surprised me to learn, now, that he spent all that he had, living a life of total self-indulgence, with no thought of being prudent, or working to make money for the future. He says he spent it on his friends, but that is ridiculous! Why would anyone do that when money is a man’s best friend in this world? And what value were these friends anyway, They were no use when he ran out of money – a very poor investment. He even lowered himself, in the end, to being a swineherd – consorting with unclean beasts!

And now he has come back, my father’s son. And what did my father do? Turn him away, demand repayment, or organise him to work off his debts as a bond slave? Not a bit of it! This fool, this wastrel, this idiot unfit to bear our family name, appears on the road bedraggled and dirty, and there is my father, most honourable of men, forgetting his dignity and position and running down the road to embrace him. I winced when I saw it. Everything is turned upside down. The fatted calf, we one we had been preparing for some special occasion, was killed in celebration, and next thing I know, the fool has been dressed in fine robes and given the family ring to wear. I wondered if running down the road in the heat had addled my father’s brain.

I couldn’t join the party, it was too much. And when my father himself came out to plead with me to join, it was too much. Out it poured, all the rage I was feeling, all my contempt for the idler and his filthy life. In the end I heard myself saying, “But you never did this for me, even after all I’ve done for you!” Even to my own ears that sounded lame and pathetic. But true. He hadn’t. My father looked at me, and before his sorrow I lowered my eyes in shame. “Everything I have is already yours,’ he said, and I knew that it was true. The only reason I had never seen his crazy, impossible love for myself, was because I had never asked for it. All these bitter, tight-wound years I had tried to earn my father’s approval, and all those years his heart had been bursting with love for me, not because I worked so hard, but because I was, I am, his son. What a waste – not of my work itself, I had worked well for him, but my closed, lonely, sullen heart!

Now I was crying too, and as I wept in my father’s embrace, our tears mingled together. “Come inside,’ he said, “and celebrate with us, for your brother, who was lost, has been found, my son is not dead, but alive!” I went in, stiffly and awkwardly, but I went.

My father’s son came home yesterday. This time I am going to learn to call him my brother, so that I, too, might truly be my father’s son.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

The Rose

It was a rose -- a dark red rose, and she had stolen it from someone else’s garden. She had no right to this perfect, beautiful thing; it was not hers to take. But there was no point in returning it. You can’t stick a plucked flower back on the bush again, it has been permanently severed from its source of life. And to go and walk up to a stranger’s door and confess she had taken their rose, when their bushes were covered in flowers, and one wouldn’t even be missed, seemed an absurdity.

There was no point fretting about it, there was enough real guilt in her life without getting upset about picking a flower. She would put it in a vase and enjoy its fragrant beauty for a few days – until it withered and died like all beautiful things wither and die – like everything she touched would wither and die. No, that was being absurd, the flower would wither and die just the same if she had left it on the rosebush. Loveliness never lasted, whether she had anything to do with it or not.

And every lovely thing in her life was broken. The man whom she had thought would cherish her forever had moved on, and blamed her depression for destroying their relationship. The depression had been triggered by the loss of the child she had been carrying. The miscarriage had been caused by being in a car accident. And the car accident was one hundred percent her own fault. If only she had looked one more time ..

Was there no beauty, no love that one could count on in life? Even this fast-withering rose, with its perfume that sang to her heart, had thorns it would not hesitate to use if she grew careless in the way she handled it. She knew the platitudes, she could recite them to herself: though the rose died, the rosebush would go on – and there would be other men, other children ..

It wasn’t enough. She didn’t want another child, she wanted that child, the one who had grown inside her for 4 months, before departing in a horror of pain and blood. She didn’t want another husband, she wanted the one she had pledged her heart to, even though he had proved unworthy of her trust and was now, already, deeply involved with someone else. And, she thought, including in her anger the God she had once taken so seriously as a child, resurrection, at this moment, seemed much less appealing than never having to die in the first place. Why did life always have to be about making do and putting a brave face on second best? Why couldn’t it ever be the best?

And yet, she herself was part of that brokenness. She wasn’t the only one hurt in that accident; the little girl in the other car would be months in hospital. What grief must her mother be going through? And that family had only recently lost another child. “Who am I to demand the best for myself when I am the cause of the worst happening to others?” she whispered. And it was worse. She knew why she had failed to pay attention at the intersection; she knew exactly what had been occupying her mind at the time, though there was no way that she was going to admit it to the police, or anybody else. She had been daydreaming a particularly sordid, nasty little revenge on someone who, in retrospect, had hardly injured her at all—and certainly not with intentional malice.

She turned the rose around and around in her fingers, considering. The thing that had so infuriated her back then? In hindsight it was as petty, as humiliatingly stupid, as if the owner of that rosebush had been plotting terrible vengeance on her for taking a flower whose loss wasn’t even visible. It didn’t make her stealing (yes, call it stealing) right, it didn’t make that careless unkindness that had so upset her right either; but her reaction had been out of all proportion. Be honest; her fury was goaded by hurt pride, not genuine injury or violation. And out of that moment of evil in her own heart (yes, call it evil, what she was imagining would have been a hideous crime in real life – and she was enjoying it!) came all the things that were hurting her now. She herself was an integral part of everything she raged against.

It was hard, and it didn’t make the immediate grief or loss any less – they were real things, costing real pain. But maybe in the very fact that God had lavished so much beauty on something as short-lived as a rose, was a promise in itself. Maybe, just maybe, on the far side of this darkness there could be room to learn to hope again? And maybe forgiveness was not just a pious fiction to enable people to put up with second best – maybe it was an absolute necessity which the whole world, and herself most of all, desperately needed before hope could have a chance? The fragrance of the rose was sweet and strong, but she barely noticed, for her tears were falling fast.