Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Resting Place

He had always wondered why his parents called him “Rest”, especially since names were supposed to be prophetic. His father, Lamech, had decreed at his birth that he was to be a source of comfort to those who were weary with the toil of working in a world whose very ground was cursed by sin, but he had never been able to see how that applied. Not only had he needed to work just as hard as everyone else just to survive, for the last hundred years he had worked even harder, spending every spare minute on “the boat” – either putting hours of labour into building it according to God’s meticulous instructions, or earning extra money to pay for all the materials. Even if help had been available (and it never was) he wouldn’t have felt right about entrusting this work to anyone except himself and his family. It was a holy task, as well as being a difficult one.

But even all that hard work wasn’t the core issue that disturbed him. He was never at rest because no one would give him any. His neighbours mocked him for a hundred reasons, especially his refusal to give his worship or allegiance to anybody except the God of his fathers, and once he started to build the boat, they thought he had gone completely mad. And when he learned to ignore all their jeering and jibing, they started on his sons. Once they even succeeded in doing some damage, after that he and the boys took to working in shifts, so that the great boat was always guarded. He used to look at his old father sometimes and wonder what the poor man must be thinking. Life seemed to have worked out so differently from everything that was prophesied.

The boat wasn’t finished till five years after his father’s death, and then a whole new labour commenced. Food was needed for all the animals that were going to come, and for themselves; it must be bought or gathered and packed away securely so that it would not rot or spoil. Then they themselves moved into the ark, and still the neighbours jeered. When the animals came, the neighbours were silenced at first by the remarkable spectacle, as, two by two, or seven by seven, all kinds of beasts, familiar and unfamiliar, came towards them in orderly procession. Even Noah felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickling with awe.

But these were a jaded people, for whom the newest wonder was already tired and outmoded, and they soon found a way to ignore the evidence of divine agency. Their jokes now centred around the fact that Noah had no human friends left, and so he was going to live with the animals. The measure of prospective truth that was in that nearly broke his heart, and he made a last ditch plea for them to change their minds. That went down even worse than any of his previous attempts to persuade them, and he found himself with nothing left to say.

And now? Torrents of water were falling from the sky, and rising from the earth. He had never seen, or heard of, anything like it. It was a terrifying moment when the waters grew deep enough to lift their boat from the earth, and they found themselves floating on the deep. It was only then that he realised that he had no way of steering or controlling the boat. There were moments when the wind and the waves were terrifying, but as they continued to float through chaos, terror was slowly replaced by an uneasy monotony. Was this the prophesied rest?

It was only then that he began to understand. Yes, despite all the labour of keeping so many creatures fed and cleaned, here, in this boat, this ark, there was truly rest from the horror that raged without. But it was only a symbol. The true resting place wasn’t this physical structure of wood and pitch; the true resting place was where he always had been, in the hands of God. So long as one lived in this broken world there was no rest from toil or pain or disappointment, but there was a deeper place where rest already existed; where peace and love wrapped his broken heart in the comfort of hope; where all the labour and weariness and incompleteness of this world were fulfilled and made complete by God himself, and where even failure was not the final word, because one day God would break through into humanity’s brokenness, and all would be made right. There was a resting place, and it was his, and now that he knew it he realised that nothing in all creation could ever take him away from it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


I was born a slave, though I did not know it, I thought myself the freest of men. I had all the advantages of a privileged upbringing -- the best education that money, hard work and devoted parents could supply. I was still very young when they decided that Tarsus was too provincial to develop my talents, and sent me to Jerusalem. I was -- and I can say this now without the disclaimers of false modesty, for I know how little it matters -- the kind of student any rabbi would rejoice to have: bright, eager, quick to learn, and taking my studies and their subject matter very seriously. I was very devout at an age where most young men are more interested in pursuing pleasure than wisdom, and with all my heart I sought to earn approval – the approval of my distant parents, and my teachers, but, most of all, the approval of God. If I knew that who I was and what I did was absolutely pleasing to God, then it would never matter what anyone else thought of me.

And that, of course, was slavery of the darkest kind, for how can a prideful, foolish human being ever hope to please God? But I thought that I could do it; I thought that by study and effort and tremendous zeal I could be all that God required, putting all lesser men to shame. I was a slave to the Law, and I did not even know my bondage.

All went well until the Christians came along. I had never met their Founder, who was executed by the Romans when I was not in Jerusalem, but the followers soon became deeply offensive to me. It wasn’t that they disobeyed or disparaged the Law exactly (this is hard to put exactly into words) it was more that .. somehow .. they had superseded it, moved it away from the centre .. turned their focus away from all the sacred commandments as the rabbis had explained them for centuries, and put a mere human being, this Jesus, who died the death of a common criminal at the centre of things instead. I was there when one of them was stoned for blasphemy – it disturbed me deeply – not the stoning, you understand, but the man himself. It was then I decided that this Christianity must be exterminated: for the sake of God’s holy name, I told myself, but it was really for the sake of my peace of mind. I had found something that seemed to work, and invested my whole self in it; I was not going to let anything or anyone spoil it for me! And, for a little while, it worked: I channelled all my unease into fiercer zeal, and became the scourge of the nascent church.

Then came the day when it fell apart, and God Himself stepped in to smash the chains of my old slavery. Memory is a strange thing. I remember so clearly the white heat of the day, and the taste of dust in my throat, yet I cannot remember who was with me, and what they said or did. But I remember the light, which made the midnight sun seem as night, as if light from beyond this world had gathered itself together, to assault and overcome my deliberate darkness.

But most of all, I remember the voice. If love has a sound, that is how it sounded, pure and perfect beyond all human understanding. And the voice told me I was wrong, utterly and terribly wrong. I had tried to rid the world of those who challenged my hard-won, deeply invested understanding of God, but it was God Himself I was fighting. He was not who I thought he was. I had read the Law, I had studied the law, I was in thrall to the Law, but I had never understood the Law. The Law could never make me holy, but this Jesus could. He was who the Law had been about. Somehow I had imagined it was about me.

Yes, I am still a slave. But this slavery does not bring death, but life. On that day on the road to Damascus, I fell to the ground in horror, and found I had fallen at the feet of Love. And Love will never leave me, and there is nothing in all creation that I desire compared to him, my Saviour and my God. I will seek his will and follow his word till the end of my days, though the whole earth rise as one against me. For now I am bond-slave to the one whose service is perfect freedom, perfect peace, and everlasting love.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Because sometimes the story they tell at the funeral is so far from the hurt and hurting person that you knew ..

Always I used to despise
The old lies:
Honey-coated sentiment
Dripping in sunlight silence,
Smelling faintly of polish and dust.

Dust to dust we are,
And the movement
Is lubricated with kindness
In the face of the abyss --
So often abysmal.

Laughter sounds forced
In the organ-toned solemnity.
Yet the flavor of memory
Wears a smile that jerks our hearts
(Unless a jerk).

Crude apotheosis
Anaesthetizes conscience from afar
For those whose memories are wrapped in silk,
And piled into the coffin of their fear,
And left to rot denying rottenness.

But for the others,
This is sandpaper on the scream of their injustice….

Now that time
Has imitated wisdom
I think again
How hard it is to be human in this place.

Always the mind rewrites
Busily scribbling
The graffiti of our feelings across the barren facts
Trying to see the unseeable
Through the fog of our confusion.

And the deeper yearning,
Sword inescapable,
The cry to be forgiven –
Knowing the merciful
Are those the given mercy.

Let us be gentle
One to another
In the household of our grief:
Surrendering the pain
That can never now have closure.

Though our hearts may fracture differently,
Believe the Resurrection and the Life
Whose Kingdom has no end.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


She would light a lamp and put it in the window. Wasn’t that what you did if someone was lost in the darkness? A light to guide them back hoe again, no matter how terrible the storm? Did it make any difference if the someone who was lost was yourself?

She sat down heavily, elbows on the table, head in her hands. How had it all gone so terribly wrong? She didn’t want to remember, the whole sequence of events left her sick to the core of her soul. It hadn’t been her fault to start with, but one man’s misuse had left her vulnerable to another’s – once a woman had been shamed there was no road back to purity and virtue. There was only darkness and disgrace and pointing fingers, and a succession of men, each one crueller and coarser than the one before.

And she had believed their lies – that if the path to virtue and honour was closed to her, at least the path she was embarked on would lead to riches and comfort. What a fool she had been to believe them! Such men as would take advantage of a woman’s vulnerability cared nothing for her well-being. Their words were merely tools to control her and bend her to their desires, not promises they saw themselves being under any necessity to keep. Once, younger and not yet completely defeated, she had dared to protest at a broken promise – the response had left her too afraid to ever voice such a complaint again. They were creatures of darkness, dragging her done into their night, and she did not believe there was any way she could ever experience light again.

She had come to live in Jerusalem because there was a certain anonymity in the city. At least, as long as she kept herself veiled, she could scurry about in the daylight and draw little attention. Not like the village where she had grown up, where women would draw their skirts aside and spit on her if she ever appeared on the streets.

But here she was more lost than ever – another used and discarded woman, drowning in shame, struggling to survive. How could she put a candle in the window when she had no window and no candle and no idea how to find her way?

Unable to bear it anymore, she got up and went out into the city. She was tempted to kill herself, to put an end to this grinding misery, but what if God was no more merciful than men? Then she would be locked in horror forever.

She wandered aimlessly until she came across a gathered crowd. She cringed back because she saw Pharisees there, some of whom would recognise her from their sordid transactions. She could not bear to face the condemnation I their eyes. But they weren’t looking at her, they were looking at a man who stood in their midst, who was addressing them in clear ringing tones. Even at the edge of the crowd she could make out his words.

“I am the Light of the world,” he said, and she heard the scornful laughter of the teachers of the Law. But He was not abashed. He just looked at them a little sadly, as if they were the ones who were being foolish. Could a person be a light? Was that possible? Was it true what He was saying, that it was possible to never walk in darkness again? Did he know how terrible the darkness was? Never had her darkness looked so awful – something that clung to her and she could never be free of it again.

She had lost track of what he was saying, it was hard to follow. Then he looked, very sternly, at the Pharisees. “You judge by human standards,” he said. (But they had always told her it was God who condemned her for being a woman of sin.) “I pass judgement on no one” he continued, and as he spoke he looked straight across the crowd to where she was cringing in the shadow of the building, and met her eyes. For one brief moment he smiled at her, and in that moment her whole world fell apart. There was a light that shone in the darkness, and the darkness could never put it out. And the name of that light was Forgiveness.

She turned to a nearby stranger and asked, “Who is that man?”

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Love Came

Love came, but they didn’t notice. They were too busy weaving armour from barbed wire – first the left arm, then the right, and a triple thickness to guard the heart. Love wasn’t wanted.

Love came, but it wasn’t invited. Generals and admirals were invited, and canny politicians, and young men angry with the whole wide world. Self-love paraded openly, obscene and garish, and they all applauded his dizzying pirouettes. But when Love was noticed it was thrown out the door, and they all congratulated themselves. “This is no time for weakness,” intoned the politicians, clutching their lapels, and the journalists nodded, frantically taking notes. They decided to hold a street parade to prove their point, but there were armed security guards to make sure love didn’t slip in anywhere.

Love came, and was laughed at. “How can you possibly be serious? Love them? Ridiculous!” Love was obviously the most absurd idea that the universe had ever heard of. You mustn’t allow frivolity to undermine the morale of the troops. And they marched in tune to the drumbeats of their hate, and the thumping of their feet sent forth a shockwave of fear. Not one of them had the power to cast out fear, so they breathed it and transmuted their weakness to a cold and bitter strength.
Love came, and watched. In Ethiopia, in Sarajevo, in Rwanda, on the West Bank, in Auschwitz, on the slave ships, in famine and pestilence, wherever there were sieges or witch hunts, in the pogroms and the race riots .. Love watched. And Love wept – so many, many tears that all the oceans of the world were turned to salt. Love wept for the terrified and the lonely, and the ones who writhed in agony, for the violated women and the broken men, for the little children and the abandoned elderly, for the missionaries of hate whose hearts had turned to ice, and were too afraid to thaw.

Love came. In the loveliness of sunrise and the innocence of birdsong, Love whispered to the world. Love held the hands of the dying, offering them a promise, and breathed courage into the tortured and bereft. Love found a language to convey the horror of the moments, to proclaim it to the conscience of the world.

Love came and spoke to the harbingers of hate and told them of the folly. And the haters were angry, and declared Love to be a traitor, seeking to turn the hearts of men away from their righteous cause.

And still Love came. And they poured out all their hate and anger on Him, they lashed Him with their bloated pride, and scorned Him for wearing their pain. They hurled Him into their darkness, and did their utmost to destroy Him. They thought that they had done with Love forever.

And still Love came – and the darkness could not contain Him, or turn Him aside from His purpose. All the tears of the world are in His keeping, and he will call in the accounts for every drop of blood that has been shed, and for every heart or mind that has been broken. He has stretched Himself to meet the measure of our night, and declared all the sorrow of the world to be a thing that shall pass like a cloud on a summer’s day.

And then the night shall end, and Love shall shine in splendour. Love has come.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

A New Beginning

She had never known any other life. Her whole world was bounded by the domain of the Spider – a domain of terror, distress and infinite weariness. All her life the Spider had been there, penetrating everything she did, going before her everywhere she went. Its sticky webs wrapped round her, and the more she tried to move, the tighter they bound her, until the only way she could move at all was in a slow-motion, zombie-like shuffle.

She had not noticed it so much when she was a child. Then the webs had been looser, less constraining, and had seemed to be her security rather than a limitation. All children had limitations placed upon them, it was the nature of the world, and she had not realised that the ones placed on her were qualitatively different from the ones placed on others.

But she was an adult woman now, and that made all the difference. There was an energy rising within her that did not want to confine itself to the helpless dependency of childhood. She wanted to be her own self, and not a carbon copy of someone else’s expectations; she wanted to try things and do things that had never been permitted. Yes, if she exerted all of her strength she could probably tear herself at least partly free from these multitudinous strands. But she was afraid to try, for she fully believed that she would rip off her own skin, at least, and possibly her internal organs as well, disembowelling herself in the process. She no longer knew where she ended and the webs began; she was scared that the very thing she longed to rage against was her own inescapable self.

For the sticky entanglement was not the Spider’s only weapon – just the most obvious and superficial. Far more deadly, and infinitely more subtle, was its poison, continuously dripped into her through the initial wounds that had been inflicted when she was too small to remember. It was a poison that kept her weak and helpless, continually dripping toxic ideas into her mind:
‘you are useless’
‘Nobody wants you’
‘it’s all your fault’
‘who do you think that you are?’

This poison caused a great deal of agonizing pain, and induced paralysis and confusion, and effectively prevented any healing taking place. The spider took great pleasure in watching her writhe while it worked on new refinements of the torture, feeding its own sense of grandiosity on her every nuance of helpless anguish.

The torment kept growing. She was reaching the limits of her endurance. In the secret places of her heart she began to cry out for deliverance, without any hope or expectation. She was so close to annihilation – the total closing down of her thinking and feeling.

It was then that He appeared – not the bright shining Knight she vaguely dreamt of, but another helpless victim like herself, who walked deliberately into the web and wrapped the strands around Himself, as if they would not stick to Him of their own power, they way did so readily to her. She felt the tremor in the web as the Spider approached Him, almost shaking with delighted greed. The Spider bit Him, injecting, all at once, a fatal dose of poison. She felt the web tremble again as His body drooped and shriveled. It felt like the darkest, most horrible moment she had ever known.

But suddenly she felt a new tremor in the web. Was this the Spider coming to finish her off? She scarcely dared to look. But then she had to, and could hardly understand what she was seeing. He was no longer a mere husk, but a being overflowing with light and life, and as she watched, He grew to enormous size, and tore the web apart. Then, even as she watched in amazement, the webs that bound her lost their grip and fell from her body. He was looking straight at her, and she began to move her atrophied limbs in response.

It was time to let Him teach her how to walk