Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Girl at the Window

She dreams, and in her dreaming is her becoming. Softly, softly, life whispers to her, calling her by name, but she does not yet know how to follow. She is not even certain yet that her name is really her own, she has not yet staked her claim on a definition of her self. That will come later, with time, with life, and, most of all, with love. Love will bring her boldness, to say that this much is me and this much is mine. In the desire to give herself away, she will discover the boundaries of her own being. But not yet; not yet.

Now is the time for dreaming, for wondering. She has known fear, she has known doubt. Night comes, as surely as morning does, and in the night there is uncertainty. There is a world around her whose demands she does not always understand, requiring her to do and to be what an adult world expects of her. It is confusing sometimes, and already her soul is a little bruised, for she dwells in a place where love has not yet been made perfect, where anger and folly and impatience are woven into the very fabric of time. And those who strongly maintain that the sorrows of childhood are insignificant, have forgotten how it feels to be a child, when one’s whole existence is contracted to a crushing word or an upraised hand..

But where the sorrow dwells, the promise and the comfort dwell also, and joy still comes with the morning. In the loveliness of the early light, still unsullied by crossness and crassness, she gazes out upon a world transfigured into beauty, and the shadows of fleeting nightmares are swiftly burned away. And there are some for whom beauty will ever be an open door to faith, for when the heart is lifted up it must respond, however tenderly and uncertainly, with praise and wonder towards the one who has made this possible – the one whose hand is revealed by the thumbprints of glory he leaves on creation.

Not that she has thought it through that far. She is simply a child looking out at the yard. But the deep peace and thankfulness that well up inside her when the light caresses her face with a touch like a blessing make her think of the bible stories she has learned, especially the one about Jesus saying ‘let the little children come to me!’ She has thought, for as long as she can remember, that his lap would be a very safe place to be. It would be exactly the same as that other place they have told her that the bible speaks of – the one where there is no more pain and every tear is wiped away. That is a good place, the best place.

But this here-and-now world is not a bad place either. There is laughter, and shelter and warmth, the satisfaction of accomplishment and a sense of belonging. Sometimes one does not need words to dream, or a certain image of the desired future, it is enough to rest in the bounty of the present moment and lean upon its peace. It is enough to say ‘yes!’ to the coming day. It is enough to reach out tendrils of trust towards the Maker of all things. It is enough to be learning to move one’s hands with compassion and one’s lips with truth, however slow and long the learning. It is enough to be alive and live each morning as a fresh springtime.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


I am an old man now, and tomorrow they will lead me out to die. A few bitter hours, and then I shall be with Him forever, just as, in this broken world, whether I knew it or not, He has always been with me. It is strange to think that once the fear of death was the strongest thing in my life, stronger than love or truth. For fear’s sake I denied Him, and the acid shame inside me afterwards corroded me like death. But it was what happened after that which changed my life forever.

It was early morning, up in Galilee, when spring was at its fairest. Locked in my shame, thinking myself an outcast, I had returned there to pick up the pieces of my broken life. I was a failed disciple, but at least I still knew how to fish, or thought I did. Perhaps if I was unfit to be a fisher of men, as He had once called me, I could at least go back to being a fisher of fish?

But we had caught nothing. Even that last refuge was denied to my pride. And then the stranger on the shore in the blurry light of dawn commanded us to throw our nets on the right side of the boat. There were more fish than we could haul aboard, and, in the abundance, we recognized our Lord. Once before He had done that, and I had said to Him, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!” This time, already exhausted by the knowledge of my sin, I only wanted to come to Him so, without thought, I jumped into the water and made my way to Him.

It is so hard to understand when I think about it rationally, yet when my eyes were fixed fast on him, it seemed somehow in the strange new order of things that the Lord who had overcome death and risen again in glory should cook our breakfast for us on the beach. I was almost beyond the capacity for further humiliation, I was willing to accept His grace gifts on whatever terms He chose to give them. I was not worthy to be called His disciple, but He was still my Lord.

It was after breakfast that He turned to me and, gesturing towards the rest of our catch of fish, asked me, “Simon bar Jonah, do you love me more than these?” Was He kidding? Hadn’t I given it all up once before to follow Him? I replied positively, not even stopping to think. “Feed my lambs,” He said.

He asked me again and I answered the same, Then He asked me the third time, and I was hurt. Didn’t He believe me? Was He playing games with me? Or had I only been playing games with Him, ready to desert the moment that real trouble threatened? His questions lanced open my reservoir of shame – three times I had denied Him, three times He questioned my love. He had every right to, but I could not bear it. How easily I would give all this away to follow after Him forever! But did He still want me? In the end, all I could blurt was, “Lord you know all things. You know that I love you.”

And in saying that, I realized that He knew my whole heart – the love and the fear and the shame. He knew every inch of my soul more clearly than I did. And did He brand me with my failure? No, He called me afresh to follow Him and to be one who gave His grace to others, and to follow Him all my days through to this place of death and loss – not only was I restored in His love and forgiveness, but I now had His sure and certain promise that I would continue to follow after Him all the days of my life. And so, by His grace, it has proved to be.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Valley

I feel like I have been here forever, in the valley of my desolation. Every hope has turned to dust and ashes, every gain has turned to loss. This is not the Valley of Death, for this aging, aching body of mine still lives and breathes and goes through the motions of daily life, but it is surely the Valley of the Shadow of Death, for Death has touched me and mine so very closely, that now I live forever shrouded in its gloom – a woman without a hope or a future, and a past that is woven from tears and futility. What right has the sun to shine so brightly, or the rain to fall so softly, or the wind to blow with the fragrance of spring flowers, when all my heart and my hope has become sightless unfeeling stone?

It was different once. I loved my husband, Elimelech, and there was joy in our going forth together. When he suggested that we leave famine-stricken Bethlehem, with the two fine sons who were our blessing from the Almighty, and settle for a while in Moab, where there was no shortage of food, it seemed like high wisdom to my ears. I was tired of scraping and struggling and making do, and have never doubted that the same Lord who brought our people to this land meant us also to use our intelligence, and when there was trouble and disorder in the land, it was prudence to remove ourselvesfor a time to a safer and more plenteous place.

For a while all seemed richness, but then my beloved took sick and died, leaving me a widow with two sons. But even while I grieved, I rejoiced in these fine young men. I thought of returning to my own people, but the boys were young men by then, and both were courting local girls, and where should I be but with my own. And they were fine girls too, heathen Moabites they may have been, but they were willing to learn of our God and His ways, and real love grew between us. Not every woman is so blessed in her daughters-in-law, and, recalling the story of our foremother Rebekah, and how grieved she was by Esau’s wives, I gave thanks for Ruth and Orpah, and waited for the grandchildren they would bring me.

But they never quickened, and the childless years passed by while I watched and wondered. Then the blow fell: both my sons dead in the prime of their youth. There was nothing left for me here, it was time to go home, back to my own people, and conclude my empty days in Bethlehem. I thought I would go alone; the girls were young, and lovely still, they would find other husbands among their own kind. After a little while Orpah was persuaded to do just that. But Ruth is of another kind, and nothing I could say would dissuade her. She insists on coming with me, no matter what, and truly, I am glad of her patient love and steadfast faith. It is odd that this Moabite girl now clings to the God of my fathers more closely than I do, for grief and bitterness have loosened my hold.

For she is steadfast, and as we walk this weary journey, she gives me the courage to continue. She tells me that God hasn’t finished with us yet, that though the way seems hard He can lift up every valley and lower every mountain till we walk in a straight path. And as we rest in the night she looks up at the everlasting stars and tells me that even in this valley, shadowed by death, God is still with us, watching over us, and like all true shepherds He will lead us home to Himself.

Saturday, July 09, 2011


It is still. It is dark. It has always been dark. The waters cover the formless world, and they are calm and still, for the Spirit breathes over them. There is no life or voice or movement in this place. There has never been change or growth or the counting of days. But this is about to end. The presence of God is in the stillness. A voice of command speaks into the darkness saying, “Let there be light!”. And there was light. And there was evening and there was morning, and it was the first day.

It is still. It is dark. The stars are out. The old man, childless and aching with longing, stands and looks up at the stars. In the clear desert air he can see so many, and each one shines fiercely. He stands there, and the presence of God is in the stillness. And God speaks, “so shall your offspring be.” The old man trembles in wonder, but he believes the word of God. And so it came to pass.

It is still. It is dark. The shepherd boy looks out over his flock, watching with alert eyes for any predator. But the moon is bright tonight and the pastures are at peace. The presence of God is in the stillness. He is aware of the Lord’s protection, compassing him round, holding him fast in love. God is watching over him constantly, just as he watches over his sheep. Now it all seems so clear to him, this love in which he lives and moves and has his being. He takes up his harp and strums softly. He starts to sing, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want ..”

It is still. It is dark. In the small cold hours after midnight, the crowded little town has settled down. There is the occasional sound from young children and restless sleepers, but here, in the outhouse with the animals, it is very still. The woman lies exhausted on the straw, waiting, between heartbeats, for the final pain that will bring delivery. The man stands there, tense with watching, there to help if needed, but awed to silence by the wonder of the moment. There is nothing he can say and do, she is in the hands of God. The stillness presses in on them, and the presence of God is in the stillness. There is a final pain, a moment when the whole earth stops and listens, and then the thin cry of a newborn child, overtaken by the glorious music of angels. God himself has entered our darkness and come to dwell among us. Salvation has entered the world.

It is still. It is dark, but then it is always dark in here when the stone is rolled across the entry. The battered, tortured, murdered body lies where reverent, loving, tear-spattered hands have placed it. Life and hope have fled, and the Light of the World seems to have gone out. But the presence of God is in the stillness; and this tomb is a holy place, for the True Sacrifice has been accepted, and death itself is about to come undone. Glory will overtake despair, the stone will be rolled away, and love will have the victory. The dark stillness of the silent tomb is about to become the womb of a new creation.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Widow

All was lost. I thought my life was over and my joy extinguished when my husband died, but I had still had my son to live for, my only child, and he was both the reason to keep going and the means to be able to. The years had not been kind to me. I had married with such hope. My husband, hardly known to me, was well-respected in the community as a good worker. His wife would not go hungry. I would be mistress of my own home, albeit a small one, (but what did that matter? I had lived just above poverty all my life), I would have children, many children, a woman’s glory, and maybe, just possibly, I would be the mother of the Messiah. That was of course the secret tender hope, the one no one dared put into words for fear of being laughed at. But just because every other daughter of Abraham had dreamed that dream for hundreds of years didn’t make it impossible. It had to happen some day! I had no idea, as I prepared for my wedding, that the Messiah had already been born, that was something I would only learn in the darkest hour.

We settled in Nain, and the years passed. After several years of barrenness and much desperate prayer, remembering the story of Hannah, I had one child, a fine, handsome boy. I never had another that made it to birth. My marriage was not the wonderful dream I had imagined as a naive young bride, but it was better than many. He was kind, e was fair-minded, and he never reproached me for our lack of children. I sometimes wondered if he was secretly relieved not to have too many mouths to feed, for while he worked hard the returns were poor and the Roman taxes were ruinous. We had enough, but never the abundance I had dreamt of. But this was the real world, and what more could anyone expect?

Then, just as our son was approaching manhood and learning his father’s trade, my husband started to weaken. At first he grumbled about pains, and even found fault with my cooking (which he never had before), but over the course of months it became clear that this was no mere indigestion. Before my eyes he shrank away, the little pains grew to big ones, and he could no longer work at all. I remember the day that I realised that he was dying, and how, in the midst of that tight, cold misery, I gave thanks to the God of our fathers that He had given me a fine son to take care of me and I would not be left alone and destitute. For I was a woman withered before my time, with no prospect of bearing more sons, so no other man would ever want me.

He was a fine son, who never shirked in his duty, and between us there was tenderness and laughter. I knew that I was blessed – here was no Messiah, but a good boy nonetheless, and I loved him dearly. He had brought joy into the bleakness of my life, and if still, in the silence of my heart I asked God that I might one day see the Messiah face to face, well, isn’t that the heart-longing of all our people?

Then the fever came. In the morning my son struggled to rise from his bed, in the following night he died. And when he died, I died with him, though my feet still walked above the ground. There was nothing left for me in this world, and I knew God had forgotten me. I was never more wrong.

I am not sure why there were so many people coming with us as we carried his body out of the town, but the sudden death of someone young, healthy and strong is bound to attract attention. But with so many people around, it is not surprising that I did not notice the arrival of the strangers. Besides, I felt as if it was my own heart being led out to the coldness of the tomb, and, blurred with the tears that were the most alive part of me, my eyes were downcast and saw no reason to ever be raised again. “Don’t cry,” he said.

There were no cheap emotions in those words. Many times I have heard people say ‘don’t cry’ when what they really meant was ‘don’t disturb me with feelings that make me feel uncomfortable’. This was different; this was a compassion that knew not only the death of my only son, but all the other deaths that were happening inside me. This was the heart of God meeting with my broken heart right where I was and changing the great No to a Yes. I raised my eyes in wonder, and watched as the stranger walked over to the coffin. Everyone was standing still. Everyone was barely breathing.

He touched the coffin, he spoke to my son and told him to arise. There was such authority in those quiet words that it felt as if the very universe itself could not deny him. And my son lived. My. Son. Lived. Just like that; with no effort, no spectacle, no struggle, death itself was overturned. There was clamour around us, people were declaring the presence of a great prophet, were marvelling at the mercy of God. But, in the still centre, I heard none of those things. I looked at him and knew that I had met the Messiah, and he knew and loved me. I gathered my bewildered son in my arms, and gazed into the eyes of the stranger who had met with death on my behalf. God himself was walking on the earth and he had come here just for me.