Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Boundary

She had always lived right on the edge, both literally and figuratively: literally, because her house was right on the city wall; figuratively because she inhabited the outskirts of society, in a kind of no-man’s-land (or, more accurately, no-woman’s-land). Living on the wall had never bothered her, after all, she had to live somewhere, and this was a position that gave her (and her customers) some privacy to come and go as they needed. Living at the edge of society was not so pleasant. A woman alone had to make a living as best she could, and she was fortunate to have a property. But a woman innkeeper was always suspect; for different reasons both men and women assumed that she was only too happy to give her customers (who, after all, were almost always men) whatever else their lustful hearts desired of her. It was very wearying to have to steer her days through the buffeting currents of male lust and female disdain. And now, if rumour was true, her property was about to become totally worthless. It was time to rethink everything.

When the men came, she knew who they were, and willingly gave them shelter. There was something about them she liked – a kind of cleanness and honesty. They looked at her as if she were a person, and not just a chattel for their use. And besides, if she were to have any future at all, she would need them. She had much to consider.

Rationally, it seemed an easy choice. If even half of what was whispered about them was true, there was no future at all unless she cast her lot in with them. They were not a large people in numbers or military strength, but the trail of victories and miracles that accompanied their march indicated that something remarkable was happening. They claimed (this was well-known) that it was the favour of their God which had enabled their success, and she saw no reason to doubt it. Besides, she had long since lost faith with the Baals of her people. However, it was a huge step. She had crossed many boundaries in her time, losing her respectability in order to live in relative freedom and comfort, but this boundary was much harder. It meant giving up her own people, her own city, and becoming one of an alien people with an alien god. It meant starting from the bottom all over again, knowing that she would come among them as one of a despised and conquered race. But wasn’t the alternative death? She found herself praying to this God she did not know.

For hours she struggled and it was only when she heard the approaching footsteps on the street outside, and rushed to hide her guests under the flax spread out on her rooftop, that she realised that her mind was already made up. The very act of hiding the spies was a betrayal of her people – at least they would certainly see it as such! Somewhere, at some deep place inside herself, she had already made her mind up. She had crossed an unthinkable boundary, the only thing that remained was make it actual. She didn’t think it would be a problem, after all, her quick thinking had already saved their lives. By every custom of human decency they owed her a life ...

It was only much later, when Jericho had fallen and she was safely in the Israelite camp and betrothed to a wonderful man that she looked back and marvelled. It had been a boundary as deep as a mighty chasm, between life and death, between the false, mean gods of her people and the God of loving-kindness, yet, by some miracle, she had crossed it with such a little step!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Hope recovered

The world was dark to him as he walked up the mountainside, even though bright sunlight kept breaking through the skittering clouds. All the promises, all the bright shiny miracles: did they mean anything at all? He had followed this God into a strange new land and a strange new life, trusting that all His purposes were good; but now, for the first time in years, doubts were tearing at him, raking over his soul with their sharp red claws. He looked at the boy, so serious, so trusting, following his father without doubt or question, though the situation made no sense to him. Was he like that with God? Following blindly, trustfully, believing in the love and wisdom of the one he followed, only to find, at the end, the knife at his throat and everything he’d ever hoped for bleeding away into the thirsty dust? He shuddered at the thought, and only the long habit of obedience kept his feet to the path.

So long to wait for the promise – hoping, stumbling, making mistakes along the way, wrestling back and forth about what God might have meant by those diamond-sharp words – so many years until they were given the boy named laughter, the boy whose coming swept away the old doubts and fears. And now came the impossible command – he was to give up this child, and with him all the hopes and promises that had kept him focused through these long journeying years. And he himself (oh, bitter, bitter command!) must be the one who bound the child to the altar and raised the knife. He could hardly bear it. Surely, somewhere in all of this, God’s goodness would become clear?

He could delay no longer, now that they had reached the top. And now that they had reached the inevitable moment, he realised how very much he had been hoping that something would intervene, that it would not come to pass. Stone by heavy stone they built the altar, and every weight he lifted seemed to grind him down further. He saw the boy’s eyes darting around, wondering where the sacrifice was, but he said nothing. And when the altar was finished and the wood laid upon it, and the old man took him and bound him to the altar, as one would bind a lamb or a goat, he still said nothing, but his father dared not meet his eyes, for he knew he would see in them the same monstrous sense of betrayal that was screaming in his own soul.

It was only then, as he raised the knife, and every last hope had died, that the miracle took place and the Lord intervened and the voice from heaven spoke.  The boy was to be spared. There was a ram in the thicket he could sacrifice instead, and he did, though he could scarcely see what he was doing for the tears of relief that were streaming down his face. And then the voice from heaven came again, renewing the promise of his many descendants, and that through him all the nations of the world would find blessing. Where does a man find words at such a time? There are none that can keep pace with the swirling emotions that threaten to overwhelm him: wonder, relief, joy, pain, the renewal of faith and the deep sense of confusion. He held his son close, but it was a long time before he dared to look him in the eye. But when he finally did, he did not find the anger, betrayal and hurt he was expecting. Isaac, too, had encountered the Lord on the mountain of provision. There would be long, starlit evenings ahead to explore the meaning of it all. For now it was enough to be thankful.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Painful Memory

It is sweet to sit again on the branch of a tree, to breathe the clean, wide-open air, and lift my wings into the sunshine. Day by day I watch the waters recede, and I know that very soon my mate will join me, we will start a family and joy together in this precious freedom. We will watch together as the scars heal in this broken world, as all green and growing things rush to eradicate the sodden, empty places, and as our fellow creatures go forth, two by two, to fill this remade landscape with their future. We will watch and we will wonder, for strange and marvellous are the ways of the Almighty, and His dealings with humankind are a mystery that hurts our feathered minds.

For pain lies just behind us: pain and terror and calamity as the whole world was unmade and reborn while we sheltered in our storm tossed boat knowing the very heights of the mountains lay far beneath us. We sheltered, in the mighty boat, eight human beings and creatures beyond count, creatures of every kind; and all the rest, kin, acquaintance and strangers, perished beneath the torment of the waters. We were glad of the pounding rain, so that we could neither see nor hear the world beyond our walls, we knew there was horror out there, even while there was safety and noise and bustle inside.

It took generations of our kind for that boat to be built; my parents, and my parents’ parents, and who knows how many more parents of parents before that watched from their nest tree as the man Noah and his sons toiled at their monstrous boat, the frame and the decks and the outsides – and all the insides had to be fitted out to accommodate the various creatures, and all the outsides had to be coated in pitch – a most unpleasant smell to have near your nest, but at this point the story had become our family legend, so we couldn’t leave now! And then the food – all the different kinds of fodder that had to be brought on board, and something for the humans as well!

But in all that time, not one of the neighbours took them seriously, they would laugh and jeer, even make up rude songs about it, and sometimes sneak up under cover of darkness and throw all kinds of filth on it, till, eventually, Noah and his sons had to take turns guarding it at night. And all the time we doves sat hidden in the foliage and watched and listened to everything, and resolved that, whatever it was really all about, we wanted to be part of whatever Noah was doing.

For Noah was a good man, kind to everyone and rarely provoked, no matter what his neighbours said and did. When his neighbours mocked him, he would plead with them, sometimes with tears, to take God seriously, warning them of a great destruction to come. But the more he pleaded, the wilder and rougher they became, and the more they did evil in front of him, defiantly aiming to shock him. And on the day that God brought the animals to the ark, they laughed louder than ever. But on the day that the rains began, their laughter was silenced. If God Himself had not shut the door, Noah would have opened to their pleading, but it was too late. And as Noah wept for them we perched above him and wept also, for we love the things that make for peace and we mourned for the pain of such a broken world.

And now we have a new beginning, and we will rejoice at the sun as it rises each morning. But we will not forget the terror of the waters, or the great loss that the world endured, and we will pray that such a thing need never happen again

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Paschal Moon

I see your bright fullness lighting up the April sky, and I remember that Easter is coming.

I see the stars dim and fade against your light and I remember that you were made to reflect the greater glory of the sun with a gentle light that is kinder to our eyes. We cannot see all things by your light, but nor do we stumble in the darkness. We too were made to be reflectors of the light of God, each in our small capacity, into the darkness of this world. But there was One whose light was the life of men.

I watch the dark clouds race across your tranquil face. They cannot change you, they only affect us. This is the nature of clouds, and the nature of the changeable currents of this world. We are a vulnerable and fickle people, and we project that fickleness onto you – yet you ever keep your face fixed toward the greater light, where your true allegiance lies, it is only towards us that you change. And I think of the Unchanging God with worship wonder and joy.

And I wonder what you have seen, riding high above the centuries as the spinning spheres mark out the passage of time. Do you remember that first Passover? Were they still painting the blood on the doors when you rose, or were they finished by then, and inside eating that feast with its promise of redemption? I am not sure if you could see the angel of death pass over the land, but you would have heard the mighty cry of grief that rose up from every household where the firstborn were destroyed. And you would have seen a nation of slaves march out of Egypt into a miracle they could barely understand.

And then, so many years later, you saw Him there, while you cast strange, twisted shadows from the olives. You saw Him there, praying in anguish, and you marveled that those who loved Him best could sleep through His pain. You saw the weight of His torment bearing down upon Him, till His sweat fell like mighty drops of blood, and you saw the love which held Him steadfast to his agonizing purpose. You could not turn your face away. Your light glinted on their armor as the soldiers came to arrest Him. You saw the traitor’s kiss and the despair of His friends.

By the time you rose the next night they had cut Him down from the cross and put Him in the tomb, so that His body would not hang there to desecrate the Sabbath. And all the world was dark and sad – for it seemed their only hope had died.

But then, Sunday morning, while it was yet dark and you still lingered in the sky, you saw the miracle take place that no human eyes beheld. You saw the very angels of God roll away the stone that sealed His tomb and the Risen Lord walk forth. You saw the women, who set out while it was still dark, turn their sorrow-burdened steps towards His burial place, and no doubt you smiled to yourself in anticipation of the wonderful surprise that awaited them there. And, as your light faded into the dawning of day, you knew that a new morning had begun for the whole creation; for death, the last enemy, had been defeated, and all the promises were beginning to come true. And you shine down on us still, watching our folly and our desperate prayers, as you wait with us for the consummation of all things.