Saturday, May 26, 2012

Not as it should be

The plan should have worked perfectly, should have silenced once and for all that deep, secret nagging whisper in his heart that he was not as grand and as great as he wanted to be. And after all, was the point of being king, and having the whole bureaucracy of Babylon at your disposal, if you couldn’t get your plans to work out without a hitch? And, what was worse, he couldn’t even blame his bureaucrats for the problem. They had done exactly what he asked.

It had all begun with the idea of the statue, enormously tall, too tall to fit inside the city: the glorified image of himself made of pure gold, that the people might see and marvel at the greatness of their king, and all those officials, so full of their scornful self-importance would have to acknowledge he was greater. And wasn’t a king, such as himself, the mighty ruler of an empire, as great as any god? He had defeated all the surrounding peoples, their gods had surrendered in his favour, so wasn’t he greater than any of them? (Alright, there was the matter of the God of the Hebrews, who they claimed had let them be defeated as a punishment, and was in charge of the whole process, but that made no sense)  So, just as they went to the temple to worship the gods through their images, shouldn’t they give the same devotion to their king?

So, when the day came there they were assembled on that plain -- all the dignitaries of the Babylonian Empire from the satraps to the claptraps. They all knew what was required of them, the herald had proclaimed it: when all the musicians played they were to bow down and worship the glorious image of their king. Ninety feet tall it stood, unbearably bright in the sunshine, wonderful enough to provoke awe and worship in anyone. But to make sure they understood that this was no frivolous request, the fiery furnace had been assembled right at the front where they could not miss it,  and they knew what fate awaited any who disobeyed the command.

It should go perfectly, and he could feel the excitement mounting inside him. If worship did so much for the gods that they constantly demanded it, shouldn’t it do the same for him? The music played, jarringly, majestically, and he quivered with anticipation as he saw the people bowing down. Except .. what was this? In the middle distance three men remained upright.  Infuriated, he ordered them to be brought before him. When they came up, he recognised them – the three brilliant young Hebrews, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. How dare they spoil his special plan, and set such a heinous example of defying his divine majesty!

His fragile honour was endangered, but there was a remedy for that! He would make an example of them, humiliating them with his rage before the whole gathering. But it had no effect. They would rather die than bow down and worship him! Well, let them die! That, at least, should have a salutary effect on all who watched. If any wouldn’t worship him from genuine admiration, then let them worship him from fear. These men were spoiling his day and would be destroyed. Then things would be just as they should!

So the furnace of his wrath was heated way beyond human endurance, and the three men were cast in. And that should have fixed things. But instead it was the final disintegration, for the men did not burn up into nothing, but rather walked freely among the flames, and a fourth one walked with them, and He was utterly glorious, like a son of the gods. Like a spear thrust through his vital organs, the king felt the agony of defeat. Here was a God who made both his statues and his statutes look like puny and ridiculous games. To try and pit himself against such a God was a pathetic absurdity. No wonder nothing had gone  the way that it should!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Remembrance at school

Like so many before me, I did not know
Why the Queen needed saving.
We were told to remember, but they forgot
To tell us why the war;
And I dared not shuffle.
Heads bowed, eyes closed ..
But no one said a prayer;
Only the ticking silence
While we stood abashed,
Till someone said the oath.

I was moved by the words’ wild beauty,
The autumnal tinge of immortality
For those who grew not old.
And I stood transported,
With silly, pricking tears,
Eight years old and feeling
The immeasurable burden of time.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


Well, I guess you could call it an interrupted journey.  It seemed so important at the time; business seemed so urgent that I didn’t want to wait till the next day when I could have travelled down with some others. Sure, everyone knew what a dangerous road it could be – so many brigands and robbers lurked up in the cliffs and the caves where the Roman soldiers, with their heavy armour and their fondness for marching in straight lines, couldn’t follow. But how many times had I been up and down the length of the road and never seen anything more dangerous than a squad of Romans marching by – and they don’t bother you if you don’t bother them! So, never wanting to let a good business opportunity slip, I kissed my wife goodbye, told her I’d be back in a few days, and set off, jaunty as you please, for Jericho.

I didn’t make it – in fact, I haven’t got there yet, holed up in this inn and waiting for the swelling to go down so that I can get around again without too many creaks and groans. But there I go, always getting ahead of my own story! It was a warm bright day when I set out, and I fully expected to arrive at Jericho by mid afternoon. I am used to travelling, and for a couple of hours all went well, then, just as the sun was starting to get really hot, I found myself growing uneasy. It felt different, somehow, though I couldn’t say how exactly, and I found myself quickening my pace. Then .. something knocked me flying, and I fell hard onto the ground. But I hadn’t finished drawing breath to cry out my shock and pain before they were upon me – fists and boots and heavy clubs. The next few moments were a maze of fear and agony such as I hope to never live through again. But they were efficient, these brigands from the rocky caves; they had beaten me up, taken my money, my little knife, my stout leather belt and even the silver pin on my cloak, then scrambled away back to wherever they came from before I even lost consciousness.

I drifted in and out of awareness for a while, feeling the heat of the sun and the wracking pain of my body, then back into merciful darkness again. It seemed much later (but I have no idea how long it really was) before I heard footsteps and, forcing my swollen eyes slightly open (only one of them seemed to be working) I saw a priest passing by. I tried to cry out for help, but no sound came out. But he had seen me, and, gathering up the hem of his robes, he passed by on the other side. I felt sick with grief and fear, and more than a little anger. Sometime later the same thing happened again – the only difference was that this time it was a Levite. I did not know whether the cold tide that rose inside me was despair or the onset of death. Perhaps there is not much difference.

The shadows were lengthening and my limbs were much stiffer by the time I heard someone else coming, but when I saw it was a Samaritan, I closed my eyes again. If a priest or a Levite wouldn’t help me, what could I expect from that hated race? When I heard him approach me I steeled myself, thinking perhaps he was going to finish me off. Instead, to my absolute amazement, his hands were gentle. He washed my wounds, and trickled a little wine into my dry, blood-crusted mouth. And that harsh wine was the sweetest drink I have ever tasted, and it shamed me that such kindness should come from an enemy’s hand. I did not know that swollen eyes could cry.

And his mercy continued. He lifted me on his own donkey, brought me to this inn, and even paid for my care. And as I lie here, aching but rested, I have much to think about. When a man finds that generous kindness comes, not just from the least-expected place, but from the most despised, everything he had taken for granted, the way he sees the whole world, has to re-adjust. I suspect my interrupted journey may become an interrupted life.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Gift

It was the ebb-tide of our faith and hope. The inner landscape of our hearts was formless and void, and darkness lay over it all, though the spring sunshine burned brightly. We thought that we had seen the shape of mercy and redemption, and that the time of the fulfilment of God’s mighty promises was at hand. We had seen, we had marvelled, we had loved; but now the one we had seen and loved lay in the tomb, and all our expectations were buried with him. And from the tomb there is no returning.

Our shared grief should have brought us closer, but somehow sorrow is the most isolating of emotions. We were each locked in our own darkness as we walked along that road, making limp conversation to try and express the throbbing misery that locked us each apart. Then the Stranger joined and asked what we were discussing. He must have been the only person anywhere near Jerusalem who was unaware of the one story everyone was discussing – the crucifixion of Jesus. We told him the story, and it was then that the words burst from me finally expressing the grinding pain within: “We thought He would be the one to redeem Israel!”

For a fleeting moment I thought I saw such a look on his face as if the joyous laughter of heaven were about to spill over; but it was gone so fast that I must have imagined it. Then he proceeded to open the scriptures to us in a way that we had never heard before, showing how the Messiah was one who would come to suffer and to die, and that this would be the way that the Kingdom of God would come in. It was the most amazing exposition of scripture I had ever heard, and we were so engrossed that it was with surprise that we realised we had reached Emmaus. We urged him to come in and dine with us – it was late in the day and besides, there was such comfort in his words and presence that we were loath to see him go.

So he entered the house with us, and changed our lives forever. His words had touched our hearts, but now his actions were transformative.  And yet they were such normal, everyday actions: he took the bread, he gave thanks, and then he broke the bread to pass to us. And in the breaking of the bread the Saviour was revealed. He handed us the bread, and in that moment we saw, really saw, who he was, and were struck dumb with commingled love, joy and worship. And even as we struggled to respond to the unthinkable, the outcome we had never considered, he vanished from our sight and we were left gaping at each other.

               It was Jesus!
               He isn’t dead any more! He’s risen
               What has He done? What has God done?
               How could we have been so blind, so stupid, so slow to believe?
               How could we have doubted him?
               Didn’t our hearts burn within us while he spoke to us along the road?

I looked at the piece of bread in my hand, and absorbed the fact that I had just been given the greatest gift of all. God himself had come, and sat down at my very ordinary table, to show me in person,  (why me? Oh my Precious Lord, why me?), that death had been overcome, the ransom had been paid, and the temple curtain had ripped for a very specific reason. He was the one whom God had sent to redeem Israel, but not just Israel,  the whole world was his. With one accord we rose from the table and ran back to Jerusalem again, and did not feel the weariness of the journey. There was one word in our mouths and one song on our lips: ‘The Lord has risen!’

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Seeking Wisdom

All I had ever wanted to do was learn. I wanted with all my heart to understand God and his ways. Wasn’t studying the Law of God a fitting occupation for His people? Not if you’re a woman. I learned that very early, from my family, from my village. My older sister, Martha, only ever wanted to learn the things that women were supposed to want to learn – how to cook and clean and spin and weave and all the other responsibilities that belong to running a home properly. And it’s not as if I could disagree. Of course those things mattered; without them we would have no food or clothing, and our homes would soon be unfit to live in. Without those skills we could not live! Patiently, and possibly patronisingly as well, she would explain it to my frustrated tears, and I would seethe with my confused desires. How could I deny that we needed food and clothing? But ... but ... how could she not see that there was something even more important? All I wanted to do was Know God, to understand the mystery of who He was and why we alone, out of all the peoples on earth, were entrusted with His truth. Apparently that was very wrong of me.

Years passed. Yes, in spite of myself I learned to cook and sweep and do all the things every woman had to learn, and because I was my mother’s daughter, I learned to do them properly. But my heart remained insatiable.

And then we met the Master, and it was as if He was, in Himself, the very Word of God I had been longing to learn. He spoke wisdom, but it was more than that, He spoke life; and I felt something long desiccated inside me start reaching out tendrils of hope. He did not have a contempt for women, like so many rabbis do; I felt included in His words and His regard from the very start.  Was it any wonder if, whenever He was near, I hung around within hearing of His words whenever I possibly could?

And so He came, with His disciples, and stayed as a guest in our home. And, when I hung around on the fringes of the group, straining to hear, to learn, to fill my soul with wonder and freedom, He looked over at me, straight into my yearning eyes, and beckoned to a place right at his feet. I could hardly believe it, but I wasn’t going to disobey. Eagerly I took my place, noticing the reactions of some of his disciples as I did so. They were shocked that a woman should join them in the posture of a disciple, but how could they say anything when it was the Master Himself who had decided?

It was my sister who was scandalised and said so. When she came looking for me to help in the Kitchen, and saw me sitting amongst the men, her immediate response was to send me back to the kitchen – a woman’s proper place with the pots and pans and no unwomanly ideas. It was then that the Master spoke, and His words healed a dark wound inside me and opened a door I had thought was eternally shut. “Martha,” He said, in that way which managed to be so understanding and yet so firmly directive,  “you’re worrying about so many things, but only one thing really matters, and that’s the one which your sister Mary has chosen. It is the better thing, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Somehow it doesn’t matter so much anymore when people regard me as being unwomanly. I now know that God Himself delights in my learning everything I can about Him, and how does anyone else’s opinion matter compared to that? 

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Child of His Love

You are His daughter, His child of delight,
Taken from darkness and woven in light,
Learning His music to dance in His sight
You are the child of His love.

You are so precious, He treasures your soul.
Your wounds are washed and He’s making you whole,
Your name of glory is writ in His scroll,
You are the child of His love.

You are His workmanship specially made.
Held in His hands you need not be afraid.
Dressed in a beauty that never can fade,
You are the child of His love.

Passion and promise; now waiting a crown
Made of that sun that shall never go down.
White beyond sight He’s preparing your gown.
You are the child of His love.

Lovely in Jesus, made whole and complete,
To rest in Him and to learn at His feet
Where all His comfort your sorrow shall meet,
You are the child of His love.