Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Source

I had spent my life seeking wisdom; more, which only the wise will understand, seeking to know what wisdom is. What is knowledge? What is ignorance? What is it that makes one man’s knowing wiser than another’s? What is truth and where can it be found?

The search has taken me into many places, both high and exalted, and very ordinary and mundane. I have sought the wisdom of kings, and the wisdom of potters and weavers. I have even sought to understand the wisdom of women, though I never felt that I grasped it. After all, I am a man. I have sought the wisdom of delight and the wisdom of sorrow, the wisdom of abundance and the wisdom of denial. But most of all I studied the heavens, for surely the highest wisdom should be set in the highest place? That is what my people have taught for many generations. The God of light surely set these lights in the sky to guide our way

So I was one of those who first saw the star, one of the group who eagerly discussed it night after night, watching in amazement as it grew brighter. What did it mean? We discussed it endlessly, sometimes rather heatedly, but we arrived, fairly quickly, at some basic conclusions. The appearance out of nowhere signified a birth, its magnificence indicated the birth of someone very important, and the direction of its movement indicated where this exalted baby was to be found. We were the star-watchers, the message was for us.

Now wisdom may begin with observation, reason and theory, but it is incomplete if it does not lead to appropriate action. But in this case, since the action required involved travel to an uncertain destination for an unknowable length of time, it was clearly not possible for all of us to go. Some were old and frail to embark on such a journey, others had commitments to family or to the service of the king, and besides, few may travel more swiftly and unremarked than many.

So we set forth on our journey, and the days were long and the end uncertain, but ever the star rose brilliantly before us, and so we continued, weary but persevering. We thought we had reached our goal when we arrived at Jerusalem, for where else would a Jewish king be born? But the evil-minded king called in his wise men, and they directed us to Bethlehem, a no-account town of shepherds in the back blocks of the hills..

And that was our journey’s goal, among the poor and forgotten, in the hired house of the humble. We saw the child, and, in that moment of seeing, all our presuppositions were forgotten, and our assumptions nullified. This was not something to theorise about, and discuss around the fire on a chilly winter’s night; this was the real thing – the source of all wisdom lay in a cradle, too young to speak a single word. We looked, we pondered, then we bowed down and worshipped, stunned by wonder.

We took out the gifts we had brought, chosen with such care to be tokens of esteem and honour, costly and precious. They suddenly looked so silly in the sharp, common light of day. And yet, we gave them, laying down the pathetic vanity of our great learning, in a gesture that was the faintest echo of the self-giving of God Himself. And, as the tears clouded our eyes, we began at last to truly learn, to be unmade so that we could be remade in His image.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


At the time, running away had seemed like a good idea. He had hated being a slave from the day his feckless father had sold him into slavery to pay his own debts. Up until that moment he had a fairly normal childhood for one born among the city’s poor, life was a bit rough always hovering on the edge of hunger and cold, but, since everyone around him was in much the same position, he never thought about it. There was lots of fun, running round with the other boys, days full of laughter and the occasional hard knocks, but as he grew older he learned to give back as good as he got. That was how one survived. His mother was tender, if rather abstracted; only when he grew older did he realise how tired she must have always been, trying to hold her family together and feed her children in whatever way she could. His father was seldom home, either picking up occasional labouring jobs or down at the local tavern, gambling and drinking. The less work he had, the more time he spent there, sometimes coming home and throwing things around, looking for somewhere that their mother might have secreted a few copper coins.

Then one day, when Onesimus was still a boy, he came home with two burly, well-dressed strangers, pointed at his son and said, in a wheedling tone, “There he is, a good strong lad ..” And before he had worked out what was happening, they had grabbed him and bundled him off to the holding cells for the slave market.

He had never got over the sense of betrayal and humiliation. Is this all he was to his father, a commodity to be bought and sold? He resented every day of his servitude. Philemon was a good master, as masters went, but Onesimus knew that every time Philemon looked at him, he only saw a slave, a thing, not a human being like himself. In the end, it was too much. It was a small mistake, it warranted only a mild reproof from his master, but the overseer, not liking his attitude, took advantage of the moment to sneer at him and put him in his place. To drive the insult home, he struck him across the face.

In the still of the night, Onesimus fled. The only way to get away safely was to get as far away from Colosse as he could as quickly as possible. Anything less was suicide, since the penalty for an escaped slave was death. Using a few trinkets he had taken as he left to pay his way, he drifted eventually to Rome, where an individual could lose himself in the seething masses. He was free, but his heart was still tethered to the shame of slavery..

And then he met the Christians. It took time, it was process, but over time he came to know their Jesus, and his heart was changed.  Here was one who did not despise the slave or the outcast, but, although he was the heir to all glory, made himself nothing, and took on slavery of his own free will. What did one do with a love like that? What did one do with a God who turned every social structure upside down? His father may have betrayed him, but here was a Father, the ultimate Father, whom he himself had betrayed in his own wilful heart. How could one reconcile such impossibilities?

Yet there was a place where impossibilities were reconciled, where life took on death and the just took the place of the unjust. It was the place of breaking, and the only place of healing. And, in that place where his old self was crucified with Christ, he discovered a new self: he was a child of God and an heir to every blessing. He could give and serve, not grudgingly under coercion, but freely and gladly, because in this world being a slave was a badge of honour, not a burden of disgrace. In himself he was broken, sinful, useless, but in Christ he was whole, healed and useful. And because he was free for eternity, a child of God and no man’s inferior, he could willingly give himself up to the one who loved him, and become a bondslave of Jesus Christ. This was equality, this was freedom.

He was ready to go back and make amends to his master.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Crown

“When you eat it, your eyes will be opened, and you will become like God ..” The sibilant whisper filled her ears, and in her mind she saw a crown of glory and wonder, just beyond her grasp. She reached out, took the fruit and ate, only to discover, with horror, that the crown was now further from her than ever. Her world, which had danced with glory, was turned to stone: stony fields, stony, thorny plants, and a heavy rock of pain within her very womb. Tears fell like hailstones, and the only crown was a crown of thorns.

Years passed, and tears passed and her children, and her children’s children, inherited her longing for a crown. They would reach out, from the grim smallness of their mortality and fear, to grasp, with claw-like fingers, at whatever glory or favour they imagined they could make their own. One killed his brother for a moment of God’s favour, others invented new things, or married more women, or sought leadership over other men. Women sought to outshine one another in beauty, or bear more children – anything, anything, to claim the crown as their own. But their crowns were figments of mist and cloud that blew away into nothing at the first whisper of adversity.

Others devised another way. If the way to earn the ultimate crown of God’s favour was too hard, (which it always had to be, since the only way back to God involved allowing Him only to wear the crown), then they would discover other gods whose favour was easier to win. There were gods who would give them power, prestige, protection and plenty in exchange for just a little sacrifice. You could wear the strange crown of a priest, the tinsel crown of a king, the laurel crown of a victor. Not one of these crowns could be carried past the grave, but men sought them and fought for them just the same.

Then there came into the world a man who was not like other men. He had power, he spoke wisdom, and all his ways were love. They offered him a crown and he fled from it. He preached against the ephemeral crowns that men gave their lives for. But in the end he accepted a crown, and it was made of thorns. In mockery they pushed it down upon his head, and while the blood streamed into his eyes, they beat him and jeered at him. Then they nailed him up beneath a notice that sneered at his kingship, unwittingly proclaiming deep truth.

And he will return, in the glory of his kingship and the wonder of his Godhead.  And his own,  the sons and daughters of God, who walked through the pain of this world by faith and not by sight, and with love overflowing; these same, the pilgrims of the cross, will no longer be despised and rejected, as he once was,  but will be called up to share his very throne, and crowned with the crown of righteousness, unfading and imperishable. And then, in wonder love and awe, they will cast their crowns down at his feet. And their joy shall know no measure and no end.

Saturday, July 07, 2012


Perhaps it is not strange that the thoughts and feelings of a man in exile should turn towards home, and family, and days of his early life when he was happy and safe. I was going to say loved, but that would not be true; since I left home and embarked on this journey of wonder and terror, here in the midst of blind, hateful persecution, I have found such love that my tears cannot stop falling. The affection a young boy feels in the home of his family, with older brothers who always feel the need to keep him in his place, is a meagre thing compared to this!  Jashobeam, Eleazar and Shammah – may their names be remembered with glory, for in the hour of my darkness and misery, they showed me such love as reflected back to me the very heart of my God. And if man can love, so sacrificially someone as inconstant and unworthy as I am, what does that tell me about my Lord?

But I am getting ahead of myself, and interrupting my own story.  It happened when we were hiding out in the cave of Adullam and the Philistines had possession of Bethlehem. Such is our human perversity, that no sooner is something, however trivial, denied to us, than we suddenly conceive an enormous need for it. It had been a hard, bitter pointless sort of day, when a man feels discouraged by his own uselessness, and the heart and the tongue grow careless. I knew that God had brought me to this point for His own good purposes, I knew that His promises are sure, certain and absolute, but it had become an abstract kind of knowledge, disconnected from my heart. I hungered and thirsted for the touch of God’s presence, the feel of His reassurance in my parched emptiness. And, holed up in that desert cave, I thought of the well at Bethlehem, where the water was always cool and clean, tasting faintly of the growing earth. Somehow the two things became linked and merged in my mind, and speaking from nostalgia and frustration, I voiced my longing to drink from that well once again. Such was my self-pity, that I didn’t even notice that my three mighty men had slipped away until they eventually returned.

Men talk of being humbled by criticism, or by realising their mistakes, and these examples are true; but there is something more than that which humbles a man down to the very marrow of his bones, and prostrates the deepest places of his soul, and that is to be the recipient of crazy, undeserved love. Who am I that someone should risk their very life to gratify my superficial whims? For when my men returned, they brought with them water from the well of Bethlehem. They had broken through the Philistine lines, fought their way through, just so I could have a drink of water from home! It was too much!

I could not drink it. It would be like drinking their blood. Only a tyrant would demand that men risk their lives for something so small and personal, and may God himself forbid that I ever become such a man. There is only one who is worthy of such devotion, and I am not that one. So, totally undone by such a demonstration of love, I poured out their gift to the Lord in wonder and thanksgiving and with many tears. And my prayer is that all my days I may show the Lord such devotion as my mighty men showed me. For he alone is worthy.