Saturday, November 24, 2012


I am not sure that I can explain what took me there that night. Fear and shame had been wrestling inside me against burning curiosity, and after days of internal conflict, I simply wanted peace. But it was something else that compelled my feet through the dark streets of Jerusalem that night. As a boy I had watched a fisherman draw in a fish: it didn’t matter which way it thought it was swimming, when the fisherman pulled it would come in regardless. So it was: I was drawn and I came.

And I have never felt more confused in my life! No sooner had we exchanged courtesies (extremely courteous on my part, one does not wish to risk offending a prophet of God), than He launched straight into the most extraordinary statement I had ever heard from rabbinical lips: “No one caqn see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again!”

Unless he is … what? This was no longer the comfortable conversation I had rehearsed in my head. I floundered, what could he possibly mean?  I had imagined us talking elegantly, one learned man to another, while I gently probed to get his measure, but now it felt as if he were doing the probing, and had found a hollow place right in the centre of my being. I knew all the classic arguments, the midrash of the sages, but  …. I shook my head. It was as if we had sat down to play a game together, an old familiar game, and suddenly my opponent was moving his pieces in ways I had not even imagined they could be moved.  I had no response to give.

“Do you mean that a man, an adult, has to back inside his mother’s womb?” Even putting it into words was ridiculous, but, turn it every which way, it still made no sense. I hadn’t felt so stupid since I was a child.

He started to explain to me about being born of the Spirit, the mysterious Spirit that blows where it will. He seemed to be saying that the Kingdom of God was something different from the Israel that I was part of by virtue of my ancestry, or at least that one only became part of it by a way I could not comprehend.

He teased me gently, and in His smiling voice I heard an invitation  to let go of all my assumptions about my own importance: “You mean that you are a teacher in Israel and you don’t know about this?”

True. He had me there, so I listened as he continued to explain. And as he spoke I began to see, but dimly, as a man sees shapes through a fog, enough to stay on his path, but not enough to see where the path is leading him. I realized that what he said was true, we cannot speak or teach beyond our own experience, and yet we are so quickly dismissive of the testimony of those who know more of God than we do. That is our shame, and our blindness.

And then he spoke of the ways of God, and of a love that could not be confined to Israel, but would reach out to embrace the world (though I could not understand when he spoke of how this was to be done). And I began to grasp the notion that it was not only those who were born of Abraham’s lineage who were his children, but that there were many who would come in, from the east and the west, who would be drawn in. And perhaps (though this was much harder to accept), we Israelites were not truly Abraham’s children either until we became so  by … this other way ..

There was so much I hadn’t begun to realize, that I couldn’t until that dreadful day when I saw what he meant about being lifted up, but my journey had begun, and for many sleepless nights I wrestled with his words, placing them in counterpoint to the Torah until my thoughts began to take new shapes.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012



We will remember you

In the places in between;
Marshland and shoreline, dusk and early dawning,
The interstitial littoral
Where the lost linger.

Princess and victim, torn and betrayed.

You are all our tears:
The dreams that shatter on the rocks of cold indifference
The silence where our voices should have been:
Dreadful and pathetic,
The spirit’s anorexia,
The body pales away.

Brother and father betrayed you,
For they cannot hear our cry.
Our woman-song is discord
To the rhythm of their march,
And our screaming fades away.

Who will heal the broken?


Daughters of Jerusalem, watch from your towers!
No beauty that we should desire him –
Broken, broken ..
Let the stones rise up and cry!

He sheds our tears,
He carries our silence
While the prancing princes wave their tawdry swords ..

There is no health in us.

Pity now, take pity oh my people!
But there is no pity here:
Stone hearts within stone walls
As there always were,
Let the weak go to the wall!

And, outside the wall,
The drumbeats of our hearts are shocked and still.


Who will remember?
The laughing girl, the daughter of the king,
Rich to life’s promise,
Her beauty his desire.
And the promises are broken,
The promises unspoken,
And the house becomes unholy,
And the women drink despair.

Howl to the uncaring moon!

The garments of her glory
Torn as her soul was torn:
The gaping wound
In the horror of her body.

And the king did nothing.


Another day, another king
Embraces his scaffold as a bridegroom takes a bride,
Pinned to her by love.
The torn flesh cries out
And the Father is not there:
God walks the desolation.
Only the women watch,
Loving their champion.

 Oh my people, what have I done unto you?

The darkness covers him
The dreadful darkness,
The darkness where the darkest deeds are done,
Where the victims huddle
In their silent pain.
He stands with them on feet too pierced to stand.


The broken body testifies
That there are no easy answers.
And the stars swing in their courses,
But darkness still covers the deeps.
And the tears of the forgotten
Are remembered by their God.

He comes as the deer comes, springing on the mountains:
Shall the mountains fall and crush us?

Come out from among the tombs,
From the scarce-lit places,
From the caves of man’s forgetting.
Let him tell your wounds in the light.
Let his knowing balm your shame.
Let him shout aloud his love!

Under blood, and under water
Washed clean from everything.

And the Spirit and the Bride say, “Come!”
And the broken and the torn say, “Come!”
And the very saints cry out:
“How long, Oh Lord?”

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Prisoner

He  languishes in his cell. He has a history, he has a name, yet neither of them seem to matter anymore. He did what he did because it was the only thing he knew how to do, and he is not sure that even now, knowing the consequences, he would be able to do any differently. A man must stand up for himself, or else be sucked down and eaten up. There are no reprieves, no second chances, and, sooner or later, every man’s time is up. He can feel the fear in his stomach, corrosive as acid, but he will hold his bravado to the last (he hopes).

He has never been a thinker, he always prided himself on being a man of action, who didn’t give those paralyzing second thoughts any headspace, but now, in his little, miserable cell, there is nothing to do except think. A man can only rage for so long before his body is too exhausted to keep fighting. So he lets his mind wander across his memories: the swift gladness of success, the contentment of comradeship with other outcast men, the heady knowledge that he was a hero to some and a reviled name to others: the timid law-abiders, the soft cowards he despised. He saw himself as a man who fought for Israel’s freedom; the fact that he also fought for the booty and the spoil, and the hot pleasure of violence – surely that was secondary?

He had not known his own name, growing up as he did on the tattered outskirts of society, so, with rough irony they gave him a name: Barabbas, son of the father. It was a good name to play with and fight with. He tasted its nuances as he sat and waited, wondering how much time he had left.

But something was different this morning. Even here, under the heavy layers of stone, he could hear the noises of a crowd, an angry crowd, shouting out over and over again. He tried to make out the muffled and distorted syllables. “Crucify him!” they seemed to be saying. He shuddered; when it is your own flesh facing the nails and the long, slow agony, such bloodthirstiness seems a lot less appealing. And then he heard a word he could not mistake, they were crying out his own name. What? Why should the Jerusalem mob be crying out for his death? It made no sense, but he felt the bile in his throat and cringed into the corner of his cell.

There was a heavy tramp of footsteps which could only mean a full contingent of Roman guards. Was this the hour of his death? Wordlessly, they opened the door, beckoned to him and led him up the stairs and corridors to daylight. And then they released him!

What was happening? A few sentences from bystanders explained the situation: that man up there on the platform, Jesus of Nazareth,  still and tranquil despite the ropes around him, was going to be crucified in his place. The choice had been made, he would live and Jesus would die. He gazed, and he wondered. To his own surprise, the hard, tough man found himself crying.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

If Shakespeare were a Sat Nav ..

Go therefore ye, and take the subtler way
The bend sinister where the paths collide
Do not engage ye with the vaunting banks
But haste ye on towards the rising day.
Then, in a little while, too soon, too soon,
Before the town’s drab outskirts come in view
Curve to the rightwards through the woodland way
The road less trodden, underneath the boughs.
Curve softly there, and bend ye ever south,
Though every winding would ye take astray
Stop not for goblin’s curse or witches’ ring.
Up to the hill, the highest in this place
(Though naught is seen beneath a lowering sky)
Prickle ye out the downward sloping track
Nor backwards glance, but leave such things arrear,
And spend ye merrily the careful path
That winds without the rocky tumbled crags
Bethink ye not to turn to left or right
Until the mighty highways come in sight.
Gambol ye sunwise then (not widdershins)
Around the mighty circle. Count the ways
And take ye then the road ye number three,
Then turn ye leftwards, very suddenly.
A mile, a mile, and yet a mile again,
And still more miles, till weary heart grows lean;
Then looms a river. Cross ye not the bridge,
But take the underway, nor think to pay,
The ferryman (for that were coin in vain)
And roundabout the twisting streets go on
And sharply east – and ye have reached your home!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Man in the Pit

A pit is not a good place to be. It is dank, it is dark, and no one ever cleans it. The smell of the beasts was almost overpowering, and the man knew, that, though he had entered it willingly and calmly, eyes wide open and head held high,  his mind composed and his faith at rest, that his body responded to the sensory horror with visceral fear, and the lions could smell the sweat of his ordeal.

There was comfort in remembering how others before him had endured in such a desperate place. The patriarch Joseph had been thrown into a pit (by his own brothers, no less!), sold into slavery, and, because God was with him, later risen to become the second-in-command in mighty Egypt, and saved many lives. Or Jeremiah, who was cast into a pit for speaking faithfully what God had commanded him to say. And then there was Jonah. Wasn’t the insides of the belly of a great fish the worst kind of pit? And, though Jonah’s own folly had brought him to that place, it was the Lord who put him in the pit, and took him out again.

But this was now, not then, and who could predict God’s ways? That a man could pray, faithfully, to the God of his fathers, the Maker of heaven and earth, all the days of his life, and find comfort and sustenance in worship, even though he was far away from Jerusalem and the Temple, and then, when his years were many and his body less, be hauled off to die for the simple act of prayer? But a man does not change his loyalty, his allegiance, when the price tags are changed; if this was the cost of fidelity, so be it, God was still God.

It was the jealousy and malice of men which had put him here, their determination to get rid of a faithful servant whose integrity showed them up; and the king, caught between their cunning and his own weakness, was forced to send his most treasured servant to the pit of the lions. And the lions were hungry.

But they made no move towards him. After a few minutes of silent tension, he turned to face them, and, as his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he realised that there was another figure standing between the lions and himself, and it was not a mortal man. It was an angel of the most high God, sent for his succour and protection in his hour of need. He was no longer concerned about the lions, but awed into silence by this holy presence. All night long the angel kept guard, all night long the lions remained peacefully in their corner, and the man, with a prayer of thanksgiving lay down to sleep: “For it is You Lord, You, lord, only, who makes me to dwell in safety.”

In the morning the king came, overwhelmed with concern, to find out if his servant had survived. Marvelling, he had him lifted out and checked out to see how his body had borne its terrible incarceration, but he bore no wounds whatsoever. His very body had become a testimony to his God. Yet when his accusers were thrown into the pit in their turn, the lions did not hesitate to destroy them. This was a God to be reverenced and worshipped.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Beauty for ashes

There is a place you find yourself in when it has all been too much, when the worst has happened and yet you are still breathing. The ritual wailing of the mourners had already started, but inside her head there was an empty silence, reverberating only with hopelessness. There was no life left in her except the basic, inexorable functions of a body she no longer fully inhabited. She did not even feel the tears that trickled helplessly down her face, but the mourners did, and it worried them far more than a dramatic exhibition of grief.

She knew, though she feared the sin of saying it, that she did not want to live in a world that did not contain her daughter. All during the girl’s short illness she had bargained and pleaded with God to spare the child, but the girl was dead. She might as well have been asking favours of the rocks and stones.

She had even sent her husband off to seek the Healer, who was supposed to be in the town, but it was too late. The girl was dead – and those words, however they were weighed and turned, bore down on her with their crushing weight. Her only child, her love and her joy, was gone from the world, and all the lights had been turned out. She wondered, heavily and drearily, in the wasteland beyond passion, if God really cared for mothers, or daughters at all. Perhaps He only answered prayers for sons?

There was a commotion at the door: her husband was back with the Healer. Why were they bothering? It was too late -- everything was too late. Even the unvoiced thoughts tasted like ash in the back of her throat. She heard the Healer rebuking the mourners, crazily saying that the child was still asleep. Did He think they were naive children, who could not tell the difference between sleep and death? The sudden silence made her ache; she realised that their wailing had actually help her detach from the pain. Now the bitter knife was twisting afresh in her own heart.

The Healer shooed the mourners away and entered the room with just a few people. She shrank back into the shadows, unable to deal with this intrusion. She felt as if this was a charade for someone else’s benefit, but a cruel mockery of her grief. But his keen eyes sought her where she hid, and smiled with such gentle understanding that she had to take notice.  There was no mockery in Him at all.

He moved to the bed where the child lay, and took her by the hand, and spoke. “Little girl, I say unto you arise!” The voice was soft, and incredibly tender, but He spoke with such authority that, in that moment, she had no trouble believing that death itself would have to obey Him. And immediately the child arose, got up and walked around.

What do you do when you stand in the middle of a miracle? She was dazed, stunned as her world revolved into a new position. Was this real? Could this be? Can the dead be restored to life? Does God answer the prayers of an ordinary woman? Who was this Healer, and, if He really did have the power of God, why should He come into her house? She was afraid to move, to touch her child, for fear the miracle should dissolve and the agony return.

But the Healer noticed and spoke again. “Give her something to eat,” He said. And her world, this new, wonderful world full of hope and promise and gladness, turned right way up again, and she turned towards the kitchen.