Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Saturday

Here at the tide’s withdrawal, the stark sand
Stretches in desolation, soaked by brine:
The salt of the world’s tears burned hard and dry.
And darkness, darkness over all the deep.

Memory’s wild clasping barely can recall
Blithe grass, deep honey-dipped in golden light,
When laughter was as cheap as a balloon.
And tinkling music bedded in the heart.

Then came the night, hard as a mighty storm
Breaking across our unsuspecting day;
Mortality, like ash choked in the mouth,
Smashes our crystal toys with bitterness.

“Father, have mercy!” yet there is no word,
Here in the tomb Great Silence presses down
And here we squirm, who have no silences
In the small chattering country of our minds.

And we, so brittle, crushed to see the weight
Of His great crushing. And we must be still
In that stone cave where great rocks seal us in,
Not knowing Easter morning is so close.

Friday, March 29, 2013


It had never really been a secret, He had written it into the very fabric of the universe. Night was followed by day and winter by spring. Caterpillars changed into butterflies and crops sprang up anew for another season of harvest. Death, that terrible dark vacuum that sucked up all life, appeared to be sovereign on this mortal earth, but it was only an appearance. To see the early bulbs thrust their way through the lingering snow, or the new buds form on trees as dry as the weight of years, was to see another story, hidden below the surface yet constantly breaking out as if the joy beyond all things could not contain itself.

And so, in the fullness of time, He came. He came unto His own and His own did not receive Him. They did not know what to do with One who was both utterly one of them and utterly different. They did not know what to do with such love that flamed forth from Him in its purity, unmitigated by human doubt or confused self-interest. They wanted His gifts, but they feared the One who gave them, for how can you receive from such largesse and hold yourself aloof? Down the long centuries they had struck their own cold bargain with death, a lifetime of power and self-aggrandisement in the fleeting sunshine before the night descended.

So they bore him down to death, unleashing all their anger and pain and hatred upon Him, and in their fury they did not even notice that He was walking willingly along the path where they were hounding him. For why would any man, whose days are so short and whose cup is so bitter, run willingly to death, where there is no more spring rain or sweet fruit upon the tongue? For the one thing they could never imagine was that He was doing it for them.

But He did. He walked into their darkness and became one of them. He who was light and lightness, and love in its pure, unmitigated power, the Word who spoke worlds into being became flesh, became powerless under the bludgeoning weight of their depravity. The life who was the light of men fell, as one bound and helpless, into the void of the everlasting darkness of death, and it seemed to those few who watched, with their eyes befogged with tears, that death had swallowed up life, and had dominion over Him.

No, it only seemed that way, for just three days, for a mere flicker in the towering aeons of time. Then the secret that had been whispered in creation for centuries was shouted aloud to the furthest stars, and only humanity was deaf. The stone was rolled away and Love emerged triumphant. And death was swallowed up in Life. There was confusion, and disbelief, but underneath it, bubbling up like an unstoppable fountain, was joy beyond words and glory past human containment. Judgement had been assuaged, evil had been atoned, and there was nothing in all creation outside of His mastery. The promise, whispered so long, was fulfilled, humanity was restored, and He who had suffered was utterly victorious.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Upside Down

It was hot out there on the hillside, the afternoon sun was clear and strong, but none of them went looking for shade. Instead, they leaned in closer, for nobody wanted to miss a word He said. It had already been rumoured that He did not teach like the scribes and Pharisees, but spoke with a unique authority, and for once rumour was an understatement. They had never heard words like this before, and they strained to hear as each phrase dropped into their minds like a stone into a lake, making a distinct splash and leaving ripples of confusion behind.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Wait .. what? Weren’t the blessed ones those who were secure in both their worldly status and their religious position, the ones who could look down on the rest and say, “Lord, I thank you that I am not as ... these”? Had He turned things upside down?

“Blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted.”

No, that couldn’t be right. It was like saying, ‘happy are the unhappy’. And what sort of mourning did He mean? There were so many things one could mourn for in this world, from bereavement, to one’s own broken sinfulness. What did He mean?

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

At least that was somewhere in the Psalms. But look, there march the Roman soldiers in their glittering panoply, there stand the Pharisees displaying their piety on the street corners. There wasn’t much room left for the meek, for those who refused to grab for whatever power they could hold onto.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”

This made a little more sense, but still ... where did it leave those who were already full of righteousness, the perfect keepers of the Law? Why wouldn’t they come first when they tried so hard to be holy? They did not whisper to each other, for they did not wish to miss a word He said, but the thoughts were buzzing in their heads. Some were beginning to see a pattern, an undergirding truth, if an unsettling one; others were still completely in the dark.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

They could nod their heads at this; it was certainly a beautiful thought. Most people think that mercy is a good idea until they’re the ones that have to give it. But again, it would be an upside down world when that actually took place!

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

That was a tricky one, who was pure in heart? Even Moses was only allowed to see God’s back, and how could they compare themselves to him? No one except the blessed angels was holy enough to behold the Lord!

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”

Who were the peacemakers then, in a world that always seemed to be at war? And yet, He was saying that those who could make peace were the sons of God, the God-like ones. How did anyone make peace in a world where defeat and attrition were always knocking at the door? What did peace that lasted beyond this day’s sunshine and bread enough for this day’s belly even look like?

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

“That may well be so”, muttered one man, unable to restrain himself any longer, “for ‘tis certain they’ll have no kingdom in this world!”

It was all madly upside down, this Kingdom he preached of. It was a place where the losers were the winners and the sinful were the saints; where the sad were the happy and the nobodies were the rulers.  It was attractive, but also unsettling, perhaps even frightening, for it demanded something more than the Law had ever asked, that the very deepest portions of one’s inmost self should be put into the hands of God, to be turned inside out and upside down, and be able to see the gladness in it. They trembled and they wondered, for they did not yet know that it was God who would put Himself into their hands, turning death into life and despair into hope. The upside down Kingdom was far closer than they imagined.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Holding on

He had always been a cautious man. He had no love of guesswork or speculation, and risk-taking bothered him. He had accumulated his wealth by the blessing of abundant natural increase, and he was careful correct and God-fearing in all that he did. Always conscientious, he was perpetually scrupulous in his dealings with God and man, and even made sacrifices on his children’s behalf, in case they, in the carelessness of youth, should fall into sin and offend their maker. He was a great man, the wealthiest in those parts, and had no idea how much that irritated the envy of his friends. “Surely he couldn’t have got all this by honest means?” they would wonder.

Secure in his safe and upright life, he had no expectation of calamity. But there are things that happen in realms beyond human knowledge or control which can directly affect a man’s existence, and so it came to be. In a single day, all his wealth was taken from him: seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys. And as if this wasn’t calamity enough, he lost all his children: seven sons and three daughters, destroyed by a mighty wind that blew the house down on top of them even while they feasted and drank.

Numb with horror, he sought refuge in the rituals of grieving, tearing his robe and shaving his head. They gave a structure to his pain, even as he reached out and clung blindly to the God whose goodness he was still willing to declare.  “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away,” he cried out in his anguish, “Blessed be the name of the Lord!” He held on fast to his belief in the goodness of God.

But worse was to come – the affliction of his own body as well with painful sores from head to toe. There was no place, sleeping or waking, in mind or in body, that he could find any respite from his pain. Everything had come unraveled. Yet still he held on. God was good. It was the only thing he had left.

Even his wife had given up and told him to “Curse God and die!” But still he held on.

His friends came. At first, overwhelmed by such calamity, they simply sat with him in his pain. But when the first shock had passed, they began to wonder, and, human-like, found dagger-sharp words to house their half-formed thoughts. If Job was suffering so much, he must have done something to deserve it. They had always suspected there was something wrong. What was the real reason God was punishing him, they asked. Wasn’t it time to confess the truth? But he still held on. He held fast to the goodness of God and his own innocence.

In the end it was God who answered, overturning their petty, self-protective theologies with the mighty wind of His Spirit. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Designed the stars? Crafted the uniqueness of each creature? Can you comprehend the secret counsels of God?”

They were overwhelmed by His majesty and wisdom, pierced to the heart by His truth. And, stunned and broken with wonder, Job held on to the truth he knew. God was God, and he was but a man, a finite man who had presumed to speak of things he knew nothing of. “I had heard of You, I thought I knew You, but now I have glimpsed something so much greater, I repent of my small, careful theology.”

And in the end he knew that the God he had been trying to hold onto had in fact been marvelously and lovingly holding onto him

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Letting Go

She could barely see his face through her tears, but her fingers moved across it, almost without thought, wiping away the blood, smoothing out the lines of pain. It was so long ago that she had been warned that a sword would pierce her heart, and in the glory of that youthful moment, bright as Springtime, she had willingly acquiesced. She had not known then that swords were quite so sharp or pain so bitter. She had not realized that one day she would hold the joy of her life and the hope of the world – the only hope of the world – dead in her arms. But now that the terrible moment had come, she would not turn away. She would wait, as she had learned to wait, shrunken and battered by the pain, but still there, tear-torn and broken, but still there, in the terrible darkness, waiting on the revelation of God’s meaning.

Of course, this wasn’t the first hurt, just the worst one. It seemed that, ever since the time of Eve, to be a mother was to carry sorrow in your heart. To bear a child, to love a child – this was to long for a perfection of understanding that does not exist in this world, and to be made aware that your own love, however hard you tried to shield and shelter, could never be enough. To be fulfilled, pressed down and running over, and yet, at the same time, achingly unfulfilled, because you discovered that the very act of birth, and taking your child into your arms, was an act of letting go, for a child is not a puppet, possession or plaything, but a separate human being, with their own destiny stamped upon them. And if that was true of any child, how much more was it true of this child?

From the beginning he had been different. There was no fault in him, no valid cause for reproach, but many moments of confusion. She would never forget the day when, a mere twelve year old, he had turned to her and said, “Did you not know I must be about my Father’s business?” as if it were the most normal thing in the world for a child to dispute the meaning of the scriptures with the scholars in the temple. There was no possible answer to his question.

Even in his early adult years, when he was there by her side in Nazareth, she had known that he wasn’t there to stay, and there were moments in his ministry when she had asked herself (and sometimes him), “why does it have to be this way?” Loving him and watching him taking enormous risks and walking forward into pain was like putting her heart outside of her body, and watching, silently, while the world attacked it and left it bleeding and torn.

And now this. He was dead. Softly she lifted the crown of thorns from his brow, though it pricked her fingers, and leaned down to kiss the lacerations. Part of her wanted to hold onto this moment, to hold onto the only part of her son that was left to her, but she knew that she could not. They must bury him swiftly, before the sun set and the Sabbath began. She must let him go, down into the depths of death, beyond human knowledge. But not, she believed, beyond the knowledge of God. And only God knew what would happen next.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Sackcloth and Ashes

They thought that stricter religion was the answer. Their great question was to ask what their forefathers had done that had so angered God, and never do it again. The logic seemed unassailable. God had sent them into exile because they had broken the covenant, therefore if they kept the covenant perfectly, their security in the Promised Land was assured.

So they went back to the Law, hoping to find a way to keep Torah more perfectly. If the Law was holy, then being ever more zealous in its application must be even holier, yes? So they took the words that God had once given, the words that defined holy obedience, and analysed them endlessly under the microscope of their zeal to find safety and security in this world. Before you can work the system, you have to determine exactly what the system is. Did the Law say that you must not work on the Sabbath? Then of course you must refrain from work at that time; but what is work? Is it work when a tailor holds a needle? Is it work when a woman carries a hairclip in her hair? If a man walks on the grass on the Sabbath day, is he guilty of the work of threshing? Can a man defend himself on the Sabbath, or cure the sick, or prepare food for the hungry? No, for these things would be violations of the commandment.

How else could they keep the Law more zealously? They became expert students of scripture, fasted twice a week, gave of their money to charity and were evangelistic in spreading their faith. In short, they had invented their own penitential system to make up for whatever their forebears had lacked. They were going to show God how good they really were, by doing far more than He had ever asked. In both sacrifice and obedience they would be meticulous, and God Himself would have to applaud their righteousness (or so they had persuaded themselves). Within the rigours of the Law they walked in the sackcloth and ashes of these strict requirements. They called themselves the ‘separated ones’, or, in Hebrew, the Pharisees. They disdained to have any dealings with those who did not live up to their exalted standards. They knew themselves to be very holy.

Then, in the fullness of time, there came one who was truly holy, for He was without sin. He preached, and men listened; He touched, and men were healed, and it didn’t matter what day of the week it was. He frightened them, for at one and the same time, He proclaimed the Kingdom of God, and broke many of their rules, without any apology. Worse, He seemed to imply that their rules were wrong, and a stumbling block to truly knowing God. Didn’t He know what God wanted, what they had so carefully worked out? He refused their sackcloth and ashes and spoke of feasts and wedding garments instead. He was even known to willingly spend time with prostitutes and tax collectors, so how could he be a good man, they asked themselves, intoning old proverbs about the dangers of bad company.

They never saw, they never understood. Love Himself walked among them, and they were blind to His glory. Love called them to His great dance, and they turned away, claiming it was illegal to dance on the Sabbath. The brighter His radiance shone, the more tightly they wrapped their sackcloth about themselves, and flung ashes in their own eyes, lest they should be forced to see instead, and own their self- manufactured virtues for the useless rags they were.

For what does God desire of a man? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with his God.