Saturday, May 18, 2013

If Only ...

If only he had not killed that Egyptian ..
He looks around at the flock and sighs. Yes, it is a good life he has – a beloved wife, his sons, a wise father-in-law he respects immensely, food for their bellies and shelter from the ferocity of the wilderness. And he is free to come and go, free as the wind across the desert sands which blows wherever it will. But his people are not free, and their slavery still burns inside him, like a hunger that nothing can satisfy. It is so many, many years since he fled the place, a fugitive from the harsh justice of Pharaoh, but he cannot forget. What happened to the promises God made to their forefathers? Where is the blessing? Why are they so far from the land they were supposed to inherit?

He gazes around, the trained, sweeping gaze of the experienced shepherd, always watching for trouble, and something catches his eye that was not there before. A bush has caught fire, yes, that is not so very unusual, but somehow it doesn’t look quite right. Moving closer, he can see what is so strange, for although the bush burns brightly, the fire does not consume it ...

If only Israel had kept the covenant ...
He looks around him and sighs. Babylon is a beautiful city, a wonder and a marvel, but it is not Jerusalem. He has done well here, along with his closest friends. From the beginning they resolved to keep the law for themselves, and avoid all the contaminations of pagan idolatry. They would not eat the meat from the king’s table that had not been slaughtered according God’s requirements, and sacrificed, most likely, to their hideous idols, nor they would drink the wine of Babylon’s debauchery. They had lived on vegetables and water, and, by the grace of God, they had thrived. They had good jobs and plenty of responsibility, but his heart was still heavy. If only Israel had stayed true to the God who redeemed her from Egypt, and not turned away to the false promises of idolatry; if only they had heeded the precepts of the law and dealt fairly with one another, they would never have been carried off in exile. He works hard, he prays three times a day, but his heart is heavy with longing. “How shall I sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” he mourns.

There is a respectful knock at the door. The king has had a dream which troubled him and he is desperately looking for a wise man to interpret it ...

If only they could have kept Him away from Jerusalem..
If only He had been willing to be a healer in the backblocks of Galilee. If only He had not goaded and challenged the Pharisees ..
If only they had taken Him seriously when He talked about dying, maybe they could have stopped Him .. somehow ... maybe?

It was almost unbearable, the grief and the loss, the fear and the guilt – wasn’t there something, anything they could have done? It was still cold, with the grey silence of early morning, but he wasn’t sure that he would ever sleep properly again.

But now there was a clattering of feet along the street, and a banging at the door, and for a moment he felt a sharp lurch of fear – were they all to be arrested now? But no, it was a woman’s voice, Mary’s, making the most amazing proclamation ever spoken by human tongue, “I have seen the Lord! He is risen!”

Friday, May 17, 2013

Coventry Cathedral, a Story of Forgiveness

Until November 14, 1940, the English midlands town of Coventry was probably chiefly known to the wider world for the legendary (and highly improbable) story of “Lady Godiva”, who was said to have ridden naked through the streets of Coventry to persuade her husband to lower the taxes on the poor. But on that November night the Luftwaffe bombarded the city with incendiary bombs, and both the cathedral and the city burned
We will rebuild
 The very next morning, as the shocked people surveyed the damage all around, and the devastation to their beautiful 12th century cathedral, which had taken several direct hits, the decision was made to rebuild. This decision was made, so the cathedral history tells us, not as an act of defiance to the Germans, but as a sign of “faith, trust and hope for the future of the world” – in itself a courageous act of faith during that period which Churchill named “Britain’s darkest hour”. This response was led by the provost, Richard Howard,  who made a cross from 3 nails from the roof of the destroyed  building. Another man, Jock Forbes, noticed that two charred sticks had fallen in the shape of a cross. He tied them together, and the “charred cross” placed on an altar of rubble, became the symbol of their resolution, not only to rebuild, but to deliberately turn away from hatred and bitterness and seek peace and reconciliation instead.
A Ministry of Reconciliation
The following Christmas Day Provost Howard spoke on national radio about his commitment, when the war was over, to rebuilding the world on this basis, rather than revenge. From this choice sprang the development, when the war was over, of Coventry Cathedral as a world Centre  for Reconciliation. One of the first things they did was send over teams of people to help rebuild the cathedrals in such cities as Kiel,  Dresden and Berlin, which the Allies had heavily bombed; and those cities, likewise, sent teams to help with the rebuilding at Coventry. It also led to the formation of the (now) worldwide Community of the Cross of Nails, which now has 170 partner organisations in 35 countries, committed together to the ministry of reconciliation

My own visit
I went to Coventry cathedral one late afternoon, knowing very little about it except that it had been bombed during the war and rebuilt. I was quite unprepared for what I found there. The remains of the old cathedral, open to the sky, still form a place that is set aside for prayer. Within a partial enclosure of warm red stone, interspersed with the shapes of the original windows, now bare to the light of heaven, you walk across the ancient paved floor, knowing that this is a place where men and women have come to pray for centuries. You ponder the significance of a striking modern sculpture of St Michael defeating the devil, just outside the new cathedral, encouraged by the reminder of the absolute ultimate triumph of the Kingdom of God. You go through the modern cathedral, touched by its spare, modern beauty, and go down to the section where you read the full history of what has taken place here down through the centuries, from the original Benedictine monastery of Saxon times, down through the Reformation and various political shifts of fortune to the events of the Second World War and all that followed from it. It is a story of hope, but also a story that sets out starkly the horror and evil that occurred. You see a lovely carving that signifies reconciliation: two kneeling figures in embrace.
All of this was deeply moving, and a great inducement to prayer, but it wasn’t the thing that has stayed with me and had me pondering its implications for these many months afterwards. The charred cross, emblem of their deliberate choice to choose mercy, is displayed upon a wall, and underneath are two stark words, “Father forgive”. It was the missing word that arrested me, and has haunted my understanding ever since.
For what do we expect to find? The words that Jesus uttered on the cross, “Father forgive them”. But here there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, because, unlike Jesus, we are not innocent victims. Please do not misunderstand me, of course there are situations of injustice and one-sided malice, (some of us have experienced them), where one is clearly the wronged and the other one is the offender. But this is a bigger picture, another place, where, whoever may have started it, we all stand together, guilty. We all stand together, helplessly mired in the escalation of wrongs, and that charred cross is the symbol of the answer. For it was there that Jesus became sin in our place, so that through Him, and only through Him, we might become the righteousness of God. It is here that we stand, not enumerating either our rights or our wrongs, but seeking and finding mercy in the very place where judgement was outpoured. And so, we all stand together, receiving mercy and passing it, tenderly, one to another. Thus we are healed and thus, as we carry to others the precious mercy of Christ, we too become healers.
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5: 17-19

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Autumn Meditation

Here at the downward spiral of the year,
Where the bright golden light deceives my heart,
I rest upon the certainty of change --
Death shall not stay despite his guileful art.

Here, in the shadows, toadstools rise and fall
In one day’s space. Life turns, and turns away,
Dancing its seasons on this spinning orb
Whilst we await a brighter, better day.

Flesh calls to flesh, but skies so sudden sharp
Pierce my defences to the naked soul;
And I must fall, as these bright leaves must fall,
Yielding my goldenness as rightful toll.

Here, even now, the winter gathers in
For its assault, its bending down to dark.
And I must go where every creature goes,
Down into night, where hope is a bare spark.

Yet in this quelling ebb-tide of the sun
I shall not dread the fears that gather close
That haunting terror I have met before,
Dressed as imagination can impose.

This too shall pass, as every season spins
To time’s finality and earth’s last breath
Blossoming to that Spring that cannot fade
Where we find rest upon the Death of Death.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Broken Trust

The building is hard and the breaking is easy.
Trust, like a crust, once crumbed, then so slow the healing:
Slip of tongue, slip of thought, slip of mind,
All so easy accomplished.
And the winds of our desolation howl
Through the corridors of silence.

Let us begin at the start
With the gleaming fruit and the sibilant, susurous whisper,
“Is it really true?”
The itch of desire and the grasping.
They took and they ate, and now
See the whole world spinning,
And unbelief steps forth,
And the world lies dying.

And the children struggle and smile,
All through our history.
And the traitor’s kiss
Burns on our heats and our lips.
Yes, we know the music:
The piper’s tune, which compels, with its burning rhythm
And our feet turn lock-wise, clockwise to the river
Where we drown in the acid tears and recriminations.

Here is betrayal:
A king on a roof spies a girl and destroys her husband;
A mad, sad king throws spears at his lyre-boy singing;
A woman with shears creeps close to a sleeping hero;
A brother with goat-skinned arms takes some stew to his father;
A soldier returns and his child pays the price of his folly,
Out on the tear-stained hills, with the maidens, weeping;
Back even further
Two brothers walk out in a field, but the one plots murder. ..

They stream through our knowing
Part of ourselves, borne in our blood’s cold thickening,
The choosing of self, over and over and over,
And the dead dust stirs on the gravestones of belonging,
Where there is no vow, no trust,
Just the soul’s long sickening
In the fever deeps where we fall from the truth we promised.

Everyman wanders
Through the moonlit garden, nervous of shapes and shadows,
Soldiers behind,
Swords glinting in cold, hard starlight,
And the wind in the olives murmurs of infinite sorrow.
How shall he stumble,
Through the mire and the mess
And the shame of his heart beating shallow?
Here where the Man, torn by prayer, rises calm, rises ready,
Steps into place with all grace,
And the turncoat, squirming,
Puts on bravado, coarse, like a shield of paper,
Comes, gives his kiss, sharp as the serpent’s shudder,
And the tears of that night still burn in the ice of our failure.

Kyrie eleison ...
Always .. always ..

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Your Legacy

Have you ever thought about what legacy you are going to leave behind? No, I’m not talking about where you leave your money (if any) when you die, or even how much you donate to worthy causes while you’re still alive, though I hope you do! This has nothing to do with money, at all (except, as always, that how we handle our material resources can reveal quite a lot about our character and true priorities).

Nor am I talking about whether they’ll remember you as a nice person (though I hope we will all be remembered as loving, kind, patient, generous people). I want to go a little further, add one more adjective. What will be your eternal legacy? How has the life you live affected other people – as C. S. Lewis famously said:

          “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

Many,  many years ago I was arrested by a question I read or heard somewhere, “If you were to die tonight, what legacy would you leave your children?” It is a question worth pondering, not just for parents (though, as a young mum that was my chief concern at the time), but in all our relationships, in every interaction in our daily lives we are potentially leaving a legacy in other people’s lives, and none of us know which moments will be weighty with influence.  In response to that question I wrote a poem to put together my thoughts on the matter. I hope that, by the grace of God, my response was more than thoughts and words.

If these, my limbs, I lay them down tonight,
Should (‘tis a fancy) sullen-stiff in death;
If this, my only heart, should cease to throb,
These, my now-words, become my final breath;

What should I leave you? Ah, my dears, my dears!
Warm arms? (But they are easily replaced.)
A listening ear? (Yes, those, I grant, are few.)
The swiftly fading memory of a face?

O, little ones, my motherhood is small,
But ah, my dreams are large! For you I claim
A heritage among the vasty stars,
A hope so great I scarce can speak its name!

What should I leave you? Nothing hands can hold.
But I may wish for you a burning joy,
To slice the swamped complaisance from your days;
A dream that drudgery cannot destroy.

Success? I care not! But I so much care,
That you should have integrity of soul.
Embrace that truth which casts all falsehood out.
Disdain hypocrisy. Strive to be whole.

I care that you should love, not carelessly,
But deeply, past your comfort's customed span;
To lay your life down for another's sake,
For such is the true measure of a man.

Though all these fail, one thing, one thing I pray:
That you should know the God Whom I have known,
Not as a nursery tale, Reality!
For this my prayers, for this my tears are sown;

That you might harvest-reap! To know Him, Whom
To know is life eternal, Jesus Christ,
In Whom, possessing, you possess all things.
Then might I die, and know my own have life!

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Working Together

He paused to gather his thoughts before continuing the letter. No other church had him shaking his head in quite the same way as the Corinthians. In one respect he rejoiced over them: they were so eager and enthusiastic about the transforming power of the gospel, so keen to learn more of Jesus and to emulate their teachers, and so rich in spiritual gifts and keen to acquire more. But in some ways they were like children let loose on a stall of toys: impatient to grab at the brightest and most appealing, but too soon weary of what they had grabbed, and reaching out for something else. And when the something was in someone else’s hands, they fell to squabbling about it. It seemed they could squabble about anything at all! He had already addressed their silly factions, “I am of Paul” and “I am of Apollos”. Didn’t they realise that they were all made one in Jesus?

He had dealt with some of the practicalities on their list of questions and comments, from issues of church discipline, to marriage and celibacy and even the perennial problem of the Gentile world, what to do when offered food which had been sacrificed to idols. Now it was time to return to the central issues of the faith, and, as he collected his thoughts, he felt the weight of the Spirit’s urgency. This must be understood properly, or everything else would be fruitless.

He started with the issue of the Lord’s Supper. Surely they understood that this was so much more than just an excuse to feed themselves irrespective of whether others had enough? Couldn’t they see that the very nature of Christ’s sacrifice, the whole point of the supper, was to recognise their unity together as the re-born people of God? Their way of approach negated the glory they were approaching!

He sighed and moved on. “Now about spiritual gifts ..” he began. How could he make them see that the gifts God gave weren’t status symbols but the tools of servanthood, that the same Spirit empowered the preacher, the healer and the one who washed their feet? They parts of the same body, just as vital and important to each other as ears and eyes are to feet and hands. They needed to understand that the important thing was not how large your gift was, but how lovingly you used it. Without love their tongues were clanging cymbals, and their self-sacrifices were worthless. It didn’t matter what miracles they could perform, or how much wisdom they possessed, without love it was all nothing. But these Corinthians, did they even recognise love when they saw it? Could they grasp what he was seeing so clearly?

“Love is patient,” he continued, “love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast ...”  love was the exact opposite of their self-seeking self-glorification. It never fails. All these other gifts were for this world only, when they saw and understood fully, in the presence of Christ, they would not need these things any more. But love was for all eternity, in fact it was the very stuff and substance of eternity since eternity is the unveiled, unmoderated presence of God, and God is love.

He paused again. Yes, there other practical matters he must speak of, but this was the heart of it all. If only they could learn to work together in love instead of working against each other, the very wonders and miracles and glory which they sought would flow freely. This was how the Kingdom works.