Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Unwelcome Guest

She knew that she shouldn’t be there. To tell the truth, there wasn’t anywhere she was supposed to be publicly and openly. The rules of society decreed that a woman like her belonged to the dark and hidden corners of life, out of sight and out of mind, scuttling and skulking at the margins and corners of life like some species of human cockroach that could disappear into a crack before anyone had to acknowledge her presence. She was the scapegoat of their secret shame, bearing away their small town’s darkness into her own secret wilderness, so that they could walk unashamed in the open day. The fact that none of her notorious sins had been committed alone – could not have been by definition – was an irrelevance; she carried the shame of that sweat-soaked perfumed darkness while the men who had shared it with her paid for it with nothing except money.

Yet here she was, heavily veiled, to be sure, but vulnerable nonetheless. Money could insulate her; veils could hide her (for a little while at least); she had even learned to hold her head up and ignore the hissing whispers; but she knew of no protection from the acid shame that was eating up her soul. And it was because of that shame that she had come.

It was all because of the teacher, Jesus. She had been intent on slipping past the edges of the crowd when she heard him. He did not teach like any other rabbi, he was talking about a shepherd seeking a strayed sheep, a woman turning her house inside out to find a fallen coin, a father who threw away his dignity to welcome home a shameful son. His words were hope and life, perhaps God would still receive her even if people wouldn’t?

He had stretched her mind with wonder and her heart to breaking point, and so she came bearing with her the most precious thing she had, and slipped, along with the usual onlookers, into the Pharisee’s house, clutching her most precious possession. It was all she had to give, for, having sold herself for mere money, she no longer knew that she herself was worth more than all the perfumes of the world.

And she stood, and she listened, tasting the mercy of his words, until her heart was overwhelmed and her fears overcome in longing, and, casting aside her anonymity she ran to him and fell at his feet in tears. He did not draw away from her as if her very presence was pollution, and as she cried on his feet she felt all the shame and self-loathing draining from her. Lost in gratitude, she wiped his feet with her own hair and poured out the perfume she had brought. Its sweetness was nothing compared to the sweetness that sang in her soul. She heard the mocking, rejecting pharisaic voices, but they didn’t matter any more. She would never be welcome here, in the Pharisee’s home, she would probably never be welcome in her own hometown, but she was welcomed into the Kingdom of God, and she would follow this Jesus wherever He went.

She dared to raise her tear-blurred eyes and look at him, and tune in to the conversation going on above her head. “She loves much because she has been forgiven much,” said Jesus.  

Yes. Yes indeed.

Friday, September 20, 2013


It took many, many years before they knew that he had spoken truly  -- all the years of his growing up from the eager little boy who had spilled his dreams without a second thought, through the agonies of his adolescence and early adulthood, through to the resting place of his amazing success while still a fairly young man. But they did not share many of those years together, he was banished from their sight to a far country, to walk his bitter road alone. And not even his father believed that those dreams were true portents of his destiny.

Ironically, it was those same dreams of future grandeur that started him on the dreadful path of alienation from his brothers, the path downward into slavery, imprisonment and ultimate exaltation. As most men do, they judged his heart by the standards of their own motivations, and mistook his starry-eyed excitement for the kind of darkly jealous pride with which they had jostled each other for position in that tumultuous and complex family.  And seeing him through that prism, they noted all the other little signs of their father’s favour, favour which should have gone to them as Joseph’s seniors, and their hearts were hardened against him. And when the boy in the coat of privilege tattled primly to their father about their misdoings, their anger against him became murderous, So, when the opportunity presented, they sold him to the strangers from Midian, and his descent into Egypt began. Only his father mourned for him.

And the years in Egypt passed, and the young man passed from slave to prisoner to princely status, and his family knew nothing of it, nothing at all, until the famine drove them, desperate as beggars, to the palace of their despised brother to bargain with him for their bread. Sacks of grain he sold them, this strange distant Egyptian who seemed so stern and closed of face, and they had no idea that this man, their brother, wept behind closed doors for the wonder and the sorrow of it all, turning over and over in his mind the question that consumed him – was there any repentance in their hearts? Had they changed? Did they now know what it meant to truly be a brother? Had they learnt to care for something beyond their own immediate self-interest? It was overwhelming to know that he, the despised and ill-treated younger brother now held the power of life and death over the very men who had so terribly wronged him.

So he devised a plan to test their hearts. Sternly and officiously, he demanded that they return with his little brother Benjamin, keeping one of them hostage to ensure their good faith; and, when they did, he engineered things so that Benjamin, now in turn their father’s favourite, would be arrested as a thief. Would they take advantage of the situation to abandon him? But no, this time Judah stepped forward and offered himself in Benjamin’s place, and Joseph could no longer keep his distance. Sending all his attendants from the room, he disclosed himself to his brothers and they trembled, remembering how they had wronged him.

But Joseph, too, had been changed. There was no resentment or anger left, only wonder that God had used the whole sequence of events for the saving of many lives. And as they bowed now to their little brother, did they remember that dream, so long ago, that they had scorned, when he had seen them doing exactly that?

Monday, September 16, 2013

"In Heaven it is Alwaies Autumne" (Donne)

1. Winter

Here my beginnings, the dark solitude
Of mine own self; my bleak captivity,
The lonely reaches of my barrenness,
The numbing mists of settled misery.
Here dreamt no promise. Nullified by cold,
All hopes aborted ere conception known.
Only the bitter tracery of trees
Etched the close skies that loomed with weight of stone.
No fruit, no flower, never hope of life.
Never a breeze to whisper of the spring.               10
No soft of moisture but the leaden snow,
Weight of despair to blanket everything.
To blanket, with the winding-sheet of death,
All loveliness that longed to germinate,
Lest there should be some seed to seek the sun,
Some tendril of delight should infiltrate.
Lest life, or hope, should enter through some crack,
All, all was sealed with polar lifelessness.
Here sang no birds. Here, never nest was built.
Here music could find nothing to express.              20
All was stark desolation. All was waste.
All was the ice-bound desert of the heart.
Never came thaw to this frigidity,
Nor any sun, renewal to impart.

2. Spring

Then, at the solstice of my wretchedness,
Broke a new dawn that splintered fixed despair.
Warmth, from outside all worlds that I had known,
Softened the ice, and quickened the dead air.
Life laughed aloud in the sweet waters' song,
(Waters that danced, rejoicing to be free.)            30
Tendrils of promise frolicked in the wind,
Turbulent with a green vitality.
No more did the oppressive shroud of snow
Smother the glory of the singing earth.
I was made one with verdure newly born.
I was delivered; I was brought to birth.
I knelt and drank my fill from living streams;
I walked with wonder where the flowers sprang.
Trees put off all their dreary nakedness;
Birds their cantata'd alleluias sang.                       40
I was a day-old lamb. I skipped the hills
With feet of joy. My wool was washed so white,
I tasted innocence and found it sweet.
I knew myself reborn into delight.
I knew, or thought I knew, all blessed truth
In its simplicity. I was so young,
I had the leaping energy of love,
And I was glad to thaw me in the sun.

3. Summer

Some early growth must wither in this heat,
Burnt by the bare, remorseless light of day.           50
But, a fertility that dazzles me,
Overrules any losses or decay.
Often made weary by unvaried light,
Still, to call this sun mine, I will rejoice;
Glad in its splendour even when it burns,
Knowing its fullness is my only choice.
This is the season of my labouring;
Season of toil, when I am often spent.
Yet, I see harvest-promise on the trees,
And, in that sureness, I am well-content.              60
Never such freedom as the grass that springs
Quick from its cutting, lush to rise again.
Never such hope as that within my heart,
Ever renewed, though I'm cut down by sin.
And, though my blossom time shall not return,
Yet I shall glory, for I look ahead,
Towards a sun so bright it shall not burn,
But make me one with perfect light instead.

4. Autumn

Here is completeness. Here, the plenitude
Of heart's desire made perfect. No decay               70
Lessens its bounty now, nor ever shall;
Harvest of joy that will not go away.
Here is the end of journey, end of toil.
Here is the fruit whose flower was so sweet
Its scent beguiled the darkest hours of want;
Now, in fulfilment, I will take and eat.
Now I will drink, nor ever thirst again.
Love is the liquid of my soul's desire,
Immersed in which, I taste all true delight,
Fresh and untainted, perfect and entire.               80
No clouds adulterate the clarity
Of the blue consummation of a sky
Crystalled, that  worship's vision may pass through,
And, into everlasting glory, fly.
Who could wish other than this fruitfulness,
Fullness of mercy in maturity?
Here is no withering, but joy on joy;

Grace into grace for all eternity.

My Philosophy of Ministry

(draft version)
I believe that Jesus came to set the captives free.

I believe that our first and greatest freedom is to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
After this comes freedom from all our other captivities: from doubt, fear, resentment, sinful desires, deep woundedness and every other kind of human brokenness.

I believe that we live and minister in the now-and-not-yet of the Kingdom of God, where His grace breaks in but all things are not yet made right.

I believe that God has given to the Church the ministries of Word, Sacrament and Prayer as Means of Grace to a broken world, to reveal through them the powerful, unstoppable love of the Father, the redemptive love of the Son and the transformative love of the Holy Spirit.

I believe that God has liberally poured out on His people the gifts of the Spirit to equip us to engage in His work, but that these gifts cannot produce godly fruit unless they are used in loving servanthood.

I believe that God has equipped and called me to work within the structures of the church to minister to His people, to speak forth His love and show forth His grace, and to encourage them with the wonder of the great Hope that is set before us.

Saturday, September 14, 2013


Always, everywhere he went around Jerusalem, he could not escape dragging pain of the truth. It hurt, it hurt on so many levels that as soon as he grew numb, resigned to the ache that could not be denied, it would assault him from a different direction entirely, and once more cut him into shreds.

No one believed him. Not only did they not take him seriously, that would be bad enough, they had always tended to be a people who honoured God with their lips while their hearts were far from him, (and if their pious hypocrisy was an affront to his heart, what must it be to God?) but they didn’t even pretend to believe him. Openly they mocked his words, laughing in his face when he warned them of the calamity to come. Their tame prophets declared peace and prosperity, Jerusalem was a splendid city and a return to the glory-days of Solomon was just over the horizon. They could not see that their prosperity was built on the shallowest of foundations and that their days in the promised land were numbered because they cared so little for the keeping of God’s covenant. “You say, ’Peace! Peace!’ when there is no peace,” he said to them, but they brushed aside his words like an annoying foolishness.

And that was the deeper problem that tore at his heart. Jerusalem was going to fall, and it would be terrible. Babylon was coming, and this time they would not be spared, as they were in the time of the Assyrians, when Sennacherib’s army decamped overnight. This time it would be for them as it had been for the northern kingdom of Israel then. A time of horror, grief and great pain would soon be upon them; they would be taken away into exile and no longer live in the land that God had promised to their ancestor Abraham. They had deliberately misunderstood the covenant, they thought that as long as God’s temple stood within their city they were safe. Yet this generation would not know peace because they had forsaken the God of Peace, the Lord their Righteousness.

Jeremiah wept and trembled for the agony that was to come, and the destruction of the beloved city. He grieved for these people who were so unprepared for calamity because they would not listen to his prophetic warnings. Darkness lay ahead.

Yet,even in this, despair was not the final answer. One day, beyond the cognizance of this present generation, Babylon would fall in her turn, punished for her idolatrous rapacity. Then the exiles would return, and there would be peace. And one day the Lord Himself , the branch of David, would come among them, and some would know him to be, as Isaiah had foretold, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace. So he waited. And as he waited, he lifted his tear-drenched eyes and remembered afresh that God was still, even in the midst of tragedy and horror, the one who had hold of his heart, and would keep it:

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed
For His compassions never fail
They are new every morning
Great is Your faithfulness.”

In those words he found his peace.

Saturday, September 07, 2013


At least the gate was called Beautiful for a reason, and it gave him something to look at, something to look up to. He had no place in the Temple itself, he was a helpless cripple and couldn’t get up the steps, but each day his friends would carry him to his spot by the gate, and there he would beg. And (he was trying hard to be positive here) it was a good place to beg.  People went into the temple feeling guilty and seeking God’s favour; people came out of the temple feeling right with the world and at peace. Both states of mind could be great motivators for generosity. Or not.

A man who crouches there, in his beggar’s rags, by one of the busiest places in the city, and a place which attracts both rich and poor and almost all the visitors from other places, overhears more than most, and gets to feel the mood and tenor of the city as instinctively as a doctor taking a pulse. What else did he have to occupy his mind? And the mood of the city was not tranquil. Always, always, at least in his lifetime, there had been the steady chafing of the Roman presence, but it was the kind of chafing a man learns to live with and make the best of, like a rough wool cloak that irritates the skin but keeps out the biting cold. But this was a new unrest. He remembered the rumours that had flown around just before Passover, when Jesus of Nazareth had entered the city on a donkey – a gesture that meant nothing to the Romans, but sang with Messianic significance to the Israelites. Could this be the one? Could he?

But no, within less than a week they were calling for his death, and the results were enough to make a crippled beggar shudder. Crucified, dead and buried, this Jesus, and Roman order had been restored  and the Passover crowds had behaved themselves. The next rumour was slower to spread: it was whispered rather than shouted, as if no one quite knew what to do with it. But in a town like Jerusalem tales of empty tombs and overwhelmed soldiers don’t keep secret forever, and there was much muttering and nervous glancing over shoulders. And then, at Pentecost, everything changed again ..

He shifted position slightly to try to ease the constant, wearing pain, then reached out his hands in supplication as he saw two friendly-looking men approaching. Using the traditional beggar’s whine (did people realise how humiliating that was?) he wheedled for money. They neither hurried past ignoring him, or threw a stray coin at him. Instead they stopped right there, turned and looked him full in the face. Very few people ever did that – and a man notices when he is something from which men turn away their eyes. “Look at us!” said the taller one, and he gazed at them in expectation.

“I don’t have any silver or gold to give you.” He paused, and the cripple, disappointed, felt as if his very soul was being searched. But the man hadn’t finished. “I will give you what I do have, though. In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”

This was not at all what he had expected, and he sat there stunned. Besides, he didn’t know how to get up and walk! But these people weren’t just empty words. A strong hand, calloused by fishing nets, reached out to him and pulled him up. Immediately his feet and ankles were strong, and his pain was gone. Tentatively, he tried walking a few steps, expecting his legs to buckle under him any second – but they didn’t! So excited, he walked, ran, leapt, dancing around in wonder like a little child, straight into the temple precincts. Many people recognised him, and were amazed at his transformation. And a new rumour, sweet as the promise of heart’s desire, ran through the streets of Jerusalem.