Friday, August 21, 2015

The Song

The idea first came to him when he was still a boy, out in the hills, watching his Father’s sheep. As he led the flock to better pastures, as he found safe waters for them to drink and defended them from wild beasts, it occurred to him that the Lord was rather like a shepherd as well. He was certainly the defender of His people, everyone knew that when the people followed God truly He protected them from their enemies, and when they fell away into false worship, He withdrew His protection and their enemies were victorious. Why, oh why was Israel so slow to learn that the gods of the surrounding nations were only stone and wood and metal, and had neither power nor love?

And there he was stuck. God was most certainly their protector and provider, but what else could he say? He put the analogy aside and got on with his life. There were sheep to be tended, music to be made, a giant to be destroyed to relieve Israel’s shame, and a mad king to be soothed and relieved.  There was a strange moment, too precious to be spoken of, when the prophet Samuel came and anointed him as king. Time passed. There was a princess to be won (at a price of blood), a prince to heal his heart with deep friendship, and then the mad king became his enemy, throwing spears at him and sending armies after him. He and his men took shelter in the wilderness, a bunch of lonely outlaws, and the years passed over them.

Then the mad king died, along with the friend who held his heart and in the fullness of time the shepherd boy became king of Israel. Now the challenges were different. He had a kingdom to rule, a family to manage, and temptations that almost destroyed him. And his God was still his highest joy. There were years of glory and years of shame. He was no longer managing just his father’s flock, he was trying to learn how to shepherd all of Israel, and discovering in the process that it was his own heart that needed shepherding most of all. And he could not do it, there was only one who could.

So he took out that old idea again, that picture of God as the perfect shepherd, and found that now he knew what to say. God was the one who could direct him on right paths and keep him walking in honour. God was the one who had walked beside him in the very presence of death. God was the one who had filled him with good things in the very presence of his enemies, just as a shepherd removed the poisoned weeds so that the sheep might know abundance. And God was the one who keep him safely in holy joy all the days of his life, and beyond life’s end. He took up his pen and began to write the song of his life: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall lack not be in want …”
 He did not know that, a thousand years later, it would be his own descendant who would stand and declare, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” but he knew, and sang of, the mercy of the Shepherd, his God, who was utterly faithful.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Conversion of St Paul

Down into seas unreachable I fall
Burned by the bitter salt encrusting me,
Within, without, around. My body weeps
And all I am is rust, rust and decay,
And crazy laughter from the depths of hell.

It seems another life, another world
Another self, another everything,
Like a child’s toy moved to another pose.
I did another’s wish, thought it my own,
So dutiful, so proud of dutiful!
(Oh, taste the burning bile upon my tongue!)
A shape of dust formed by a desert wind
A self-imagined cutting edge of truth,
And all my glory seen now vanity,
And all my hopes lie crushed in self-despair.

How did I dare presume? Presume to know
The ways of Him whose thoughts are not like mine;
Who rides upon the thunder, clothed in light,
Makes stars sing in their places, shapes the sea,
To deep, on deep, on deep no man can plumb,
And sculpts each blossom, delicate as air?

And yet I thought I knew. That was my sin
Such arrogance as very devils wear,
To think that I could see the face of God
Clear in my own nuancing of the Law,
Clear in my  wrathful scorn for this new Christ,
Clear in my hate for all the humblest ones.

And now the light has shone and I am blind
Spinning down into dark I never dreamed,
All light has gone except one dazzling truth:
This Rabbi Jesus, hated and despised,
Condemned, so I believed, by man and God,
Has vanquished death, is God-his-very-self
Consuming fire that burns up all I knew,
And all I am is prostrate in despair.

Yet, from this place, this lowly, slowly place,
Where fire and worm eat up my broken soul,
I see compassion on His thorn-scarred face,
This broken God who calls me to be whole.
I see compassion, and it eats away
The very stony bones of what makes me
Till I fall shapeless at his nail-scarred feet,
He reaches bleeding hands and raises me.
Yes, raises me, His utmost enemy,
Undone by all my blackest, darkest sin,
Yet more undone because He loves me here,
And opens up His heart and takes me in.
And I remember busy temple days,
The stench of blood, the incense and the fire,
The long line of unblemished lambs that wait
Their turn to suffer at the knife’s desire.
And see, and know Him now, the Lamb of God,
Wearing my sin and dying in my place;
I see it now, my world turned inside out!
For the first time I recognise His grace.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

The Gift of Peace

Deep inside he had always been restless, unsatisfied. It was what drove him. Mediocrity would never satisfy him; he had to be the best, the purest, the holiest. He had to be right with God. He did not know where this desire came from, nor did he even ask such questions. His only introspection was to measure himself against the Law, and see where he needed to work harder. He had heard some mocking whispers about his zeal, but they did not embarrass him at all – he was eager to be the most learned student, the most zealous Pharisee that the world had ever known.

He had excelled as a student, and was already a known man in Jerusalem, though he was still young. He knew the Law, and he understood the politics of the temple. So he was horrified when a new sect appeared, even more horrified when they persisted and grew even after their rabbi had been crucified. In fact, they claimed that he had risen from the dead. What blasphemy was that! Even worse, they claimed that this Jesus couldn’t be produced to prove their case because he had gone up into the heavens and was, in fact, God. Next they claimed that his sacrificial death had superseded the sacrifices in the temple. It seemed they wanted to undermine the very bedrock of his religion. This must be stopped, and he was the man to do it. He was on fire to get rid of them and their heresy. He hated their Jesus and everything he stood for.

So there he was, one day, on yet another expedition against them (this time in Damascus), when his whole world came undone. Just as the hottest part of the day was passing, it was as if the heavens opened, and a light too bright for this mortal world shone down on him. There were no more shadows or evasions. And then a voice spoke, a voice whose beauty broke his heart. This was what he had been seeking, what all his zeal and effort were for. But the voice did not commend him. Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?” it asked.

 A horrible fear engulfed him. “Who are you Lord?” he breathed, his mouth dry with sudden terror.

There was no comfort in the answer. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” There were further instructions, and he obeyed them blindly, groping his way through a world gone suddenly as dark as the pit. It took him a few moments to realise that he could no longer see physically, the darkness inside him was so much darker. Where does a man go when he finds he has been fighting against the very God he thought he was serving so excellently? What is left except damnation? 

The next three days were the worst of his life, as he sat in the darkness with his whole world unravelled. Then a man called Ananias came to him, prayed over him, and his sight was restored. And in that moment he understood. The very Jesus he had hated, was the one who had come to die for him, who loved him to death and beyond. In Jesus all his folly – no, his wickedness – was forgiven. And as Saul was baptised, in deep repentance, for the first time he truly knew the peace of God.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Holy is the Name

We train our tongues to shape round syllables,
Dusty with time and fresh with new day’s thought,
Bearing the weight of all we want to mean,
The blazed communication which we sought.

We train our tongues, we train our minds and hearts,
To think and feel what our small words contain,
To never colour in outside the lines,
And never own our secret doubts’ slow stain.

We train our tongues, but ah! our tongues stay mute,
Our chatter falls to silence in this place –
This nameless place, our senses cannot hold,
Where light unmeasured shines on our tears’ trace.

So now our trained tongues falter from all speech,
This is more real than anything we say.
And words would but constrict the majesty
Of glory’s finest touch, its least display.

And yet, and yet, and yet … you are the Word
God speaking forth himself, his self, disclosed;
Spoken into our whirling, wordy world,
And light and life and truth are interposed.

You are the Word who spoke, and what was not
Became. Potent impossibility
Danced into being at your utterance
And was, and at your saying, so shall be.

And thus our chattering echoes silent fall
Before your silence; knowing that your voice
Undoes all death, brings justice to the earth,
And stars and moons and planets shall rejoice.