Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Child

“Begone with you! Get out from under my feet! Useless brat, you’re always in my way!”

These shouts, and more besides, which she didn’t stop to hear, pursued her down the street as she fled from the home she shared with her father and stepmother and her stepmother’s two very young children. It was always the same these days. Since her father had remarried she was constantly told that she was a “useless lump of a girl”, and “no help to anyone.” She tried hard to be a help, she really did, rocking the babies when they cried, fetching things she was asked to fetch, but somehow, the minute she felt her stepmother’s eye upon her, it would suddenly turn into disaster – something would be dropped or spilled or knocked over, and it was all her fault. She never seemed to get things right, and was obviously a bitter burden to the woman who was her new mother. Gone were the long days playing in the streets with her friends, or the gentle lessons with her mother; her mother had caught a sudden fever and died within two days, and, after a period of desolation, her father had been talked into another marriage. She felt like she had lost both her parents, since her father seemed to drift along these days like an empty man, and hardly seemed to notice her existence.

But there was bustle and hurrying in the village this afternoon. She had no idea what was happening, but she followed the crowd to find out. Any excitement was better than sitting down in the dust feeling sorry for herself. She had learned the hard way that it was better not to ask adults too many questions. That only led to being noticed when she didn’t want to be. So she listened hard and learned that somebody called Jesus was just down the road and people were going out to meet him. She had no idea who he was, but figured he must be someone important if half the village thought it worth stopping their daily work to see him. She noticed some of the mothers snatching up their littlest children and taking them along. She trailed after them, keeping out of the way as best she could, but making sure she didn’t get left behind.

But it seemed it was all for nothing. When they reached the crowd up ahead and some of the women rushed forward with their babies, as if they specially wanted the man to see their small children (why?), a group of burly fishermen stepped forward and told them, quite roughly, to go away and leave the master in peace. He had better things to do than be bothered with a bunch of little kids!

It all felt so horribly familiar that she felt the tears stinging at the corners of her eyes. She was about to wipe them away with her grubby hands when another voice cut through, and the crowd was suddenly silent. She would spend the rest of her life wondering whether that voice was heartbreakingly sad or so full of joy that it felt like the very stars were skipping. Maybe there was a place where deep pain and deep joy met together? “Let the children come,’ he said, “and don’t try to stop them. The Kingdom of God belongs to ones like these.”

At those words the men stepped back and the women pressed forward with their children in their arms. And the girl stood where she was, trying to see what was happening, but too scared to come any closer. Then the crowd started to clear in front of her. She looked up and saw him, and he saw her, and beckoned her forward with a gesture.  Not stopping to think about it, she ran forward straight into his arms. He held her close, and she had never felt so loved, so safe. He looked up at the crowd and said softly, “Truly I say to you, unless you receive the Kingdom of God like a child, you shall not enter it.”

Monday, December 19, 2016

Stable Song

Here in this place of darkness
The Hope of the World is born
And the night is a shrouding silence
From all man’s grandeur shorn.

Here in this place of darkness
Only a man and a girl
The beasts for a poor man’s living
And the glorious Light of the World.

Here in this place of darkness
While the clattering town grows still
Comes the Desire of Nations,
And only the angels thrill.

Here in this place of darkness
Wrapped in the cloak of night
The King of all Kings is swaddled,
Safe from the mad king’s sight.

Here in this place of darkness
Love has come down to earth
To bear our sin and sorrow,
Subject to human birth.

Here in this place of darkness
Where all earth’s powers grow blind;
Here he is born to heal us,
Saviour of all mankind.

Here in this place of darkness,
Ordinary stable place;
Here lies all heaven’s glory,
Here lies all heaven’s grace.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Mary's Lullaby

So tiny! I hold you with soft tears of wonder
Here in the silence without angels’ thunder
Knowing that love splits my whole heart asunder.
Sleep little son of mine.

Oh what a year! A chaotic world-turning!
Whispers of gossip (how my ears were burning!)
Yet for this moment my tired self was yearning.
Sleep little son of mine.

Pain tore my body (this night like no other!)
Now it is past, and the warm beasts no bother.
Now I must learn what it means to be mother.
Sleep littler son of mine.

Soon comes the morning, the bustling town waking,
Clamour of voices with buying and taking,
Too soon the fears and the questions, the aching.
Sleep little son of mine.

Soon comes the future, oh what is it bringing?
Darkness and terror, or bright angels singing?
But now we rest in the nest of my singing.
Sleep little son of mine.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Swan at sunset (Christmas thoughts)

Into the sunset winging, flinging
Showers of gold on snowy breast;
Into the light too bright for seeing,
Wings beating strong at hope’s behest.

I, the earthbound, ache for such flying
Leaving the dull of earth behind
All the old pains below me lying
Ahead the joys I long to find.

Oh to so soar! The flesh escaping
Dancing delight across the air
Leaving behind the toil of living
No more such heaviness to share.

And yet, my God, not this your choosing.
You, who reside in perfect light,
Heaven’s perfected joy refusing,
You took our flesh, you walked our night.

You, who have drunk the wine of glory,
Gave your own blood in place of mine
Took up the burden of my story
That I, in turn, may taste your wine.

Therefore I wait your choice of season,
While the earth turns, and rivers run,
This life to live, nor seek for easing,
Learning to love as you have done.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

A Tale in Two Scenes

See the old man, and the boy, growing up, but still a child, wide-eyed with wonder. He is the most dearly loved of children, the only son of his mother; the child of a miraculous conception when she was long past her fertile years. And he is precious to his father also, for in this child, Isaac, this child of laughter, rest all the promises of God that he would make from the seed of this one man a mighty nation, even though he has only one right-born son, this one, born years after all reasonable hope had faded from the world. And now, here they are, walking side by side, and between them is a donkey, loaded with firewood. Two young servants walk behind them, carrying the provisions for the journey and a pot of fire.

But now they have come to a parting of the ways. Ahead lies the mountain they have been journeying towards for three days. The old man instructs the servants to remain there with the donkey, then he and his son begin the ascent, carrying the wood and the fire-pot. At his father’s gesture, the young man walks in front. He does not know that his father is greedy for every remaining second that he can fix his eyes on his son. For he knows, as the boy does not, that God has commanded him to kill his son on an altar there, and make of him a burnt offering. And when the boy asks him where the sacrifice is, he can only reply, with heavy-hearted faith, that God will supply a lamb.

But he does not know the deep truth of his own words. For his son will not die upon that mountain. Instead, God has already provided a lamb to die in his place, a sheep caught in a thicket to be offered up on his behalf.

See the women walking in the soft grey light that precedes the dawn. There is no laughter between them, and few words, for their hearts are in deepest mourning for the One who has just died, the One on whom they had pinned all their hope, believing that in Him the promises of God would be finally fulfilled. But no, it was not to be, he was crucified on a hill three days ago, and the sky turned dark at his dying, and all joy fled from their world. And now they go to perform the last act of kindness, the one which the dead cannot feel, but which has been, for centuries, the ritual of grieving women, and their last chance to look upon his tortured face. Their eyes blur with tears, and they do not hide their pain from one another.

They do not yet know that, upon the mountain, God has provided a lamb to die in their place, and that the Father Himself had to watch His Son die as a sacrifice. They do not yet know that he is the firstborn of many, that from his death a whole new people will be born, a multitude no man can number, from every tribe and nation and language upon the earth.

And they do not yet know that they will find the tomb empty, and the Beloved restored to undying life. For they do not yet know that He is not dead, for he is risen.

Monday, November 28, 2016

A poem for a friend

I would have written a poem for you
But the long, grey leagues of the sea between us
Swallowed my words,
And blew my songs away.

(Seagull and albatross,
Wings that rise and fall,
And beat across my mind
An alien rhythm,
And the sea and the spray, and the wind and the waves
Seem one,
Just one,
I turn and try again.)

There is no rest here
Until the winds are spent
And the storm has moved away
(Wherever it is storms go)
And the words fall back in place,
And cadence rules again.

Will I offer such a poem?
A trumpery of syllables?

But there are more than poems
In the warp and weft of breathing,
In the sacramental reaching
Of the hearts that He would join,
Music without notation
But a pilgrimage of joy.

Therefore I would send you
Not the stale words of my typing
But the breath of my heart’s leaning
From the weariness of life
To the resting place we find
When the heart says, “yes, YOU see!”
Following kind whispers
To the music of the spheres,
Tracing a moment’s giving
To the grace that binds us close.

And where we reach, we touch

Despite this world’s wide winds.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Grandmother's House

Grandmother’s house had always been her safe place. There was no shouting here, no clash of angry voices, and no sudden tummy pains that she needed to keep to herself so as not to get their furious attention. Grandmother’s house had a glorious old garden, with a clump of banana trees that was perfect for hide and seek, and an old glasshouse full of plants that nobody had looked after since her grandfather died, but somehow they kept on living in that damp, quiet place, where the air was so heavy with the smell of wet soil that it was always a little bit hard to breathe. She always expected that one day magic would happen there, it was so different to the dry, dusty back yard of her own house, where a just a few bushes clustered by the fence, bushes with bright berries she had been warned never to eat.

And now she was going to grandmother’s house. She huddled in the back seat, hard up against the window she could barely see through, and tried to block out the sound of her father swearing at every other car on the road. Her mother had refused to come; “No Michael, you take her. Your mother never wants to see me anyway!” but she knew from the suitcase filled with her stuff that had been thrown in the boot, that this time she would be staying for a while. That made her happy. She thought of grandmother’s scones, with real strawberry jam, and all the old story books that she was just learning to read, and the nightlight shaped like a fish that grandmother left shining by her bed all night long. It was so peaceful.

There was a soft rain falling as they arrived, and her father impatiently chivvied her up the steps. He hated getting wet. But inside it smelled of fresh baking and old roses, and she relaxed. She curled up in the corner of the couch with Grandmother’s big fairy tale book, absorbed in the pictures: the fairies, the princes, the dark forests, the castles and the ridiculous frog with a crown on page 33. He always made her laugh.

The phrases from the adult conversation washed over her, half-heard: messages from another country she had little interest in. “The bitch!” (that was her father’s voice, followed by Grandmother’s hushing – she hated rough language) There were a few minutes of subdued conversation, before his voice was raised again. She was taking no interest, but some bits stuck in her memory, to be replayed when she was older, and trying to make sense of it all:

“Take no more!”

“More than flesh and blood can stand!”

“No, I’m done. But she’ll be safe here, look after her.”

“Send money when I can,”

Then he was gone, with a brief prickly good bye, and she was sitting at the table with Grandmother, eating chocolate cake.

She had no idea that she would never see her father again.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Murder

 “We’ve done it!” There was exultation in the words, and not a skerrick of guilt.  She put down the axe, which would have to be cleaned, of course, and looked at the blood on her hands. How had she managed that? It had seemed such a clean kill.
Oh well, put it down to inexperience. After all, it wasn’t as if she’d ever done it before, and it wasn’t exactly something you went round practising, was it? But, before they did anything else, she would have to wash her hands. She spared a passing thought for Lady Macbeth, who had been so upset she couldn’t get her hands clean. All that emoting over bloodstains on her hands! She had found Shakespeare ridiculously over-the-top at the best of times, (such a waste when she could have been learning something more practical at school!), but Lady Macbeth was the limit. Didn’t they have any soap in ancient Scotland?

Ah, that was better! At least she had soap and running water. Now the next job was to hide the evidence and dispose of the body. Geoff was already straightening up the yard, just as they had planned, and she knew he had been working on the wire for the last couple of days. It had to look like it had been worn and pushed aside, it mustn’t look like they had cut it. People had sharp eyes; it was really important to get the details right. That was how you got away with things without anyone suspecting.

She glanced at the sky. Not long now till daylight – time to keep moving along. Yes, even if it had made more mess, she was glad she had used the axe. Strangulation, she believed, was the more usual method, but that would have involved touching it, and she wasn’t sure she had the strength to carry it through. Imagine the noise, the outcry, if something had gone wrong! And the possibility of escape! No, there was far too much risk of discovery that way. It was much better the way they had gone about it, even if Geoff, always squeamish, had insisted on leaving the actual killing to her. And MacGregor, infuriating, prying, lecturing neighbour that he was, wouldn’t be back till Monday to make the discovery. And by then the evidence would be disposed of and the trail gone cold.

Relief washed over her again. No more screaming in the middle of the night, no more arguments with neighbours. And nobody would be able to prove a thing. There would be gossip and speculation of course, but they could easily add a few speculations of their own. Hadn’t they thought they’d seen a tall man skulking around the laneways in the dusk? And couldn’t MacGregor use the insurance money?

Now she just had to dispose of the body. It looked pathetic lying there, as if it had been deflated. Was this sad, skinny specimen the one who had been wrecking their night’s sleep for weeks and driven them to the point of madness? Well, the feathers could be burnt, and as for the rest … She picked up MacGregor’s rooster with one hand and eyed the sorry carcase. “I think I’ll make chicken noodle soup,” she said.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Political Icarus (lines written at a concert)

The silly boy whose hubris spans the sky
Believing utterly that he can soar:
Apotheosised in his own desire
To dare and rise where no man rose before.

He is the champion of his own self.
(So, he declares, should all right-thinkers be.)
The god-like grandiosity he wears
In all its weirdly pompous crudity.

He does not own the limits of his reach,
Nor any boundary set upon his realm.
The skies were placed there for his conquering,
Himself the power, his desire the helm.

What if his wings are built from lowly wax?
In his own mind his flight is steel and fire,
Even the sun is subject to his lust,
And his great fury will not faint or tire.

He has not learned that pride builds to undo
(Those whom the gods destroy, they first make mad.)
And when his body plummets to the ground,
His own may weep, the earth does not feel sad.

But that’s to come. Now, poised upon his cliff,
Waiting ambition’s leap, ambition’s fall,
He writes the same old story yet again,
We shudder, who already heard it all.

**    **    **    **    **    **

Meanwhile, this music. Here my heart finds wings
Woven from wonder by these singing strings,
Till this self resonates, and stumbling sings
The sorrow and the beauty which it brings.
For love shall take me where no wings constrain,
For love can lift and carry and sustain.
And I, all naked-souled in this stark light,
Shall watch another Icarus take flight,
And though, in landing, he may fall on me,
Still grace notes hold my heart’s entirety.

Monday, November 21, 2016

On Listening to Double Bass Music

As the dark velvet falls (my love, my love):
These rippling notes, half-wistful in desire,
Turned towards rest (as lonely mortals can),
Knowing such peace can never be entire.

And yet we sleep, for flesh must find surcease.
All things are partial till the Kingdom come,
And beauty is a promise that will hold
Though hearts grow weary, and our souls grow numb.

What sweet musicians dreamt and poets seek
Through melody and harmony and song
Enfolds us for a moment and is gone;
And yet a moment can be very strong.

Pity me not to float upon these waves
Who know not to what landfall they may bear;
For I would sing although I have no words,
And you and I have our rest everywhere.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Planted Seed

He tilled the ground, grumbling at the thorns and thistles. His parents said it had not always been like that, and he more or less believed them. But it was odd, just the same. After the tilling came the sowing, and then the watching of the crop, and the dealing with the weeds. (Why had his parents … ? Oh, never mind!) Finally it was time for the harvest, and all the hard work of getting it gathered in. And all the while he watched his brother with resentment.  While he was labouring bitterly over his crops, his brother would take out his flock, and sit and rest all day. Sure he watched over them, but really, in this land that still carried vague memories of Eden, it wasn’t that hard. The very weeds that Cain had to battle with were food for Abel’s flocks. It simply wasn’t fair! He had no idea that all the while he was diligently sowing his crops, another kind of seed had taken root in his own soul.

Then the day came to make an offering to the Lord. He knew his brother would willingly have given him from his own flock to make the sacrifice (perhaps in exchange for a small portion from his crops), but he was having none of it. He would not engage in that messy, blood-soaked business (how demeaning!), and he would not be beholden to his spoilt brat of a younger brother either. No, the work of his own hands was quite good enough to offer to the Lord!

So he came, bearing a portion from his crop to make his offering – not too large a portion, for that crop had cost him a lot of effort and he was entitled to the fruit of his labours! His brother came also, bearing the fat portions of some of the first born of his flock. He brought his offering with a kind of gladness that Cain found very offensive. “Obviously it cost him little effort, if he gives it away so easily,” he thought. “Things are always easier for him.”

But then came the shock. The Lord favoured his brother’s offering, but rejected his own. And Cain was furious, and the jealousy in his heart proliferated faster than any seed he had ever sown in the ground. And the Lord warned him that his anger was unjustified and that he was in grave danger of committing a terrible wrong. But he was beyond listening, especially to a god who seemed to favour his brother beyond himself. It was all Abel’s fault! And in the secret places of his heart he cultivated that bitter crop, jealousy, anger, resentment, and it came swiftly to fruition.

The day came when he asked his brother to walk with him in the fields. Abel was eager to take this opportunity to sort things out with his brother. But Cain had other ideas, and out there, with no human witness, he killed his brother. He did not know that the very ground bore witness against the murder of the innocent, and that he would be eating from a bitter crop all the days of his life.

Monday, November 07, 2016

The source of strength

He was 75 years old when the call came to leave everything he had known and follow the guidance of an invisible God to a place he did not know, which would become his inheritance. He was to take his barren wife with him, and somehow, though they were both already old, he would be the father of a great nation. And through this absurd choice, which shocked his friends and acquaintances into scornful laughter, he would somehow become a source of blessing to all the nations of the earth (what did that even mean?). And so the old man packed up his whole life and stepped forward into impossibility. By faith he allowed his whole world to be turned upside down. And when, after the long hard years of waiting, the child of promise was born to them, he was willing, at the command of that same God, to lay down the life of that child, though every promise he had been given was dependent on that child’s life. Where did he find the strength? His eyes were fixed on another kingdom, a kingdom which could never fail, whose builder and maker was the Lord.

Another time, another place, another man. This one was eighty years old, and his life had become a bitter story of failure. It had all started so well, with his life miraculously spared and his adoption into the royal family of the very nation that had enslaved and mistreated his people. But in a moment of fierce anger he had acted impetuously and thrown all his advantages away. The last forty years had been spent herding the flocks in a forgotten corner of the desert. But now he was summoned by a miraculous sign to return to the very place he had fled, to face down the royal power in its stronghold, and demand freedom for his people> He did not even believe himself a fluent speaker, yet he was called to declare the impossible before a king. Where did he find the strength? His eyes were fixed on another kingdom, a kingdom which could never fail, whose maker and builder was the Lord.

Another time, another place, another man. This one was only about 33, and he had already put aside all the joys of heaven to walk in the pain and weakness of humanity. Now, in the middle of the night, he knelt in an olive grove, and the agony of his submission was so intense that the sweat fell from him like drops of blood. He knew what lay ahead. He knew that when he left that garden he would be going forth to face false accusations, jeering crowds, abandonment, torture and death. “Nevertheless,” he said, “your will be done.” Where did he find the strength? His eyes were fixed on another kingdom which could never fail, whose builder and maker was the Lord, and so, for the joy that was set before him, he walked forward, with deliberate intent, into all the agony of sin and death.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Gannet

The flight – the gloried rush of piercing joy
Across the glinting, sun-smiled waves to skim
Sharp as the pointed arrow of His grace,
Into the full abundance which is Him.

Then from joy’s height to fall, swift as His love,
Into the ocean, fathomless, unknown.
The offering of the self – fierce, absolute,
Where every last defence is overthrown.

And is this terror? No, it is delight
Into the boundless bounty so to fall,
And find all sustenance is waiting there
For at the downmost point is given all.

(I found this poem this morning in an old notebook. I have no idea when I wrote it, but probably in New Zealand, about 10 years ago, when we saw the gannets plummeting out of the sky to fish)

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Still Place

No matter how busy he got (and some days were busier than he had ever imagined could be possible), he always found time for this, time apart from the throngs around him, time apart from the endless questions, the endless reports that he must receive with sober judgement, the endless decisions, significant or meaningless, that he had to constantly make. Here, alone with his harp, he breathed out the pain, the frustration, the personal hurts and confusion, and breathed in the love and mercy of his God. Here he was restored, here the jumbled pattern of his days resolved into sense and meaning. He took his tears to God, and his anger, and that terrible sense of helplessness which is the grinding stone for everyone who finds themselves a leader.
Tonight he was pensive, looking back across the years of battle and bloodshed, and remembering how simple it had seemed when he was just a shepherd boy, out on the hills with the flocks, and his harp, and the heartbreaking beauty of God. But what if he turned it around?  What if he were the sheep and it was the Lord Almighty who was his shepherd, feeding him, leading him protecting him? What if … ?

He ran his hands across the strings, and his fingers found their joy. “The Lord is the shepherd,” he sang softly into the night air. No, that wasn’t it, there was a false note there. He faltered, paused and started again. “The Lord is MY Shepherd,” he sang. Yes, that was better, both the notes and the meaning rang true. And suddenly the song was flowing, in him and through him. “I shall not want”, “green pastures,” “still waters” – the words tripped from his tongue and the music flowed through his fingers. This was it, these were the words that put flesh and mortal understanding onto the secret gladness of his faith, clothing it with a form that gave some expression of the mystery that was his life and breath, the mystery that God would bend down into relationship with a broken man. He could see how the images fitted: the soul restored (oh yes!) the righteous path determined.

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” He paused. What could he say about that? But no, that also was true. He gazed into the darkness and saw it – “You are with me, your rod and your staff …” He breathed deeply, but he would not flinch from it. The deeper the pain, the more glorious was the mercy that carried him through. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” He remembered the rage of Goliath and the spears of Saul. He remembered cruelty, and fear, and blood shed far too easily, as if a man’s life counted for nothing. He bowed his head, unashamed of his tears. But God had been there, with him, even in the ugliest places. He raised his eyes and gazed, unafraid, into the infinite darkness of the skies, and, for a moment, it was as if he saw eternity open, and a glory that negated and washed away every pain and struggle:

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” It was the song of his heart, and he would teach it to his people that it might be their song too.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Ordinary Grace

Here, where the warp meets weft,
The liminal space, between breathing out and in,
Where the lines of the floorboards grow weary,
The place of our deep confusion,
His mercy falls.

Here, where we cease to be children,
Where we catch the ball that no one threw,
Where we ask the unspeakable questions,
Ignoring our own tears,
His mercy falls.

Here, where we pause before blank canvas,
Where anticipation meets uncertainty,
Or the world is wrenched awry in one sharp moment,
Glimpsing the true obscenity,
His mercy falls.

Here, where we find our ends
Are merely new beginnings when horizons sway.
Where preconceptions clash with life,
Betrayed by our own fear,
His mercy falls.

Here, where we see familiar loves,
With unfamiliar eyes, marvelling and doubting,
Where our hearts tear open, and he meets our wound with his,
In the dawn forever breaking,
His mercy falls

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

For me the Son of God is dancing

For me the Son of God is dancing,
He calls me forward into light.
He sings above my shattered spirit,
And bids me leave the fears of night.

For me the Son of God is dancing,
His clouds turn pink across the sky,
His rain is washing all our sorrow,
His stars coruscate in reply.

For me the Son of God is dancing
Above, beyond, below, before.
His steps are measured to my weakness
To rise, return, redeem, restore.

For me the Son of God is dancing
So graceful is his gracious grace –
He leans down from the highest heaven
To raise me up and wipe my face.

For me the Son of God is dancing,
His love has danced through death and hell.
My heart is dizzied by his splendour
And hears his whisper, “All is well.”

For me the Son of God is dancing,
His rhythm is eternity.
And mercy shapes his every movement,
And he desires to dance with me!

Sunday, October 09, 2016

One Afternoon

I stood there, in the great darkness, still making out the shape of the terrible cross and the shape of my son, my precious, precious son, hanging there. I couldn’t see it all the time of course. Tears have a merciful way of blurring our sight. But there are some things love does not allow us to turn away from, some places that love insists we stay, because sometimes our presence, and the mute witness of our grief, is the only thing we have left to give.

It was a long time ago that the ancient prophet had spoken to me, beholding my newborn son, but his words had been fixed in my heart, and now I tasted their full awfulness, like I was drinking down wormwood and gall. “And a sword shall pierce your heart, yours also”, he had said. I had not realised that this was what he meant, I had thought it fulfilled in the ordinary pinpricks of life, the growing pains of seeing your child go in ways you had never expected (though why I had ever thought a carpenter’s shop would be enough for this miraculously wrought child seems a great foolishness to me now!) But now I knew that sword, sharp as a Roman gladius, had stabbed into my vital organs, and twisted them into excruciating agony. The least I could do was stand there and keep watch, that terrible afternoon, in a place beyond courage, where only love could hold me there.

I remembered other afternoons, woven of sunshine (had the sun now vanished forever?), the texture and shape of the life we had shared together – those early years in Egypt, when nothing but the pangs of exile had shadowed our lives, the return to Nazareth and the ordinary years (apart from the odd incident when he had stayed behind in the temple when he was twelve – a foreshadowing of the day when he would go forth into the world). There was the wedding in Cana, and the afternoon when I saw him do his first miracle, the water became wine, and nothing in the world was ever quite the same again. I remember the crowds that gathered to his teaching, and the endless, endless parade of the sick and the broken who came to him for healing. None of them were here now except the women who stood with me, and John, the only one of the men who remained. In the dreadful darkness we could count our number, and we were very few. There were no miracles that day, though I had half expected there would be, only the bitterness of all our hope being laid down in the grave. How could this possibly be God’s plan?

And there was silence, and there was darkness, and he cried his last, and all I had left to give my beloved son was a grave borrowed from a generous stranger. I discovered then that there is a place beyond pain where one has almost ceased to be human, and there, as it was, I pitched my tent.

But I did not stay there. For on the third day, on the most beautiful morning of the world, that dreadful afternoon was undone, or, rather, the emptiness it had carved out was filled and overflowing, with the best wine which he had saved till last. This was what it was all for – this! For this I had borne the shamed months of my pregnancy, for this I had endured exile, for this I had watched my son alienate all the powers of the land, for this I had stood in the terrible darkness. And I drank deep of a joy from beyond this world, which had now broken into this world. For my son, who had been dead, was alive, and now he lives for evermore

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Heart of the Matter

Killing men was all in a day’s work. Like all Romans of his class he had done his stint in the army and worked his way up the political ladder. He had been ending men’s lives either with his own sword, or by commanding the swords of those under him, all his adult life. By definition, the glory of Rome was what he was there to promote, and any life that did not contribute to Rome’s glory was worthless by definition, and to be disposed of with no more thought than you would give to killing a hen that no longer laid. Why should this time, this man, be any different?

Alright, he didn’t like the hole and corner business of midnight trials and early morning summons. He was a suspicious man by nature, and this aroused all his suspicions. What were the Jewish leaders up to? And the prisoner, now he looked at him squarely, looked nothing like the typical insurrectionist. In fact, he had probably never been in a real fight in his life. So what was going on?

There was something he wasn’t being told, and he was in no mood to be played with, or treated as just a rubber stamp for their internal problems. Had they forgotten who was in charge? And there was something about this man, neither cringing nor defiant, but simply standing there, as if he were not the one on trial at all, that intrigued him. He wasn’t going to sign off on this one without learning more. He tried sending the prisoner to Herod when he learned the man was a Galilean, but Herod sent him back. He sent him off to be flogged, hoping this would settle the matter, but even though the prisoner returned besmeared with blood and with a crown of thorns on his head (oddly unsettling to look at, even for an old soldier), the mob from the temple still weren’t appeased.  They told him that the man was an enemy of Rome, who had declared himself to be a king, yet, when he questioned the man further, all he would say was that his ki8ngdom was not of this world (whatever that meant!). Further the man would not respond to him, and who in such straits would resist either desperately defending themselves our shouting out their last desperate defiance? This man was different. In fact, he believed this man was innocent, which normally wouldn’t have worried him too much any way. But this time, inexplicably, it did.

But the rabble-rousers of Jerusalem were having none of it. They wanted this man killed, and they threatened to report him to Rome if he didn’t comply. How could the life of one man, however innocent, however different, compare to his own career and his family honour? So he gave the order to have Jesus of Nazareth crucified. But first her ordered a basin of water to be brought to him, and publically washed his hands of the man’s blood. But whether he gave him further thought, or whether he ever came to understand the magnitude of what happened, history does not tell us.

But what history does tell us is that, at that Passover in Jerusalem, the world was changed forever, and the name of Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judea, is remembered with infamy as long as the world endures. He had gone through the forms, but completely missed the heart of the matter. The man he condemned to death was God Himself, and the blood he shed that day was, ironically, the only thing that could have cleansed him from the blood-guilt that no symbolic basin of water could remove. Pilate died in his time and his burial place is unknown save to the vaguest of legends, but the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth is empty, and he lives and reigns for evermore.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Hunter

He does not hunt to destroy, he hunts to release mankind from their terrible captivity, and he has been doing so since the first dawn of humanity. Many despise him, some fear him as the embodiment of their selfhood’s deepest nightmare, many hide from him under pleasure or philosophy. But those who have experienced what he can do for them, the ones he has “caught”, feel only deep wonder, abiding gratitude and tremulous, overwhelming love.

Each pursuit is its own story. Long ago there were two who hid in a garden, pitiably attempting to conceal their nakedness. He would not allow them to hide from him; ruthlessly he called them forth and made them own what they had done. And on the day that death entered the world, the promise of life entered also.

There was another, one who had bound up the deepest longings of his soul with lies, deception and the slick tricks of a shyster. Ah! that was a long pursuit, through years and across deserts, luring him with angelic dreams and the dismay of being bested by the sharp practices of another, until the time came when he  could run no further, and the Hunter brought his flight to a standstill, appearing in the form of a stranger to wrestle with him and overthrow him.

And there was a woman, a heathen prostitute, whom he sought in a strange city. She saw him for what he was, despite the deceptions she lived under, and, being wise and discerning, she chose to cleave to him and to his people. And she was freed.

There was one who thought that he could flee the Hunter by taking a ship to the furthest reaches of the known world, but it was not so easy to escape. There was a mighty storm that threatened shipwreck, and a mighty fish that swallowed him whole, taking him down into a darkness where he could not escape the truth any longer.

There were so many of them: the shepherd boy of confident faith who had to pass through rejection and exile, then later the revelation of his own deep sin before he was truly free, the man who had to marry a faithless woman in order to understand the forgiving love at the heart of the universe, the young boy who was called in the middle of the night and whose heart was made captive forever.

But there was a greater prey that the Hunter sought – one that must be overcome in order for true freedom to occur.  And prey’s name was death, and its power came from sin. But the Hunter knew that it was vulnerable, and how to overcome it. And he did it by becoming vulnerable himself. He was stripped from his power and glory, his might and dominion, and became a nothing. And in that lowly, helpless form he submitted to death and hell, and was taken into the very depths of their heartland. And there the one who was beaten and mocked, reviled and tormented, won a victory that was absolute and unimaginable. Death itself was overcome, and the Hunter returned in triumph.

And still the victorious Hunter hunts, that the souls of men may be rescued and restored. And still, until this earth shall end, he comes to set his people free.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Pretence

Nobody seemed to have noticed any change in him. There were moments when he looked at Jesus, or heard the familiar cadences of his voice, and his heart skipped wildly within him, or his hands shook a little. But nobody seemed to notice. Though he didn’t want them to notice, it served to harden his resentment. If they cared about him, if he was really one of them, wouldn’t they notice anyway? But he had always been the odd one out. The others were Galileans, he was a Judean. The others seemed content to follow Jesus around with no concern for where they were heading. They never asked where they would be in five years’ time, or ten. And Jesus was very guarded about any details of his plans. Maybe he didn’t have any? Surely the Messiah of God would have a clear path to victory and no exactly how to build his support? That was the least a disciple should expect! Meanwhile, a man must take care of himself, and if that meant taking an extra share from the common purse, well, what was so wrong with that when they never missed it?

Increasingly, it seemed to him, Jesus was doing the exact opposite. Every time there was a swell of public support he seemed to deliberately cut the ground out from under it. Why would God’s Messiah sabotage the advancement of his own kingdom?
The thought worried at him and would not let go. Was Jesus really the Messiah of Israel or not? He was aware of the mounting hostility of the religious leaders he had been taught to revere, and it disturbed him.  Shouldn’t the Messiah unite them? Eventually the strain became too much; action must be taken to resolve it.

So, secretly, he went to the chief priests and arranged to hand Jesus over to them at a suitable time and place. That should resolve the dilemma. Either Jesus would be exposed as a sham, and he himself would be in favour with the winning side, or it would provoke Jesus to reveal his Messianic powers, and then, after all, he was one of the inner circle, and Jesus would probably be grateful. Either way, the issue would be resolved. And thirty pieces of silver would not go astray, either.

But it was hard to play a part in front of men he lived with so intimately, and the Passover meal together was especially difficult. When Jesus said, “One of you will betray me,” the stress was almost unbearable. Was he about to be exposed to his fellow disciples?

No, apparently not. But he was itching to get out of there, to resolve this thing once and for all, and when Jesus told him to go and do what he had to do, he knew it was time: time for action, time for decision, time to throw off the heavy burden of pretence that was weighing him down. He knew where Jesus was going next, he would be able to lead the temple guards straight there. After that, it would be out of his hands. Only one last act of pretence would be required of him, to go up to his former Master and greet him with a kiss …

He never guessed how that kiss would resonate through the ages to come. He never guessed how much it would be overshadowed by the eternal victory his Master was about to win through death and unspeakable suffering. He never guessed who his Master truly was.

Monday, August 08, 2016

National Trust Houses

(an old poem from my archives, previously unblogged)

A building's nothing, unless it is loved.
Where the slow trees curve down in tenderness,
And the long lawns proclaim a yester-grace,
And the incisive freedom is to care.
Where there are ropes, and signs that say "Keep Off!"
All of the subtle bindings of red tape;
Here creeps the ivy, in its natural place;
Bright flower beds, where bees hum endlessly.
Indoors, all smells of polish and of tea.

Why do we come, we pilgrims in fast cars?              
All by our school excursions so well trained,
To do the dutiful and cultured thing?                 
Admirers of some long-past architect?
Simply because the brochures tell us to?
Just for the joy of being out of town?

This is another place. We pause to breathe
Another air, to inhale history,
By-pass the intellect, and taste the past.
Some think the sun shines differently here,
Others maintain its all too much the same,
(Duty and hope provide the variance.)                 

Shut your modernity outside the gate,                  
Walk up the gravelled path with too loud steps.
Obedient to training long ago,
Acknowledge with your reverential nods,
Each listed feature of some dwindled past.
We are all proper children, hungering
For difference, intrinsic novelty,
And fix our glance on carpenter's neat joins.

Enter the doors, adjust your eyes to dim.
Pay your admission in the proper place,                
Wish they had better ventilation then;                
And be re-grounded in the human race.

Here is our shrine, not some aesthetic goal
Nor a lust born of pure intelligence,
Nor a bare duty, which can ill sustain.
We come, pathetic in humanity,
(Under our brazen surface of finesse)
A rootless people, moderned out of time.

Here, (and our quest is dimly understood),
We seek to take again the common cup,                  
Participate in some continuance,
Drink deep our joining in humanity;
Leaving our neat, pre-packaged, ordered lives,
(If you can call such automation life),
To be spectators of some quickening grace,
Museum-processed for posterity.

Dutifully read the biographic notes,
Stare at the furnishings, old-fashioned, strange;
Try to imagine life in such a place.
Who would you be, moved from this century,             
To be appurtenanced into this scene?
Is style a stage-prop for identity?
Is all I am a product of this time?

Rebuild the set, rewrite your script of life;
Deconstruct all that culture's made you be,
Unweave the twisted threads of time and place,
See your bare soul in all its poverty!

Bow, awed, before the mystery of fate!
How little of your deeply cherished pride
Remains intact when you have stripped away             
All the gains wrought by opportunity.
This is humility, and this is truth.

Or, more resilient, picture yourself,
Romantically, the hero of the hour.
Glide, stride (according to your gender's choice)
Through panelled corridors of mystery,
Mistress or master of what never was.
Unblinker all your ego's poor-lit dreams,
This is the daylight hour, here feet trod
That ached in weariness. Old age came young,           
Fulfilment was as transient as now,
Self-seeking greed was just as arrogant,
And pleasure fled before men knew its name.

Emerge into the sun with grateful hearts,
Embrace, with new-found thanks, your given life,
Glad of the time, the place, and all that is,
Slightly impoverished in complacency
Newly enlarged in your humanity.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

I wanted to write about swallows

I wanted to write about swallows:
Slicing the sky with a dip of wing,
But the late light lay golden
On the brown winter rushes,
And the rain-churned water
Shone like brass.

I wanted to write about swallows:
Suddenly turning, with a flash of tangerine,
But the swamphens strutted on grass
With a comical nonchalance,
Twisting their necks to peer
With quizzical solemnity.

I wanted to write about swallows:
Catching my heart with their ballet,
But a small coot traced a bow wave on the water,
And a chattering of ducks did their dabble,
And a magpie lark, in the liminal spaces,
Danced lightfoot over mud.

I wanted to write about swallows:
Teaching me again the rhythms of sweet glory,
But the cockatoos screeched in the treetops,
And a heron stood motionless
Until I recalled in its curve
The word ‘grace’ has two meanings.

I wanted to write about swallows,
But instead
Beauty waylaid me.

I wanted to write about swallows.

Monday, August 01, 2016

The Feast

For the young king, it was just another night of pleasure. His father, with all his conquests, had gathered great riches; now that the power was his, he intended to make the most of them. What was the point of having so much if it was just stuck away in storerooms? It was there to be used, and he used it.  Besides, he had to impress his father’s nobles with his beneficence.

As the wine took hold and the night grew more intense, another thought took hold. He remembered the golden goblets of Jerusalem that his father had brought back from one of his conquests. They had been used in the service of some obscure tribal god, and for some reason his father had regarded them as special, even sacred. And he had not generally been a squeamish man. Well, his son would have none of it. This was a new reign, a new era, and it was time to be done forever with the old superstitions.

He ordered the vessels to be brought to him, and he and his nobles and his wives and concubines drank from them. But even that was not enough. He was King of Babylon, and the age of gods was over. He would kill them with mockery. He rose, a little unsteadily, to his feet, raised his golden goblet and his voice. “This is a time for new gods. Let us drink to the god of (he looked around for inspiration) … gold! Let us drink to the god of … silver!” And with shouts of drunken laughter, his friends took up the game.

But then silence fell. A disembodied hand had appeared, and, as they watched with mounting horror, it moved, and its outstretched finger wrote strange words upon the plaster, then vanished. There was no laughter now.  The king’s bravado had vanished, like wine poured down the drain, and he ordered all the seers and wise men, old remnants of his father’s reign, to be brought. But none of them could tell him what the words meant, despite the most extravagant rewards he could offer.

And the king grew even more afraid, and the whole palace was in uproar.

Then the old queen, hearing the noise, entered the hall and approached him, and told him of a man who had been chief over all the wise men in his father’s day, one of the exiles from Jerusalem, a man called Daniel.

So the desperate king called for him, repeated his extravagant promises, and demanded an explanation. And the old prophet stood before him and told an old story of his father Nebuchadnezzar and his relationship to the God of the Hebrews, whom he insisted on calling the Most High God, a story of pride and repentance.

Then he looked at the king and accused him of a failure to repent, and told him that, that very night, he had sinned against the Most High God. He then read out the inscription on the wall, written by that supernatural hand, and explained it.

                God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.
                You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting.
                Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians

The king gave Daniel the gifts he had promised, but there was no joy in it.
That very night the kingdom was taken and the king was slain.

He never knew that one day there will be another feast, where every vessel and every guest is sacred to the Most High God, and God Himself will wipe away every tear, and all the kingdoms of this world will be no more

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Finding Dory

Follow the trail of shells,
Follow them home,
Where love’s long labour marks the way.

Though you forget,
You are remembered.
In my Father‘s house there is a place,
Marked with your name,
And no oceans can divide you
Love waits.

We drift into strange places
And the pilgrim path is long.
Our memories grow dim,
Our hearts benighted,
Confused by distraction
In our many-coloured world.
Love waits.

And in the hour we remember
When we come unto ourselves
Love waits

To guide us home.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Stranger

It was late afternoon when we set off on our walk back home. The sun was in our eyes as we walked westward, away from Jerusalem, but our heads were so bowed and our eyes so tear-fogged from the sorrow in our hearts that we scarcely noticed it. All we could talk of was our great grief, still trying to fully understand the sequence of events, still baffled as to how the destruction of all our hopes could have taken place so swiftly and absolutely. We felt as if death itself had taken up residence in our spirits.

Later, when we had discussed it over and over again between ourselves, we still could not pinpoint the moment when the Stranger joined us. There was no shock, no moment of making room for him to walk beside us, he was simply there, and had been already there with us when he asked us what we were talking about.

Cleopas, though surprised, was carefully polite, “Are you a visitor to Jerusalem, that you don’t know what things have just been happening?”

“What things do you mean?” asked the Stranger.

Well, we needed to talk about it, so we did. We told him about Jesus and his greatness, (oh, the irony!), about His capture, sentencing and crucifixion, and even about the confusing stories the women had told of an empty tomb and visions of angels who said He was alive. But when some of the men went they had seen nothing. So what were we to think?

To our amazement he rebuked our unbelief. (Were we supposed to have believed the unsubstantiated testimony of women?) . Then followed the most amazing conversation we had ever been part of. We listened, rapt, as he laid out for us, from the scriptures we had known all our lives, the plainly revealed truth that the Messiah we had so longed for, and believed that we had found,  had to suffer before he entered his glory. The one who was the Salvation of Israel (and not only Israel) was the same who would be a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. The one who would crush the serpent’s head was the one whose heel would be stricken. How could we not have known that? Yet still we were blind.

We could not get enough of his words, so when we reached Emmaus we urged him to stay and share the evening meal with us. It was only when we sat down to eat that our whole world was utterly changed. For the Stranger took up the bread, gave thanks and broke it, and as he handed it to us in the ritual that went as deep as life and breathing, our eyes were opened at last and we saw him at last for who he was – the risen Lord Jesus, the Christ of Israel and the Saviour of the world. And, as we recognised him, he vanished from our sight, and for one fleeting, all-transforming moment, we felt as if we breathed the very air of heaven.

We looked at each other, seeing each other, too, in a whole new way. “Didn’t our hearts burn inside us as he spoke to us along the way?” There was no thought now of finishing our meal or settling down for the night. Instead, energised with wonder, we returned to Jerusalem to tell our story to our brothers there.