Friday, December 29, 2017

Geographer's Lament

I cannot count the countries of the world
Shifting and changing in political tornadoes.
Nations come and go in bewildering procession
And the map is not the one I learned at school.

Nor can I count the inner countries.
The heart’s geography erodes,
And endures the occasional tsunami.
Rivers of tears have watered my deserts,
And turned them to fecundity.
Here and there lie peninsulas
Which refuse to submit to boundaries,
(And fences have a way of breaking down).
Unexplored islands lie in raging seas
Awaiting the halcyon days
(Or so I think, or well, at least suspect).
I have built the occasional bridge,
I have weathered seasons,
Even climbed some hills, for a clearer view.
But even if I know their shapes,
I hardly know their names;
And the lingering fear is still:
Have I got it wrong?

Then I remember
I was always better at History.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Rembrandt's Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul

Here is no thunder of the lawyer’s stance
This is not doctrine bound in bone and blood
This is a man torn from his chosen path
This is a man undone by his own God.

Spirit shine forth! See, through an old man’s eyes
That his own weakness is Your strength sublime;
The fellowship of suffering opens joy,
And our mortality’s the fool of time.

The man who nails his heart to Christ’s own cross
Needs no more pride, needs not the praise of man;
It is enough to know that he is safe
Held fast forever in God’s nail-pierced hand.

It is enough to know that God is God
And Jesus, crucified, now reigns above,
Enough to rest on faith, to rest on hope
And know the greatest of all things is love

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Alien Music

I do not know the sweet songs of these people
Or the sharp songs
Beating to a harder rhythm
To scour the soul with anger’s oblivion.
I have not grieved their griefs.

I have not moved my feet
To the beat
Staccato and inverted
Then turned right way up
A moment,
Then to plunge to places
I cannot follow
By body or by mind.

The things that soothe them
Do not sustain me,
I find no comfort there,
Having already more than in their wildest dreams,
Their dreams cut like my nightmares,
I have not walked that country of small hopes.

The things that whisper
In my deepest night
Cannot speak their language,
Shamed by my own plenty,
I learn at last to weep.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Man who Waited

For years, whenever I walked the streets of Jerusalem, it was like walking through the darkest places in the human heart. Every sorry folly of our history, every temptation of our sorry hearts, was there, written large, for whoever had eyes to see them.

Religious pride and self-righteousness? Have you ever seen a Pharisee strut his way through the crowds, eyes apparently raised or lowered in holy contemplation, but actually darting furtively from side to side in holy contemplation?

The love of power? Well, the priestly caste were doing a good job of that. Not all of them, of course, some were awed to be serving their God, but too many, especially those in the inner cabal of the temple, had politicised the role of the priesthood, wanting to scrabble for whatever power and position they could maintain.

Greed? Well, it was everywhere, from the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the overpricing of the sacrificial lambs, through to the haggling in the marketplace and the blatant lust for gain that shone in the eyes of the tax collectors as they plied their extortionate trade.

And cruelty and violence were everywhere, from the zealots to the Roman soldiers, always seething just below the apparent civility of daily life.

And I do not even speak of the lusts that flourish in the shadows, but I have seen women used and abandoned, children who begged for bread, and many who lived the careful lives of the fearful. There were some who despised the Gentiles without loving the God who had called them to be separate, and others who ran to be accepted by the Gentiles and aped their ways.

And my heart grieved. I walked the streets of Jerusalem, and I prayed that God would have mercy on His wayward people, and I yearned for the coming of the Promised One. Then, one day, God told me a remarkable thing. He told me that I would not die until I had seen, with my own eyes, the Messiah come in the flesh.

I waited. The years passed, and wickedness seemed to abound more and more as my eyes learned wisdom. But I also learned another wisdom: that sin is not confined to those people over there, it lies there, coiled in my own heart too, in every heart, like poison in the bottom of the well that sickens us even while the water keeps us alive.  And I wept, and I wondered and I waited, and the long years passed, until I realised that I had outlived the normal span, and my body was growing weary of this mortal world, and still I waited.

And then, one day, one ordinary day, they came. No angels blew trumpets, and the crowds in the Temple were oblivious, but I knew. God’s promised was fulfilled. And I could die in peace. But the way ahead for these parents, this child, would not be easy and triumphant. For when I saw him, this small, helpless child, the Eternal Beloved, I understood that the true restoration of Israel was the restoration of humanity. The triumphant king would first be the sacrificial lamb, and he would be a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And I blessed him, who is, himself, the source of every blessing.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Questions for Mary

Where were you when the angel came
On an ordinary day
In a town of no reputation?

Surely you were alone
In that all-shattering moment,
In the house?
In the field?
By the well?
What were you thinking
When your world turned inside out?
And did those thoughts return?

And how do angels come:
With great beating wings
Of terror?
Or quietly walking
As if they were always there?
Or simply present
Like a sunbeam’s touch on your face?
Can you look in their eyes?
Or does their merest glance
Cover the whirling galaxies
And the steeped up slopes of time?

And which was harder,
Telling others,
Or believing it yourself?

Saturday, December 02, 2017

The Slave

Now I know what a fool I was. How could I have been so stupid? But in a world where you have nothing, you take what you can get; in a world where you have no life, no choices of your own you don’t plan ahead (what plans can you make when your master or mistress can destroy them on a moment’s whim?). You never think about the big picture, for there is no consolation there, where there is no hope.

It all began (from my point of view) when the master took me to his bed – not exactly an unheard of fate for a slave, but it had never happened before in this household. Of course, nobody asked me if I wanted to, slaves don’t have the right to say yes or no to whatever is asked of them, and, let’s be honest, high-born women rarely have the right either, though they generally get some tokens of respect. But at least the old man was kind to me, and I was very thankful for that.

But then I became pregnant, and I became overjoyed. I might be only a slave, and my mistress a high-born free woman, but I had achieved something that she had never managed in all her years. I was bearing the master’s son, his only son! (I never doubted it would be a boy) Is it any wonder that I went a little crazy? Such fantasies I had of supplanting my mistress (who, after all was old and barren) and becoming my master’s new wife, his favourite wife. Then that spiteful old woman wouldn’t be able to order me around anymore, and I would put her in her place. I had miscalculated badly.

Of course Sarai saw my attitude and guessed what I was thinking. She could not endure it, what woman could in this insecure world we live in, where our lives are totally dependent on our usefulness to the men we belong to? She, in turn, became so bitter towards me, so cruel, that I fled from her in terror.

It was then that the miracle happened. There I was, alone in the world, resting by the spring with no idea where to go or how to find safety, when the glorious messenger of God appeared – to me, a slave! What sort of God cares about slaves? What sort of God would deign to notice someone like me, let alone stoop down to speak to them? He gave me promises for my son, promises I can scarcely understand, but how can I doubt his word? And he bade me return to my mistress and humble myself before her, and so I did, and all was well again.
 But I will never be the same, for I have met with the God who sees, and I know that he sees all things even into the hearts of the least of us. And, despite all the pride and folly of our hearts, he does not despise us, but deals with us tenderly. And I wonder, as I carry my son, my miracle, my Ishmael, how is it that God in heaven understands how it feels to be a slave, a nobody, a nothing? Something tugs at my imagination, could God himself become a nobody? But I shy away from the thought, such a thing would turn the whole world upside down.