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.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Decision

The two men stood there side by side, gazing out across the land, and as the afternoon shadows chiselled their faces into relief, like two chiaroscuro portraits, the family resemblance was strong, though one was many years older than the other. They had reached the parting of the ways, not because of any ill will or loss of affection between them – they were strangers together in a foreign land, after all, and like gravitated to like – but because they owned too much.

They had not left Ur as poor men, but now, since their sojourn in Egypt, they were fabulously, absurdly wealthy, and the land could not support them both. It was, thought the uncle, who had reached this decision, like a family that had grown too big to fit in one tent any longer, and must now split themselves, and their belongings, between two. Uncle and nephew each had so many flocks and herds that the land simply couldn’t contain them both. They needed space so that there was no conflict between the herdsmen of one and the herdsmen of the other over whose flocks should have this pasture or that. But how should they choose?

Abram was a generous man, and he gave Lot the choice, saying, “If you go to the right, I will go to the left, and if you go to the left, I will go to the right.” And they looked out over the land and they pondered what they saw. And their hearts chose differently, and their fate was decided.

For Lot looked out across the valley of the Jordan, towards the cities of the plain, and he saw a rich, well-watered land (“like the Garden of the Lord”, he explained later to his wife.) He saw luxury, he saw ease and pleasure, and saw no temptation with them, but only an agreeable life with no more travelling or travailing.  A man with riches could live in splendour there, win the respect of his neighbours and become part of the community. His days of pilgrimage were over, he had found himself a new home, and so he set his face, and turned his life, towards Sodom and Gomorrah. Years later he would flee Sodom losing all his wealth and most of his family.

And Abram turned his face from the riches of Sodom and chose to go westward, willing to go wherever God should lead him, having no home but his tents and no posterity beyond the promise which God had given him, which seemed no nearer than before. And his heart was set on pilgrimage, for he had made the promises of God his habitation. And, as he turned aside from rest and ease, watching his nephew depart, the Lord appeared to him, renewing those self-same promises. “All the land you see, in every direction, I will give to you and to your descendants. And your descendants as plentiful as the dust of the earth. Walk the land, know its length and breadth, for it is my gift to you”.

And Abram went forth and walked the land and worshipped the God who had called him. And he is called the friend of God.

Monday, July 13, 2015

To the Uttermost

 In later years he would ask himself, “What was I thinking? How could I not have known?” but at the time it made, if not exactly sense, then a kind of desperate necessity. He was doing the only thing he knew how to do, the only thing he could think of to salvage the situation when his heart’s desire was on the line, or so he thought. His mistake was to think that his own strength and cunning could bring him there. All his life, after all, (from before his birth if his mother had spoken truly) he had been struggling to get there.

And in the end, all his cleverness had brought him full circle. Now, after leaving home as a desperate runaway, with only a stone as pillow, he was returning as a wealthy man, with flocks and herds beyond his imagination, wives, concubines and children. And in the end it didn’t matter, because he would still have to face the brother he had wronged, and hope that he could appease him with gifts so that, at the very least, his life would be spared. He was very afraid.

So he divided all he had into two groups, hoping that something might be spared from his brother’s wrath, and sent his wives and sons away, and then, alone and desperate, he prayed. And then a man appeared, and wrestled with him all through the night. When Jacob told the story to his family later, he put it as bluntly and baldly as that. How else could he explain such a surreal experience? How could explain the time, the place, his state of mind, in such a way that they could understand any better. Some experiences cannot be explained, they can only be lived through. The understanding les in the doing. So at the time, Jacob did not ask why a stranger should appear in this desolate spot and wrestle him, he knew, in the very turmoil of his bones, that it was his prayer made visible, his deep, need of God, the hunger that had driven him to treachery and sharp dealing, come up at last, against the reality of who God was. And so he strove, with everything he had, with everything he was, pitting himself to the uttermost against this foe who was also his heart’s desire and his deepest need. In his very fighting he clung desperately, until the only strength he had left was the strength of his need. All other things: his pride, his cunning, the cleverness with which a soft man bargains for success in a brutal world, all these things fell away. Only need remained.

And as the sky started to lighten in the east, the stranger touched his hip and dislocated it. The pain was intense, but still Jacob would not concede defeat. “Let me go, it is daybreak,” said the stranger.

“No,” said Jacob, still hanging on through the overwhelming pain. His breath came in hoarse sobs, but he cried out, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!”

There it was, at the heart of who he was. All his life he had been chasing the blessing, trying every means except the only one that mattered. One did not win the blessing of God by grabbing from men, but by pursuing the One whose very nature was blessing until all other things were left behind. Here, in this place that turned the whole world upside down, man seemed to have victory over God, but the very triumph of all God’s plans for blessing came from the very place of God’s apparent defeat. 

And Jacob was given a new name.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Sook Ching (on Changi Beach)

(The Sook Ching -- literally "purge through cleansing" -- was the massacre of Chinese people deemed to be hostile by the Japanese during WW2. We stood on Changi beach, and the guide told us the story of one such massacre, where the men were forced to wade into the sea in rows, where they were shot down. )

And the waves wash, grey and salt,
Salt and grey.

The time of terror,
Prejudice spinning,
Wild, uncontrolled,
The desperate nightmare,
Of a world that lost its bearings,
Lost its axis,
Twisting, like a child’s top,
Madly down the road.

And the waves wash, grey and salt,
Salt and grey.

Picture it now,
The juggernaut of hate,
Bearing down, crushing life, crushing hope,
Men in mad scramble
To gather up their splintered selves again:
Blank with horror
For the waste of it,
The bitter, pointless waste.

And the waves wash, grey and salt,
Salt and grey.

There is no sense in violence,
Cold calculation
Has married raging hate
This is the fruit,
Dark, damned and fruitless fruit.
The devil’s arithmetic
Gambles with lives – one here, another there,
Another overlooked.

And the waves wash, grey and salt,
Salt and grey

They marched into the sea,
They had no choice
(The guns, the bayonets)
Herded and helpless,
Oh, what was the point?
(The pointless, pathless point,
Pathetically profound)
To stand, to stand,
Unsteady in the waves
(The waves of water, and the waves of fire)
Blindly reduced to bodies in the sea.

And the waves wash, grey and salt,
Salt and grey

And we, with tears, now stand on that same beach.
We hear the story, and we hear the waves
The waves of water and of history,
The bitter waters of our broken race.
And, see, no sun is breaking through the clouds,
The dark and looming clouds.
We each, alone,
In the primeval loneliness of man,
Must face again the dark without, within.
Must learn again to know and not pretend,
Deny the facile answer, programmed verse
With which we seek to flee our human shame;
And face again our coward lovelessness,
Till our numb lips can shape a holier name.

And the waves wash, grey and salt,
Salt and grey
Till there is no more sea.