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.

Monday, July 06, 2015

On Planning a Holiday

I, who am too in love with big ideas,
Preferring, always, concept to the concrete,
Subtly gnostic,
More wedded to the feeling than the fact,
And wont to drown
In a cascade of details,
Must here take hold of hope
And wade me through.

I, who find
The mists of history indwelt by my kind,
Where every story wears a human name,
And ever passion leads to joy or shame,
(Or both, because our tales are rarely small),
Would wander castles, put down roots in time,
Dazzled by daydreams of what might have been,
Yet knowing I can never see them all,
Must choose a route that touches some of this.

I, who have walked
Cathedrals, and have felt the weight of prayer
Bear down on me from countless counted years
In benison or challenge.
Who were the saints who sanctified this place
With patient faith and sacrificial trust?
And, all the more,
How can I learn from them?

I, who hold
A whole world in imagination’s hand –
Worlds beyond worlds if only feet could reach …
Must tie me down into the tangible,
Must walk through timetables, prices and maps,
Cities and flightpaths, distances to drive,
Weathers and wearinesses,
Websites too,
And draw a line of best fit through them all,
A path that we can follow with delight,
And stretch our hearts, and find in everywhere
One still, small voice that always calls us home.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Sydney Winter

Here, at the nadir of the year
Long-slanted sun, pale yellow on the ground,
And shadows etched out,
Dark-edged and precise.

I have heard magpies
Singing sweetness back
Into these ebb-tide days,
This time withdrawn:
Drained out, laid bare,
The skeleton time when some trees naked stand,
And others rattle dull leaves in the wind.

And wattles blaze
In fiery, brilliant gold
Against the cold
And life leans back
Against their gathered light.

My blood grows thin
As winters pass,
Each swifter than the last;
The cold more keen
Cuts to the bone my self-illusioned strength,
I wait,
Less patiently,
For days of length.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Conflict

It is all too easy to start out with love and end up with ambition, to start out in a rush of admiration and conviction, putting everything else aside for the sake of the one in whom you had glimpsed, in that transcendent moment, the glory of God, but then you let other motives intrude. They had been there then, on that day, by the Sea of Galilee, engrossed in their mundane tasks when He had come to them (to them!!!!) and told them to cast aside their nets, and follow Him, and He would make them “Fishers of Men.” They weren’t quite sure what that meant, what that could mean, but there was a hard, bright glory in those words, and something about Him that was different to every other man they had ever met.

Of course it wasn’t easy being the disciples of an itinerant preacher with no home of His own, and they were very aware of the things that they had given up for His sake, but His words were like springs of living water, and the signs and the wonders He performed turned their whole world inside out. He confused them and sometimes annoyed them, expecting and proclaiming impossibilities, but they would no more have forsaken Him than they would have forsaken their own beating hearts. And gradually their confidence grew.

He talked a lot about the “kingdom”, and since by then they believed Him to be the promised Messiah, it was inevitable that eventually they would start to speculate what their own role in this coming kingdom might be. Obviously, as His first disciples, they would be very, very important, but how would that work? Some would obviously be more important than others, and, since Jesus said nothing on the subject, they wondered how this would be decided. Of course, being human, they each started marshalling their arguments to support their own case:

“Well, I believed in Him first.”

“I have cast out demons in His name.”

“I was with Him when …”

Tensions escalated, grumblings increased. Each of them had a secret dream of being the one in charge, His right hand man, a person of great glory. Each of them made his own case for superiority over the others. Things were starting to get tense. In the end they had to ask Jesus, they had to resolve this. “Which of us is the greatest?” they asked.

He took His time. He looked each of them in the eye in that uncomfortable way He had that made each of them feel that the secret thoughts of their hearts were not as glorious as they had imagined, but actually rather shabby and shoddy. They stood there, almost shuffling their feet with awkwardness. Somehow the question, which had seemed so urgent a moment before, now seemed rather silly.

Then Jesus turned away from them and called a little child to come over and stand with them. What was He about? Jesus looked at them, looked at the child, and then back at them again. “I tell you,” He said, “unless you change, unless you give up your hunger for power and position, and become a nobody, like a small child, and humble yourselves, you haven’t begun to understand my Kingdom. Whoever is willing to let go of power, and pride and prestige, he is the greatest in the Kingdom.”

Friday, June 12, 2015

Lost and Found

It was marvellous to be a newborn member of the Shepherd’s flock. The pastures were so lush and green that, even though many sheep were sharing the same meadow, it took no effort at all to find the softest, juiciest grass to eat. And, when she had eaten her fill, there was plentiful water to drink: water so still and clear that even a young lamb felt safe bending her head to drink from it. She ran and leapt and giggled with the other young lambs, but, just before the point where her tiredness would begin to make her disagreeable, the Shepherd would be right there (how did He keep watch on each one of them individually?) and He would make her lie down and rest. It was the most beautiful place, the happiest life, and she would gaze at the Shepherd in grateful adoration for the life He had given her.
Imagine her shock when, one day, the Shepherd said that it was time for the flock to move on. Looking around she realised that the grass was all cropped and the waters were growing muddy. She accepted, reluctantly, that she must follow the Shepherd away from this tranquil place.

But the route he took were like nothing she had expected. There were no rich pastures here. That was all gone. Oh there was enough, she didn’t starve, but there was never the more-than-enough which she craved. The paths were long and narrow, and it was hard to stay obedient to the Shepherd – to stop when the Shepherd said to stop, to keep going when the Shepherd said to keep going, to not wander off and munch on those tempting green plants which the Shepherd said would only do her harm. She wasn’t always obedient, but the Shepherd was always there to protect her when she most needed saving from herself. And in the journey she grew stronger, and learned to trust Him more, though she still longed for the rich pastures which had gone.

She needed that strength. For now the Shepherd led them through a terrible place, and she trembled for her very life. The drops were sheer, the paths were narrow, and there was a great darkness hovering over every hesitant step she took. Some sheep whispered that it was called the Valley of the Shadow of Death. It took all the obedience she had learned to keep going. But whenever the danger was greatest, somehow the Shepherd was always there to rescue her, and to shield her from destruction.

Eventually the nightmare was over. Many times she longed for the green pastures, but there was no going back. Now they had reached a flat and level place, and the Shepherd told them to stop. Yes there was rich grass here, but there were other plants growing among them which would kill the sheep. He must root these out before they could safely eat. And the sheep, impatient with hunger, huddled close together as they heard the howling of wolves in the background. They knew that their Shepherd was a match for any wolf, but it is a frightening thing to be in the presence of your enemies.

Eventually they ate richly, while their Shepherd stood guard. He walked among and checked them for the scrapes and sores from their difficult journey, pouring healing oil upon their wounds. She looked up at him with love. No, the journey wasn’t over yet, and difficulties and dangers probably lay ahead, but she no longer had regrets. She understood enough by now to know that the Shepherd was leading her through these things because He was taking her somewhere better, to a pasture that would never fade or fail, where she could drink forever from the water of life.