Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Sparrow

In the end, she found the courage she needed from a sparrow. Later, when she first tried to tell the story, the question inevitably came up: “Why a sparrow? Why not ... oh .. an eagle, for instance?” The question had confused her for a while, trying to find an intelligent response, but then she realised that the answer was actually simple, and lay inside herself. It was all a question of identification. Eagles were already strong, already magnificent, they didn’t need courage, at least not the kind that she needed, because they already had power and glory. She found no power and glory inside herself, only weakness, and fear and fragility. The eagles would always soar without her
But sparrows? Ah, they were different. They were small and timid and drab, the natural prey of bigger, fiercer creatures. She could feel a real affinity with sparrows.

She had lived all her life in bondage to grief and shame. All her life, wherever she was put, the same messages were repeated, messages of personal failure, of never being good enough. She had watched the bright ones and the beautiful ones walk off with all the prizes, while she cowered, forgotten in a corner – a drab little sparrow. There were times when she had almost felt the need to apologise for taking up air to breathe. And, like a sparrow at a cafe, she would make little darting forays around the periphery of life, picking up the tiny crumbs of kindness that happened to fall in her direction.

Once she had heard some preacher say that that a person was worth many sparrows. It was a nice idea, but she didn’t really believe it, at least not to apply to herself. She knew that she was worth almost nothing – because she had been told so all her life. It didn’t matter that she had a big, secret, wonderful dream, she knew that it would never happen to her, because how could she take the necessary first steps? Sometimes she would half-heartedly pray, but with no expectation that would ever be an answer.
But one day she saw the sparrow, and discovered hope. She had come into a cafe to get out of the weather, and was sitting in the darkest corner nursing her drink when the sparrow came. It was not just hopping and fluttering around the outdoor chairs and tables to cautiously seek the crumbs; it came right through the door, into the room, and perched on the counter. The red-faced man behind the counter saw it, reached down underneath, and brought out a small piece of bread, which he proceeded to crumble into a small neat pile on the countertop. And, whilst she scarcely dared to blink her wondering eyes, the sparrow hopped right up there, next to the man, and ate its little feast. Then, when it had finished, it flew once around the cafe then back past the door into the wild and windy world.

Afterwards, she was never quite sure at what point she had said to herself “if he can do it, so can I!” but by the time the sparrow had left, the decision was made. With unusual briskness she rose, paid her bill, and strode out into the spattering rain, with the first steps already formulating in her mind. As she raised her eyes, her attention was caught by a church billboard she was walking past: “I have set before you an open door which no man can shut ..”

It was enough, it was her answer and her miracle. Maybe, at least to God, she could be worth even more than that sparrow? She swirled the idea around in her mind, tasting its sweetness ..

Saturday, October 23, 2010

No Roses

Last time she was here there had been roses – bushes and bushes of them! Late summer it had been then, and heat hung heavy in the sticky air, but not as heavy as the perfume of the flowers. She had smelled them before she had seen them, and literally followed her nose to the source. He had come behind her, laughing at her enthusiasm, and they had stood there, almost drunk with sweetness, and while the bees buzzed hypnotically, he had asked her to marry him. He had turned and picked a blood red rose and placed it in her hand. In the excitement of the moment she didn’t notice that the thorn had caught on her finger, beading blood that almost matched the flower.

But now she remembered, and winced. There were no roses here, and the bitter sky promised sleet to come. Their sunshine had lasted such a short time before war had over-clouded it. He had done the decent thing, the expected thing, and signed up, because he was the kind of man who would always try to do what he believed to be decent and expected. Her tears were useless against the massive, ponderous weight of his good intentions. And as she waved him goodbye – so short a time a wife! -- she had felt the first cold clutch of fear.

And, for once, fear had been a truth-teller, though not in the way she expected. He had not died, mangled and shredded in an explosion of shrapnel, or cruelly corroded within by the fumes of evil gas, but there were shameful moments when she thought that might have been easier to bear. No, he had come back to her, but no longer as himself. The strong, clean-limbed body that had delighted her was now twisted and fumbling, and dependent on a wheelchair to travel more than a few yards. That was bad enough, but not the worst. The worst was that he was no longer the same person. Gone was the huge, laughing patience that had enfolded her in its glad confidence and, instead, there was this tetchy man with frightened eyes who seemed to be always seeking an escape route from reality. “Shell-shock” the doctors called it, but seemed to have no idea whether or not he would get any better.
She sighed deeply and shut her eyes, trying to ignore the tears that squeezed out when she did. Why had she even come here today? Even if the weather held a little longer, she would be soaked and bitterly cold by the time she made it back home. Once, she had stood here when the wild, warm breeze smelled of roses, today it smelled only of the salt wrack of a rising sea, and a beach of dying seaweed. Dying? Yes, that was the real word, the apposite word. She had held out her arms, in trust, to receive roses, and instead they had been filled with filthy slime, and now her life would never be clean again. She had wanted so much, dreamed so big, and now here she was, shackled to a broken man .. Was everything fair and lovely in this world so fragile? Would she never have any hope again?

She dashed her angry tears away with an unseeing hand, and, as she did so, her sleeve snagged and caught on something. She looked down, and saw it was a thorn, a very familiar kind of thorn. What had she been thinking? Had she imagined some murderous emanation of this foul wart had rampaged through the countryside, uprooting all the rose bushes? She blushed at her folly. Just because it was winter didn’t mean that the roses had vanished from the earth. Pruned back for the season they simply waited their time. One day summer would return, and the very air would sing of them once more. Now was the season of waiting, the season of pruning, the season for faith to fasten itself to the certainty of glories yet to come.

She looked closer. There, barely hanging on, was a rosebud – dried, frost-bitten, but definitely a rosebud. Even as she reached towards it, it fell, straight into her outstretched hand. Last time it had been her husband-to-be who put the flower in her hand. This time, she believed, it was God.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


Rest well. Here, in the darkness, away from human eyes, rest well in the Sabbath of God, the Sabbath that comes before the first day of Re-creation. Your eyes are shut now, that gazed unflinching on the horrors of death and hell; they shall open again to glory. You drank the cup, the cup is drained, the very last drop has been consumed, death has been swallowed up by Life.

Rest well. The evening closes in, the day comes to an end. It was the sixth day, the day of man and of the brute beasts. Adam’s task is done, and God saw that it was good. God has made all things good, He has made everything beautiful in its time. Then God rested.

Rest well. You were battered and bruised, a thing from which men turn away their eyes. You had no beauty that any should desire you. For you carried sin and death on your shoulders, and their darkness covered you. How odd that men should so callously destroy the Son, yet when the sun was darkened and withdrawn, they were dismayed! You, the altogether beautiful, were reduced to an object of pity and scorn. And now it is over.

Rest well. Life works its miracle in the dark and hidden places: the seed underground, the child hidden in the womb, the body in the tomb, the whisper in the soul. Rest well while we stand guard, awaiting the moment this created world has been aching for. The soldiers guard the stone outside, and have no notion how dark and futile is their watch. They think they have the power of death; they know nothing of the power of Life, and the power of Life for the dead is beyond their imagination. They guard a mere hollow in the rock; here, within, we are guarding the Most Holy Place. We stand like the cherubim on the ark: wings outspread, facing each other, gazing down upon the Mercy Seat which lies between us – the true mercy seat, the broken body of God.

Rest well. You have accomplished all that the Adam did not, could not do. He was exiled from the Tree of Life, You walked with deliberate tread towards the tree of Death, so that all the children of Adam may have life forever more. And the same Father to whom you surrendered all that You are will raise you up, to be the first fruits of them that slept. Creation waits, with hushed breath, for the moment of the miracle.

Rest well. Soon the Father will raise this body to Life, the stone will roll away and the world will be transformed. Soon your disciples will be overwhelmed with joy, and worship you in wonder. Soon you will ascend to the Father’s side and reign forever. But now we await the morning, like a woman waiting for her child to be born. We wait in the Peace of the Father for the coming proclamation of victory. Rest well, Oh Conqueror!

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Merciful Rain

I was a child when we left Egypt, but I remember the Nile. I remember how our neighbours would pray to the river, and to the other gods for its yearly flood, for that water was our life – our very existence. I remember the tumult of our leaving, most clearly of all I remember that dreadful passing across the sea bed with that mighty wall of water rising up beside us – a frozen wave just one motion away from crashing over our heads. And, of all the things to remember from the confusion of those times (I was a child, it was all confusing), I remember most clearly my parents explaining as we walked along that we were going to a land where no one had to pray to a river. A river could be spoiled, at the word of the prophet (the word of God Himself), the water of life could be changed to blood—the blood of all those Hebrew babies who had been thrown cruelly into its waters, But this land would be a land watered by God Himself. We would not pray to a river, but turn our eyes upwards to the clouds in thankful prayer, while the mercy of God rained down upon us, bringing fruitfulness, bringing life. For forty years I have cherished those words in my heart.

My parents did not live to see this land. In the starkness of the desert they became afraid, their hearts yearned again for Egypt where they had always been as sure as a slave can be that there would be food and shelter. They forgot the whips of the slave masters, they forgot the grief and terror when their baby boys were snatched away and drowned, in the terror of the desert they imagined that they had once been wonderfully secure. And in the long years of waiting they died, belonging neither to one land or the other.

But I was a child, and the desert was my playground and my great adventure. My memories of Egypt were memories of darkness, and I was glad to leave them behind. To me the vast skies and the searing winds were like a whisper of glory to come. For forty years I have been waiting – sometimes in hope, sometimes in fear, most often in deep weariness. And after forty years I am no longer a child. I have borne children, and my children have borne children, and still we are a nation without a home. I no longer question whether God can preserve us; I have seen His provision in the manna and the quail and the waters found for us in the midst of a dry and barren land. But I had begun to doubt if we would ever have a home, if that lovely land watered directly from heaven even existed. Perhaps it was just the dream-memory of Eden, before that other exile happened at the beginning of the world.

Today we crossed the Jordan. Today I did not see the miracle with the eyes of a child, but with eyes that have spent long years scanning the lonely horizons of the desert. This time I knew what the miracle meant, and as I walked across the riverbed my cheeks were wet with tears. That I should live to see this day! I thought of those who had finished their lives in the lonely spaces between Egypt and the promised land, and I knew that all of us together were called into the promises once given to Abraham. I knew that it was in this land that all the promises would find their fulfilment, for one who was greater than Moses would be born here. I lifted up my face in wonder, and then I was moved by an even greater wonder. For my cheeks were not wet because of tears alone. There was a fine rain falling from the sky, sprinkling all the people of God with the benediction of his mercy. I was not the only one crying. And while the priests and the Levites took their places, and the fighting men went on ahead, we women stood in the rain and wept for wonder and for joy. We had come home, by strange hard paths He had led us to the place where His promises became the solid ground beneath our feet. And we were where we had always been: in the centre of the mercy of God, and He, himself, is our life.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Daily Bread

See them, so many of them, from all ages and all times. In their hearts there are questions, in their eyes, sometimes, there are tears, but they move forward, forward, towards the table, for they know there is no other place to go.

From back in the mists of time they come. See the old woman, her long years of self-doubt bursting forth in a moment of incredulous laughter, now holding the child who is so precious, and so impossible, that even his name means laughter. She comes. See the young man, whose brothers have learned to hate him because he would not know his place as the youngest (bar one) and the least. They have stripped his beautiful coat away, and befouled it to prove their lies, and he himself has been sold as a slave, and must trudge in desolation the weary miles to Egypt. He comes.

So does the man, forty years old, fleeing through the desert to Midian, and trying to understand where it all went wrong. He had wealth and he had privilege, and he wanted to serve his people. But somehow his anger and violence had been the worst thing he could have done for them, and now his name is murderer. He sees no future for himself except as a herder of sheep at the back of the desert.

And this woman, making a comfortable living as a prostitute, who has decided that her city and people have no future, and has chosen to throw in her lot with an alien people and their God. She places a scarlet cord in the window, and waits for the fated moment. She comes.

And still they come. Out of the myriads one can only notice a few individuals. See the little boy, sleeping alone in the temple, and missing the warm arms of his mother. A voice calls him by name in the night, and he learns to say ‘yes, Lord.’ In those words lies his whole future, his whole journey.

See the king, undone by the horror of his own guilt, crying out his wretchedness in a Psalm. See the prophet, so sure he knew all about godliness, undone by a single moment of vision. How could he ever have imagined that he himself was holy when the merest glimpse of God has utterly overthrown him. See another king, with the cruel enemy before his gates, crying out to God for mercy on his foolish, sinful city, and waking in the morning to find the angel of the Lord has been at work. And then, further on still, the young men, the captives, who refuse to worship the image of the earthly glory of a pagan king, and must face the horror of the fire. All of these come, pressing on, because they have nowhere else to go in their neediness and hunger.

And there are more. Shepherds shaken into a new reality by a sky full of angels. Lame people, deaf people, blind people, lepers, even, incredible though it sounds, dead people! A young Pharisee, falling from his horse in the heat of the day, and learning, through 3 days of blindness, just how blind he had been. He comes, and in his wake come a multitude, sentenced to death in cruel and grotesque ways, that the slavering crowd might know a moment’s amusement. After them come the faithful and the confused, the frightened, the lonely and the ones who sing with joy. They come and they keep on coming, and the sound of their song is like the roar of many waters, and as tender as the moment when a tear is wiped away.

They come to the table. Turn them away and their souls will starve. There is only one table, though it may be found in many places, and only one Living Bread from which all may freely eat – their daily bread, doled out with nail-pierced hands. They come and they eat, from Him who is the manna in their wilderness, and the only life which sustains them. Through pain and bitterness, through fear and many questions, they come, they eat, and the song within them is renewed. And as they come and eat they wait for the day when the doors are swung open and they enter the banqueting hall, and the eternal marriage supper is begun.