Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Fire

The desert is a hollow place, reverberant with the regrets of the past, and as he led his flock through the sparse pastures near the ancient mountain, he felt overcome with desolation. How had he wasted his life, thrown it away because he believed that the pain of his people was too much, and he had a responsibility to do something about it? How did it all go so badly wrong? Surely he had an obligation to use his power and privilege to help them?

But forty years of caring for his father-in-law’s sheep in this lonely backwater of the world had taught him better. How had he ever presumed that his own rash actions would solve the problem, that he could just waltz in and do as he pleased and it would all come right? How dared he imagine that he himself, a pampered prince, was the God-given answer to their need? Somewhere deep inside, he was a broken man. And still his people suffered.

But what was this? He smelt the thin tang of smoke in the air, and heard the crackling, before he turned his head and saw the fire: a small bush ablaze. Such a thing was not unknown in the hot dry air. Following his train of thought, he remembered how his people had sometimes thought of themselves as the Lord’s planting – seeded in Canaan, the land of Promise, then transplanted to the alien soil of Egypt. And now they were in the furnace of affliction, ill-treated as slaves in the very place that had once been their shelter and protection. What could he do? He had already proved himself worthless to help them, how long would it be until they were burned up and burned out by suffering? Would all those promises that God once made to Abraham come to nothing?

He was jolted out of his thoughts by the dawning realisation that something strange was happening here. It was normal for a bush to burn; it was not normal for it to keep on burning, unchanged. Normally it would flare up quickly into flame, and just as quickly burn out and die down. That was the way things worked, just like the quick flare of his anger against the Egyptian overseer that had so quickly burned out into futility. But this bush not only continued to burn with hot, fierce flames, but, when he peered harder, he could see that its leaves remained green. The burning did not consume it. Turning his head to check that his flock were grazing safely (and keeping their distance from the fire), he then walked over towards the bush to take a closer look at this strange thing.

But as he came towards it, a voice spoke from the bush, calling him by name. “Here, I am,” he responded, and realised in that moment that he was referring to far more than his location here near Horeb. He was here, in this place, because of his own failure – failure to achieve either the liberation of his people or even the wealth and honour for himself which he had once taken for granted. He was here because His people, God’s people, were being persecuted, and Pharaoh, if he could, would like to utterly destroy them. He was here because there was nowhere else in the world left for him to be.

“Do not come any closer,” said the voice from the bush, and he was glad to obey. He was suddenly very afraid. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing id Holy Ground.”

He complied, and as he did so, his mind was reeling. This was Holy Ground. He stood in the presence of God. And where was God to be found? In the heart of the burning bush, in the midst of His suffering people. The bush was not consumed because the Lord Himself was present; the people of God endured through slavery and persecution because He was there with them. Moses had abandoned them and fled to preserve himself, but God, Almighty God, the Maker of heaven and earth, had not stood off afar from them. He was there, He suffered with them; dimly Moses sensed that in some way, yet to be revealed, the people of God would endure forever because God would suffer for them.

This was holy ground indeed, the place where God dwelt in the very sorrow of His people. And Moses understood that only God was great enough to stoop so low, to endure so much, to save so completely. But where in His divine purposes could there possibly be room for a man like Moses, who, with the best intentions, had got it so terribly wrong? He waited, listening, and who was there, in the desolation of the desert, to notice that his knees trembled and his face was wet with tears?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Christchurch Earthquake, Feb 2011

The beautiful is crushed,
The lovely is brought low.
Through streets of woundedness
The broken waters flow.

The cry of humankind
Reverbs with fresh dismay
Where flowers decked the square
(‘Twas merely yesterday).

The twisting of the roads,
The rubble all around
Where grief and pain and death
Are waiting to be found.

Tonight the stars bend low
Above this broken place:
For our crushed agony
Is haunted still by grace.

Where mercy seems far off,
And hope a broken lie;
The faithful stars shine still,
They shine and do not die.

At devastation’s heart,
Where death has torn us wide,
We find Him waiting there
For us, the Crucified.

Sigh ..

This poem is rooted in a fictitious scenario: imagine a person goes to the beach for a day (or a holiday) in expectation of something good happening (romance? acceptance by a group of friends?)but it doesn't work out that way. Instead, cruel or careless words are said, and they are badly hurt ..

Sigh for the cries of the children, sigh
For the slow, soft burn of the afternoon,
For the gulls and the waves and might-have-been,
For a laugh that broke off all too soon.

Sigh for the hope of the sweet sea breeze,
For the sun too strong, and the sand too hot,
Sigh for the endless stretch of beach
And the things that were, though they were not.

Sigh for the salt on your lips, yes, sigh
For the salt in your eyes and the tears that fall.
Sigh for the failure of yourself,
And the pain that drowns, submerging all.

Sigh for the glamour that fades away,
Sigh for the cup, once sipped, withdrawn.
Sigh for the blood that must be shed:
The jeering words and the crown of thorn.

Sigh for the truth of your brokenness
The outward pain and the inward war
Sigh until there is no more sea,
And afterwards we sigh no more.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Miracle

For a moment my throat froze in terror, then I cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately He was there, catching me, holding me, lifting me up, and a small, crazy part of my mind marvelled that He should have such strength while standing on the water. I am not a learned man, but even as a boy, working in my father’s fishing boat, it had not taken me long to learn that I had little strength to drag in the nets if I did not firmly brace my body against the boat first. But Jesus never seemed to be bound by the ordinary logic of life that constrained the rest of us.

It made no sense that that should be the detail that bothered me. The whole situation was so enormously impossible. That a man should walk on water as though it were the solid earth beneath his feet, as though it were the sensible normal way to take a quick shortcut, that is an impossibility. That a man should calmly walk across the roiling, wind tossed waves as though they were the meadow grasses, is beyond impossible. That I, sinner, blasphemer and fool, should for some few seconds do likewise is an event that has no place in my understanding. And yet .. it happened .. and somehow my understanding of the universe must change to fit the facts.
Earlier the same day, we had seen Him feed 5,000. Another miracle. It is odd how blasĂ© one can get about wonders and marvels. Five little loaves, two fish, and a multitude of people fed. Before we’d even had time to wonder what that meant (something to do with the manna in the wilderness perhaps?) He’d sent us off into the boat to go ahead of Him to the other side. By then we were too dazed, dazzled and totally exhausted to even ask how He was going to catch up with us. Without a boat it’s a very long walk around the edge of the Sea of Galilee...

It never occurred to us that He would take a more direct route. We should have known by now; our expectations are almost a challenge to Him to do the unexpected, the utterly unthinkable. It was about the fourth watch of the night when we saw that pale figure, luminous in the moonlight, walking on top of the waves. Of course we had no idea what was happening – the possibility of such a shortcut didn’t exist in even our wildest imagination. Instead, we were overwhelmed by crazy fears, ghosts and suchlike, as though being with Jesus had opened our minds to the possibilities of the supernatural, but not had yet grounded our hearts and imaginations in the certainty of the goodness of God. No wonder our lack of faith is sometimes painful for Him.

Of course, seeing our fear, He called out in reassurance. It is what happened next that I cannot explain – how I asked Him to bid me to come to Him, and He called, and I came, and for a few brief moments, with only Him in view, I did the impossible and walked on the waves, until I realised the impossibility and began to sink. Oh I understand why I sank, that part is easy, normal and human. But that I, Peter bar Jonah, (fisherman, sinner, fool), for a few moments walked on the waves, walked like God, this is beyond my understanding.

But in those moments I learned something I had never thought of before. Participating in the miraculous (the true miracles of God) is not really about the spectacular, flashy things that people get excited over. They are almost incidental, completely extraneous to the real issue. When the other disciples asked me later, “so, how did it feel to walk above the waves?” I couldn’t really answer. It wasn’t really about that. When I started to focus on that, the miracle moment was over. So what was it about? In that moment, I walked with God. I stepped out of my own brokenness, and into Him. I breathed the air of Eden, I was aware of the love that completely enveloped me, love that upholds every particle of the world and holds it in being.

I slipped and fell, I could not stay in that place. But to have been there is a promise that one day, through Jesus, the change will be forever. Then we will not need the sun or moon, for He Himself will be our abiding light, and we will fully know that we are loved. And we will never fall out of the knowledge of that love again.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Storm

A storm was coming. The sailors knew it by the heavy stillness in the air, and the leaden colour of the sea. They knew it would be a bad one. But their passenger slept below, giving no thought to the weather. Sometimes sleep is just another way of escaping from uncomfortable truth. And the sailors gave no thought to their passenger; they had far too much else to do to ready their ship for what was coming. But they kept looking over their shoulders as they worked – there was something menacing about that grey, unnatural stillness.

The storm drew close. The waves moved unevenly, the wind came in sharp, irregular gusts, and the sky was so dark that some of the sailors were already muttering invocations to their gods. The old-timers looked uneasy, something was not quite right, this did not feel like the sort of storm they should expect at this season. For once they did not make fun of the blanched faces and the muttered prayers; they just looked grim and set about their tasks with a cold determination – the only survival tool they really knew. And the passenger slept on below, oblivious.

The storm hit. Lightning sizzled the air, and the thunder rattled through their bodies. A mighty wind drove the waves to a terrifying pitch, and the boat they had been so proud of only hours ago was tossed like a child’s plaything between mountains of water. They began to doubt that the timbers could hold together under such a horrifying force. In desperation they began to pitch their cargo overboard, the same cargo which had been the raison d’ĂȘtre for their voyage, and the promise of a very handsome profit when they reached Tarshish. But no financial gain counted for anything when their own lives were at stake. But the passenger, amazingly, still slept, and it was only at this juncture of despair that they called him to mind. Why wasn’t he at least praying for their survival? The captain himself went down to fetch him.

The storm intensified. By now they were convinced that this was no natural storm at all. Some deity was pursuing them with terrible anger. No sailor led a blameless life, they took their survival and their pleasure wherever they could find it. Had one of them offended some god? If so they would know which god must be appeased, , so that all of them might survive. But, to their astonishment, went they cast lots, the lot fell on their passenger. Who was he? What had he done? How could such an ordinary (and sleepy) guy provoke such divine fury?

When he told them he was a Hebrew, their awe only increased. They knew that the mysterious god of the Hebrews was not like any other god – he had no image, and only one temple, yet claimed lordship over all that was. How could a man dare to trifle with a god like that? How could he think to run away from the domain of a God who had no boundaries or limitations? They were even more frightened than before.

Yet the passenger was not afraid. “You must throw me into the sea,” he said. How could they dare? This man was obviously sacred to his strange god in some way beyond their understanding – what would such a god do to them if they should harm his servant?

The passenger insisted, and there was a strange peace about him, that was more convincing than any great emotions would have been. This, he insisted, was simply the only thing they could do. Any attempt to solve the problem by normal means would be just as futile as his own “escape” had been. In the end they had to agree, and with anguished prayers for forgiveness from his God, they complied, half-fearing that a thunderbolt would strike them down as they did so.

Immediately, the sea was calm, the tempest vanished as if it had never been. Overwhelmed, they were moved to pray to this God, who was so obviously in total control, and, absorbed in prayer, they did not see what happened next – the enormous fish that appeared and swallowed him whole. They did not see that what God wanted was not the destruction of His disobedient servant, but his obedient witness, to go forth and tell the world that at the heart of the tempest of destruction and judgement lay an offer of salvation so vast that no human being could delimit or delineate the passionate love that sought them.

Friday, February 04, 2011


The nurse plumped her pillow, and stroked her cheek for a moment, before bustling off to the next patient, and she found herself thinking about how precious it was to touch and be touched. She closed her eyes in weakness, but her mind did not shut off. Instead she was picturing those slim, capable hands which, just now, had been intent on making her feel more comfortable. There had always been hands, all her life, touching her, reaching her, communicating love or unlove ..

She supposed, though of course she could not remember, that the very first had been the midwife’s hands, guiding and supporting her tiny body as she came forth into the world. And then, for seven short years, her mother’s hands, gentle and careful, cleaning her, dressing her, feeding her, holding her. Her clearest memory of her mother was when she had tried to practice shaping her letters, but couldn’t quite control the pencil, and her mother, seeing her frustration, had put aside what she was doing, and , sitting down beside her, had put her hand over hers and guided it, until she could feel the rhythm and balance of it for herself.

But then her mother had died and she had been sent to live with a distant aunt. Aunt Prue had too many children of her own, and really didn’t want another one to deal with, especially one who meant nothing to her. Consequently, her hands were always rough and impatient, slapping her, shoving her into place, plaiting her hair too tightly. She had left there as soon as she was 16 and had got herself a nice, respectable office job.

But the hands continued. There were the hands of friends, tugging her along into life and new experiences, and the hands of various stammering boys (long since faded in her mind into an awkward, weak-chinned conglomerate) who took her to equally forgettable movies and groped for her fingers in the dark. And then she remembered the hands of Miss Elizabeth, her neighbour, swollen-jointed and impossibly wrinkled, that still played such exquisite music on her old piano.

And then there were his hands – lover, husband, friend – hands that caressed her, that worked for her, that had reached out to her in comfort at every difficult moment. They were large hands, calloused from work, whose stumpy fingers never looked quite pristine because they spent every spare moment in his beloved garden. These were green-thumbed hands, coaxing flowers and veggies to grow in a yard that had once been a wasteland of shrivelled grass, full of bindies and paspalum. And they were the hands that put that plain gold band on her finger, promising love and fidelity. He had kept that promise.

Her children’s hands had touched her heart almost as deeply, from the day a nursing baby reached up and patted her cheek, to the day when those nervous knuckles first held too tightly to a steering wheel. How many times had they slipped those little hands into hers, for comfort or reassurance, to cross roads or deal with scary situations? Even in her present tiredness, she found herself praying that her own hands had always responded with love. She really couldn’t remember ..

Now there were other hands that touched her increasingly helpless body: nurses, therapists, nurses’ aides, who lifted her carefully while they changed her sheets or placed her in a wheelchair to give her a change of scene. Soon, very soon now, she would be beyond feeling their touch. They would lay out her body, the undertakers would perform their mystery shrouded office, and this flesh, which had been her burden and her being for over eighty years, would not contain her any more.

But there was one more pair of hands that awaited her then, hands that would welcome her home with love beyond her comprehension. And she would know those hands when they reached out for her, know them by the scars they bore on her behalf – the imprint of the nails that had once been driven through them, puncturing the whole futility of human history and letting in the glory.