Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Rock and a Hard Place

I was so afraid. Fourteen years I had been King of Judah when the crisis came. We all trembled at the name of Assyria in those days. Their armies trampled the world like giants, and left nations crushed and broken in their wake. Eight years before they had crushed Israel, and Samaria is now a city clamouring with false gods because of the foreign nations that Assyria settled there in place of the former inhabitants. I assumed that we would be spared because I earnestly sought to lead my people in godliness, and when they didn’t come near us that time we all breathed a sigh of relief and got back to our ordinary busy lives.

But this time it was different. This time they were right on our doorstep, 185,000 of them – the terrible might of Assyria, focused on us. The glorious days of David and Solomon, when we were a people mighty in exploits, have long since gone; we are a little people now, small and weak and as easily crushed as a mouse at harvest time. There was no human way we could ever defeat them. But they gave us a choice, a cruel choice, and malice dripped from their commander’s words as he offered it to us. He was a man of many words, who enjoyed spinning them out to try and get a reaction from us. He thundered and he taunted like the most skilled of verbal bullies, but the gist of his message was simple and horrible: your god will not save you. He claimed that God himself had commanded him to march against us, and the only way we could avoid total annihilation was to make peace with Assyria, and allow them to deport us to another land. That was our stark and terrible choice, my stark and terrible choice, since I, Hezekiah, descendant of David, am the king in Jerusalem, the city where God’s temple stands.

What should I choose? On the one hand lay death and destruction, as cruel and vicious as these devotees of malign deities could make it – torture, rape, terror and the murder of little children, the annihilation of the descendants of Abraham-- and, on the other, a different but equally terrible death as they took us forth and scattered us among the nations. How many of our people would stay true to the Lord in that scenario? How many of their children, let alone their children’s children, would even know that there is a God before whom all the gods of the nations are as nothing, who created the heavens and the earth by the word of his power, and calls his people into covenant with him?

I have no words for the dark fear of that hour. How can a man walk when every step leads on to death and horror? I will keep the story short, the comings and goings, the prophecies, the letters – a drama of hope and fear that no man would ever want to relive. Sennacherib mocked our God; he taunted us with the history of all those other nations who had fallen to Assyria, whose gods had failed to save them. Why should our God be any different? Why should the words of our prophets mean anything more than mouthings on empty air?

Oh Sennacherib, you trusted in your armies, your horses and your chariots! And, in the end, for all the glory and terror with which you bestrode the earth, they were useless. We were desperate, we were afraid, we had no weapons to bring to the battle except our prayers, and that was enough, and more than enough – not because we were mighty spiritual warriors, but because we prayed to a mighty God. The prophet declared that God himself would defend our city, and he did. We lay on our beds in fear through the hours of darkness, some had the faith to sleep a little and some did not, but all our fears were banished by the sunrise. We looked out upon the Assyrian camp and found a few men breaking camp and fleeing. The rest? It took us a little while to understand that eerie stillness, that preternatural quietness; it seems that however desperately we cry out to God, we are still unprepared for His actions. The camp was full of the dead – 185,000 of them! That same angel of death who once delivered us from Egypt, passing through and taking the first born, had passed in the night through the camp of the Assyrians, and once again delivered us. Faced with an impossible situation, we cried out to God and found that He is still our shield, our refuge and our very great reward. A man, a nation, may be caught between a rock and a hard place, but God can reach down from above and lift us out of the crushing darkness into the spacious liberty of his grace.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Holy Thing

The King was tired. The King was bored. The King felt miserable all the time. Sweet tasted like sour to him, and fresh bread tasted like old straw. His beautiful gardens seemed dingy, the birds kept maddeningly singing the same old songs, and he couldn’t see the point of signing all those pieces of paper every day. He had trouble sleeping at night, because there was nothing worth dreaming about; and he had trouble getting up in the morning because there was nothing really worth getting up for. The Physician said he should eat more carrots and green vegetables; the Major-General said he should go riding with the guards every day. The Prime Minister just looked shocked – he couldn’t imagine a world where one wasn’t eager to sign papers all day long, especially with such a beautiful, flourishing royal signature. In the end, the King called the Archbishop, who looked very thoughtful and said he would pray about it.

The next day the Archbishop came back, looking even more thoughtful than before, and said that he believed that the King should go and speak to the hermit in the forest, because he would know what the King needed. The King privately thought that this wouldn’t help very much, but he had nothing else to do except sign all the Prime Minister’s pieces of paper (where did that man get them all from?), so, after moaning about it a bit, he said that he would come if the Archbishop would show him the way. The Archbishop wasn’t quite sure he knew the way either, but when his servants asked around, one of the scullery boys, called Tom, knew where the Hermit lived, so, with Tom leading the way they set off into the forest, and, much sooner than either the King or the Archbishop expected, they found the hermit’s cave.

To the King’s surprise, the hermit (who looked exactly like he had imagined a hermit would look) seemed to expect him, and, after formal greetings were exchanged, looked him directly in the eye, and told him that, in order to be cured of his soul’s malaise, he would have to spend his time looking at something that was truly holy. And, having said that, he turned around and walked off into the forest.

The King looked at the Archbishop in utter perplexity. “I know no more than you do, Sire,” the Archbishop said quickly, “but I know that he will not tell you any more than what he has said.”

“Not even if I send my soldiers after him to bring him back?”

“I think you know, Sire, that that would be worse than useless.”

The King bowed his head, acknowledging the truth of this, and they returned home. The next morning (after another sleepless night) the King summoned his court and told them that whoever could find the holy thing that would cure the King’s despondency by next three months time would be rewarded with ten thousand golden coins. This was to be proclaimed throughout the kingdom.

“I thought that a year and a day was the normal time for such quests,” somebody grumbled.

“I can’t bear to wait that long,” replied the King.

For the next three months, people all over the kingdom were busy looking for something holy. Some went seeking the relics of saints, others found expensive bibles or other writings, and some even took the crosses and chalices from churches. And, while all this was going on, Tom the scullery boy, looked around and noticed people. There were elderly people, twisted with arthritis, who couldn’t stop working or they would have nothing to eat. There were little children, who should have been in school, begging on the streets. There were widows and orphans, the sick and the lame and the cold and the exhausted, and Tom began to think how much he could help them if he only had the ten thousand gold pieces that the King had promised. But how could a poor scullery boy find the most holy thing?

So Tom started thinking very hard. He listened to sermons, he tried to remember what he’d heard from the Bible, and finally, he thought to do what no one else in the kingdom had done, and go and ask the Hermit for advice. A great idea began to form in his mind, and he wondered if he’d really be brave enough to do it.

At last the day came. It was a great holiday, and people from all over the kingdom had come to the palace, many of them just to watch what would happen, because this was the most exciting thing that had happened in the kingdom for years. And Tom stood there in the crowd, still hoping he could find courage when the time came.

The trumpets blew, the heralds made their announcements, and, one by one, the people came forward with their offerings of holy things: lords and priests and knights and rich merchants, all in splendid clothes, and with their offerings richly presented. One by one they presented what they had brought to the King, and he would look hard at it, then sadly shake his head. As the day went on he slumped in his throne, and he was obviously finding it hard to keep paying attention. Then the long line came to an end, and the herald asked if there was anyone else who had something to show the King. Tom paused, trying to psych himself up, but then he looked at the King’s face and the King looked so desolate that he felt sorry for him, and, swept by a wave of compassion, he stepped forward boldly.“Yes, I do,” he said.

The people looked surprised, for Tom didn’t have any special clothes; he was just an ordinary, grubby servant boy. But they waited politely, for this was a day when they had come prepared for surprises. “What do you have to show the King?” asked the weary herald.

“Myself,” said Tom, loudly and clearly, and this time you could hear the gasps of amazement, and some people started to laugh. How ridiculous! The herald looked down his long, superior nose, and prepared himself to say something withering about wasting everyone’s time. But he never got the chance, for the King was leaning forward in his seat, fascinated, and it was he who responded, leaving the herald to stand there in slightly huffy silence.

“What can you mean?” asked the King.

“Sire,” said Tom, with a slightly wobbly bow, “until you get to Heaven and see God Himself, and all the angels in their glory, I am the most holy thing you will ever see, because I am a human being. And every human being in this place today is holy too!” There were confused murmurs in the crowd at this, but some of the older priests were starting to nod their heads. They knew what he meant.

“Go on,” said the King, frowning. It was the frown of someone trying to remember something he had heard a long, long time ago.

Tom wasn’t used to long speeches, but he couldn’t stop now, so he did his best to remember the things that the Hermit had told him. “Firstly,” he began, counting the points on his fingers to help him remember, “I am holy because God made me. Second, I am holy because god said to Noah that every human life is precious.. Third, I am holy because the Saviour died for me and bought me back for God. Fourth, I am holy because god sends His spirit to live inside everyone who believes, so I am now a temple. And fifth, because one day, when there is no more dying or crying, I will be perfect and wonderful.”

“And sixth,” added the King, very gently, because you have shown courage and wisdom and faith, and they are holy things too, which come from God.”

And the King stood up from his throne, with an energy he had not shown in years, and there was a light in his eyes and a smile upon his face. And he came down from his throne, and embraced Tom, and led him up to sit with him, where they talked together quietly for several minutes. Then the King turned to the Archbishop and asked that a service of thanksgiving be held in the cathedral that very afternoon. And, while all the important people bustled away, the King sat there quietly, gazing around in wonder.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Satis (Enough)

It is hard going through the Lenten Lands. The Pilgrim pauses, and shifts his staff in his hand. He tries to remember when he received a walking stick – it was certainly not there when he started out – but his memories are dim and confusing. And now this stick is part of him, he can scarcely manage a step without it. Without it he could not continue his journey and, over the years, the journey has become his whole life. But it is hard. His throat is caked with desperate thirst, his eyes ache from peering through the dimness, his hand shakes on the top of his staff. Some days, if the wind is against him or the sun is desperately hot, he hardly makes progress at all. Above all, he is so desperately tired, tired of struggle, tired of sameness, tired of carrying his unrelenting pain. “Isn’t this enough?” he cries out to the unseen heavens, “haven’t I endured enough?”

She aches with weariness, every joint in her body feels like it is at war with the connecting bones. All day she must labour, rewarded only with criticism and blows. To be a slave is to have no self, to be just another possession of her master, to be used, used up, and thrown away. Darkness is behind her, and darkness is before her, and darkness brings, not rest from labour, but greater and deeper fear – the final violation. Cruel toil is bad enough, but, always, one endures what one must in order to survive. It is this other thing that breaks her spirit and tears at her soul, this violation which she cannot sleep through – her master’s lust for a broken girl. She knows little of any god or gods, but she believes that somewhere beyond this world there must be a terrible pity which will one day make things right, otherwise the whole world would break apart from the weight of its vast injustice. And every night she cries out to the light which is beyond all darkness “Let this be enough. I have no endurance left.”

He hangs between heaven and earth, life nailed to death. His is the extremity of pain and loneliness, bearing a burden that is not his own, except that he has freely chosen to carry it. He has become anguish, torment of body and soul, yet his heightened, overwhelmed senses are aware of the scorn of those who mock him, and the flooding, suffocating shame of his helplessness. He has looked into the pit of hell where his enemy awaits him and even now approaches. This enemy comes with a cold and desolate darkness, and the name of this enemy is Death. Yet the nailed One does not fight him by clinging to life, but by yielding totally to his opponent, carrying sin and shame and every one of their horrible offspring down with him into the darkness. This is a strange battle, which can only be won by his utter defeat. The whole of creation holds its breath, waiting for this act of un-creation to happen; the necessary forerunner to re-creation. It is enough, it is time, and in the triumph of his yielding he cries out, “It is finished.” And the Father declares it is enough, and more than enough.

They come from every corner of the world. Some shuffle uncertainly, some limp beneath the weight of the pain that they must carry, and some walk, head erect and shining-faced, with eyes full of hunger and wonder. And some are so broken or so weak that they cannot walk at all, and are carried by those who love them. Some come by the straight road, and some through many twists and turns. But they come, one by one and two by two, a family here, a group of friends there, they come. Some are brought by the pursuit of their enemies, and some are carried by angels, but they come, and keep on coming, until they are a multitude no man can number. And they come and they kneel, dressed in their tears and their hope, and he comes and meets them there, with a servant’s towel and nail-pierced hands. And as they wait, in the holy silence, he comes with outstretched hands, and the huge questions of their pain are answered, as he feeds his beloved ones with bread and wine. It is not yet journey’s end, but they know, as they look back at him with love, that it is enough. Oh yes, it is truly enough.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Seeing ..

He could have watched it all day – rejoicing in the sheer wonder of it. He knew enough now to know it was a bird, but he had no idea what kind. A five year old child would probably have laughed at his ignorance, but then he had only had his eyes opened for a matter of weeks – as a mature adult he was still learning to see the world for the first time. All that time he had lived in darkness, enduring the confusion, and poverty, and the petty malice of people who jostled or tripped him, or deliberately set him off in the wrong direction. He had developed patience (there is no point trying to retaliate when you cannot see your opponent) and a quick tongue, because, after all, a man had to develop whatever he did have, and use it to smooth his way however he was able. And darkness was the only world he had ever known. But he had never realised how much he lacked, had never understood (since he was born blind) what the concept of ‘seeing’ was really all about. And now? His soul was flooded with beauty – it seemed a waste of time to do anything else in life other than simply look.

And look he did. This bird, whatever it was, was magnificent. Every line of its body was a graceful curve – the tilt of the head, the arch of the neck, the lift of the wing. He had spent ten minutes watching it move across the ground, pecking here and there for scraps of food, then, with a tiny tremble, it had spread its wings and soared. He watched with deep awe as it moved across the sky, repeating so nonchalantly the incredible miracle of flight, and then shook his head in amazement that no one else stopped to look. He was realising there was more than one kind of blindness.

He was seeing other things too, things that he had never realised before he had eyes to see for himself. He was seeing that some people had so much more than others. He was seeing the hardness on the faces of the Romans, and the coldness on the faces of the Pharisees. He was seeing children who did not have enough to eat, and women who scuttled in the shadows of shame. He was seeing that the temple was beautiful, but despite all the rituals of the law, the presence of God was not there. He was seeing beggars who were sons of Abraham cringe and crawl before the contempt of richly dressed priests and temple officials who were also sons of Abraham. Sometimes his newly healed eyes were full of tears of pity or anger.

But there was something else, or, rather, Someone else, who had changed and affected his vision -- the Rabbi, the Teacher, the Healer, the One he now called Lord. Only twice had he met Him, only once had he seen Him, but those encounters had changed his life forever. The first time the Healer had simply put something on his eyes (mud, as it turned out) and told him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. It was, on the face of things, a crazy request, yet he did not feel it as a request, but as a command that went right down to the root of all things. And, somehow, he was healed – after a lifetime of darkness he could see! His mind reeled with the sensory confusion of shape and colour. That was the first time.

The second time didn’t come till later, after the authorities had questioned his parents, and then himself, and finally thrown him out after he stuck to the facts of his story and questioned their attempts to rewrite it. By then he had realised that there were far worse forms of confusion than being overwhelmed by the form of things – there were those, supposed to be the teachers of Israel, the guardians of truth, who seemed to be totally confused about the substance of things, and couldn’t recognise Truth when He walked in front of them.

It was only after all this that he met Him again, and this encounter was to change him, and deliver him from blindness, even more than the first one did. When he tried to explain it to his family, they just looked confused. How do you explain to someone who hasn’t been there? It was like someone trying to describe the flight of a bird to him when he was blind. He had met his Healer, he had seen His face, he had heard Him name Himself, and that was the truest, deepest healing, but all he could say, in the end, was, “I have seen the Lord!” And that was everything, and ever after he saw the world not merely by the light of the sun and the moon, but by the Light of Love in the eyes of the One who had sought him and healed him and called him to worship.