Archive for March, 1999
I’m not much of a biblical literalist—you won’t catch me worrying about empty tombs, or wine from water, or broken bread that never runs out—but somehow the annunciation always catches me and makes me wonder. What I wonder is what it was really like. Films and novels always struggle here: is there a voice? a body to the voice? are we talking about a whisper in the wind or an ordinary caller with an extraordinary message? should we see it all in glorious Technicolour or must we catch the nuance in a busy woman’s quiet eye? should there be special effects and soaring music or just a startled soul wondering what she was letting herself in for?
That’s what I wonder … but why, well, why is another story. You see I wonder whether there aren’t annunciations everyday, in every place. I wonder if Gabriel and his ilk aren’t hurrying angel-wise even now, eyes full of messages simple as sunlight, disturbing as day. And I wonder whether I’m missing them—whether they pass me by, no more than a queasy plunge in the pit of my stomach, no more than a shiver of significance twisting down my spine, no more than a burden of joy briefly shouldered and just as swiftly shelved.
Are there frustrated angels with us even now, even here, brushing by on feathered feet, breathing benedictions, and aching for imagination to shape mystery into message and give them voice. For I imagine them mute—mute and barely visible—until a human heart discerns them, fashions them flesh, and offers them speech.
Are they here now, heartfelt and eager and pregnant with possibility? For what was born, an age or two ago, of a young woman’s “yes” they still bear in urgent arms to be born again in you or in me—that same child of God who might change the world. Might change the world, might lift up the lowly, might visit us with peace—if only we, like she, have a vulnerable heart, an imagination full of hope, and the humble courage to consent.
March 25th, 1999
We only see by not seeing. We have been learning from birth not to see. Not to see the full spectrum. Not to see the chaos of light that pours into our eyes. The art of vision is exclusion. To learn not to see everything at once so that we can see anything at all. We learn to pay attention to less and less around us and by doing so we learn to see more and more.
It’s no wonder babies cry … pounded by all that meaningless colour and shape, with only the intense and formless awareness of their own needs to keep them company. But out of that mess of light they learn not to see what changes so they can see what stays the same: eyes, a face, a smile.
Have any of you seen “Shakespeare in Love”? Come on, give me a show of hands … Anybody seen it more than once? I’ve got to admit I’ve seen it eight times! Eight times! Why? Well I’m not sure what I see in it … but there’s something there that moves me to prayer again and again. Maybe it’s the experience of sitting there smiling for two hours. Maybe it’s the energy of it. Maybe I’m getting more romantic as I get older. Maybe. But there are two images which persist. One is of Will Shakespeare running everywhere at breakneck speed—impulsive, energetic, alive—chasing after his impossible romance. The other is from the final scene. “How is this to end?” Shakespeare’s star-crossed lover, Viola, asks the Queen. “As stories must when love’s denied,” Elizabeth tells her, “with tears and a journey.” And parting, Will is ready to give up all his writing as a painful cruel illusion but Viola, instead, plots out his next play, Twelfth Night, with herself as heroine. Her last words are “write me well.”
That’s what Jesus keeps saying to me. Write me well Rob. Write me well.
Well, at 8 o’clock this morning my “wait for inspiration” homily-writing strategy had failed me. Two hours and three false starts later there I was confused and frantic. It’s not that there’s too little here today but too much. What do I have to not see to be able to see? Too much light!
So I was driven to that last resort of all preachers: I prayed. “You want me to write you well? Well where are you Jesus?” And out of the blinding muddle of brilliant images and signs and sayings two glimpses quietly emerged—both of tenderness. Of Jesus touching this man’s eyes and, unasked for, giving him sight. Not to start a controversy. Not to make a point. But moved to make visible the hidden desire of God. That desire which is always tenderness and blessing and love. Then Jesus drops out of the picture while the blind man’s blessing is perverted by everyone who can’t see blessing when they meet it. They turn blessing into a curse and throw the man out of their church. And here’s the second glimpse that came to me: Jesus found him. Went looking for him, found him and gave him his friendship.
In all the muddle and dazzle of our lives Jesus gives all of us that quiet invitation and challenge: “write me well.” But to write him well we have to see him well. Lot’s of people get caught up in this story only to get lost and go astray. In all the muddle and dazzle they miss the tender desire of God and only manage to write Jesus badly. They see sin and punishment, guilt and lies, heresy and judgement. Only the one unused to seeing manages to see the tender presence of Jesus. And even he sees it slowly—it takes “tears and a journey,” but he learns not to see the God of his accusers but the tender guy who has given him eyes and offered him friendship.
What do we have to learn not to see this Lent? Who is Jesus trying not to be for us this Lent? Who is the Jesus hidden in the muddle and dazzle and wanting to be glimpsed? What tenderness is ready for you? What friendship offered? Will you write him well?
March 14th, 1999
When Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah, is wandering in the wilderness thirsty he comes across a well and as he waits to quench his thirst he is met by a foreign woman come to draw water. She is Rebecca who will love him and be his wife.
Many years later, Isaac’s son, Jacob, is wandering in the same wilderness, this time running away from the wrath of Esau his brother who he has just tricked out of the family fortune. Thirsty, he comes to a well and as he waits to drink a woman comes to carry water. It is Rachel who will be his wife and the companion of his days.
Generations later when Jacob’s children have made and lost their fortune in the land of Egypt, Moses is wandering in the wilderness, fleeing from the scene of his first murder, when he finds a well to slake his thirst. As he sits there he meets Zipporah the Midianite woman who will be his wife and walk with him to face Pharaoh in Egypt.
Thirst to be quenched, water from the well, a chance encounter, and a new love. This is Jesus’ story today too. We find Jesus tired by his journey, thirsty, waiting to drink when this extraordinary Samaritan woman comes to draw water in the heat of the day.
They look each other up and down through eyes squinted against the noon sun and a conversation begins that is half flirtation and half theology. They play with each other. I imagine them both surprised at the other’s cleverness. Something out of the ordinary is going on. They both shiver in the day’s heat as that tingle of significance runs down their spines. This is something special. And the words they speak tease and challenge and provoke. They go to the heart of the matter. They are sparring on the surface about thirst and the water to satisfy it but under the skin of the experience they are playing with the fire of desire and the love that satisfies the flame without extinguishing it.
And when she drops her water jar to run back to the city she has been wooed, seduced, and captivated: “Come and see,” she tells the people she meets, “a man who has seen into my very heart!”
Jesus, too, has been seduced and given himself away: “I am he,” he says, taking to himself the unutterable name of God; “Drink my water. Let me quench your thirst.” And when the disciples turn up fretting and fussing he’s in no mood to suffer them. They see what has happened and take it literally. What is their master doing consorting in broad daylight with a woman brazen enough to go about in the heat of the day unchaperoned! Has he no propriety? And a Samaritan woman too. Traitors and heretics the lot of them!
But John who tells the story takes it more than literally. For him it’s a sign and a sign that points two ways. Like Jacob and Rachel, like Moses and Zipporah, Jesus and the Samaritan woman are larger than life. She speaks for her whole nation when she longs for living water and he speaks for God when he gives it. And, whatever the checkered history of Samaria with its bad marriages to alien gods, there at the well a new marriage is contracted in spirit and in truth.
But the sign points inward as well as outward. The change of heart of a nation happens when one person falls in love. Jesus wants this nation to change its heart this Lent, yearns for it, aches for it. But it will only happen in you or in me. And it will only happen if you or I fall in love again this Lent with Jesus. Lent is our courtship. All Lent long Jesus is waiting where we are thirstiest to engage our desire. And if we meet him there he will flirt and flatter and find our hearts. We don’t know we are thirsty for him until he reveals his thirst for us. But when we taste the force of that thirst it might kindle a fire in us such as we have never known and have us running around the city boldly inviting all we meet: “Come and see the one who has seen into my very heart.”
March 7th, 1999
When I was a teenager I read a book that shaped my life. The book itself wasn’t much but it had a poem, a Shakespeare sonnet, right on its front page. And that poem seemed to capture an adolescent ideal that with an adolescent naivety I thought might save me:
They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow,
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
I shiver to think back on that chilly and barren vision of human excellence: “unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow.” And I thank God that God, in time, saved me from my own salvation. Jeremiah though brought it back to me today with his distrust of human desire—”the heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” And that coloured the gospel for me. What do I see there? I see two terrifying longings and one great chasm.
The longing of Lazarus in his poverty to be like the rich man. The longing of the rich man in his torment to be like Lazarus. And fixed between them a great chasm which no one may cross. Those two longings are terrifying because to take either seriously, to let it echo in our own hearts would surely shake us, crush us, at the very least move us to response. Who can face either torment and not have their stomach turned and their heart broken? Only Abraham it seems can keep his cool. Only Abraham manages to be unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow. And did you notice how he keeps his cool? I imagine it’s the same way that the rich man once kept his cool with Lazarus at his door. “Between us a great chasm has been fixed and no one may pass.”
March 4th, 1999