First Causes

I threw a pebble in the pond,
The ripples spread so gay
And bouncing back from bank and frond
I heard the ripples say,

‘Before the pebble there was nought,
No ripple, nor no flood,
And had we not the pebble caught
The world would be but mud.’

I laughed aloud and heard the air
Call echoes from the wood,
‘No life ‘till we, the echoes fair,
Took flight and found life good.’

The stars go round and men grow old,
And many say that we
Arose from chaos long ago,
Self-willing and so free.

‘And there is nothing more we need;
Before us there was none,
And only to ourselves we heed,
Until our time is done.’

But yet an echo in my heart,
A ripple in my blood,
Tells of a whole of which I’m part,
And bears the name of GOD.

Dark & Light

Dark within darkness, cloud within a cloud,
when every way is hidden and comfort is a shroud,
when shadows deepen blackly
in the byways of the night
and thoughts flow slow and thickly
and truth hides out of sight.

As sun can blind the eyes with a burst of umbral pain;
a central spot so dark and an image that remains
blotting earth and sky – all loss, and nothing gain.

Darkest in the cloud within the darkest cloud
where shadows deepen blackly
when thoughts flow slow and sickly
and every way is hidden and comfort is a shroud
in the byways of the night when truth is out of sight.

I see you in the shadow by the love you cannot see
by the tears of love and grief that nailed me to the tree.
What blinds you to me?

See the glad giver who gave so much for love,
who, for all Man, died at your hand
that you might see and understand.

See and understand, believe I am.
I so loved the world that all that I have done
is so you may believe that you and I are one.

Dark with excess of light, my love,
as by a naked sun,
then know that I am here, my love;
and in my darkest hour, my love,
my glad gift lit my heart, my love
and eased my pain.
I saw you by that light, and all my loss was gain

And though you cannot see I hold you in my sight,
your darkest hour and mine both glow in one bright light.

The Law of Love

There was a wise mullah who, at the end of his evening teaching, would ask his four pupils one question, which they would answer one by one, beginning with the weakest pupil and ending with the brightest. It was a good policy which prevented the brightest from wasting time on easy answers which would leave the others with nothing to say.

One evening he said, ‘Our thoughts today have been many and taxing. I do not want to burden you further, so my question this evening is simple: why do we not eat pork?’

After being invited to speak the first pupil replied, ‘Because it is the command of Allah, both in the ancient scriptures and in the Holy Q’uran, and to obey Allah is the greatest aim that man can have in life, which is why our faith is called Islam, which means obedience, and that is why we do not eat pork.’

The mullah praised the pupil, saying, ‘You have spoken wisely and well, and although it is my custom to praise even the poorest answer for whatever kernel of truth lies in it, in this instance I find no need for correction at all.’

He turned to the second pupil who replied as follows:

‘All that my fellow pupil says is true, but I would add that a pig is an animal that eats in the dirt. It wallows in its own slime and where it wallows, it eats. Allah, who gives us life and set our father Abraham to be our guide in all obedience, gave us this command because He only wants good for those who obey His commands and, for those who do not, they alone shall suffer from eating the flesh of this unclean animal. That is why we do not eat pork.’

The mullah gave even higher praise to this pupil, ‘because,’ he said, ‘not only have you shown that obedience to the will of Allah is the highest aim of man, but you have also shown his tender mercy towards those who obey him and his stern justice to those who do not.

The third student now began his answer.

‘I bow before the wisdom of my fellow pupils, but perhaps I may add something; In many countries pigs are now bred in clean surroundings and well fed, and it has been shown that their meat in these conditions can be, I am told, sweet and wholesome. But our forefathers who obeyed the will of Allah in this matter passed this law on to us and we keep it today. In so doing we give honour to them and through them to The Prophet, may his name be praised, and to our father Abraham; and so we stand with them in obedience to Allah, and this is why we do not eat pork.’

The Mullah paused before replying, then praised the third pupil greatly.

‘You have spoken fully and well, for obedience to Allah, understanding of His mercy and compassion, fear of His just wrath and honour to the Prophet, may peace be upon him, and to our forefathers who kept the Law, are what lead to perfection.

He turned then to his fourth pupil who as yet had not spoken, and said, ‘I think your fellow students have answered wisely and well and to add more to such a complete answer may be vanity. there is no shame if you have nothing to add.’

‘Indeed,’ replied the wisest student, ‘there is nothing to add that would not be mere embellishment and vanity, for obedience to Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, and to honour our father Abraham and the Prophet, peace be upon him, is surely the path to that pefection which is our duty.

‘And yet,’ he continued, ‘there is something further I feel I must say.’

The mullah frowned slightly as the student took a deep breath before continuing, ‘This morning the sun rose beautifully over the mountains, it sparkled like diamonds on the sea and now is setting in fiery grandeur in the West. A soft wind blows and the fig and vine leaves tremble at its touch. All this is a gift from Allah like a precious jewel a lover gives to his beloved. How can one so loved not respond? I do not eat pork, but I pray that whatever I do, I shall do it because I love Allah.’

There was a silence for a time; then, without speaking, the mullah slowly unwound his turban, folded it gently and laid it on the fourth student’s head.

The Road to Emmaus

I was on my way, responsible,
duty bound, committed,
not knowing why;
lost.

They would be waiting, the room prepared,
Bitter herbs, wine, bread,
but I asked why;
lost.

I turned away,
rootless, bruised and scared.
I walked by, all I trusted, dead.
I knew not why;
lost.

Lost, the meaning of my life and hopes,
my faith,
and she I loved, behind me,
tearless, crying,
lost.

Six steps behind me, dutiful,
priced above rubies,
the wife of my youth,
weeping, hopeless,
she and I,
lost.

We should have gone in,
the final feast day called,
Torah, the living Law,
but I asked, ‘Why?’
Lost, lost, lost.

Ah! Wife of my youth!
Priced above rubies,
six paces behind me, dutiful,
how can I tell you your duty is nothing,
nothing.
Lost.

I walked behind him,
six paces behind, dutiful,
a dutiful wife.
It was all I had left.
He needed me more now
than all the years from our youth.

A woman learns to keep on.
Love may be lost,
trust may be false,
hope abandoned.
We keep on.
The harvest fails,
the men despair,
children die,
we do not know why.
Keep on.

My tears mingled with his on the road.
He slowed,
hand stretched behind
to me.
I took it.

At some deserted spot we stopped.
Home far ahead,
hope far behind,
hands clasped.
He asked,
‘Why? How? What now?’

‘Keep on,’ I said,
‘if hope is lost, home is still ahead.’
He let my hand fall, weeping.

I could not see him through my tears.
I felt for his hand and felt mine grasped,
Strongly, firmly, flowing with life.

A stranger stood there holding us both.

‘What are you saying to one another
as you walk along?
Why are you so sad?’

The Resurrection

Many years ago I heard of a man who found his faith from reading the Book of Numbers – you might think this unlikely. So did I, until one day I was given an insight into what might have caused his epiphany.

Numbers is a bureaucrat’s delight: census results, rules, instructions and lists of squabbles, infringements and penalties. Plus a few slipped in joke-over-a-pint-extras like Balaam and his talking ass. But in all this it conveys a sense of individuals, families and groups doing the best they can and often getting it wrong. It lists who went where and who did what. There is something very ordinary about it, and a sense that they were, like me, making their own personal journey. Not always getting it right – not even Moses, Aaron and Miriam.

In a similar way I came to understand the resurrection through an account in which the event itself is hardly mentioned. Mark, who among other things was Peter’s interpreter in Rome, wrote an action packed account of Jesus’ ministry and execution about thirty years after it happened, but with very little about the resurrection.

According to Paul, Jesus’ resurrection and later appearances were witnessed by over 500 people. Quite a few were named. Most were still living when Mark wrote his gospel, and still living when John’s writings were put together at the close of the century. Long before John’s account the number of children, grand-children, friends and acquaintances of first-hand witnesses would have been in the thousands, assuming only moderate family sizes and sharing the news. Where are the ones saying, ‘ My grandfather/boss/mother etc. was there and it didn’t happen?’

There were some. Matthew’s account of the ascension says some doubted, but nevertheless the consensus confirming it was overwhelming. In spite of that, knowledge of Jesus’ earlier life and ministry would have been limited outside Palestine. Mark’s account, written in the mid-first century, was addressed to Christians in Rome who, however convinced they were by the resurrection, would have known little of what lead up to it.

Its opening words read like a title: The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Some manuscripts, including two of the most respected, end at the eighth verse of chapter sixteen with the empty tomb. This is usually regarded as its last verse. Others have marginal comments pointing out that earlier Greek copies ended there, and some indicate the extra text as spurious. Verses from other manuscripts with extra endings are included in most bibles. They read differently to the rest of Mark and seem to be later additions. In any event these extra endings, even the so-called ‘longer ending’, are very short.

It is unlikely the Gospel was let unfinished, or that an ending was lost before it was copied (the end of a scroll is harder to come adrift than that of a book). The author appears to have stopped here deliberately, feeling no need to add something already well known to his readers. The extra endings are almost certainly later additions, not by the author and not in his style, and do not fit with his stated intention in his title of presenting an account of the beginning.

People in Rome, like those in the Book of Numbers, were much like you and me but something, perhaps the large number of astonished eye-witnesses, convinced them. For me Mark’s Gospel, filling that desire for more background and yet needing no further evidence of the resurrection is strong evidence in itself.

Forgiveness

We are drawing near to Easter, the time of the sacrificial love of our Father, God in Jesus, Christ, the Son of God, the Son of Man.

God’s children often see the cross as punishment taken by Christ upon Himself, dwelling so much on punishment and guilt (which were inflicted and caused by mankind) that we miss the much greater love that He showed.

I wrote of this love in How we Love Children, The World God Loved and So Loved, and today begin a series of posts which you will find under the ‘Dame Julian‘ tab above. Dame Julian had a wonderful revelation of our Father’s love for us which I am trying to put into modern form interwoven with thoughts her writing inspired in me.

I will still continue my usual blog posts every two weeks or so. Today I want to pass on something that causes problems for many people – the difficulty of forgiving and our sense of failure when we cannot forgive.

How often have we heard someone say, ‘I can forgive but I can’t forget’? How many little incidents are there that memory, like an internal vicious gossip, brings to the fore? undeserved slights, retorts we should have made but were just not quick enough, ill treatment or slanders against those we love?

Forgiveness is not easy. It comes hard. For hard reasons. It is hard to do. So much so that when parents forgive the killer of their child, or the victim of an atrocity forgives the perpetrator, it makes headline news. We may find it hard to believe.

And Easter, when ‘Christ died for our sins’ (our sins, but why can’t I forget theirs?). Does that wipe it all away, or does it all return like chronic pain?

‘If you are bringing a gift to the altar and you have enmity with your brother, leave your gift at the altar. Go and make peace with your brother and then return and offer your gift.’

We cannot buy peace of mind with a gift to Christian Aid or the church building fund. It has been bought already, at great cost. We need to pass it on.

‘Yes Lord, but some things are too hard, or have been borne for too long, or it is too late, or I JUST CAN’T DO IT!’

What can the Cross possibly offer for that? Every Easter we bear a cross of our own, on which our lack of forgiveness is nailed. What does Christ on the Cross offer us for that?

One thing. A little, tiny thing, so small that no-one else seems to have noticed it. Come with me to the foot of the Cross and I will show you.

Listen. What did he say about those who crucified him? Don’t listen to what people tell you he said. They will tell you he forgave them. But listen. What did he say?

He said, ‘Father forgive them…’ not, ‘I forgive them, Father…’ He committed their forgiveness to his Father. You may take from that whatever it gives you but one thing it cannot give us is the power to do more than he did in that moment. There are times when forgiveness can be, and needs to be, placed into our Father’s hands. Whatever our weakness, He is strong. His  crucifixion was an act of sacrificial love. All forgiveness must be born of love.

We are not Christ but at Calvary elements combine: The crucifixion is the greatest thing a man has done for all humanity, the greatest thing a man has done for God, and the greatest thing our Father, in Christ, has done for us. He and the Father are one in love, and want, more than anything, that we share and return that love. If we are to be changed by the Cross it is not only from our sins, but from our failure to forgive the sins of others. If we surrender this to our Father, not with an angry, ‘God forgive you!’ but with an anguished desire and a regret for our own failing, we may find we are less troubled by our inability.

There is another element to this. Peter once asked Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who wrongs him and asks to be forgiven, quoting a figure more than double that mentioned in Amos and was effectively told the number was unlimited. The salient point, however, was that forgiveness had to be asked for. There are times, and the crucifixion was one, in which forgiveness was not asked. Then it had to be entirely committed to God.

When we are tempted to say, ‘I may forgive but I cannot forget.’ we usually mean we can neither forgive nor forget. Do not try to forget, forgetting may not be possible. Remember the most important thing and commit forgiveness and your inability to forget, humbly to God.

The Language of Religion

            The Language of Religion: Thought – Belief – Trust – Knowledge – Faith – Hope

I Hope …, I think…, I believe…, I trust…, I know…, have a definite order but the position of faith is less obvious. Faith is harder to place and often confused with the others.

Thought can be used as a noun from the past form of the verb think, meaning a conscious adjustment or association in the brain, or as a verb referring to something, as in I thought it was the best thing to do or I think it will rain today. In this way it is used as holding something to be possible rather than certain. There is a tendency to mistake it for ‘belief’ but I think God exists is weaker than I believe God exists.

Belief (be-lief = hold-dear) is often said to mean faith but one person may believe a thing and have faith in it, while another believes the same thing but has no faith in it. You can believe a man is a plumber but have no faith in him or trust him to do your plumbing.

Knowledge (gnosis, allied to constant – con – ken – can – canny) is often said to be the enemy of faith, as though having evidence for something leaves no room for faith. And yet it is possible to say, ‘I can prove that I am married but my faith in my marriage, or marriage in general, does not depend on that.’ One can even say, ‘I know (from whatever evidence one accepts) that there is a God but I have no faith in Him.’

Trust (allied to truth – troth) is the basis of most of our dealings in life: family, business, or pleasure. We may feel we need to be protected by rules, and take care to watch our backs, but we really live our lives on a basis of trust. We cannot do otherwise, yet in association with religion, trust is often replaced disparagingly by blind faith, but faith is then being used wrongly. There is no need to use trust for secular life and blind faith for religion. It would cause less misunderstanding if trust was used for both.

Trust is not the same as faith although they are allied. Trust is something we can both have and do. Faith is something we can have but not something we do. Trust is sometimes used instead of hope, ‘I trust the weather will be good enough for a picnic’ but there is an unspoken because – it implies hope with an underlying motive.

Hope has always been there (almost unchanged from Anglo-Saxon times hopa) – ask Pandora. Sadly the confusion with trust above can be misleading.

Faith (fideo | fidelity) Alone of these words faith cannot be made a verb. We can say I think, I believe, I know, I trust and I hope, but we can only have faith. It is a possession, something to be gained. It is often used to mean belief but you can believe something but have no faith in it. When you do or follow something faithfully, you do so to the letter. Faith is an absolute. Its absence is a real absence.

I may hope God exists, think God exists, believe, even know God exists, and still have no faith in him. I may have faith in God but not trust Him (because I cannot tame Him!) but if I have faith in God then the others become redundant. Faith has no place in the order of these words. It is absolute, over-riding them all.

See also The Language of religion (2)