The amazing events of that first Easter have changed the world forever. Death has been defeated and there is a subtle change in the very fabric of reality. But such things are too great for me. For me it is the difference to everyday life that often hits me most. It is the hope that transforms the ordinary and the mundane, a meal perhaps, that reminds me that it is here and now that I am to live my hope. This next poem, captures this and much, much more:
Snow on Easter Day
Wet white feathers
Vanishing into sodden earth;
Silent whispers of air
As each flake passes.
Fragrance surrounds me,
Orange blossom and musk.
The taste of bread and wine
Linger on my lips,
An odour of sanctity
A feeling of peace
Pervades the house
As we prepare lunch.
Ghosts of Easters past
Haunt but do not hurt us.
Today, we begin anew.
Easter is not so much an event as it is a way of life. A way of life filled with the risen Jesus. A life of being Jesus here and now; made possible by the power of the Spirit. The poem that follows was inspired after Viv watched an actor paid to play the part of Jesus walk among crowds at a festival:
Jesus walks among us
I know he’s only an actor
Playing his appointed role,
But can I be the only one
Who felt my heart lift to see
Those sandalled feet among us,
The archaic robes shabby in sunlight
And the dark curls of beard
Twitch with a smile as he passed?
Am I the only one to ask
A terrified “What if?” and wonder
If it might truly be Him
Walking among the crowds,
Still alone and set apart
Even when thousands press round?
Of course, I know full well
He’s only an actor doing
What his role demands of him,
But still my heart sings
As my mind asks, “What if?”
Maybe that could be me or you? What if indeed!
Some years ago, when visiting the British Museum, I took two pictures of an Ethiopian Christian icon from the early 20th Century showing St. George protecting the Emperor (second picture, below), complete with traditional spear. But there is something different about this St. George, he is also carrying a rifle. Generally if saints or angels are shown to be warlike they are shown in romantic armour, with swords and lances. This hides the real sense of brooding violence that these images should convey. We see the weapons and think of gentle knights from a Pre-Raphaelite painting like The Vigil by John Pettie. But in reality they are ready to fight, ready to explode into the sort of violence that we, thankfully, are unlikely to be able to even imagine!
This image of St. George, complete with rifle, reminds me of the uncomfortable reality of violence, in this world and beyond. This is something that, when abandoned by the Christian faith, makes that faith unreal. This refusal to accept reality as it is diminishes true faith, relegating a noble religion to the realm of fantasy. When all around me is dark with terror and violence, I for one am not looking to have some simpering saint by my side! No, I call upon the Spirit of power, Yahweh Armies, Gabriel the Archangel and a saint like George.
I pray for peace in England, …. and keep the powder dry!
In the last week I have been forced to face the reality of death and the wonder of life, both at the same time. In this ministry you take many funerals but traumatic deaths and the deaths of people I know still shake me up. The death of three local teenagers just over a week ago, has certainly done that. I have also been privileged to see baby Josiah Rogers only a couple of days after he was born. It has been a week of joy and sadness, all thrown in together and shaken up. This is a time when I need hope. I need to hear, know, and feel inside the reality of Easter.
So let’s go to that story, as told by Matthew: The Sabbath was over, and it was almost daybreak on Sunday when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. Suddenly a strong earthquake struck, and the Lord’s angel came down from heaven. He rolled away the stone and sat on it. The angel looked as bright as lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards shook from fear and fell down, as though they were dead.
The angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid! I know you are looking for Jesus, who was nailed to a cross. He isn’t here! God has raised him to life, just as Jesus said he would. Come, see the place where his body was lying. Now hurry! Tell his disciples that he has been raised to life and is on his way to Galilee. Go there, and you will see him. That is what I came to tell you.”
The women were frightened and yet very happy, as they hurried from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and greeted them. They went near him, held on to his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid! Tell my followers to go to Galilee. They will see me there.” (Matthew 28.1-10 (CEV))
What hits me are the words of that angel to the women after he rolled away the stone. “Do not be afraid!”
Don’t be afraid the angel says to me; the bright Easter morning is here. Life is still be so full of fear, pain and darkness but for this moment at least I intend to follow the angel’s advice. I may well slip back into the fear and worry but now is Easter, the morning I have been preparing for throughout Lent. Now I see the gold and the light and the joy. Today, this morning, I know is the ‘morning that death was killed’, it is also the morning that fear was killed and worry too!
Today there is hope – bright and clear. There will be darkness in the future but today is bright. Today reminds me of the Christmas message that the darkness can never overcome the light, no matter how hard it might try. Today there is a glint in my eyes, even tired eyes like these. There is a joy inside that just wants to bubble up and flow over me. Hope for a new born baby and his parents. Hope for bereaved parents and friends. New hope for all!
This is how I imagine those women who visited the empty tomb. There had been so much darkness and horror for them, then they met Jesus again. He was alive, he is alive – they didn’t understand it – I don’t really understand it – but it was real – it is real. Jesus was so real that they cried and they laughed both at the same time. Some things I don’t need to understand, some things are best just enjoyed. Like a good wine, or a wonderful Easter meal. I say thanks to God and to the cook, but I don’t analyse it; no I experience it, I savour it, I enjoy it to the full. To cook a good meal I would need to know what order to cook things and for how long, but they aren’t the questions to ask as the wonder is placed in front of me.
Homer Simpson, from the Simpsons had a catch phrase, “Can’t talk – eating”. That is what it is like with Easter – ‘can’t think – loving, smiling, partying’. Thinking and puzzling come later. They come after I experience the reality once again. That way the theories never get in the way of the truth and the joy of Easter. I can understand all the theology of Easter but if it isn’t here in my heart then it is truly useless. Well it may save someone else but it would be just dust and ashes to me. I know for certain that this body may die but my life will go on, through the power of Jesus’ resurrection.
During Lent and Holy Week I have joined with Jesus in his pain and death, now I join with him in his triumph. Now I just want to bask in it the new life set free in me. It is like when my daughter was born. It was a long and difficult birth for Viv, but when it was over I just wanted to bask in it all. At that moment I didn’t want to know the science of life or of even that of child rearing. I just wanted to smile and let the joy of her new life sink into me. I just wanted to smile and thank God for giving her to Viv and me.
Today is such a day. A day for celebrations. The dark and the bitter will no doubt be a part of my life again. But I won’t be afraid because I have celebrated the conquering of pain and death. Jesus has let me sneak a quick look at the last page of my book and I know the ending. I know that any pain that I feel will be transformed by him, I know that my death will be no death at all but only the door to full life forever.
Now I look back to the words of the angel to those women at the empty tomb. I look again and I hear the angel say, “Now hurry! Tell his disciples that he has been raised to life”. I look back to Jesus’ words to these women and I hear, “Don’t be afraid! Tell my followers to go to Galilee. They will see me there. ” I read and I know that I can’t keep all this to myself, I mustn’t be afraid, I must go and let people know the wonderful news that I have:
Don’t be afraid.
Don’t be afraid of the future.
Don’t be afraid of death.
DON’T BE AFRAID!
Do Not Wash My Feet
(Vivienne Tuffnell – from “Hallowed Hollow“)
I would ask you:
Do not wash my feet
For I have not walked
A thousand miles in dusty lanes
that coat sandalled feet in grime,
Nor yet barefoot on the pilgrim way
Wincing at every step away from grass.
My feet have not carried me through
The smoke and filth of battle,
Nor have I stood amid the wives
Who wait to see their men return.
I would ask you:
Wash my soul instead,
For though I have been spared
The trials of life
That others suffer,
Mine have left their soil
Upon my soul as well
I am sitting here reflecting. This has been a roller coaster of a week. A week though dominated by the death of three local teenagers when their car crashed into a tree (http://www.itv.com/news/anglia/story/2017-04-06/three-teenagers-killed-in-crash/).
There is so much that can be said about hope. The Bible says so much about a hope of life that is stronger than death. All true, but this is not the time. Not yet.
This is the time just to be together in our grief and loss. A time to remember and share stories. A time to cry, and cry, as though crying were going out of fashion. A time also to laugh between the tears at the things that they did and said. A time to be angry at the world, even angry at God. I shout at God. If you think that odd for a minister, would you prefer me to lie to him about how I feel? I shout at God knowing that he is big enough to take it. I’m not the first to shout at God, just read these words from Psalm 22:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
I shout and find him holding me tight in my pain. But my pain is nothing compared to the pain of the families and friends of those three boys. I pray that they too may be held tight; by those around them and by God.
I pray for their comfort but for now I sit with them, weeping with those who weep, and laughing with those who laugh.
Kyle, Dominic and Billy.
Rest in peace and rise in glory.
Life doesn’t always give you what you want. That includes the life of faith. I’m sure Mary and Martha would agree with that. They and their brother Lazarus were close to Jesus. Lazarus was like a brother to him and the two women were as his sisters. Still, when they need him most their healer brother stays away as Lazarus fades and dies. It must have felt as though Jesus had abandoned them. I can imagine the hope of those sisters, and its death. They must have known that Jesus would get there in time. Even as Lazarus got weaker and weaker they knew that Jesus would arrive any moment and save the day, but Jesus never came. Now Lazarus was dead and buried, and hope had sailed away.
I too know the power of Jesus to heal and I suspect that I felt emotions very similar to those of Mary and Martha when I prayed for healing with parents of a young child rushed to hospital with meningitis. I too clung to the hope of healing. I too felt bereft and abandoned as the last breath left that small girls body. I felt through to my core Jesus’ cry on the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me!” (Matthew 27.46). That memory is still fresh, and as I read the story of Lazarus’ death I feel right back with those parents as I hear Martha, and then Mary, tell Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
I remember standing with those parents when a verse from the NIV translation of the Bible came to mind, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8.28). Those words seemed like a cruel joke. When I got home I screamed at God, demanding to know how the senseless death of this beautiful, intelligent little girl could possibly be him working for the good of those loving Christian parents.
In time I calmed a little. As I calmed, I did what I always do with verses of the Bible that I have trouble with, I studied them more, I lived with them until the Spirit helped me to see what I have been missing. As I studied I found that many Bible scholars are confident that the translators of the NIV had made a small but highly significant mistake when they translated Romans 8.28. A mistake not shared by many other Bible translations, such as the CEV and the NRSV. The words that made all the difference are as tiny as, “the”, “for” and “of”.
The first is effectively saying, “Love God and God will make sure that everything in life will work out for your personal good.” The experience of Christians throughout the ages shows that that can’t be true. It wasn’t even true for their author Paul, who suffered terrible persecution before being executed.
The second version is very different. This is saying that everything about the life of those who love God will bring good into this world. This is something that Mary and Martha were to discover.
Mary and Martha loved God, and they loved God’s son Jesus. Even though Jesus had appeared to betray them, even in their bitter pain, they kept on loving. Those sisters loved God and all things (even their brothers death) worked together to bring good into the world. In their case they received their brother back for a few more years in this world, but even greater than that, the world was given proof that Jesus’ love is stronger even than death.
But what of those parents? They were deeply scarred, deep inside. The light went out of their eyes for quite a while. There were no simple answers to the loss of their little girl. I felt helpless but thankfully God was not. When I saw them last, they were smiling. Warmth had returned. There were no trite words exchanged between us, but it was clear that they too had discovered what Mary and Martha had discovered: Jesus’ love is stronger even than death.
(The Lazarus story is recorded in John 11.1-45)
A few days ago I was shocked by the terrorist attack on the heart of my capital city. I watched those events unfold on the news and I was reminded about the reality of evil. What happened there was hate fuelled evil. I prayed for those killed or injured, as well as for their families and friends. I also pray for all of those who have been injured in mind or soul by that display of evil and hate.
As I watched the news coverage it was clear that the commentators could make no sense of it: Of course they couldn’t; hate by it’s very nature is not sensible or rational! It was evil because that act caused pain and harm, not in self-defence but simply to make a political/religious point. It was a corruption of even basic human decency and was an act unworthy of anyone claiming to have a faith in the one true God.
What sick, deluded people those terrorists must be. They seek to honour god by their actions, and they do, but not the god they intended. They are deceived into serving a god with a very different name; the father of lies, hate and all evil. Their false god must be pleased with them now!
I’ve found that many people agree with me that those terrorist acts were hateful and evil. I for one have found people more ready to believe in the reality of evil and hate, than in the power of goodness and love. They can see the power of the fist but are blind to the power of kindness, gentleness, humility, meekness, and patience; forgiveness, and peace – all features of love, or more accurately, they are all features of God’s love. They are also features of a love that is closer to home; the love of a good mother and I would hope the love of a good father too.
These features of love are all from one of the Bible readings for Mothering Sunday (Colossians 3.12-17). These are all aspects of a perfect mother; they are also descriptions of love in action offered to all of Jesus’ followers. I just want to share a junk of that passage to show what I mean (Colossians 3.12-15):
God loves you and has chosen you as his own special people. So be gentle, kind, humble, meek, and patient. Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together.
Each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace. So let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts.
We have seen a display of evil and hate by false followers of god. What I long for now is a response from all of God’s true followers that shows just how futile hate is when compared to love, and how pathetic evil is when compared to good. I pray that Jesus will give me his peace, peace that will control my thoughts. Then my actions will indeed be gentle, kind, humble, meek, and patient; that I will be loving, or at least more loving that I am.
My message to myself right now is, “Don’t let evil defeat you, but defeat evil with good.” (Romans 12.21 CEV).
I pray for good to come from this evil. What better way to defeat evil! I pray that more and more people will see the deep and practical wisdom of Jesus’ teaching, and turn to the God who is love. I pray that more and more people will be disgusted by hate and learn the truth that, “God is love, whoever lives in love, lives in God, and God in them” (1 John 4.16).
Or put another way:
God is love.
keep on loving others,
stay one with God,
and he will stay one with you.
Compassionate God and Father of all,
we are horrified at the violence in our capital.
Hold back the hands that kill and maim;
turn around the hearts that hate.
Grant instead your strong Spirit of Peace –
peace that passes our understanding
but changes lives,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(The original prayer can be found here: https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-worship/topical-prayers/prayers-for-peace.aspx)
I love poetry. When I read a powerful poem it is as though the weaving of words, is painting pictures directly into my soul. Whenever I enter a bookshop I always head straight for the poetry section. If there isn’t one then I’m almost certain to turn around and leave, even if they have the book I want. To me the poetry section is the litmus test of the quality of the bookshop. If this section is missing then I question whether it is a bookshop at all. I’m likely to consider such a place alongside supermarkets, that also sell books but are certainly not bookshops.
I look at the poetry section and move quickly past the classics. I love Kipling, Wordsworth, TS Elliot and the rest, but what I look for most are books by living poets. I see too many poetry sections that include works by no living poets, and I question the presence of creative life in the shop as a whole. To me there is a need in literature and poetry for the established greats, but without new and original work I become deeply sad. I become sad because instead of being an Aladdin’s cave of treasures, the bookshop has become a museum only; a mausoleum to a great but dead art.
Perhaps the same is true of church and faith? I wonder, is my church, my faith an Aladdin’s cave or a museum. I ponder some more and hope that they are both!
I want to conclude my meanderings with a poem from a poet who is very close to my heart, in more ways than one. It is a poem from Vivienne Tuffnell’s most recent book, Hallowed Hollow. You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hallowed-Hollow-Vivienne-Tuffnell/dp/1544615779/ or just get in touch for a signed copy!
I do not want your slot machine god
Powered by caprice and uncertainty.
Nor do I want your vending machine god:
Pop in a prayer and out pops a reward.
I want the untamed god
Unknowable as the badgers
Deep in ancient yew woodlands,
Wild as the flight of goldfinches
Bathing exuberantly in a forest pool.
In one glimpse you see more of eternity
And the vast untouchable sweep
Of a deity too broad
To be trammelled by walls and words,
Yet tender to his creatures who
He holds cupped in his wounded palms.
I can remember when my daughter was born. I remember it vividly. It had been a long and difficult birth. Then finally she was there. This little bundle of life. I remember the first time that I held her. She seemed so tiny, so helpless, but not as helpless as I felt. I had no idea how to hold her. I was terrified of dropping her or hurting her. Then the thought came, “We now need to look after this little bundle” and the enormity of having a new live to care for git me!
That was a good number of years ago. Now my daughter is taller than her mother and me. The thought of her going back into the womb is absurd. So I can understand poor Nicodemus’ alarm and confusion in John 3, I really can. Nicodemus, the Jewish religious leader has come to Jesus secretly at night. It’s dangerous for him to be even seen with Jesus, but he seems drawn to Jesus so he wants to spend time with Jesus. He wants to understand Jesus’ strange words.
Then Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be ‘born again’ and Nicodemus, utterly confused, says, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” He sounds a little stupid today. We have heard of being born again, and know it to be figurative not literal. But what would we have thought talking late in the night with this amazing but weird teacher? I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have done any better. It’s also a sobering thought to remember that a large proportion of today’s population in England don’t even know the name ‘Jesus’; so our Christian talk of being ‘born again’ probably sounds as strange to them as it did to Nicodemus.
Getting back to Nicodemus. The important thing is not that Nicodemus didn’t understand Jesus. The important point is that Nicodemus obviously went away and pondered all that he had seen, heard and felt in Jesus’ presence, and was changed. I know Nicodemus was changed because he was there with Joseph of Arimathea caring for Jesus’ body after the crucifixion (John 19.38-42).
So are you ever puzzled by something God says or does? Do you ever get confused by a Bible passage? Well don’t worry you are in good company, you are not alone. Jesus is not always clear and education doesn’t always help. Think of Nicodemus, he was very well educated. Sometimes study helps us to understand the will of God but often a good religious education just allows us to bluff a little better.
No, Nichodemus tells me that some times I need to spend time thinking and praying about what I have seen or heard. I need to go back to my Bible and commentaries and try and make sense of it all, but all the time having faith that Jesus is right even if I don’t understand him.
That is what Jesus’ mother did when Jesus did something strange, she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2.19). Nicodemus seems to have done the same. He left Jesus confused but no less convinced that this was someone sent by God. He seems to have “pondered all these things in his heart” too.
I need to ponder; so I suspect do you and everyone.
I need to ponder when I see good people suffer, or when I see people indifferent to the offer of love from God. Like Nicodemus, I can get so confused. I wonder about so many things. But also like Nicodemus and Mary, I know that Jesus is special. I know that Jesus is the one sent by God to save this world, and all in it. Like Nicodemus, I know that faith is the key.
Today I need to ponder the words of the Bible. Spend time with them, roll them around in my mouth, tasting them. I need to let the Spirit in to guide me. I need to be open to whatever the Spirit intends to reveal to me. That is what Nicodemus did and he did the unthinkable – he broke with the powerful Jewish council and helped to bury Jesus. He is mentioned by name, perhaps because he was well known to the believers, so it is entirely possible that Nicodemus stuck his neck out even further and after Jesus’ resurrection became one of the first Christians.
Who knows? But I do know the power of that pondering the words of Scripture such as these. Of being open to letting the Spirit guide me. I recommend it to you. But beware! Beware because the Spirit may well reveal something you would rather not know. I have learned that I enter God’s presence with no guarantees. God will say and do and reveal whatever he wants, and it may upset me.
I once was absolutely convinced that only men could be ministers. But God changed all that. I was comfortable where I was. Changing that idea meant that I was no longer the welcome friend to some people that I once was. I was desperate to believe in a literal 7 day creation, but Scripture and the Spirit wouldn’t let me. This one belief was the real test of orthodoxy, I wanted to be part of that club, but I was not allowed.
So beware! Your most cherished certainties could be overturned. But still I believe there is no better way, indeed there is no other way, than to ponder the words of Scripture and let God’s Spirit guide me.
There is another important point here to learn from Nicodemus – honesty. Nicodemus wasn’t afraid to seem stupid – he didn’t understand Jesus so he said so. He could have nodded wisely. He could also have said something like, “Wise words teacher”. But what good would that have done? He didn’t understand, he wanted to understand, so he admitted his ignorance. So when I ponder I pray that I can be honest enough with myself and God to own up to my ignorance too.
I’ll leave that thought there. For now, I want to focus on that idea of pondering and wondering about life and faith, while open to the work of the Spirit. If you’ve got this far, please take to heart the power of this practice of pondering all these things in your heart.
Perhaps there is something that you need to ponder in your heart this Lent? Are there passages of the Bible that puzzle you? Are there world events or people that confuse? Then perhaps your Lenten discipline should include setting aside time to ponder and explore them?