It was time

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It was time. It was time to take that little scrap of helpless life and face the press and push of the city. It was time to scrape together enough for a couple of doves for the purification sacrifice. It was time to present the child before God.

The narrow streets to the temple were crowded and noisy. The people pushed and shoved as they passed and she held the child closer. The outer courts of the Temple were if anything, noisier still. Animal bleats. Doves cooing and the shouts of the moneychangers and stallholders added to the cacophony. The smells, animal and human were overpowering.

Moving through the vast court of Gentiles, they pass through the narrow gate and climb the steps to the Gate Beautiful into the court of the Women. She drops the handful of small coins into the trumpet shaped coffers – the price of two turtledoves to be sacrificed for the purification ceremony. Swept along in the tide of worshipers, she climbs the 14 steps to the majestic Nicanor gate and stands at the threshold. This is as far into the Temple as she is permitted. She can see into the court of the priests, and the temple itself, from the gateway. There is a queue and she stands in line, waiting for the officiating priest. Her heart is beating wildly, and she is sure it will wake her still-sleeping child. She holds him a little tighter to stop her arms trembling. It is time. The priest approaches and spatters her and the child with the blood of sacrifice, declaring her to be clean. Even though she is expecting it, the warm sticky blood on her face and neck and across the baby’s face makes her reel in shock. She stumbles backwards even as she is supposed to hand the child over, offering him up God and then paying the ransom price to receive him back. The impatient priest has moved on down the line. Her trembling hands hold out her blood-spattered son, wanting to get this over and get out.

 

It was time. So much time had passed. Day after day he had waited. Year after year, his eager steps into the Temple courts were very much slower now. Hope burned ever bright even as body betrayed him. Looking, always looking. Waiting. Listening for God’s Spirit to point out the One. The One through whom the Light would come. It was Time.

He saw her. A slip of a girl with a pale face streaked with blood. For a moment his heart stood still. The pressing crowds disappeared, and he saw only her and the child held out in her shaking hands. Almost before he knew what was happening, he had gathered the warm bundle gently in his arms and held him to his heart. The baby stirred, opened his eyes, and they beheld one another for a long solemn moment. It was a life-changing look of recognition. It was time. Now.

Simeon was pierced with joy, and the song of praise that poured out of his lips unbidden, he sang to the blood stained child in his arms.

 Lord, NOW lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:   For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

It was time. It was now. He had waited all his life for this moment.

The Light of the world was within the circle of his arms.

He glanced at the parents, who were wide eyed in wonder at his words.

He blessed them both for the task they had been given, for their obedient hearts, for the courage they would need. His words of prophecy and warning laid out the life of the child he held, as a sign. As a sacrificial lamb of God. Handing him back, he whispered gently of the pain she would know. The pain, that went right through her spirit, even as her face was splashed in blood. The pain that made her stumble, and would pierce her soul again.

 

It was time. She who had dwelled a lifetime in the courts of God had become a dwelling place of God. All her prayers, her tears and fasting had pointed to NOW. It was time. Simeon’s song of praise had sung her heart into wild joy. Emmanuel. God with us. At that moment her whole life was gathered up in Presence. The child of Promise was come.

As if drawn by invisible threads of wonder, she drew close to see for herself. To feast her eyes on the tiny child whose eyes fastened on her own. She had lived so long. So many years. So much time had passed. But Time had stopped in its tracks before a helpless babe. Heaven touched earth, and her voice lifted with the unheard song of angels that rang around the unheeding crowded courts. IT WAS TIME. She would tell them. Would carry the Good News to the world. To all who would listen. The Light had come, and lit a beacon in her soul.

 

Presence

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The heat shimmered and danced on the horizon.

Abraham closed his eyes to its glare, and let the deep silence of the desert enfold him. The soft sand in the shadow of his tent cradled his bones in its warmth, allowing him to sit. Others slumbered in the heat of the day, but despite his years, Abraham resisted the soporific lure. In the stillness he was intently present, the practice of decades.        Waiting, watching.

 

The day was ordinary, like the one before, and the ones before that. Fourteen long years had passed since God had promised to answer the deepest desire of his heart.

A son.

He only wanted a son, flesh of their flesh, bone of their bone, but God had promised him descendants like the panoply of stars above his head, the sand beneath his feet.

 

The years rolled by, and his body and spirit wilted in the waiting.

God said.

Abraham had held the promise in his heart. Turning it over, like a well worn stone.

Three months previously God had spoken again into the depths of his longing.

Underlined the promise with a change of names, of identity. Writing the H of the name of God into his and hers. A laughable promise of sons, of nations, of kings.

The covenant seared into the tenderness of heart and flesh.

 

The silence was fathomless.

 

The faintest breath of wind on his face. An infinitesimal change in the quality of the light. A feather touch of intuition across his skin. Abraham opened his eyes and lifted his gaze. Three silhouettes of strangers splintered the glare. His heart knew, even as his legs pulled him to his feet faster than they had for 30 years. He was running, heart pounding, awe pulsing through his veins.

 

Down. On his face before them. The only possible posture of greeting. Instinctive, and nstant as he stopped before the long reach of their shadow.

He daren’t look up.

Saw only dry and dusty feet. Still walking. Appearing to be going further.

Passing by.

Willing them to stay, heart in his mouth, he gestured to the deep shade of the ancient Terebinth Trees. Green-leaved even in the sapping drought, their deep roots reaching for artesian springs.

The words tumbled out, urgent, pleading.

 

Adoni, If I have found grace in your sight, please stay awhile. Rest yourselves against the tree and I will have water brought to wash your feet. Bread to sustain and refresh you and then I will not detain you further since you have come and honoured me with your Presence.”

 

He looked at his hands, the ground, anywhere but up. The three sets of feet were still. It could only have been moments, but it felt like hours. Hope thrumming in his ears as he waited,  Would God receive his hospitality?

The reply was gentle, grace-filled.

 

“Go and do as you have promised”

 

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Andrei Rublev Trinity /Hospitality of Abraham 

Cascades of Grace

Panning for gold.. I have done it a few times, usually with children- standing with a sieve/pan usually in cold water, scanning through an awful lot of grit and gravel to see if there is the teeniest glint of gold. Didn’t feel dissimilar to what I have spent the last few weeks doing – trawling through many many books for essay research.  I never did find any of the real stuff- but I have this time around.

I am writing about taking a congregation through the sometimes tricky and painful process of change, and looking at the subject from a whole variety of angles.  Fear not, I will not be foisting my essay on an unsuspecting public – but I thought a few of the nuggets I found along the way were definitely worth sharing.  They were worth finding, regardless if I can use them in the essay or not..

John O’Donohue, late poet/writer/thinker/priest, is writing about the intoxicating combination of hope and insight.      “Some of the most decisive moment in one’s life are when someone shows you a new frontier and helps you across into a world of new possibilities and promise. To be helped towards a new way of seeing is to be given access to a whole new world. At its highest point of intensity and possibility Meister Eckhart refers to this as the Birth of God in the Soul” 

“the Birth of God in the Soul” what a wonderful way of expressing it! Perhaps it particularly appeals to me, as a former midwife. Being a ‘spiritual midwife’ is very much part of what I see priesthood being about. Helping to birth God in the souls of others. It was an awesome privilege to deliver each of the  precious babies I brought into the world. A wonder that I never got blasé about.  My last delivery ever, was undiagnosed twins on a GP unit ( the 2nd one, a breech) but that is another whole story.

Going back to nursing, I took up palliative care nursing- very much a type of ‘midwifery’ at the other end of life. Travelling barefoot with individuals and their families on the Holy ground of the approach to death. Both birth and death involve the whole family, and are perhaps the most dramatic points of change that happen to any of us. Both types of midwifery involve reducing the fear, and the pain and retaining as much dignity as possible. Both involved   (for me anyway) staying with the person in and through the pain, physical or psychological. Accompanying with compassion. ( the Latin root of the word compassion means ‘to suffer together with’  . A costly, but precious privilege.

Travelling with individuals and more particularly with whole groups and congregations through the processes of change has many echoes of both sorts of midwifery.  I loved the way Ann Morrisy in the book Journeying Out  uses the phrase ‘cascades of Grace’  to describe what happens when a congregation starts to look and then move outwards into the community, perhaps for the first time.

Willingness to be alongside those who know deeply about struggle, are without power and aware of the possibility of being overwhelmed is what venturesome love is all about.  Community ministry involves the provision of structures that enable people to express venturesome love..”  

And in so doing, so venturing, start off a cascade of grace benefiting everyone involved.  Morrisy also links this with the miracle of the water in to wine.  Likening the church to the worried wedding hosts whose wine is running out.. what do we do?

What do they do? What do the servants do when they are given a nonsensical command by Jesus in response to the predicament? Go and fill up huge water jars with water ( no mean feat and involving a fair bit of work and effort) and then serve them up as if they were wine.  And behold, their obedience, their willingness to ‘journey out’ of common sense and comfort zones  result in the finest of wines  being available in abundance.  A cascade of grace. God’s extravagance revealed in the first miracle.

Returning to where I started.. crossing frontiers, entering new worlds. A wondrous but often frightening experience. In morning prayer today, the Old Testament passage was from Joshua chapter 1 . Joshua is about to take the people of Israel across the Jordan, into an unknown land. God speaks to him and says:

“I will not fail you or forsake you. ..Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. “

Only thing that counts.