Last night I finished reading the four Gospel accounts of Gethsemane, Christ’s mockery of a trial, the crucifixion and the resurrection. I’ve been stuck on those four accounts for probably six weeks and as you may know by now, I get sort of fixated. I was stuck in Isaiah for the best part of a year and still keep returning to it, pulled by an irresistible force. Every time Isaiah is quoted from the front of the church I have to fight the urge to punch the air and shout ‘Go, Isaiah! You the man!’
So, anyway, last night as I finished the Gospel of John for the umpteenth time I gave myself a stern talking-to and turned the page to the book of Acts. I read the first verse, and looked it up in my study bible. There it says ‘Luke continues the story he began in the Gospel, covering the thirty years after Jesus was taken up into heaven. During that short time the church was established and the Gospel of salvation spread throughout the world, even to the capital of the Roman Empire.’
Flip me! In thirty years??? I’ve been a Christian for more than thirty years. What a mediocre little thirty years I’ve lived. What huge adventures those early believers must have known. How come the difference? If I have the same Spirit of Christ living in me, how come the difference, my little dumplings?
I didn’t get much further in the book of Acts, I trotted off to bed with my head full of that question. How come our church now is struggling? The Universal Church is thriving but here in the West, we seem to have lost our certainty, passion, joy, commitment, excitement. All the things that show the world that God is alive and well and living amongst us. Have we had the ritual and respectability of religion for so long that it has taken over from God? Are we now more ‘churcheyfied’ than church?
How do we open our hearts to the passion, the adventure, of the book of Acts?
I woke up lateish this morning and I wasn’t on the beach until nearly 8. My prayers were the usual scattergun bonkers conversation, taking time to settle down into anything coherent and attentive. I was asking God about the difference between the Book of Acts and now, a bit desperate really, conscious of the lack of passion in today’s church. And then, right there in the middle of prayer, and with no obvious connection to anything else, I remembered something from about 14 years ago, and it seemed relevant but I didn’t know why. It seemed to me that this wasn’t just for me but for someone specific too…. So I wrote it in an email to that specific friend, right there, standing on the beach. Here’s some of that email:
I’d been in West Wales only a week, living on a smallholding down a lane, when I saw a sheep with her head in a hedge, eating happily. A few hours later she was still there. In the evening there she was again, and the grass around her was destroyed, churned up. I finally realised that she was stuck. There was a wire fence running through the hedge and she had stuck her head through one of the squares, but her ears stopped her pulling out again.
I was younger then, and stronger and I clambered over the gate, waded through the really rough marshy field and scrambled up to the raised hedge. The sheep didn’t help, all wet and smelly and really heavy. All I could do was take two great fat handfuls of wet fleece, on her neck, and pull and pull. She had been there so long, tramping the ground that it was churned up and sodden, and she was blind with terror. I was determined to get her free but she wasn’t having any of it! She was trying to push further into the hedge, to escape me. The harder I tried, the more that old ratbag resisted. I was a townie, not at all up to the job, slithering all over the place. But finally, after a fair bit of annoyance and swearing, she was free and running away, wonky legged, while I was left sitting in the mud, triumphant, laughing. All by myself in the Welsh rain but I was so pleased with myself -fabulous!
I should make it clear, in order to protect the innocent, that the sheep wasn’t (as far as I know) swearing. That was me.
Well, listen, I was dithering about whether I should send the email or not, (it’s a bit random, innit?) when I was joined by a lovely poet pal. He’s certifiably insane but with moments of lucidity so I read the email to him, to get his opinion about whether or not I should send it. He has a lovely smile, this poet, and he said ‘I did the same thing once, and when I told the farmer he just laughed! Apparently all you have to do is walk in front of the sheep and clap your hands. That sorts it.’
So, is the message for me, or for the person I sent the email to? Or both of us? And am I the sheep with my head plunged into that hedge, blind and stuck and making the situation worse the more I struggle? Is that the church? Or am I the shepherd swearing and gasping and slipping and falling as I pull and pull and pull? Or am I the cleverclogs who walks calmly in front of the sheep to clap my hands together? Or is my email friend the shepherd who walks in front… or…. is the Holy Spirit the one who walks in front, and is the sheep rescued by no intervention from man … or….
That’s a bit of an adventure, actually, my fabulous bloggites. Just thinking that through, and standing on the beach, and writing that email, thinking that I had the complete story but then having our tame poet adding his pennyworth to round it off, that’s a little day’s adventure. Isn’t it?
When my dad died, he was in his 90’s and this big, brash, cold and capable Sergeant Major had dwindled down to a tiny sweet, sweet, sweet old man. At his funeral we sang ‘Abide with me’ and when we reached the line ‘Swift to its close, ebbs out life’s little day’ I crumpled. This great big man, a feared and flawed human being, whose life had loomed so large and powerful in mine, and who had made so many terrible decisions and ruined lives, had lived out his little day. It was done. That’s all he had, after all, this mighty tyrant, a little day. That’s all any of us have, ‘a little day.’ I love that line. It speaks of God’s love, of our smallness, of our numbered days. It has stayed with me and I return to it often.
But life’s little day can give glory to God, it can be the most beautiful gift we can give Him, the only gift He wants from us. And in our little day, in all our little days, God is there in the little things, the walk on the beach, the memory of a funny story, the ‘top that!’ punch line of a poet friend, the joy of prayer, and in having someone we trust who we can send a mad email to, because today we need to say ‘Look what God is doing! This is MY book of Acts. Look what God has said to me today.’
Sometimes my heart is so full of God’s love, HIS love, not my love, that it might just, one day, burst. And then you’ll find me, three days later when I haven’t turned up for something, and my dogs will have eaten chunks of me.
Now. That’s just being silly. They’re far too fussy.