You know. One of those days. We all get them. I’ve had them before and I’ll get them again. Here’s a picture of one I made earlier – when I was about three, I think
We don’t have a right to trouble free days. ‘In this life you will have troubles.’ said Jesus, and he wasn’t wrong. Sometimes the trouble is external, sometimes it’s physical, sometimes it’s other people, but sometimes it’s just us. Today my trouble is me, the good old fashioned blues. But I know what the answer is, I know the remedy. The remedy is the deep inner knowledge that this will pass. That there is joy in the knowledge that everything is in God’s control, not mine. Thank the Lord! Hallelujah and all that stuff. If I was in control there would be a jolly good reason for the blues.
And tonight – as if planned to rescue me from the sludge of my mind – four friends are coming to dinner. ‘Dinner’ may make it sound rather grander than it is, as we’re having fish finger sandwiches with roasted peppers, followed by apple pie and ice cream and custard. Not exactly cordon bleu but the grub is secondary to the company. Already I feel my spirits rising. It’s a fishfinger version of Proverbs 15:17 ‘A bowl of vegetables with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate.’
Hey – I hope that when you read these blogs you’re joining me for a chat and a maunder through possible ideas and memories and you’re not expecting wisdom or enlightenment, because some days you’ll get nonsense, some days there’s a story, some days a thought, and some days, like today, I just need to tell you something and I have no idea why. To my absolute amazement it seems that today I have to write about self-harm. I don’t want to write about it, but something, or maybe someone, is urging me on. So here goes.
I’m stunned really. Never in a thousand years would I have imagined that I had anything to say about this subject. Really. It’s always puzzled me, the whole idea of self-harm, and I didn’t know that I knew anything about it. But it seems that I do.
Why then am I going down this dark little lane? If I concentrate hard, I can come up with a couple of reasons ; Some of you may be struggling with the desire to self-harm and this may give you a new perspective, and let you known that you are not alone, and that you are loved. Some of you may be bewildered and maybe even judgmental about people who self-harm and this might help you to understand them. And I suppose that there is a third reason, entirely selfish, I am writing this because I am amazed and dazed by a new realisation.
When I was a child I went to live with my father and step-mother and my dad had a book of Victorian Art, a massive old thing, too big for the sideboard, too unwieldy for a shelf, and so it was kept under my bed, a large book full of dull paintings, battlefields, death beds and tragedy. Not a laugh a minute. One painting always fascinated me, the portrait of a soldier, saying farewell to his child. The man was on a high stool, the little girl on the floor in front of him, the colours were muddy and muted and there was nothing else in the painting but this man and this child. This grief. This love. This tragedy. This cruelty. It made me weep.
Here’s the strange thing, the thing I had never understood until yesterday when I was writing a short story – back then there were days when I needed to weep. Days when I needed to look at that painting, sentimental and maudlin’ though it was. Days when secret weeping was the only thing that would get me through. Isn’t that an odd thing to say? There were days when my inner pain was so overwhelming, when memories and images and self-loathing (at that tender age and all through my teens) were so painful, that I needed to cry.
Yesterday I realised, for the first time ever, what that was all about. Yesterday as I wrote my short story I realised that this was something others did, too, but in different ways. Now children take a razor to their poor soft arms, or turn to drugs or to alcohol, but it’s all the same. It’s all about creating a pain that is manageable, understandable, a pain that will end. It’s all about denying unbearable pain and replacing it with something lesser.
I know now that I turned to The Soldier’s Farewell because to step into the reason for my sadness and weep for it would have been unbearable. I would have drowned in the tears, been devastated by memory. So instead I’d drag the book out of the dusty darkness, and turn to the Soldier’s Farewell, and I would weep for him and for that little girl. I would weep deliciously, poignantly, sobs wracking my bones, taking away the pain of memory and replacing it with something softer. I couldn’t share it with anyone, because there was no one there and anyway the shame of the past was too great. But I could find a way to survive that hour or that day, and to carry on.
That’s what self-harm is all about. It’s about trying to manage unbearable sorrow, it’s trying to keep going.
If you are a trying to cope with it all alone, please know that there is help. There is. There is an end to this pain, and you are brave enough to find it.
If that’s where you are right now, if you’re needing to run away from the real pain of life to shelter in a lesser pain, listen, Jesus said ‘ In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’
He has overcome the sadness and the loss of this world. You are loved, and precious. Regardless of your past, of what has been done to you or what you have done, you are loved and you are not alone. In the Book of Romans we read
“Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”
So nothing you have done, or lived through, or think, or dream, or dread, will ever be able to remove you from the love of Christ. He loves you now and he loved you then. He stands at the door and knocks, all you have to do is let him in.
Many years ago in Jamaica, I saw an elderly man sitting at the roadside, next to his simple home, peeling something, a piece of fruit or maybe a vegetable. His hands were moving slowly, his eyes seeming unfocussed as he gazed across the hillside to the distant sea. Did he have a bowl at his feet for the peel or did it just fall to the dusty earth? I don’t know now, but I do remember his bare feet, the soles rising pink against his dark dry skin. I remember that there was no driveway to his house, because there was no car, and there were no power cables, so no heating bills, no hermetically sealed glass, no lock on the door. Barely a house. A shelter maybe, no more. Simple. At that moment I wanted his life. Oh, how I wanted his life! I don’t think it was a prayer, not a conscious prayer anyway, but it was a deep, deep longing, right down to the marrow of my bones, and I’ve thought of him so often since then. Maybe the depth of our desire is heard, and our passion turns it into prayer.
My husband had died very suddenly, and flailing around for something to fill our shattered days I had taken our 14 year old daughter and her friend on a New Year break. As we came down that hillside, in the hotel bus, my life was full to overflowing with work commitments, deadlines, a series to write and film, a mortgage to pay, household bills to juggle, all the detritus of a couple’s life now put into one pair of hands – hands that were already full of grief. Always struggling with discalculia, now there was only me to deal with the tax bills, the agent, the paraphernalia of contracts and obligations. Now it was up to me to bring up our daughter, to pay the school fees, to maintain a semblance of normality, to keep the broken little family going somehow, to make new friendships and create some sort of social life for us both. I was overwhelmed. No wonder that when I saw that old chap at the roadside, I wanted a life like his. What others (and maybe him too) would see as poverty I saw as freedom. A simplistic view, coloured by my exhaustion and loss.
Thinking of that hard time, and particularly of the day I saw the old man, I’m reminded of Psalm 38, written when David was going through his own dark days and he writes in verse 9
“All my longings lie open before you, Lord: my sighing is not hidden from you.“
Here’s the thing, my friends, my sighing was not hidden from him either. Isn’t that amazing? Because here I am in January, 2023 and I have that life, the very life I longed for. It’s just simply and smoothly happened. No planning. OK, OK, not always smoothly and it’s taken a lifetime and I don’t have the sunshine, but I do have a beautifully simple life. I can spend as long as I like peeling a piece of fruit, I can sit on the windswept beach for hours if that’s how the mood takes me. I’ve sold my house and I have enough to live on for another ten years, if that’s how it’s going to be. There are no deadlines, no fretting, no anxieties. There’s my dogs and me. That’s it. I am that man at the side of the road. And it’s wonderful.
Of course there are other things in my life that he didn’t have – for starters, and of necessity, I have more clothes and shoes than he did. Without a train station and bus services I have an old car, I have this computer and a phone… I don’t have a life cloned from his. But everything I have, the innards of my home, is all incidental. The only posessions I care about, literally, are my Bible and my dogs. Everything else I could lose tomorrow, and not give a damn. I am already free of it all. And freedom is wonderful.
The more we possess, the more we have to protect, guard, insure, maintain, clean, store, stack, dismiss and worry about. The less we possess the more energy and time we have for the precious things that really matter. The less room possessions take up in our lives, the more room we have for joy. My pals Alex and Renie came by yesterday and Alex said something that puts it all into a simple nutshell “We can become possessed by our possessions.”
As we talked we considered happiness, depression and anxiety, and it occurred to me that there is a happy balance to be struck between worrying (being anxious), and being concerned. Concern leads us to prayer, to action, to caring for each other. Concern gets all the ticks and a smiley face. It’s Good with a capital G. Worrying just leads to sleepless nights and achieves nothing. So then, when Alex and Renie had gone I listened again to a sermon on discipleship and thought a tad more about balance. I think – and I’ve already admitted this to you – that I often don’t care as God would have me care. I lack balance; I’m not angry even when there is a reason for just anger, I can be dismissive of other people’s anxiety, I forget to pray for someone I know is in need, I too often don’t turn caring into action, I find it easy not to worry. That’s my lazy default position. Maybe I need to have the epistle of James tattooed on my back (that’d learn me!) I’d love to get the balance right.
The difference between caring and worrying is self. And The difference between caring and worrying is God.
When we care, we are thinking of others, focussing on them, praying for them, loving them, serving them. When we worry, we focus on ourselves; if there’s a problem we think that we must find the answer, if there’s a challenge we long to succeed, if we’re in trouble we fret and fume about wriggling out of it, whatever the problem is we try to find the solution in ourselves. We lie awake at night coming up with one scenario after another, one possible outcome after another, so that we place ourselves and our desire at the centre of the story, as the hero. We want to be the one who sorts it all out. The difference between caring and worrying is that caring makes room first for God, and worrying tucks God away in the corner while we scheme our schemes and strut our stuff. And when we strut we fall.
Here’s the human thing – not one of us gets it absolutely right. Not one. I have friends who are struggling with depression and anxiety and the temptation is to think that those of us who don’t have these problems have got it right. We haven’t. Well, speaking for myself, I haven’t. I go too far the other way – I am too damn unworried. Too settled and at peace. It’s called being smug. I think I tend to smuggery. Here I am at 74, I own very very little, I have no worldly responsibilities, and I’m happy and surprised daily by how happy I am. Even when I’m fed up and lonely and it’s pouring down and I wish wish wish I had a garden so that I didn’t have to drive the dogs in my increasingly ancient car down to the beach… even then, I am full of joy. Uncomplicated joy. And that’s a gift of God. Nothing I’ve achieved by my cleverness. But it can make me feel just a tad smug. Sometimes I am tripped up by my own smugness. Fall flat on my face. Here’s a thing for me to remember on days like this, ‘Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens.’ James 1:17
I didn’t get me here. I wasn’t in the driving seat.
This life is a gift from God. I know, in my more balanced moments, that God heard my prayer-that-wasn’t-a-prayer on that hillside and he brought me to this little house, on this crowded little street, under the wonderful sky (a sky that stretches all the way to that Jamaican hillside). Maybe, in eternity, we will sit together, the old Jamaican and me, and we will peel some heavenly fruit together, and gaze out over a silver sea and I’ll say “God is good.” and he will say “All the time, God is good.” And he’ll say “What was it like being you?” and I’ll say “Hellish at times.” and he’ll nod and say “Same here.”
Hey – just a moment to end with; I walk on the beach with a friend who’s a few years older than me. We have led very different lives and it would seem that we don’t have much in common but we have a good and easy friendship, as happy chatting as we are when we walk in silence, and I think we both love our mornings. We both struggle to remember names and this can result in very funny, gently bonkers conversations and this morning my pal came up with the best statement ever; seeing two people walking towards us I said “I don’t know their names” and she said triumphantly “Oh, yes, I know them…. I think they had something to do with something a way back.”
This morning the beach was clear and dry, not windy but with just enough breeze, not too cold but still fresh and a bit nippy, not crowded but dotted with a few regular dog walkers happy to pass a few minutes in idle chat, the sun was bright and, if it was low and blinding, no big shakes – we could always look the other way, or shield our eyes. Just about as perfect as you can get.
Then I came home to feed the dogs and make a good big mug of scalding coffee, hot enough to buzz my lips and warm my hands, and as I nursed it I read for a little while. Then, as I always do on a Monday, I optimistically checked to see if a friend’s livestream church service had been posted – ‘optimistic’ because usually it hasn’t. Usually it doesn’t go onto youtube until Wednesday or Thursday, but this morning, there it was. And as I was listening a neighbour came in, so the video was halted and we rambled on for a while about everything and nothing, agreeing about hibernation in these grey winter months, and a song he’s written. Then he was gone and I finished the video.
Before I could turn to anything else an email popped in; a couple of friends are coming for coffee tomorrow and – he says – they will bring biscuits (cookies, I suppose, as they’re American). So I decided that they will need a cake to take home with them and I was half way through baking when another pal popped in, and the baking was delayed while I admired her new hair-do.
Then I finished baking the cakes, caught up with the Times online, and discovered that there’s a special offer of full access to the New York Times for just 50pence a week for a whole year! So, I’m all signed up for that. And reading that took the next hour. The standard of journalism and the writing in the New York Times is excellent – so much better, so much more in-depth than the shabby old London Times. And the puzzles are better (but I saved them for this evening).
Then, of course, I had to sample the baking (I always make two cakes) and I looked around at my sitting room, as dusk fell, enjoying the glow of the table lamps, the twinkling lights on the book case, the wonderful smell of baking, and I thought ‘Is this what happiness is?’
And then, wouldn’t you know, as I went to turn off the computer I saw that another friend’s church service is online earlier than usual, and so I listened to that too.
And now it’s half seven in the evening and I haven’t done a single stroke of work all day! But what a lovely unexpected day it’s been. What a gift of a day, a surprise Sabbath.
Psalm 65:11 You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance.
And then of course I was enchanted by the word ‘abundance’ and I remembered this – taken a bit out of context, I know. But just think about God’s abundant love in your life and mine, his wonderful provision, every little gift he has given us, none earned but so enjoyed!
Luke 6:38 “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
Yesterday I finished reading the Epistles, the last one being Jude, and that was such a great letter to end with! Have you read it recently? I last read it with a friend, Jane. She found some of the cultural weight of the Bible hard to cope with, feeling separated from it by the two thousand years and the different culture, but she loved Jude! And reading it again, alone, I saw what it was that had made her lower her prickles and open up to the words. It’s such a friendly, warm, human letter. Jude steps off the page, and into the conversation, into the moment, like a family member, a good mate. He’s encouraging, but he’s also cautious, warning us about charlatans and false teachers, and it just feels as if he’s linking his arm with ours, leaning in, so that we can hear him, trust him, know him. Nothing magical or mysterious or imponderable in Jude, just a good friend giving sound advice. God’s gift to us.
Isn’t it fabulous when the Bible speaks to you in that way? That’s something we can discover when we read the Gospels, the personal touch of Jesus, his words and his history, and his daily routine. I love the incidental details, walking in the heat of the day, or going up a mountain, or separating from the crowd, or sleeping in the boat, or his mother at the door, or a small man unable to see through the crowd. Such colourful detail.
Doesn’t your heart ache with longing and joy and peace – a right old mish-mash of emotions – when you read the Beatitudes? The Sermon on the Mount is so personal, so direct and clear, so human. Jesus makes it easy for us to love him.
I’m struck time and again by the simplicity of the New Testament, the clarity of his teaching, but also the mundane events that we see catch a glimpse of, over all the centuries and miles. God made man. Think of it! That’s becoming a bit of an obsession with me – how is it that we don’t fall down in wonder and gratitude that God became man for us?
So much beauty in the Bible that sometimes it’s overwhelming. The breaking of bread. Is there anything more beautiful than the breaking of bread?
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’
Imagine those hands, breaking that bread. This is his body. A prophecy of what was about to happen. So simple. So gentle. No great drama, no self pity, no fear. Just a piece of bread, a metaphor both physical and visual, one we can share with him, one we can repeat. Now that I don’t have a local church, there are many things I miss, but I miss Communion more than anything else.
Today I am bemused and flummoxed by the Bible. It’s completely amazing. It is. Occasionally something we know, or think we know, comes alive and startles us, becoming vivid and insistent. That’s the Bible for me today. I was going to say that I wish it was always like this but, honestly, I don’t think I could cope with this awareness all the time. It is alive. It is alive. It’s powerful and relevant and it speaks. Not in a voice but in a heart and soul. A friend used to say ‘Jesus is brilliant, he says the words our hearts need to hear.’ He does.
Having finished reading through the Epistles, putting the commentaries away today, I was wondering what book of the Bible to turn to next. Start at the beginning, at Genesis? Maybe not, because having done an on-line Genesis study during lockdown, I really should move on to pastures new.
So, what now?
Exodus? Hmmm…. I’ve read it a few times in the last few years so if I’m going to break – for me – new ground, I should move on.
Leviticus? What, really? With all those laws and rituals and carrying-on? If it was just a case of dutifully reading it, then yes, maybe, but I want to submit to it, to open myself to the teaching, to ponder it. I can’t see me pondering Leviticus too regularly, delving into commentaries, without the top of my head exploding.
Numbers? I think not. Deuteron – oh, come on, Luce. Get a grip. And then I realised – I was playing a little self-delusional game – setting off on a path that would lead to Isaiah, or Job, or Hosea, or Ecclesiastes. Or Song Of Solomon. I was heading back to the books that feed my love of language, the books whose allure is partly the language and imagery, the love and passion pouring from the pages.
Isn’t it a pain when you know yourself so well you can’t even kid yourself?
So, I am not going to wander back down a path I’ve walked so many times that I could do it with my eyes closed. Where would be the new sights and insights if I did that? I want the next year to be a voyage of discovery, not a routine run to the shops.
I folded my arms and I spoke sternly to me. ‘Not Isaiah.’
You know by now that I’m not a aesthete, I don’t do hairshirts and ashes, so I’m not going to grit my teeth for Leviticus and the teaching of skin disease (chaper 13) or mildew (14) or bodily discharges (15) but instead I’m going to start in Joshua and read right through to Nehemiah. All the books that are called ‘the historical books’. And I’m going to get the commentaries and do it thoughtfully and – who knows – I might end up with a better understanding of the chronology of the Bible than I have right now.
But I might sneak back to the Gospels every now and then. I might read the Beatitudes at least once a week. I might return to the man at the well a few times.
He is on every page, in every word. The man at the well. From ‘In the beginning’ to the final blessing of Revelation.
OK, I’ll fess up, up front…. I spoke about this at a community church yesterday. But because, when I give a talk, I always say only half of what I intended and only half as clearly as I meant to say it, I’ll try to put it into a blog, and to do it a bit better, with a few new thoughts. Here goes;
This isn’t an immutable law of story telling, but usually if a narrative starts with someone, and that same someone is the catalyst for change, and the narrative even ends with that person, then it’s a fair bet that the whole shebang is about that person. Other characters may weave in and out of the account and they will be pertinent, but they’re not the centre of the story. So, having said all that, how come we always refer to John 4:4-30 as the account of ‘The woman at the well’?
It jolly well isn’t. It’s the account of the man at the well. It starts with him and ends with him and the outcome, a woman rushing off to tell everyone some amazing news, is in response to him. He is the catalyst. He gave the news. The man at the well is who we should be looking at, not the woman who comes across him.
You probably know the story – Jesus is walking in Samaria, not a place friendly to a Jew in those days (it’s telling that the text says ‘he had to go through Samaria’). His disciples have headed off into the town to get supplies, and he sits down by a well in the hottest part of the day, a tired, thirsty, dusty, itinerant preacher. Penniless probably. Below him there’s fresh water, cool in the shadows of the deep well, but it might as well be a hundred miles away because he can’t reach it. That’s the man. A solitary unarmed figure in an alien landscape. Without a cup.
Up comes a woman, and we know nothing about her except that she’s a local. Some have hatched a whole new narrative around this woman – that while most of the village women draw water in the cool of the morning or evening she’s there at noon because she’s an outcast. Well, I don’t know about that. It seems to me enough of a shock that she’s a woman and a Samaritan, and the man is a Jew. And they’re alone. Wowser. And if she lends him her cup or allows him to drink from her water jar, or accidentally brushes against his hand, he has made himself unclean. Double wowser. (I must stop saying that)
The thirsty man asks her for a drink. And she’s startled – he’s a Jew! They look down on people from Samaria. They certainly don’t mix with them. And then he says that if she knew who was asking for a drink, she’d be asking him. Maybe at this she starts to smile “Yeah? Really? Much good that would do me – you haven’t got anything to draw the water with.’ ( I’m rewriting the story, you can get the real dialogue in the Bible)
She had a water jar. A pretty basic requirement. And he had nothing.
Some of the most ancient artefacts in the museums of the world are water jars, scoops and cups. First we drink from cupped hands, and then from a shell or piece of pottery, or a hollowed out chunk of wood. When I lived in Egypt we knew a fearsome old shepherdess who drove her goats past our house nearly every day and she had a cup, on a sort of stick, dangling from her waist. I wonder if the Samaritan woman had one just like it? I wonder if she was veiled and hidden like our shepherdess? Maybe not. (Here she is. I’ve probably told you before, but we would wait for her, hiding in the corn around the bungalows, deliciously scared, and she would raise her veil and wiggle her blackened teeth at us, making a hideous noise and waving her stick, so that we screamed and ran away. She would laugh and walk on, and wave at my mother sitting on the verandah, but somehow we ignored that, so that she remained, in our minds, a figure of terror)
What was I talking about? Oh, yes. A water jar. The man at the well.
When I think of the word ‘humility’ I think of the man at the well. Humility, like meekness, is one of those virtues that’s quite hard to define, to place in the modern world. How do we make a word like that seem relevant and more than a vague and pious wish? How to define it? Jesus defines it, waiting at that well: the God of all creation, the great and the omnipotent, stepping into our humanity, fully human, fully God, needing – yes, needing – that most basic of human resources, water. And unable to get it.
When you’re really thirsty and you’re in a dry climate under a blazing sun, and you come across a well, you can almost smell the water. It’s as if your skin can sense it, the air changes, the hairs on the back of your neck prickle… water! The God of all creation could see the water in his mind’s eye, taste it in his longing, smell it in his need. And he couldn’t drink it. He couldn’t! Not without the help of a sinful woman. Someone like you and me. What humility! Next time you struggle with humility, think of that – the God of all creation, master of the Universe, placing himself in a situation where he had to ask a sinful woman for help.
Maybe his lips were cracked, certainly his mouth was dry, maybe his muscles ached. The God of all creation. And he wanted a simple drink of water. But he had no way of reaching it. God? Really? And he couldn’t magic up a basic kinda cup? No. He couldn’t. Because he had chosen to be one of us. He was human. Completely human alongside completely God. He wasn’t Superman or Batman or any other super hero, able to use his superpower to satisfy his selfish whim. He was our servant God, our fully human Creator. He was you and me.
When I was a youngster reading the comics my father banned (but friends smuggled) I was never interested in the stories of the girl or boy who had a magic wand, or a time transporting belt, or an invisible-making cloak. They were all cheats. I didn’t have a wand, or a time belt, or a cloak, so these stories were, to me, utter rubbish. A waste of good paper. How could I admire anyone who just waved a magic stick and so made everything come right? Where was the achievement and the struggle and the victory in that? Where was the truth?
The mystery and the miracle of the Trinity is that God is Three in One. Three natures, one God. God the Divinity, God The Spirit, and Jesus His Incarnation. And so Jesus, the Man, came to us. He didn’t come to us clothed in flesh and blood, he came to us fully flesh and blood. Not ‘as human’ but truly human. He didn’t come with magic powers to overcome the enemy. It wasn’t a cunning disguise, a pretend human with crossed fingers and a secret weapon. He was a simple, poor, vulnerable human being, born to a teenage girl, in poverty and need, and he grew up without posessions, in an occupied land. As far as we know he owned nothing and he preached poverty and simplicity, so that when he sent out the 12 disciples, who were to become apostles, he told them
“Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt.”
And that’s him at the well that day, one shirt, a pair of sandals, and nothing else. The God of all creation.
That means that he doesn’t despise us, he doesn’t recoil from us, he embraces who we are, accepts who we are, became one of us. And here’s the thing – Jesus, the man, is alive now just as he was at the Resurrection, just as he was when he came to Thomas and showed him his wounds, inviting him to touch them, just as he was when he lit a fire for his disciples’ breakfast, weeks after his death on the cross. Just as then, he is both God and Man right now.
In 1Timothy 2:5 we read ‘For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus’
Jesus didn’t stop being man when he was resurrected, and he is as real and as approachable and as present today as he was 2000 years ago. Which means that we can meet him, daily. Just like that Samaritan woman.
He told her about the living water, the eternal life, that he offers
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.“
And she said ‘Sir, give me this water.’
Well, you would, wouldn’t you?
If you were that woman, wouldn’t you?
Sometimes, when the day is long and the work seems thankless, when the water we draw will simply leave an empty jar that needs to be filled again, and again, when the walk to the well is lonely, and nobody knows the trouble we’ve seen… we can be so lost in our thoughts that we hardly notice the man sitting at the well, waiting. That’s just the way we are. Christmas has gone, the grey days of January are here (in the UK), and the world is in trouble. It’s all too easy to dip down into the glums.
But, listen, that Samaritan woman, when she woke that morning, wasn’t expecting to come across the God of all creation, she didn’t imagine that the great Messiah who was to rescue Israel would be a dusty, weary, hot and thirsty penniless wandering Jew just down the road from her home. She had no idea what the day would bring to her, a day that we are remembering now, all across the world and two thousand years later. Our friend the Samaritan woman said to that penniless man
“I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
Maybe that’s the greatest line of all the lines in the miracle that is the Bible. “I am he.”
The message didn’t come to a king, or a dictator, it didn’t come to Rome in all its pomp and wealth, or to a powerful general at the head of a conquering army. It came to people like her, simple people, to the you and me’s of this world. From another human being. A gentle man.
Maybe that became the turning point in her life, just as it became the turning point for me. It can become the turning point in every life. And for those of us who already follow Jesus, well, we can have little turning points in every day. Whenever we turn to the man at the well, and whenever we say “Sir, give me this water.”
Because he will. He has. He is giving it to us now.
I’ve been a writer for 35 years so I suppose it’s no great surprise that those years have left their mark on me. I have RSI in my wrists, a tendency to talk to myself. (yes, and even argue with myself), a disinclination to join crowds, and…. this…..
A finger that can’t be straightened. Imagine all the thousands of mouse clicks that must have been made to end up with a weird digit like this one! But I’m strangely pleased with it (proud of it?).
I don’t know why but this sort of thing amuses and even delights me. In that weird finger I see how clever the mechanics of the human body are, how perfectly the systems work together, how miraculous our senses are, and when something like this goes a bit awry I realise how many things can go wrong but usually go perfectly right. What a creation we are.
Look – in this one chubby old digit there’s bone and tendons and muscles and blood supply and nerve endings and regenerating skin and tissue and sensation… and I’ve got two handfuls of the things! MARVELLOUS!
Think of me sitting here with my wonky digit, thumping away kack-handedly on the key board, knowing that you – whoever you are – are reading this and that it makes some sort of sense (vaguely) to you. My life reaching yours, across the hours or days, and all the miles. Isn’t that amazing? That our thoughts are coherent, have form and understanding, that we can imagine and remember and share, that you strangers can reach into the muddy waters of my mind.
I have a very dear friend who will occasionally send me a message “Have I told you yet today that you are wonderful?”
When I first read this message I would tut-tut to myself ‘He’s a good bloke, just trying to encourage me. ‘ and then, as I knew him better and knew that he wouldn’t say stuff just for the sake of saying it, my reaction was ‘Hah! He obviously doesn’t know me as well as he thinks he does’ but then finally, finally, I understood what he was saying. He was saying that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Straight from Psalm 139, verse 14.
We lose sight of how startlingly miraculous existence is. Everything is perfectly unbelievable. How is it that we are hurtling through space on this little lump of rock at 67,000 miles an hour? How is it that we aren’t flung off it? How come the Earth dips every 24 hours to give us a sight of the sun, as we revolve? How is it that the Sun is also moving in the Milky Way, while the Milky Way is also moving through the Cosmos? And let’s go from the huge to the tiny, how is that the human eye, which is made up of more than a million cells, an organ that weighs less than half an ounce, informs us of light and dark, colour, shapes, distance and even textures of objects, yards or even miles away from us? A distant mountain top, a needle being threaded at the end of our nose, a salmon streaking through a river.
How is it that with our small porridge-like brains we can design the most complicated software systems imaginable (and let’s not dwell on their shortcomings – have you ever tried to get a download from Microsoft?), imagining and then realising machines, planes, bridges and skyscrapers, writing books, painting portraits, calculating and scheming, regretting and hoping, dreaming and desiring, caring and loving? Our minds, eh? Complete micro-universes of imagery and concepts.
All these things and a billion more…. impossibly perfectly incredible. But there they all are.
Look at this fellow
There’s no reason why he should exist but he does, and he is a delight.
And here he is again, but there are two of him, and without thinking about it, you know that one is a reflection in water. How staggering that you know that, without even thinking! And look, a reflection of clouds at the top of the picture, and a suggestion of rocks. And all this, you know. You are amazing!
You are amazing. You are. As my pal would say ‘Have I told you yet today that you are wonderful?’
The world is dazzling. Sometimes we forget to stand still and thank God for all we have, all the amazingly unbelievable and unfathomable facets of our existence. So I’m going to do it now. Join me if you want to. Let’s send a great paean of praise up into the stratosphere and eternity.
He spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing. He wraps up the waters in his clouds, yet the clouds do not burst under their weight. He covers the face of the full moon, spreading his clouds over it. He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters for a boundary between light and darkness. Job 26:7-10:
He is before all things and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:17:
Christmas is done. The decorations are not quite as charming and exciting as they were last week, the cards are beginning to fall over and some are in a little heap, the fridge is just about back to normal, and now I’m wondering about New Year… do I really need to go to the shop tomorrow? Will those tomatoes last another two days or should I just use them up now-now? Shall I start my Christmas jigsaw puzzle today or wait for the do-nowt day that is January 1st?
Christmas is done and dusted and on we jolly well go. Hmmm. Really? That’s it?
I’m afraid that I’m stepping into the New Year much as I stepped into 2022, with the best of vague intentions and a general feeling that ‘things can only get better’. A year ago we were still reeling from the impact of lock-downs, and no one knew (apart from the madman Putin, of course) that the year was going to be rent apart by the bloody war and heartbreak of Ukraine. We also didn’t know that a revolving door would be the new entrance to No10 Downing Street, or that there would be record floods, droughts, storms and fires from one end of the world to the next. We didn’t know that the Queen would die and that her grandson would … well, least said, soonest mended. We didn’t know that Covid would go on mutating and spreading. And so we welcomed 2022 with mild anticipation that it would be ‘more of the same but maybe a bit better.’
What will this year bring? It will bring what it brings. That’s the truth of it. Individually we can’t deflect the wars and troubles. But we can surely do something about our own lives? Can’t we? I mean, come on, we’re not entirely powerless, are we?
Will anything change for me, and in me, this year? Or will it be more of the same? What’s the point of every new day if we don’t grow wiser – even a tiny tad – and kinder, before the sun sets? What’s the point of marking every year if they’re all the same and we never get any better?
Right, let me get this out of the way; I really don’t like the New Year thing. I loathe the lists we get in newspapers and on TV… the ten best films, the ten top songs, the ten most read books and all that malarkey. And then there’s the night itself…. New Year’s Eve crowds and the terrible TV shows (does anyone, ever, watch the dismal Jules Holland show? Why is it there, year after year? Is he blackmailing the schedulers? ) and I hate having to stay up late and keep the telly on to drown out the noise of the stupid fireworks so that the dogs aren’t terrified. You may have gathered that I am the grinch of New Year. It’s bloody rubbish. My husband loved New Year and so when we were together it was fun. It was. He was a Scot and to him Hogmanay was bigger than Christmas. Just after he died, to escape the echoes and the chasm of grief that New Year would bring, I took my daughter and her friend to Jamaica. No one had told us that in the Caribbean New Year is even bigger and louder and brighter and sillier than it is here. It’s also a bit like St Valentine’s day, all hearts and kisses and romance. We sat in the hotel restaurant, overloooking the beautiful beach, surrounded by helium hearts and loved-up couples and a smocchy-coochey DJ (a Barry White wannabe) crooning into his microphone ‘Gentlemen, look at your lady and tell her how much you love her.” We abruptly abandoned our table, making sure to take a couple of bottles of champagne with us, and we saw midnight in as we stood knee-deep in the warm, sparkling sea, swigging bubbly under a shining wonderful moon. That turned out to be a good way to mark the end of one year and the start of the next, but the experience wouldn’t be quite the same here in West Wales.
But here’s the thing – I’ve just spent whole days remembering the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ, and for Advent month I’ve been happily heading towards that great and amazing day. Which is quite a lot of anticipation and fuss. So, after all that excitement, how has it changed me? It must have changed me, surely? Will I step into 2023 with any more wisdom than I had when I stepped into 2022?
Did remembering and marking the birth of Jesus bring anything new into my life, bring any fresh insight?
Pin back your lug’oles, this is what I am taking with me into 2023;
Christmas isn’t a warm retelling of how a baby was laid in a manger by his beautiful Madonna, watched over by a patient carpenter, and it isn’t about a donkey and a gently lowing cow or two, it isn’t just about three wise men or a gang of bewildered shepherds and it isn’t, listen, it really isn’t a sweet story of a cosy stable under a gentle night sky. It isn’t! It jolly well is not.
The birth of Jesus is the story of a teenager’s labour, a girl of probably 14 or 15, no anaesthesia for her and no clean bed with crisp linen. This child is born to a shamed girl in an occupied country, in the middle of a long and exhausting trek through an unforgiving landscape, born into poverty. Birth back then was terrifying. Mothers and babies often died and this young girl was away from her family, with a man who was almost a stranger. I’m sure Joseph was a good man but he was a man of his times – his care for Mary would look very different to the mutual care and standing possible between a married couple now. The world Jesus grew up in was not full of democracy and equality and human rights. This child could not have been more disadvantaged. A Jew in a country ruled by Romans, a child who would be executed in the cruellest way imaginable 32 years later. This child would die of blood loss, dehydration, suffocation and heart failure, an object of scorn. Who would look at this small squalling child and say “Yep. That’s very obviously the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God” ?
But I believe he was. Is. How strange. Passing strange. How can anyone believe that? Only by the grace and gift of God.
The life that this newborn was going to experience was… singular. How do we find a word to describe his life? He was a man who gathered crowds, someone people flocked to be with, a man who ate with his friends and family, who was so charismatic, so compelling that men walked away from their villages and livelihoods to follow him. He was a man who grew thirsty and tired, who shared wine, who lit fires, who fed his hungry followers, who slept in the gunnels of the boat, who felt pity and anger and sadness, a man who owned nothing, a man who prayed, who exasperated those who loved him, who bewildered his own brothers, who would not speak in his own defence, who went towards his death willingly, and a man who broke conventions, walked across cultural divides, was tender with women, angry with greed, a man who wept.
He was a man we can all love. A man of simple pleasures. And he was God. Is God. He chose all those things, all those strange hard things in that life, that death. He came into the world because he loved the world. He loved us with all our flaws and failings. He knew the beginning from the end and he came anyway.
That’s amazing. That’s earth shattering! That’s just breath taking. If I have really understood that truth, and take it into the New Year, and live in the light of it, what a year of transformation it will be! Too often when we talk about Jesus, we end up presenting the world with a picture of a sweet baby, growing into an obedient child, maturing into a good man. But that’s not going to shake the world to its foundations, it’s not going to revolutionise any lives…. What we need to say loud and clear is that Jesus is and was God. Mighty, powerful, righteous, terrifying, wonderful. Terrifying. There’s something wrong if, alongside the love, and the assurance we have, there is not also an awareness that God’s might is terrifying. He was God before he was born, when he was born, and when he died, and every minute inbetween. He isn’t dead, he is still God, he is still man, he is still. God is still. Still alive, still at work, still loving, still caring, still providing, still present, still leading, still relevant, still pure, still uncompromising. Still.
Genesis 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
John 10: 30 ‘I and the Father are one.’
Isaiah 9:6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
John 1:1-5 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.
John 8:58 ‘Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”
“I am!” Yahweh. God. Before time and through time and beyond time.
So. That baby was God. Is God. He created the world, he created man and woman, the mother who gave birth to him was his creation, the stars in the sky, the shepherds, the angels, the wind and the warm, the dirt under the feet of those kings, the gifts they carried, all of it, all of it, created by that baby. That’s the story of Christmas and if I truly believe that, then everything takes on new meaning. If I truly believe that, then my life has to be filled with the knowledge of God! Filled! I have to be conscious of that great miracle, as dazed by his presence as the shepherds, as fascinated as the wise men, I have to lay my gifts down before him. I have to – oh, hang on – I have no gifts.
Oh, but wait, yes, I have one gift. Just one. I can give him my New Year. I can give him my 2023.
Come on 2023, let’s be having you! This is where the story really starts.
Do you want something to listen to as you wrap parcels or bake or tidy? For those of you who can access the BBC output…. here’s a drama from me, to you, with every best wish for a joyful and peaceful and AMAZING Christmas. (a warning – you may have heard it before, first broadcast a few years ago)