What Do We Live For?

Today, the sun is shining. The bars and cafes are packed with folk who have ditched their thick coats and heavy boots. From wide-flung windows and back gardens, cheerful music and happy voices ring out. A special meal is prepared and a glass of wine is drunk, or two. After a long and cold winter, the people of Scotland are now, just as the people of Jerusalem did then, making the most of their festival, their long weekend away from work.

But not for one young man.

Not for the people whom he loves and the people he is loved by.

For us, this is the end of all things.

The end of what?

What did Jesus come for? What was His purpose? Why did He live? And why on Earth did He not run when he had the chance?

Because it didn’t have to end like this.

At about quarter to midnight last night, I was sitting on a tile floor that seemed to be getting colder by the minute. The sunshine had gone. The friends from the upper room had gone. The meal had long since been eaten and my stomach was beginning to grumble. On that cold tile floor, I had a certain sympathy with Peter and James and John as they nodded off in Gethsemane. And I started to wonder – what are we all still doing here? The garden is open. The road is over there. The people who are going to come to arrest you aren’t here yet. Run. Run, for God’s sake, while you still have the chance. Why can’t we change the story? Why couldn’t He?

He was his father’s son, and his mother’s son, and Joseph’s, too, and they had taught him well, raised him up right, and now, on this darkest of their days, this brave and beautiful boy, now become a man, says, these are the things for which I have lived and they are the things for which I am prepared to die. Not for this man the path of least resistance. Not for Him to betray his principles and his integrity.

For me. For you. For the whole world, even the parts that turned their backs and declared that they wanted nothing to do with it.

For peace. For love. For equality. For justice. For freedom. For fairness.

For truths that I hold to be self-evident, but which led to Him being branded a radical and a terrorist. Truths that He refused to betray and for which He was killed. Truths for which people are still being killed today. As I sat there last night and asked why He didn’t run, I thought about Jesus, yes, but I thought about the ones who came after him. The brave men and women of integrity who said, these are the things for which I have lived and they are the things for which I am prepared to die.

And now he’s gone.

The churches have been emptied of God. The world is cold and dark, the singing voices are silenced, and it feels as though we might never be happy again. The light of the world has gone out.

What do we do now?

What do we live for?

And what would we die for?

Nails

There were three

To be killed

That day.

Two were thieves,

Strong young men,

Their lives to be wasted

For their crime.

They wailed,

Writhed, sobbed,

Flailing away

Their final moments

Of movement.

It took four soldiers

To hold them

To their crosses

As the hammering began,

The sturdy masonry nails

Driven

Through resistant flesh,

Through inhuman screams,

To their wooden homes.

 

The third man

Was a prophet,

So they say,

A Messiah even,

Yet he did not

Call on God

To intercede,

To save him

From this pitiable end,

This traitor’s death.

He undressed quietly,

Lay down, sad-eyed,

On his recumbent cross,

Only recoiling

As his flogged back

Met rough, hastily cut wood.

 

He was mine to nail.

I chose the sharpest points,

Placed them with care,

Feeling somehow

His courage deserved reward.

Against habit, training,

Professional detachment,

I looked at him,

Met his dark eyes,

Fear-filled yet calm,

Saw his slightest nod.

I took a breath,

My mallet rose

And fell.

He gasped,

Flinched,

Then held himself

Still

As my hammer-blows

Pinned him

To his death.

 

Slowly the three crosses,

Their agonised burdens,

Were levered

Upright,

Away from cool earth

Into the baking, glaring day.

The preacher,

Pale beneath his tan,

Forced words

From his suffocation:

“Father, forgive them,

They know not

What they do.”

And I, stern soldier,

Practised executioner,

Turned away

And wept.

 

SIA 9 iv 2014

 

The cloak

In the grey dawn

They surged through the gates,

Eager

For the Passover treat,

The annual redemption

Of a chosen one

By their appointed lord.

 

Tired Pilate,

His shoulders bowed,

Wearied, weighed

By justice

And conscience,

The chief priests

Puffed out with righteousness

Like challenged cockerels,

And between them

The still figure

Of the preacher,

Calm, accepting,

Modest

Amid the grandeur

In his shabby robe.

 

They called him King,

King of the Jews,

Passed his condemnation

Back and forward

Like an unwanted card,

Until planted men,

Priests’ friends,

Scribes’ cousins,

Pliable hangers on,

Coaxed the crowd

To bloodlust.

 

They howled

“Crucify him!”

Baying this blameless man

To traitor’s agony,

Their prize

Redemption and liberty

For blood-soaked rebel Barabbas.

 

The Romans took him,

Flogged him

Just enough for blood,

Little enough for cross-bearing.

From some dusty chest

Soldiers pulled an old cloak,

Tyrian-dyed,

Forced

Crown and sceptre

Of thorn and reed

Upon him,

Spat, mocked,

Knelt

In this king’s

One earthly homage.

 

Dripping blood

He stepped out

In his imperial purple

Into the morning sun.

The worn cloak,

Given new life

By light,

Shone amethyst

About this battered king,

Transfigured in the dawn.

 

SIA 8-9 iv 2014

turning point

Trees are growing.  

Dark branches gnarling and criss-crossing .. twisting in strange forms.

They watch, through knotted eyes, an event roller coaster. 

ImageThey watch humanity hobble on an inevitable journey of hurts and costly joys. 

The journey began somewhere ……. 

Bethpage, Jerusalem, Gethsamane, or back in time, forever back and forwards.

The trees watch the hobbling steps of creation to an inevitable turning point.

Each moment they watch, as the Creator shoulders darkness, patiently and constantly.

The trees watch. 

They will play their part…….

fresh branches for a pathway,

trunk and branches, heavy and spreading, for pain ……. but full of liberation…..

and fallen leaves,

decomposing as another turning point.

Learning to judge

The flocks were headed back to the fold for the night, straggling though they followed their leader, quite a young lad. It was rather different to the eager way they bounced out in the morning, after having been milked. All of them lop eared, with pronounced noses.

We were sitting out in the cool of evening, catching our breath after a hard day of it. I loved these quiet evenings when it was just us best, though the days were more exciting. But in the evenings, when it was cool, and Jesus was unwinding – that was when he would teach us most, I thought.

‘The sheep and goats know which is which,’ said Jesus lazily, watching them peel off into the right fold. The shepherds separated the lambs out, keeping them apart so they could milk the adults in the mornings. They knew the routine and went with few protests. The adults plodded into their folds. At a distance, it was no always obvious to us which the goats were, which the sheep, but they all knew.

‘There you go,’ said Jesus, the lashes once again sweeping down, ‘the judgement you have always wanted. Sheep and goats divided. It seems they judge themselves.’

We shot each other glances. Jesus had been having a bash at ‘not judging others’ and ‘being forgiving’ that day and we were not as convinced as we might have been. We said little but he knew of course. He always knew.

‘So do we judge ourselves?’ asked Andrew, ‘Because I think the shepherd is really the one who decides.’

‘Um,’ said Jesus, ‘Right, you lot, all jump up. Go on, go on!’

Somewhat reluctantly we heaved ourselves up and stood there looking, well looking sheepish.

‘Right,’ he said, ‘All of you who have ever given a thirsty friend, or a beggar, a cup of water, go to the right. You are, lets see, you are the sheep.’

That was easy, we all straggled off to the right. ‘O.K.,’ said Jesus, ‘All of you who ever at any time passed by a beggar who looked thirsty and did not buy a drink, go to the left. You are goats.’ We eyed each other. Of course we had all, at some time, gone past a beggar and given nothing. We all straggled embarrassed to the left.

‘OK,’ says Jesus, ‘Now let us try with the sick. Who has gone to help a sick friend? Who has avoided helping.’ He kept us at it for ages, straggling right, straggling left. Remarkable, Judas once made it as simply a good sheep. He had had friends banged up on suspicion of insurrection, and never failed to visit despite the risk to himself. Every other category we always found ourselves both sheep and goats.

In the end he let us sink down and rest. By now the flocks were settling down for the night safe in pens.

‘People are not quite so easily categorised,’ said Jesus, ‘I do believe in judgement, but you have to learn to judge yourselves. Really, what matters is not simply getting it right (well done Judas, by the way! The only one to be just a sheep in any category).’ Judas gave an ironic little bow. ‘No, what matters is – learning what matters. Seeing clearly what needs to be done, and trying to do it. Keeping your priorities. Because, really sheep and goats are very alike. But what to do, how to live, that is where the difference is.’